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The end of Western colonialism in Asia

Millennium markers - British colony

MACAU'S return to China marks the final end of Western colonial rule in Asia. While there might have been all sorts of justification for that rule--be it a "superior" civilisation that necessitated Westerners carrying the "white man's burden", or to spread "mission civiliatrice", or to impose a superior economic system to modernise "backward" Asia economies--Western colonisation of Asia ultimately rested on military superiority.

The inability of Indians, Chinese and South-East Asians to resist Western military might that derived from greater power and more effective organisation brought about their colonisation (or semi- colonisation), even though some Asian countries had much older and continuous civilisations.

Western colonialism could only be ended if Asians were to find some way to defeat the West militarily.

Chinese propoganda poster

The first chink in the Western--or white man's--armour came with the defeat of the Russians by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. The Western colonial powers, however, made sure the news that a white power could be defeated militarily by a yellow power was not spread too widely among Asians, particularly South-East Asians. This ensured Western colonial rule in Asia was not threatened.

A more devastating crack in the armour appeared in World War II when Japan occupied much of South-East Asia, demonstrating to the world that an Asian nation can defeat even the most powerful Western nations. This gave enormous encouragement to South-East and other Asians that the Western powers were not militarily invincible.

But seeing an Asian industrial power defeating the West is one thing, doing it--especially if you are a developing country--is another. Therein lies the profound significance of the Vietminh (the Vietnamese Communist party) victory against the French in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, in 1954. That victory demonstrated to the world that a colonised developing country can, through a process of protracted war--which began in 1946; Dien Bien Phu was the denouement--make it prohibitive in terms of human and material sacrifice for even an industrial Western colonial power to hold on.

Thus it was Vietnam which derived its independence after eight years of struggle. The Vietminh victory arose from the party's ability to create a political-military organisation which could successfully protract a war without being annihilated by the superior firepower of the French.

They did it by, on the one hand, resorting to guerilla warfare which made it very difficult for them to be militarily targeted, and, on the other hand, by developing an ideologically disciplined party which the French could not easily break either by coercion or by blandishment.

The Vietminh were also shrewd enough to couch their struggle in nationalistic terms, thus making the French struggle against the Vietminh a struggle against the Vietnamese people.

One can view Dien Bien Phu, from a historical perspective, as constituting the final stage in the Asian attempt to devise a political-military structure which could defeat a Western occupying power; the two previous structures were secret societies and millennium movements.

Secret societies, while often viewed as criminal organisations, were sometimes used for nationalistic purpose. In fact, the Chinese triad societies supposedly began as an attempt by some Chinese to expel Manchu invaders and restore the Ming dynasty. They, however, were not successful because their nationalistic ideology was not clear cut (their aim was mostly to create a brotherhood and their members had to be secret) and their military ability and organisation could not match that of the occupying power.

The millennium movements, like the Taiping rebels in China and the Javanese movement in Indonesia fighting for the time the ratu adil or "just price" would come and deliver them from injustice, developed mass followings and better military organisation than the secret societies.

But they could not sustain for long the belief of the faithful in the advent of the heavenly kingdom of the Taipings or the ratu adil of the Javanese--unlike the ideologically organised parties like communist parties which could sustain the belief of its members in the coming revolution. Thus, they, fizzled out not before too long.

Nor could these movements militarily defeat, in the case of the Javanese, the Dutch or, in the case of the Taipings, a combination of the Chinese mandarin class and the Western powers. This was because the movements fought in conventional, not guerilla, style thus giving the military advantage to the Western powers.

Some might argue that Mao Tse-tung's victory in China predates Dien Bien Phu and the Chinese communist victory, rather than the Vietminh victory in Dean Bien Phu, should be regarded as the first example of the success of revolutionary warfare in the 20th century.

There may be some basis for this. After all, the Vietminh derived inspiration and theoretical guidance from the Maoist struggle. Yet, while it is very likely the Chinese communists would have driven out the Japanese by themselves if World War II had stretched on, Japan was ultimately defeated by the atomic bombs dropped by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki while the Vietminh themselves defeated the French.

Has the lesson of Dien Bien Phua been learned?

There is no doubt that many in subjugated nations, even if they may not establish a direct link to Dien Bien Phua, have resorted or have threatened to resort to guerilla warfare to remove their subjugators.

The European colonial powers very likely learned a lesson. I read somewhere that Graham Greene, the famous English novelist, wrote that Dien Bien Phu had some effect on the British decision to grant Malaya independence.

Only the Americans were initially sceptical. They believed that with their superior firepower and their sense of mission (they were "spreading democracy," not colonising the Vietnamese) they could hold on to Vietnam, or a part of Vietnam after Dien Bien Phu. It took them about 21 years to find out that was not possible. But that is another story.

Prof Lee Poh Ping lectures at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years.

Next week: the Malayan Union


Notes: STF- With Macau being handed over to China next week, PROF LEE POH PING takes a timely look at Western colonisation in Asia in this week's instalment of 'Millennium Markers.' The article on the Malayan Union which was scheduled for this week has been held over.

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