A Short History of Southeast Asia: The Region

This book was written to give readers convenient, informative and expert summaries of the histories of the countries of Southeast Asia.

For visitors, particularly business people, such information is increasingly necessary as they become involved in one way or another with these countries which are rapidly assuming much greater importance in today's world.

It was not part of our purpose to address the regional picture as such or the way in which these countries have interacted with each other. But as they become larger, economically stronger and more confident of their actual and potential influence, their relations with each other and with the rest of the world will be increasingly important. The Southeast Asians are likely to play a far larger role in the world in the coming decades than they have in the past. Their cooperation with each other and their growing awareness that they have strengths which are different from those of the West will be central to that process.

The post-Cold War world is seeing in some areas a resurgence of nationalism and in others a greater emphasis on regionalism. These two tendencies will overlap. In Southeast Asia national and ethnic differences were significantly blunted by European colonialism and in some cases have been further submerged in the post-colonial period of new nation states. But what is new in Southeast Asia is the development of voluntary (as distinct from externally mandated) cooperation on a sub-regional or regional level. Most recently there is the assertion of an Asian identity, shared by Southeast Asians, which is sharply distinguished from Western value systems, social norms and economic models. It is too early to say how far that will be taken or how much it will influence the political and social development of Southeast Asia. The very important differences between and indeed even within the Southeast Asian countries induces some scepticism in academic circles about the existence of "Asian values" etc. But there is no doubt that there is a perception in the region of some essential shared values or priorities, and a rejection of what are seen as Western individualistic and libertarian values.

An embryonic sense of shared interests transcending ethnic or national groups emerged in colonial times between independence movements, student movements and other groups, including notably the various Marxist-inspired or communist movements in the region. But until after the Pacific War there was little connection across the region. The colonial empires were very separate and governed on different principles.

It is a common observation nowadays that Australia, on the fringe of the region, only recently and belatedly become aware of and involved with its Southeast Asian neighbours. That is true, though with some qualifications. There was peripheral contact in the north even before the Europeans colonised Australia. But in the colonial era there was no steady development of contact or interest. The shifting patterns of alliance politics in Europe affected such contacts as there were between the colonial administrations in Southeast Asia and Australia, and indeed between the Southeast Asian colonial administrations themselves.

Australia was not unique, or even unusual, in having little contact with its neighbours and in having its external links directed principally along the lines laid down by the metropolitan power. What are now the independent nations of Southeast Asia also had little contact with each other during the European colonial period. Just as the lines of communication and trade ran from Melbourne and Sydney to London, so did those between the French, Dutch, and other British colonies and the respective metropolitan powers in Europe. Right up to the Pacific War there was little or no communication between, for example, what are now Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The links ran from Manila to the United States, from Batavia to the Netherlands, from Hanoi to France, and so on.

It was the remarkable Japanese campaign which began at the end of 1941 which precipitated or accelerated the radical changes which took place between 1945 and the end of the Vietnam war. The sheer speed and success of the Japanese successes against numerically superior defending forces in Southeast Asia made a strong impression on opinion in the erstwhile colonies. The Japanese failed to capitalise on that in the sense that after early political successes in encouraging nationalist and pro-Japanese movements the appeal to shared Asian interests lost plausibility in the face of Japanese policies and actions which were exploitative or worse.

Although Japan lost the war and left wounds in the region which are still not healed, the war precipitated the end of the moribund European colonial era, and accelerated the creation of independent states largely within borders established by the colonial empires. For some years trade and other economic links remained predominantly in the old colonial grooves but with the economic supremacy of the United States and then with Japan embarked on decades of the highest rates of economic growth the world had yet seen, those patterns diversified. In the region the United States and Japan became the two most important outside powers and that was reflected inter alia by their leading roles in the setting up of the Asian Development Bank in 1966.

By that time Australia too had perforce diversified its trade away from Britain which had made it clear that it would seek its future economic arrangements in Europe and the Commonwealth arrangements which had supported much of Australia's traditional export industry were phased out. Australia turned to Japan and others for new markets (a trade agreement with Japan had already been made in 1957). Australia's development assistance programme had from the beginning concentrated on Southeast Asia and become and increasingly important instrument for involving this country with the region, especially as significant numbers of students from the region came to our universities and other institutions under the Colombo Plan and successor programmes.

The failure of the attempted coup in Indonesia, the Gestapu of 30 September 1965, and the subsequent establishment of the New Order government there opened the way to overcome the regional or sub-regional strains produced by President Sukarno's efforts to crush the newly-constructed Malaysia, as well as other tensions created or exacerbated by the Sukarno policies. In this climate ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, was established in 1967 and set out on its long and successful course of gradually building a sense of common interest and regional association among the six (originally five) members. ASEAN recently embarked on the development of AFTA, the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement.

ASEAN has become the key institution in Southeast Asia not only because of its success in developing a sense of community among its very disparate members, and in finding a road for them to closer economic cooperation. It has also become the forum for discussion with the main world powers on a wide range of matters. This has come about through an annual mechanism of post-Ministerial consultations held after ASEAN's own internal consultations through which ASEAN member governments, at Foreign Minister level, meet with their counterparts. These counterparts, termed "dialogue partners", currently are Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand and the United States. In 1994 discussions on regional security were further developed with the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which groups ASEAN and its dialogue partners with Russia, China, Vietnam, Laos and Papua New Guinea.

Looking at the recent evolution of Southeast Asia perhaps the most significant thing has been the change that has occurred since the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. Until relatively recently the centrally planned economy model had much attraction for many developing countries and there was up to the beginning of the eighties quite widespread aversion to capitalism and to the liberal market model as exemplified by the Western industrialised countries.

Now virtually all of Southeast Asia is committed to market economics, albeit with more governmental political control than in the Western countries. There is a virtual unanimity about the commitment to economic development based on relatively open markets, private ownership and competition. With that has come a period of unprecedented economic growth. The major economies of Southeast Asia are all growing at rates previously thought unattainable for a sustained period. There are of course some uncertainties about the future; but there are few who doubt that Southeast Asia will early in the twenty-first century be a major centre of economic power and influence.

The following country chapters should therefore be read with the sense that they are building blocks in an overall picture. They are essential elements in an understanding of Southeast Asia. The development of regional awareness and cooperation which I have briefly discussed here is quite recent. But it seems to be gathering strength and to have great potential to affect for good or ill the course of Southeast Asia's history.

Chairman, Asean Focus Group

Copyright © Asean Focus Group Pty Limited. All rights reserved.

About this edition:

This is the complete text of the 2nd edition of the book. Short History of South East AsiaThe first edition of "Focus on Southeast Asia" was published in 1997 and the second edition, which was renamed "A Short History of South East Asia", was published in 1999. With so much change taking place in South East Asia over the last few years we recently decided to update the book and a fifth edition was published by John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com) in 2009. The cover set out is of the fifth edition.

The 5th edition of "A Short History of South East Asia" is available to purchase from Amazon, as both an e-book and a paperback, and via its publisher, Wiley.


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