The boundaries of our continents, nations, and regions are all man-made “constructions”. Regions like the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia have been “educationally” or “arbitrarily” grouped by historians, geographers, and other social scientists based off of similarities in language, history, culture, and other criteria. Such regional grouping patterns usually make sense; the Middle East is home to the Arabic World, while Eastern Europe is majorly populated by Slavs. However, we then come across a region that has its fair share of similarities and differences: Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia, despite its differences ranging from religions to ethnic groups, can be considered a distinguishable area or region in the world, due to its diversity, experiences in history, and a relatively mutual economy.
Ironically, Southeast Asia exists because of its diversity. People from the Indian subcontinent, the Chinese empires, the Korean Peninsula, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Europe, and beyond have stepped foot onto the mainland and islands of the region. Southeast Asia is home to people of different faiths. Mosques, churches, and temples decorate the skylines, roadsides, and villages of Southeast Asia, along with other structures that are utilized for other various indigenous faiths/religions. Furthermore, numerous amounts of tribes and other groups of peoples – such as the Hmong in the highlands of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, and the Javanese from the island of Java in Indonesia – have lived within the region for centuries. Social scientists have argued that this large presence of diversity in Southeast Asia justifies that the region should not be grouped under one area/name, and that the “region of Southeast Asia” should not exist (or rather, that calling it Southeast Asia is incorrect because it implies that the region shares countless similarities and minimal differences). One alternative, for example, was to consider creating a region called “Zomia”, which would encompass the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia and even include vast areas of Tibet. Coined by William Van Schendel, Zomia is still studied as a region today, and has been considered by cartographers for labeling on maps. Zomia is home to a common population of highland peoples who can easily be differentiated from the lowland and coastal peoples in Southeast Asia, thus bolstering the argument that Southeast Asia as a “place” should not be considered. However, the fact that this region actually “shares” such a colorful background allows the region to be defined as unique and one. Southeast Asia is located next to two rather homogenous regions: India (home to the Indians and related peoples) and China (home to the Chinese and related peoples). Considering that the area of the world between India and China has its own identity as one of the most diverse regions in the world, and that it does not fit as “Indian”, “Chinese”, or even “Australian”, it makes sense to group this one whole area as “Southeast Asia”. The alternative to grouping this whole area as a region is to create smaller, more specified boundaries that are defined by a common religion, language, and culture. This, as a burden to social scientists and cartographers, would be impossible, since the entire map of Southeast Asia would be filled with overlapping black lines and confusing information. For example, lines would have to be drawn around some western islands of Indonesia (home to a large Muslim population), some central islands of Indonesia (home to different ethnic groups and religions), and some eastern islands of Indonesia (home to highland peoples and Polynesians). This would split Indonesia into 3 parts, and the same scenario applies to the Malay Peninsula, Vietnam, and the north of modern Burma, Thailand, and Laos, since different parts of such regions have different cultures and peoples. Doing such a difficult task is not reasonable, and social scientists have therefore also argued that the region’s diversity justifies the logic to consider the area as one region. Just like how the recognized region of the Middle East- which is surrounded by Persians, Europeans, and other adjacent nations – is home to different religions and peoples, Southeast Asia is recognized as a standard region because its diversity unites itself under one unique identity.
Southeast Asia has experienced the same events in history as if it were one unique area to begin with. Southeast Asia (which obviously ranges from the port of Aceh and the boundaries of modern Myanmar/Burma to the islands of the Philippines the modern border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) was and still is a center for trade and cross-cultural interaction. Large portions of Southeast Asia have been influenced by Indian culture, whilst places like Vietnam received direct Chinese influence. The monsoon winds have directed merchants to Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Even the merchants themselves, whether they’re on the islands or the mainland of Southeast Asia, write about how they have entered a world that is diverse, different, and therefore a distinguishable region. The Indians have called the region “Suvanabhumi” (land of gold), whilst the Chinese have called the region “Nanyang” (South Seas). Various European cartographers and individuals have called the region “India Orientale” and “Further India”, particularly before the high colonial period in the mid-19th century. Thus, for over 2,000 years, the region of Southeast Asia has existed. Indians, Chinese, and Europeans have noted many factors that make the region powerfully stand out, including the large importance of rice, the building of longhouses, the adaptation of Arabic, Indian, and Chinese cultural aspects, the use of Betel nut as a customary trading gift, and the maritime connections between insular and mainland areas. The region simply immerses its visitors with a notable ambiance that justifies its existence as a region. You will find similar customs in both the Philippines and Burma, two countries that are far by geography, yet close in experiencing the same history. Moreover, the high colonial period had actually cemented the region’s existence, for colonial powers referred to the region as “Southeast Asia” for cartographic convenience, cultural similarities, and the fact that it is very different from India, China, Japan, and Australia. Every single Southeast Asian nation has experienced patterns of colonialism and the same patterns of post-colonialism (urbanization, change in government, neglecting ethnic minorities), further amplifying the argument that Southeast Asia deserves its existence as a region on the globe.
The economy of Southeast Asia functions like one nation. Rice, which is literally the artery/vain of Southeast Asian crops and society, is seen everywhere in Southeast Asia. Such a commonality in rice farming comes to show how the region can exist as a legitimate area. No other places near the region, such as Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea, have such dedicated economies and agriculture for rice. Furthermore, the importance of rice is seen throughout Southeast Asia in terms of political power, religious use, and everyday life. Other common resources that Southeast Asia possesses include fish and clothing. Of course, most of Southeast Asia is made up of water, explaining the large presence of fishing ports and the importance of fish in general. As for clothing, one of the first modern industries to start in Southeast Asia is the textile industry (since it’s easy to manage, it’s cheap, and it’s usually in demand), particularly during the high colonial period. Moreover, during the high colonial period, plantation crops such as sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, and rubber were found and exploited all over Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia as a region is an economic powerhouse, with the region experiencing trade within its own boundaries for centuries. Because of the mutual economic patterns and patterns of trade that Southeast Asia hosts, the “place” of Southeast Asia seems to truly exist, despite several arguments posed by some social scientists.
Although there are points to prove that Southeast Asia should be considered differently in terms of regional groups, it actually makes sense that we stick with Southeast Asia as an actual unique region (consisting of Myanmar, Philippines, and everything in between). The diversity of the region, the rich historical events that the region hosted, and the common economic patterns the region possesses comes to show how it is more convenient and logical to think that Southeast Asia exists as a place (and to prove that it has always been considered a place for many years!). Today, hundreds of high-end institutions around the world are studying the mysteries of the region, with new facts in history and new predictions for the future continuously being found. Southeast Asia as a place has already received a large spot on the map, and will continue to be highly regarded as the region strives for newer technology, economic improvement, and further integration into the world market.