10 Southeast Asian Kingdoms You Need to Know About

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This week’s Historiat post, on the armistice that ended the Vietnam War, reminded your correspondent of the complicated and long-rooted history of violence and geopolitical intrigue that lays at the heart of Southeast Asia.

Hemmed in by India to the west, Australia to the south, China to the north, and the mighty Pacific Ocean to the east, southeast Asia has played gracious host to most of the world’s major religions, which have all hungrily traversed Southeast Asia in search of souls, merchant networks, and power; it has also seen experiments in every major and minor form of government known to man.

The French experience in Vietnam was short lived; the American one even shorter. In most ways the European imperialists simply grafted their colonies onto existing power structures in Southeast Asia and hoped for the best. The French in Indochina. like the British in Burma or the Dutch in Java, stumbled into their roles as colonial powers in Southeast Asia, in large part as a result of the complex history of the region.

Today, leftists and none too few libertarians like to blame Western imperialism for the problems that confront the world, but the colonies claimed by Europeans in the latter half of the 19th  century had more to do with local histories than European imperialism. And the power relations between countries in Southeast Asia today have more to do with the same local histories than does the short-term imposition of European rule there. Here are 10 now-defunct polities that continue to shape the region of the world known as Southeast Asia:

10. The kingdoms of the Champa (875-1832). A Hindu kingdom in what is now southern Vietnam, it wouldn’t quite be correct to call Champa a predecessor of the failed attempt at making a country out of South Vietnam. The Champa polities waxed and waned over the 1,000-year period they dominated southern Vietnam, but finally succumbed to a rival polity in 1832. The brutal wars of conquest forced many Champa to flee into what is now Cambodia. Today, the surviving culture of the Champa is one of only two societies in Southeast Asia to retain its Hinduism (the other being the famous tourist spot Bali in Indonesia).

9. Rajahnate of Butuan (~1001-1756). The rajahnate of Butuan first appeared in Chinese records in 1001, but Butuan could have been around for a lot longer than that. Like the Champa, Butuan was a Hindu-dominated polity, a testament to the power of Hinduism and Indic culture in Southeast Asia. While Chinese influence was an important aspect of life in Southeast Asia, and Islam came to wield quite an influence of its own during the medieval period, Hinduism and India was the first global power in the region. (Here is a great academic articleon Indic civilization in southeast Asia by Monica Smith, one of my professors at UCLA.) The Philippines in the pre-colonial era were dominated by political units called “barangays,” which were far more decentralized than other polities in Southeast Asia, due to the fact that the Philippines is a large archipelago. The history of pre-colonial polities in the Philippines is also somewhat obscured due to the Spanish conquest of the archipelago. Unlike the rest of southeast Asia, which haphazardly came under control of Europe’s imperial powers only in the mid-19th century, after centuries of mostly equal relations, the Philippines was brutally conquered by the Spanish state in the name of Empire and Christianity.

8. Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1351-1767). Known as “Siam” in the West, the Ayutthaya kingdom reigned over much of what is now Thailand but it was not the same dynasty that is famous for playing Europe’s imperial powers off on each other in the 19th century. The Ayutthaya kingdom was a Buddhist monarchy that managed to survive for so long by trading with not only the Chinese and Japanese, but also the Europeans, the Persians, the Ottomans, and the Indians. Ayutthaya avoided falling under Chinese influence by using a rival Burmese kingdom as a buffer. The downside to this strategy was that Ayutthaya was often at war with the Burmese, who captured Ayutthaya’s capital in 1767 and completely laid waste to its realm.

7. Toungoo Empire (1501-1752). Speaking of Burma, the Buddhist empire of Toungoo was the largest empire in southeast Asia’s history, and at one point included much of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and parts of Cambodia. Like all empires, Toungoo’s power rose and fell throughout the centuries, but by 1752 the French had convinced one of Toungoo’s most influential vassals to rebel, bringing the Buddhist empire to its knees once and for all.

6. ??i Viá»?t, Lê dynasty (1427-1789). North Vietnam’s history had a lot of dynasties, and the name “??i Viá»?t” was used by many of those dynasties, but it was by no means the only one used. The Lê Dynasty, the longest-ruling in Vietnam’s history, was responsible for kicking out the Chinese and re-establishing an independent kingdom. When the dynasty was finally eliminated by local rivals in 1789, the French stepped in to try and introduce order to the area. It did not go well. The French colony of Indochina lasted from 1887-1954, with plenty of interregnums in between. The Lê Dynasty was also responsible for conquering the Hindu Champa people and introducing to south Vietnam not only Buddhism, but Taoism and Confucianism as well.

5. Kingdom of Pagan (850-1300). Pagan was a predecessor of Toungoo, and was responsible for the spread of Buddhism throughout southeast Asia in the 9th century. Over 10,000 Buddhist temples were built under Pagan monarchs, much to the chagrin of the traditional Hindu elite. There was not much the Hindus could do, though, and Buddhism spread rapidly. The kingdom fell into decline in the 13th century, and when the first wave of Mongol invasions began, Pagan was too weak to resist.

4. Aceh Sultanate (1496-1903). The first Muslim polity to make the list, Aceh was a powerful commercial empire located below Thailand and above the densely-populated island of Java. Aceh gained most of its historical infamy by resisting Dutch efforts (spurred on by local Aceh rivals) to conquer Acehnese territory and incorporate it into “Dutch East India.” The war with the Dutch ruined the once-wealthy commercial sultanate, though in the 20th-century Aceh sought to reassert its independence, this time from Indonesia, which arose out of the Dutch East Indies.

3. Khmer Empire (800-1430). Long before the Khmer Rouge took socialism to its logical conclusion and butchered millions of people, there was a vast, powerful empire whose capital city rested at Angkor Wat in present-day Cambodia. The Khmer Empire was known for its Hindu and Buddhist influences, as well as its relative openness to foreigners, especially traders. There were large Japanese and Chinese communities in Khmer’s most populous cities, and the Hindu and Buddhist architecture highlights a strong Indic presence. Little is known about the collapse of the Khmer Empire, but popular theories in academia include - somewhat predictably - ecological problems and plagues. The most likely answer, though, is pressure from aspiring hegemons in neighboring countries. Ayutthaya, for example, conquered Khmer on more than one occasion, and at one point was able to install puppet autocrats on the Khmer throne. Though the empire disappeared, its influence lived on through Cambodian culture, as best illustrated by the murderous Khmer Rouge adopting its name.

2. Rattanakosin Empire (1782-1932). The Rattanakosin arose out of the ashes of the Ayutthaya empire in the late 18th century, and is largely responsible for keeping Thailand unoccupied by European powers in the late 19th century, when European imperialism was at its zenith. Rattanakosin not only played the Europeans off each other, it also managed to keep numerous neighboring ethnic groups in check and under Thai thumbs. Rattanakosin made Bangkok the capital of the Thai world and undertook a number of modernization efforts in order to counter European influence, including abolishing slavery, building schools, and (inadvertently) ushering in a constitutional order that replaced Rattanakosin with Thailand, a modernized nation-state with a constitution, a large middle class, and none of the ethnic baggage that has afflicted other post-colonial states in southeast Asia.

1. Mataram Sultanate (1587-1755). This hegemon dominated Java at a time when the Dutch and Portuguese were first beginning to establish long-term relationships with polities in Asia. Mataram had a number of vassal states on the coasts of Java which it preferred to work through when dealing with the Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese. This kept Mataram safe but also ended up being the Muslim state’s undoing, as the vassals quickly learned the ins and outs of geopolitics and diplomacy. The sultanate’s war against the Dutch, under the banner of jihad, was just as much a war against several of the former’s vassals, and the once-powerful hegemon succumbed to rivals near and far. The Dutch East India Company split Mataram into two smaller kingdoms, Surakarta and Yogyakarta, hoping to employ a divide-and-rule strategy. Both kingdoms eventually became hotbeds of resistance to Dutch influence.

Further thoughts

So there you have it. Southeast Asia is dominated by neither China nor India, nor the West. Its traditions are syncretic, varied, and indigenous. Understanding the history of southeast Asia’s pre-colonial kingdoms not only helps to dismiss the condescending narrative of helpless Asians in the face of European cunning, it also highlights some of the ongoing currents in southeast Asian society that continue to run their course.

Have a good weekend!


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