Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brief overview of Malaysian history

Archaeological evidence found in the Niah Caves in Sarawak in the country of Malaysia indicates that human beings began inhabiting the general area well over 40,000 years ago. Neolithic culture was well established by 2500-1500 BC. Most scholars believe the earliest settlers on the Malay Peninsula came overland from southern China in small groups over a period of thousands of years. These early inhabitants became the ancestors of the Orang Asli. During the 1000's B.C., new groups of migrants who spoke a language related to Malay came to Malaysia. The ancestors of these people had traveled by sea from south China to Taiwan, and later from Taiwan to Borneo and the Philippines. These people became the ancestors of the Malays and the Orang Laut and they settled mainly in the coastal areas of the peninsula.

Small Malayan kingdoms existed in the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, when adventurers from India arrived and initiated more than 1,000 years of Indian influence. About A.D. 1400, a group of Malay-speaking migrants came to the Malay Peninsula from Srivijaya, a trading kingdom on the island of Sumatra (now part of Indonesia). Led by a Sumatran prince called Paramesvara, these newly arrived immigrants established a commercial kingdom called Malacca and secured Chinese protection for the city-state. This Chinese societal influence continues today, especially in Penang and Malacca..

The Europeans arrived on the Malay Peninsula in the 17th century. First the Portuguese established trading centers at Melacca in 1511 and later in 1641 the Dutch established trading posts along the coastlines. The Dutch held onto the area for 150 years. The British acquired Penang Island in 1786 and established a settlement called George Town. They gained more and more territory and ruled the region for about 150 years. By 1914, Britain had either direct or indirect colonial control over all the lands that now make up Malaysia, which it called British Malaya. A movement for independence started after WWII. Independence was not gained until 1963.

"It was the British who recognized the strategic position of the Malay states and their abundance of natural resources, subsequently colonizing and controlling the region for over 150 years." Ha-ha-ha-ha!! That statement is taken from a website supposedly about Malaysia, and it is obviously written from a British viewpoint. This is utterly ridiculous! Ships from Egypt, Rome, Arabia, Africa, Persia, India and China had been using the area known as Malacca Straits and visiting and trading with what is now known as Malaysia for several thousand years before the Europeans arrived. They traded glassware, spices, camphor, cotton goods, brocades, ivory, sandalwood, perfumes and precious stones. They all recognized the strategic position of the Malay states and their abundance of natural resources. Only difference was that the British wanted to control the region and take those resources rather than trade, as the Brits did throughout the world during the time of their colonial empire.

During World War II, the Japanese invaded in 1942 and occupied the area for over three years. The Chinese Tong jungle fighters formed into bands of 10 men each and harassed and murdered Japanese soldiers during the entire time of occupation. The Japanese could not defeat the Tong because the Tong were so adept at jungle warfare. Before abandoning the area to the Japanese, the British handed out guns to the Tong and promised them land if they fought the Japanese. After Japan finally surrendered and the war ended, the British returned and insisted that the Tong return their guns but the Brits did not honor their promise of giving land to those who had fought. The Brits did a typical British thing and insisted that the Tong submit documentation of their orders to fight the Japanese and to substantiate their claims for land. Of course, there were no written orders. Even if there had been, there would have been no way to preserve a paper document in the wet jungle for 3 years during the 1940s -- not like plastic ziplocks had yet been invented. The Tong were ripped off by the British and did not get their lands. But the Tong were smart enough not to turn in their guns; instead, they turned in guns taken from dead Japanese soldiers. This enabled the Tong to remain armed to fight for independence from the British.

In 1948, the British-ruled territories on the Malay Peninsula (southern parts of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and the Peninsular Malaysia) formed the Federation of Malaya. In 1957, after a decade of intense negotiations, the region gained independence from Britain. Malaysia itself was formed in 1963 when Singapore and the states of Sabah and Sarawak joined the Peninsular Malaysia Federation. Therefore, Malaysia today is divided into mainland Malaysia and eastern Malaysia some distance across the China Sea on the island of Kalimantan (Borneo) just south of Brunei. Singapore left the Malay States in 1965 to become a separate nation. There is a sense of anymousity today between Singapore and Malaysia, each preferring to think they are the better country.

Malaysia is located In Southeast Asia, just north of the Equator. The exotic, tropical islands and lands of Malaysia contain some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet and a collection of unrivaled rainforests and national parks. Unfortunately for us, those beautiful beaches are on the eastern coast. We will be sailing up the western coast, which is not known for any beautiful beaches. We will be sailing northwest along the Malaysian coastline through the Straits of Malacca toward the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.

The Straits of Malacca are the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The narrowest point is Phillips Channel near Singapore where the passage is only 1.7 miles wide. Over 94,000 cargo ships and oil transports transit the straits annually. The staits are relatively shallow and are filled with shipwrecks that create traffic hazards. The shallow depth and the narrow constraint of Phillips Channel dictate the maximum size of ship that can transit the Malacca Straits, especially for oil tankers. This size ship is called a Malaccamax. The larger oil tankers today cannot transit the Malacca Straits and must go west around the Indonesian island of Sumatra and north through the Lombok Strait at Bali in order to reach the South China Sea. That just happens to be the route we took through Indonesia.

If pirates or terrorists or some other disaster were to block the Malacca Straits, then nearly one-half of the world's shipping fleet would have to be re-routed around the western side of Sumatra and through the Lombok Strait. That 50% number was found on the website of the Energy Information Administration of the US government reflecting World Oil Transit Chokepoints. There are a couple of major pipelines under construction at this time which will eventually reduce the amount of oil transported via ships. One pipeline is being built from Saudia Arabia to China, paid for by China. Another pipeline is being built along the southern border of Thailand and through northern Malaysia. Construction began in 2007 This $7billion pipeline should reduce the oil transport traffic through the Malacca Straits by 20%.

There has been another canal proposed. China offered to pay for construction of a canal across the narrowest point of the isthmus of Thailand. But the Thai government feared the possibility of separation of north and south Thailand and that the southern population (which is mostly Muslim) would soon want independence. Thailand cited environmental concerns as well as inability to govern their country effectively if Thailand were separated by such a canal; and that canal deal now appears to be a dead issue. That is a shame. A canal across Thailand would not only be great for shipping but would also be cherished by cruisers like us. It would open up a cruising area that is seldom traveled today. Only a few cruisers take the northern route through the Federated States of Micronesia and the Philippines, an area we wish we had had an opportunity to see.

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