Southeast Asia

History of Southeast Asia

Map of Southeast Asian kingdoms 1100 ADMap of Southeast Asian kingdoms 1100 AD Throughout its history, Southeast Asia has been dominated by a number of powerful, independent kingdoms. In the 1500s European arrived, first as explorers and traders and then as colonists. By the end of the 1800s the entire region apart from Thailand was under European control. This situation continued until 1941, when the Japanese seized the entire region, which it held until its defeat at the end of World War II in 1945. In the decades after the war, the countries of Southeast Asia one by one became independent nations.

A statue of Vishnu, 6th or 7th century ADA statue of Vishnu, 6th or 7th century AD

Funan and Champa

In around 500 BC the first chiefdoms were formed in Southeast Asia. Trade led to the creation of towns and cities and the formation of the first kingdoms, of which Funan, around the Mekong Delta in what is now southern Vietnam, was the earliest in around AD 50. Funan prospered from the trade between India and China and came to dominate the region. 

Ruins of Champa temples at My SonRuins of Champa temples at My Son

In around AD 192 the kingdom of Champa was founded in central Vietnam. Champa took advantage of Chinese weakness to launch raids across the border but its kings were eventually forced to submit to China after 586. The arrival of firstly Buddhism in around 300 and then Hinduism in around 400 led to the formation of small states in the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo as trade routes shifted south from Funan to the Malacca straits.

Battle between Burmese and Thai forcesBattle between Burmese and Thai forces

Kingdoms of Southeast Asia

By 1000 a series of stable kingdoms had emerged in the region, many influenced by Indian culture and religion. China only exerted influence on its direct neighbours. The most powerful was the Khmer Empire of Cambodia, formed in 802. To its north, the Thai had already established the state of Nan Chao while the Burmese set up a kingdom at Pagan in around 850. To the east, the Vietnamese threw off Chinese influence and in 939 formed the independent Dai Vet (Annam). In the 1200s both Nan Chao and Pagan were briefly conquered by the Mongols, while Dai Vet was occupied by the Chinese from 1410 to 1427. 


As the Khmer Empire declined, the Thai established the state of Ayutthaya, known to Europeans as the Kingdom of Siam, in around 1351. It was the forerunner of modern Thailand

The Kudus Mosque, JavaThe Kudus Mosque, Java


Indian merchants brought Islam to the islands of Southeast Asia at the end of the 1200s. The earlier kingdoms were soon swept away, to be replaced by a number of small coastal states. The once powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit on Java was eventually defeated in 1527.

Annam Emperor on his throne of goldAnnam Emperor on his throne of gold

Arrival of Europeans

In the 1500s European navigators began to visit Southeast Asia. 1511 the Portuguese conquered Malacca and developed it as a major trading port. The navigator Ferdinand Magellan, working for the Spanish crown, had visited the Philippines in 1521 but it was not until 1571 that Spanish settlement began around Manila. 

The third European power to arrive were the Dutch, whose Dutch East India Company (VOC) took control of the spice-rich island of Amboina in 1606, Jakarta (renamed Batavia) in 1619, and Malacca, which it seized from the Portuguese, in 1641. The VOC became the greatest commercial power in the islands, although it governed little territory.

On the mainland, powerful states resisted European intervention. After 1500, the Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Laotian and Vietnamese kingdoms all strengthened their positions. The Vietnamese Dai Vet kingdom steadily expanded southward, finally capturing the former Champa kingdom by 1611. In the late 1700s the entire country was united under the Annam Empire.

The Dutch fighting Javanese forces in 1684The Dutch fighting Javanese forces in 1684

The French capture Hanoi, Vietnam, 1873The French capture Hanoi, Vietnam, 1873

European rule

By the 1800s the Spanish had colonized the Philippines and the Dutch gained full control over what is now Indonesia. The Portuguese were restricted to the small island of Timor. French missionaries and traders had been interested in Vietnam since the 1600s but gained more power in the region after a treaty signed with Annam in 1787. In 1858–59 French troops occupied Saigon in southern Vietnam, and quickly took control over the rest of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. 

Plan of the new town of Singapore, 1822Plan of the new town of Singapore, 1822

In 1786 the British purchased the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah in Malaya. In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) founded a major trading port at Singapore, which soon dominated trade in the region. The British gradually took over the rest of the Malay peninsula, later acquiring Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo. After 1826, Burma was acquired to protect the borders of British India.

In 1896 France and Britain agreed that Siam, as Thailand was then called, should remain an independent buffer state between their two empires.

At the end of the 19th century, two colonial latecomers arrived. The Germans seized the northeast of New Guinea, the southeast going first to Britain and then, in 1906, to Australia. In 1898 war between Spain and the USA led to the American occupation of the Philippines. 

Map of Japanese Empire in Southeast AsiaMap of Japanese Empire in Southeast Asia

Japanese invasion

In 1931 Japan began to invade and occupy China. In order to prevent arms and fuel reaching the China from French Indochina, the Japanese invaded it in 1940. A year later the Japanese occupied the entire colony. When World War II broke out in the Pacific in 1941, the Japanese quickly overran the whole of Southeast Asia. 

Many Asian people welcomed the Japanese as liberators from European or colonial American rule. The Japanese set up the Greater Asia Council with representatives from its conquered territories and even granted independence to Burma and the Philippines.

Japanese rule over Southeast Asia came to an end with the Japanese surrender in August 1945, when power was handed back to the former colonial rulers.


 Consultant: Philip Parker

By 1700, Ayutthaya, with a population of around 1 million, may have been the largest city in the world.

Thanks to the negotiation skills of its two 19th century kings, Mongku and his son Chulalongkorn, Siam (modern Thailand) was the only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonized by European powers.

Christopher Columbus was searching for the Vietnamese Champa kingdom (which he called Ciamba) when he set off on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. When he thought he had discovered the goldmines of Champa, he was actually standing in what is now Costa Rica, Central America, 17,400 km (11,000 miles) away.

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