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History of Malaysia

People have been living in modern day Malaysia for tens of thousands of years; the early people most likely originating from what is today Southeast Asia. These early settlers were eventually replaced by or integrated into later migrating societies. One of these groups was the Senoi, who appears to have arrived in about 2000 BC and intermarried the local population. The next significant group was the Proto Malays who arrived in about 1000 BC.

The Proto-Malays, the ancestors of today's people were a combination of numerous groups, however at the time were primarily of Chinese descent. They later married the Polynesian and Micronesian people to create what is today known as the Malay people.

By the 100s BC the Malays had established trade with the India and China as they adopted Hinduism and Buddhism from the Indians. From this point and over the next couple centuries numerous small Malay civilizations arose, primarily in the Malay Peninsula. By the 700s larger and more powerful kingdoms arose, including the Gangga Negara as numerous cities rose to prominence in the spice trade. The most powerful of these kingdoms was the Srivijaya kingdom, who began a slow rose to power on the peninsula in the 600s from their base in Sumatra.

The Srivijaya ruled the Malay Peninsula until the 1100s or early 1200s when they began breaking down and their small vassal states on the peninsula gained freedom, but also opened themselves up to attack with no protectorate. This led to the Hindu Majapahit Empire taking the entire peninsula by the 1300s. Meanwhile Islam was introduced in Sumatra and its spread led to the founding of the Malacca Empire.

The spread of Islam arrived with the Arab traders who frequented the region in the spice trade. The religion began to spread at a rapid pace once the Sultanate of Malacca was founded in 1402 at the mouth of the Bertam River (Melaka River). Under this rule the empire united with China for protection as it expanded its trade networks to all reaches of the region, soon controlling trade and expanding the spread of Islam. Modern day Malaysia is truly the dynasty that the Sultanate of Malacca left behind. Both are centers of trade and a mix of Malays, Indians, and Chinese along with numerous other people.

The Sultanate of Malacca didn't last long though. In the 1200-1300s the Mongols shut down the land routes from this region to Europe. This initially led to huge profits in the spice trade and the rapid growth of Malacca, but soon after the Europeans sought water routes to the region to import the valuable spices of the region. This led to European involvement in the region in the 1500s and the fall of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511.

Through the 1500s the Europeans, primarily the Portuguese tried to colonize the region as they searched for valuable goods and sources of income. They also attempted to convert the people to Catholicism, but with little luck. What they did succeed in was taking Malacca.

After the fall of the Malacca Sultanate numerous local groups, primarily from Sumatra sought to gain power; the Johor Sultanate and Aceh Sultanate from this island were the most successful. Despite their greatest efforts, these sultanates couldn't re-take the Malacca straight from the Portuguese until 1641 when the Johors did it on the Dutch lead.

After Dutch intervention, their local ally, the Johor Sultanate slowly began taking over numerous small governments in the Malay Peninsula. After the Johors came the Bugis dynasty who slowly took over the Johor lands at the end of the 1600s. More than anything, this led to the fall of the Johors, leading to the intervention of Siam (modern day Thailand), who took much of the Malay Peninsula.

From this point, about 1700 through the end of the 1800s Malaysia was ruthlessly exploited as the land has tin and gold. This led to additional immigrants to the already diverse region, however now most of the immigrants were wealthy land owners who exploited the local people to work their mines. This was primarily driven by the British who sought secure trading routes from China as well as these minerals. In 1819 they gained Singapore and soon began trading lands with the Dutch to gain control of Malacca and other lands in the region.

During this time the local Malay sultans generally accepted British rule in order to curb Siam's (Thailand) expansion south. This transition of power to Britain was essentially finalized in 1824 when the Dutch signed a treaty with them defining each's territory in what is now Indonesia and Malaysia. British dominance continued as they became the protectorate of more and more lands, eventually creating the Federated Malay States.

In the late 1800s the British gained control over much of northern Borneo. One Brit in particular, James Brooke helped the local Sultans of Brunei and was given control over the Sarawak district, but he soon wanted more land and began taking lands from the Sultanate of Brunei. Despite British objections, the land soon came under British rule and later a part of Malaysia. Lands were also taken from the Spanish in northern Borneo during this time.

In the early 1900s the British gained lands on the Malay Peninsula from Siam and they were formalizing these land gains with the Dutch and locals as the modern day borders of Malaysia were slowly created.

By the early 1900s the region was also becoming more diverse as the Chinese came in to work the tin mines and the Indians arrived to work the rubber industry. However the Malays remained fairly happy since they held all police and military control as well as nearly every non-European seat in the local governing bodies.

When war broke out in 1939 in Europe the British became pre-occupied quite quickly at home so when the Japanese attacked Malaysia in the early 1940s they quickly overran the entire territory. The Japanese were harsh to the ethnic Chinese in the region and they quickly developed resistance movement as the ethnic Malays and Indians generally sided with the British, but had few options and often times worked with the Japanese.

After World War II the British began discussing independence with Malaysia, at first making Singapore and Borneo independent. However the final settlement included Borneo as Singapore gained independence. Before independence though, a growing communist movement, primarily among the ethnic Chinese arose and the British slowly crushed this movement. By 1957 this had been almost completely accomplished and the country gained independence in 1963 with the Malays, Chinese, and Indians all agreeing to the terms of the new country, which was led by Malay sultans, but with representation by all groups. Singapore and Brunei remained in this country for the time, but with great autonomy and they later each became independence.

By the late 1960s ethnic tensions had risen, but the people moved to political movements to solve these instead of violence. Oddly it was the ethnic Malays who had troubles obtaining jobs and soon laws were shifted to benefit them.

In the 1980s the country fell upon hard times economically. Since then there has been a slow recovery, which is best symbolized by the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which were built in 2012 as the tallest buildings in the world.

Today the country is most commonly criticized for having a fairly unrepresented political body as the sultans continue to hold a great amount of power and the same party has been in power since 1957.

This page was last updated: July, 2012