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A Quick History of Southeast Asia

Five thousand years of Southeast Asian history are condensed into two pages.

Understanding the history of Southeast Asia is difficult because of the lack of archaeological excavations and historical records. Archaeology is difficult because of the lack of skills and money and the dangerous and difficult terrain in much of the region. In Muslim areas, there is little interest in any period of history before Islamicisation and many people reject archeology as part of their belief that God created the world a few thousand years ago.

Historical records were mostly created on materials that have not stood the test of time, either because of the climate, war or disaster. In the case of Buddhist states, historical artifacts were frequently designed to be impermanent in line with the Buddhist belief that nothing lasts forever.

As a result, many parts of Southeast Asian history are more speculative than they would be for other parts of the world. However, adding together the records of travelers and Chinese officials, together with chronicles and the archaeology that has taken place, gives a reasonably accurate summary.

There have been several waves of migration passing through Southeast Asia since earliest history. Peoples from China, India, Tibet and further afield migrated from generally north to south in the search for food, land or refuge. While some continued moving as far as possible, others stopped when they found an area they found supported the kind of life they wanted to live. Sometimes, later groups of migrants came across those who had stopped and fought them for the land they occupied. The defeated might be enslaved or forced to move on to a less desirable location, possibly moving up mountainsides or into deeper forest.

The first recognizable states were on the coast or else in suitable river sports. Both Chinese and Indian influences were important in shaping these states but they also had their own unique cultural styles. From these early states, which had names like Oc-Eo, Chenla and Funan, more developed ones grew. The most important and famous of these was the Khmer empire which built the great treasure of Angkor Wat and its related temple complex in modern Cambodia. The temples were built to show the virtue of the ruler – usually a king – and also to demonstrate heaven’s support for the monarch. The Khmer empire was an advanced culture with great advances in irrigation and water power, hospitals and status for women. At the same time, island states were being developed in the archipelago. These included Srivijaya, which is perhaps the best known and which was located close to modern Malaysia. These states were based on the sea and on international trade, together with the occasional bout of piracy and warfare. International trade came from the west as far away as Europe via the Arab states and India. The trade continued on eastwards to China. Eventually, island states were able to introduce their own home produced goods into trade. These included fragrant spices and herbs, rhinoceros horns and jungle products. Many of these continue to be important to this day.

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