Many cultural influences have shaped Southeast Asia over thousands of years. Each of these cultures—Chinese, Indian, Islamic, European, and American—has made its own unique contributions to the politics, economics, and religions of the region.
Population Patterns Southeast Asia's about 520 million people are descendants of indigenous peoples, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and European colonists. Their political, economic, and religious ideas and practices have blended with existing Southeast Asian traditions. Many of the people live in fertile river valleys or on the coastal plains. Although many countries in the region are largely rural, urbanization and overcrowding in the primate cities have created challenges. Some countries are trying to solve these problems by encouraging people to return to rural areas. Outward migration has also eased some of the overcrowding, but it contributes to countries losing skilled and educated workers.
History and Government Many early civilizations in the region gained power by controlling shipping and trade or by accumulating wealth from crops grown in fertile soil. By the 1500s Europeans claimed spheres of influence in the region and later acquired lands as colonies. They brought widespread economic changes, including railroads, expanded mining, and large commercial plantations. After World War II, Southeast Asians struggled to gain independence from their former colonial rulers. Since then, the region has seen conflicts over political and ethnic differences.
Cultures and Lifestyles Southeast Asian culture reflects the cultures and religions of the people who migrated from other regions as well as those of indigenous peoples. This has led to the region's diversity, with hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. Nearly all of the world's major religions are represented and mingle throughout Southeast Asia. Literature, art, and architecture equally have been influenced by the many different civilizations. The availability of health care, education, and housing varies throughout the region. Many people still live in small villages, and in some rural areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, longhouses can be found.