Based on archaeological evidences and histories, namely the Chinese dynastic and diplomatic (foreign relation) records and the royal chronicles of various countries in Southeast Asia, we learn that several “kingdoms” existed on mainland Southeast Asia dating back to at least as early as the first century of the Christian Era. Over the years, most of these ancient kingdoms have been transformed into new political entities and, in the process, lost their original identities as they take on new ones. Through this metamorphism, some of the kingdoms have lost their original names while other unfortunate ones lost almost everything including their cultural, political, and territorial identities. An example of this extinct kingdom is Champa, which is now part of central Vietnam. Another is the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati, which is now part of southern Myanmar and north central Thailand.
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Among the earliest kingdoms to have formed on mainland Southeast Asia were Funan and Linyi/Champa (we’ll use Champa hereafter) which were located at present-day Cambodia (including a region formerly known as Kampuchea Krom which is now part of southern Vietnam) and central Vietnam, respectively. Though there might also be some other lesser-known contemporary kingdoms existed in the area, it appeared that Funan and Champa were the most visual, influential, and dominant ones, for they had been actively mentioned in the Chinese foreign embassy activity records.
If we were to dig deeper into the cultural and linguistic evidences, we would find that both Funan and Champa appear to share their identities with people living in the Indonesian archipelagos. Though Funan seems to have a rather murky linkage with Indonesia, Champa has nevertheless had a very strong link with Indonesia. According to the archaeological and historical evidences, it has been accepted that Champa, as a kingdom, was founded by the people of Indonesian origin. These people appeared to be pirates who had been chased away from the Strait of Malacca’s and Sunda’s areas by their Indonesian kins.
Given the fact that Champa had been founded and appeared on the Chinese foreign mission’s records a few hundred years behind Funan, it begs the question whether the Funanese could have been an earlier group of people who had been chased out from the Straits of Malacca and Sunda as well. At this point, we should point out that the Straits of Malacca and Sunda were the most important maritime trade routes in the early day. They provided and acted as a vital conduit for maritime trades between the Far East, Middle East, and beyond—just like the Panama Canal nowadays providing maritime linkage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Thus, whoever controlled the Straits of Malacca and Sunda would control one of the most lucrative maritime routes in the world because they allowed people who controlled them to impose taxes and tariffs on ships passing back and forth.
We could only imagine that back in those old days, the Straits of Malacca and Sunda must have been the most contested areas because of their strategic and commercial importance. As a matter of fact, our imagination couldn’t have been wrong if we briefly looked at the history of colonialism.
It was the strategic importance of the Straits of Malacca and Sunda that brought the Dutch to Indonesia. Whether the Straits of Malacca and Sunda played any role in the process, Indonesia was also the first country in Southeast Asia to be colonized by the Europeans.
If we assumed that the Straits of Malacca and Sunda had been the major maritime trade routes since pre-historic time up to the 19th century of the Christian Era, it would be possible that people had been fighting one another countless times to gain control of these areas because they were the economic power bases for global trades which depended mostly on maritime transports. Though we could only hypothesize what had taken place in insular Southeast Asia during the earlier period of its history, it is possible that among the people who had probably contested, lost, and been chased away from the Straits of Malacca and Sunda were the Funanese (Cambodians).
It is conventionally difficult to contemplate a theory as far-reaching as to suggest that distant mainland Southeast Asian people such as the Cambodians had their origin in insular Southeast Asia. However, for the history which is as complex and intertwined as Southeast Asia’s, we probably need to have a far-reaching hypothesis in order to uncover or, at least, come close to the truth.
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