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Indigenous warfare has been an important component of Southeast Asian society. Methods of warfare changed and improved over time, as did the purpose of armed conflict, whether religious, political, or social. Warfare in Southeast Asia depended more on attaining booty and political objectives, and less on expanding territory and disseminating culture.
Before foreign intervention and the introduction of fi rearms to Southeast Asian societies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, headhunting was a prevalent form of conflict both on the mainland and in archipelagic Southeast Asia. Headhunting raids allowed male warriors to prove their manhood and indicate preparation for marriage. Failure in these raids was considered a disgrace and damaged men’s social status. Armed conflict was carried out in the context of ceremonies to honor and glorify ancestors and spirits. Religion was a justification for warfare as well. Buddhism was active in Southeast Asian societies, and Buddhist leaders waged war whenever there was a threat from competing religions or whenever they felt that the religion’s influence was declining.
Interpretations of Warfare
European nations that established a commercial presence in Southeast Asia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries viewed warfare differently from the indigenous inhabitants. The Vietnamese considered war as a means to an end, but the end was the attainment of material goods and war captives for human labor purposes, not territorial ambition. Similarly, on the islands of Bali and Java, prisoners of war were used as slaves and exported between 1650 and 1830. This was a common feature of warfare in most Southeast Asian countries. The objective was booty and political control and not territorial ambition or diffusion of civilization. One sought to control an enemy capital and its nearby communities to secure material and human resources rather than to change individuals’ ways of life.
Between 1407 and 1427, Ming China defeated Vietnam and occupied the country, including its capital, Hanoi. The Vietnamese studied the advanced military techniques and the bureaucracy and government of the Ming. Eventually the Vietnamese drove out the Chinese, but as a result of Ming influence, the Vietnamese came to believe—as the Ming Chinese did—that war should be used to civilize barbarous cultures. The Vietnamese used force against their southern and northern neighbors, the Chams and Tai. Exploration of new lands and their annexation were further justifications for warfare that the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian civilizations slowly adopted.
The tactical use of terrain in combat was critical in waging conflict. Vietnamese armies used the terrain to achieve success on the battlefield during their wars against the Chams and Tai. In campaigns against the Chams, Vietnamese commanders relied on amphibious assaults and regular troop movements on fl at coastal areas. Against the Tai, who occupied valleys and mountain regions, Vietnamese armies conducted quick strikes and flanking movements in order to avoid becoming trapped and isolated in the mountains.
Foreign Influence and Methods of War
European and Chinese governments occupied and dominated parts of Southeast Asia as far back as the fifteenth century. They brought with them new weapons that altered indigenous warfare. Firearms, although not common, were available by the fifteenth century from both sources and allowed Southeast Asian societies allied to the Europeans or Chinese to subdue their less well-equipped neighbors. Bows, arrows, lances, blowpipes, and animals such as horses and elephants were gradually replaced with cannons and muskets. Kingdoms in Malaysia and Indonesia retained traditional weapons while adopting new ones in order to maintain tradition. Firearms were mythologized in a positive manner.
Twentieth-century warfare in Southeast Asia saw a new concept emerge. Guerrilla and protracted conflict was prevalent as a means to defeat imperialism and enhance nationalist sentiment. Filipino rebels made use of guerrilla raids against U.S. troops during the early 1900s but were eventually conquered. During the Japanese occupation of China and Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese nationalists and rebels used guerrilla tactics and foreign aid from the West to achieve victory and end foreign domination. Guerrilla warfare flourished during the Cold War as indigenous Communist forces attempted to unify their countries under a Soviet brand of Communism or their own style of socialist government.
The Vietnamese defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and their eventual strategic victory over the United States in the Vietnam War (1959–1975) showed how successful guerrilla warfare and manipulation of public opinion could be in overthrowing foreign domination. The involvement of the United States in Vietnam introduced changes in the conduct of war and foreign affairs in general. Now the consensus is that nations should have clear objectives, a popular base of support, approval from the world community, and credibility if they are to wage a war successfully.
Terrorist activities by Islamic fundamentalists in the late 1990s and into the early twenty-first century have continued the earlier trend toward guerrilla warfare and protracted conflict. Western powers such as the United States continue to support, either directly or indirectly, low-level warfare against those deemed terrorists or insurgents.
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