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Social Anthropology of Southeast Asia

By. Hendra Manurung, M.A

✦ Introduction
– Southeast Asia is a land of large and small peninsulas and
– region is a cultural and political mosaic of diverse peoples
and lands
– influence of India and China on the historical development
of region
◆ Buddhism strongly entrenched in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia,
Laos, Vietnam
◆ Islam strongly entrenched in Indonesia (220 millions) and Malaysia
(around 40 millions), and 80-90% of national population is
◆ Hindu cosmology and beliefs influential in region
Angkor Wat Temple
◆ temples like Ankor Wat (Cambodia) and Prambanan
and Borobodur (Java) reveal Indian influences
◆ Chinese also influential politically and culturally in

Southeast Asia
◆ overseas Chinese are major entrepreneurs in large urban

◆ Thai people pushed out of southern China in 13th C

◆ direct Chinese influence on Vietnam

◆ Vietnam occasionally ruled by China

– influence of colonialism
◆ most states under colonial rule from 19th to 20th C, i.e.
UK (Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia); France
(Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos) Holland (Indonesia);
US (Philippines)
◆ brutal colonial wars for independence
◆ only Thailand (Siam) never colonized by the West

◆ Thai monarchy practiced skillful diplomacy to preserve

their independence
◆ Thailand historically was a buffer between UK and France

✦ Physical regions
– physically, Southeast Asia divided into two major
regions of roughly equal size, i.e. mainland Southeast
Asia and insular Southeast Asia
– mainland Southeast Asia includes Burma, Thailand,
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam
– insular Southeast Asia includes Indonesia,
Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore
– mountain ranges run in north-south direction; difficulty
with east-west transportation and communication
– river valleys for core areas of national states, i.e.
Irrawady River (Rangoon, Mynanmar); Chao Phraya
River(Bangkok, Thailand); Mekong River
( Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City,
Vietnam); Red River, Hanoi/Haiphong, Vietnam)
– rivers very important for internal transportation and
– series of high hills separate Mynanmar from India
– Shan plateau between Mynanmar and Thailand
– Korat plateau in northern Thailand
– cordillera runs from Laos to south Vietnam
– volcanic chain of islands run from western
Mynanmar offshore through Anaman Islands,
Sumatra, Java and the Philippines
– Sunda platform from Sumatra and Malaysia to
island of Kalimantan.
– Sunda Strait and Straits of Malaka crucial to
ocean shipping.
– substantial tanker and container shipping through
these important straits
– deep water trenches off shore, i.e Java Trench
– region of active volcanoes, i.e. Krakatoa, Indonesia
in 1883 and Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines in 1991-92


Sunda Platform

Asia Physical Map Southeast

✦ Climate
– Southeast Asia enjoys substantial rainfall
– mainland Southeast Asia influenced by the monsoon
with summer winds bringing torrential rainfall from
May to October. Rangoon gets 100 includes per year
– cooler weather and less rainfall from November to
early spring. High pressure over Asia with winds
blowing out to sea
– areas near equator receive abundant rainfall all year
✦ Population
– Southeast Asia has a large, expanding population
– in 1965, combined population of all countries was
250 million; by 1993 it increased to 400 million; and
by 2025 it is expected to rise to 550 million
– most countries growing at 2% per year; Thailand and
the Philippines growing at 3%; Cambodia and Laos
have rates close to 1% reflecting ravages or war
– urbanization increasing in all countries though
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam still have less than
20% living in urban areas
– Indonesia and Thailand have 30% of their
populations in urban areas
– Philippines just over 40%; Malaysia 50%
– 100% of the population in Singapore live in the city
– most Southeast Asian states have a high percentage
of their people living in a primate city, i.e. Bangkok,
Thailand; Manila, Philippines, Phnom Penh,
Cambodia, etc.
– migrations from rural areas to cities have strained
governmental budgets, made it difficult to provide
adequate services
✦ Agriculture
– problems of agriculture in Sout East Asia due to
several factors, such as:
◆ erosion of hillside cultivation which washes down large
quantities of silt that end up in delta areas
◆ leeching of soluble minerals especially iron oxide which is

necessary for good plant growth

◆ laterization of soils which makes the soil very hard on the

top layer and spongy when wet

◆ groundwater evaporation exceeds drainage encouraging

growth of grasses that choke plants

– types of agriculture swidden and sawah
– swidden agriculture
◆ also known as shifting cultivation or slash and burn
◆ practiced on grasslands and plateaus (hill farms) where

brush, trees and grass are burned so crops can be planted.

Ash enriches the soil but only briefly
◆ after several years, people must change locations and

repeat the cycle again

◆ variety of crops grown by this method including

pineapples, bananas, fruit trees, dry rice, taro, sweet

potatoes, yams, maize, legumes, and tobacco
◆ ecological knowledge of farmers based on experience

◆ cannot support a large population

– sawah cultivation
◆ also known as wet rice agriculture or paddy agriculture
◆ water dependent agriculture with fields irrigated by

adequate rain or various irrigation projects

◆ terraced rice fields in Java island, Luzon island, and Bali

◆ possible to get 2/3 rice crops per year under good conditions

◆ supplemental vegetables occasionally grown in as

interplanted crops in rice paddy fields, i.e. corn, potatoes,

legumes, sweet potatoes, etc.
◆ use of decomposed manure, night soil or chemical fertilizers

to obtain good yields

◆ use of the water buffaloes to plow fields; small tractors

increasingly replacing water buffaloes

– Plantation agriculture
◆ commercial plantations managed by Europeans but
worked by indigenous labor or imported labor
◆ availability of cheap water transportation downstream

◆ contract labor from India or China common due to

subsistence commitments of indigenous farmers

◆ rubber plantations- Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand

◆ oil palm and coconut plantations- Malaysia,

Philippines, and Indonesia

◆ tea plantations in highlands of Indonesia
✦ Legacy of the Cold War
– states of Southeast Asia drawn into the cold war
from the 50’s through the 70’s
– French Indochina War until 1954
– US hostile to colonialism but aided the French to
reestablish control in French Indochina to prevent
the Communists from coming to power.
– Ho Chi Minh extremely popular, nationalist
patriot and Communist built a movement to expel
the French and obtain independence.
– US picked up the torch and continued war in
Vietnam until 1973 when the costs became too
– insurgencies in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines
– non-aligned governments in Cambodia, Burma, and
– US very hostile towards “neutrals” like Norodom
Sihanouk in Cambodia and Sukarno in Indonesia
– abortive Communist coup in Indonesia results in the
Indonesian military coming to power. Much more
– lack of reform in the Philippines under Ferdinand
Marcos, wide gaps between rich and poor, Filipino
democracy subverted by Marcos, rich established
families controlled politics of country
– communal problems between Chinese and Malays in
Malaysia; ethnic tensions threaten to come unglued
– Sihanouk overthrown by military coup supported by
the US
– popular monarch replaced by unpopular military
– Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge succeed in establishing
brutal communist dictatorship in Cambodia. Mass
murder of educated intellectuals; gross human rights
violations. “Killing Fields”
– Thailand most stable government in region with a
popular king a figurehead and military/civilian
government in charge of country
✦ Economic Development
– several Southeast Asian have made substantial
economic progress since 1960;s
– Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and
Philippines have good economic growth rates with
rising incomes
– Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Vietnam have lagged behind
the rest of the countries of the region.
– recently Vietnam opening the country up to market
forces, foreign investment, development of a thriving
business community.
✦ Thailand
– occupies the heart of mainland Southeast Asia
– formerly known as Siam until 1939; name
Thailand means “land of the free”
– Thailand centered in delta of Chao Praya
(Menam) River
– Bangkok (5.5 mil) is a primate city serves as the
capital and major port for country; Chengmai,
(170K) main city in north
– Korat plateau in northeast Thailand has been
historically depressed, a poor area, inhabited by
hill tribes
– Karens, a hill tribe people, related by Cambodians
and Laotians found in Korat and Northwest
Thailand and Burma;
– southern Thailand near Kra Isthmus inhabited by
– 95% of Thailand’s population practice Buddhism;
most men become monks for a period in their life
– Siam traditionally ruled by strong absolute
monarchs (Anna and the King of Siam by
Margaret Landon adapted for the musical
The King and I)
– in modern period, the Thai king has become the
symbolic head of the government with no power
– King Bhomipol universally revered and loved by the
people; subtle and important influence on the
– Siam was historically a buffer between British and
French colonial rule; preserved their independence by
adroit diplomacy
– WW II, Siam allowed Japanese army to transit the
country, collaborated with the Japanese until the end
of the war a “Free Thai” movement took power,
approached the US for recognition and avoided
retaliation for their collaboration with the Japanese
during WW II
– Golden Triangle in NW was major source of opium
– 6 million Chinese influential in economic affairs,
control much of the economy
– Chinese in Thailand are very assimilated into social
structure unlike Chinese in other SE Asian countries
– guerrilla warfare in 1960’s and 1970’s successfully
suppressed with US economic assistance
– healthy agricultural sector of the economy growing
rice, tropical fruits, seafood for export, canned
– service sectors stimulated by US military presence
during Vietnam War years, especially bars, brothels,
and other forms of “entertainment”
– export based manufacturing doing well
– thriving Thai stock market with publicly traded
– construction boom from 70’s through 90’s
– friendly business environment for investors
– good economic growth of 5-8% per year
– severe ecological problems specially in Bangkok
where canals (klongs) are polluted; car traffic
stifling, traffic jams horrible
– klongs crowed; transport by fast motorized Thai
– Asian economic flu adversely affecting Thailand
with the Thai bhat falling 50% in value
– banking failures, rising unemployment, cut in the
Thai standard of living; hard times today
– IMF mounting a rescue effort to bail Thailand out
of its economic problems
– Thailand is a strong supporter of ASEAN
(Association of Southeast Asian Nations)
– economy should snap back soon and resume its
positive course
– political problems with mild corruption and
ineffective civilian/military leaders
✦ Malaysia
– spatially fragmented state with a dense population
on the western coast and a sparse population in
Sarawak and Sabah
– original Federation of Malaysia included
Singapore, but fears of ethnic domination by
Chinese led to separation of Singapore from the
federation in 1965
– multiethnic population in Malaysia with 60%
ethnic Malays; 30% Chinese; and 10% Indian
– Chinese and Indians disproportionally found in
business and commerce
– Malays control the government of the country
– Penang (Pinang), a Chinese city in West Malaysia
is the Silicon Island of the country with major
investments by large Multi National Corporation’s
like Intel, HP, Sony, Panasonic, Nokia, Samsung,
KIA, etc.
– Malaysian economy traditionally dependent on tin
and rubber plantations; palm oil and copra also
important agricultural products
– area between Penang and Malaka was heartland for
tin and rubber production
– Malaka was major port for British during colonial
period: ideal location in shipping lanes
– Kuala Lumpur (KL) centrally located to serve as
capital and commercial center of country
– KL is a modern city with skyscrapers, luxury
shopping, upscale business, and financial
– tropical hardwoods (especially teak) produced in
Sarawak and Sabah
– Malaysia is an Islamic country, but practices
toleration of other faiths.
– Malaysia has democratic parliamentary form of
government based on British model; fundamental
freedoms of speech, press, assembly protected
– Malaysia has historically been well governed
– Malaysia is a strong supporter of ASEAN
(Association of Southeast Asian Nations) dedicated
to promoting trade among countries of region
– Malaysia has a strong, vibrant economy with
expanding per capita incomes for the people.
✦ Singapore
– Singapore is a distinctive country because it’s a city
state of only 240 sq. miles
– only nation where Chinese constitute a majority of
the population (90% Chinese city)
– throughout colonial period, Singapore functioned as
a major trading entrepot for regional maritime trade
– historically functions as a leading transshipment
and processing center for Malay peninsula and
Dutch East Indies
– in 1990, Singapore surpassed Hong Kong as busiest
container port in world
– island generate substantial manufacturing exports
around the world
– by values most important exports include
machinery and transport equipment; basic
manufactures, such as textile yarn, fabric, iron, and
steel; miscellaneous manufactured articles;
petroleum and petroleum products; and food and
live animals.
– The country's major exports are machinery and
transportation equipment and refined petroleum
– also functions as global maritime center for
financial services, banking, insurance,
communications, consulting services
– serves as a regional center for multinational
corporations dealing with Asia
– assembles high tech products and electronic
– world’s largest producer of data storage units for
major computer firms in US, Japan, and Asia
– politically, Singapore among the most stable
democracies in world with outstanding political
– planning for the 21st century with a computer
network that will connect whole country
– Lee Kuan Yew, PM from 1959-1990 to responsible
for much of Singapore’s success
– Singapore one of the best functioning and cleanest
cities of the world. Even public housing is attractive
– heavy fines for anti-social behavior, no eating on
public transportation, heavy fines for failing to flush
toilets, high taxes to drive a car in central business
– Singapore benefited from fears over Hong Kong’s
return to China.
– per capital income of $26K for Singapore residents
✦ Indonesia
– large archipelago stretching 3,000 miles
– Indonesia one of the world's largest populated states
with over 200 million people
– six major islands constitute state of Indonesia- Java,
Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Maluku, and
Irian Jaya
– smaller islands of Bali and East Timor also
– formerly ruled by the Dutch until 1949 when
Indonesia fought a bloody conflict with the
Netherlands for independence
– national motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in
– diverse population of many cultures, languages,
religions, and ethnic groups
– 87% of the population are Muslims but many are
nominal Muslims
– regional problems have created problems for the
central government, i.e. Outer islands vs. Java and
problem of East Timor, a former Portuguese colonial
taken over militarily by the Indonesian military in
1975-76. Gross human rights violations
– problems of political stability, liberal democracy
through 1959, Guided Democracy under Sukarno,
then New Order Democracy under Suharto
– Suharto former high-ranking general who assumed
power in 1965 after an abortive communist coup
– Suharto opened Indonesia to Western influence and
foreign multinational investment
– oil industry boomed in 1970’s under Pertamina,
Indonesian National Oil Company
– boom in timber industry, Indonesian hardwoods
valuable but with great ecological destruction and
loss of habitat for endangered species like
– host of state-owned or joint stock companies have
produced great economic growth in export
orientated businesses
– major opportunities for corruption and get rich
quick schemes
– Madam Tien Suharto, “Ms. Ten Percent”
– transmigration policies to encourage movement to
outer island
– impact of the Green Revolution on Indonesia rice
farming very positive
– current political and economic problems, the Asian
flu, poor Indonesian reaction to crisis, protests for
political change by students/ intellectuals
– Chinese as the “escape goat” for Indonesian
economic problems
– Political instability in Indonesia today, separatist
movements, Aceh, Maluku, Papua
– Suharto stepped down as President in 1998
– B.J Habibie, a close associate of Suharto took over
reigns of power as a transitional leader
– In the 1999 elections, Abdurrahman Wahid was
elected President of the Republic of Indonesia; in
2002 Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter
elected President; 2005 Susilo Bambang
– Need for political and economic reform
– major economic problems in aftermath of Asian
flu, i.e. runaway inflation, currency devaluation
– continued high unemployment and high foreign
– problems with terrorism in aftermath of Bali
bombings, attack on Marriot Hotel, etc.
– impact on tourism and foreign investment
– December 26, 2005 Tsunami in Banda Aceh