Dr. Constance Wilson


Colonialism and Nationalism in Southeast Asia


During the 1500s and 1600s the Europeans were able to take control of the international trade of Asia, thereby diverting the profits from this trade to Europe.   As a result, the Europeans became stronger while Asian empires and kingdoms became weaker.  By the 1800s the Europeans were in a position to establish their authority over much of Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.

Six countries: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, and the United States, had colonies in Southeast Asia.

The Portuguese had the least impact on Southeast Asia.  They captured Malacca in 1511, holding it until the Dutch seized it in 1641.  Otherwise, they maintained only a small piece of territory on the island of Timor, southeast of Bali.

Spain ruled the Philippines from its conquest of Cebu in 1565 and Manila in 1571 until its defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Netherlands
Dutch colonialism falls into two periods.  the first, that of the V.O.C., or Dutch East India Company, lasted from 1605 to 1799.  The V.O.C. had little interest in territorial administration; its primary concern was to maximize profits through trading monopolies.

When the V.O.C. collapsed in 1799, the Dutch government took control of its assets in 1825, after the Napoleonic Wars, and began to bring the Indonesian archipelago under its administrative authority.  This process was completed during the 1930s.

At the end of the Second World War, the Dutch had hoped to retain the Netherlands East Indies as a colony, but the Indonesians opposed the return of the Dutch, setting up a republic in 1945.  In 1949, after four years of fighting, the Indonesians gained their independence with the assistance of the United Nations which served as a mediator between the Indonesians and the Dutch.

Great Britain
The British conquered Burma, fighting three Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1824-26, 1852, and 1885-86.  Unlike other colonies which maintained their ethnic identity, Burma was a province of British India.  The Burmese, therefore, had two sets of rulers, the British at the top with the Indians in the middle.  In 1935 the British agreed to separate Burma from India, putting this agreement into effect in 1937.  Burma was able to negotiate its independence from Great Britain in 1948.

Penang (acquired in 1786), Singapore (founded by Raffles in 1819), and Malacca (Melaka, acquired in 1824), were governed by Britain as the Straits Settlements.  The Straits Settlements served as a base for British expansion into the Malay Peninsula between 1874 and 1914.  When the Malay States entered into negotiations for their independence--achieved in 1957--Penang and Malacca became part of Malaysia as did Singapore in 1963.  However, Singapore was asked to withdraw from the federation in1965.  Singapore has been an independent city state since that date.   Sarawak and Sabah which joined Malaysia in 1963 continue to remain members of the federation.

France moved into Vietnam in 1858, capturing Saigon in 1859.  Using the south, then called Cochin China, as a base the French moved west and north completing the conquest of Indochina by 1907.  (Indochina--the five territories under French authority: Cochin China, Annam, Tongking, Laos, and Cambodia.)  The French also wanted to retain their colony after the Second World War.  The Vietnamese rejected French rule, and after defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, obtained their independence at the Geneva Conference in 1954.

The United States
The United States moved into the Philippines as a result of the peace settlement with Spain in 1898.  The Filipinos were granted a Commonwealth (internal autonomy) government in 1935, and their independence in 1946.

Thailand continued to be independent.  It was the only Southeast Asian state to remain independent during the colonial period.


The impact of colonial rule was different for each region of Southeast Asia.


Key questions for the study of colonialism in Southeast Asia:

To what extent did the colonial authority support the rule of law--applied equally to both Europeans and Southeast Asians?

To what extent did the colonial authority provide for civil liberties: fair trial; freedom of assembly; free speech; free press; etc.?

To what extent did the colonial authority make modern education available to Southeast Asians?  Did it permit foreign study? Was education available to people from all social classes?

To what extent did the colonial authority allow Southeast Asians to engage in modern economic activities, to form their own businesses, to participate in foreign trade?

Was there a problem of corruption in the colonial government?


Liberal colonial governments. The two liberal colonial governments were Great Britain and the United States.

These two governments maintained a good record with respect to the rule of law, civil liberties, political participation, open education, and economic opportunity.  Both were willing to allow their colonies to become independent and had begun to prepare them for future independence before the Second World War began.

Repressive colonial governments. The Spanish, Dutch, and French had a very different attitude toward their colonies.

They generally placed the European in a superior legal position, and limited civil liberties.  Political activities were discouraged.   Access to modern education was restricted in numbers and to certain social groups.   Censorship was common.  Southeast Asians were not encouraged to engage in modern economic activities.  And there were major problems of corruption in the Spanish and French colonial governments.


Nationalism--organized political movements which had as their goal the restoration of their country's independence.  More moderate nationalist movements appeared in those countries with liberal colonial governments while more radical nationalist movements developed in countries with repressive colonial governments.

Nationalism in Southeast Asia developed from three sources: 1, indigenous religions; 2, western education; and 3, contact with social radicals such as socialists and communists.

Indigenous Religions
In Burma the earliest nationalist movement was led by Buddhists who established the Young Man's Buddhist Association in 1906.  They wanted to revitalize Buddhism in Burma, reducing Western influence.

In Indonesia, Muslims were the first to organize a nationalist political party, Sarekat Islam (1912).  Sarekat Islam sought to bring all Indonesian Muslims together under its banner of reformist Muslim ideas.  It was the first mass political party to appear in Southeast Asia.

Western Education
In Burma the new Western educated elite worked with Buddhist monks and with other Burmese.  In 1935 students at the University of Rangoon formed the Dobayma Asiyone, the "We Burman" society.  The members of the Dobayma Asiyone called themselves "Thakins" (Master).  Many Thakins, Aung San, U Nu, and Ne Win, would become political leaders in independent Burma.

In the Philippines the Western educated leaders first fought against Spain, but later worked with the United States.

In Malaya, educated Malays were brought into the civil service.  Throughout the colonial period, they worked closely with their British rulers.

In Indonesia a small group of Indonesians, educated in Dutch schools, formed the P.N.I., the Indonesian Nationalist party, in 1927.  The party was forced underground by the Dutch and its leaders exiled.

In Indochina, nationalist activity was confined to Vietnam.  Many Western educated Vietnamese  were encouraged to identify with the French.  Others formed small, generally moderate, political groups, but these organizations were never allowed to become important.

Social Radicals
The communists in Burma tended to be badly split.  They have had little impact on Burmese society.

The P.K.I., the Indonesian Communist Party, was founded in 1920.  Its major impact came after independence, in the 1950s and early 1960s.   It was destroyed by the Indonesian army in 1965.

Despite French repression, the Vietnamese communists became the leading nationalists, taking control of the nationalist movement in the 1930s.


Nationalism was a successful activity in Southeast Asia.   All of the countries in the region were independent by 1965, and, in most cases, nationalist leaders were the first of the region's independent heads of state.


The French in Vietnam
The French were never able to come to a compromise with Vietnamese nationalism.   Their rule was unusually repressive.  Political parties, even moderate ones, would be broken up and their leaders jailed.  Experiments with local advisory councils would be canceled.  Any protests met with prompt response and was often accompanied by the removal of Vietnamese from government positions and a reduction in educational opportunities.

Over time, Vietnamese political parties moved left.   The moderates were driven out by the French.

The left was able to survive because it was able to move underground and because its leaders could escape across the border to China.  At times the leaders of the left were imprisoned by the Chinese, at other times they received Chinese support.

During the Second World War Japan was able to occupy Indochina through a treaty with the pro-German Vichy government in France.  France was allowed to continue to administer the country and to prohibit natonalist activity.

Vietnamese nationalists sought refuge in China.  At first the Chinese ignored the Vietnamese communists.  But their need for intelligence about Japanese activities in Vietnam led the Chinese to release Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap from jail.  They set up an intelligence network in Vietnam behind Japanese lines.  The two men returned to Vietnam as intelligence agents for the Allies (China and the United States).

In 1945 events moved quickly.  Two major Vietnam wars had their origin in this period.

March 9, 1945.  Japan mounted a coup against the French.  The Japanese encouraged the Emperor Bao Dai to organize a government under Japanese sponsorship.

August 14, 1945.  Japan surrendered to the Allies in Tokyo.  Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap moved to take control over Hanoi and Hue.   A United Front government was set up in Saigon.

August 25, 1945.  The Emperor Bao Dai abdicated to Ho.  Ho Chi Minh then formed a provisional government with himself as its president.

September 2, 1945.  Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent.

September 12, 1945.  British troops arrived in Saigon to receive the surrender of the Japanese and to find out what was happening in Vietnam.

September 22, 1945.  The British freed the French troops who had been imprisoned by the Japanese.

September 24-25, 1945.  The Vietnamese turned against the French and began to fight.

In accord with the agreements drawn up by the Allies, China was to occupy the northern half of Vietnam and to receive the surrender of the Japanese.  The Chinese occupied the north from mid-September 1945 to March 1946.   The Chinese sought to use the occupation to gain concessions from the French.   They did not interfere with Ho Chi Minh's efforts to set up a government in the north.

Negotiations broke down between Ho and the French over the return of the French to Hanoi.  French troops moved into Hanoi in December 1946 as the war spread throughout Vietnam.

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war in China.  The United States, fearing communist expansion, increased its assistance to France.  The Vietnamese communists were now in a position to obtain aid from both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.

In March 1954 the French lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam.  They finally agreed to negotiate with the communists.

At the Geneva Conference in 1954, Vietnam, and the two other countries of Indochina gained their independence.  A military truce line was set up at the 17th parallel in preparation for elections for the reunification of Vietnam.

South Vietnam, with the backing of the United States, refused to allow the elections to take place.  After a few years of relative peace and reconstruction, the communists decided to renew military activities with the goal of unifying the country.




  1. Early Malayo-Polynesian Navigation

A.M. Jones. Africa and Indonesia. Leiden, 1964.   A study of the influence of Malayo-Polynesian culture on that of Madagascar and Africa

James Hornell. Water Transport. Cambridge, 1946. The development of the outrigger canoe along with other types of boats is discussed.

David Lewis.  We, the Navigators.  Honolulu, 1972.  The techniques of natural navigation as used by the Polynesians are tested on a Pacific voyage.


The Field Museum of Natural History, Exhibit on Traveling the Southern Seas

National Geographic.  This magazine has published several articles on the traditional navigational practices of the Pacific peoples.

Public Television Stations.  The PBS likes to support independent documentaries and in the past has shown a number of programs on pre-modern navigation and oceanic voyages.

  1. Colonialism and Nationalism

Rupert Emerson.  Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule. Kuala Lumpur, 1964.  A constitutional history of British rule in the former Malay states and the Straits Settlements.

J.S. Furnivall.  Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India. New York, 1956.  Furnivall was a British civil servant in Burma before the Second World War.  Unlike many colonial civil servants, he was sympathetic towards the Burmese and their desire for independence and unusually objective in his examination of the impact of colonial policies on Southeast Asians.

George McTurnan Kahin.  Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia. Ithaca, 1952.  Kahin was in Indonesia during the revolution after the Second World War.  The early chapters of the book examine the impact of Dutch rule on the country and the origins of Indonesian nationalism.  Much of the information on the post-war revolution is based on his personal observations and research.

Anthony J.S. Reid.  Indonesian National Revolution, 1945-58. Longman, 1974.  This account of the revolution synthesizes the work of several scholars, bringing out themes that tend to get lost in Kahin's longer work.

William R. Roff.  The Origins on Malay Nationalism. New Haven, 1967.  British rule in Malaya was unusually moderate with nationalism slow to develop.  Nevertheless, some Malay groups did react to British policies and did form organizations promoting nationalism.

Robert H. Taylor.  The State in Burma.   Honolulu, 1967.  The concept of a state, its functions and activities are examined for the pre-colonial, colonial, and modern periods of Burmese history.

  1. Vietnam

William J. Duiker.  The communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, 1981.  A general political history covering the period from 1900 to 1975.  There is a useful bibliography at the end of the text.

Ellen J. Hammer.  The Struggle for Indochina. Stanford, 1954.  An outstanding study of the origins of the first Vietnamese War, this book should have been read by everyone in Washington, D.C. before embarking on the second one.

Huynh Sanh Thong., ed. and trans.  The Heritage of Vietnamese Poetry. New Haven, 1979.  Annotated translations of selected Vietnamese poems from the period of Chinese rule through the twentieth century.  Very informative about Vietnamese attitudes toward their culture, values, and life.

David G. Marr.  Vietnamese Anti-colonialism 1885-1925. Berkeley, 1971.  An examination of the pre-Marxist, anti-colonial movements, this book provides an explanation of the weaknesses of these organizations and their failure to attract broad public support.

David G. Marr.  Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1943. Berkeley, 1981.  Intellectual debate in colonial Vietnam leads to changes in the ways Vietnamese think about themselves and their society.  The changes that occurred made it possible for the Vietnamese to work together to overthrow the French.

Archimedes L.A. Patti.  Why Vietnam? Prelude to America's Albatross. Berkeley, 1980.  This is Archimedes Patti's account   of his experience as chief of the OSS Secret Intelligence Operations for Indochina in 1945.  He was stationed in Kunming, Yunnan, and was the U.S. intelligence officer who made the decision to employ Ho Chi Minh as an intelligence agent for the West--in accord with President Roosevelt's policy of supporting anti-colonial movements in Asia.   When Truman replaced Roosevelt as President, U.S. policy was changed, and Patti was recalled to the U.S. where he eventually served in the Executive Office of the President.   Although an early account of his mission was drafted in 1946, he was asked not to publish it by the Department of the Army.  Once the U.S. had withdrawn from Vietnam, these restrictions were removed and an enlarged version, updating the 1946 manuscript, was published in 1980.  The appendices: a detailed chronology, 1890-1976; short biographies of selected French, U.S., and Vietnamese leaders; and brief histories of the principal political parties make this book a basic reference work on the war.

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