States in Southeast Asia

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Traditional states in Southeast Asia were substantially different in form from modern states. Little is known of the earliest states in the region, in part due to conditions that militate against the preservation of cultural materials made of organic matter. The earliest known state on mainland Southeast Asia was Funan, believed to have been established in the first century ad, and extending across the southern part of what are now Cambodia and Vietnam. Nevertheless, little is known of this kingdom beyond what can be derived from reports of early Chinese traders. This raises a key point about these ancient states—that trade was an essential element of their emergence. One of the best known of Southeast Asia’s early states is the Khmer Empire of Angkor, which flourished from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries ad. Known today primarily for the magnificence of just one of its many temples, Angkor Wat, Angkor covered a vast portion of modern-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and even stretched into Burma and Malaysia. These early state sites reveal to us that by the time of the Khmer Empire, cultural—particularly religious—influence had come from India. The influence of Hinduism, and therefore presumably of India, is evident in much of the monumental architecture of early Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat was the sacred center of this vast and enduring (five-centuries-long) empire. The word Angkor, itself, comes from the Sanskrit word nagara, which is generally translated as “city” or “holy city” (Mannikka 1996; Higham 2001). The temple complex was laid out to actualize cosmological principles of Hinduism and, later, Buddhism. The design was a replication of world cosmology, a microcosm linking the heavens and the political power of kings. While the king might have been considered a devaraja, a physical manifestation a god, Mannikka argues that it was physical objects that carried the essence of the divine, a sacred power. In early Southeast Asian kingdoms, the possession of particular sacred objects often gave one the authority to rule.(The closest we have to this idea in Western lore is the tale of Excalibur’s word.) This is a persistent theme in the cultural logic of early Southeast Asian states (see the introduction to part 5 for further discussion of ideas surrounding sacred objects and divinely mandated leadership).The role of early Indian priests and traders in the formation of Southeast Asian states has been widely debated, but ideas of power and the sacred were woven into local cultural frameworks. The element of a sacred center and divine objects continued in Southeast Asian statecraft for millennia. Stanley Tambiah has called this model the galactic polity. The state is envisioned as a mandala, with power lying in the center and diffusing outward. One might imagine this visually as a series of concentric, ever-widening circles, with state authority fading as the circles widen; a clear example of this form is at Borobodur, in Indonesia. In contrast to contemporary conceptions, then, these early states were porous. What mattered was the sacred center, not the borders (Tambiah 1977). Elements of this sacred center exist to this day in Thailand (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, discussed in the introduction to Part 3), and perhaps even in Burma, where the ruling junta of Myanmar moved its capital from Yangon (Rangoon), a colonial port city, to Pyinma, a site nearly two hundred miles to the north. Thereasons for this move were not clear, but it might have been for ritual or magical reasons. Nevertheless, this was not the only model of the state in pre-modern Southeast Asia. The Tai, who moved into mainland Southeast Asia in the eleventh–twelfth centuries ad, adopted the mandala model and its rituals for their kingdoms, but also based their kingdoms on the mueang. This term refers to different levels of political organization, from village, to local principality, and to the state, with the smaller incorporated into the larger while maintaining its identity. The protective spirits and chiefs or princes of the mueang similarly could be incorporated into the larger state as subordinate to the spirits or princes of the larger mueang (Condominas 1990), forming a sort of patron–client relationship. This was a remarkably flexible political structure that allowed Tai-speakers to rapidly expand political control after the twelfth century. The Vietnamese state model, in contrast, was based upon Chinese state models of governance of Confucianism and merit bureaucracy. Here, the focus was on “right ordering,” including seniority within and between patrilineages, and validation of rule through ancestry (ancestor worship), along with education and examinations. In tandem with “right ordering,” knowledge of classic Confucian texts and the mastery of traditional skills conferred the authority for one to assume leadership positions in the bureaucracy. But at the same time, the unity/insularity of the village remained. Across the landscape of northern Vietnam, villages are clustered together, surrounded by dense, wall-like growths of bamboo and trees; politically, the village manages itself and, as a unit, sends taxes to the central government. Is Vietnam Southeast Asian? Some have argued that Vietnam is essentially Chinese (fully incorporated into the Chinese polity long before many parts of modern China were) or at least that their historical political structures were clearly modeled on China (Woodside 2006); that it was not a pale imitation of China, but one variation on East Asian themes. On the other hand, as Taylor (1998) has pointed out, the Chinese-ness vs. the Southeast Asian-ness of Vietnam is not in itself a particularly enlightening topic to debate. It is probably more fruitful to think of Vietnam as frontier, a blend of Chinese cultural influences and models of ruler ship embodying uniquely Southeast Asian cultural constructions of spiritual power and social relationships. Regard less of how we categorize the Vietnamese state, the political history of Vietnam puts it on a very different cultural and economic path from the rest of Southeast Asia (Jamieson 1995).Chinese influence was also significant in other parts of the region. Although it ebbed and flowed in tandem with political concerns at home, Chinese waterborne trade was historically very significant in many coastal cities, and overland trade between China and India and between China and northern mainland Southeast Asia also brought a significant flow of goods, people, and ideas into the region (Sun 2003).

 

 

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