South-east Asia - At a Critical Junction




South east Asia in history has been an area rife in contention amongst the political powers of the day. For example, in the past they involved Hindu kingdoms, Arab missionary traders, colonial Euro powers, runaway local chieftains, Japanese imperialist armies and Americans fighting Communism.

Its strategic location and huge amounts of natural resources attract adventurers, migrants and entrepreneurs. Spices and herbs growing naturally here have changed eating habits and culinary practices around the world. There is a flurry of dialects, religious beliefs and languages spoken by its residents from various ethnic hues - and they live on a varied topographical landscape ranging from islands to riverine deltas and inland volcanoes.  Abundant forests, various resources from gems to petroleum and varying fishery stocks have supported its populations from time immemorial.   The peninsular extending below Thailand was strongly referred to as the "Golden Chersonese' in ancient texts.  Rice fields were intensively cultivated in huge delta basins.  Trading bloomed on sea routes and mastery of waterways became politically significant.

As a natural catchment for the meeting of different races, cultures and minds, it continually exercises fusion, provides a coalface for tolerance or intolerance and is a popular transit for mobile tourists. Minorities with religions different from the ruling governments find themselves in geographical pockets.
The body called ASEAN has Muslim, Buddhist and Christian government powers.  Different ethnic groups are not encouraged to find and adopt common values in some nations - instead differences are emphasised, just like what the British colonials were accused of, to "divide and conquer".  In contrast, in yet other nations, names of most residents have been naturalised, like in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.

 Some nations are just a collection of different tribes and cultures brought artificially together by history and convenience.  For example, the populations of both southern Thailand and southern Phillippines are ethnically different from those who control their nation.

Perhaps constants are the Equatorial climate, its diversity in flora and fauna and the burgeoning income divide. Education is sought after by the mostly young populace. Except for Thailand, all nations in this region have been colonised. One view is that the popular form of Western democracy has never been fully implemented here - but again to these countries, this is a foreign idea.  The experience of centuries of Western imperialism and colonialism left many bitter hearts, especially when such rule emphasised exploitation of peoples and resources - so when the Japanese imperial army invaded south Asia, many locals interpreted this as liberation from the Western yoke.

Most populations here can claim ancestry from other various parts of the world. Many Yunnan tribes were driven further south into south-east Asia due to conflicts and economic survival.  Highland peoples are distinct from lowland groups, immigrants can be differentiated from those who settled before.  There is evidence of Hindu and Chinese settlements in peninsular Malaysia from way long ago.  Arab traders inter-married the locals and started new family lines whilst waiting for the monsoon winds to take their boats back to the Arabian Gulf.

The inevitable melting pot occurred here long before than in the USA, in Israel and in other Western nations like Australia, the UK and Canada.  Economic and social-push migrations pushed people from bigger cultures like those in China and India.  People have always sought a better life elsewhere, especially to escape oppressive and feudalistic regimes of dynasties, caste systems and warlords.  When the economic benefits of tin mining, rubber plantations and spice trading grew, this was inevitable to lead to immigration.   The colonials were not all bad either, for they provided a higher level of governance, social stability and more freedom to take part in commerce than some local chieftains and rulers.   The British focused their attention to this part of the world after the loss of the American colonies and when south-east Asia became a proxy ground for rivalries amongst the emerging European powers.

Inter-marriage became an important outcome, as seen in Straits Indians, Straits Chinese, Eurasians with various strains from Portugal, Holland, France and Britain and in a growing Sino-Thai or community.   Cultural fusion bloomed in various ways - the way of dress, the way of thinking, the way of cooking.  Asian looking faces can have European surnames. Children of such marital unions were often sent back to the mother country for a more proper education - the life journey of Colonel William Light is an illustrative example, when he went to England as a child after being sent by his parents, Captain Francis Light and his Portuguese-Thai wife with a surname of Rozelles.

This leads to the question of how the original inhabitants of this region are truly faring - are they being sufficiently recognised, has their identity been buried and grouped under later arrivals and their authentic cultures forgotten? Many true natives are left in remote settlements and not fully embraced by the numbered majority in many nations.  The natives usually have not been fully empowered with modern society economic enablers and therefore cannot possibly rise above their stereotyped lives.  The natives of present day Vietnam were pushed inland into the mountain areas.  Natives of Irian Jaya are ethnically separate from those who hail from Java in Indonesia. Mynamar has significant numbers of so-called tribal minorities.

Extensive deforestation and agricultural defilement can harm the Earth in many ways, on flora, fauna and humans. For example, loss of disease curing plants occur beside extinction of those flora that better promote human and animal health. The high risks of air pollution that result from political and business mismanagement can adversely affect the lives of ordinary people and disrupt the economic pace of rich cities.   What is happening in this part of the Earth's Equatorial belt has happened in Brazil and central Africa.   In a way, such commercial exploitation has been the same for the past few hundred years - only the key players are different.

Being at the cross roads of geography, social movements, religious trends and financial interests is a double edged sword. Just like the European sub-continent, South east Asia faces both unique and high profiles in risk, personal freedoms and opportunity.  South-east Asia is now a hotch-potch of royalty, apparent democratic rule, military control, communist led and dictatorial hubs.  The countries here also thirst for foreign investment - but at what price?  Revenues can rise or fall due to decisions made far away.  The reliance on outside demand for commodities, manufactures and tourism money can be an Achilles heel.  Some of the nations wait for their sons and daughters who have migrated, to return to help.   The currency exchange rate for most Southeast Asian nation is dismal.  Yet, people power can be latent and powerful at the same time - it can flare up as in the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand.

Apart from Singapore, are most of the countries here wallowing in lower cost economic activity whilst still being trapped in revenue earners like tourism, resources exploitation  and manufacturing, without the foresight of transforming into a high tech future? Can the demands and mindsets of the younger generation sufficiently change for the better the socio-political landscape of their countries?  The young from families who can afford have been sent in droves to Western countries for higher education.  Many do not return, having preferred the lifestyles and higher economic profile of their university host countries.   The future of south-east Asia may critically lie with those students who return,  make a commitment to their original culture and have the brains and means to do so.

The other significant question is whether South-east economies can complement the growth of their bigger neighbours China and India, no matter what political systems they find themselves in.

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