19: Early 20th Century Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia: “At the beginning of the 20th century, colonial gangsters dominated and exploited the indigenous peoples of most of my territory. There were no turf wars as each of the colonial powers had their hands full dealing with local revolts. The boundaries were to remain fixed for another half century. The Dutch ruled Indonesia with the exception of East Timor, which was under Portuguese control. In addition to the enormous Indian sub-continent, the British also ruled Malaysia and what they called Burma, i.e. Myanmar. The French continued to dominate what they called Indochina, i.e. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. And, of course, the Americans had the Philippines under their gun.

As mentioned, the public in each of these Western countries had little to do with the exploitation and enslavement of my population. In many cases the behavior of the Company would have appalled the people of the West. In some cases, there were even protests ‘back home’ against the atrocities of the Company, whether Dutch, English, French or American. Hence, when we refer to England etcetera, we are primarily speaking of the military corpratocracy that rules the respective countries. Remember these impersonal entities are driven by the material cravings of the anonymous stockholders, including politicians. As such, there is not any individual or family who is responsible for the reprehensible behavior. Instead it is the human collective that is mesmerized by corporate groupthink to abandon all moral values to maximize profits without any regard for the standard values of human decency. A lone grasshopper is benign, while locusts devour the landscape creating famine.

With this qualification in mind, let us return to our narrative."

The Vietnamese turn to Communism under Ho Chi Minh

While France provided protection to Cambodia and Laos from Thailand, their Company dominated Vietnam politically in order to better exploit them economically. To supply the growing global demand for rice, the Company found it most expedient to deal with large landowners who were tools of their colonial oppressors. This enabled them to better maximize profits for the anonymous stockholders back on the ‘Continent’. Employing the normal unscrupulous means, for instance excessive taxation combined with loans at exorbitant interest rates, over half of the Vietnamese were forced off their lands during this period due to this globalization of their market.

The French Company enslaved these landless Vietnamese to work in their mines and rubber plantations under inhumane conditions. Even though legislation was passed to restrict these abuses, they were never enforced. As usual, the Company was in control, not the Government.

As to be expected from this abusive treatment, the Vietnamese independence movement began simultaneously with the entry of the French Company into Vietnam. The initial movement towards independence from their colonial oppressor concerned throwing the French out and returning to the imperial system of pre-colonial times – the way things were. This notion faded out after a charismatic leader died in 1895.

Beginning in the early 1900s, the second revolutionary trend embraced Western ideas, but just wanted the French out. The leaders of this movement wanted local independence to establish a free market democracy complete with modern technology. Many in the French Government supported this humane and moral progression towards human rights. However, after an abortive revolution in 1930, the French Company brutally suppressed the movement. Nationalism is always a threat to the exorbitant profits of greedy stockholders. Remember the Company is always against a level economic playing field associated with local independence. Counter to their claims, the Corporate Company, no matter which nationality, is inherently anti-free enterprise as it threatens their sinister profits.

The Vietnamese independence movement first attempted to return to a kingdom and then to establish a democracy. The Company employed their army to squelch both movements. Further, the French retained economic control for themselves. In other words, the bulk of the Vietnamese were systematically and ruthlessly excluded from participation in the local or global economy. There was only one place to turn for assistance – Russia.

Forcibly excluded from the Western Democracy Club, Vietnam looked to Russia as a role model and for support. Just as the American Democratic Revolution of 1776 provided an inspirational example for the lower classes of Western European kingdoms, so did the Russian Communist Revolution of 1917 provide an inspirational example to the indigenous peoples all over the globe that were dominated by Western colonialism. Ironically, America’s democratic example was always the first choice. Because the Company regularly squelched this possibility, Communism became the default and perhaps the only other choice. For certainly both China and Vietnam, Communism ultimately became the path of least resistance.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) was without a doubt the leader of the communist movement in Vietnam, as well as being one of the most prominent leaders of international communism. He left Vietnam as a young seaman in 1911. After visiting and living in many prominent Western cities, including Boston, New York and London, he eventually settled in Paris in 1917. Here he began organizing the exiled Vietnamese.

At the Versailles Peace Conference that concluded World War I, Ho demanded that the French colonial power grant its subjects in Indochina equal rights with the rulers. This basic human right is at the heart of democracy, but not of the military corpratocracies that rule(d) the world. Unfortunately, the citizens of each of the corpratocracies tend(ed) to believe that their respective countries were and are encouraging these same human rights that they were and are suppressing.

Due to this depressing reality, Ho Chi Minh ultimately embraced Communism as the best solution to the quest for Vietnamese independence from France. Inspired by the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s anti-imperialist stance, he joined the French Communist Party in 1920. He traveled to Moscow in 1923. Besides providing a eulogy for Lenin, he was also an active participant in the 5th Congress of the Communist International in 1924. It was here that he first formulated his belief that oppressed peasants (as opposed to industrial workers) had an important role to play in the revolution. Ultimately, this belief in the power of the agricultural peasantry proved to be the foundation of the communist movement in both China and Southeast Asia.

In 1925, Ho Chi Minh moved to Canton, China, a hotbed of Communism. It was here that he organized and merged competing revolutionary groups into what was to eventually become the Indochinese Communist Party. Rather than competition, Ho encouraged cooperation behind a common goal. To this end, he continually fostered a positive relationship with Russia’s Soviet Union. His remarkable accomplishments as a leader are somewhat due to his rare ability to organize competing factions into a cohesive unit.

Conditions of near starvation over large areas of central Vietnam inevitably created a revolutionary atmosphere. In an attempt to alleviate this unnecessary suffering, the communists organized and then staged a broad peasant uprising in May 1930.  Numerous Vietnamese officials and many landlords were killed. Additionally, ’Soviet‘ administrations were set up in several provinces. It took the French Company a full year to suppress the uprising, which was followed by a reign of terror.

After being sentenced to death in absentia for his role in the uprising, Ho Chi Minh escaped to Moscow. At the 7th Communist Congress in 1935, the concept of a Popular Front, an alliance of Communist and non-Communist groups against fascism, was approved. This was an idea that the conciliatory Ho Chi Minh had regularly espoused.

In the same year, a Popular Front government gained brief control of France. At this time, the French extended limited political freedoms to their colonies. The communists took advantage to spread their message of independence throughout French Indochina. Repression returned to Indochina in 1937 when the French elected a more traditional party, i.e. one that favored the Company’s colonialism. Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party, now a well-disciplined organization, was forced back into hiding to wait for a more auspicious time. It is evident from this discussion that the bulk of the Vietnamese were ripe for independence from their colonial overlords – the French.

Philippines: Company Business as usual

Although relatively brief and its effects rather limited, it was an encouraging sign that the French people were finally able to exert a mitigating influence on the colonial abuses of its Company. The battle between the democratic-leaning Public and the colonial corpratocracy of the Company was and is a significant feature of 20th > 21st century politics.

Mark Twain reflected the popular sentiment of each country when he said, “It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way.” Self-determination and basic human rights are the key words behind this sentiment. However, we must introduce a relevant caveat. For the bulk of the Public, self-determination meant a democracy, not a communist state or a theocracy.

On the other hand, the Company was all about stockholder profits. As such, the anonymous humans that were in nominal charge of the business, neither cared about what type of government was in power, nor what type of rights the people had. Dictatorship, theocracy, or a controlled democracy; it was all the same to the Company as long as business conditions were favorable to exorbitant profits. In general, the Company favored military dictatorships over democracies, as they were easier to control. In essence, the conflict between Public and Company centered on democracy vs. corporate/imperial rule.

The U.S. was the same as other colonial powers. Through their elected officials, the Public attempted to assert themselves in foreign affairs, albeit feebly. At the turn of the 20th century, the Philippines were the battleground for these opposing philosophies.

Due to public and political pressure, in 1907 a limited number of Filipinos, the landed elite who collaborated with the Americans, were granted the right to elect a Philippine Assembly. While the Assembly exerted some influence over the administration of the country, it had no real political power. For instance, the U.S. maintained exclusive control over defense and foreign affairs. Further America’s Governor General dominated economic and domestic decision-making. However, the Philippine Assembly set a precedent as the first democratic institution in Southeast Asia.

The American President Woodrow Wilson was fully in favor of granting the Filipinos independence. This intent was even one of the campaign promises that he made to the American Public to get elected to the presidency in 1913. To this end, he appointed Harrison, as governor general. Harrison’s expressed purpose, which he enthusiastically embraced, was to prepare the Filipinos for self-rule as an American style democracy. The Senate even passed the Jones Act in 1916, which set a definite date for Philippine independence. Unfortunately, the House blocked and watered down the legislation. In its final version, the act merely stated that the "purpose of the people of the United States" is to recognize Philippine independence "as soon as a stable government can be established therein."

This is but one exhibition of the enormous power that the Company exerts on international politics. Even though the President, the Senate, and the Public wanted Philippine independence, the Company was able to block the legislation presumably with a few well-placed bribes. The immense accumulation of capitol allows the Company to buy elected officials, courts and even presidents from time to time. This was the last attempt to grant the Philippines any real independence for decades.

In the real attempt to prepare the Filipinos for self-rule, the American public agenda included education as a high priority. Due to U.S. funding and influence, the number of teachers expanded 5 fold during the early decades of foreign rule. By 1927 nearly all teachers were locally born, which led to 50% literacy in the 1930s. Education and the ability to speak English provided an opportunity for upward mobility. Unfortunately, those who were fortunate enough to rise in the hierarchy generally adopted the values of the ruling class due to the subsequent benefits.

While the American influence on Philippine education was generally positive, there was no progress in leveling the economic disparities within the archipelago. The alliance between the American Company and wealthy Filipinos blocked any such progress. These wealthy Filipinos were the landed elite, who had also sided and cooperated with the Spanish in suppressing peasant revolts. This unsavory collaboration included the Philippine Revolution in the 1890s. When the Americans seized control, they seamlessly shifted their allegiance to the Company. This was a natural progression, as the wealthy land owners had more in common with international business than they did with the Philippine peasantry.

As mentioned it was easier for the Company to deal with large landowners that suppressed worker rights than it was to deal with small farmers who demanded basic human rights. Further, small, independent, self-sufficient farmers had little desire to mortgage their future to provide products for the international market place. Not only were labor costs higher for smaller farmers, the amount of crops produced for the global market was also smaller. A lose-lose situation in terms of stockholder profits.

Accordingly, it was in the best interests of the Company to encourage a greater concentration of land holding everywhere they operated. As an indication of the Company’s influence on the Philippines, the percent of farmers under share holding tenancy to the landed elite doubled between 1900 and 1935. As an indication of the Company’s influence on American politics, the U.S. Congress passed bills eliminating tariffs on Philippine agriculture. This led to unfair competition with American farmers, who, due to the free market, had to pay at least decent wages to their workers. Once again, the Company created an uneven playing field to maximize stockholder profits.

Besides self-rule, one of the thrusts of the peasant-inspired Philippine Revolution was social reform, which included land redistribution to small farmers. Because the landed elite comprised only 3% of the population, they tended to oppose the democratization of the Philippines. Democracy was counter to their vested interests and a threat to their privileges. As such, the Philippine aristocracy was one of the continuing blocks to self-rule. They preferred to deal with the Company rather than with their own race.

Due to this economic slavery combined with lack of progress towards self-rule, there were 3 peasant rebellions in the 1920s and 30s. American controlled military forces easily suppressed each uprising. The Company wasn’t going to relinquish its income property without a fight.

Because of Philippine agriculture's unfair trade advantages, American farmers pressed for Philippine independence. This local pressure found a sympathetic ear when Roosevelt became president during the Great Depression. The Congress passed laws setting up a 10-year Philippine commonwealth beginning Nov. 15, 1935. At the end of the term, the Philippines were to be allowed complete self-rule. Although circumstances were improving, they still had a long way to go before the Filipinos were to be truly free of their colonial overlords.

Burma: stirrings of self determination

England had its own problems with Myanmar, what the British called Burma. Dissatisfied with the rate of progress, the Burmese boycotted British goods in 1920. As an indication of the continuing social disparities, there was a peasant rebellion in 1930. Even though they were armed with only swords and sticks, it took England 2 years to suppress the rebellion.

During the same time period, a radical Burmese student group began organizing protests. They became known as the Thakin movement. Thakin was a particularly inflammatory word, as the British required the Burmese to call them Thakin, meaning master. The young Thakins eventually won the trust of the villagers and emerged as leaders of the nationalist movement.

In 1936 university students went on strike. Two of their leaders, Thakin Nu (later called U Nu) and Aung San, joined the Thakin movement. They were to become significant leaders of Myanmar’s independence movement in the following decades.

Java: Sukarno & his Nationalist Party

After centuries of European exploitation - economic and cultural, the Javanese, like the other Southeast Asian cultures, craved independence from colonial rule. This desire for self-determination began growing ever stronger in the beginning decades of the 20th century.

These stirring of nationalism began with the Communist party. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, it was formed in Batavia, the Dutch colonial capitol, in 1920. It was called the PKI for short. Shortly after a group of Javanese under the leadership of Sukarno formed the Nationalist Party in 1927. While equally devoted to independence from the colonial powers, it was based in traditional Javanese ways, which included religion and self-determination.

More importantly, Sukarno began to reshape the idea of nationalism to appeal to a larger and more tolerant population base. Instead of framing the anti-colonial sentiments in ideological terms, such as the Islamic religion or communism, nationalist thinking was directed simply towards independence. Rather than debating, considering, or pre-committing to what was going to happen after the revolution, the entire focus was upon throwing off colonial shackles and establishing self-rule. In this way all the divergent resistance groups were united behind a common goal.

For his role in agitating for cultural freedom Sukarno was imprisoned by the Dutch several times between 1929 -> 1931. Because he was so charismatic, they finally exiled him in 1933. This lasted until 1942, when the Japanese invaded Southeast Asia during the Second World War. This invasion was to have ramifications that no one anticipated.

Thailand: From Democracy to Dictatorship

While the rest of Southeast Asia was under colonial rule, Siam, modern day Thailand, continued to be ruled by an absolute monarch during the first decades of the 20th century. This situation came to be increasingly intolerable to the Thai people. Although an unbroken string of kings/Ramas had ruled Thailand since the 13th century, nearly 700 years, the democratic examples of Europe and America evoked a new way of thinking about government.

A similar political pattern asserted itself throughout the emerging nations of Southeast Asia, including Thailand. The wealthier classes in Siam, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines chose to educate their youth overseas, especially Europe, to expose them to global culture. Exposed to the more egalitarian western democracies accompanied with greater personal freedoms and the potential for political involvement, these youth came back with ideas of change. In the Southeast Asian colonies, these young men demanded self-rule and personal freedom for all. In Thailand, they called for a democracy to replace their kingdom. The road has not been smooth.

As always, the absolute monarchs aggravated the situation. Extravagant life styles resulted in public austerities. The Global Depression in the early 1930s increased these privations. The middle class, even those who had previously supported the monarchy, became increasingly dissatisfied. Further, all the positions of power were reserved for members of the royal family or their close friends. This political nepotism inevitably led to incompetence, inefficiency, mismanagement, and corruption.

The public tends to docilely accepts this political condition when it is the only method of government that anyone is aware of. However with examples of Western democracy fresh in their minds from studies abroad, the ever-energetic youth demanded more. Friendships were formed in France that led to the formation of the People’s Party in 1927. Led by Pridi, a lawyer, and Phibun, a military officer, the association was dedicated to the overthrow of Siam's absolute monarchy.

On June 24, 1932, the group took over the army and the government in a bloodless coup, which was to become a standard characteristic of Thai politics in the following decades. Obviously the time was ripe for change. The revolutionary group immediately set up a constitutional democracy. Pridi introduced economic reforms that were too radical for the new government and was forced to resign. In 1933, there was a royalist counter-revolution and the Army under Phibun stepped in to reassert control. This established a pattern that continues into the 21st century. Even in 2014, the Thai army seized temporary control of the government to establish social order.

There was a tripling of the military budget and a rise in paramilitary youth groups with fascist leanings during the remainder of the decade. The aggressive Thai military had already forged links with the Japanese in the 1930s. With Japanese encouragement and assistance, the Thai Army seized control of the government in 1938 and Phibun became the military dictator.

It was Phibun that changed the name of his country from Siam to Thailand. Domestically he was pro-Thai and anti-Chinese; internationally he was pro-Japanese and irredentist, in the sense that he called for a return to Thailand’s purportedly ‘traditional’ borders.

The military leaders, under Japanese influence, began clamoring for a return of all the land lost to the French in treaties signed at the turn of the past century. This included parts of Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia that Siam had conquered when militarily ascendant. Recall that Siam then lost these same territories after signing treaties with France to assure Thai sovereignty. In effect, Phibun was calling for a return of these conquered territories and knew that a military alliance with Japan was the best way to achieve this goal.

Thailand was not the only Southeast Asian country looking to Japan for salvation. The rest were looking to Japan to free them from colonial subjugation. However, things are rarely as they seem. World War II was on the horizon.

 

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