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First posted on May 18th 2008

South-East Asia : Periodization, 1914-2008

1914 At the outset of World War I, the Philippines were U.S. possession, the Dutch East Indies Dutch, East Timor Portuguese, Indochina French, Burma British, the Malay peninsula partially British possession (Straits Settlements), part British protectorate (Federated and Unfederated Malay States); Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (present Sabah) British protectorate. Siam (Thailand) had succeeded in maintaining her political independence.
Economically, South East Asia's plantations were responsible for the bulk of world rubber production. The Malay Peninsula, the islands of Bangka and Biliton (Dutch East Indies) produced a significant share of world tin production. Sumatra's oil fields were the basis of Royal Dutch (today known as Shell). The island of Java, blessed by fertile volcanic soil, produces 4 harvests per year - rice, tobacco, coffee etc. Singapore's importance as a hub in Transoceanic trade grew consistently.
1914-1918 The effect of the war on the region was exclusively indirect in nature, supplying the Allied with materials, sharing in the costs. South East Asians served in thev armies of their colonial powers.
1919-1929 Compared to pre-war times, investment in infrastructure projects was down. The colonial powers Southeast Asia was regarded as a source of raw materials and a market (for opium, among others).
The Philippines had been granted a bicameral legislature in 1916. In 1925 the rights of the Volksraad, the representative body of the Dutch East Indies, were expanded so that it now had partial function of a legislature. Dissatisfaction with the political situation was the general attitude of the indigenous intelligentsia in the colonies.
1930-1939 The Great Depression affected South-East Asia, as prices for regional export products fell and the overall volume of exports declined.
In 1932, following a coup d'etat, Siam introduced a constitution, introduced parliamentary rule, renamed itself Thailand. In 1934 (Tydings-McDuffie Act) the Philippines was promised independence in 1944. In 1937 Burma was separated from British India, created a separate colony, with a legislative and limited autonomy. Despite these steps gradually increasing the share of South-East Asians in administration and legislation, political dissatisfaction was strong.
1939-1945 In May 1940, the Netherlands surrendered to the German forces; in June France followed suit. This left the administrations of the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina in an awkward position. The British withdrew part of her forces from Southeast Asia, as these were needed in Europe and North Africa. The U.S. "lent" part of their Pacific fleet to the British.
Japan, with the help of her German ally, pressurized France to permit the stationing of Japanese troops in Indochina; from 1940 to 1945 it was the Japanese calling the shots in Indochina. Japan pressed France to make territorial concessions (at the expense of Indochina) to Japan.
Japan was at war with China since 1937. In 1941 the U.S. declared an oil embargo against Japan; the Japanese thus became even more dependent on oil imports from the Durch East Indies. In December 1941 Japan launched the invasion of the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies and Burma; Thailand reluctantly became a Japanese ally. Japanese propaganda claimed the Japanese to be liberators, to intend establishing a "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere". Japan needed the region's entire oil production, as well as many other raw materials. The Dutch residents of the Dutch East Indies were interned, natives allowed to serve in the administration on higher positions than under the Dutch. In the Philippines, Japanese propaganda had little effect, as the Filipinos had been better treated under the U.S. administration. The Filipinos took up armed resistance. In Malaysia and Singapore, the Japanese tried to drive a wedge between the Malays, the Indians and the Chinese (the latter being treated worst). In Burma Aung San, a sharp critic of the British administration, realized that the Japanese were worse, and led the Burmese armed resistance against Japan.
When France was liberated by Allied troops, the Japanese 'restored the independence' of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia under traditional dynasties. The cultivation of plants for the production of a replacement of gasoline instead of rice caused a major famine in Vietnam.
Japanese forces surrendered in August 1945.
1945-1954 At the time of the Japanese surrender, only Burma and the Philippines were liberated; most of the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies and Indochina still held by Japanese troops. In an effort to organize the disarmament of the Japanese, the Allies divided Indochina in two zones; the Nationalist Chinese were allocated the north, the British the south. In 1946 both handed over their zones to the French. However, part of the Japanese armament ended up in the hands of organizations dedicated to national independence.
The Philippines were released into independence in 1946, Burma in 1948.
Both the Dutch and the French hoped for revenue from the colonies to contribute to financing reconstruction of the motherland. Both faced armed resistance, the Dutch giving in and granting independence to Indonesia in 1949, the French following only after defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The British in 1946 created Malaya by merging the Federaterd and Unfederated Malay States with Malacca and Penang, hitherto part of the Straits Settlements. The British in Malaya faced the Emergency, armed resistance by the Malayan National Liberation Army (1948-1957), a Communist organization the bulk of fighters of which were ethnic Chinese. The Viet Minh fighting the French in Vietnam also were Communist (not the organizations fighting the Dutch in Indonesia). In the Philippines, the Hukbalahap, Communist resistance fighters who had fought the Japanese, now fought the new government (1946-1954).
Indonesia was designed to be a nation state. As various Malay languages were spoken in the archipelago, the new language Bahasa Indonesia was decreed to be national language. The island of Java accounted for about half the archipelago's population; the capital Jakarta is located on Java. In some regions, the inhabitants feared domination of the Javanese; c. 40,000 Moluccans left their country for the Netherlands.
Burma was created as a federal state, foreseeing political autonomy for the country's various national minorities. Independence of Malaya was delayed because of the question how to deal with the country's large number of ethnic Chinese residents.
1954-1965 Following the French defeat, Indochina was split in 4 independent states - (Communist) North Vietnam, the Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia, and the Republic of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh did not accept this as a lasting solution; Communist organizations within South Vietnam were established, supported by the North. Againt the perceived Communist threat, SEATO was founded in 1954. The U.S. supplied South Vietnam with aid and "military advisors", an engagement which over time escalated to become the (undeclared) Vietnam War. The Domino Theory was propagated by the U.S. to justify the action.
Indonesia's President Sukarno regarded the ring of political entities surrounding Indonesia - Portuguese Timor, Netherlands' New Guinea, British North Borneo, Brunei, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya - as Malay lands to be unified with Indonesia. He proclamed the Konfontasi (= confrontation) policy, sent counterinsurgents into these territories. Malaya was granted independence in 1957. This left Singapore vulnerable; Sngapore's pm Lee Kwan Yew campaigned for the city to be included in Malaya; such annexation into Malaya would also provide security for thinly populated Sarawak and British North Borneo. In 1963 Malaya accepted Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah into the federation now called Malaysia; in 1965 Singapore was expelled, forced to become independent.
Sukarno's Konfrontasi policy produced one success story, the annexation of Netherlands' New Guinea (population Papuas, not Malays) in 1963. In a bloody coup, Sukarno was disempowered in 1965.
Sukarno had started the policy of Transmigrasi, the resettlement of Javanese and Madurese on the outlying islands, a policy which was resented by the populations of the other islands.
Burma in 1962 saw a military coup. The country, which used to be called "the ricebowl of Asia", entered on a policy of isolation. The national minorities began to fight the central government, a fight which continues until today.
1965-1975 For North Vietnam the main political issue was national unification. In Burma, the concept of a multiethnic federation was replaced by a centralist Burmese state (fought by the other ethnic groups). Thailand did not regard the Hill Tribes full Thai citizens. Indonersia was dominated by the Muslim Malays (mainly the Javanese). Malaysia was a state in which the ethnic Malays were privileged, the ethnic Chinese and Indians tolerated. In the Philppines the Malay Christians dominated; the ethnic Chinese and the Muslims in the Sulu archipelago felt uncomfortable. The Hill tribes in the mountains of Laos and Vietnam (Hmong) were recruited by the Americans to fight the Communists; they were traditional enemies of the Vietnamese.
Singapore, a melting pot city which found itself an independent state against its own will in 1965, defined its citizens no matter of what ethnic origin as Singaporeans. It embarked on a policy of economic modernization, spearheaded the establishment of ASEAN in 1967.
The Vietnam War escalated, dominated the headlines of the world press in 1968-1971. Originally limited to South Vietnam, the war was extended into North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In 1973 the U.S. forces withdrew; in 1975 the governments of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam fell. Vietnam was reunited under Communist rule.
The Vietnam War had contributed to the economic development of Thailand, Bangkok emerging as a recreation center for U.S. troops.
In 1975, Indonesian troops occupied Portuguese East Timor, an occupation which lasted until 1998.
1975-1991 In South Vietnam, many who had worked in the administration of South Vietnam or in contact with the Americans were sent to reeducation camps. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge regime planned to return to an Agrocultural Society, evacuated the cities; many viewed as politically spoiled were killed (Cambodian Genocide, Killing Fields). The popultion of Vietnam still suffers from the impact of the Vietnam War; remnants of the defoliant Agent Orange are blamed for deformations of children born since 1970.
Singapore made economic progress; Malaysia and Thailand followed Singapore's path. In Indonesia and the Philippines progress was hampered by corruption and occasional political unrest. In Indonesia, until the ousture of Suharto (1997) democracy did not function; Suharto was a cronyist and cleptocrat. In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos (until 1986) established himself as a dictator, also accused of cronyism. Burma continued in her policy of isolation.
In 1979, Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge government. The Khmer Rouge returned to the jungle, resumed guerilla war. The PR China, whose ally Khmer Rouge Cambodia had been, fought a border war with Vietnam to punish the latter for its actions (1980). Vietnam responded by ousting the country's ethnic Chinese minority (Boat People).
Burma in 1989 held free elections which were won by the opposition. Instead n handing over power, the generals proclaimed martial law, placed election winner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi nder house arrest, renamed the country Myanmar and forgot that the election ever happened.
Since 1991 Vietnam followed China's path and shifted toward a market-oriented policy. In Cambodia, multi-party elections were introduced, the long guerilla war terminated. The ASEAN countries, lead by Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, continued to make economic progress, briefly interrupted by the Asian Currency Crisis of 1997-1998.
The Philippines in 1986, Indonesia in 1997 transformed from dictatorship into multiparty democracies. In 1998 international peace keepers occupied East Timor, which subsequently was released into independence.

Activities :

Country History files at WHKMLA : Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Dutch East Indies, East Timor (Portuguese Timor, Timor Leste), French Indochina, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, North Borneo (Sabah), Philippines, Sarawak, Singapore, Straits Settlements, Thailand, Vietnam

External Files
DOCUMENTS Ethnic Map of Mainland Southeast Asia (except Malaysia), from IKAP - MMSEA
Other (ethnic) maps, from IKAP - MMSEA
Reference Nicholas Tarling, The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, 4 vol.s, Cambridge : UP (1992) 1999, KMLA Lib. Call Sign 959 T188c
Jan M. Pluvier, Historical Atlas of South-East Asia, Leiden : Brill 1995 [G]