The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

20

Imperialism and Nationalism in South-East Asia

A. J. STOCKWELL

The exercise of British power in South-East Asia until 1914 was shaped by the expansion of the colonial state, fluctuations in world capitalism, nationalist reactions, and international relations. As British economic interests infused South-East Asia, so colonial governments became more intrusive in the exaction of revenue and the regulation of production. Yet European coercive powers should not be exaggerated; state control varied from area to area, was often evaded by businessmen, and ran into opposition from peasants and labourers. Moreover, although export-oriented districts were particularly susceptible to world market forces, the impact of capitalism was not uniformly harsh. In the 1930s the Irrawaddy delta in Burma was hit harder by depression than was the Chao Phraya delta in Siam, Burmese rice farmers were perhaps worse off than workers in Malayan tin and rubber, and tenants and labourers were often more vulnerable than peasant proprietors. Indeed, it has been suggested that 'the peasantry of the region suffered less severely from the crisis of the world economy in the interwar decades than they did during years when nature turned against them and the monsoon failed, or during the years when they were victims of war'. 1

None the less, the more heavily colonialism bore down upon South-East Asian societies, the more complex became problems of managing collaborators, controlling opponents, manipulating minority groups, and balancing communal interests. Increasingly the tools of colonial rule, such as communications and print culture, were turned against it as the extension of colonialism opened South‐ East Asia to enemies of colonialism. Opposition to European rule was not only provoked by direct experience; it was also inspired by knowledge of reform in the Islamic world, Indian nationalism, China's civil war, and Japanese militarism. On occasion resistance tied down considerable colonial resources, but it never proved insurmountable during the period before the Second World War. Even when the British were driven from South-East Asia in 1941-42, it was not on account of the strength of nationalism but because of seismic shifts in international relations.

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1
Ian Brown, 'Rural Distress in Southeast Asia during the World Depression of the Early 1930s: A Preliminary Reexamination', Journal of Asian Studies, XLV, 5 (1986), p. 1022.

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