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From Arakan to Cebuano, from Tu Duc to Kartini
on March 18, 2005
If you are interested in history, or perhaps if you just had to sit through history way back when, you probably heard about "no taxation without representation", Gettysburg, Disraeli, the Magna Carta, Charlemagne, Voltaire, and Cheops' Pyramid, to take a few out of the grab bag. Whether or not you've heard of similarly central and basic events or people in Southeast Asia is another question. Most people in English-speaking countries are a bit vague if asked about Arakan (a long independent kingdom now part of Burma or Myanmar) or Cebuano (one of the most important Philippine languages), Tu Duc (the last major emperor of Vietnam who died in 1883) or Kartini (a Javanese woman whose letters are a monument to modernization and change in Indonesia). I first used the 1973 edition of this book more than 30 years ago when I had to teach an introductory course on Southeast Asia. I found it an invaluable source of information, in an excellently organized format. The authors wisely did not try to cover two thousand years or more of history for the eleven countries-Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Brunei, and the Philippines-making up the region. They begin with an excellent picture of the 18th century world, including fishermen and rice farmers, religion, trade, local rulers and colonial rulers (at that time, only the Spanish in part of the Philippines). This section alone is worth the price of the book as a marvelous integrated history. The next section deals with the way each major society dealt with the impinging outside world, which arrived in the shape of colonial economic and political encroachments and ultimate control. Each colonial power adopted particular measures, producing differing reactions from the inevitable nationalist movements. Meanwhile Chinese and Indian businessmen, then Japanese military occupation added new elements to the historical mix. People who want up-to-date material must look for the later edition. My edition of IN SEARCH OF SOUTHEAST ASIA does not discuss much after 1960, leaving out the Second Indochina War, the economic transformation of Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia since then, the impact of oil in Indonesia, and the Cambodian genocide. But in any case, as an introduction to Southeast Asia, as a background work for the study of any one of the countries mentioned, this book would be hard to beat. It contains some excellent maps and detailed information on a myriad subjects. Its style is serious, but not unreadable. If you read the whole thing, you will know more about Southeast Asia than 99% of Westerners. And that's a shame.