Southeast Asia

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Location of Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia or Southeastern Asia is a subregion of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India and north of Australia. The region lies on the intersection of geological plates, with heavy seismic and volcanic activity.

Southeast Asia consists of two geographic regions: the Asian mainland, and island arcs and archipelagoes to the east and southeast. The Asian mainland section consists of Cambodia, Laos, a part of Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam; the population of which are primarily Tai peoples and Austroasiatic peoples and the dominant religion is Buddhism. Maritime Southeast Asia consists of Philippines, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Brunei. Austronesian peoples predominate in this region, and the dominant religion is Islam followed by Christianity.

The region's chief cultural influences have been from either China or India or both, with Myanmar being notably a part of Undivided India and Vietnam considered by far the most Chinese-influenced.


Name and definition

Southeast Asia frequently refers to the area consisting of the following, although in general and certain specific usage, the area it refers to can be narrower or broader (e.g. including the southernmost coastal regions of China as well as Bangladesh, South India, Sri Lanka, and Maldives).

All of the above are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), except East Timor, which is a candidate. The area, together with part of South Asia, was previously known as the East Indies or simply Indies. Although politically external territories of Australia, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are culturally part of Southeast Asia. Although politically a part of India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are considered to be geographically part of Southeast Asia. The disputed areas of Paracel islands, Spratly islands, and Scarborough Shoal are also included in the region. While West Papua, however, is politically part of Southeast Asia through Indonesia, geographically it is often considered as part of Oceania.


Southeast Asia is geographically divided into two regions, namely Indochina and the Malay Archipelago.

Indochina or sometimes mainland Southeast Asia includes all of:

File:Southeast asia.jpg
Topography of Southeast Asia.

The Malay archipelago (Malay: Nusantara) or sometimes maritime Southeast Asia consists of:

Malaysia is divided by the South China Sea. Peninsular Malaysia is on the mainland while East Malaysia is on Borneo, the largest islands in the region. However, Malaysia is often considered an archipelagic nation.

Geologically the Malay archipelago is very interesting, being one of the most active vulcanological regions in the world. Geological uplifts in the region have also produced some impressive mountains, culminating in Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo with a height of 4,101 metres (13,455 ft) and also Puncak Jaya in Irian Jaya, Indonesia at 4,884 metres (16,024 ft), on the island of New Guinea.

There are various conflicting territorial and/or maritime claims, both among these countries and even involving other parties (notably both Chinas in the case of the Spratly Islands).

Contrary to common misconception, most of the inhabitants of archipelagic Southeast Asia are not Pacific Islanders. However, it is worth noting that the eastern parts of Indonesia and Timor-Leste (east of Wallace line) are geographically parts of Oceania.

The climate of Southeast Asia is mainly tropical - hot and humid all year round. There is a lot of rainfall. The rain forest is the second largest on earth (with the Amazon being the largest). Exception to this type of climate and vegetation is the mountain areas in the northern region, where high attitudes lead to milder temperatures and drier landscape.


File:Mount Kinabalu.jpg
Mount Kinabalu.
File:Wallace's line.jpg
Wallace's hypothetical line between Australasian and Southeast Asian fauna.

The animals of Southeast Asia are diverse; on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the Orangutan (man of the forest), the Asian Elephant, the Malayan tapir, the Sumatran Rhinoceros and the Bornean Clouded Leopard can be also found. The bearcat can be found on the island of Palawan.

The Water Buffalo, both domesticated and wild, can be found all over Southeast Asia, where once it was found in much greater extent in South Asia, for example. The mouse deer, a small tusked deer as large as a toy dog or cat, can be found on Sumatra, Borneo and Palawan Islands.

Birds such as the peafowl and drongo live in this subregion as far east as Indonesia. The babirusa, a four-tusked pig, can be found in Indonesia as well. The hornbill was prized for its beak and used in trade with China. The horn of the rhinoceros, not part of its skull, was prized in China as well.

The Indonesian Archipelago is split by the Wallace Line. This line runs along what is now known to be a tectonic plate boundary, and separates Asian (Western) species from Australasian (Eastern) species. The islands between Java/Borneo and Papua form a mixed zone, where both types occur, known as Wallacea.

The shallow waters of the Southeast Asian coral reefs have the highest levels of biodiversity for the world's marine ecosystems, where coral, fish and molluscs abound. The whale shark can be found in the South China Sea.

The trees and other plants of the region are tropical; in some countries where the mountains are tall enough, temperate-climate vegetation can be found. These rainforest areas are currently being logged-over, especially in Borneo.

While Southeast Asia is rich in flora and fauna, Southeast Asia is facing severe deforestation which causes habitat loss for various endangered species such as orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. At the same time, haze has been a regular occurrence. The worst regional haze occurred in 1998 in which multiple countries were covered with thick haze. In reaction, several countries in Southeast Asia signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in order to combat haze pollution.


Southeast Asia has an area of approx. 4,000,000 km² (1.6 million sq miles). As of 2004, more than 593 million people lived in the region, more than a fifth of them (125 million) on the Indonesian island of Java, the most densely populated large island in the world. The distribution of the religions and people is diverse in Southeast Asia and varies by country. Some 30 million Overseas Chinese also live in Southeast Asia, most prominently in Christmas Island, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and also, as the Hoa, in Vietnam. See also Chinatowns.

Ethnic groups

Southeast Asians are primarily of Asiatic stock. According to a recent Stanford genetic study, the Southeast Asian population is far from being homogeneous. Although primarily descendants of Austronesian, Tai, and Mon-Khmer-speaking immigrants who migrated from Southern China during the Iron Age, there are overlays of Arab, Chinese, Indian, European, Polynesian and Papuan/Melanesian genes. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore have substantial Eurasian populations.

The ethnic composition for each country is as follows: (The percentages may be out-of-date and were estimated.)

Andaman and Nicobar Islands Indians (69%), Nicobarese (29%), Andamanese (0.9%), Shompen (0.1%), Others (1%)
Brunei Malay (69%), Chinese (15%), Indigenous Bruneians (including Bajau, Kedayan )(6%), Others (10%)
Cambodia Khmer (82%), Vietnamese (12%), Cham (4%), Others (including Khmer Loeu) (2%)
Christmas Island Chinese (70%), Europeans (20%), Malay (10%)
Cocos (Keeling) Islands Malay (80%), Europeans (20%)
East Timor Tetun (10%), Mambae (8%), Makasae (8%), Tukudede (6%), Bunak (5%), Galoli (5%), Kemak (5%), Fataluku (3%), Baikeno (2%), Others (48%)
Indonesia Javanese (41.7%), Sundanese (15.4%), Malay (3.4%), Madurese (3.3%), Batak (3.0%), Minangkabau (2.7%), Betawi (2.5%), Buginese (2.5%), Bantenese (2.1%), Banjarese (1.7%), Balinese (1.5%), Sasak (1.3%), Makassarese (1.0%), Cirebon (0.9%), Chinese (0.9%), Others (15%)
Laos Lao (50%), other Lao Loum (16%), Lao Theung (Kammu, Katang) (24%), Lao Soung (Akha, Hmong, Yao) (9%), Vietnamese (1%)
Malaysia Malay (52%), Chinese (30%), Indians (8%), Indigenous Malaysians (including Orang Asli) (7%), Others (3%)
Myanmar Bamar (68%), Shan (10%), Kayin (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%), Mon (2%), South Asians (2%), Others (including Anglo-Burmese, Anglo-Indians, Chin, Kachin, Kayah)(4%)
Philippines Bisaya (39%), Tagalog (17%), Ilocano (10%), Moro (5%), Bicolano (4%), Kapampangan (3%), Pangasinan (2%), Chinese (2%), Spanish (2%), Philippine tribes (including Bajau, Igorot, Lumad, Mangyan, Negrito, Palawan tribes) (8%), Other Philippine groups (including Chabacano, Ibanag, Ivatan) (5%), Others (mostly Africans, Americans, Arabs, Europeans, Indonesians, Japanese, Jews, Koreans, South Asians, Spaniards) (3%)
Singapore Chinese (77%), Malay (14%), Indian (8%), Others (including Arab, Eurasian) (1%)
Thailand Thai (41%), Isan (or Laotian) (34%) Chinese (14%), Malay (4%), Khmer (3%), Others (4%)
Vietnam Vietnamese (88%), French (2%), Japanese (1%), Others (Cham, Eurasian, Amerasian, and mountain groups (Montagnard): Degar, Mang, Meo, Muong, Tai) (9%)

Distinct minorities


The Negritos include the Aeta, Ati and at least 25 other tribes of the Philippines, the Semang of the Malay peninsula, the Mani of Thailand and 12 Andamanese tribes of the Andaman Islands. The Malay term for them is orang asli, or original people. They are likely the indigenous people of Southeast Asia, including Western New Guinea. Pygmy-sized, they are numerically and physically among the smallest as well as among the least-known of all living human groups. The Negrito peoples have one of the purest genetic pools of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) among anyone in humankind so their mtDNA serves as a baseline in studying Genetic Drift.<ref>"DNA Study Yields Clues on Early Human's First Migration" New York Times, May 13, 2005 p. A7</ref>


The Peranakan are a unique Straits Chinese community that are found mostly in Malaysia and Singapore, though many can also be found in Indonesia. Large communities of the Peranakans can be found in Penang and Malacca (Malaysia) and Singapore. They have roots tracing to that of Hokkien from Fujian province, Southern China who intermarried with non Muslims Indonesian people like the Bataks and Balinese. Others say they were descendants of servants of Hang Li Poh who intermarried with locals. They retained the names, religions and cultures of their Chinese fathers while absorbing the language, food and culture of their Malay mothers.

Filipino Mestizos

Filipino Mestizos are Filipinos of part-foreign descent that are found mostly in the Philippines. 444 years under Western rule and influence have had a powerful effect on the Filipinos, especially on the culture and ancestry. About 3.6% of all Filipinos are part-European and/or part-American. Approximately 5% of all Filipinos are of mixed Filipino and Chinese descent. They retained most of their ancestors' culture, and most of them continue to speak English. Filipino Mestizos, particularly the Chinese Mestizos, are leading in the business sector, while Filipino Mestizos of mixed European or American descent are disproportionately overrepresented in the entertainment industry.


Countries in Southeast Asia practise many different religions. Mainland SEA countries, that is, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, practise predominantly Buddhism. Singapore is also predominantly Buddhist. In the Malay Archipelago, people living in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei practise mainly Islam. Christianity is predominant in the Philippines, Eastern Indonesia and East Timor. The Philippines has the largest Roman Catholic population followed by Vietnam, both ex-colonies of European powers.

The religious composition for each country is as follows. Some values are taken from the CIA Factbook: <ref>Field Listing - Religions. CIA factbook. Retrieved on 2007-02-24.</ref>

Andaman and Nicobar Islands Animism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism
Brunei Islam (67%), Buddhism (13%), Christianity (10%), Indigenous beliefs and others (10%)
Cambodia Theravada Buddhism (93%), Animism and others (7%)
Christmas Island Buddhism (36%), Islam (25%), Christianity (18%), Taoism (15%), other (6%).
Cocos (Keeling) Islands Sunni Islam (80%), Others (20%)
East Timor Roman Catholicism (90%), Islam (5%), Protestant (3%), Others (Buddhist, Hindu) (2%)
Indonesia Islam (88%), Protestant (5%), Roman Catholicism (3%) Hinduism (2%), Buddhism (1%), Others (1%)
Laos Theravada Buddhism (60%), Animism and others (40%)
Malaysia Islam (60.4%), Mahayana Buddhism (19.2%), Christianity (9.1%), Hinduism (6.1%), Animism (5.2%)
Myanmar Theravada Buddhism (89%), Islam (4%), Christianity (4%), Animism (1%), Others (2%)
Philippines Roman Catholicism (70%), Islam (5%), Evangelical (2.8%), Iglesia ni Cristo (2.2%), Aglipayan (2%), other Christian (15.5%), Others (Animism, Buddhism, Nonreligious) (2.5%)
Singapore Buddhism (42.5%), Islam (15%), Taoism (8%), Roman Catholism (4.5%), other Christian (10%), Hinduism (4%), Nonreligious (15%), Other (1%)
Thailand Theravada Buddhism (94.6%), Islam (4.6%), Others (1%)
Vietnam Mahayana Buddhism (78%), Theravada Buddhism (5%), (Roman Catholicism (7%), Cao Dai (2%), Protestant (1%), Others (Animism, Hoa Hao, Islam, Nonreligious) (7%)

Religions and peoples are diverse in Southeast Asia and not one country is homogeneous. In the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, Hinduism is dominant on islands such as Bali. Christianity also predominates in Philippines, Papua and Timor. Pockets of Hindu population can also be found around Southeast Asia in Singapore, Malaysia etc. Garuda (Sanskrit: Garuḍa), the phoenix who is the mount (vahanam) of Vishnu, is a national symbol in both Thailand and Indonesia; in the Philippines, gold images of Garuda have been found on Palawan; gold images of other Hindu gods and goddesses have also been found on Mindanao. Balinese Hinduism is somewhat different from Hinduism practised elsewhere, as Animism and local culture is incorporated into it. Christians can also be found throughout Southeast Asia; they are in the majority in East Timor and the Philippines, Asia's largest Christian nation. In addition, there are also older tribal religious practices in remote areas of Sarawak in East Malaysia and Papua in eastern Indonesia. In Myanmar, Sakka (Indra) is revered as a nat. In Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhism is practiced, which is influenced by native animism but with strong emphasis on Ancestor Worship.


Each of the languages have been influenced by cultural pressures due to trade and historical colonization as well. Thus, for example, a Filipino, educated in English and Tagalog, as well as in his native tongue (ex., Visayan), might well speak another language, such as Japanese for economic reasons; a Malaysian might well speak Chinese as well as English, again for economic reasons.

The language composition for each country is as follows: (The official languages have been bolded.)

Andaman and Nicobar Islands Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Telugu, Punjabi, Tamil, Nicobarese, English, Shompen , Andamanese languages
Brunei Malay, Chinese dialects, indigenous Borneian dialects
Cambodia Khmer, Vietnamese, Chamic dialects
Christmas Island English ,Chinese and Malay
Cocos (Keeling) Islands English and Cocos Malay
East Timor Tetun, Portuguese, Mambae, Makasae, Tukudede, Bunak, Galoli, Kemak, Fataluku, Baikeno, other Timorese dialects
Indonesia Indonesian, Acehnese, Batak, Sundanese, Javanese, Sasak, Tetum of Timor, Dayak, Minahasa, Toraja, Buginese, Halmahera, Ambonese, Ceramese, and several Papuanese languages. Chinese dialects like Hokkien, Hakka and Mandarin and Dutch, 583 others.
Laos Lao, Vietnamese, Hmong, Miao, Mien, Dao, Shan, and other Tibeto-Burman derived languages
Malaysia Malay, English, Chinese dialects, Tamil, other Indian languages, various indigenous languages (of the Orang Asli and natives of Sabah and Sarawak).
Myanmar Burmese, English, Shan dialects, Karen dialects, Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese), Mon, Indian languages, hilltribe languages
Philippines Filipino, English, Tagalog, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Ilocano, Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Bicolano, Maranao, Maguindanao, Tausug, Kinaray-a, Chabacano, Lán-lâng-oē (Philippine Hokkien), Chinese, Vietnamese, other Philippine languages and dialects, Spanish and its dialects and creoles, other Chinese dialects, Indian languages, Arabic dialects
Singapore Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil, English, other Chinese dialects, other Indian languages, Arabic dialects.
Thailand Thai, Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Isan, Shan, Lue, Phutai, Khmer, Mon, Mein, Hmong, Karen, Jawi, Malay
Vietnam Vietnamese, Tay, Muong, Russian (dialects), Nung, Hmong, Tai Dam, Japanese, Korean, French (creole), Cham, and others.


The Banaue Rice Terraces in Luzon Island, Philippines.

Rice paddy agriculture has existed in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, ranging across the subregion. Some dramatic examples of these rice paddies populate the Banaue Rice Terraces in the mountains of Northern Luzon in the Philippines, and in Indonesia. Maintenance of these paddies is very labor-intensive. The rice paddies are well-suited to the monsoon climate of the region.

Stilt houses can be found all over Southeast Asia, from Thailand and Laos, to Borneo, to Luzon in the Philippines, to Papua New Guinea.

The chief cultural influences over most of the Southeast Asian peoples (excluding Vietnam) in past two millennia have been from South Asia as evidenced by the forms of writing, such as the Balinese writing shown on split palm leaf called lontar, below:

Balinese writing on palm leaf. Artifacts can be seen in the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois.

The antiquity of this form of writing extends before the invention of paper 100, in China. Note each palm leaf section was only several lines, written longitudinally across the leaf, and bound by twine to the other sections. The outer portion was decorated. The alphabets of Southeast Asia tended to be abugidas, until the arrival of the Europeans, who used words that also ended in consonants, not just vowels. Other forms of official documents, which did not use paper, included Javanese copperplate scrolls. This would have been more durable in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia.

Besides writing and weaponry, such as the distinctive Kris, other metalworking was used for musical instruments; the gamelan instruments consisted of gongs and other tonal, but percussive music. Most of the traditional music is based on a pentatonic scale as per Chinese influences.

Dance in much of Southeast Asia also includes movement of the hands, as well as the feet. Puppetry and shadow plays were also a favoured form of entertainment in past centuries. The Arts and Literature in some of South East Asia is quite influenced by Hinduism brought to them centuries ago. In Indonesia and Malaysia, though they converted to Islam, they retained many forms of Hindu influenced practices, Cultures, Arts and Literature. An example will be the Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppet) and literatures like the Ramayana. This is also true for mainland South East Asia (excluding Vietnam). Dance movements, Hindu gods, Arts were also fused into Thai, Khmer, Laotian and Burmese cultures. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese share many cultural similarities with the Chinese. Examples would be the national costume of Vietnam, Ao Dai influenced by the Qi pao (Cheong Sam) of China the Mahayana form of Buddhism which the Chinese and Vietnamese alike adhere to, architecture, traditional theatre and music, and so on.

The peoples of Southeast Asia were trained to carry burdens on their heads; it was a common sight to see a child balancing a small object like a bowl on her head, in distinction to her mother or aunt balancing a much larger load.

As a rule, the peoples who ate with their fingers were more likely influenced by the culture of India, for example, than the culture of China, where the peoples first ate with chopsticks; tea, as a beverage, can be found across the region. The fish sauces distinctive to the region tend to vary.

The indigenous religious patterns of Southeast Asia were originally animist, then arrived Brahmanic Hinduism, which would then later be replaced by Theravada Buddhism (525). Later influences in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines were from Islam (1400s). The last Hindu court in Indonesia was to retreat to Bali by the later 1400s. Western influence started to emanate across the region in the 1500s with the arrival of the Spanish in Moluccas and the Philippines, with the latter forcibly adopting Christianity.

In Mainland South East Asia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand retained the Theravada form of Buddhism that was brought to them from Sri Lanka and fused Buddhism with Hindu influenced Khmer culture. Countries in South East Asia except the Philippines, also eschewed from Christianity even though Christian missionaries were widespread. However, the Thais absorbed the science and technology from these Christian missionaries from the west so as to resist colonialism. King Mongkut (Rama IV) once remarked to a Christian missionary friend: "What you teach us to do is admirable, but what you teach us to believe is foolish".

The peoples of the South East Asia, especially those of Austronesian descent, have been seafarers for thousands of years, some reaching the island of Madagascar where their descendants live to this day. Their vessels were ocean-worthy well before the explorers from Europe were to reach them. Magellan's voyage records how much more manœuvrable their vessels were, as compared to the European ships.<ref>Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, hardcover 480 pages, ISBN 0-06-621173-5 </ref>

Chinese merchants have followed the winds and currents of the monsoon season across Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Magellan's voyage records that Brunei possessed more cannon than the European ships; it was Chinese engineers who fortified Brunei, before 1521.<ref>Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, hardcover 480 pages, ISBN 0-06-621173-5 </ref>


Architecture in the Srivijayan style.

Solheim and others have shown evidence for a Nusantao (Nusantara) maritime trading network ranging from Vietnam to the rest of the archipelago as early as 5000 BCE to 1 CE)<ref>Solheim, Journal of East Asian Archaeology, 2000, 2:1-2, pp. 273-284(12) </ref>

Historical ties

See also: Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Imperialism in Asia, Indianized kingdom, Japanese foreign policy in Southeast Asia, List of tributaries of Imperial China, and The Ugly American

The Indian Ocean is comparatively more tranquil than the Southern Ocean, which aided the colonization of Madagascar by the Malay people, and the commerce between West Asia and Southeast Asia. The Indian Ocean is far calmer and thus opens to trade earlier than the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. The powerful monsoons also meant ships could easily sail them west early in the season, then wait a few months and return eastwards.

The gold from Sumatra reached as far west as Rome, two thousand years ago. Gold coins were in use on the coasts, but not inland of Sumatra. By the 1500s, European explorers were reaching Southeast Asia from the west Portugal and from the east Spain. A regular trade between the sailing ships east, from the Indian Ocean and south from mainland Asia provided goods in return for natural products such as honey and hornbill beaks from the islands of the archipelago.

A Chinese emperor who wished to maintain ties with Southeast Asia sent a princess, Hang Li Po, with a retinue of 500 to Malacca, to marry its Sultan after he was impressed by the wisdom of King Mansur. Hang Li Po's well (constructed 1459) is now a tourist attraction there, as is Bukit Cina, where her retinue settled. The strategic value of the Strait of Malacca, which was controlled by Sultanate of Malacca in the 15th and early 16th century, did not go unnoticed by Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa, who in 1500 wrote "He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice".

But today strategic value also lies in manufacture of the world's microprocessors, for example, much of which lies in Southeast Asia, and in the shipments of oil in the region.

Ties to Oceania

See also: Austronesia

The Australasian continental plate defines a region adjacent to Southeast Asia, which is also politically separated from the countries of Southeast Asia. But a cultural touch point lies between Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua, which shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea. A considerable colonization effort of Papua is underway.


<references />
  • Tiwari, Rajnish (2003): Post-crisis Exchange Rate Regimes in Southeast Asia, Seminar Paper, University of Hamburg. (PDF)

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