External Powers

Why did foreign powers covet Southeast Asia, and how did this region become a battleground for European, American, and Japanese dominance? Disentangling the knot of foreign objectives and ambitions entails grasping the following:

  • The rise and fall of distant powers brought waves of influence to Southeast Asia at different points in time and left indelible impacts.
  • Southeast Asia’s location and resources brought increased wealth and power to foreign states.
  • The brutality of colonialism was often justified with arguments of cultural superiority.

In the 16th century Portugal laid claims on the Straits of Melaka (Malacca) and in eastern Indonesia, while Spain established settlements in the Philippines. The Dutch dominated the next century, squeezing Portugal out and taking control of the spice trade. By the 19th century, Great Britain established strongholds in Singapore and in Burma (Myanmar), while the French appropriated parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Even as European powers gleaned wealth, some Europeans began to challenge the morality of subjugating other nations and peoples for profit. The Dutch novel Max Havelaar, published in 1860, exposed the savagery of colonialism and Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” engendered debates about the justifications for imperialism.

In the late 19th century and through the 20th, peoples of Southeast Asia began to resist colonial rule. They asserted local identities through religious associations and went on strike. Peasants rebelled, and communist as well as nationalist parties formed. It is no wonder then that in the early years of World War II, many welcomed Japan’s invasion as emblematic of Asian sovereignty.

Click below for a better understanding of how Southeast Asia’s colonial experiences and complex histories with outside powers, coupled with the trauma of World War II, informed nations’ paths to independence, and how they continue to shape policies and agendas today.

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