Dr. Arlene Neher



Southeast Asia During World War II






The late 1930s and the 1940s were a time of shifting diplomatic alignments in Southeast Asia. Because Europeans and Americans were preoccupied with domestic economic problems and with defending against the German advance in Europe, they were less interested in their Asian colonies, thereby opening opportunities for Southeast Asian nationalists to assert leadership. At the same time Japan was extending its economic influence and military power, moving southward through China into Southeast Asia. The Japanese cultural campaign proclaimed that Asia should be ruled by Asians and promised independence from the Western colonial/imperialist rule. At first some Southeast Asians admired and welcomed the Japanese. However, when the promised independence was not forthcoming, Southeast Asian nationalists – many of whom had been leaders in resisting Western colonial rule (as in Indonesia, Burma, and Vietnam) – mounted underground movements to drive the Japanese out. In Thailand, the anti-Japanese movement (the Free Thai or Seri Thai) had several branches; some operating from outside the nation and some working underground in Thailand to sabotage the Japanese. Residence groups throughout Southeast Asia were, first and foremost nationalists, pledged to freeing their nations of foreign interference, whether throwing off the colonial yoke of Europe or thwarting the intrusive advance or military control of Japan. The most significant development of the World War II period in Southeast Asia was that Southeast Asia nationalists seized the opportunity for leadership and nationalist independence movements flourished.

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Context/Introduction and Reading Assignment

This focus on Southeast Asia during World War II occurs within the context of an introductory interdisciplinary college course on Southeast Asia at Northern Illinois University. The discipline, the lens being used to focus on Southeast Asia is the discipline of history. Historians use sequence and chronology as primary organizing principles. Historians are interested in how things change over time, in how social institutions, political power arrangements, economic realities are different from one point in time to another. Historians look for cause and effect. When did World War II begin and end for Southeast Asia? How was Southeast Asia different after World War II? What caused these changes? How important were the internal forces for change? Or were the people of Southeast Asia merely reacting to pressures from outside of Southeast Asia?

Assignment: In preparation for this lecture the required reading is Milton Osborne’s "The Second World War in Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. Chapter 9, second edition, Sydney, 1983.

And historians, it seems, always go back to before the beginning . . . in effort to understand the World War II period and to understand why it was a period of significant change, it is necessary to look at Southeast Asia on the brink of, just before the war.

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Brief Outline of Lecture
  1. Southeast Asia on the brink of World War II [See map: "Extent of European and American Interest in Southeast Asia on the Brink of World War II" on handout.]
    1. Extent and nature of Western [European and American influence (17th century to early 20th century)].
    2. Reasons for the West’s declining interest and involvement in the Southeast Asian colonies.
    3. Rising nationalistic, independence, anti-colonial movements, and European reactions.
    4. Status of overseas Chinese and of Chinese-Southeast Asians.
    5. Increased/rising Japanese interest in Southeast Asia.
    6. Why Southeast Asia is drawn into the War?
    7. When does World War II begin for Southeast Asia? [See Time Line on Handout]
  2. The WWII years as the Japanese period in Southeast Asian history.
    1. Japan did not have to use military force to conquer Southeast Asia. There were many reasons that Japan appealed to Southeast Asians.
    2. Japan advanced policies and propaganda to win over Southeast Asia.
    3. Southeast Asians’ reactions and responses to the Japanese.
      1. Japan controlled Southeast Asia in surprisingly quick time (less than six months).
      2. Popular favor shifted away from Japan as the U.S. entered the Pacific Theatre of the war with more intention – and military power.
      3. Southeast Asian NATIONALISTS asserted own independent identity.
  3. Range of responses to the Japanese – country-by-country.
    1. Burma - BIA
    2. Vietnam - Viet Minh
    3. Philippines - MacArthur
    4. Malaya and Singapore - Chinese vehemently anti-Japan
    5. Indonesia - Sareket Islam
    6. Thailand - Dual Diplomacy
  4. Summary – Changes in Southeast Asia Results of World War II.
    1. Primary changes were political; international alignments and politics relative to Southeast Asia change
    2. Increased assimilation of Chinese
    3. Southeast Asian nationalists ascending.

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    Expanded Outline (Notes Commentary for "World War II in Southeast Asia")

  1. Southeast Asia on the brink of World War II ("brink" defined as late 1930s).
    1. [see map on handout]Extent of European and American (= Western) influence:
      1. Review Western colonies:
        1. U.S. - Philippines - independence had been promised.
        2. French - "Indochina" (5 states)
        3. British - Burma, Malaya, Singapore
        4. Dutch - "Dutch East Indies" (Indonesia ... Java)
        5. Variations in the extent and nature of the economic, political, and cultural influence
        6. Variations in progress toward independence.
        7. Thailand managed to remain the only nation not colonized. Thailand parlayed its fortuitous geographic location into a buffer state status playing the British off against the French. Thailand did, however, have to give up some of its outlying vassal states and did succumb to British penetration of its economy.
        8. All of Southeast Asia had been of interest to the Western imperialists. Thailand alone was able to resist colonization, but even Thailand felt the encroaching pressure from the French to its east and Britain from the north and south. On the eve of the war, Japan could appeal to Thailand promising to help it regain territories which had been reluctantly ceded to the French along the Mekong River, to the British in the Shan states and to the British on the Malay Peninsula.
      map_aneher.jpg (37820 bytes)
      "Pan Thai" map marking the widest extension of Thai suzerainty in the 19th Century.   A significant aspect of Phibun Songkhram’s "nationalism" was the identification of the Thai nation with all Thai or T’ai peoples, including the Lao and the Shan and reaching even to the Black T’ai in Vietnam and the T’ai in Sipsongphanna in southern China.


    1. The Colonial powers grew increasingly less interested and less involved in their Southeast Asian colonies because
      1. They were preoccupied with "home" problems, the worldwide depression, German threat;
      2. The colonies were not the financial success hoped;
      3. The colonies needed too much investment in infrastructure, in education, and in political (police, military, bureaucracies) control;
      4. There was a general increase in anti-imperialism sentiments at home; sympathy in Europe and U.S. for national self-determination of all peoples (spirit of Versailles) was on the rise.
    2. Rising nationalism, independence movements in
      1. "Core" areas – lower Burma, North Vietnam (Hue, Tonkin), and Java – Sareket Islam
      2. "Rebels" identified/arrested by colonial powers
      3. (Review previous "Crossroads" lecture on nationalism in Southeast Asia.)
    3. Overseas Chinese
      1. They had been brought to Southeast Asia by Europeans to solve labor shortage; Southeast Asia relatively under-populated compared to China.
      2. Contract workers paid passage by working, almost all male, young.
      3. "Sojourner" mentality, intended to return home, sent money home.
      4. Worked as laborers on docks, in rice mills, on rubber plantations, in tin mines.
      5. Many of those who stayed became middlemen, had linking jobs, enabling products to be exported (mills, factories, storage, sales, banking, accounting).
      6. Rise of Chinese-Southeast Asian cohorts in coastal enclaves; result of intermarriage of Chinese men with indigenous women; evolved to the great cities of Southeast Asia.
      7. Southeast Asian cities are Chinese cities in character, purpose, population.
      8. Assimilation/separatism – dependent largely on attitudes and policies in each country.
      9. There were some who questioned where the Chinese and Chinese-Southeast Asians’ loyalties lay.
      10. Overseas Chinese were entrepreneurial, adventuresome, capitalistic; did not fit into new (communist) China.
    4. Increased Japanese interest in Southeast Asia.
      1. Southeast Asia was the natural hinterland to supply food and fuels to the developing industrial economy of Japan.
      2. Some quite highly developed Japanese economic outposts – plantations, e.g., in Davao on the southeast coast of Mindanao in the Philippines.
      3. Some examples minor cultural expansion (but this was so limited that during World War II, Japanese and Southeast Asians generally used English to communicate).
    5. Southeast Asia got drawn into World War II because
      1. Its colonial owners were either Allied nations or Axis-occupied nations.
      2. [see chart "Nations Involved in World War II" on handout]

      3. As Western control and interest declined, Japan saw an opportunity to move into Southeast Asia, to use its economic resources, to buy its exports.
      4. World War II began effecting Southeast Asia in the late 1930s with Japan’s advance into China and more directly after June 1940 as France’s defeat left a vacuum of control in French Indochina. Japan moved into Cambodia and Cochin China (South Vietnam).
      5. See Time Line on handout.


    Time Line of World War II in Southeast Asia

    1930s Worldwide economic depression
    Japan into China
    Germany into eastern and western Europe
    Rising Southeast Asian nationalism
    Decreasing Western interest in Asian colonies

    1940 MacArthur pleads for aid to fortify the Philippines
    Japanese cultural and economic expansion
    June – fall of France (to Hitler’s advance)

    1941 Japan into French Indochina
    December 7 – Pearl Harbor
    Japan moves on Manila, Thai coast, Singapore, Indonesia on the same day

    1942 Japan and Burma Independence Army into Burma
    Japan defeats United Kingdom at Singapore
    Philippines show greatest resistance to Japan
    Japan welcomed in Indonesia
    Japan and Thailand Alliance

    1944 Southeast Asian Resistance Groups increase and are more public with their anti-Japan activities

    1945 August – A bombs
    September-December – Europeans attempt return

  1. The World War II Years as the Japanese Period in Southeast Asian History
    1. Japan was attractive to some Southeast Asians because:
      1. Japan was a "success story" – rapid development, 1904 Russo-Japanese war, control of China
      2. Rise of Japan debunked myth of European superiority
      3. Japan represented an alternative mode of development (state capitalism)
      4. An alternative place to get education, technology, capital
      5. A refuge for anti-imperialist and anti-colonial nationalistic Southeast Asians. Japan welcomed nationalist leaders whom the colonial governments had forced into exile.
    2. Japan specifically appealed to Southeast Asians by:
      1. Calls for racial solidarity = ASIA for the ASIATICS (racist)
      2. Education programs in Japan and in Southeast Asia – often on religious/cultural themes
      3. Brothers-kinship terms ( with elder/younger status always noted in Asian languages)
      4. Promising independence (giving refuge to "rebels," emptying colonial jails of dissidents in Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma in 1942
      5. Recognizing local leaders, language, flag
      6. Promising economic benefits = GREATER EAST ASIA CO-PROSPERITY SPHERE (an East Asian merchantilist system with Japan as the "mother" country, the industrialized center. Southeast Asia would provide raw materials for Japanese industries and food for the Japanese people. Southeast Asia would eventually become a market for Japanese manufactured products).
      7. Anti-colonial/anti-imperialist propaganda (see political cartoons, posters)

The following two cartoons are reprinted from John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. Pantheon, New York, 1986, p.196 and p.200.

toon_a.jpg (46119 bytes) a. "People of the Southern Region" appeared in Osaka Puck in December 1942 as part of a "before-and-after" sequence depicting Asia under Western domination and after Japanese liberation.  It reveals many of the ways the Japanese signified their superiority vis-a-vis other Asians.  Here, the familiar purifying sun (labeled "Co-Prosperity Sphere") beams down on Indonesia, driving out the Dutch, while the Japanese hand clasps the native's as that of an unmistakable patriarch--indeed, literally as the hand of God (a conceit Western illustrators also used).  The Japanese hand is far lighter in color than the dark-skinned native's and a jacket cuff is in evidence, whereas the "southern person," obviously a manual laborer, is half-naked and implicitly half-civilized.   Not only is his inferior "proper place" as a race, nation, and culture absolutely clear, but so also is his subordinate role in the division of labor within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.


toon_b.jpg (46476 bytes) b.  This poster reprinted in Osaka Puck Japanese publication in February 1942 urges the enchained of India to rise up against the British, represented here by John Bull (Winston Churchill). The message on the Japanese flag proclaims that Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity sphere will bayonet the British.

From John W.Dower. War Without Mercy:Race and Power in the Pacific War. Pantheon, New York, 1986, p. 200.

        • The next three examples are copies of posters among those collected by a Thai official from Phibun’s group who worked with the Japanese in Thailand during World War II, Sang Pattanothai (Khwamnuk nai Krong Khang/Reflections in Prison, Bangkok, 1956).
toon_c.jpg (70661 bytes) c. Puppeteer – copy of a Japanese Army poster in Thailand during World War II. Seizing the anti-colonialist argument, the Japanese army encouraged the Thais to see Britain as the enemy, as the master puppeteer or manipulator of Thailand.
toon_d.jpg (54745 bytes) d. Japanese soldier aggressively charging Britain. Japan promised to drive the British predatory lion out and implied that the U.S. (The Roosevelt-faced animal) would stand by and let Britain be ousted.
toon_e.jpg (69867 bytes) e.  John Bull being ousted. The Japanese soldier in front with the Japanese flag on his arm – succeeded in getting the Thai to cooperate with him and run Britain (John Bull, here depicted as a schoolboy) off the map of Southeast Asia.
      1. In less than six months, Japan (to its surprise) controlled Southeast Asia. Japanese was welcomed in some places by cheering crowds.
      2. Early positive reactions and welcome to Japan often faded as Japan was unable to fulfill its promises. In general in the early part of the war, while Japan was unchallenged and still able to promise Southeast Asians their independence and an increased share of the economic development, the Southeast Asians went along with Japan. By late 1943 and early 1944 the U.S. finally had the European problem under control and had built enough ships and plans to mount a two-ocean navy and a global air force. The U.S. entered the Pacific Theatre in earnest. It became increasingly clear that Japan was over-extended. It was running out of funds, personnel replacements, and fuel. Most Japanese troops in Southeast Asia were living off the land with infrequent or no deliveries of supplies or war materiel from home. Many Southeast Asians shifted back to neutral or pro-West positions as it became clear that Japan would lose the war (late 1942, early 1943).
      3. Southeast Asian nationalists took advantage of the vacuum – (a combination of the loosening grip of Japan and the failure of the Westerners to return to Asia). They stepped up to leadership roles.
  1. Country-by-Country Range of Responses in Southeast Asia to the Japanese Advance.
    1. BURMA – Burma Independence Army (BIA) founded by Burmese in exile in Japan. BIA grew from 30 heroes (including Aung San, father of contemporary Burma leader Aung San Suu Kyi) to 1,000 to 10,000 "patriots" who accompanied the Japanese invaders in early 1942. Japan granted Burma independence August 1943, but it was independence in name only. Japan was really overextended. Labor shortages and failure of Japan to resupply soldiers required Japan to use POWs ("Bridge on the River Kwai") and to use conscripted Burmese labor. Burmese nationalists realized that Japan could not deliver on its promises. By 1944 there was a growing anti-Japanese movement, the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League. The AFPFL, first very anti-Japanese, later became the Independence Movement against the British (British granted independence January 1948).
    2. VIETNAM (French Indochina) – under Vichy France (collaborated with German conquerors) from June 1940; Vietnamese knew Vichy French were puppets of Germans. Viet Minh had resisted the French earlier. During World War II Viet Minh were the resistance against Japanese. The communists and Ho Chi Minh were strongest element in the Viet Minh, the nationalist group. Very little nationalism in Laos and Cambodia (French had used Vietnamese to govern Laos and Cambodia). U.S.-OSS assistance to Viet Minh, "Flirtation" with Ho Chi Minh in 1944 and 1945 – but U.S. later aided French against Viet Minh.
    3. PHILIPPINES – longest armed resistance to Japanese; U.S. and Filipinos fought together against Japanese for six months.
      1. General MacArthur and Philippines had begged U.S. to send support in 1940 and 1941, Death March, U.S. and Filipino army forced out of Philippines. "I shall return," General MacArthur said and he did.
      2. "Collaborationist" = Filipinos who cooperated with Japan.
      3. Bitter memories of Japanese barbarism remain with Filipinos even 50 years later.
      4. U.S. had been trying to disengage, to "decolonize" before war; independence had been promised.
    4. MALAYA/SINGAPORE – British humiliated by Japanese at Singapore (canons in cement pointed toward sea)
      1. Malays unarmed – no contest for Japanese
      2. The Japanese were very anti-Chinese, and vice versa; Chinese in Malaya very opposed to Japan
      3. Comparatively little development of nationalist movement on Malay Peninsula. Chinese, Indians, and Malays were quite distinct communities rather than in a nationalistic union.
    5. INDONESIA – symbols flag, language, public address systems in every town
      1. Dutch humiliated by Japanese naval war
      2. Cheering welcome to the Japanese in Java as arriving Japanese released Hatta, Sukarno, et al. National heroes from Dutch prisons in Indonesia
      3. When it was clear that independence more symbolic than real, outbreaks against Japan began to increase.
      4. Nationalists used the World War II period to organize and develop. They were ready to fight Dutch when they tried to return (Review growth of Sareket Islam from previous lecture).
      1. Thailand entered the war on the side of Japan and against the U.S. and British. By the time the war was over, Thailand was against Japan and on the side of the U.S. How did this flip-flop happen? Was Thailand really pro-Allied or pro-Axis? Was Thailand forced to or did it willingly agree to allow Japan’s troops passage to move through Thailand in December 1941? America and its major ally, Britain, differed greatly in interpreting Thailand’s actions.
      2. Thailand was not a colony, but there were some similarities to European colonies in Southeast Asia before World War II. Thailand was in the British economic sphere of the British Empire; power of Britain = major buyer of Thai exports; Thailand exporter of raw materials; Chinese minority; Thailand had given up territory to French and British; the great Kings – Mongkut and Chulalongkorn had played the British off against the French. The benefit of geography = Thailand a buffer between French and British colonies. The benefit of chronology = the Thais learned from the mistakes the Chinese and Burmese leaders had made which had made their countries vulnerable to colonial takeovers. Most importantly, Thai leaders had not succumbed to getting too deeply in debt to the West.
      3. Japan’s appeal to Thailand used some of the same themes as its propaganda for Western colonies in Southeast Asia: anti-Western, anti-British, racist appeal = all Asians were brothers.
      4. Thailand had experienced a flamboyant growth in modern nationalist feelings in the 1930s (like other areas in Southeast Asia). Constitutional monarchy replaced absolute monarch in 1932. The nationalist movement emphasized Thailand becoming a part of the world culture and economy. Thai music and literature flourished. Military emphases, Philbun affected dress of European militarists.
      5. Many in Thailand admired Japanese achievements in industrialization, economic development, and military diplomacy.
      6. Philbun: Was he pro-Japan? Japanese offered to help get back the former "Thai" territories in Laos, Shan states, Malaya, to help Thai achieve their Pan Thai goals. Was Philbun forced to or did he agree to allow Japan passage in return for these returned regions?
      7. Seni = Thai ambassador to Washington, D.C. refused to deliver declaration of war to the U.S. OSS (became the CIA), Thai students, U.S. missionaries formed a resistance corps, the Seri Thai = Free Thai and planned to infiltrate back into Thailand in 1944. (There was also a Seri Thai group in the U.K. but the U.K. was not sympathetic and did not help them as the Americans did.)
      8. Resistance/anti-Japanese acts in Thailand. Pridi - (Phibun rival) Free Thai (students) sabotage Japanese trains, buildings. The Thai government did not give support to the 30,000 Japanese troops. Thais forced Japan to pay (gold later).
      9. Underground (Seri Thai) became government of Thailand August 1944 once Japan was clearly losing the war. Pridi’s group with Khuang Aphaiwong as prime minister took over.
      10. Seri Thai (with U.S. help) received Japanese surrender in August 1945. Atomic bombs had ended the war earlier than Allies planned.
      11. The war in Asia ended earlier than the British, Dutch, and French had thought it would. The Americans had forced Japan’s surrender in early August 1945 with the use of the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Allies had planned to re-enter their Southeast Asian colonies sometime between September and November of 1945. The British, casting Thailand as an enemy-occupied nation, had intended to "liberate" Thailand from the Japanese in September or October. Instead , when the Japanese in Thailand surrendered their weapons and returned property they had expropriated, the Thai government – now in the hands of the Seri Thai backed by the U.S.-OSS Free Thai – were the only authorities on-site to receive the surrender.

      12. When the British arrived in September as per plan, they were too late to take over.
      13. British demands (21) on Thailand; British wanted to treat Thailand as enemy. U.S. supported Thailand and prevented Britain from punishing Thailand for cooperating with Japan in 1941.
    1. Decline in Western political interest and power. "Sun setting on the empire..."
    2. Myth of European (Western) superiority debunked/exposed.
    3. ** Rise of Southeast Asian nationalist, independence movements.
    4. "Rising sun," rise in Japanese political and economic interest and influence in Southeast Asia. (This continues; even though Japan "loses the war," it earns the peace.)
    5. "Consciousness" and status of overseas Chinese changes; Chinese gradually become more assimilated into Southeast Asian societies.
    6. Increased U.S. interest in Southeast Asia (U.S. = "accidental" heir to empires of Europeans. U.S. buys and sells directly with Southeast Asia rather than through British middle men. U.S. sees Southeast Asia as an arena of the Cold War).

    ** Most important. Many Southeast Asian nationalists saw the shifting power structures, the chaos, and crisis of rule during World War II as a time of opportunity. They took advantage of the Europeans’ absence to build up their independence movements. They seized the opportunity to advance their causes. They demonstrated their leadership competencies.

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