Southeast Asia has a rich history of varying civilizations that has resulted in a complex society today. Humans have inhabited this area for approximately 45,000 years and originated on the Indian subcontinent. The Austronesian people migrated here from present-day Taiwan around 2,000 BC. They cohabited with tribal groups like the Negritos in the Philippines and Papuans of New Guinea. These early inhabitants were successful explorers and traveled as far as Madagascar by sea route which influenced trade among the Asian and European regions. Mobility among different nations had an impact on all aspects of the culture, including religion.
The earliest practiced religion throughout the region was animism, the belief that plants and animals possess spirits. Indian traders later introduced Hinduism around the 1st century AD which led to the creation of several large and powerful kingdoms. Hinduism was once so popular that it was the state religion of several Southeast Asian countries. This fact held true until around the 13th century. By the 14th century, most places had turned to Buddhism in an attempt to move away from the caste system that is so prevalent in Hinduism. Evidence of the religion, however, remains. One example is Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple. In Thailand, people still worship some Hindu gods. Today, the religion is practiced mainly in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
While Hinduism was influential throughout the region, Buddhism took hold and remained prominent in many countries. From the 9th through the 13th centuries, Mahayana Buddhism was the major religious practice, and it went on to influence language, art, and architecture. Theravada Buddhism spread through mainland Southeast Asia and by 500 AD was present in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Unlike other religions, Buddhism spread via the people, not the ruling elite. Today, Thailand is 98.3% Buddhist. In Burma, 89% of the population practice Buddhism and in Laos it is 67%. Vietnam, once majority Buddhist, now has a population of 16.4% that identifies with the religion.
By the early 9th century, Arab traders began to play a key role in international trade. In 674 AD, a Muslim settlement was established on the west coast of Sumatra and slowly spread to other communities. It was not, however, until the 12th century that the religion began to spread significantly. Several rulers of the time converted or intermarried with people of the faith and established Islam as the state religion. In addition, missionaries carried the ideology throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. Today, Islam is the majority religion in Brunei (67%), Cocos Islands (80%), Indonesia (87.18%), and Malaysia (60.4%).
The other major religion found in Southeast Asia is Christianity. Catholicism, a branch of Christianity, came much later than the other religions. It was introduced with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500’s who colonized Indonesia. This country was ruled by the Spanish for 300 years which led to their religious conversion. In 1975, Indonesia overruled the Portuguese government by invading the Portuguese colony of East Timor. At that time, only 20% of East Timor residents considered themselves Catholic. Today, 80% of the population of the Philippines is Catholic and in East Timor that number goes up to 97%.
With so many active religions throughout the area, Southeast Asia is one of the most religiously diverse regions in the world. In historical times, these nations practiced relative religious tolerance. Today, however, that tolerance may be dissipating as some of the religious followers have begun to clash violently. This fact is largely due to extremism among all religions. As Southeast Asia continues to experience drastic changes in social and economic development, religious demographics will likely also change.