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Filling gaps in my history lessons

13 April 2011

In my country, few people know the histories of Southeast Asia. We do not study the ASEAN countries in school. When I lived and traveled in Malaysia (2004–2005), I discovered that British and Australian schools include this region in the standard curriculum.

America had no colonies in the decades before World War II. When the European sea powers were landing on Southeast Asian shores in the 1600s, my country too was colonized (but with different results).

In the primary grades at school, we studied the American Revolution, with scant attention to the displacement and murder of the indigenous people of North America. The only English king I knew was George III. In high school in the 1970s, I was taught the recent histories of the Soviet Union and China, with an emphasis on the origins and spread of Communism. I was 15 years old in April 1975  when Saigon “fell,” but we never studied Vietnam in history class.

I became hungry to learn more about Southeast Asia’s history when I lived in Malaysia, and since then my interest has spread to include most of the region. I’ve read a lot about Burma, Cambodia, Singapore, and Vietnam — and Malaysia, of course — but less about Brunei, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand — and Indonesia.

A few weeks ago I started to remedy my knowledge deficit. I started with an old copy of Southeast Asia: Past and Present, by D. R. SarDesai. The early chapters (about 80 pages) cover the time before the Europeans started interfering in the region. The picture that emerges includes rich and complicated kingdoms; territorial disputes that echo down to the present day; the importance of ports and seafaring; the interconnectedness of religion and power.

Ancient Empires

Having walked for three days among the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, I have no difficulty imagining extensive civilizations in the tropical jungles of these lands. The Khmer rulers led a united kingdom from 800 C.E.; its decline began some 500 years later but was not complete until 1431. Their achievements in engineering and art rival the cathedrals of Europe.

Little can be said about Malaysia before 1402, when Melaka became an important port and entrepôt. It’s no exaggeration to say the city was a global crossroads, where traders from the Arab world, India and China came together (and later, the Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese). Inscriptions on the Batu Bersurat Terengganu, dated to 1303, show that Islam was already well established on the peninsula by that time.

Srivijaya, a great kingdom centered on southeastern Sumatra, was founded in the 7th century C.E. SarDesai links its origins (like the ascendance of the Khmers) to the fall of the Funan kingdom (a formidable sea power with its capital in what is now Cambodia) in the previous century. Srivijaya also thrived on trade and control of the oceanic trade routes.

Until I began to learn the histories of Southeast Asia, I never appreciated the complexity of these long-ago trading relationships. The narrow Strait of Sunda lies between the southern tip of Sumatra and Java, and it’s one of just two routes from the Indian Ocean to all the islands of Indonesia and, beyond them, to China. The other is, of course, the Strait of Malacca, farther to the north along the eastern coast of Sumatra (the sixth largest island in the world). This is a geography of which I knew nothing before my first trip to Malaysia, in 1995.

Three Great Kingdoms

The Srivijaya port city Palembang was a great center of Buddhist learning in 671 C.E. The Chinese Buddhist monk Yijing (I Ching) stayed there on his journey to India and again on his return trip to China. Srivijaya’s economic power derived from controlling the trade routes with its fleet and also from fees and tariffs charged to all who stopped at its ports. Srivijaya came to an end in 1290.

The Sailendras, based in central Java, conquered territory on the mainland (although they soon lost it), accrued wealth through the sea trade, and developed agriculture to produce great surpluses. The latter enabled them to build extensively (like the Khmers). The Sailendras built the Borobodur (778–824), a great Buddhist monument that SarDesai calls “the best example of Indo–Javanese art.”

A change in religion (to Hinduism) ensued when the Sailendras’ power on Java was usurped by the Mataram rulers (929 C.E.). Hinduism had spread through much of Southeast Asia from 320 to 550 C.E., followed by Buddhism and Islam.

Majahapit (founded in 1292) became “the greatest ever of all the states in insular Southeast Asia, claiming political control over most of the archipelago,” according to SarDesai. The Nagarakertagama, a Javanese epic poem written in 1365, relates the tale of Gajah Mada, who is credited with unifying most of the islands of present-day Indonesia into one kingdom. Hayam Wuruk (Rajasanagara) was only a teenager when he became king, and Gajah Mada, already the prime minister, guided him to greatness. (See Wikipedia for a nice summary of the poem.)

SarDesai calls this a “golden age” when Javanese literature and culture flourished. Yet Majahapit’s greatness was short (75 years); it was “the last great Hindu kingdom of Southeast Asia” (SarDesai). Melaka’s control of the strait, combined with the spread of Islam (propagated by the sultan of Melaka) led to the decline of Majahapit.

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