Table of Contents


Rey Ty 


The major colonizers of Southeast Asia were Europeans, Japanese and the U.S. All in all, there were seven colonial powers in Southeast Asia: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, the United States, and Japan.  From the 1500s to the mid-1940s, colonialism was imposed over Southeast Asia. 

For hundreds of years, Southeast Asian kingdoms had been engaged in international commercial relations with traders from East Asia (China), South Asia (India), and West Asia (the “Middle East”).  Asian sojourners also brought religion, customs, traditions, and court practices to the region. Hence, their relationship was economic and cultural at the same time. Moreover, local Southeast Asian rulers used and indigenized practices of kingship institutions from South Asia (rajadharma) and West Asia (sultanate).

European travelers did not only have economic relations with Southeast Asians but also imposed their political—and in some cases, cultural—domination over Southeast Asian peoples and territories. Hence, European colonialism covered a large chunk of Southeast Asian history. 

Aside from European colonials, Japanese and U.S. colonials controlled much of Southeast Asia. Japanese aggression took place during the “Pacific War” of World War II. The Japanese occupied much of Asia, including Southeast Asia.  The U.S. colonized the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. 

Southeast Asian response to colonialism was both collaboration and nationalism in all its forms.

Historical Background

Indigenous peoples practicing animism have lived in Southeast Asia (SEA) since historical times.  Later, people from China moved southward to reach SEA (Barton 26).  As early as 300 BC, the age of bronze and iron had passed from China into SEA (Fodor 64). The Chinese under the Sung Dynasty by the 12th century had become involved more and more in international trade, including with SEA (Fodor 67). Hence, there were Chinese and Indian migrants who have reached and lived in SEA for a long time now.  The Chinese and Indian civilizations have greatly impacted SEA societies.  Many parts of SEA have been indianized from 500BC to 1000 AD (Barton 47).  

South and Southwest Asians used the monsoon seasonal-reversal wind route from Arabia and India to travel to Southeast Asia (Barton 46). SEA is home to several ancient civilizations, including the Angkor and the Sri Vijaya kingdoms.  At about 1300, there were two major kingdoms: the Sukhotai in Mainland SEA and the Majapahit empire in insular SEA.  During the 12th to the 14th centuries, there was an active spice trade in the region (Fodor 67-8).  

Hence, Southeast Asia was exposed to different civilizations, cultures and religions for thousands of years now: animism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam. Culture, trade, religion, and monarchy played a role in the state formation of SEAsian countries. 


Colonialism is alien or foreign political rule or control imposed on a people. Colonialism can take many forms: it can be political, legal, economic, cultural and social. A political, economic and cultural policy and practice by which several foreign states explored, conquered, settled, exploited, maintained and extended their control over large areas of foreign lands and its people who ceased to control their own territories, resources and national destiny. 

The age of colonialism began about 1500, following the European discoveries of a sea route around Africa's southern coast (1488) and of America (1492).  


European, American, and Asian powers colonized SEA.  The major European colonizers in SEA included Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, and France.  The American power was the U.S.A.  Europeans introduced Protestantism and Roman Catholicism to SEA.  During World War II, Japan was the only major Asian country that colonized SEA.


There are three motives for colonialism: political, economic, and cultural.  Reasons for colonialism are manifold: to expand territory, to seek mercantilist profit, to import cheap raw materials, and to extract precious metals.  The booming economies needed an assured supply of raw materials, assured new markets and new places in which to invest. 

  1. Political Aggrandizement
  1. Economic Profits:
  1. Cultural

Colonialism is linked with the idea that the way of life of the colonizers are better than that of the colonized.  



On June 7, 1494, the Spanish and the Portuguese signed the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the world in two spheres. The imaginary line ran through the Atlantic: Spain gained lands to the west, including all the Americas, except Brazil, which was granted to Portugal. The eastern half including Africa and India was given to Portugal. In the absence of accurate measurements of longitude, the issue of where the line should be drawn in Asia refused to go away. 

Portugal (1511-1641/1975): The Portuguese were the first Europeans to dominate trade in SEA and the first to set up trading posts in military-occupied ports (Barton 50).  They defeated Moslem naval forces in 1509 and seized Malacca in 1511 (Barton 50), until the Dutch captured it in 1641. Southeast Asia felt Portuguese impact the least. The Portuguese controlled only the small territory of East Timor. 

Spain (1565-1898): Ferdinand Magellan reached the Philippines in 1521. Spanish expeditions from 1525 to 1536 claimed the Philippines.  In 1565, Spain conquered Cebu.  In 1571, Spain established the city of Manila and by 1600 it had gained control of most of the archipelago (Barton 50). The Katipunan (KKK)—Filipino  revolutionaries—under Andrés Bonifacio fought against the Spaniards and became the first Asian country to be independent in 1898, except that the U.S. took the reigns of power thereafter. 

Magellan: Magellan led the first circumnavigation of the globe. He was born to a family of lower nobility and educated in the Portuguese court. Just like Columbus who came before him, Magellan believed the Spice Islands can be reached by sailing west, around or through the New World. As Magellan did not get any support from the Portuguese monarchy, he sought and got the assistance of  the teenaged Spanish king, Charles I (a.k.a. the Holy Roman emperor Charles V) on March 22, 1518. Magellan got five ships. In September, 1519, he sailed with 270 men. His Italian crewmember, Antonio Pigafetta, kept a diary of and recorded the voyage. They sailed on to the Philippines, arriving on March 28, 1521. On April 7, 1521, he arrived in Cebu and befriended an island king—Datu Humabon. On April 14, 1521, Datu Humabon and 800 of his people were drawn in a mass baptism. Later, though, Lapu-Lapu killed Magellan in a battle in Mactan on April 27, 1521.  

Sebastian del Cano took over the remaining three ships and 115 survivors. The two remaining ships sailed from the Philippines on May 1 and made it to the Moluccas (Spice Islands) in November, loaded with valuable spices. Hoping that at least one ship would return to Spain, the Trinidad went east across the Pacific, while the Victoria continued west. On September 6, 1522, the Victoria and 18 crewmembers—including Pigafetta—arrived in Spain. It was the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe. 

Spain and Portugal used the Cross and the Sword. The U.S. beat and replaced Spain.  

The Netherlands (1605-1799 & 1825-1940s): The Dutch arrived in Indonesia in 1596.  Dutch colonialism was carried out initially by the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) from 1605 to 1799.  It’s main preoccupation was profits in trade through monopolies, not political rule. 

When it collapsed in 1799, the government of Netherlands took over VOC’s assets in 1825 and put Indonesia under its administrative authority, the process of which was completed in the 1930s (Wilson). The Dutch had taken control of most of the commercial islands in the East Indies and occupied Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, and Java (Barton 50).  They built a port at Batavia and kicked out the Portuguese from the Indies, except for East Timor (Barton 50).   

The Dutch could not keep the Netherlands East Indies after WWII as they hoped to because the Indonesians fought a war of national liberation to set up a republic in 1945.  The U.N. recognized Indonesian independence in 1949. 

The Dutch acquired their empire to protect their trade. And they were after commodities. But not as raw materials: these were spices, for resale. The Dutch were 250 years in Indonesia.  

Britain (1824-1957): Britain acquired parts of its empire through, or to aid, its traders. Using their navies, the British penetrated SEA from the west side, while the French from the east (Barton 50). The British used force to annex Burma between 1826 and 1888 (Barton 50) in three Anglo-Burmese Wars. The British maintained Burma as a province of British India, unlike other colonies which kept their ethnic identities. Top British and middle Indian administrators ruled Burma.  In 1935, Britain consented to separate Burma from India and this was put into force in 1937 (Wilson).  In 1948, Burma negotiated with Britain for its independence. 

The British (Raffles) set up Singapore in 1819 and the Netherlands ceded Malacca to Britain in 1824 (Barton 50). Britain governed Penang (acquired in 1786), Singapore, and Malacca as the Straits Settlements from which Britain expanded into the Malay Peninsula from 1874 to 1914 (Wilson). The Malay States negotiated for and gained independence as the independent Federation of Malaya in 1957. Penang, Malacca, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore became part of Malaysia in 1963, but Singapore was told to withdraw in 1965 (Wilson). Brunei decided to stay out of the new country and is now an independent country. 

France (1859-1954): The French, under Louis XIV, exchanged embassies with Siam from 1600 to 1700.  European influence on SEA amplified. The French went to Vietnam in 1858 and seized Saigon in 1859 (Wilson).  By 1867, the French annexed Cochin China (the south) and Cambodia.  The French used Cochin China as the base from which they moved westward and northward.  By 1893, they set up protectorates over Annam, Laos, and Tonkin, all of which became the “French Indochina” (Barton 50). By 1907, the French completed their conquest of Indochina (Wilson). 

At the end of WWII, the French fought a war trying to maintain its control over its SEAsian territories.  French Indo-China ended with the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. At the Geneva Conference of 1954, Vietnam gained its independence. 

Myth about Thailand: There is a long-standing myth that Thailand was never colonized.  Factually speaking, though, Siam was being squeezed from the west by the British and from the east by the French (Barton 58).  Siam had to give up large chunks of land in exchange for keeping its territorial integrity. Only the middle core of Siam was unoccupied (Barton 58). 

U.S.A. (1898-1946): After the global triumph of the U.S. over Spain in 1898, the U.S. moved in to colonize the Philippines. Admiral Dewey defeated Spain in Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence on June 12, 1898 and the Philippine Republic on January 23, 1899 but the U.S. did not recognize it. Hence, the Philippine-American War started in 1899 and went on for about 10 years.  About 400,000 to 600,000 Filipinos were killed and 10,000 Americans died. On Feb. 6, 1899, the U.S. Senate voted to annex the Philippines. On July 4, 1901, U.S. President McKinley set up civil government and appointment the Philippine Commission which was headed by William Howard Taft.  

Mark Twain was the most famous literary adversary of the Philippine-American War and he served as a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until his death. The Philippines became a commonwealth in 1935 and independent in 1946 after World War II.  

The western colonial powers had economic, social, political, and cultural impact on the peoples and states of SEA. They brought about rapid changes in SEA.







Nationalism, Decolonization, and Independence

Colonial experience had an impact on the rise of anti-colonial as well as anti-fascist (anti-Japanese aggression) nationalist fervor that spawned independence movements. Southeast Asian elites responded to western colonialism in a continuum anywhere from adaptation, collaboration, to resistance. The traditional elite failed in their struggle. Many Filipino intellectuals identified themselves with colonial Spain and the U.S.  

Cultural and indigenous religious movements surfaced and emphasized a national identity based upon traditional religious and cultural values. For instance, the Young Man’s Buddhist Association in Burma set up in 1906 aimed to bring down western influence. In Indonesia, the Sarekat Islam which was a nationalist political party (1912) aimed to bring Moslem Indonesians under its reformist agenda.  

Western-style political movements were created; they drew inspiration from western ideologies and models. Western education sons of the traditional aristocracy or the bureaucratic elite at the national level and school teachers, government officials and clerks at the local local level led nationalist movements. In Burma, University of Rangoon students formed the Dobayma Asiyone (“We Burman”) society in 1935. Dobayman Asiyone members  called themselves Thakins (“Master”).  Furthermore, Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win would rise to become key figures in independent Burma.   

In the Philippines, some leaders who were exposed to western ideals waged a revolutionary war against Spain. Others later cooperated with the U.S.  

In Malaya, educated Malays joined the civil service and worked closely with the British rulers (Wilson). 

Dutch-educated Indonesians formed the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) in 1927. It later became a clandestine movement and the leaders went into political exile. 

In Indochina, only in Vietnam was the nationalist movement present.   

Communist leaders and parties rose in many parts of SEA. They were active in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam 

Moreover, new economic, administrative and political elites emerged within which ideals of modernization and tradition competed.  New national identities were created; they drew upon traditional cultural symbols and western systems. Charismatic national leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno embody national resurgence.

World War II in the Asia-Pacific Region

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Clark Air Base on December 7, 1941.  Japanese aggression took place in many parts of Asia and the Pacific, including Southeast Asian countries.  

Japan occupied Indochina through a treaty with the pro-German Vichy government in France (Wilson). 

In the Philippines, the last U.S. forces surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942. The Japanese set up an “independent” puppet “Philippine Republic”. On October 20, 1944, US forces returned to the Philippines.  On July 4, 1946, the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines. 

On March 29, 1942, Filipinos organized the Hukbalahap (People’s Anti-Japanese Army). In Southeast Asia, only the Filipinos fought the fiercest battle against the Japanese aggressors.  At its height, there were 260,000 anti-Japanese guerrillas.   

The U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Approximately 130,000 were killed, wounded, or missing, while 90% of the city was flattened.  On August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.  About 75,000 people were killed or injured, while more than 1/3 of the city was destroyed.  On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in Tokyo, Japan. 


Modern Southeast Asian countries emerge from their rich history, diverse cultures as well as their social transformation from their anti-western colonial struggle as well as their anti-Japanese resistance during World War II. 


Barton, Thomas F., Robert C. Kingsbury, and Gerald R. Showalter.  Southeast Asia in Maps.  Chicago:  Denoyer-Geppert Company, 1970. 

Fodor’s Southeast Asia. New York: Fodor’s Travel Guides, 1984. 

Hall, D.G.E. A History of South-east Asia, 4th rev edn.  London: Macmillan, 1981. 

Osborne, M. 2000, Southeast Asia : An introductory history, 8th edn. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 2000. 

Reid, Anthony.  “An ‘Age of Commerce’ in Southeast Asian History,” Modern Asian Studies, 24, I (1990), pp. 1-30. 

Tarling, M. 2001, Southeast Asia:A Modern History.  Melbourne: OUP, 2001. 

Wilson, Constance.  “Colonialism and Nationalism in Southeast Asia.”  (Outline). colonialism.htm