Siam I amFar Outliers (an excellent blog on Asian affairs and culture) has a number of interesting posts concerning how nations in East Asia got there names (called Changing Names). These posts are wonderful because they deal with different issues about how these countries were perceived as a whole and came into being. Some of these involve how outsiders perceived the ethnic makeup or political power in the area. Others deal with geopolitical concepts between western powers. Still others reflect attempts to create representative nations out of what were hegemonic dynasties.
Indonesia emerged piecemeal from a number of different geographic concepts:
The term "Indonesia" was first used in 1850 by the British anthropologist J. R. Logan to designate islands called the "Indian Archipelago" by other Western writers. For Logan, "Indonesia" did not designate a political unit but a cultural zone that included the Philippines. The forebears of today's Indonesians had no term for the region or concept of a single political unit linking communities across seas.
The concept of Indonesia replaced India as a result of two processes: the growth of Dutch power in the area (what they called the Indies) and indigenous contesting of Dutch authority.
The notion of Cambodia has complex origins. “Kampuchea” refers to the mythical origins of the people in the northern regions, appropriated by the French as Cambodge and rendered into English as Cambodia. Khmer had multiple meanings, both ethnic and regional, but also tied to Cambodian nationalism and independence:
In 1970, following a coup against Norodom Sihanouk, the country named itself the Khmer Republic ... The word "Khmer" refers to the major ethnic group in Cambodia, comprising perhaps 90 percent of the population, and also to the language spoken throughout the country. The etymology of the word is obscure, but it has been in use to describe the inhabitants of the region for over a thousand years. In general the terms "Khmer" and "Cambodian" are interchangeable ...
Vietnam had its origins in the late nineteenth century as the name preferred by the ruling dynasty of the area, although the Chinese tinkered with it:
In the early 1800s the new Nguyen dynasty tried to secure [Chinese] recognition of a new name for the country: "Nam Viet." But to the rulers of China the term ... conjured up memories of an ancient state [in southern China] of that name ... Chinese rulers feared that their acceptance of the term "Nam Viet" might signal approval of resurrected Vietnamese claims to south China. They therefore reversed the components of the proposed new name to detoxify it politically, ... .
Malaysia is a reference to a dominant ethnic group, something which has become more problematic as the nation has become ethnically diverse (especially due to immigration):
The name "Malaysia" is derived from the term "Malay," long applied by locals and foreigners to the Malay Peninsula in recognition of the predominance there of Malay-speaking peoples (whose geographic extent, however, also includes much of Sumatra and other islands of the archipelago) ... [Because of] the large immigrant influx [there has been an effort] to distinguish between Malaysians who are of Malay or other local descent and those who are not (no matter whether locally descended or long resident): bumiputera ("son[s] of the soil"), which confers constitutionally derived advantages of various sorts.
The name Philippines is of Spanish origins, and refers to the territory regardless of its ethnic composition:
The Philippines was named by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century for the prince who would become King Philip II of Spain ... The Spanish called most of the indigenous inhabitants indios (Indians) using the term "Filipino" only as an adjective or to describe Caucasians born in the archipelago. These were white-skinned, not brown: creoles, of European ancestry but born in the empire rather than on the Iberian Peninsula. Since the late nineteenth century the term "Filipino" has been transformed to describe any person born in the archipelago who chose to owe allegiance to the Philippines, while the term indio is generally considered derogatory ...
Siam referred to the ruling region, changing to Thialand in an effort to make the state look more representative of all its regional groups:
The polity now known as Thailand was generally referred to as "Siam" for many centuries. Nationalists renamed it in 1939 in an attempt to be more inclusive of people, particularly in the north, northeast, and south, who had never considered themselves "Siamese" (i.e., indigenous subjects of the state ... ) but might be persuaded to think of themselves as "Thai." After World War II "Siam" briefly was restored as the country's name in 1946, but little more than a year later "Thailand" became permanent.
Finally, various encounters with the European institutions brought about and confirmed the name Laos:
The word "Laos" was first used by European missionaries and cartographers in the seventeenth century to pluralize the word "Lao," the name of the country's predominant ethnolinguistic group ... The French used the term "Laos" as the name for their protectorate in the colonial period. After independence in 1954, the country became known as the Kingdom of Laos. In 1975, when the communists came to power and the monarchy was abolished, it was renamed the Lao People's Democratic Republic.