The concept of power is one that has existed in Southeast Asia for a long period of time. Unlike that of the Western regions, where power is more of a concept and is intangible, power in Southeast Asia is more concrete and real. Power is defined as the possession of control or command over others (Dictionary.com, n.d.) In the context of Southeast Asia, power is gained through control of powerful items or valuable resources, as this would usually translate to wealth, a higher position within the social hierarchy, and hence more command over other people. In Southeast Asia, the focus is on accumulating more command and control, instead of just exercising it. Due to the long history of trade and migration within Southeast Asia itself, these concepts have inevitably become a coherent and homogenous one. My essay will seek to show the various ways that power is manifested, particularly in three different levels within a nation state. Firstly, power exists on a national level via certain nation state political models. Secondly, within a nation state, power manifests in different groups of religions, as religious beliefs have influenced how they attempt to both acquire and accumulate power. Thirdly, power exists among individuals, in the idea of merit and social mobility throughout one's social hierarchy.
Firstly, the most evident way that power is manifested in Southeast Asia is on a national level, through nation states' political systems. One such political system is the mandala system, where power is centralized and drawn towards the sacred core. One might imagine this visually as a series of concentric ever widening circles, with state authority fading as the circles widen. What mattered was the sacred centre, not the borders (Tambiah, 1970).
This political system was typically found in Pre-colonial nation states in Southeast Asia. For example, in the 13th Century, King Suryavarman II spread its Mandala polity throughout the state of Angkor by building the renowned ‘Angkor Wat’ among many monasteries and temples in the centre of the state (Dellios, 2003). Thereafter, advantaged by its location on the northwest shore, Angkor relied successfully on trade of its wet-rice agriculture to produce great amounts of wealth, enough to support a population of a million people (Dellios, 2003) In this aspect, power is recognised in the form of wealth, as many people saw ‘Angkor Wat’ and its surrounding temples as the sacred centre that drew the wealth towards the core of its nation. Because Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II, many people also acknowledged him as a manifestation of god, someone with immense power. In a mandala polity where power diffuses further away from the centre, these people tried to get closer to the centre, hence giving King Suryavarman II even more command and power over them.
A more recent example of a region following the mandala system can be found along the Thai-Burmese border, where the Akha, a tribal upland ethnic minority, reside (Tooker, 1996). Under Thai law, the lands which the Akha and other upland groups occupy are owned by instead owned by the state. This insinuates that power is directed towards the centre, in the lowlands where the state resides. On the other hand, the Akha, who reside by the highlands and are thus further away from the centre, have much lesser power. For instance, the Akhas suffered from occasional forced labour, extortion by government officials and forced migration (Tooker, 1996) by the state. In this context, the state has command over the Akha tribe and this allowed them to control the Arkas' resources, such as human labour, and wealth in the form of money. This is thus consistent with the mandala model, whereby the centre is most crucial and the borders are less important because power is drawn to the core.