A Brief Story of South East Asia (3/3): From late colonial order to Cold War

Table of Contents

The journey to the East

In previous posts, we have seen the first great civilisations in the region, and how nascent independence movements began to develop in the various European colonies in Southeast Asia. In this post, we will go through the late colonial order, the Japanese occupation, decolonisation and the Cold War.

The late colonial order

Malaysia’s political order was driven by the religious and economic rift between the Malays and Chinese. The British policy served the Malay sultans and Malay agricultural land rights, albeit the so-called ‘Chinese’ communities comprised some people who had settled in the area for generations with weak links to China.

In the Dutch East Indies, aristocrats, who formed the backbone of colonial authority, could not get so soon the advantage of educational opportunities, and the emerging modern elite was drawn from the lower social strata. They framed their nationalism with the new term ‘Indonesia’, encompassing the many indigenous ethnic groups in the islands. The nationalistic movement drew leaders from many ethnic groups and chose Malay as its national language, rather than Javanese, the largest ethnic group’s language.

With the British conquest of Burma, not only the monarchy but also the former nobility had been swept away. As Western education became available, new elites emerged to defend Burma’s Buddhist identity against the Christianism and capitalism of British rule. They shared the radicalism of Indonesia’s nationalism, but their hostility to non-Burmese went further.

The Filipino-American war soon degenerated into a cruel war of extermination. American troops burned villages to deprive guerillas of support, herding inhabitants into concentration camps. It was precisely the war’s viciousness and brutality that served as the immediate backdrop for American colonial policy. Anxious to depoliticize and demilitarize the issue of Filipino independence, Americans sought to encourage Filipino collaboration, widening Filipino participation in the colonial administration. The traditional elites easily rose to prominent social and preferred not to call for radical social change.  American policymakers considered that US interests would be better met by giving a high level of autonomy to these sympathetic elite, thereby putting much of the government’s role in local hands.

Mass grave for Filipinos killed by US forces, c.1900


The Vietnamese nationalist movement was also radical. Since the pre-colonial mandarin class scorned French education, the new elite, as in Indonesia, showed little regard for the traditional order.

Of the colonial powers in Southeast Asia, the French were the least willing to promote colonial autonomy, and suppressed widespread unrest after a mutiny by colonial troops in 1930.

The Vietnamese nationalists were more and more inspired by Marxist ideas of revolution as the sole viable path to progress.

In June 1925 Ho Chi Minh had founded the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam, the predecessor of the Indochinese Communist Party

While Siam was not a colony, similar nationalist pressures were also developing there. Resentment of royal absolutism was on the rise. The call for democracy and respect for human dignity took a similar form to the rest of the region. The monarchy was also increasingly blamed for turning the country over to the West by exposing it to foreign companies.

The Japanese occupation

At the beginning of the 1940s, all these trends were derailed by the sudden conquest of the whole of Southeast Asia into the Japanese Empire of the Second World War.

The impact of Japanese rule on the region was profound, but rather than changing the historical trajectory, it speeded up trends that were already apparent. First of all, it destroyed the Western world’s aura of superiority over Asians, an image already being challenged by the nationalist mindset. With the military defeat of Western armies, and the systematic dismantling of Western educational structures, the colonial powers lost their ability to impose obedience on the local population. Secondly, the Japanese occupation authorities engaged with the new elites that had emerged under colonialism, promoting them to positions of authority to replace the exiled Westerners. They enlisted and formed local militaries, citizens -among  them students- but under close supervision. And they carried out a massive public campaign of propaganda to gain public support for the Japanese war effort.

Young Indonesian boys being trained by the Imperial Japanese Army

While Japanese forces sometimes used intensive brutality to maintain control of the region, they opened a new era of mass politics by assuring Southeast Asians that they could take control of their future.

But, unable to access Western markets, the region’s plantation economies atrophied. The demands of the war effort in Japan and Allied submarine warfare in Asian waters meant that Japan could no longer supply the region with industrial goods, including clothing and utensils, that had previously come from the West. Fierce fighting in Burma and the Philippines, as well as the diversion of civilian infrastructure to military use in other areas, wiped out much of the West’s capital investment Local Japanese authorities, under strict instructions to build up stocks, restricted the rice trade. Famine set in in many areas, with many millions dying in North Vietnam and hundreds of thousands in Java. Embittered economic hardship made the masses of Southeast Asia even more ripe for revolt. The Japanese occupation thus strongly reinforced the pre-war desire for independence.

The end of decolonization

Although Japanese rule placed the whole of Southeast Asia under a single political system for the first time in history, little account was taken of changes in colonial boundaries in the decolonisation process.

The Philippines and Burma enjoyed the highest degree of autonomy before the outbreak of war, and both were recaptured by the Allies before the end of the war. In both colonies, therefore, nationalist elites recognised the need for negotiation and the possibility of progress. The US had planned before the war to grant independence to the Philippines in 1945, but postponed this for a year and handed over sovereignty on 4 July 1946, leaving power in the hands of the Filipino elites who had dominated the Philippines during the colonial period.

In Burma, the nationalist elite was much more radical, but the British authorities concluded that they could not control the colony militarily, especially given that the path to independence was clear in neighbouring India. They negotiated with the main nationalist leader, Aung San, and Burma gained its independence in January 1948.

Aung San and family (Khin Kyi, Aung San Oo, Aung San Suu Kyi –, Aung San Lin). In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in Myanmar's first openly contested election in 25 years. But she was deposed by a coup in 2021 when the military took control and arrested her and her political allies.

On the other hand, the Dutch in India and the French in Indochina resisted any serious attempts at autonomy before the war. Moreover, in both colonies, the Japanese army was still in control when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki leading to the surrender of Japan. Sukarno in Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam opted for the high-risk strategy of declaring national independence, seeing the gap after the surrender as an opportunity to gain independence. They both hoped for some sympathy from Britain and the United States, but their declarations of independence were not recognised. The Dutch and French authorities recognised that formal colonialism was over and wanted to form alliances with leaders they saw as sympathetic to Western values and interests.

In Malaya, the British made greater racial distinctions. in 1948, they consolidated most of their holdings into an autonomous Federation of Malaya, in which the Malay sultans held a strong position and the Malays were identified with the bumiput era (literally ‘sons of the land’) and enjoyed privileges over the large Chinese and Indian communities.

In addition, predominantly Chinese Singapore remained a British colony. The large ethnic groups in the former French colonies did not want to retain ‘Indochina’, so in Laos and Cambodia the French authorities worked with what they saw as a subservient colonial-era elite to achieve a largely peaceful transition to independence, unlike the bitter struggle in Vietnam next door.

Cold war and its influence in South East Asia

After the Communist victory in China in 1949, the Vietnamese Communists received broad support from the new People’s Republic of China; the United States became more determined to prevent Vietnam from being «overrun» by Communism. In 1954, the Vietnamese military forces defeated a French leading to France calling for peace. Both sides settled on a provisional split of Vietnam down the 17th parallel, the Vietcong controlling the north and the «State of of Vietnam» the south. Reunification elections were to be held in 1956. The state of Vietnam was created in 1949 as a vehicle for pro-French interests, but after France withdrew, Ngo Dinh Diem, supported by the United States, sought to make it a viable non-communist alternative to the communist-dominated North. Between 600,000 and one million Vietnamese fled the North to the South during this period. Diem organised a referendum to approve the Republic of Vietnam. Vietnam was thus decolonised as two opposing regimes.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower greets US-supported South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem at Washington National Airport (1957)

The harshness of the Japanese occupation also encouraged communist uprisings in other parts of Southeast Asia – the Philippines, Malaya, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. It was only in Indonesia that the communists rejected revolution and instead sought to gain power by championing the interests of Indonesian peasants.

In the West, these trends caused great concern, particularly in the light of communist governance in China. Western analysts started to refer to the «domino theory» -Southeast Asian countries would gradually fall victim to the communists-. Western response was military and political. In Malaya and the Philippines in particular, the communist insurgencies were crushed by sophisticated counterinsurgency techniques. Fearing a possible communist victory in the elections, the US pursued a strategy of supporting dictatorial rulers – Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Sarit Thanarra in Thailand, Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines.

Myanmar’s Ne Win was no friend of the West, but his isolationist military regime kept the communists in Burma at bay, satisfying the US. Malaya’s economic growth gave the Malaysian leadership and Britain enough confidence to merge the country with Singapore in 1963 and form the Malaysian state, although political, ethnic tensions and vested interests led to Singapore leaving two years later.

Indonesia was the weakest point in the Western strategy. President Sukarno declined to associate to either side of the Cold War and fostered the Non-Aligned Movement instead. On the domestic front, his abandonment of elections and the introduction of a so-called «managed democracy» from 1957 to 1959 initially seemed to frustrate the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)’s electoral strategy. Before long, the communists became the main advocates of «guided democracy»and their support among the peasantry continued to grow. A deep polarisation emerged in Indonesian politics between the communists and the military and Muslim parties.

Sukarno delegated his executive powers to General Suharto in 1967. In 2016, almost 60 years later, the International People's Tribunal in The Hague declared that the massacres of Indonesian communists in 1965 constituted a genocides of the 20th century, qualifying it as a crime against humanity.

The economy was in great distress due to Sukarno’s indifference to the administration and, the (PKI) could gain power if Sukarno died or resigned. Senior General Suharto used the instability as a pretext to seize power from Sukarno while ordering the systematic massacres of PKI members -a total of 500,000 people were killed. From March 1966, Suharto actually took power and began to implement the dictatorial development plans that the US had developed for its other allies in Southeast Asia.

As the prospects for an anti-communist government in South Vietnam worsened, US involvement became more intense. In an effort to destabilise communist supply lines from north to south, the US president, advised by Henry Kissinger (who later received the Nobel Peace Prizer), authorised the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, destabilising these countries. In 1969, the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Indochina began, the last of which left in 1973. The US military fled from Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, once captured by North Vietnamese and local rebels in April 1975, and the two parts of the country were officially reunited on 2 July 1976.

Americans and Vietnamese run for a U.S. Marine helicopter in Saigon during the evacuation of the city, April 29, 1975

History teaches us so much. .. …So here we come to the end of last of the three posts on South East Asia history.  But, our Journey to the East continues so…

… If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at info@danielecheverria.com. We will be happy to answer them.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to info@danielecheverria.com. Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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