Southeast Asia: An Introductory Historyby Milton Osborne
The first edition of Southeast Asia: An Introductory History was published in 1979 and immediately filled a need for travelers and students interested in a tantalizingly different part of the world. Subsequent editions have continued to document with great perception the enormous changes and dramatic growth experienced in the region. Dr. Milton Osborne/i>
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The first edition of Southeast Asia: An Introductory History was published in 1979 and immediately filled a need for travelers and students interested in a tantalizingly different part of the world. Subsequent editions have continued to document with great perception the enormous changes and dramatic growth experienced in the region. Dr. Milton Osborne has been a resident, student, and fascinated observer of Southeast Asia for more than 50 years. This familiarity has resulted in a highly readable and lively chronicle. While giving due regard to the early history of the region, Osborne concentrates on the changes that have taken place since the 18th century: the impact of colonial rule, economic transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries, the emergence and triumph of the independence movements, the impact of social change, and the pivotal roles played by religion, ethnic minorities, and immigrant groups. He also provides an introduction to the art of the region and a comprehensive guide to literature about Southeast Asia. Clearly written and extensively illustrated, this 12th edition of Southeast Asia: An Introductory History remains a classic in the field.
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An Introductory History
By Milton Osborne
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Milton Osborne
All rights reserved.
WHAT IS SOUTHEAST ASIA?
There is no better place to start than with a discussion of size and scale. For a newcomer to Southeast Asian history the past is more confusing than the jumbled present. Yet even when considering the present an outsider has the greatest difficulty in visualising just how large an area Southeast Asia occupies in geographical terms, and how substantial is the size of its population. The fact that Indonesia's population is approaching two hundred and fifty million may be well known. But how often is that fact recognised as meaning that Indonesia has the fourth largest population in the world? Only China, India and the United States have larger populations than Indonesia. And how many casual observers think of a now-united Vietnam as having a substantially larger population, at 91 million, than such countries as Spain (forty million), Poland (thirty-nine million), and Canada (thirty-four million)? Vietnam's population is even larger than Egypt's (eighty-two million), yet Vietnam is only one of four Southeast Asian states, in addition to Indonesia, whose populations are each in excess of thirty million. Figures can only be approximate where population is concerned, but of the world's population in the first decades of the twenty-first century Southeast Asia accounted for no less than 8 per cent. The significance of this percentage is made clear when the population of China is expressed as a percentage of the world's total. China, the world's most populous country, accounts for between 20 and 25 per cent of the total. Against this yardstick alone, therefore, the population of the Southeast Asian region is substantial indeed.
Size by itself does not mean power, and this is as true for contemporary Southeast Asia as it was for other countries and regions in the past. Whatever the power that an individual Southeast Asian state can exert within its own borders, or outside them, none of the countries in the region has yet developed the global power that was once exerted by some European powers, such as Britain in its imperial heyday, or by the superpowers of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Here, right away, is a major question for historians of Southeast Asia to consider: Why has the Southeast Asian region, despite its size, played so small a part in the shifts of global power over the past two thousand years?
The answer, or more correctly answers, to this question will need to take account of many factors, not all of them agreed among those who make it their business to study the Southeast Asian region. To a great extent, moreover, the answers will point to the need to think about Southeast Asia in terms that will often seem surprising for those whose cultural background has been strongly influenced by Europe. Here is where scale as well as size deserves attention.
When dealing with the unknown or little-known there is a strong tendency to think of cities, countries or groups of people as being in some way smaller in size and importance than is the case for better-known areas and peoples. In the same fashion there is a familiar readiness to discount the achievements of unfamiliar civilisations by comparison with the presumed importance of our own society and cultural traditions. This may be less of a feature of life today than it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the exploring Europeans and their successors, the administrators, missionaries, planters and men of commerce, had not the slightest doubt about their own superiority. Nonetheless, the problem remains today as Southeast Asia is still an unfamiliar area to most who live outside its boundaries.
Because we know that London and Paris are major cities today, and that these are the modern successors of settlements dating back to Roman times, our tendency is to think of their always having been large and important. Londinium was important in Roman times, possibly more so than the settlement of Lutetia, which was to change its name to Paris in the fourth century. But because of our familiarity with the name London it is hard, perhaps, to visualise just how small this centre was in Roman times and through to the period of the Norman Conquest. When William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 London still did not enjoy the status of being England's royal city. No more than 35 000 persons lived in the ill-kept streets of this medieval city; yet this is scarcely the image London summons up. At the same time, in the then unknown land of Cambodia — unknown, that is, to the men and women of Europe — a population of perhaps a million grouped around and supported a city that could rival and surpass any then existing in Europe for its architectural achievement, its sophisticated water engineering, and its capacity to produce a harvest of two or even three rice crops each year. This was the city of Angkor from whose ruins with their accompanying rich stock of inscriptions we have come to know of a civilisation of remarkable achievement and high technological complexity. But whereas the wonders of Europe, of Rome and Venice, of Paris and London, and a dozen other major cities, have preoccupied scholars and interested observers for hundreds of years, the great Cambodian city of Angkor, the centre of a powerful empire for nearly six centuries, only became part of general Western consciousness in the nineteenth century, and then only slowly.
The point may be made over and over again. Athens, Thebes and Sparta were tiny states, nevertheless they live in the minds of those who study European history for the contributions that they made to the development of European culture, in that term's broadest sense. By contrast, it is still rare outside either specialist circles, or among those who have travelled widely, to find knowledge of the empire of Pagan (Bagan), a centre of Burmese power during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the site of a temple complex that some believe rivals the buildings of Angkor. Those who are the inheritors of the Western tradition are not immediately receptive to the religious and cultural underpinnings of the societies that built Pagan and Angkor. The same problem of a lack of immediate empathy is apparent when attention turns to another early Southeast Asian empire. It is easier for a Westerner to conjure up a picture, accurate or otherwise, of Christopher Columbus sailing to the Americas than it is to picture the heroic navigational feats of Malay sailors who voyaged to China and made the Sumatra-based empire of Srivijaya such a powerful force in early Southeast Asian history.
The contrast between our awareness of Europe and unawareness of Southeast Asia should not be stressed beyond reason. There are a great many good reasons why it is easier to understand segments of European history and why real and continuing difficulties stand in the way of acquiring a similar background awareness of the historical process in Southeast Asia. To gain more than a superficial knowledge of early Southeast Asian history requires time, dedication, and a readiness to learn a surprisingly large range of languages. All this is required for the study of problems that may often seem lacking in general interest. Generations of scholars have laboured in some cases to leave little more than fragments for incorporation in the overall fabric of the region's history. For the general student there is, fortunately, some middle ground between a broad lack of knowledge and scholarly devotion to detail that is, however admirable, the preserve of the specialist.
So far in this introductory chapter the term Southeast Asia has been used in a general, undifferentiated fashion. In the 1930s this would have caused surprise, for only a few persons at that time thought and spoke about 'Southeast Asia'. Some writers used the term 'Further India' to describe sections of Southeast Asia, as if all that was to be found beyond the Bay of Bengal was the Indian subcontinent on a smaller scale. It is only necessary to think of the influence that China has had over the formation of Vietnamese cultural life, or of the extent to which the Philippines has acquired a very special character because of the long-term Spanish influence in those islands, to realise how inappropriate the term 'Further India' is. Another general description that was used before the Second World War was 'Asia of the Monsoons', a term deriving from the monsoon weather pattern that is important in almost all of Southeast Asia. This term, used by geographers most particularly, did not relate merely to the area that modern scholars have termed Southeast Asia, for Sri Lanka and parts of India, as well as areas of southern China, might equally well be described as monsoon lands.
For the most part, however, neither the foreigners who worked in Southeast Asia before the Second World War, whether as scholars or otherwise, nor the indigenous inhabitants of the countries of Southeast Asia, thought about the region in general terms. The general tendency to do so came with the Second World War when, as a result of military circumstances, the concept of a Southeast Asian region began to take hold. From a strategic military point of view it was apparent that an area existed that was not India, nor China, nor part of the Pacific. Instead, a sense began to grow that Brunei, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia — to use modern names rather than those different ones which, in some cases, were current in the early 1940s — formed some kind of geographical unit. The omission of the Philippines is deliberate, at this stage, for the question of whether or not the Philippines formed part of Southeast Asia was to remain a matter of scholarly uncertainty as late as the 1960s. As for East Timor (now known officially as Timor Leste), until that territory was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 it scarcely rated a mention in general surveys of Southeast Asian history. As the government of East Timor pursues its policy of seeking membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), future surveys of Southeast Asian affairs will increasingly come to include it as an integral part of the region.
The sense of Southeast Asia being a geographical and cultural unit did not, of course, depend solely upon strategic thinking. Already, in the 1920s and 1930s, anthropologists and historians had begun to take account of the similarities that could be found between one region of what we now call Southeast Asia and another. Similarities in the rituals used by the various royal courts throughout mainland Southeast Asia were recognised as an indication of a common inheritance or tradition. Basic similarities in family structure were found to exist over a wide area. And for all of the evidence that was accumulating of the importance of foreign ideas, and of foreigners, throughout Southeast Asia's long history, historians had begun assembling the evidence that showed a regional pattern of international relations within Southeast Asia from its earliest historical periods. Southeast Asia was not, in other words, merely a region that sustained the impact of its greater neighbours, China and India. Empires within the region waxed and waned and at various times links were established between the mainland and the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago involving both politics and trade.
With the end of the Second World War the tendency to think of Southeast Asia as a whole gained even greater currency as there was a sharp increase in the amount of scholarly attention given to the region. Now, more than ever before, the underlying similarities to be found throughout a wide range of the region were stressed by historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and linguists, to mention only the prominent academic disciplines. To sense why these scholars found their work so exciting, and to emphasise the way in which the picture of Southeast Asia as a unit deserving of study in its own right emerged, it is useful to review briefly some of the features of the region that are now taken for granted but which only gained general recognition after the Second World War.
Probably most important was the recognition that the countries of Southeast Asia were neither 'little Indias' nor 'little Chinas'. The impact of those two great countries on the region cannot be dismissed, though the degree and character of their influence is still debated, but the essential right of Southeast Asian countries to be considered culturally independent units was generally established. To put the matter in another fashion, if the tendency in the past had been to think of Southeast Asia as an area shaped by external cultural values, most particularly those of India and China, scholars now paid just as much attention to the strength and importance of indigenous cultural traditions. Where Indian or Chinese influence did play a major part in the development of Southeast Asian art, or religion, or political theory, stress began to be placed on the extent to which Burmese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and others adapted these foreign ideas to suit their own needs and values. The importance of Indian religious concepts, for instance, must be recognised for a broad area of Southeast Asia. But one of the most essential features of Hinduism, the rigid caste system, was never adopted in the countries outside India. Indian artistic and architectural concepts played an important part in the development of Southeast Asian art. Yet the glories of Pagan, Angkor, and the temple complexes of Java stem from their own individual character, just as the exquisite Buddha images that were created in Thailand are quite different from the images to be found in India. Even in Vietnam, where dependence upon an external, Chinese cultural tradition has clearly been more significant than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the strength of non-Chinese cultural life, particularly below the level of the court, belies any picture of that country as a mere receiver of ideas, unable to offer traditions of its own.
Southeast Asian and foreign scholars alike came to recognise that Indian and Chinese influence had been overemphasised in the past and that insufficient attention had been paid to fundamental similarities existing in the societies making up the region. While uniformity most certainly is not present throughout the societies of Southeast Asia, certain broad similarities spread across a wide area are striking. The importance of the nuclear or individual family in much of Southeast Asia, as opposed to the importance placed on the extended family in India, was one of these broad similarities. So, too, the generally important place allotted women in the peasant society of traditional Southeast Asia reflected both a widespread value and a contrast with both Indian and Chinese societies.
Another factor leading to interest in the Southeast Asian region as a whole was the recognition of how much linguistic unity there was from area to area, cutting right across the boundaries set, in many cases, by colonial powers. There are still people who have not shed the illusions fostered by the former colonial powers which sought to emphasise disunity rather than to recognise broad similarities. So, not very long ago there were people who spoke and wrote as if the language of northern Vietnam was quite different from the language spoken in the southern regions of that country. The reality is that Vietnam, like almost any other country, has dialectical variations from region to region. But, if linguistic unity is taken as a significant factor indicating basic broader social unities, then Vietnam despite its fragmented political history is unified indeed. The difference between the Vietnamese spoken in the north of that country and the Vietnamese to be heard in the south is certainly no greater than the difference between 'educated southern English' and broad Scots. And the difference is a great deal less than that to be found between the dialects of northern and southern Italy.
Excerpted from Southeast Asia by Milton Osborne. Copyright © 2013 Milton Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Milton Osborne is the author of The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future and River Road to China.
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