Peatlands are a significant component of the global carbon (C) cycle, yet despite their role as a long-term C sink throughout the Holocene, they are increasingly vulnerable to destabilization. Nowhere is this shift from sink to source happening more rapidly than in Southeast Asia, and nowhere else are the combined pressures of land-use change and fire on peatland ecosystem C dynamics more evident nor the consequences more apparent. This review focuses on the peatlands of this region, tracing the link between deforestation and drainage and accelerating C emissions arising from peat mineralization and fire. It focuses on the implications of the recent increase in fire occurrence for air quality, human health, ecosystem resilience and the global C cycle. The scale and controls on peat-driven C emissions are addressed, noting that although fires cause large, temporary peaks in C flux to the atmosphere, year-round emissions from peat mineralization are of a similar magnitude. The review concludes by advocating land management options to reduce future fire risk as part of wider peatland management strategies, while also proposing that this region's peat fire dynamic could become increasingly relevant to northern peatlands in a warming world.This article is part of the themed issue 'The interaction of fire and mankind'.