Mainland Southeast Asia: From Colonies to Independent Nations: Conference Course

Europeans first came to Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century. It was the lure of trade that brought Europeans to Southeast Asia while missionaries also tagged along the ships as they hoped to spread Christianity into the region. Portugal was the first European power to establish a bridgehead into the lucrative Southeast Asia trade route with the conquest of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511. The Netherlands and Spain followed and soon superseded Portugal as the main European powers in the region. The Dutch took over Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641 while Spain began to colonize the Philippines (named after Phillip II of Spain) from 1560s. Acting through the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch established the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) as a base for trading and expansion into the other parts of Java and the surrounding territory. Britain, in the form of the British East India Company, came relatively late onto the scene. Starting with Penang, the British began to expand their Southeast Asian empire. They also temporarily possessed Dutch territories during the Napoleonic Wars, In 1819 Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a key trading post for Britain in their rivalry with the Dutch. However, their rivalry cooled in 1824 when an Anglo-Dutch treaty demarcated their respective interests in Southeast Asia. From the 1850s onwards, the pace of colonization shifted to a significantly higher gear. This phenomenon, denoted New Imperialism, saw the conquest of nearly all Southeast Asian territories by the colonial powers. The Dutch East India Company and British East India Company were dissolved by their respective governments, who took over the direct administration of the colonies. Only Thailand was spared the experience of foreign rule, although, Thailand itself was also greatly affected by the power politics of the Western powers.By 1913, the British occupied Burma, Malaya and the Borneo territories, the French controlled Indochina, the Dutch ruled the Netherlands East Indies while Portugal managed to hold on to Portuguese Timor. In the Philippines, Filipino revolutionaries declared independence from Spain in 1898 but was handed over to the United States despite protests as a result of the Spanish-American War. Colonial rule had a profound effect on Southeast Asia. While the colonial powers profited much from the region’s vast resources and large market, colonial rule did develop the region to a varying extent. Commercial agriculture, mining and an export based economy developed rapidly during this period. Increased labor demand resulted in mass immigration, especially from British India and China, which brought about massive demographic change. The institutions for a modern nation state like a state bureaucracy, courts of law, print media and to a smaller extent, modern education, sowed the seeds of the fledgling nationalist movements in the colonial territories. In the inter-war years, these nationalist movements grew and often clashed with the colonial authorities when they demanded self-determination.

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During World War II, the region was invaded by Japanese imperial army and included in the greater east Asia co-Prosperity sphere. Thailand was the only country to maintain a nominal independence by making a political and military alliance with the Empire of Japan. With the rejuvenated nationalist movements in wait, the Europeans returned to a very different Southeast Asia after World War II. Indonesia declared independence in 17 August 1945 and subsequently fought a bitter war against the returning Dutch; the Philippines were granted independence in 1946. Burma secured their independence from Britain in 1948, and the French were driven from Indochina in 1954 after a bitterly fought war against the Vietnamese nationalists. The newly-established United Nations provided a forum both for nationalist demands and for the newly demanded independent nations. During the Cold War, countering the threat of communism was a major theme in the decolonization process. After suppressing the communist insurrection during the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960, Britain granted independence to Malaya and later, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in 1957 and 1963 respectively within the framework of the Federation of Malaysia. In one of the most bloody single incidents of violence in Cold War Southeast Asia, General Suharto seized power in Indonesia in 1965 and initiated a massacre of approximately 500,000 alleged members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The United States intervention against communist forces in Indochina during a conflict commonly referred to in the United States as the Vietnam War meant that Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had to go through a prolonged and protracted war in their route to independence. In 1975, Portuguese rule ended in East Timor. However, independence was short-lived as Indonesia annexed the territory soon after. Finally, Britain ended its protectorate of the Sultanate of Brunei in 1984, marking the end of European rule in Southeast Asia.

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