The Strait of Malacca and its lucrative trade have been a prize for which many powers fought throughout the centuries. The Malay Peninsula and the adjacent islands, which form a hinterland to the Strait, were invariably involved in the struggle. Only once before 1963 was the diverse area of present-day Malaysia united under a single government. The great maritime empire of Sri Vijaya, based on the Island of Sumatra, incorporated the Malay Peninsula, the Island of Tumasek (Singapore) and the northwestern coastal strip of Borneo in the eleventh century. In the fifteenth century the Peninsula itself became united under the kingdom of Malacca, which controlled the Strait but had no hold on Borneo.
The Malay Peninsula has served for centuries as a north-south land bridge for the migration of peoples between the mainland and the islands, as a mobile population shifted from one to the other in search of peace and profit or in escape from times of trouble. Thus, the history of Malaya has much in common with that of the archipelago, particularly the island of Sumatra; only since 1824 has Malaya existed as a political unit entirely separate from that island. The Peninsula, secondly, was a barrier in the middle of the sea route between India and China and between Europe and China; merchants had either to transship their goods or to sail through the Strait of Malacca, unless they were willing to make the much longer voyage around Sumatra and through a narrower channel, the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java.
Thus, strategic importance was given to the coast along the Strait of Malacca and to the narrow section of the Peninsula north of Malaya. Further, the traditional and lucrative piracy practiced by inhabitants along both straits constituted an added incentive for would-be conquerors, who could always clothe their aggression in the righteous guise of the need to suppress the freebooters.
A constant target of commercial rivalries, Malaya has experienced control, at times superficial, at others penetrating, by a series of foreign powers; it has been affected by changes in the demand for goods and in trade policies and by political conditions and foreign relations of countries ranging from China to Great Britain. Commercial contacts brought Malaya not only the goods of many nations and a series of foreign suzerains but also governmental forms and court traditions, scripts and new vocabulary, literatures and religions. The suzerains have included China; the European powers of Portugal, Holland and Great Britain; and regional powers centered in Java, Sumatra and Siam. Only one country, India, has exercised strong influence on Malaya without establishing political dominance.
The people who received and assimilated the many influences converging on the Peninsula have never been great in number or united in purpose. Limited by the nature of the country, the density of the jungle, the rapid erosion of cleared land and the prevalence of malaria, the population before the nineteenth century probably never exceeded 2 million persons. Settling along the rivers and coasts, the Malays lived in villages joined loosely into riverine states. They did share, however, the same or similar traditions; their ruling families often were related by blood or marriage; and at times they were united under a single suzerain. Nevertheless, they have also fought each other, jealously maintaining then- separate existences, and each small state has its own history. Separately as well as collectively, they experienced foreign domination, the northern states often subject to Siam while the southern remained independent or paid homage to another power.
The early Buddhist Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, based at what is now Palembang, Sumatra, dominated much of the Malay peninsula from the 9th to the 13th centuries AD. The powerful Hindu kingdom of Majapahit, based on Java, gained control of the Malay peninsula in the 14th century. Conversion of the Malays to Islam, beginning in the early 14th century, accelerated with the rise of the state of Malacca under the rule of a Muslim prince in the 15th century. Malacca was a major regional commercial center, where Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian merchants traded precious goods.
Drawn by this rich trade, a Portuguese fleet conquered Malacca in 1511, marking the beginning of European expansion in Southeast Asia. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese from Malacca in 1641. The British obtained the island of Penang in 1786 and temporarily controlled Malacca with Dutch acquiescence from 1795 to 1818 to prevent it from falling to the French during the Napoleonic war. The British gained lasting possession of Malacca from the Dutch in 1824, through the Anglo-Dutch treaty, in exchange for territory on the island of Sumatra in what is today Indonesia.
In 1826, the British settlements of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore were combined to form the Colony of the Straits Settlements. From these strongholds, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the British established protectorates over the Malay sultanates on the peninsula. During their rule the British developed large-scale rubber and tin production and established a system of public administration. British control was interrupted by World War II and the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945.
Popular sentiment for independence swelled during and after the war. The territories of peninsular Malaysia joined together to form the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and eventually negotiated independence from the British in 1957. Tunku Abdul Rahman became the first prime minister. In 1963 the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah joined the Federation, which was renamed Malaysia. Singapore's membership was short-lived, however; it left in 1965 and became an independent republic.
Neighboring Indonesia objected to the formation of Malaysia and began a program of economic, political, diplomatic, and military "confrontation" against the new country in 1963, which ended only after the fall of Indonesia's President Sukarno in 1966. Internally, local communists, nearly all Chinese, carried out a long, bitter insurgency both before and after independence, prompting the imposition of a state of emergency from 1948 to 1960. Small bands of guerrillas remained in bases along the rugged border with southern Thailand, occasionally entering northern Malaysia. These guerrillas finally signed a peace accord with the Malaysian Government in December 1989. A separate, small-scale communist insurgency that began in the mid-1960s in Sarawak also ended with the signing of a peace accord in October 1990.
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