Anticolonialism: Southeast Asia

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Anticolonialism: Southeast Asia

Anticolonialism in Southeast Asia has been considered from a wide range of perspectives, resulting in deliberation over its character and place in the region's history. Generally, anti-colonialism refers to one type of Southeast Asian response to the encounter with Euro-American colonialism. One might then describe anticolonialism as including everything from the personalities, institutions, and resistance movements that arose in direct response to the establishment of colonies in Southeast Asia, to the growth of literary expressions, rituals, history, and popular culture that emerged within that historical context. More specifically, anticolonialism has also come to represent the ways in which colonized peoples protested, resisted, or expressed dissatisfaction with changes imposed by colonial authorities.

Because of the nature and history of colonialism in Southeast Asia (which occurred over four centuries involving different actors, intensities, locations, and agendas), expressions of anticolonialism in the region tend to reflect the circumstances and characteristics particular to each locality. So the study of anticolonial movements in the Spanish colonies was understood in the context of a "Philippine history" that was different from the historical context in which colonialism (and anticolonialism) would be examined in the case of nineteenth-century Myanmar (then known as Burma), whose history and colonial experience under the British had unfolded in quite a different manner. At the same time, scholars have also done extensive comparative work, demonstrating similarities in the way Southeast Asians articulated protest. In this regard, scholars have concentrated on the different forms of anticolonial expression in order to demonstrate variation and coherency in Southeast Asian cultural history. As a result, a distinctive and uniform "Southeast Asian" response to colonialism has yet to be clearly defined.

Categories and Features of Anticolonialism

In order to make sense of the variety of ways in which Southeast Asians responded to colonialism, expressions of protest and resistance might be approached under three general categories: traditional, synthesis, and radical movements. Although problematic in terminology, traditional movements represent those initial "knee-jerk" reactions to the immediate military and pacification operations of the colonial powers that preceded the establishment of administrative governments. These movements were generally led by elites of the traditional order, using the vocabulary and symbols of leadership to which their followers would associate with precolonial authority. Designed to resurrect the institutions and social networks that were dismantled by the encroaching Europeans, ex-princes, ministers, and priests (or monks) rallied their immediate followers to resist colonial encroachment at locations of significant religious, political, and cultural importance. Because these movements were based on patronclient, village, and locally defined networks of relations, these outbreaks of resistance were limited in scale. These types of responses were generally found throughout the region but were more locally oriented and unsuccessful in realizing the return of precolonial sociopolitical orders.

The second category of anticolonialism, which includes those expressions that exemplify a synthesis of indigenous and European ideals, refers generally to the types of programs championed by educated indigenous elites who wanted to initiate change and reform through the colonial system, using the vocabulary and procedures adopted from European education. These forms of protest were undertaken after colonial administrative and social institutions had already been entrenched in local soil, producing a generation of social reformers who saw the means for change within the apparatus and mechanics of the colonial system but who hoped to localize Western ideals of civil society and individualism through traditional symbols and belief systems. Unlike earlier responses that aimed to return to precolonial orders, these programs sought to initiate social reform within the parameters of colonial law and convention. Many who initiated such reforms were challenged by the inability to connect with rural populations, whose concerns, experiences, and conceptions of the world were much different from their more urbanized, Western-educated counterparts.

The third type of anticolonial response, which were more radical than the earlier "East-West" attempts to synthesize, describes the initiatives of younger, educated urban students and activists who sought complete independence from colonial authorities using the organizational and sometimes ideological blueprints inherited from Europe, Japan, and America. In contrast to the generation of educated elites who hoped to initiate social reform through the system, the leaders of these movements aimed to uproot the colonial powers using the language of anticolonial nationalism in order to replace the system. Based in cities but able to penetrate the countryside, these movements attempted to bridge the ruralurban gap by making the colonial experience itself the common inspiration to launch popular movements toward independence.

These three categories of analysis offer a preliminary structure to distinguish the different types of social and political protest that might be considered "anticolonial," while they also take into account the sociopolitical changes that occurred within Southeast Asian colonial society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as it affected local populations and communities. While anticolonial sentiment developed along these general lines, differences in the methods and natures of the colonial administrations, and the periods in which they were implemented, account for the variations and departures from the stages within this scheme.

One common feature that binds the scholarly understanding of anticolonialism in the region is that it was mainly directed toward institutions, individuals, and policies that had come to represent the way in which colonial authority threatened or affected the lifestyle, worldviews, or identities of local peoples. Symbols of the colonial state (such as infrastructural edifices, district offices, and administrators) were common targets for anticolonial protest, though local indigenous elites who were deemed collaborators or at least sympathetic to the colonial authorities were often subjected to distrust, scorn, and sometimes violence as well. Attacks on local headmen outnumbered attacks on British officials during the initial outbreak of the Saya San Rebellion in Burma in 1930, as these British-appointed headmen were perceived as acting on behalf of the newly formed British village administration.

While rebellions, riots, marches, and boycotts are all illustrative of more obvious forms of resistance, anticolonialism was expressed in a variety of other modes, harnessing local forms of public expression and media to articulate displeasure or disagreement with policies and pressures imposed by the colonial state. The growth of print culture alongside local theater, religious festivals, and other cultural outlets enabled anticolonialism to be articulated in a wide range of forms, much of which contributed to the scholarly understanding of culture, peasants, and nationalism in Southeast Asia. While these contexts represent more recent scholarly approaches to thinking about anticolonialism, the earliest versions of the idea can be found in the writings of colonial scholar-officials.

Colonial Origins of the Idea

The earliest traces of "anticolonialism" can be found in the documents compiled by scholar-officials working within the various colonial administrations. Specifically, political officers who accompanied the initial military campaigns of conquest and later those within the civil service were among the first to interpret and write about the wide range of responses to colonial operations in the region. Many of these accounts speak of anticolonial resistance as brief interludes or disturbances, mere interruptions to the social order established by the authorities. Within official reports, gazetteers, manuals, and censuses, administrators organized, defined, and made sense of these outbreaks, thereby creating the very categories and perspectives under which "resistance" and "anticolonialism" would eventually be considered. Throughout the region, officials identified key cultural markers such as protective tattooing, charms, and astronomical symbols as part of the "traditional" uniform of resistance, which combined superstitious beliefs and religion in order to appeal to the masses who participated in these movements. Other features included the rebuilding of royal palaces and religious edifices in mountain strongholds that were said to represent cosmological and spiritual power. Case studies demonstrate these similarities in the early minlaung (prince) movements of Burma (18851890s), the "save-the-emperor" movements of northern Vietnam (18851896), and the Java War (18251830). Characteristics of anticolonial resistance were first identified, labeled, and codified by officials whose jobs were to affirm colonial policies as much as they were supposed to collect and interpret the societies they were charged with administering.

More importantly, colonial officials were interested in establishing the causal factors for these disturbances and wrote their reports accordingly, influencing scholars who would later use these sources, their approaches, and their descriptions for their own studies. Reports often stated that these brief instances of violence resulted from irrationality, superstition, gullibility, false prophets, religious fanaticism, and other inherent cultural traits that predictably would endure if not for colonial intervention. It was no surprise that initial pockets of resistance that faced the Dutch in Java, the British in Lower Burma, and the French in Vietnam would be considered akin both in character and origin to the anticolonial rebellions in the early twentieth century, though the circumstances would be considerably different. Thus, officials were charged with finding and naming examples of what was "anticolonial" in Southeast Asia partly in hopes of establishing the difference between traditional Asia and modern Europe. In this manner, the idea of anticolonialism began to take shape along a binary framing that placed Southeast Asians and Europeans at opposite ends, structuring the way in which protest, resistance, and revolt would be studied in the years to come.

Nationalism and the Idea of Anticolonialism

With the exception of the Vietnamese and to a lesser extent the Indonesians (who had to endure the return of the colonial powers following World War II), the eventual exit of the European powers from the political scene created an important intellectual vacuum within which scholars of the former colonies could operate. Many of these "home" scholars sought to repair, renovate, or even remove the histories produced under colonial tutelage. Heeding the needs of nationhood, Southeast Asian scholars, many of whom were trained in European schools, began redressing the histories that were written for them by colonial historians by writing from the perspective of the nation. Where rebels, political activists, and influential religious figures were once marginalized and condemned by colonial historians, they were now transformed into "national" heroes who contributed to the fruition and emergence of the nation-state. Figures such as Java's Dipanagoro (c. 17851855), the Philippines' José Rizal (18611896), Burma's Saya San (d. 1931), and Vietnam's Tran Van Tra (19181996) became part of a common history of the nation and struggle that contributed to the imagining of the nation. Moreover, the rebellions and incidents first identified by colonial officials as being important were appropriated by home scholars for their narratives, intent on recasting the perspective in which they had originally been presented. So "anticolonial" movements became seen as independence movements, affecting the way in which protest and resistance was interpreted. For instance, the tone of the scholarship and the analysis of the movements were sympathetic rather than critical, shifting the movements' role and importance in history to demonstrate a national consciousness that was growing during colonial rule. Earlier elements of resistance that colonial writers had highlighted in order to establish the "backward" nature of political expression (such as tattooing, religious symbols, and language) were played down by nationalist historians in favor of more "objective" economic and political origins, although the interest and focus in causal factors as prescribed by colonial documents was nevertheless maintained. Local conceptions of protest and revolt were unintentionally deemed irrelevant, because nationalist scholars were keen on writing a modern narrative of the new nation. The shape and scope of anticolonialism had not changed, only its interpretation and coloring.

While these adjustments were being made by home scholars writing through the lens of the nation, scholars in the West began to reconsider anticolonialism within the context of nation as well, choosing to consider indigenous expressions of protest and revolt (which were ironically being played down by their counterparts in Southeast Asia) as evidence of protonationalism. As a result, the major rebellions and revolts (which continued to dominate the attention of scholars) that had taken on a religious or culturally specific character were deemed important to study under the rubric of "Asian" nationalism, which seemed to make these once dismissed ideological influences important and relevant to scholarly study. Consequently, disturbances and outbreaks of violence that demonstrated religious overtones drew attention on the grounds that they were early expressions of nationalism and therefore warranted closer scrutiny. The Saya San Rebellion (19301932) in Burma, which made use of Buddhist ideas in its program, was now being considered as a "Buddhist" protonationalist movement, suggesting that religion and other Southeast Asian ideological sources were important to understanding the growth and expression of Asian nationalism. Similarly, Dipanogoro's rebellion in Java represented an Islamic nationalism that would precede movements in the twentieth century, while the Filipino revolt launched in 1896 by Andres Bonifacio (18631897), which alluded to Christian ideas, seemed to forecast the origins of a national consciousness.

Autonomous History and the Idea of Anticolonialism

In the early 1960s, shifts within Southeast Asian studies began promoting research that sought an alternative approach to the ways in which Southeast Asian culture and history had been conceptualized by earlier scholars. Following the call of John Smail to produce histories of Southeast Asia that were not bound to the European narratives, chronologies, and categories of analysis, scholars began directing their attention to writing about and studying what they perceived as indigenous history, which had finally attained its "autonomy" from the priorities and perspective of European-centered history. This trend affected the way in which anticolonialism came to be understood, in that Southeast Asian conceptions of resistance and protest were now being studied for what they revealed about the region's cultural heritage and conceptions of the world. Where scholars might have considered how revolts inspired by Islamic, Buddhist, or Christian ideas operated under the rubric of nationalism, emphasis was now directed toward understanding how these mentalities revealed something about the very nature of Southeast Asian culture.

This new direction in thinking led scholars to write some of the most important works about anticolonialism and Southeast Asian culture. For example, Reynaldo C. Ileto, author of the seminal work Payson and Revolution, studied the ways in which Filipino-Catholic conceptions of rebellion were articulated through the imagery, scenes, and narratives associated with the Passion story of Christ. It inspired a new interest in millenarianism, or the idea of the coming millennium (or end of the world/cycle), and its relation to religious anticolonial movements. Historians such as Emanuel Sarkisyanz demonstrated how Buddhist conceptions about the end of the world framed the way Burmese made sense of the rapid social and economic changes occurring around them and how the notion of a future Buddha was associated with leaders promising a return to precolonial social norms. Michael Adas would take this paradigm and extend it comparatively within the region and beyond, showing in his Prophets of Rebellion that anticolonial movements were forged by the charismatic leadership of men who used religious notions of the millennium in order to gain popular support among the peasantry. Most importantly, these studies and many others began using the idea of anticolonialism in order to flesh out what were perceived as indigenous conceptions of the Southeast Asian world.

Peasant Studies and the Idea of Anticolonialism

With the shift toward an "autonomous" reading of anticolonialism came a connected interest in focusing on peasant society and consciousness. Pathbreaking works, such as James C. Scott's The Moral Economy of the Peasant, applied models for studying peasants to the anticolonial movements of the 1930s (the Saya San Rebellion in British Burma and the Nghe-Tinh Uprising in French Vietnam) in order to understand not just how "Southeast Asians" might have articulated and understood revolt but also in what specific ways peasants would have expressed and made sense of the new colonial order. The work of Scott and others suggested that the economic conditions of the 1930s directly challenged the peasantry's locally defined threshold for subsistence, resulting in the widespread rebellions and resistance that occurred throughout the region. Peasant studies tended to also concentrate on economic causal factors, leading scholars to suggest possible connections between the anticolonial rhetoric and new communist influences that were slowly becoming a part of these and other nationalist movements to come. Yet peasant studies also led to the emerging interest in "everyday" forms of resistance and "avoidance" protest that focused on how peasants and communities may have expressed anticolonial sentiment on a daily basis as opposed to the larger and less frequent rebellions that officials and scholars had grown accustomed to study. Anticolonial behavior could be expressed by sabotage, flight, the dragging of one's feet, and other forms of self-preservation and protest that were directed against authority and/or the colonial state. In a fundamental way, the influence of peasant studies upon the idea of anticolonialism challenged for the first time some of the categories and foci of colonial officials by momentarily shifting attention away from the major rebellions and revolts to the everyday behavior of Southeast Asians. The breadth of scholarship generated by this focus continues to influence the field in the early twenty-first century, by which time the focus on the peasantry had broadened to include minority groups, women, and ethnicities involved in challenges to the state and its apparatus.

Postcolonial Studies and Anticolonialism

Scholars in the early twenty-first century have returned to the idea of anticolonialism, armed with new perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches. As colonialism continues to challenge scholars, many in the academe have been inspired by suggestions that "knowledge" and "power" are closely connected, which have resulted in studies attempting to show how "knowledge" about Southeast Asia reveals something about the contexts in which it was produced. Invariably, attention has returned to those early colonial official-scholars who first began collecting, cataloguing, inventorying, and labeling what they considered Southeast Asia to be. Following Edward Said's critique of Oriental knowledge production, scholars have demonstrated not only that this construction of Southeast Asian culture by colonial administrators represented European images of the "Orient" but that it also represented an underlying "power" to say what was and what was not "Southeast Asia." Applying these approaches to the study of resistance and protest, it has become clear that the very categories that define resistance, the rebel, the criminal, and anticolonialism itself were produced in particular contexts that reveal as much about the colonizer as they reveal something about the perceptions of anticolonialism. Research directed at prisons, anti-colonial legislation/law, and criminality have become the focus of study in order to demonstrate how colonial administrations defined Southeast Asian anticolonialism to fit, serve, and respond to the needs of counterinsurgency policies and the maintenance of colonial order. Where once anticolonialism shed light on forms of Southeast Asian culture, it is now redirected to the forms of colonial knowledge and counterinsurgency.

See also Colonialism: Southeast Asia ; Empire and Imperialism: Asia ; Nationalism ; Westernization: Southeast Asia .


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Maitrii Aung-Thwin