Southeast Asia is probably the most dynamic world region of our time, the beginning of the 21st century. Living conditions for the people here are changing rapidly. Growing economies come together with massive industrialization and all the destructive impacts for the environment. Whole landscapes change, traffic is booming, pollution enormous. As the World Wildlife Funds (WWF) claims, the extinction rate of species is the double amount in Southeast Asia than in the world's average.
The former Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubani, states in his book 'Can Asians think?' that the Asian societies ceased further developing in the 13th century. To understand the societies here, one has to keep that in mind: they are basically societies with medieval mindsets, clashed with the high-tech of the 21st century. In even heftier contrast are the 'hill tribes', who are often still on the stage of neolitic gatherers and hunters, and now encountering the 'values' of cellphones, supermarkets, computers and pickups. The omnipresence of medieval attributes is particularly obvious in Thailand, where one can't walk for a few meters around without seeing spirit houses, Buddhist temples, pictures of clergymen, amulets and a lot of other religious and superstitious symbols around everywhere, and people worshipping it.
No wonder that the verymost people here have absolutely no understanding of what's going on in the contemporary world which is based on economic ideologies, technology and scientific development. They do not understand technology and it's impact on their surroundings at all, the potentials of modern technology and what they mean (or could mean, properly applied) for social advance. They are equipped with all the lifestyle attributes of our time like mobile phones, computers and high-tech cars, but the way they use it is just blunt consumerism. Local people frequently talk about 'playing the internet', if there is a connection. For them it's all just playing and consuming, they don't understand the idea of an information technology.
Another aspect of Southeast Asian life is that the societies are strictly hierachically structured. Additionally, families and kinship play a crucial role. For Westerners, who are in most cases not or not fully aware of it, it's not easy to orientate in the local societies, because they (the Westerners) are mostly out of the classification of the hierarchy, respectively considered outsiders, barbarians or, if they have good political or business connections to upper-class nationals, are considered on the same or almost same status level as their local business partners are.
And that this system doesn't change is guaranteed by the repressive regimes of the world region. All the progressive (democracy- and liberation-) movements in the Southeast Asian countries were beaten down by the military in the 1960s (Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar) or mid 1970s (Thailand). The 'American Vietnam War' hurt Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam deeply. After the civil movements of the 20th century for a change to anything better are bygone, it doesn't look at all that in the foreseeable future anything will change towards a more enlightened society with values beyond business-making, money, status orientation, power, covered by arch-reactionary superstition and religions, nationalism and repressive military dominated regimes.
Additionally the Southeast Asian world region is coming into the focus concerning the antagonism between the yet emerging China and the last remaining superpower USA. It's about geostrategical influences, natural resources and sheer dominance. The yet unexploited oil and gas resources in the South China Sea (e.g. around the Spratley Islands) are another trigger for tensions, for all the neighbouring countries want to gain it, as the USA as well. The military concentration of the US superpower has a clear focus now in the Pacific Ocean of Southeast Asia.
Geography of Southeast Asia
Mainland Southeast Asia is a southern peninsula of the Asian continent and covers the span between east of India, south of China and, continuing over the Malay Archipelago thousands of kilometers to the south and east, stretching until the north of Australia. It includes the mainland countries Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar and west Malaysia as well as the islands of Singapore, Indonesia, east Malaysia, the Philippines, East Timor and Brunei. Southeast Asia is very heterogene in cultures, politics, nature and religions.
The term 'Southeast Asia' was given to the world region in the Second World War by the Western Allies. They called the region so when it was practically completely occupied by Japanese troops.
Since it's situated around the equator, tropical climate is dominating and there are no vegetation breaks as in the northern hemisphere of the planet. The plenty of water brought by the periodic monsoon rains are the base for a great biodiversity which is among the richest in the world.
Between the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok and Borneo and Sulawesi runs a zoogeographic border. This border is the 'Wallace Line', called after Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, who spent some years in the 1850s in the world region, studying the nature. The tropical climate, vegetation and wildlife north of the Wallace Line is altered into a dryer, Polynesian-Australian environment south of it.
Southeast Asia is geographically separated from China and India by mountain chains. In the east it's bordered by the Pacific Ocean, in the south and the west by the Indian Ocean. The most important shipping route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific is the Strait of Malacca. The strait is among the most important trade routes on earth, on which a great part of goods and resources to and from China are passing through.
The biggest Southeast Asian streams are the Mekong River, the Irrawaddy River in Burma/Myanmar and the Chao Praya in Thailand.
The term 'Indochina' was first used by a Danish-French geographer in an 1810 publication. It means all the countries between China and India on the Southeast Asian mainland with cultural and ethnic influences from both sides. In detail Indochina contains the nowadays states Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Malaysian peninsula.
There could be made a long outline of all the different ethnics and customs in Southeast Asia; for a more particular approach you better visit the people section; for a general understanding I want to point out an interesting observation.
Crucial for an understanding of people in any culture is the understanding of human childhood development. A great model provides the concept of cognitive development by Jean Piaget.
Piaget was a 20th century Swiss psychologist. His observations on cognitive development of children describe four levels of learning in detail. In the first three levels a child learns many things starting with the very basics as getting food, gripping things, language and realizing the permanence of objects. The fourth level starts at the age at around 12 years; in this part of development the child learns logical thinking, abstract thinking, anticipation, the ability of thinking about thoughts and making conclusions, a clear sense for cause and effect. It's the level of 'formal-operational intelligence'. These four levels are universal for all people, doesn't matter their local culture. An upper level can only be reached when the preceding levels are successfully passed.
A general observation is that the verymost people in the world don't reach or sufficiently enter level four. They stick on a level of human development more or less below their potentials, doesn't matter how old they are. That concerns a majority of Westerners, but in the 'third world' it's clearly the norm, affecting the vast masses of people and there are very, very few exceptions. Many people literally remain on a childish level of intelligence development, in a state of a ten years old human.
That is very serious, because living in a society with literally retarded people is bad for everybody. Humans are social beings, and our all sake depends on living in a society as sane, civilized and developed (in a human sense) as possible. All the huge problems of our contemporary world can barely be solved by people with a severely minor IQ and retarded morals.
Piaget's theory explains a great deal of the mismanagement, disfunctionality, incompetence, conceptlessness, misbehaviour, short: chaos one sees everywhere in Southeast Asia.
This consideration implicates an explanation for the total failure of the education systems, where the target is to adapt children and adolescents to the existing profit-based society, learning it's wrong values (including justification doctrins as religions, (neo-)liberalism, nationalisms, status thinking), and accepting all the nuisances, annoyances and destructions it is producing. Also being blindly obedient to the authorities and don't question them or, if, only in a tamed manner that it doesn't endanger the existing socialeconomic systems. That is only meaned to perpetuate the existing system, not to improve it.
In this pattern it fits that the people of Southeast Asia are mostly non-readers. All they might read here and then are the newspapers (most of them are on a level as or below the British 'Sun' or the German 'BILD-Zeitung'). Some few read comic books and some few I see with a religious book in their hands. That's already much here...
That explains very much why Southeast Asians lack the ability for anticipation, for abstraction and for planning time. There is no past and no future, the people live in the moment. Whatever they do, they barely ever do anything properly. It's more about how it looks, it's for presentation, not for a purpose, let's say functionality or achieving a target.
It's barely possible to have a deeper conversation about social or scientific themes or to analyze a problem and argue about possible solutions and their pro and cons. Not even about simple technical problems to improve functionality of usable devices of all-day life.
Adequately low is the sense for humour. Humour is always laughing on the cost of others - if someone slips out on a banana, that's a good laughter, but irony or deeper implications as contradictions are no cause to laugh; usually they remain not understood. Good humour requires intelligence. Behaviour here consists very much of role-play and disguise. In this view life is extradicted to fate, things come as they have to, we have no influence on them.
Certainly thousands of years of tyranny left it's traces. It was never advisable here to show intelligent behaviour and capabilities (the ruling classes excepted), particularly not to be smarter than a superior. The cultures here are not focused on trouble shooting and inventions (see also what Simon de la Loubere wrote about the Siamese of the 17th century). Over centuries there was no scientific or technical progress, before Westerners brought it to here from outside, as an alien concept.
It's here mostly about being formally nice to others, particularly to respect and obey to authorities. The best and intelligent people were over ages either adapted to the ruling feudal system or exploited, abused, neglected, oppressed or killed. Social and scientific progess didn't happen here, the societies didn't chance since the middle ages.
The situation didn't change in the time of western colonialism and post-colonialism. All the states in Southeast Asia remained authoritarian, later it even went in some countries from bad to worse. In Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia the people suffered mass murder under most brutal regimes, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia again suffered immensely under the two respectively three Indochina Wars. The few tender developments into a better development in the years after the Second World War failed, particularly thwarted because of western support of local dictatorships. The result are contemporary people with an affecting low education and IQ, unable to improve their societies, to take control over their lifes. In the focus of interest are business, gambling, fun (drinking, karaoke, consumption, possession, prostitution etc.), backed by superstition/religion. The total destruction of the natural environment is generally not much considered as a problem.
Their disposition makes the people of Southeast Asia distinct marketing personalities when it comes to business. And business is everywhere and everything.
See also 'Pleasure Spots', a revealing essay by George Orwell on the leisure taste of modern man.
The History of Southeast Asia
The earth as we know it is a fragile and dynamic multitude of systems. It looks half-way stable, for the timespan of a human life is relatively very short compared to that of geological timespans. The continents are in permanent shift. In the Indian Ocean, for example, the Eurasian geological plate is pressing on the Australian plate with a speed of approximately 10cm per year. Over the years tension grows and this is relieved in occasional breaks. The sea ground then literally does a jump. The 2004 tsunami desaster was caused by such a break. The border between the plates are part of the Indo-Pacific Ring of Fire. In long term, the continents alter their appearance considerably.
In the early mesozoic era, about 250 million years ago, the surface of the earth looked completely different. The average temperatures were higher than they are now, the sea level was higher than it is today and there were no ice caps covering the poles. There was basically only one big continent, apart from a few far smaller islands. This continent was Pangea. It was also the time when the first dinosaurs appeared. They divided in many different species, some of them small as mice, others large as buildings.
Although the history of civilizations in Southeast Asia is shorter than that in China, India or the Near- and Middle East, there is a considerable pre-history. Hominids left Africa in several waves and went to Europe and Asia. In former times, say one or two million years ago, the sea level was lower than it is today and the geology was still different. First hominid immigrants as Homo erectus could walk along the Malay Peninsula and continue to Sumatra and Java (see also: 'The Wallace Line'). Around today Sangiran in Java were traces of long-time presence of Homo erectus found in a greater landscape. These pre-humans lived there between 1.5 million years ago to about 300,000 years ago. The Homo Erectus at Sangiran became world famous as the 'Java Man'.
Another example for pre-humans in Indonesia is the 'Flores Man' Homo Floresiensis, also called the 'Hobbit' for his small body size, who lived on the island of the same name in the Indonesian Archipelago.
The oldest traces of Homo sapiens in Southeast Asia might have been found on the at nowadays Krabi in south Thailand. The caves of Lang Rongrien were home for people about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago.
Another witness of Homo sapiens are the cave paintings of Phu Phrabat in Nong Khai Province on the Khorat Plateau (see: 'Isan'). They are dated back between 3,000 and 6,000 years.
The transition of nomadic living people and sedentary people is documented at Ban Chiang Archaeological Site. At at least 1,500 BCE people settled down in the north of the Khorat Plateau (see: 'Pre-History of Isan') and started wet-rice cultivation, textile and pottery production and made the first bronze tools. The site was inhabited for at least 3,500 years until iron age in the 3rd century CE. Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is the most significant pre-historical site in Southeast Asia.
The Rise of City States
Southeast Asian history is coined by city states, who controlled territory around the town's core. Often these cities formed more or less loose alliances, by marriages and other family bonds of the ruling classes. These cities also competed with each other and partially conquered other cities and made them tributaries. A full incorporation into the victorious city state was always difficult, if not impossible. It was always so that tributaries tried to gain back independence, if possible even to turn the leave and gain the upper hand in conquering the former superior.
The establishment of civilizations was done by dynasties with most powerful godkings as their ruling representatives. These despotic rulers were in command of the workforce which was used to establish hydraulic civilizations who could grew much bigger than less organized communities. The workforce was first employed for irrigation purposes, the construction of greater canal systems who not only allowed a much larger food production, but was also used as a mean of flood control and later as a transport system. The experiences made in the canal constructions were then, consequently, used to build city walls and then temples, of who some became very sophisticated and large. The temples and the celebrations of a state religion served the legitimation purposes for the ruling class, who was declared divine and insofar being above the common people.
The large surplus in food production was used to feed the part of the workforce who didn't produce food anymore, and later, more and more to feed a growing army. The army was not only a force to protect the city but also to expand the state power. Victorious armees brought slaves from neighbouring civilizations as well as simple, nomadic living populations as an additional workforce; the slaves were employed for the heaviest, unhealthiest work. The classic examples for hydraulic civilizations are the very first civilizations in world's history, those in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and at the Yangze River. Early examples in Southeast Asia are Funan and the Dvaravati Culture. Angkor is a classical hydraulic civilization, a typical example of an Oriental despoty, although a historical late-comer in the early 9th century CE. Siam/Thailand, including the historical line from Sukothai to Bangkok, follows very much the Angkorean example, particularly after Ayutthaya conquered Angkor Thom and took over much of Angkor's system of state administration (see also: Karl A. Wittfogel - Oriental Despotism - A Comparative Study of Total Power).
However, the city was always the primary center of the state, and all the territories and tributaries, even when the state grew very big, remained periphery. All the political activities, the wealth and the glory of the state concentrated in the capital. This pattern shines through until today. Bangkok for example is not only by distance the biggest city in Thailand (for times it was 40 times as big as Chiang Mai, the second biggest city in the country), it's the economic and political center of the state and represents the state much more than any other place. That is a similar thing in other Southeast Asian countries like Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Jakarta in Indonesia. In Indonesia it's an apparent pattern that the center, Jakarta / Java, is in the role of a colonial power over the periphery, here the about 18,000 islands of the Indonesian Archipelago.
Civilizations in Southeast Asia don't date back as long as in Europe, China or India. The first civilized people came presumably from India into the region. The first civilization and a center of Hinduism was the kingdom of Funan in the time between roughly 0 - 550 CE, situated in the Mekong Delta.
It's two successors were the empires of sea and land Chenla, also in the Mekong Delta. West of the Mekong River, in three areas on nowadays Thailand, arous the Mon civilization of the Dvaravati Culture. Srivijaya on Sumatra was another early empire. The third generation of empires were the Khmer kingdom of Angkor and the kingdom of the Champa. From about 760 CE on the great temple complex of Borobodur on Java was built, one of the most significant cultural centers in Southeast Asia. Only a few decades later another great Javanese culture erected the Hindu temple complexes of Prambanan, some 80km away from Borobodur. Most legendary was the empire of Angkor, which ruled for centuries over the most of Indochina and coined the succeeding states and cultures of the world region until today. The Angkorean period can be seen as a classical era of Indochina.
At about 800 CE Tai (Thai) tribes entered the world region, coming from the mountainous regions in the south of China. They first encountered the Mon people (Hariphunchai, nowadays Lamphun), who represented a then still higher developed culture with Indian roots. The Thai derived their script initially from those of the Mon and Khmer people. The Tai founded a number of city states; from 1238 on the double-kingdom of Sukothai and Si Satchanalai became a significant political and economic center.
Tai (Thai) people and others from the south of China were forced to migrate southwards under the pressure of advancing Mongol armies in the 13th century (Kublai Khan), what led to the blend of newcoming people with Chinese roots and those already established with Indian roots in Southeast Asia.
The long-lasting, guerilla-tactic resistance of the northern Tai kingdom of Lanna against the Mongolian invaders preserved Indochina from the conquest by the Mongols.
From the mid 14th century on the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya gained power and won the long lasting conflicts obout domination against the Khmer empire. In 1431 CE Siamese troops from Ayutthaya sacked Angkor Thom; Ayutthaya became the predominant power on mainland Southeast Asia.
The first Burmese empire was founded at 1044 CE; it's capital was Bagan (also: Pagan).
Vietnam was from the 2nd until the 10th century a Chinese protectorate. It gained independence in the 10th century and conquered the territories of it's southern neighbour and rival, the Champa empire (nowadays south Vietnam) in the mid 11th century.
From the 15th century on Arabic, Persian and Indian merchands converted a significant number of Malays to Islam. The Muslim dominated city of Malacca outdistanced then in importance the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit on Java Island.
The first European seafarers who arrived in Southeast Asia were from Portugal. Where Columbus failed to find the seaway to India, the Portuguese discovered the route to India first, surrounding Africa (1487/88) and following all the coastlines along to Persia and India, where they captured Goa as a base. From there they went on to Siam and further to Malaysia. The Portuguese established trade relations with the Siamese in Ayutthaya in 1509 CE, where they founded a first European settlement in Southeast Asia.
The Portugueses intention was to break the monopoly of spices, which was exclusively in the hands of Italian merchants from Venice in this time. Malacca, at the western coast of the , was the hub for the spice trade in Southeast Asia. After first negotiations failed and it came to violent incidents, the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, which became the first European colony in this world region.
But the Portuguese were not without competition. Soon later the Dutch appeared, settled themselves first in Siam and later conquered Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641. The Dutch founded the first big colonial empire in the region, spreading out to nowadays Indonesia. The Dutch United East-India Company (VOC) with it's headquarters in Batavia (Jakarta) controlled the spice trade in the world region for centuries. The VOC rule was replaced when the Dutch state took over the bankrupt private company in the year 1800.
At the other end of Southeast Asia the Spaniards appeared, conquered the Philippines (Manila 1571) and called the big island group after their king Philip II of Spain.
The British could arrange agreements with some sultanates and establish their early posts first in Georgetown on Penang Island in 1786, in small parts of Indonesia (Bencoolen on Sumatra), and Singapore (founded in 1819 by Stamford Raffles), and later Malacca and Pangkor. The British competed mostly with the Dutch from now on and came to an agreement with them in the British-Dutch treaty of 1824. They divided their influancial areas into 'British-Malaya' and the 'Dutch-East-Indies', who are nowadays Indonesia.
The British empire extended it's colonies by fully conquering Burma in the late 19th century, after long lasting military interventions.
The French empire, after it failed to colonize Siam in the late 17th century, appeared again as a land-hungry empire and conquered the territories of what is nowadays Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from the 1860's on. They called their new possessions 'French Indochina'. The USA took the Philippines over from the Spaniards in the American-Spanish War of 1898.
Siam/Thailand is the only country in the region which didn't fall under colonial rule. Nevertheless it lost a great deal of the territories it conquered in the earlier decades of the 19th century. Also it had to made huge concessions to the western powers, particularly Britain and, after the 'Pak Nam incident' (1893), also to France.
It wasn't before the end of the 19th century until the European colonial rule stretched over almost all of Southeast Asia (with the exception of Siam, as mentioned). Parts of the islands or mountainous areas were difficult to control and often not of great value.
In the late 19th century the Southeast Asian economies changed dramatically. The Europeans first came here for gaining spices and wood and other tropical merchandises, but with the ongoing industrial revolution in Europe tin and rubber became profitable. When it was proofed that rubber would grow perfectly in Southeast Asia, a great deal of tropical rainforest was cut and made arable land and changed into growing rubber plantations. The era of cash-crop production for the world market begun. Additionally the tin mines in west Malaya grew considerably in importance.
An important chapter of Southeast Asias history is the migration which followed the economic development in the world region. The colonial powers brought many foreigners into the colonies. First, the Westerners were themselves foreigners, but for their economic purposes they brought also millions of Asians from other parts of the huge Asian continent. Most prominent are the many Chinese who were brought by a great deal by the colonialists to serve in the new industries as agricultural workers, construction workers, coolies or filling in positions nobody else could. The success of parts of the Chinese communities in business results of their excellent business contacts and networks all over east Asia.
Particularly in British Malaya and Burma a considerable number of Indians were brought as workers, servants and so on. Still nowadays some 15% of the Malaysian population has Indian roots.
The First World War didn't show much direct impact on Southeast Asia. The only martial incident was probably the appearance of a single German battleship, the SMS Emden, in the harbor of Penang, where it sunk a French and a Russian ship and disappeared quickly into the vastnesses of the Indian Ocean. Siam sent some 1,400 troops to the Western Front in France, to keep the demanding colonial powers in good mood.
Though, after the exhausting big war all the European powers were weakened. The time of colonial expansion was over, the pressure on Siam/Thailand ceased clearly. Also the great depression had impact on the new plantation industries in the world region, for demand decreased sharply and brought unemployment, a new phenomenon, over the people here.
Nevertheless the European colonialists were still absolutely confident about the justification of their rule and it's stability. The general governor of the Dutch Indies, de Jonge, made a representative statement in the 1930s, in which he claimed that the Dutch rule would continue for another at least 300 years.
That stood in sharp contrast to the course of the Second World War, when Japanese troops invaded the whole of Southeast Asia in early 1942 and wiped all the colonial governments out within a timespan of less than six month. Particularly the Dutch never recovered their rule from the defeat, as well as the French failed to reestablish in 'French Indochina', and also the days of British rule were counted.
For the upcoming independend movements with nationalistic, communistic and partially islamic doctrins in the different countries of the region it was very encouraging to see that the western rulers were beaten by an Asian power. Unfortunately the Japanese rule wasn't any better, on the contrary, in many cases much more brutal. The Japanese didn't intend to free the colonialized nations; it was just a change of the colonial master.
After the defeat of the Japanese in mid 1945 some Southeast Asian regions claimed national independence. It was the time of the dirty wars of (former) colonial powers who came back and wouldn't accept the loss of 'their' colonies. Namely France and the Netherlands lead dirty wars in Indochina and Indonesia, not realizing that their time was over. They both lost eventually, but made millions of people deeply suffering and left the countries of their desire in a bad state.
The British maintained their rule a few years longer as a colonial power and retreated from their colonies between 1948 (India inclusive Burma) and 1957 (Singapore and Malaysia). They managed it much smoother and it didn't come to war.
A notable footnote of this section of history is that the first Europeans who established a colony in Southeast Asia, the Portuguese, were also the last who left. East Timor gained independence in 1975 from Portugal. But, it was doomed by an immediate invasion of Indonesian military forces who commited a bloody genocide in this part of the remote island.
In the years after the Second World War the Southeast Asian countries gained formal independence. Nevertheless, there was and still is much influence of the former colonial powers. Above all the USA became from 1945 on the hegemonial power over the world region. They made particularly Thailand, which was formally one of the losers of the Second World War (being allied with Japan), their regional vassal and full-treaty ally, investing a great deal of money in the Thai infrastructure, it's military and police to make it strong and useful as a base against communist activities and influences in the region.
The American intervention led directly into the desaster of the Second Vietnam War which devastated the three countries Vietnam, Laos and, together with it's after-effects, mostly Cambodia. The American Vietnam War was the most significant event in the postcolonial time and shows that western imperialism was and is still ongoing. Thailand was the big winner of the Vietnam War. Being on the American side and getting so much investment from the USA brought the country the means for a continuous modern development.
After the withdrawal of American business investments from Thailand in the second half of the 1970s, American investment was replaced by big Japanese investments, continuing the emerge of Thailand as one of the Asian 'tiger' economies.
Indonesia was a non-aligned state under president Sukarno. After the USA initiated coup d'état and the establishment of general Suharto as president in 1965, Indonesia suffered a severe fate. Millions of Indonesians were killed for political reasons, the dictatorship lasted 33 years and it's aftermath is still not over. In Indonesia the same networks of power who worked in the dictatorship are still intact in the new democracy.
All the ten Southeast Asian states try to substitute imports by own production as a fundament for national independence.
In the 1980s the Southeast Asian states developed institutions for economic integration as the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, founded 1967, all ten states are members with the exception of the newest, 11th state East Timor), and the AFTA (the ASEAN Free Trade Area, signed 1992). Since the 1990s all the ASEAN member states are free-market-economies and export orientated. After the Asian crisis of 1997 the regional integration was expanded by the ASEAN+3, means plus China, Japan and South Korea. The ASEAN are considered the most successful regional partnership after the European Union. It is planned to develop it to an Asian Community with economic, military and cultural competences. Even a common currency was under discussion, but rejected after the euro crisis in 2010 became apparent.
Contemporary Southeast Asia
Since China's emerge as a strong economic power it gaines more and more influence in Southeast Asia and is competing with the US hegemony in the world region. In fact one can speak of a new 'cold war' between the two big powers.
The conflict between China and the USA is reflected by a struggle of influence over all the local countries, but also crucially focussed on remote, uninhabited places in the South China Sea. Around the Spratley Islands, north of Borneo, are big offshore oil resources. All the neighbouring countries claim it their national property. A considerable military presence of Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Philippinian and US troops are placed on the uninhabited rocks already. China tries to break off the US dominance here and it's manyfold partnerships with the littoral states. From time to time military manoeuvres are undertaken here, for example when the US navy together with Philippinian troops exercise to 'free' an island. When talking about a hypocethetical World War III scenario, here could be a starting point in the future.
Laos is very much under the economic dominance of China, which finances many big infrastructure projects as roads and power plants. Also Vietnam and since the recent years Thailand (for example engaged in the Sanyabury dam) have strong influence on the poor, weak, landlocked and still under the aftermath of the American shellfire in the Vietnam War suffering little Laos.
Burma, for a long time a very isolated country, ruled by one of the most oppressive military governments in the world, was for a long time backed by China against political and economic pressure from the USA and the European Community. Since 2011 there is a certain change to notice. It seems that the military junta tries to play out now Chinese and Western business interests against each other in their country, profiting from giving concessions to the highest bidder. The western conditions are some 'democratic' reforms and it seems they were some, step by step, on the way. Burmas very famous 'first lady' Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be a trojan horse for western interests. Under the cover of democracy and human rights the business interests of the big global corporations are promoted. Meanwhile, in early 2015, the 'democratization process' is already a lame duck. We will see the further development. Though, it's rather expectable that democratization might remove some repression from the people, but it will certainly remain an authoritarian system and leave the mass of the people in poverty.
Cambodia is a weak state and a playground for international big business. Cheapest labour and little or no regulations for big companies makes it a profitable place to exploit human labour. Again and again there are articles in the news reporting about the bad conditions in Cambodias textile industries. The aftermath of the Khmer Roughe terror and long decades of war are still coining the country deeply. Ostensible a democracy it's in fact a disguised one-party dictatorship. There is pressure from an emerging opposition, though, and the future might bring change. Besides Cambodia is a hub for a great number of obscure NGO's with dubious intentions.
Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are by far the richest countries in the world region. Indonesia, far behind them, was for some years concidered a strong rising economy. But in 2014 Indonesia's economic growth spluttered already, because of the lack of qualified workers and specialists, the flawfull infrastructure and the rampant corruption. Nevertheless, whole Southeast Asia represents an emerging economic region, but, as always in capitalism, some, very few profit and others, the majority, remains very, very poor.
In verymost of history the urban space was very small, little dots in the hostile landscapes, encircled by protecting walls and moats, whereas the outer space, most of it untouched nature, was gigantic. From the 19th century on, particularly in the 20th century, cities started to grow rapidly. This growth continues exponentially in the 21st century. In 2006 the United Nations announced that from this year on worldwide more people live in cities than in the countryside - for the first time in human history. The cities have since long become cancer, which unhindered and in greatest scale gorge into all directions. The contrast between city and country, which was huge over all times, when the cities were the exclusive centers of civilization, culture, and also repression, this contrast disappears rapidly. All nature, all countryside get's urbanized. The artificial, urbanized space becomes the exclusive living space for the vast majority of people.
Urbanization means the replacement of nature by artificially created landscapes, all-too-often by asphalt and concrete. It comes with many people, traffic, din, commerce, fuss and bustle. In recent years also the traffic changed. Walking or driving a bicycle is obsolete. Anyone wants to drive at least a motorbike, better an overdimensioned pickup truck. That filles the streets with din, fume and an increasing danger. A quiet, relaxed life is no more possible. The modern traffic alone consumes an enormous space; think alone of the highway architecture all around. This is merely designed for cars, not for any living being. (See also: Traffic in Thailand)
The Cities of Southeast Asia are all ugly and dirty, most of them completely faceless. The few ones who were once different, like Phnom Penh, once a little Paris and seen as the most beautiful city in Asia, Georgetown, Ayutthaya, Luang Prabang or colonial Pakse and Kampot, get destroyed by the replacement of new, ugly concrete monsters at the place of the old, better buildings, or are at least drown in a traffic desaster which robbs any place it's soul and culture.
Besides, the new, rapidly growing cities are in all their manner of the lowest quality. Often the roofs leak, the walls are thin, the windows and doors ill-isolated, the electronic installations bad and weak and often misfunctional, what is the same with the ever annoying plumbing. These new buildings, de facto the whole new cities, are brandnew rubbish, merely built for quick profit, never for the sake of the inhabitants. They are also eternal building sites, for a construction is not yet ready (they never get ready, everything is left unfinished in Southeast Asia), they get already converted or extended. One can never escape the din of building sites in the contemporary cities, for it's omnipresence.
It makes therefore little difference in which country the booming desaster happens. All of the different countries have their own kind of building industries respectively building style. In Thailand it's a depressing egg-carton style of naked concrete, in Cambodia it's kind of a neo-baroque (better: a cheap imitation of it), in Malaysia it's a monstrous uniformity as if the terraced houses were barracks.
It's also obvious, that the modern places are all of a naked mercantile character. It's all about profit and business in these cities. Any culture, any space for humans or other living beings, for education, for relaxation, for contemplation is minimized or completely hammered down by commerce. Wherever one goes, one has to pay for the right to be there. Among the very few left exceptions are the big parks in Thailand's cities, who are always a green lung in all the business and pollution.
In contemporary Southeast Asia are almost 600 million people living, and they generate together an economic performance of 1,6 trillion Euros anually, more than India with it's 1.2 billion inhabitants.
The contemporary economic transformation in Southeast Asia is accompanied by the expansion of financial markets, consumer credits, textile-, computer- and car-industries, the extension of plantation economy, land grabbing, tourist industries, the destruction of the natural surrounding like the tropical rainforest and the commercialization of everything in life. Peasants who lose their land to big investors rush on the labour markets. They are forced into precarious and bad payed jobs. There is also no education provided for them to qualify themselves anyhow. Hire and fire rules.
Out of the 280 million workers in Southeast Asia are 180 million (65%) precariously employed: time limited, as freelancers or family members who help at work for free. Over 50% of the workers get less than 2 US dollars per day and are therefore living in absolute poverty by UN definition. Additionally there are millions of unemployed who do informal work but never appear in any statistic.
These bad working conditions come together with anti labour union policies and laws. Governments, state institutions and state politics favour big money, big companies, 'global players', at the expense of the people.
Besides, there are hidden, illegal markets and businesses who generate an enormous amount of money. Human trafficking is a huge hidden industry in the world region. Millions of people, mostly young girls or women are sold into sex slavery, particularly in Thailand and Cambodia. Arms smuggling, oil smuggling, illegal gambling, drugs and other illegal businesses come together with the omnipresent corruption in all the countries here.
Particularly apparent for a traveller are the massive building activities. Whole landscapes disappear under covers of concrete and asphalt. Building sites of grand style are to see everywhere: the great megadam near Sanyabury is only one of the most significant projects among many others who change the whole Mekong River catchment area as many bridge projects, a Mekong port at Chiang Saen, a deep-sea port at Kampot, power plants, great road construction, the remake of whole cities, the creation of completely new cities as in Bokor National Park in Cambodia, big super markets and shopping centers and much, much more is everywhere under construction.
Parallel to the big building activities the construction of private houses and small businesses as guesthouses, hotels, shops etc. is going on. Wherever one goes, it's therefore pretty noisy. And the technical quality of the constructions is pretty lousy.
There are all the world religions represented in Southeast Asia, including a Jewish community in Bangkok. Though, Judaism must be by distance the smallest of them.
The biggest are (Theravada-) Buddhism on the Indochinese mainland in Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, and Islam in the southern part of the world region. Christianity (catholicism) is predominant on the Philippines and East Timor, but there are many Christian communities all over the Southeast Asian countries. Many Chinese in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are Christians. Some of the hill people like the Hmong have been christianized by American missionaries.
Hinduism is the predominant religion on Bali and was it in the ancient empires of Angkor and the Champa state (nowadays south Vietnam). There is a bigger Indian minority in Malaysia who follows Hinduism.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are mostly Muslim countries. Although there are Muslims living in the south of Thailand, the south of the Philippines and west Burma, 95% of the Muslim population in Southeast Asia lives in Malaysia and Indonesia. The tropical Islam here was in the past much more moderate than the Islam in the Arabic states, with the exception of Aceh on Sumatra, where the Muslims were always really strict and the contemporary law is based on the Islamic sharia. Since the comeback of the Islam (due to the decline of progressive social ideas) and political and social oppression, Islamic fundamentalists gain more supporters. Islam in Indonesia is strongly on the rise. There are religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia and a heavy conflict (politically inflicted) in the South of Thailand.
Here and there one finds Taoist or Konfucian temples and communities, particularly in Malaysia, run by Chinese.
A Word on Religion
Religions play an important role for Southeast Asians. There are really a lot of different religions here. Not only the major world religions alone, but they split up into many particular sub-religions and sects. It's to consider that there are some 2,000 Christian sects in the world, and every sect claims that they alone know the holy truth about god, the bible and what's right and what's wrong. The problem is, that if one is right, all the others must be wrong. And what's their point? One has to believe, that's the only point. Not very convincing. But, that's only Christianity. What about all the other religions? Is there one right one among them and all the others are wrong? Or is it possible, that some of them are right, and others wrong? Or are all of them right?
Well, I am personally happy that I am from a part of the world where religion does not play an important role anymore and everybody can speak out freely about his ideas about it. In my opinion religions are completely outdated doctrines, in what for a coat they ever might appear. But in Southeast Asia the masses of the people stick to religion like medieval people in the western world did centuries before. What they lack in education, reason, skills and control over their lives, they compensate with religion. Cold comfort for the afterlife. In again my humble opinion they will never even realize that their hopes are futile. All our life is based on our central nervous system. When our brain extincts it's just all over... no trouble anymore, so to say. Buddhist's don't need to go the detour over thousands of lifes full of suffering to reach nirvana (nothing). Muslims won't reach the seventh heaven being rewarded with 73 virgins after dying in a holy war. They'll be just dead and bygone. What really counts is our only live in the present.
Verymost of the religious depictions, promises and explanations are on the intellectual level of Mickey Mouse cartoons. They are unbelievable and don't make sense.
There are two big religions in Southeast Asia. The majority of the continental Indochinese people are Buddhists. That's defenitely the easiest world religion. It's good for anything. One can barely do a mistake - Buddhism is extremely flexible.
I personally very much appreciate at least that never ever a Buddhist tried to convert me.
A bit different is the situation with Muslims. Being born as a Muslim means being obliged being a Muslim until death. The constitution of Malaysia for example grants the freedom of religion, but that's only paperstuff. In fact, and there are many and recent examples of that, Muslims have a hell of a trouble when they want to change their religion or even get free of any religion. Only the best and bravest of the Muslim-born people dare that, and they frequently suffer an incredible amount of trouble and restrictions. The situation seems to be even worse in neighbouring Indonesia, where being free of religion is declared a criminal offence by the constitution. The state as a crony of organized religion.
Christians were not any better in the past, but the christian doctrine lost power due to secularisation in the western world. The Christians in Southeast Asia (mostly Chinese) seem to me representing a 19th century pre-Darwin style of Christianity, sticking to creationism. I heared some mocking about the theory of evolution from their side. That's really poor, one and a half centuries after Darwins 'The origin of species' (1859) and all the scientific developments and evidences following. Ignoring all that, well, what did they learn in their lives?
The other, minor religions are not any better, but I don't want to go more in detail here. I don't see that religions in general anyhow contributes to any improvement of the contemporary society. They are thousands of years old, but failed to solve the problems of human suffering. They offer no solutions for the contemporary global problems of mankind, particularly when they are only fixed on the target of personal wealth. Religions are very compatible with business and were always highly commercialized.
Not to mention all the violent implications of religions.
So, I feel always quite pity when I meet people who stick so much to a believe which is based on mere imagination. In the European middle-ages the clergy tried over a thousand years to prove the existence of a god. They failed. There is no compelling evidence of a god, gods, daemons, spirits, an afterlife or hell respectively heaven.
The people who claim so much there would be a god or ghosts or spirits, remember me always to the story which Carl Sagan described in his book 'The Daemon haunted World'. Carl Sagan claims he would have a dragon in his garage, and no argument can convince him any better, for he is step by step withdrawing to unprovable claims.
The best what mankind nowadays has is scientific method and it's reasonable application for the sake of the people. Scientific method is a very powerful tool which has the potentials to solve all major problems of humanity nowadays. Though, it's not used in this meaning; in the capitalist world it's all about making two dollars out of one, and that's a highly abusive way to deal with it.
It also seems to me that the world in the global crisis of late capitalism turns back to these long outdated religious ideologies. It's clearly to see that e.g. in the western world nationalism and religious orientations gain influence back which they lost in the 1960s and 1970s considerably. That's not better in Southeast Asia. An article which was published recently in the 'Jakarta Post' illustrates that exemplarily: On Religion and Science in Indonesia.
A Buddhist Congregation
A poster of a Buddhist congregation, seen in Nan, Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2010