Southeast Asia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although little is known about the early history of the Southeast Asian region and the origins of its peoples are unclear, the neighboring civilizations of both China and India had major influences upon Southeast Asian history.

Political Considerations

Although little is known about the early history of the Southeast Asian region and the origins of its peoples are unclear, the neighboring civilizations of both China and India had major influences upon Southeast Asian history. As a result of the permeation of Indian culture in the fifth century, the India;influence on Southeast Asia[Southeast]Indian warrior class and methods of waging war were adopted by the new Southeast Asian empires. The migration of the Gupta EmpireGuptas led to the founding of the Funan EmpireFunan Empire. The Pallava DynastyPallava wave was the impetus for the empires of Angkor (Cambodia) and ŚrivijayaŚrivijaya[Srivijaya]Śrivijaya; and the PālasPāla Dynasty of Bengal profoundly influenced the JavaJavan culture. The desire for aggressive imperial expansion was also subsequently embraced in Southeast Asia, and constant raids and sieges among Southeast Asian empires mark the early history of the region.Southeast Asia;medievalSoutheast Asia;medieval

Some of the kingdoms of the region were controlling empires based on agriculture rather than foreign trade. Others were ports where trade with other states was of prime importance. Certainly Funan has its origins in trade, but the shift of the Khmer peopleKhmer people toward AngkorAngkor shows a move either toward greater self-reliance or away from places that were also clearly vulnerable to foreign attack.

The main aim of rulers throughout the region was to maintain their dynasties. Much of the region was dominated by HinduismHinduism, and the Hindu rulers of Angkor, and also the kingdoms in Java, wished to extend the boundaries of their lands by conquest. Gradually, with the advent ofBuddhismBuddhism, rulers began to see themselves as working in a compact with their people, with the goal of bettering the lives of their subjects. If this could be achieved through military aggression, then war would result. If, instead, it could be done by major building projects, those would take priority.

The gradual conversion to Islam;Southeast AsiaIslam in island Southeast Asia, the Malay statesMalay states, and for the ChampaChampa kingdom, was accompanied, once again, by a rise in trade and also a period during which members of ruling families of one state would marry somebody from another, leading to a series of alliances and reducing the numbers of wars, although these still took place.

Military Achievement

The earliest information that exists on the warfare in the region comes from the small Indianized states on the Malay statesMalay Peninsula, many of which were within the Funan Funan EmpireEmpire to the north, in the area of present-day Cambodia, and southern Vietnam. As the power of Funan faded, the Kingdom (or kingdoms) of ChenlaChenla arose. This was probably a federation of states that came together under a king at times of external invasion, but with constituent parts having much regional autonomy, a pattern that was followed elsewhere in the region at this time.

Militarily, this federal system was no match for unified states, and under Jayavarman IIJayavarman II[Jayavarman 02]Jayavarman II, the Kingdom of AngkorAngkor emerged in the 800’s, taking over. A similar process took place in ChampaChampa (modern-day central Vietnam) and also later in modern-day Thailand. The first two were at this time Hindu monarchies, as were many of those in Hinduism;Southeast AsiaJava. In these societies, the rulers were warriors who served to represent the power of the state and defend its dignity against attack. Militarily they were successful at exerting their will over weaker neighbors, with clear evidence from surviving chronicles of many wars of aggression and also of depredations from their neighbors.

The growth and expansion of the ŚrivijayaŚrivijaya[Srivijaya]Śrivijayan and JavaJavanese Empires are strong examples of the common aggressive desire to expand, and the constant conflict between the two empires eventually led to the absorption of Śrivijaya within the dominion of the MajapahitsMajapahit kingdom, which controlled most of Sumatra, the coastal regions of Borneo and Celebes, and the Lesser Sunda Islands.

By contrast, in mainland Southeast Asia, there was a balance of power for much of this period between the Burmans, Thais (or Tais), and the peoples from Angkor and Champa.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The weapons used by most of the people in Southeast Asia in medieval times were Indian in style: bows, arrows, curved flat swords, broad short daggers, and long shields. In Śrivijaya, the unusual Bows and arrows;Southeast Asiaarrows had crescent-shaped heads, which could cut a head from a body or divide a bow in two. Battle scenes are depicted in many bas-reliefs in Java and Cambodia from the tenth century c.e. Although these images tell nothing of tactics, they are significant in revealing that only infantry took part in the melees, although chariots can be seen in subsequent victory processions. This was almost certainly an aspect of Javanese Javawarfare; horses and elephants were mainly reserved for chiefs and high officers. Of note is the virtual absence of spears in Java, because only the strongest Indianization could have replaced this favorite local weapon with the bow. By contrast, in AngkorAngkor, the Spears;Southeast Asiaspear shared the primary place with the flat and curved sword. There were daggers, but no trace at this time of the Kris (dagger)kris, a typical Malay dagger invented around the fourteenth century. Shields;Southeast AsiaShields varied in shape with most being oval or rectangular. Some soldiers were also depicted wearing a cuirass, protective armor covering the torso. Another local weapon, especially preferred by the jungle peoples, was the Blowpipesblowpipe, which probably fired some form of poisonous dart.

As a result of the Indian influence, Elephantselephants were used in battle and the King of Funan was reported as riding on an elephant as early as 245 c.e. Gradually more elephants were used in battle; one division of the army consisted of one hundred elephants, and a hundred men surrounded each elephant. In Cambodia, by the eleventh century, there was a sort of cage, called a Howdahhowdah, on the back of the elephant. In it rode four men armed with bows, arrows, and lances. The elephant’s tusks might also be sharpened or lengthened with sword blades, and it might pick up enemy soldiers with its trunk or trample them underfoot. The standard battlefield role of war elephants was in the assault, to break up the enemy ranks, but elephants were also used in sieges, to push over gates and palisades or to serve as living bridges.

After the formation of the Majapahit MajapahitsDynasty, however, weapons and warfare underwent significant changes in island Southeast Asia. The military dress completely evolved from the Indian to the East Javanese fashion. Weapons, notably axes, clubs, Swords;Southeast Asiaswords, and daggers, seem to have been Indian in design, though the curved swords are of a later type than those on the Central Javanese reliefs. The reappearance of the spear in these reliefs, while the use of the bow is confined to human heroes, suggests an increasing pressure to resume use of local types of weapons. Both swords and daggers have definitively Indian-type Hiltshilts, and the Kris (dagger)kris seems still to be absent from use. The kris may not have become popular until the fifteenth century, when Majapahit krises appear to be represented on a relief of a Javanese forge.

A Javanese inscription of 1323 speaks of “magically forged weapons,” indicative of the belief that Magic;Southeast Asiamagic and proper worship and sacrifice to the gods would bring victory on the battlefield. Much importance was placed on the art of procuring talismans, incantations, or drugs, the knowledge of which was the education of every hero. Another piece of evidence concerning the character of Majapahit warfare is the reproduction through drawings of a battle array, a crayfish-type military formation in which the forces were distributed in order in preparation for an attack. The Javanese often gave up any idea of preserving their own lives in battle and would rush the enemy, committing indiscriminate slaughter and refusing to surrender alive.

As well as fighting on land, the Khmer peopleKhmers and the ChampaChams also fought at sea. They used galleys to attack each other, and the China;invasion of Champa[Champa]Chinese also launched a seaborne invasion of Champa. This was notable because the Chinese introduced artillery to overcome the Cham elephant attacks. After the Chinese had landed, they directed all their arrow fire against the Cham elephants and subsequently obtained victory. The Ballistaeballista, first used by the Chams, also became incorporated into the Khmer equipment.

Military Organization

Southeast Asia, 8th-9th Centuries

During its Khmer EmpireAngkor period (802-1431), the Khmer Empire, by force of arms, extended its commonwealth to encompass vast areas of Southeast Asia. The first attempts, in about 813, by a Cham general named Senāpati Par to test the united Khmer state were never more than raids, for Jayavarman Jayavarman IIJayavarman II[Jayavarman 02]II (c. 770-850) kept the empire firmly in his grasp. The strategies of the Chams, however, had been sharpened by their constant quarrelling with the Chinese on their northern frontier. As the Khmers and Chams battled, the Khmers too learned of new strategies and weapons, and a fairly homogeneous art of war was established.

The Religion and warfare;HinduismHinduismHindu concept of war as a religious sacrifice was fully recognized by the Khmers. Therefore, much like the Javanese, the Khmers associated the ancestor mountain god, Hinduized as Shiva, with military ventures and prayed for his aid on the battlefield. At about the same time in Champa, 1064, Rudravarman IIIRudravarman III[Rudravarman 03]Rudravarman III, also made ornate gifts to the goddess of the kingdom to show his devotion.

The commander-in-chief of both the Khmers and Chams was usually a prince, often the king’s brother. Of other officers there is little detailed knowledge, but it seems that they would begin in the Royal Guard and then ascend to captain roughly a thousand men for war. The officers were distinguished by the red parasols that they carried into battle. Moreover, as in Java, in the Khmer and Champa empires, the use of Horses and horse riding;Southeast Asiahorses and Elephantselephants was confined to officers. Unlike the Indian custom, there was only one rider per elephant with a shield on his left arm. The number of horses was limited, as they were difficult to procure from China; therefore, there probably did not exist a Cavalry;Southeast Asiacavalry division in either army. An accurate number of soldiers for either side is also difficult to ascertain. It seems that there were roughly 50,000 soldiers assembled on one side in the fourth century, a number that increased with time. By the eighth century, the royal guards alone numbered 5,000. On both sides, the infantry formed the greatest part of the militaries’ strength.

According to Chinese texts, Cham weapons consisted of shields, spears, halberds, bows, and crossbows. The arrows of bamboo, however, were not feathered, but the points were Bows and arrows;poisonedPoison;arrowspoisoned. Cham sculptures also show swords and daggers. The lance, or spear, was the most common of the Khmer weapons, and cases of them were attached to the sides of the elephant platforms. By the twelfth century, the lance had largely replaced the sword to become the most distinctive of Khmer arms. The club, which was the weapon of the Khmer gate guardian, was relatively rare in the hands of warriors. Bows and arrows;Southeast AsiaBows and arrows were also used for distance fighting. For protection the Chams had Armor;Southeast AsiaCuirassescuirasses made of plaited cane in addition to their shields. The Khmers used this armor as well, but in a more limited capacity; it seems it was used more for parades and than for actual fighting. The Khmers also fought bareheaded, though the Chams are shown in sculptured relief wearing a reversed flower headdress.

It is known that during the thirteenth century, the commanders of the Javanese army received an annual salary of twenty taels of gold, and the soldiers, 30,000 in number, also received fixed annual pay in varying amounts in gold. The reliefs of the temples of this time reveal little. An inscription of 1294, alongside reports in Chinese annals, tells much about the results of the fighting that took place in repelling the Mongols;Southeast AsiaMongol invaders and in establishing the Majapahit Dynasty, but almost nothing about the nature of the warfare.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The Khmer and Cham empires also had considerable knowledge of Fortifications;Southeast Asianfortification. The Cham capital was a mountain of bricks dominated by pavilions and towers reaching 70 or 80 feet. The Khmer capital of Angkor Angkor ThomThom was also built up of massive stone walls, which, in the twelfth century, replaced earlier defenses of moat and mound. Despite its seemingly impenetrable fortifications, in 1177 Angkor fell to an unexpected Cham Naval warfare;Southeast Asianaval attack. It was not only Champa that possessed a navy, however; the Khmers also practiced naval warfare. The Chams often employed fleets of more than one hundred vessels, which were almost exclusively barges propelled by rowers. The fleets on both sides operated in conjunction with armies that relied on boarding, not ramming. Both sides were armed with long spears and shields, and in one relief of the period, a Khmer barge is filled with Archers and archery;Southeast Asiaarchers. This suggests that the bow was used in naval warfare before the close combat began. Naval warfare was limited at this time, however, as navies could not venture far from a shore held by friendly forces, because of the need to frequently replenish fresh water supplies.

The ideal type of army exchange was to bring about a pitched frontal battle. In a battle such as this, once some important leaders had been slain or had run away, the defeated side usually fled to the sheltering jungle. Chinese accounts claim that the Cham soldiers fought in parties of five, and the members mutually helped one another. If one fled, the other four were liable to be punished with death. Once the battle was over and a victor clear, it was the custom for the conqueror to set up pillars to commemorate victory. A similar system operated in Java and in the Majapahit Empire.

Concerning the early Mon peopleMon warfare and that of the BurmansBurmans of the Pagan EmpirePagan Empire, these civilizations left no bas-reliefs illustrating their ways of war, and the spiritual practice of BuddhismReligion and warfare;BuddhismBuddhism did not condone the glorification of warfare in inscriptions. It can only be assumed that, because they were an Indianized people, the early Mons and Burmese adhered to Indian models of warfare. The capital of the Thai state was established at AyutthayaAyutthaya in 1350 and, following this, the history of modern SiamSiam is commonly traced. Although Siam ascended consistently in power and frequently kept its warlike neighbors of Japan, China, and India at bay, its history is plagued by centuries of quarrels between tribes, as the prominent provinces of Chiangmai, Ayudhya, and Sukhothai battled tirelessly for the semblance of a united kingdom under

their respective rule. The second Siamese kingdom captured Angkor in 1352, after the Khmer kingdom had become weak and exhausted. In 1393 the Siamese took Angkor again, and in 1432 they captured it for the final time. Thus, although the Siamese had embraced Buddhism, they began to learn the ways of war from the dying Khmer Empire.

Medieval Sources

Few written sources exist regarding warfare in Southeast Asia during this period, and many of these are questionable. The earliest knowledge, extremely limited, comes from various Chinese sources beginning in the third century. This is often found in the form of accounts drawn from Chinese missions as well as pilgrims heading to India, especially the seventh century account of XuanzangXuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), the YijingYijing (I-Ching). These often relate to economic vitality. Much knowledge comes from temple inscriptions in Cambodia and Myanmar, as well as monuments devoted to various kings, particularly in the Khmer and Pagan empires. Statues and bas-reliefs throughout the region indicate the nature of weapons and battle dress. There are also a number of annals that provide basic royal genealogies, especially from Cambodia, though these are often confused or incomplete. The dependencies of the MajapahitsMajapahit kingdom, for instance, are enumerated in Mpu Prapa haMpu Prapa ha’s Nagarakrtagama (Mpu Prapa ha) Nagarakrtagama (1365). Polo, MarcoPolo, Marco Marco Polo recounts his twelfth century experiences in Southeast Asia in Travels of Marco Polo, The (Polo) The Travels of Marco Polo (first transcribed in French in the fourteenth century as Divisament dou monde, or “description of the world,” and translated into English in 1579). Some information has also been gleaned from sixteenth century Portuguese accounts of their early voyages in the region.Southeast Asia;medieval

Books and Articles
  • Charney, Michael W. Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2004.
  • Coèdes, Georges. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Edited by Walter F. Vella. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968.
  • Hall, D. G. E. A History of South-East Asia. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
  • Jacques, Claude. The Khmer Empire: Cities and Sanctuaries. Bangkok, Thailand: River Books, 2007.
  • Quaritch Wales, H. G. Ancient South-East Asian Warfare. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1952.
  • Tarling, Nicholas. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Wolters, O. W. Early Southeast Asia: Selected Essays. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 2008.
Films and Other Media
  • Children of the Seven-Headed Snake. Documentary. FIP-Odysse-Ampersand, 1999.
  • Mekong: The Three Ancient Kingdoms of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Documentary. Global Edu-tainment, 2008.

China: Medieval

Japan: Medieval

The Mongols

India and South Asia: Medieval

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