History is about understanding past events, processes and trends, and learning from them. Various European countries were involved in the Far East for hundreds of years, firstly for trade purposes, and eventually they administered territories as colonies. Then along came World War II and Japanese invaders. The colonials fought a little, but mostly ran away (leaving the locals to their fate) or surrendered. The Japanese showed that the colonials were not invincible, but they in turn were usually pretty nasty to the locals, and especially those of the Chinese origin. In many of the islands, the Japanese were never beaten, but instead surrendered as a result of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. For a while after hostilities ceased, the allies sometimes retained Japanese troops in situ, in order to maintain order. So, what was to happen when the Europeans began to return? Had they not been fighting against oppression, and for the right to be free? Was this not also to apply to the indigenous populations of Tonkin, Cochinchine, Sumatra, the Malay States, Borneo, Sumatra, Bali, and the other islands? In many cases, no, or at least not for some time.
As a result of the war, transport and communications in the region had changed radically. Distances had telescoped as aircraft were upgraded and operational ranges extended. Landing strips had been created in all sorts of places. The Japanese had used prisoners-of-war and forced labour to push roads and sometimes railways into previously impenetrable terrain. Thousands of Jeeps and numerous liberty ships, Dakota transport planes, and landing craft (used for inter-island ferries) transformed transport after the war. Armaments were everywhere. These were big changes which had a profound effect on the local populations, who were no longer cut off from each other. They were now much more able to communicate with each other. Concepts of nationalism began to gain ground, though the make-up of the emerging nations was up for discussion.
The Wiki entry for the South East Asia Command (SEAC) points out that, after the War, “The Allies found that their war-time allies in the Viet Minh in Indochina, and Indonesian nationalist forces in the East Indies, were well armed, well-organised and determined.” I’m not sure about them being particularly well-organised, but they were often armed, they were usually determined, and their societies and expectations had been changed forever by the war. At the same time, SEAC were sometimes not 100% sure about the loyalty of their British Indian detachments in operations in this part of the world.
In some cases, the reassertion of colonial control resulted in tragedy. In Surabaya (part of what became Indonesia), British troops rescued some Dutch people who had been taken prisoner by locals. The locals reacted and attacked a force commended by Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby, who was killed along with several Eurasions. Despite Sukarno calling for calm, the SEAC forces bombarded the town, killing several thousand people, with the battle lasting several weeks. The Surabaya incident gave a massive boost to Indonesian nationalism and became known as Hari Pahlawan (Heroes’ Day). Elsewhere, things were not so bad but there was trouble in Bali until 1948. At around this time, people wondered whether the nationalists or Communists would prevail, but it was actually the new Republic that crushed a Communist revolt.
Nationalism and communism were two big themes in this part of the world at that time, and it is fascinating to see how they interacted, and how different countries developed in very different ways. In Indonesia, large numbers of communists were killed by other Indonesian groups on more than one occasion. I don’t know much about Korean history, and it isn’t really covered by Keay’s book, but we know that there was a nasty war there, ending up in a division between the communist north and South Korea with a capitalist culture. Elsewhere, in French Indochina, nationalist and communist forces more or less joined together to fight against firstly the French, and then successfully against the Americans. In Malaya it was quite different. During the “Malayan Emergency“, Commonwealth forces fought and defeated the communist Malayan National Liberation Army. Later, during the Communist Insurgency War (Second Malayan Emergency), it was the Malaysian Government security forces who fought the Malayan Communist Party. The big difference in Malaya was that whilst the communists were largely made up of ethnic Chinese, most Malays were nationalists and supported the government because they feared a takeover by ethnic Chinese. The final conflicts there ended at about the same time as the collapse of the Eastern Bloc regimes in Europe.
So, we have very different outcomes in those four countries, plus a further different path in the Philippines. I am not clever enough to draw possible analogies with the current situation in the Middle East, apart from saying that American bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia didn’t have the desired effect, so it may turn out be the same with Syria. It is sobering to think that the tonnage of explosives dropped on North Vietnam in the 60s was three times the total dropped worldwide during World War II.
Getting back to South Vietnam, at one stage in the early 60s there was the ludicrous situation whereby supposedly in the name of freedom, democracy and self determination for all, the Americans were supporting an unelected, nepotistic, corrupt and unpopular puppet administration which only just below the surface had fascistic tendencies, whilst Hanoi, supported by Peking and Moscow, claimed to be fighting to liberate South Vietnam from US imperialism.
Sarawak has a very peculiar history, which I’ve mentioned previously on this blog. In Sarawak, the various emerging left-wing groups in the 1970s and 80s sound like something out of a Monty Python movie. There was the Brunei People’s Party, the Sarawak People’s Guerilla Force, the North Kalimantan People’s Army, the Sarawak Liberation League, the Sarawak Advanced Youths’ Association and the Malayan Communist Party. Despite being partially anti-communist at home, Indonesia supported some of these groups, and then changed sides and fought against their former allies.
Three external developments which influenced politics in the Far East during this period included the belief in the West that communism had to be stopped somewhere, otherwise it would spread and spread, eventually to Australia and beyond; Indian Independence in 1947 which showed that Britain was serious about allowing its colonies to become independent; and the rise of communism in China.