Southeast Asia: “This is the 2nd and final book in the series devoted to telling my life’s story. The 1st volume included my tectonic development, what scientists suspect about my prehistoric humans, and the story of my historical humans up until the Europeans arrived in the early 1500s. This 2nd volume is the history of the people who have inhabited my lands since then.
Roughly speaking, there are two types of history. One type aims to be science and the other intends to be literature. ‘Scientific’ history is obsessed with verifiable facts. Accuracy is of utmost importance. Although the truth quotient is high, the ‘scientific’ orientation limits the scope of the investigation and can be a little dry and even lifeless.
While ‘literary’ history is also based in facts, the overall intent is to tell a great story, maybe include a little gossip. In this regard, no one blamed the historian should he leave out some of the minutiae, stretch the truth a little, rely on hearsay evidence, or only emphasize the events that augmented the plot line. Although subject to distortion, the ‘literary’ approach to history encompasses some broader issues and tends to be more engaging for the general reader.
Although ‘scientific' history is currently in vogue, ’literary’ history reigned supreme until the beginning of the 20th century – just a little over a hundred years ago. The most famous, and perhaps the greatest, historians of all time – Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Gibbon, were all ‘literary’ historians. While they didn’t necessarily make up events, the facts served the story rather than vice versa. They usually took reports at face value, rather than investigating sources. All historians were of this nature until just a century ago. Instead of a ‘scientific’ orientation, my history is of the traditional ‘literary’ nature.
Some might claim that modern scientific history is more ‘objective’, while traditional literary history is more ‘subjective’. Supposedly ‘objective’ histories are based upon what are frequently called ‘dry’ facts. These ‘dry’ facts are given precedence over the story. Because of this factual orientation, many, if not most, consider this a more truthful approach. “Let the facts speak for themselves,” is a common expression in this regard. The subtext of this orientation is that the historian should refrain from saying anything that he cannot support with ‘dry’ facts.
This ‘dry’ orientation places major limits on interpretation. As such, moral perspective is lacking in the supposedly more ‘objective’ modern histories. In contrast, the more ‘subjective’ ancient histories tell a tale that has a theme like any story. These tales whether from Thucydides or Tacitus have an unabashed orientation that is supported by known, but uninvestigated, historical facts.
The notion that ‘dry’ facts are objective is an unfortunate illusion of the modern world. Which facts are chosen and omitted reveals a bias that is somewhat more insidious as the agenda is hidden. At least when the author/historian takes a stand, we know where he or she is coming from.
Instead of hiding his agenda, my Author is attempting to be transparent in his designs. Rather than telling a dry supposedly ‘objective’ history, he is telling a ‘subjective ‘ history with a distinct perspective. We, both he and I, are rooting for the populace, the indigenous people who have populated my Southeast Asian geography for centuries, if not millennia. Forgive us if our telling of this tale is skewed in this direction. Despite our subjective perspective, we have attempted to shape our tale by ‘real’, i.e. ‘dry’ facts, obtained from credible sources. We might have inadvertently, or even deliberately, omitted other supposed facts that don’t fit our viewpoint. But we have at least attempted to be fair.
Remember that foremost of all, this is not science, but a story. The Author certainly employs what are called historical facts to tell my history. Yet what are these facts, but numbers and words that have been passed down from generation to generation – from fallible humans in one age to equally fallible humans in another time period? One reliable author cites another supposedly reliable source. This knowledge is then innocently transmitted to a new generation of historians, who then pass it on as ‘truth’ to yet another generation.
The ultimate ‘truth’ quotient of ‘dry’ facts is uncertain at best. Information comes in many guises, sometimes disguises. The victor might exaggerate his exploits, ennoble his intentions and ignore his atrocities. Distortions might occur inadvertently or intentionally due to historical perspective. The Establishment of any age deemed certain books and viewpoints appropriate and others unacceptable. Authorities approved those books designated as ‘appropriate’ to be passed on to future generations. ‘Unacceptable’ literature, historical or otherwise, was frequently burned.
In other words, no matter which sources are chosen, some more or less reliable, the information is always suspect. Even in his brief and frequently cursive investigations into my past, my Author has frequently stumbled upon major distortions and omissions from highly regarded sources. For instance, Encyclopedia Britannica never mentioned any US bombing in its history of Laos, even though most credible sources say that the country experienced more bombs per person than any country in history. Were these honest omissions? Or could it be that these supposedly reliable and standard reference books put forward the ‘sanitized’ party line, rather than transmitting knowledge that could be damaging to the historical reputation of the current Establishment.
Due to the inherent distortions of information transmission, the Author has also chosen his facts to support his-story, my story. He has given a plausible account of the course of events in my Southeast Asian territory for the last half millennium. The Author organized and arranged this assemblage of information to identify who he thinks me to be. However it is really only a tale meant to amuse and even bemuse, or perhaps inspire although sometimes dire. Forgive if it offends, we make our amends. It is ‘merely a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing’. After all, the Present is all there is and the Past is just that 'past'.
The Reader may have noticed that the Foreword has presented a slightly misleading impression thus far. I have claimed that my history is of the traditional literary variety. But this book is hardly traditional. After all, I a landmass am one of the narrators of my own tale.
It is as if I am giving a first person, er I mean a first territory account of the events that transpired in my little corner of the globe over the last half millennium. It could be said that this tome is my autobiography as told to a ghostwriter. Considering that I am not exactly human, this literary accomplishment is not quite standard either.
Further, prehistoric cultures, countries and even the anonymous international business community, a.k.a. the Cartel, get to relate their side of the story. In fact, the Cartel could be considered the villain of my tale. Because of the many diverse characters inhabiting this book, it might be better characterized as historical fiction. In this sense, the Author anthropomorphizes the disembodied entities that are connected to my existence and imagines what they might say and feel. As such, the opinions expressed herein don’t necessarily reflect my personal views.
This unusual anthropomorphic approach has a few advantages. It allows for the insertion of both levity and editorial comments into a potentially dry historical account loaded with supposedly ‘objective’ facts. The intent is to make my story more readable.
My Author occasionally likes to think that he was fully in charge when he chose to write about me. But he wasn’t. The Universe manipulated events to entice him to engage in this literary project. The Universe also filled the Author’s mind with words and concepts that needed to come out, if he were to attain peace of mind. In this sense, the Author is merely riding a wave, rather than directing the course of action.
In other words, the Universe has determined the highly unusual form of my autobiography, for better or worse. Hope you enjoy it.”
What comes to mind when we think of Southeast Asia? On the newsworthy political level – the Vietnam War, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, and Thailand’s most recent military coup are probably on the forefront – on a secondary level perhaps Myanmar’s military dictatorship and/or Suu Kyi, the country’s Nobel Peace Prize winner. Those with a more sophisticated knowledge of current events might remember Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines’ military dictator, fleeing the island with his wife Imelda and her hundreds of shoes. If the Reader is older, there is probably a sense of relief that those turbulent times are past. If younger and interested in politics, there might even be a vague curiosity about what all the hubbub was about.
What events led up to these turbulent times? What has happened since? Unless the Reader is a historian or a specialist on Southeast Asia, these questions probably draw a blank. In general Southeast Asia consciousness flared up with the Vietnam War and then faded out with the conclusion of the Cold War and the fall of their military dictatorships. It is unlikely that most of us could name the countries in this territory much less say anything about the history of the area. .
Why would anyone want to know anything about Southeast Asia? What is the relevance, if anything more than curiosity?
Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in negativity when following current events. Iraqi Wars 1 and 2, the Afghani War and now the most recent bombing of ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that is attempting to take over Syria and Iraq. Because of their alarming nature, the never-ending wars in the Middle East capture most of our political attention.
If one allows the media to dictate the news, then one surely thinks the world is coming to an end soon. Global warming – Islamic terrorists creating social chaos and supposedly threatening to spread across the Atlantic to the US – Drug cartels disrupting life in Central and South America – international economic crisis, and now the fear of an Ebola pandemic. Each of these disturbing thoughts dominates the current mindset. “Things have never been worse,” is a phrase that is bandied about by those supposedly in the ‘know’ – those who follow the ‘news’ religiously. Muslim terrorist here, there, everywhere – maybe even hiding under your bed at night ready to assault your house with a suicide bombing if not for the tight security precautions of the US Homeland Security.
Guess what? Half the population of Southeast Asia is Muslim. Indeed there are more individuals of Islamic persuasion here than anywhere else in the world. But surprise of surprises, these Muslims are not at war with anyone. There are virtually no terrorists, no suicide bombers and no wars between countries. In fact according to many global metrics, the potential for human development is rising faster in Southeast Asia than anywhere else on the planet. This is opposite the prevalent ‘doom and gloom’ perspective, which states that the world is supposedly going down fast. What are the circumstances behind this seemingly ‘unusual’ state of affairs?
Read this book to find out.
In order to understand the current political situation in Southeast Asia, we must begin with the European invasion a half millennium ago. To fully appreciate their devastating impact upon the region, let us briefly examine the Southeast Asian context before their people were conquered. This topic is dealt with in much greater detail in Book 1 of the series – The Rise & Fall of Southeast Asia's Empires to 1500 CE.
Scholars frequently characterize Southeast Asia as a land of small villages. These villages are generally in the center of rice fields. The people that inhabit these small clusters of population are the unsung, unnamed heroes of this story.
It is they who supplied the primary food source for the region with its millions of inhabitants. And it was also these ‘common’ folk who supplied the labor force that created the magnificent architectural monuments that dot the landscape. They were neither the rulers nor the traders that got fabulously rich doing business in all of the international ports – the entrepôts of the region that provided the wealth of nations and even empires.
It was also the inhabitants of these small villages that were exploited, dislocated, displaced, enslaved, and bombed. Who was responsible? The colonial/neocolonial powers from the West and the indigenous leaders who were doing their bidding.
Busy with the work of tending their rice fields and raising their children, it was generally not the villagers who led the revolution against Western imperialism. Most often some compassionate souls, frequently students, led the revolts that resulted in national independence from the foreign invaders.
Perhaps this is a rosy eyed view of history or maybe not. It seems that the indigenous leaders that ruled the land before the advent of the Europeans respected the agrarian population as the backbone of society, instead of exploiting them. While the ruling classes and the merchants certainly had many privileges that the peasantry did not, there is little evidence of the outright slavery that accompanied the European onslaught.
Rather than dominating the villagers with military force, the local rulers, at least prior to the 16th century, tended to gain their right to govern via prestige and economic benefit. In other words, the citizenry empowered the kingdom or empire that gave the best deal. Ideally, the kingdoms tended to be cooperative ventures that were for the benefit of everyone, rather than only for the exclusive gain of the ruling class. As might be imagined, this political ideal was not always the reality.
The relatively harmonious relationship between rulers and population was probably due to some geographical factors that are unique to Southeast Asia.
First , there was plenty of food to go around because of the shallow seas and abundant rainfall. Food shortages and scarcity didn’t tend to be a problem in the region. The natural bounty of the oceans combined with fertile soils that were regularly replenished by either runoff from the mighty Himalayas or volcanic activity guaranteed plenty of sustenance for a growing population. Due this natural bounty, Southeast Asia was a virtual paradise for its inhabitants. There was no need to fight over scarce resources, as in the rest of the Eurasian mega-continent.
Further, Southeast Asia was and is the world center for spices. Because spices enhance food’s flavor, all the surrounding cultures were drawn to the area to trade for this culinary delight. The product was somewhat addictive. Once tasted, people couldn’t go back to the non-spiced version. Ultimately, this blessing also proved to be a curse – as military cultures decided to take rather than trade.
In addition to an abundance of seafood, agricultural produce and flavorful spices, Southeast Asia was also ideally situated to become a global trading center. Conveniently located between the cultural and economic behemoths of India and China, traders had traveled to exchange merchandise in the region since prehistoric times. There are significant indications, for instance common pottery designs, of overland trade between the regions for many millennia before the Common Era. With improvements in maritime technology, the trade extended to the ocean in modern times. This is also when the area becomes historical. With their penchant for record keeping, the imperial entourage that accompanied Chinese traders provided the first written records starting about the 2nd century C.E.
Because of their unique location combined with an abundance of spices, raw materials, and beautiful crafts, Southeast Asians had participated in a primarily trade-based society with many cultural similarities during their long history prior to the European arrival.
There is yet another geographic feature that led to Southeast Asia’s unique identity. Rugged fingers of the mighty Himalayas and thousands of islands provided natural obstructions for any external military forces that might be tempted to invade the area. Even though China had many powerful empires, they were never able to expand their territory into Southeast Asia any further than North Vietnam. These same boundaries also prevented any one nation from assuming ascendancy over the rest.
Due to the influx of trade-based wealth and with no need to spend an exorbitant amount of money on weaponry for expansion or defense, the kingdoms instead built amazing architectural masterpieces, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Pagan in Burma and Borobudur in Java. While there had certainly been local aggression, border reconfiguration and warfare had been minor compared with their European counterparts.
Natural geographical boundaries and climatic elements encouraged trade and discouraged military invasions. Fertile soil with abundant rainfall and shallow oceans teeming with fish combined with the Spice Islands to render Southeast Asia one of the most desirable places to live in the world, at least prior to the Europeans.
In addition to bringing wealth, trade also brought a cosmopolitan attitude. Traveling to Southeast Asia from all over the globe, traders also brought their religions and multiplicity of customs with them. No one cared which religion a merchant belonged to as long as he provided satisfactory terms that led to a deal. Integrity and product was valued over military power. This all began to change with the arrival of the Europeans in 1511.
One final geographical feature contributed to the Southeast Asian character – the monsoon-based ‘trade’ winds. Southeast Asians were incredibly tolerant in the religious sphere. This tolerance was due at least in part to the alternating direction of the ‘trade’ winds. Half of the year, the trade winds blew towards the east bringing the Indian Hindus to Southeast Asian ports and returning the Chinese Buddhists home. The cycle reversed itself during the other half of the year. As a consequence, foreign religions mixed with native religions to create an amorphous blend that was satisfactory to all. Southeast Asians had yet to experience the extreme religious intolerance of European Catholicism.
The same alternating trade winds that encouraged tolerance and trade also discouraged military aggression from afar. As such, Southeast Asians were primarily ruled by locals until the last half millennium. When the Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s, Austronesian speakers inhabited and ruled the islands including the Malay Peninsula. Burmese speakers ruled Burma; Thai speakers were in charge of Siam, modern day Thailand; Laotians were in control of Laos, the Khmer governed Cambodia; and the Vietnamese ruled northern Vietnam. None of these diverse ethnicities with hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages spoke an Indo-Aryan language like the Europeans.
Although not always true, most nations have a common ethnicity. In other words, language, common tradition and race merge into a unified entity that bond the citizenry as a group. This was true of all the Southeast Asian kingdoms at the beginning of the 16th century. The rulers of each country were of the same race and spoke the same language as their populace. This was to change big time over the following centuries. The residents of the region had yet to experience the raw aggression of the Indo-Aryan speakers of Europe.
In 1500 CE, the inhabitants of the Southeast Asian mainland were almost exclusively Theravada Buddhists, while the Austronesian speakers of the islands were primarily Muslim. All Southeast Asians had practiced a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and native religions since the beginning of the modern era. In the century prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Austronesian speakers of the islands had converted en masse to Islam. The conversion process was not due to military force or missionary work, but instead voluntary.
Why? There are several factors that encouraged the relatively instant mass conversion of an entire culture: 1) the assertion of indigenous identity and 2) trade advantage.
The egalitarian nature of Islam combined with the community singing and worship was certainly an appealing and unifying force for the Austronesian-speaking islanders. Hindus from India had been a dominant artistic, political and religious force in Southeast Asia for centuries. Indeed, the Indian influence was so great that all the Southeast Asian kingdoms of the time are described as Indianized states. Egalitarian, monotheistic Islam provided a way of getting away from the hierarchical, polytheism of Hinduism and asserting indigenous identity.
Converting to Islam also provided a definite trade advantage to local merchants. Previously a dominant economic force in the region, the Chinese disappeared from the Southeast Asian scene in the early 1400s due to internal reasons. Arab traders moved in to fill the void.
With the sudden departure of the Chinese, the newly established ‘free port’ of Malacca led the conversion to Islam, at least in part to attract Arab traders. Because of this incredibly successful strategy, Malacca became one of the premier trading ports in the world in the 15th century. With the accumulation of wealth, Malacca even generated a small trading empire, as was the region’s political style. Unfortunately for Southeast Asians, just as honey attracts bees, wealth attracts power.
By the 16th century, Catholic and Muslim nations had already been warring for half a millennium in Europe and the Middle East. The conflict started in the 11th century when European Crusaders traveled east to conquer Jerusalem from the Arabs. Animosities continued to grow between the two cultures in the subsequent centuries. During the 1400s, Catholics succeeded in expelling the Islamic Moors from Spain. In retaliation, Arab traders closed their lucrative trade routes to the Europeans or began charging exorbitant rates. In response, the Europeans began looking for a way out of this predicament. The Portuguese were the first to find a way to circumvent the Arabs. Employing a more sophisticated maritime technology, they simply sailed around the tip of Africa to reach the ports of Southeast Asia.
However, the Portuguese didn’t come as tolerant traders. Instead they arrived as intolerant conquerors. They brought their dominant Aryan-derived military culture with them. This hierarchical and aggressive culture was much different than Southeast Asia’s peaceful trade based culture. To gain historical perspective, the next few chapters will explore the evolution of Europe’s Aryan culture to better understand its devastating effect upon Southeast Asia.