Decolonization Series: South-East Asia

The term South-East Asia refers to the countries south of China bound by two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific.


  • 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.

Who were the master countries in the region?

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 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.

Great Britain

  • The British conquered Burma, fighting three Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1824-26, 1852, and 1885-86.
  • In 1935 the British agreed to separate Burma from India. 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.


  • France moved into Vietnam in 1858, capturing Saigon in 1859.
  • Using the south, then called Cochinchina, 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 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.

What was the nature of the colonial rule in South East Asia?

This could be answered by answering the following questions.

  • 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?
  • To what extent did the colonial authority make modern education available to Southeast Asians?
  • To what extent did the colonial authority allow Southeast Asians to engage in modern economic activities?
  • Was there a problem of corruption in the colonial government?

Needless to say, the answers to the above questions are not encouraging. The colonial powers used or rather misused these colonies for their capitalistic interests. They did whatever they thought was right to further their own aims. Sometimes they thought a little liberal attitude will help them in their pursuit, at other times they thought repression is the key to success.

  • The two seemingly liberal colonial governments were Great Britain and the United States.
  • Sometimes powers like Britain and USA projected themselves as if following the rule of law and allowing civil liberties, political participation, open education, and economic opportunity.
  • However, most of the times these powers along with the Spanish, Dutch, and French had a very different attitude toward their colonies.
  • 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.

How did Decolonization take place in the region?


  • The Indonesian National Revolution was an armed conflict and diplomatic struggle between the Republic of Indonesia and the Dutch Empire.
  • It took place between Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945 and the Netherlands’ recognition of Indonesia’s independence at the end of 1949.
  • The Indonesian independence movement began in May 1908, which is commemorated as the “Day of National Awakening”.
  • The struggle lasted for over four years and involved sporadic but bloody armed conflict, internal Indonesian political and communal upheavals and two major international diplomatic interventions.
  • The Dutch lost control of its colonies in the region to Japan during the second world war. However, it tried to re-establish its rule after the end of the war.
  • Dutch military forces (and, for a while, the forces of the World War II Allies) were able to control the major towns, cities and industrial assets in Republican heartlands on Java and Sumatra but could not control the countryside.
  • In 1949, international pressure on the Netherlands became such that it recognised Indonesian independence.
  • India, under the prime ministership of Jawahar Lal Nehru played a big role in putting international pressure on the Dutch.


  • At the outbreak of the Second World War, Aung San seized the opportunity to bring about Burmese independence.
  • He and 29 others, known as the Thirty Comrades, left Burma to undergo military training in Japan.
  • In 1941, they fought alongside the Japanese who invaded Burma. The Japanese promised Aung San that if the British were defeated, they would grant Burma her freedom.
  • Burma was almost completely occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.
  • When it became clear that the Japanese would not follow through with their promise, Aung San quickly negotiated an agreement with the British to help them defeat the Japanese.
  • He was able to negotiate an agreement in January 1947 with the British, under which Burma would be granted total independence from Britain.
  • Aung San and members of his newly-formed cabinet were assassinated when an opposition group with machine guns burst into the room.
  • A member of Aung San’s cabinet, U Nu (not Oh No!!), was delegated to fill the position suddenly left vacant by Aung San’s death.
  • A transitional government sponsored by the British government was formed in the years following the Second World War, ultimately leading to Burma’s independence in January 1948.


  • In Malaysia, the Malayan Communist Party tried to deliver a blow to British rule by destroying the European rubber plantations and tin mines.
  • Their insurgency succeeded to some extent, but the common people at large did not favour violent activities.
  • The British were successful in crushing the Malayan insurgency by 1951.
  • The situation was defused at the political level by encouraging peaceful Chinese citizens to form their own political association called “The Malayan-Chinese Association” (MCA).
  • The British Government took drastic to cut political activity by penalising 10,000 Chinese with deportation because they were not willing to co-operate with them in the counter-insurgency operation.
  • At the same time, those who assisted the British were given benefits through the government’s socio-economic programmes.
  • They declared an emergency in Malaya to adequately deal with the insurgency of the communist guerrillas. Their operations came to an end in 1960.
  • The British sent Sir Gerald Templer to prepare a blueprint for the independence of the Malayans.
  • General election was announced to the Federal Assembly in 1954. In the 1955 elections, the MCI Party (Malay, Chinese and Indians) won an absolute majority (fifty-two out of fifty-three seats) in the 92- seat Federal Assembly and the majority leader, Tungku Abdul Rehman, started negotiations with the British for the total independence of Malaya.
  • The British Government transferred its power and Malaya became independent and sovereign in 1957.


  • With the publication of Jose Rizal’s anti-Spanish novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), in 1886, Filipino desire for independence was invigorated.
  • With the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines was ceded to the United States, though the Filipinos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, declared their independence.
  • A guerrilla war ensued which resulted in the gradual movement by the U.S. in favour of Filipino independence.
  • Progress was halted during World War II when the Japanese brought the Philippines under their imperial control.
  • At the war’s end, however, the United States recaptured the islands and granted them full independence.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

  • During the war, the whole area was occupied by the Japanese, and resistance was organized by the communist Ho Chi Minh and the League for Vietnamese Independence (Vietminh).
  • When the Japanese withdrew in 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent.
  • This was unacceptable to the French, and an eight-year armed struggle began which culminated in the French defeat in May 1954.
  • The defeat was a humiliating blow for the French and it caused a political crisis.
  • The government resigned, and the new government decided to withdraw.
  • At the Geneva Conference (July 1954) it was agreed that Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia should become independent.
  • Unfortunately, this was not the end of the troubles. Although the French had withdrawn, the Americans were unwilling to allow the whole of Vietnam to come under the rule of the communist Ho Chi Minh, and an even more bloody struggle developed; there were also problems in Cambodia.

What were the factors behind the rise in nationalism in Southeast Asian countries?

Nationalism in Southeast Asia developed from three sources:

  • Indigenous religions
  • Western education
  • 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.

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.


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