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Colonial legacies in Southeast Asia

21 April 2011

In an earlier post I mentioned how little we Americans study the Europeans’ colonial actions when we are in school. Of course an educated American has at least a general idea of how the Europeans exploited Africa and South America — but our knowledge of Southeast Asia is much less.

In Malaysia I saw the fallout of British colonial practices all over the country. In particular, the descendants of Indians who worked on the rubber plantations and Chinese who worked in the tin mines make up important segments of the population today, just like the descendants of Africans do in my country. The fallout is not so much the people as it is the ongoing social tensions — a result of Britain’s “divide and rule” strategy.

In my reading, I’ve noticed some big differences between the actions of the Dutch in the Indies and the British in Malaya. The British interfered relatively little in the day-to-day life of most Malays on the peninsula; much of their interference came in the form of human trafficking, as they brought in foreign laborers to work in the mines and on the plantations, which had not been set up by the Malays in the first place.

Extracting Wealth from the Indies

The Dutch turned the Indies into the economic engine of the Netherlands, and they made use of the land and the people who already lived there in those efforts. It seems that the result was a much greater degree of oppression for many people in the Indies — they had to hand over a large portion of their crops, or change the type of crops they raised, and so their daily lives changed (for the worse) under Dutch rule. While few Malays gained any benefits from living under the British, at least they were not living like serfs.

People in the Indies suffered famine and starvation for a few years around 1902 (when drought combined with several other dire conditions), eventually leading to changes in Dutch policies toward land ownership, taxes and labor. The changes, however, did not in the end improve the lives of most people very much, because the Dutch continued to use the Indies primarily as a wealth-producing machine.

I’ve been reading about the Dutch colonial times in A History of Modern Indonesia, by Adrian Vickers, which is well-written and quite interesting.

At the peak of its trade in the 1930s the Indies produced 37 per cent of world rubber, 86 per cent of the smaller trade in pepper and was a significant player in markets such as sugar and copra [the meat of the coconut] (Vickers, page 20).

One big difference between the British and the Dutch, between Malaya and the Indies, is that the Dutch undertook a war to subdue Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra, and poured resources into that war for more than 30 years — including tens of thousands of soldiers from Java and Sulawesi. Britain of course had a colonial army — the famous British Indian Army — but there was nothing equivalent to the Aceh campaign in the Malayan states. (Poor Aceh — perhaps it should have been part of Malaya.)

Aceh was not the only bloody battleground in the Indies — Puputan Klungkung in 1908 is another example, a day when a few hundred Balinese armed only with keris (daggers) faced a Dutch force armed with guns. The resulting massacre completed the Netherlands’ years-long subjugation of Bali.

This same determination to control (often by brutal means) the lands in the Indonesian archipelago was evident again, later, as the Dutch fought to keep their lucrative colony after the end of World War II, when the British were almost eagerly divesting themselves of their colonial holdings.

Controlling the People

The Dutch took advantage of an existing social order in the Indies that resembled feudalism in Europe: people who worked the land paid tribute or taxes (in the form of labor) to local authorities such as the village headman. (Actually it was a corvée system, which differs from both taxes and tribute.) As in Malaya, in the Indies there were governing systems in place before the foreigners arrived; these resembled medieval Europe in being organized around kings, regents or sultans, the lands they controlled and the people who lived there, in regions that varied in size.

The Dutch converted the local rulers into civil servants so the rulers maintained a degree of power, but now underneath the colonizers’ authority. The system below the rulers stayed roughly the same; however, the Indies rulers now had to deliver goods and labor to their Dutch overlords. The demand for agricultural productivity increased, and worse, the gulf between the rulers and the people increased along with it, as the rulers’ attentions focused more and more on satisfying or placating the Dutch.

Like present-day Malaysia, present-day Indonesia is a nation-state made from a diverse collection of kingdoms and tribes, people who were not united in one nation before the Europeans meddled with them. Unlike Malaysia, Indonesia fought a revolution to win its independence from the Europeans who had been systematically extracting its wealth for more than 100 years.

Vickers (see link above) gives a good account of the growth of nationalism among the people of the Indies. Unlike the Malays, who lobbied to retain the hereditary positions of nine royal families as they negotiated their independence from the British, the people of the Indies showed no attachment toward the old system of rulers and ruled. They had a national flag and a national anthem before they even had a nation. Their nation found a name — Indonesia — in the 1920s (Vickers, page 79).

Independence in Indonesia

Yet another striking difference between Indonesia and Malaysia is the way each nation gained its independence. In both colonies, the Europeans ran like chickens from the Japanese invasion during World War II. During the Japanese occupation, people in both the Indies and Malaya collaborated or resisted in various ways; the ethnic Chinese in both places suffered horrible atrocities under the Japanese. For an awful forced-labor project to build a railway in Sumatra, tens of thousands of Javanese were conscripted by the Japanese. The Japanese also conducted lethal medical experiments on local people in Jakarta.

After the Japanese surrender, the Europeans returned to their colonies. The British seem to have lost their taste for control in Southeast Asia (probably exacerbated after Indian independence in 1947), but the Dutch were (if possible) even more determined than previously to keep their grip on the Indies and to continue sucking profits out of the islands. This was one of the biggest surprises for me, as I was already familiar with British efforts to kick Malaya out of the colonial nest, so to speak. In some accounts it seems as if the British almost had to open a door and give the Malays a shove. In any case, there was no bloody battle between the Malays and the British — and Malaysia’s independence came in 1957.

Indonesia was quite a different story. Blood spilled all over the archipelago. Regular people took up bamboo spears to fight the Dutch forces (and the British troops who were helping them); Vickers says it’s possible that between 45,000 and 100,000 Indonesians died in the struggle for independence, and more than 7 million were displaced (page 100). Various militias and opposing political groups took part in the struggle against the Europeans — as a result, the leadership of the new nation was not a single unified group. In some areas, Communist and anti-Communist groups clashed with each other, and for some time the United States thought Indonesia would be another contested state in the Cold War. An important Communist defeat in Madiun, East Java, calmed those fears in September 1948.

In December 1949, the Dutch finally agreed that Indonesia was a sovereign nation and withdrew.

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