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Colonization of South East Asia


During the 16th and 17th century Europeans were able to penetrate South East Asia. In the process they were able to control the international trade of the region1. The profits that were accrued from the exercise were taken back to Europe. These profits were responsible for the high level of development in the continent while exhausting the economies of South East Asia. These economies had been stable before the arrival of the Europeans. By the 19th century, the Europeans had a lot of influence over most parts of the continent. Due to this influence they were able to establish authority in most of the states in the continent including India and South East Asia2.

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Development of Colonialism

Various European countries had colonies in South East Asia3. These countries used their colonies as a source of raw materials for their industries back at home and a market for their finished products. In the process, the colonizers benefited from the resources which the colonies had. This was the main objective that drove Europeans to have colonies all over the world including South East Asia.

The country that had the least impact of colonialism in South East Asia was Portugal. It captured Malacca and had influence on the colony from 1511 to 1641. The colony was later captured by the Dutch4. However, they still had influence over Timor, an island which is located on the eastern side of Bali. Spain on the other hand colonized the Philippines from 1565 to 1898 when it lost the colony during the Spanish-American war5. Spain had conquered Cebu and Manila during that period.

The Dutch colonization of South East Asia was in two phases. The first phase was under the Dutch East India Company (VOC) which lasted from 1605 to 17996. This company was more profit-oriented therefore it did have interest in the acquisition of territorial boundaries. It, therefore, put a lot of effort and emphasis on trade and any other activity which would result in profit maximization. This was achieved via trading monopolies that the colonial government had developed. However, the company collapsed in 1799. The Dutch government continued with VOC initiative after the Napoleonic wars and managed to gain influence over Indonesian archipelago. This initiative was in operation up to the 1930s. After the end of the Second World War the Dutch hoped that they would still have influence over their East Indies colonies. The natives were against this idea and resisted further colonization from the Netherlands. In 1945 they set up the republic of Indonesia and after offering resistance to the Dutch they finally got their independence in 19497. The United Nations played a critical role as a mediator between Indonesia and Netherlands.

The British conquered Burma. It was not an easy exercise since they had to fight three Anglo-Burmese wars to gain authority over the subjects. These wars were fought between 1824-1826, 1852 and 1885-18868. Unlike other colonies, Burma did not maintain its ethnic identity. It was considered a province of British India. It was ruled by the British who held the key positions in the government and the Indians who held intermediate positions. In 1935 the British signed an agreement for the complete separation of Burma from India9. This agreement was put into force two years later and in 1948 Burma gained its independence.

Other colonies which Britain had in South East Asia were Malacca, Singapore and Penang. These colonies were strait settlements for the expansion of British influence into Malay Peninsula between 1874 and 191410. The British continued to have influence over the Malay states until 1957 when they gained their independence. Together with Singapore, Penang and Malacca, Malaysia was formed. Singapore was however asked to step down from the federation in 1965.

France also had colonial influence in South East Asia. It captured Vietnam and Saigon in 1858 and 1859 respectively11. They used a military base in the southern part of the colony and moved to the west to capture more territories. By the early 20th century France had finished its conquest of South East Asia having authority over Indochina that comprised of Cambodia, Laos, Cochin-China, Annam and Tongking12. The French also hoped to retain the rule over the territory but that was not possible since the natives rebelled and gained their independence in 1954.

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Thailand was the only country in South East Asia that was not colonized13.

Type of Governance

The colonial powers used two different forms of governance against their subjects. The governance was either liberal or repressive. Britain was the only liberal government. It maintained a good relationship with its subjects. It respected the rule of law, encouraged political participation, provided health and educational services and offered economic opportunities to the natives. Towards the end of the Second World War it prepared its colonies for independence. The Spanish, Dutch and the French had repressive governments. They placed Europeans in superior positions and restricted political activities by the natives. Education was also limited to members of certain social classes and censorship was very common. These governments did not want their colonies to be independent after the Second World War.

Reaction against Colonization

During the process of colonization in South East Asia, nationalist movements sprung up to fight for the rights and freedom of the natives and the independence of their countries. Most of these movements were spearheaded by political parties. The leaders of these political parties were enlightened individuals who felt that the colonial government had deprived them of their rights. They also knew that they should publicly air out their grievances and even go as far as fighting so that their countries could gain independence.

Most colonial governments felt threatened by nationalist movements. They used all means necessary to reduce their influence. This included censorship, limiting political activities and banning of political parties, imprisonment and exiling of political leaders, limiting of education and so on. Some of the nationalists ran away from their mother countries to seek refuge in other nations where they could publicly condemn the colonial government. Despite the efforts which the colonial government had put in place to curb nationalism, the movements slowly gained popularity and became very strong. In the end, most European colonies in South East Asia gained their independence after the Second World War.

The mode of nationalism in South East Asia was dependent on the type of colonial government that was in place. In liberal governments as expressed under the British rule, nationalism was moderate. It mainly entailed dialogue and negotiations between the nationalists and the colonial government. In repressive governments, on the other hand, nationalism took a radical mode and involved demonstrations and rebellions against the colonial government.

Nationalism in the region was initiated by religion, education or political influence. Religion played a critical role in the development of nationalism in South East Asia. In Burma for example, the Buddhists started the Young Man Buddhism Association in the early 20th century. This was the first nationalist movement in the country. The main aim of the movement was to restore the Buddhist religion in the country. They thought that the native culture of the country was being absorbed by the western influence which was brought about by colonialism. People had started to embrace western culture and the only way to stop this was to minimize the western influence in the country. In Indonesia, nationalism was brought about by a political party that was founded by the Muslims. This party was called Sarekat Islam and was founded in 1912. By bringing all the Muslims of Indonesia together, the party gained a lot of supporters who helped it to fight for the independence of their state. This was the first party to have mass supporters in the region.

Education also played an important role in the fight for independence in South East Asia. In Burma, the elite worked side by side with the Buddhists to fight for their independence. Most of the educated individuals were from the University of Rangoon. They later on became important political figures in the country once it gained independence. It is the elite who fought the Spanish government in the Philippines while in Malaya they worked closely with the British government under the civil service where they gained a lot of experience in leadership and governance. In Indonesia, the educated lot formed a political party called PNI which was made to go underground by the Dutch administration. In Indochina, educated individuals were forced to work with the French government. Most of the nationalist activities, therefore, came from outside the country.

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Social radicals played a minimal role in South East Asia nationalism. In Burma, communism was not well-organized while in Indonesia it became active after independence.


The Europeans had a lot of influence in South East Asia. This was brought about by the authority that they had over the native. In the process of colonization, they were able to influence the trade of the region, lifestyle, tradition and culture, education and the social life of the natives. These effects were so severe since they can be felt up to the present moment.

Reference List

Antons, C. Law and development in East and Southeast Asia. Routledge, Oxon, 2003.

Banerjee, A.C. A Constitutional History of India 1600-1935. Taylor & Francis, California, 1978.

Eur. Far East and Australasia 2003. Routledge, Oxon, 2002.

Goldstein, E. Wars and Peace Treaties: 1816 to 1991. Routledge, Oxon, 1992.

Goor, J. Prelude to colonialism: the Dutch in Asia. Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum, 1997.

Hagget, P. Encyclopedia of World Geography: Southeast Asia. Marshall Cavendish, London, 2002.

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Lockard, C.A. Societies, Networks, and Transitions. Cengage Learning, Boston, 2010.

Low, F. Struggle for Asia. Ayer Publishing, Cleveland, 1972.

McCannon, J. Barron’s AP World History. Barron’s Educational Series, New York, 2010.

Ooi, K. J. Southeast Asia: A historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor. ABC-CLIO, Bangkok, 2004.

Suryadinata, L. Elections and politics in Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Pasir Panjang, 2004.

Tamura, E. China: understanding its past. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1997.

Wilson, C. Colonialism and Nationalism in Southeast Asia. Seasite, 2011.


  1. Peter Haggett, Encyclopedia of World Geography: Southeast Asia, Marshall Cavendish, London, 2002, p. 2982.
  2. Keat Jean Ooi, Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Volume 3, ABC-CLIO, Bangkok, 2004, p. 19.
  3. Eileen Tamura, China: understanding its past, Volume 1, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1997, p. 116.
  4. John McCannon, Barron’s AP World History, Barron’s Educational Series, New York, 2010, p. 188.
  5. Constance Wilson, Colonialism and Nationalism in Southeast Asia, Seasite. Web.
  6. Jurrien van Goor, Prelude to colonialism: the Dutch in Asia, Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum, 1997, p. 7.
  7. Leo Suryadinata, Elections and politics in Indonesia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Pasir Panjang, 2004, p. 63.
  8. Erik Goldstein, Wars and Peace Treaties: 1816 to 1991, Routledge, Oxon, 1992, p. 86.
  9. Anil Chandra Banerjee, A Constitutional History of India 1600-1935, Taylor & Francis, Carlifonia, 1978, p. 452.
  10. Eur, the Far East and Australasia 2003, Routledge, Oxon, 2002, p. 763.
  11. Craig A. Lockard, Societies, Networks, and Transitions, Vol 3, Cengage Learning, Boston, 2010, p. 913.
  12. Francis Low, Struggle for Asia, Ayer Publishing, Cleveland, 1972, p. 144.
  13. Christoph Antons, Law and development in East and Southeast Asia, Routledge, Oxon, 2003, p. 39.

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