An Overview of Southeast Asia

Editor’s Note: Our new Peoples of the World section will consist of three parts: an overview of a specific region of the world, a deeper look into the least-reached peoples of this area and a focus on a specific unreached people group. We hope this will give you both a macro and a micro look at specific areas of the world.

Stretching from Indochina to the Malay Archipelago, Southeastern Asia is full of rich resources such as oil, gas, timber, minerals and metals. The region, however, sits on the intersection of large geologic plates, where earthquakes and volcanoes are not uncommon. Indonesia is one of the most volcanically active regions in the world, and Mount Merapi (less than three hundred miles from Java) is a current concern.

In 1900 the population in Southeastern Asia was eighty million; today it is 520 million. It is projected that by 2050 there will be over 750 million people in this area, making it the third most populous region in the world. Although mostly rural, it nonetheless boasts 269 mega cities, including Singapore, Bangkok and Jakarta. Children make up a third of the population, totaling 165 million. Over 115 million people live on Java, the most densely populated island in the world.

The region produces nine percent of Asia’s total gross national product and the economies are growing. Brunei’s economy is oil-dependent, but the rest are diversified and modernizing. There is widespread poverty and corruption, yet there is also advanced technology and industry. Malaysia is a center for the manufacture of computers and electronics; Singapore is leaping into the forefront of biotechnology. The entire region makes extensive use of migrant workers, so Southeast Asia is a natural place to reach out to Indians, Nepalis, expatriate Indonesians, Chinese, Thai, etc.

The national governments are stable, but with few exceptions riddled with corruption. All have serious concerns about terrorism, and some have been fighting localized wars. Singapore is noted for its efficiency and level of control. The Philippines have an active insurgency in the southern islands. Thailand is dealing with unrest near its border with Malaysia. Since the separatist guerrilla fighting ended after the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia’s Aceh province has been largely at peace.

Despite heavy penalties, the drug trade remains a significant problem in the region. Prostitution and other sex-related structures of sin are common in the northern nations, notably Thailand.

The Indochina mainland countries are mainly Buddhist, while the countries on the Malay Archipelago are mainly Muslim. However, there are many other religious influences; Hinduism is found in many places, particularly with concentrations of migrant Indian workers. Christians are also present in small concentrations in most countries (the Philippines and Timor are exceptions, where Christians are in the overwhelming majority).

Christianity in Southeast Asia
With only two exceptions, Christianity is growing, although it is still very much a small percentage of the region. Most Christians are found among minority workers. The growth amongst the majority peoples is sensitive and although much is said about religious freedom, in practice there are significant restrictions.

There are several national mission movements, and others even now being birthed. The numbers of cross-cultural workers, though small, is growing. See chart below for a breakdown of countries and issues.

Name  P'00  P'25
C '00
% C '25
Issues affecting the future
Brunei 0.3 0.5 0.1 155 0.1 15% ++ +- Control, oil
Cambodia 12.7 20.0 0.2 1% 0.5 2% ++ ++ Rebuilding, religious freedom, development, drugs, prostitution
Indonesia  209.2 263.7 27.8 13% 41.4 16% ++ ++ Moderate restrictions, religious tensions, corruption, development
Laos 5.3 8.7  0.1 3% 0.3 3% ++ ++ Drugs, poverty, corruption, heavy restrictions, syncretism, oppression
Malaysia  23.0 33.2 2.1 9% 3.3 10% ++ ++ Religious freedom, reforms, Islamic law, high-tech development
Myanmar 47.7 59.0 3.8 8% 5.5 9% ++ ++ Political oppression, drugs, resource squandering, restrictions
Philippines 75.8 109.1 67.7 89% 97.0 89% +- +- Mission mobilization, Muslim-Christian tensions
Singapore 4.0 5.1 0.6 15% 0.8 16% ++ ++ Control, materialism, moderate restrictions, mission mobilization
Thailand 61.4 72.6 1.0 2% 1.4 2% ++ ++ Buddhism, drugs, prostitution, leadership, religious freedom
Timor 0.7 1.9 0.6 82% 1.8 95% ++ ++ Deep poverty, post-war rebuilding, political stability
Vietnam 78.7 104.3 6.7 9% 11.3 11% ++ ++ Government reforms, economic liberalization, heavy restrictions

Key: P’00 – Population, AD 2000. P’25 – Population, AD2025. C’00 – Christianity, AD 2000 (followed by the percentage of the overall population). C’25 – Christianity, AD2025 projection, World Christian Database (followed by percentage of overall population). 75-00 – Growth rate. The first (+/-) indicates whether Christianity is growing or declining; the second (+/-) indicates whether it is growing faster or slower than the population (thus whether Christianity’s influence is growing or declining). (+-) means Christianity is growing, but not as fast as the population, and so is declining as a share of the country. 00-25 – Growth rate projected for AD2000-2025. Issues – A brief encapsulation of the issues affecting the growth of Christianity in the nation.

Justin Long manages and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].