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date: 24 June 2017

Religious Transitions in Twentieth Century Southeast Asia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

The diverse religions of the peoples of Southeast Asia include indigenous traditions of supernaturally oriented beliefs and practices plus four of the largest world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. The main changes that have taken place in religion in 20th-century Southeast Asia include several developments. The first notable change was increased conversion to one or another of the world religions, especially Christianity. The second was national efforts to eliminate or reduce religion in some countries and to shape or control it in others. In addition, popular religion in some instances became more politicized and linked to conflict, especially between Christian and Muslim communities. There were efforts at reform, to modernize religious traditions, or often to bring them into line with orthodoxy.

These religious changes occurred in two phases. The first, involving conversion, had begun in some areas long before, but was furthered and intensified in the 20th century as colonial governments extended control beyond urban areas, to coastal enclaves, lowland agricultural regions, and over interior and mountainous areas, making these more accessible to mission efforts. The second phase of change began in the middle decades of the 20th century as the colonized countries (including all the present-day Southeast Asian nations except Thailand) gained independence and then often attempted to shape religion in various ways. These efforts varied, but the main line of differentiation was between what happened in the socialist regimes, on the one hand, and in the non-socialist ones, on the other. The socialist countries were more inclined than the non-socialist ones to diminish, deemphasize, or control religion, and to block or inhibit missionization. The results can be seen today, where unconverted communities are common or even prevalent in the highland or tribal areas of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, in contrast to such areas in Thailand and—though less can be said about it—Myanmar. Finally, as a result of these changes, over the course of the 20th century and throughout Southeast Asia generally, there has been a reduction in religious diversity, above all as a result of the conversion of people from many different indigenous religious traditions to one or another of the fewer world religions. This is not to say, however, that adherents of Buddhism Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism are necessarily very similar to others of the same world religion.