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A Concise History of Southeast Asia


1800 to 1941

This chapter covers the following topics:

The Dutch East Indies
British Malaya, Singapore, and Borneo
French Indochina
Britain Annexes Burma
Philippine Nationalism
America Comes to the Philippines
A New Siam
Nationalism in Burma
Nationalism in the Dutch East Indies
Nationalism in French Indochina
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The Dutch East Indies

In late 1794 France conquered the Netherlands, putting the Dutch in the French camp during the Napoleonic era. For the Dutch this meant that their colonies would be attacked by Napoleon's implacable foe, Great Britain. The new governor of Java, an admirer of Napoleon named Willem Daendels, did everything he could to fortify the island, but it only took a month for the British to conquer it when they arrived in 1811. The British commander, a young officer named Thomas Stamford Raffles, was a committed idealist who believed that imperialism should be used to better the lives of conquered peoples. His superior had sent him with the injunction: "While we are on Java, let us do all the good we can." This was enthusiastically carried out by Raffles after he arrived. First he put down uprisings by local rulers, who thought the end of Dutch rule meant complete independence. Then he outlawed slavery and gambling (which caused gamblers to be sold into slavery when they could not pay their debts). Finally he tried to improve the economy, but the war ended in Europe before he could accomplish much here.

When Java was returned to the Dutch, the only thing they wanted was to make the island as profitable as possible. But for several years the government could not decide whether free enterprise or a monopoly system was the answer. The issue was decided by a guerrilla war (1825-30, often called the Java War) that started when the Dutch put an infant on the throne of Yogyakarta. The rightful claimant, a Moslem mystic named Diponegoro, launched an anti-Dutch uprising, which lasted until he was captured and exiled.

Once the rebellion was put down, a forceful new economic program was started. Called the Culture Program, it eliminated private enterprise by requiring each community to plant and deliver specified commodities to the government. One fifth of the farmland was set aside for the growing of those crops, and the peasants were required to work on those lands three days a week. Local chiefs and sultans were brought into the system by offering them a share of the profits in return for using their authority to secure maximum production. It was spectacularly successful; the chiefs made the peasants work the government lands until the quotas were overfulfilled, often as much as 200 days a year, vastly increasing their own personal gains. The Dutch found themselves with a problem few governments have ever had--what to do with too much money. Eventually they used it to pay off the national debt and finance the building of the Netherlands railway network.

Despite its success, the Culture Program had a dark side: it was blamed for widespread famine in parts of Java. Complaints against the program, raised by humanitarians and private businesses, caused it to be phased out gradually, starting in 1862. In its place came the so-called Liberal Program, which brought back laissez-faire capitalism. The sugar and coffee monopolies were too profitable to abandon (they lasted until 1890 and 1917 respectively), but elsewhere private enterprise showed itself to be a better moneymaker; in 1885 total exports were worth ten times as much as they were in 1860. Partly this was due to the opening of the Suez Canal, which vastly increased commerce with Europe. Another factor was the opening of the undeveloped outer islands to Dutch exploitation. As the Western powers scrambled for African and Asian colonies in the late 19th century, the Dutch moved to establish direct rule over the entire archipelago, motivated by the need to protect their interests. Most of the islands were conquered without much resistance, but in northwestern Sumatra the kingdom of Acheh fought back fanatically. The war lasted for 35 years (1873-1908), most of the time without results, because the "pacified" natives of any given area would revolt as soon as the Dutch troops moved elsewhere. Christian soldiers from the island of Amboina were brought in to assist the Dutch, but the winning strategy was devised by a general named Johannes B. Van Heutsz, who set up impregnable forts all over the island. By the time the fighting had ended, it had absorbed the profits produced by the other islands and even led to a deficit in the budget of Holland.

The third program launched by the Dutch government (1901) was the Ethical Policy, which proclaimed that henceforth the welfare of the Indonesians would be the government's first concern. Private business was regulated to prevent further peasant exploitation, the natives were educated, and new lands were cleared for farming. It worked, but in one way it worked too well; improved food supplies and modern medicine caused Java's population to mushroom at a Malthusian rate, from 28 million in 1900 to 45 million by 1940. That growth ate up all the economic gains made by the natives, but the Dutch were not alarmed; they saw the growth as proof that they were doing the right thing.

To give the natives experience in self-government, local councils were set up. A national council called the Volksraad was set up in 1916 for the same reason. But the Dutch never let these governing bodies have real power; Batavia claimed that it knew what was best for the Indonesians and it retained the power to veto any council's resolutions. As a result the Volksraad was not a real decision-making body but merely a group of advisors; it never even had a majority of voting Indonesians in its membership. One local wag remarked that the Volksraad was the only successful multiracial club in prewar Southeast Asia!

The Ethical Policy's strongest advocate was Snouk Hurgronje, a Dutch scholar who knew so much about Islam that he was able to visit Mecca without being recognized as an infidel by the Arabs. Hurgronje asserted that because the prestige of the local chiefs was declining, while Islam was more popular than ever, the Dutch could generate support from the Indonesian people by bringing Moslems into the civil service, and by discouraging Christian missionary activity among Moslems. His proposal was put into action, but it was never popular among the Dutch, and when the Ethical Policy was abandoned in the 1920s, the first stirrings of modern Indonesian nationalism would come from the very same Moslems Hurgronje had befriended, who now felt that they deserved much more than the Dutch were willing to give them.

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British Malaya, Singapore, and Borneo

Raffles hated giving Java back to the Dutch, and he looked for another colony as a replacement, one that would give Britain a dominant role in Far Eastern commerce. Eventually he decided on Singapore, an island just off the southern tip of Malaya. Singapore was perfect for what Raffles had in mind: it had a superb geographic location, it was underpopulated, and most of all, it was not controlled by a strong native government. The throne of the nearest Malay state, Johore, was vacant, and Raffles acquired Singapore by supporting a prince's claim to Johore and asking for the island as payment for his services afterwards. Then he turned Singapore's harbor into a free port where anyone could bring cargoes without paying the duties imposed at Batavia and other Dutch ports. Of course the Dutch got upset when they saw a British city being built in the middle of an area they had always considered theirs, but Raffles cooled their tempers by giving them Bencoolen, the British colony on Sumatra.

The new colony was an immediate success: $4 million in trade goods passed through the port on Asian ships in the very first year. In 1823, four years after he founded the Singapore colony, Raffles sailed away to England, never to return, but already the colony was growing so fast that he could take pride in his accomplishment.

It was the adventures of another British army officer, James Brooke, that gave Britain a foothold on Borneo. In the early 19th century the sultan of Brunei claimed the whole island and the nearby Sulu islands for himself. However, when Brooke arrived on his personal yacht in 1839, he found the sultan in trouble on account of a rebellion in the southwest corner of his realm, Sarawak. Brooke called in the British navy to suppress the local pirates, who were on the side of the Sarawak rebels. The grateful sultan rewarded Brooke by crowning him prince of Sarawak, and he gave Britain the small offshore island of Labuan for use as a coaling station. Queen Victoria knighted Brooke, and he became known locally as "the White Rajah." Sarawak was governed by the Brooke family until 1946, when it was bequeathed to the British government.

At the same time a dispute arose over uncivilized North Borneo, or Sabah, which was claimed by many but occupied by none. The Netherlands, Spain, Britain, Brunei, Sarawak, and the sultan of Sulu (in the Philippines) all claimed it. So did three American merchants, who formed the American Trading Company of Borneo in 1865. They established a settlement about 60 miles north of Labuan, but it was a failure almost from the start. In 1876 the American Company was sold to a British trader. Then the British government moved in. Using negotiations (and some strategically placed bribes), Britain was able to persuade all other parties to drop their claims. The sultan of Brunei saw what was coming next. In 1888 he gave up his claim to Sarawak; what was left of his state became a British protectorate, barely avoiding outright colonization.

For over a generation Britain was not interested in any part of the Malay peninsula besides the ports of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, which it lumped together under the name of "the Straits Settlements." During this time huge deposits of tin were discovered on the mainland. Since the easygoing Malays were not interested in hard labor, Chinese immigrants went to work in the mines, and when they needed more workers, they imported large numbers of their fellow countrymen to fill the available jobs. Other Chinese moved into the British outposts, where they formed a middle class of merchants and moneylenders, just like they did in Manila, Batavia and Bangkok.

Late in the century rubber trees were introduced from Brazil, just in time to support the world's new tire industry. Whereas Brazilians collected latex by tapping wild rubber trees in the jungle, Malayan rubber trees were cultivated on plantations, so they were less prone to disease and parasites, and produced a greater yield. A small but significant number of Indian immigrants moved in to work on the rubber plantations. As the 19th century ended, the Malays found themselves becoming a minority in their own country. In fact, they were already a minority, because some Indonesian immigrants came in as well; they were considered Malays as soon as they stepped off the boat because they shared the same language and religion with the natives. One European observer wrote that if the Chinese immigrants had brought women with them, they would have completely absorbed the Malay population within a few generations.

Malaya's nine sultans found the Chinese newcomers to be clannish and impossible to assimilate. The Chinese miners organized themselves into secret societies, which waged bloody feuds between each other for control of the mines. The British ignored these quarrels at first, but in 1874 the fighting spilled over into Penang. Britain immediately went to the nearest Malay state, Perak, and negotiated a truce, backing it up with Indian troops. The sultan of Perak was given a British advisor, who told him how to improve the local economy and made sure that the sultan did not forget Britain's interests in the area. The new system worked so well that by 1896 four states in central Malaya had British advisors. In that year the four states were organized into a federation, run by a British resident-general. The place chosen for the federation's capital, a mining camp named Kuala Lumpur, reflects where the land's real wealth came from. In 1909 the four northern sultans, who previously had been pro-Siamese, "asked" for British protection and joined the federation. The last holdout, the sultan of Johore, joined the federation in 1914.

Having British overlords did lessen the prestige of the sultans, but the British interfered as little as possible with Malay customs and practices. The peninsula's ethnic mixture, however, proved to be Malaya's biggest problem. Malays, Chinese and Indians did not trust each other; in fact, each group preferred British rule to domination by its rivals. Because of this situation, there was no nationalist movement before World War II, and after the war Britain offered independence before the natives asked for it.

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French Indochina

Gia Long's successors did not care for Europeans or Christianity, both of which came into Vietnam with reunification. Seven missionaries and an unknown number of Vietnamese Christians were executed in the early 19th century; the French advisors and most of the remaining missionaries were expelled. France warned the emperors to leave their Christian subjects alone, and in 1847 the French showed they meant business by bombarding the harbor of Da Nang (called Tourane by the French). The next Vietnamese emperor, Tu Duc (1848-83), responded by offering rewards for the killing of Europeans and by branding and exiling any native priest he could find. The Catholic Church called for a military expedition against Vietnam, but intervention was delayed for more than a decade while the French stayed busy with events in Europe like the 1848 revolutions, the rise of Napoleon III, and the Crimean War.

The decision to invade Vietnam was made by Napoleon III in July 1857. After more delays, a task force of 14 ships and 5,000 men came to Da Nang in August 1858. It only took a day to occupy the town, but the French could make no progress after that. Because they lacked the necessary shallow-draft boats to go up the Perfume River to Hue, they could not threaten the Vietnamese capital. Worse than that, no reinforcements arrived--they went to join the British in the Second Opium War against China--and the expected anti-government uprisings by Vietnamese Catholics failed to take place. On top of all that, French casualties from tropical diseases soon exceeded their battle dead, and when the rainy season started in October, the army was completely immobilized.

The French commander, Adm. Rigault Genouilly, decided to abandon Da Nang and attack in the south. Here he hit where it really hurt; he took Saigon, the main city in the rice-growing Mekong delta region. But Tu Duc still refused to admit defeat, and soon Saigon also came under siege by the more numerous Vietnamese forces. The situation remained a stalemate until 1861, when the French garrison was relieved by reinforcements returning from the Chinese expedition, along with some Spanish troops from Manila. Now the Franco-Spanish forces took the offensive, spreading out to capture three of the six provinces in the Mekong delta. Unable to resist the modern military technology of the West, Tu Duc finally gave in, and in the treaty that followed he signed away the provinces captured by the French. At this point the Spanish lost interest in Vietnam and withdrew, but the French were not finished yet. One year later (1863) a French officer visited the king of Cambodia and forced him at gunpoint to sign a treaty that transferred Cambodia's vassalage from Siam to France. In 1867 the governor of Saigon annexed the rest of the Mekong delta for France, allegedly to prevent Vietnamese interference in the affairs of Cambodia.(1)

For a while the French had hopes that the Mekong could be used as a trade route to southwest China, bringing trade goods to millions of potential customers. An explorer named Francis Garnier went up the river in 1866-68, and he came back with the report that the river could only be navigated as far upstream as Laos. The Red River, however, was suitable for commercial traffic, so now French eyes looked northward to Tonkin.

The first merchant to try the Red River route, Jean Dupuis, brought a cargo of arms from China to Vietnam in 1873. He tried to go back to China with a cargo of salt, and was arrested in Hanoi for trying to break the government's salt monopoly. Garnier was sent to Hanoi with 60 men to rescue Dupuis; once he did so, he seized the citadel at Hanoi and tried to claim all of Tonkin for France. Not long after that Garnier was killed in a battle with the Black Flags, a gang of Chinese and Vietnamese bandits, and the whole campaign to conquer the north collapsed. France, which had recently suffered a disastrous defeat (the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71), was in no mood to send Saigon the money or manpower needed for new conquests. The anticolonial faction in the Paris government declared that the recovery of France should take precedence over all other matters for the time being.

It took ten years of rapid economic growth before France was ready to raise the tricolor over more colonies. In April 1882 a force of 250 men was sent to Hanoi under Captain Henri Riviere, officially to suppress the Black Flags, who had grown to dominate most of Tonkin by this time. When Riviere suffered the same fate as Garnier, the French Chamber of Deputies immediately voted to impose French control over Tonkin, no matter what the cost. A stronger expeditionary force moved into the Red River delta in August 1883, while the French fleet bombarded Hue, where, unknown to the French, Emperor Tu Duc had died just a few weeks earlier. The court mandarins quickly surrendered the whole country to the French. That should have been the end of the fighting, but shortly before his death Tu Duc formed an anti-French alliance with China, in effect using Vietnam's oldest enemy to get rid of her newest foe. A new war broke out, this time with China on the side of the Vietnamese. The Chinese did well on land, but in 1885 the French fleet occupied several seaports on the Chinese coast; China was compelled to get out of Vietnam to get the ports back. A number of Vietnamese guerrillas, however, continued to resist the French until the turn of the century before they were finally suppressed.

The final act of French expansion was to take Laos from Siam in 1893, followed by two more pieces of Siamese territory in 1904 and 1907.

How the French conquered Indochina.
The steps in the French conquest of Indochina, with dates.

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Britain Annexes Burma

Siam's recovery and a war with China (1766-69) forced Burma to abandon Siam, but the kings of Burma found other tempting targets to the west: Arakan (annexed in 1785) and Assam (1817). Half of Arakan's population fled to Bengal, the main British colony of India, and the presence of Burmese troops on both the northern and eastern borders of the Bengal colony provoked a British reaction. It was the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), which began with a pre-emptive British raid that captured Rangoon, the Burmese capital. The Burmese returned, besieged the city, and nearly retook it, when disease put 90% of the British and Indian soldiers out of action and killed one in three. However, Siam entered the war on Britain's side, the anti-Burmese Karen minority revolted, and reinforcements arrived just in time; afterwards an invasion up the Irrawaddy broke Burmese resistance. Arakan, Assam, Manipur and the Tenasserim coast all had to be ceded to the victorious British; that was enough to satisfy them for a quarter of a century.

The Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-53) was caused by a trivial incident: the governor of Rangoon levied a fine of £100 on two British merchants. Fearing that a meek response would be seen as weakness by others, Britain sent a naval force to demand that the fine be waived and that the governor be replaced. Both demands were met, but the British used the rudeness of native officials as an excuse to attack anyway. Once again Rangoon was occupied and the British struck northward, making for an easy victory. This time the entire southern half of the country, with its valuable teak forests, came under British rule.

The final dissolution of independent Burma had several causes:
1. The growing demands of British merchants to open up Upper Burma for exploitation. Many of them also wanted to open up a trade route into China from the south.
2. Fears that the French would accomplish the same goals first, especially after the French conquest of Vietnam.
3. Reports of corruption, instability, and atrocities at the court of Burma's last king, a drunkard named Thibaw. Britons were shocked by stories that told of a queen being trampled to death by elephants and of Thibaw ordering the execution of eight of his brothers in a single day. Surely, the Britons told themselves, it was their moral duty to protect others from themselves.

The end came with surgical swiftness; the Third Anglo-Burmese War lasted only one week in 1885. On January 1, 1886, Burma was declared part of British India.

Burma in the nineteenth century
Nineteenth-century Burma, showing the piecemeal British conquest.

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Philippine Nationalism

For nearly two centuries Spain effectively kept the Philippines isolated from the other nations of the West. But eventually cracks developed in the trade barriers. The first one came from the Seven Years War (1756-63). In 1759 Spain was persuaded to enter the war on the French side, and the British Navy added Spanish colonies to its list of targets worth attacking. In 1762 a British fleet of fifteen ships and 2,000 men occupied Manila. At this time the governor of Manila had been dead for eight years, and the local archbishop, Manuel Antonio Roja, was in charge, waiting for a replacement to arrive. Roja did not even know that Spain was at war, so when the British came, he surrendered his 600-man garrison without a fight. This was a violation of Spain's chivalric code of conduct, but Madrid forgave him, concluding that he was "an imbecile rather than a traitor . . . who unfortunately had been assigned tasks for which he lacked both the intelligence and the valor." The British gave back Manila after the war ended. Most Filipinos were loyal to Spain all the time, but now they had seen what other Europeans were like.

Eighty years later a silly incident took place on Basilan, a small island just west of Mindanao. In 1844 the French prime minister sent two corvettes to the Sulu Sea to look for an island that would make a suitable naval base, so that French vessels in the region would no longer have to depend on the hospitality of Portuguese, English, or Dutch outposts. The expedition was kept secret to prevent a hostile British reaction. Officially the islands in the Sulu Sea were all part of the Philippines, but Spain was so weak that nobody worried about Spanish objections. When the ships arrived at Basilan, five French sailors went ashore and were kidnaped; two were killed, while the other three were ransomed. A gunboat was borrowed from the Spaniards at Zamboanga City, and used to bombard the fort of the offending chief, but the Europeans had to withdraw when the tide fell. The French returned a few months later, with flat-bottomed boats from Manila, and this time the chief of Basilan agreed to submit to French rule if he was paid $100,000 within six months. The adventure became public, however, when the fleet returned home. Spain protested, Britain was amused, and the French were so embarrassed that they never sent the promised cash. The French prime minister repudiated the whole undertaking, declaring that Basilan could not be used as a base and was too far east to help French shipping in any case.(2)

In the 1820s Spain lost most of its Latin American colonies, bringing an end to the Manila Galleon trade. In its place came free commerce between Manila and the nations of Europe. Under these conditions a number of Mestizo (Filipinos of part Chinese or European ancestry) merchants prospered. The invention of the steamship and the digging of the Suez Canal brought down the cost of shipping, so that many Mestizos could afford to send their children to colleges in Europe. In college the Mestizos found that there is a tremendous difference between the way Europeans handle politics at home and in the colonies. In Europe an Asian student was accepted as a social equal, since there were not enough Asians living in Europe to create trouble, but in the Far East the Europeans always made sure that their Asian subjects knew they were second-class citizens. The well-to-do Filipinos resented that they were almost as wealthy as the Spaniards, but enjoyed no political rights at all. It was in the Philippines, the country that had been the most Westernized by Europeans, that Southeast Asia's first modern nationalist movement arose.

The earliest Filipino grievance was against the Spanish clergy, since these were only Spaniards most Filipinos ever saw outside Manila. The priests lorded over their congregations like little kings, and didn't let their vow of celibacy keep them from taking local girls as mistresses, thereby increasing the Mestizo population. They also jealously resisted any attempt to take away their power; they especially opposed the ordination of Filipinos. The Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century interrupted commerce between the Philippines and Spain, so when vacancies appeared in the local churches, Manila was forced to appoint natives to fill them, but once peace returned Spain's ultraconservative king, Ferdinand VII, began to remove them from their parishes. Tensions mounted over the following years, and some Spanish clergymen who had been born and raised in the Philippines joined those calling for reform; they now saw themselves as Filipinos first and Spaniards second, just as many Englishmen in the American colonies regarded themselves as Americans after 1776.

The first leader, Pedro Pelaez, was the son of a Spanish official. A brilliant theologian, he had risen to the rank of vicar capitular, or governor over the churches of Manila, the highest rank attained by a Mestizo priest. He launched a campaign to nationalize all churches in the Philippines, but shortly afterwards, on June 3, 1863, an earthquake struck Manila and buried him in the ruins of the main cathedral. His enemies called the earthquake an act of God. Meanwhile in the south, the Spaniards had gained enough control over Mindanao to declare the whole island pacified in 1860, so Spain's position must have looked secure. But the truth of the matter was that they had put a lid on a pot of discontent, and to continue the metaphor, you could say that the development of nationalism was causing the temperature of the pot to rise, meaning that Spain could only keep the lid there for so long.

When a particularly violent anti-clerical uprising was put down in 1872, three Filipino priests, Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomez and Jacinto Zamora, were arrested and accused of starting it. There was no evidence that they actually had, though previously Burgos and Gomez had strongly supported reform. The official transcript of the Inquisition-style trial was never published, but what is known suggests that the whole thing was a travesty of justice. The three priests were garroted in Manila's Luneta Park, becoming the first martyrs in Philippine politics.

The most important nationalist was Jose Rizal (1861-96), the son of a Chinese Mestizo who went to Spain for his higher education. Rizal believed that Filipinos and Spaniards were equal, and that moderate reforms could solve the problems of the archipelago. To show he was the equal of any Spaniard, he dressed in Western style suits, studied a multitude of subjects (dozens of languages, medicine, philosophy, literature, painting, sculpture, biology, fencing, shooting and calisthenics)--and excelled in them all. He chose fiction as the way to express his political views; his first novel, Noli Me Tangere ("Touch Me Not"), accurately depicted life in the Philippines, with venal priests, corrupt Spanish officials, and ignorant, servile natives. The message was simple: without reforms, a revolution will erupt, and "the defenseless and innocent will suffer most." A sequel, El Filibusterismo ("The Subversive"), continued the same theme, and both books were banned by the Spanish regime. In 1892 Rizal came home and tried to turn his ideas into action by founding a political party, the Liga Filipina. It was hardly a revolutionary group, but the Spaniards smelled sedition. The party was outlawed and Rizal was exiled to Mindanao, where he remained for the next four years.

Spain's treatment of Rizal convinced his followers that reform was not the answer; only complete independence would do. One of them, Andres Bonifacio, founded a radical secret society that was called by the tongue-twisting name of Kataastaasang Kagalanggalang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan, the "Exalted and Most Honorable Society of the Sons of the People" (Katipunan or KKK for short). Preparing for violent revolution, Bonifacio's men stole guns from the Spanish armories and honed their spears and bolos (machetes); in Manila they printed tracts on a newspaper printing press. To get the support of wealthy Filipinos, Bonifacio forged their signatures on the movement's membership lists, incriminating them in the eyes of the Spanish and putting them in a position where they had no choice except to rally behind the Katipunan. On August 29, 1896, Bonifacio declared war on Spain, but once the war started he proved to be a poor general. However, one of his lieutenants, Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964), was a genius at guerrilla warfare. Aguinaldo became an immediate hero, leading the Filipinos to an uninterrupted series of victories.

Rizal refused to support the Katipunan, but the Spanish used the uprising as an excuse to get rid of him anyway. In 1896 he volunteered to go to Cuba, as a doctor to treat a yellow fever epidemic, but before he got there he was arrested, sent back to Manila, and accused of treason. After a sham of a trial, he was shot on the same spot where the three reformist priests had been executed 24 years earlier.

In 1897 the war became a stalemate: no place outside of Manila was safe for Spaniards anymore, but the Katipunan was losing its ability to continue the fighting, as supplies of food, water, ammo and medicine were running out. The Katipunan also suffered from internal disputes, resulting in the execution of Bonifacio after he and Aguinaldo quarreled over who would lead the Philippine government after independence. The result was a negotiated settlement between both sides. In return for 800,000 pesos, Aguinaldo agreed to go abroad. The rebels laid down their arms, and Spain promised reforms some time in the future. That might have been the end of the whole matter, but a few months later the US Navy arrived on the scene.

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America Comes to the Philippines

The Spanish-American War was caused by the political situation in Cuba, but once it had begun, every Spanish colony was fair game. An American squadron, led by Commodore George Dewey, came to Manila Bay, where Dewey issued a now-famous command: "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." In the three-hour battle that followed, every Spanish ship was sunk, while the only American casualty was a sailor who died from the heat. After a mock artillery battle over Manila (which both sides secretly agreed to so that the Spaniards could surrender with their dignity intact), the Philippines were sold to the United States for $20 million.(3)

Before the war, the United States had never given the Philippines much thought; now the new superpower did not know what to do with the archipelago. Some Americans (mainly Democrats) felt that independence should be granted immediately, and that the Philippine nationalist movement was every bit as legitimate as the one that had started the USA in 1776. A majority in Congress, however, held an imperialist view, arguing that the Philippines could not stand on its own. By the end of 1898 President William McKinley had also decided to keep the islands, claiming that God had told him it was America's duty to educate, modernize and "Christianize" (convert to Protestantism) the Filipinos. Aguinaldo, who had expected the US to support his campaign for independence, now felt betrayed; he went to northern Luzon, and on January 23, 1899, he proclaimed himself president of an independent Philippines. A month later, fighting broke out between American and Filipino troops in Manila, and a new war called the "Philippine Insurrection" began.

Whereas the United States had beaten Spain in ten weeks with minimal losses, it took three years to subjugate the Filipinos. It was a dirty guerrilla war in a jungle setting, much like the war America would fight in Vietnam seventy years later. The Americans suffered six thousand casualties, while more than 200,000 Filipinos (mostly civilians) were killed. Finally Aguinaldo was captured in a daring raid, and the war petered out afterwards. (The ever-belligerent Moros, however, resisted until 1915.) The war also killed America's desire to rule the islands permanently; from this time onward US policy was to prepare the Philippines for eventual independence.(4)

The first American civilian governor, the future president William Howard Taft, cut the power of the clergy down to size by buying Church-owned lands from the Vatican and selling them to Filipinos. His successors gradually reduced the number of Americans in the Philippine government and replaced them with Filipinos, giving them experience in self-government. At the same time Americans built roads and schools all over the country, taught English and baseball to the natives, and worked to improve the local health and sanitation. A mountaintop village named Baguio, about 100 miles north of Manila, gained attention because it was the only spot in the country with a cool climate, and in a few years it grew to become a major city and a popular resort for Americans, especially in the summer.

Taft on a Carabao.

William Howard Taft in 1901, riding a carabao. In this picture it is hard to tell who was bigger! Once while governor, Taft let Washington, D.C. know he had recovered from an illness by sending a telegram that read: "Went on a horse ride today; feeling good." Elihu Root, the Secretary of War, cabled back: "How is horse?"

Despite America's best efforts, problems developed because of the basic differences between Philippine and American society. Philippine society is an oligarchic one; a few families hold most of the power and money, and personal relationships are defined by who owes favors to whom. America was vaguely aware that a US-style democracy would not work under such a system, but no effort was made to change it, because that would have alienated the local politicians, whose support was essential for the American program to succeed. That would be the main cause of the country's economic and political problems in the years following independence.

In 1934 the Filipinos produced a plan for independence that both they and America could be happy with. President Franklin Roosevelt signed it, a constitution was written, and the two most popular Filipino politicians, Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmena, were elected president and vice-president respectively. July 4, 1945 was the date set for independence. The plan was proceeding on schedule when Japan attacked Luzon in December 1941.

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A New Siam

Siam was the strongest nation in Southeast Asia from 1767 to 1893. One of its secrets was keeping good relations with China, something the Thais had succeeded in doing since the Nan Zhao era. After 1767 Siam's rulers were part Chinese themselves, which also encouraged this trend. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants came into the country; by 1850 there were 350,000 of them living in Siam. Gradually they gained control over the economy as bankers, managers of public works, and tax collectors; they were also the only Siamese citizens allowed to sell opium legally. When the Dutch East India Company collapsed, Chinese merchants stepped in to take the Company's place, dominating Southeast Asia's seaborne trade. Before 1850 there was a shortage of women among the Chinese immigrants, so many of them intermarried into Thai families, further blurring ethnic differences.

Siam in 1809.
Siam in 1809, before the British and French helped themselves to pieces of the kingdom.

The first three kings of the Chakri dynasty were mainly interested in restoration. Law codes, religious texts, and works of literature were rewritten. New temples and palaces were built using the patterns, and even the very bricks, of old Ayutthaya. Chakri Rama I (1782-1809) defeated five Burmese invasions, annexed two Cambodian provinces (Battambang and Siem Reap) and reestablished the court rituals of the Ayutthayan era. The next king, Phendin-Klang Rama II (1809-24), was an outstanding poet, producing Thai translations of the Hindu Ramayana and other classical Asian works with a team of court poets. P'ra Nang Klao Rama III (1824-51) put down a rebellion in Laos and made protectorates of four northern Malay states (Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu). In Cambodia he fought several inconclusive campaigns to stop Vietnamese expansion (1833-45); an 1846 treaty made Cambodia a tributary state of both Siam and Vietnam.

Officially Siam had been an isolationist state since the Phaulkon episode in the late 17th century, and the Chinese merchants encouraged this policy to keep competition out. But eventually the West was able to pry open the closed doors of Siam anyway. Treaties signed with Britain in 1826 and the United States in 1833 allowed Protestant missionaries and a small amount of trade into the country. More important was a treaty signed with Britain in 1855, which gave the following to the UK: extraterritoriality, most-favored-nation status, a consulate in Bangkok, and a maximum tariff of 3% on British goods. It also gave Britons the right to sell Siamese goods, lease land, build homes, and travel one day's distance from Bangkok. Before long France and the other Western powers stepped in and demanded similar trade agreements; the king, Mongkut Rama IV (1851-68), agreed to them all, seeing rivalry between foreign powers as the best way to keep one of them from gaining too much influence over his country.

Nobody supported the opening up of Siam with more enthusiasm than the king himself. He had been eligible for the throne as early as 1824, but his father, Rama II, placed him in a monastery, presumably to keep him safe from supporters of his elder, more popular brother, the future king Rama III. The old king died only three weeks later, and Rama III was crowned without opposition.

Mongkut was not idle during his brother's 27-year reign. He tried to be a good monk, but the more he learned about Buddhism, the more he was bothered by the current state of Buddhism in Siam. Monks and lay people alike, he concluded, had blindly followed traditions without thorough knowledge of the original texts. On careful study of texts regarding ordinations of monks, Mongkut was upset to find that modern Siamese ordinations were invalid. He responded by creating his own order of monks, reforming their daily practices, rituals, preaching and even their pronunciation of Pali, the ancient language of Therevada Buddhist texts. Mongkut named his followers the "Order Adhering to the Teachings of the Buddha," and called the order he had once belonged to the "Order of Longstanding Habit." Mongkut's attempts to reform Buddhism found little support, but they showed he was a dedicated reformer. When Rama III was on his deathbed, the Thai nobility concluded that Mongkut was the best man for the throne, whether they liked him or not. In a show of unity, they passed over Rama III's sons and elected Mongkut to be the next king.

In his free time Mongkut learned everything he could about the West. After becoming king he employed about 80 foreign advisors to help him modernize the country. Before long, river steamships and new roads, canals, and bridges were built. Bangkok was linked to Singapore by telegraph. Western furniture and dress were introduced into the palace of the uparat, Mongkut's younger brother, who also set up a modern machine shop to experiment with Western science. An American headed the customs service and a British financial advisor directed the economy. Another foreigner, Anna Leonowens (made famous in the musical The King and I), became the royal tutor. But most of these changes were only felt in the Bangkok area; elsewhere life went on as before, though the Chinese monopoly over trade was broken.

Because Mongkut Rama IV had been a monk until the last 17 years of his life, his son Chulalongkorn Rama V (1868-1910) was only 15 years old when he was crowned. Thanks to trips abroad and Anna's teaching, Chulalongkorn was even more of a xenophile than his father, and he pushed for progressive reforms vigorously. The institution of slavery, which had previously held up to one third of the population in bondage, was gradually phased out (1874-1905). In 1878 a modern secular school was set up in the palace as an example of the kind of education the king wanted. The government subsidized the college educations of about 300 students in Europe and America every year. A government printing press turned out textbooks and a weekly newspaper, The Royal Gazette, and freedom of the press and religion were guaranteed by law to encourage the development of other periodicals. Modern buildings were erected in Bangkok, and an arsenal and drydock were built to modernize the military. The first railroad was built, extending 200 miles into the interior by 1900. In 1897 Siam began to overhaul the entire law code to satisfy Western ideas of justice, which the West demanded before the unequal treaties could be renegotiated.

To pay for all of this, rice exports were increased, reaching half a million tons per year when they leveled off in 1893. Only one fourth of the potential farmland in the Menam valley was being cultivated, but the government could not get the people to produce any more than this. The reason was a shortage of labor, caused by the termination of slavery. Other hindrances to modernization came from the upper class, which saw reforms as a threat to their status, and from the Buddhist clergy, which was offended by the open toleration of Christian missionaries. And Chulalongkorn's policy of giving out free vaccinations and modern medicines alienated the traditional "spirit doctors" who enjoyed great influence among the people. All in all, the modernization of 19th century Siam was a singlehanded effort by two enlightened kings, who succeeded only because they enjoyed absolute power over their subjects.

Despite the best efforts of the kings, Siam suffered at the hands of the West. An early example was the loss of Cambodia to the French in 1863. After the French conquered Vietnam, they made an issue over the Siamese troops stationed in Laos, which had been used to keep order in that region since 1829. The French announced that any troops on the east bank of the Mekong River constituted an unacceptable threat to their new colony. In 1893 a French fleet sailed into the mouth of the Menam River and blockaded Bangkok. The Siamese offered to negotiate, but the French were not in a negotiating mood; before the French withdrew Siam was forced to give up all of Laos to them. In 1904 and 1907 the French demanded, and got, further territorial concessions on the Mekong's west bank. The British got a concession of their own in 1909, taking away Siam's four vassal states in northern Malaya in exchange for revoking the 1855 treaty. Siam was saved from total conquest, however, by Anglo-French rivalry; Britain and France could not agree to a partitioning of the country, and both preferred an independent Siam to one dominated by the other side. Siam entered the twentieth century clipped, but was able to keep its freedom, an accomplishment no other Southeast Asian state could match.

Chulalongkorn's policies were continued by his sons Vajiravudh Rama VI (1910-25) and Prajadhipok Rama VII (1925-35). Vajiravudh opened Siam's first university and made primary education compulsorily. In 1917 he brought Siam into World War I on the side of the Allies, and the Western powers rewarded him by revoking the last of the unequal treaties. Prajadhipok, however, was a weak monarch, who turned over many affairs of state to his relatives and cut back government spending, believing that the projects of his predecessors cost too much. When the Great Depression hit Siam in 1930, the price of rice dropped by two thirds, land values fell 85%, and the king got all the blame for the misery that caused. A group of 114 Western-educated middle-level officials plotted a coup, convinced that absolute monarchy could no longer meet the challenges of the modern world. On June 24, 1932, while the king was vacationing, they acted with lightning speed, seizing power before the military could react. The rebels proclaimed themselves the People's Party, set up a parliamentary body called the National Assembly, and declared Siam a constitutional monarchy, a political system that the king seems to have wanted all the time.

The new government, despite its proclamations, was hardly democratic, and soon quarrels broke out between its civilian, military, and royalist factions. When it appeared that the National Assembly would accept a socialist economic plan presented by the civilian leader, Pridi Phanomyong, the king dissolved it. Fearing that the king was regaining control over the government, the military ordered the Assembly to remain in session. This was followed in 1933 by an unsuccessful royalist countercoup; two years later the king abdicated, when he could not do anything about the Assembly's undemocratic behavior. After that the military took control of the government completely, and has stayed in power for most of the time since.

In 1939 Field Marshall Phibun Songgram became premier and launched a policy that favored irredentism and Japanese-style militarism. At home he invented a code of personal conduct that borrowed much from Japanese bushido. One of his first acts was to change the name of Siam to Muang Thai, meaning the "Land of the Free"; we call the country Thailand.

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Nationalism in Burma

Burma did not prosper under British rule. When the British took over they demolished the native government; the Buddhist clergy, the other pillar of Burmese society, was rejected as an unprogressive institution. The Burmese and Indian cultures have almost nothing in common, but the British Empire's administrative system treated Burma as part of India; many Burmese saw this as adding insult to injury. Before this time Burmese peasants lived in an easygoing communal society, where they only grew enough to feed themselves and pay their taxes/offerings. Now Britain introduced alien concepts like capitalism, individual land ownership, mortgages and foreclosures. Many peasants were forced off their land by Indian moneylenders when they could not pay their debts. The Anglo-Indian legal system was completely outside the Burmese experience, and could not command respect. Perjury, violence, and general disregard for the law became commonplace, often with the consent of the monks. Britain did much to help the economy by modernizing agriculture, communications, and the teak industry, but almost all the profits went into the coffers of British and Indian managers. The Buddhist schools, which every Burmese young man attended, were replaced by a secular Western-style system, capped by the University of Rangoon. In these ways the British alienated the social, political and religious leaders and disrupted everything associated with them. It is worth noting that the only missionary success, conducted by American Baptists, converted not the Burmese but the anti-Burmese Karens, who saw Westerners as liberators rather than conquerors. In the post-colonial era Burma represented Britain's greatest failure as an imperial power, with the possible exception of Ireland. When Burma gained independence, it became the only former British colony to reject membership in the Commonwealth of Nations.

The first Burmese nationalist movement, the Young Men's Buddhist Association (YMBA), was founded in 1906. At first it was a nonpolitical social club, patterned after the YMCA of the West, but soon it advocated the Japanese formula for success: combine Western technology with Eastern values. During the First World War it won a moral victory by persuading the British to take off their shoes upon entering a pagoda, something they had always been too proud to do previously. In 1921 the YMBA's name was changed to the General Council of Buddhist Associations, showing that membership was not restricted to young Buddhist males. Afterwards the organization faded away, as its policy of moderate reform was overtaken by radical demands for independence, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's career in neighboring India.

In 1922 the British brought in a new constitution, establishing a native government with 130 legislators and two prime ministers, but all power ultimately resided in the hands of the British governor. A radical campaign to boycott the first election was so successful that only 7% of the voters participated. This led the governors to believe that the Burmese were too apathetic to receive self-government in as large a dose as India did at that time. Though there was probably some truth to this idea, reforms continued at a gradual rate. The Reform Act of 1935 formally separated Burma from India, placing Burma under its own administration, but keeping the veto powers in the hands of the governor.

The Great Depression caused the price of rice to collapse, putting Burmese peasants in a desperate situation. 1930 saw a number of bloody riots against the Indian and Chinese communities. Later in the same year an ex-monk, Saya San, proclaimed himself the divinely appointed king of Burma, adopting all the traditional symbols of Burmese royalty. Because his followers were armed with magical charms and favorable astrological forecasts instead of modern weapons, the rebellion was doomed from the start, but the rebels aroused sympathy and patriotic feelings in all Burmese. Saya San was captured twice (1931 and 1937), tried, and finally hanged. His lawyer, Dr. Ba Maw, gained much attention during the trial, and became a successful politician afterwards, serving as prime minister from 1937 to 1939.

89 Kyat bill with Saya San.

Here is an example of Burmese money, a 90 Kyat bill. Issued in 1987, it shows Saya San (see above) on the front side. 90 Kyat bills were a legal denomination because Ne Win, the dictator who ruled Burma from the 1960s to the 1980s, believed that 9 and multiples of 9 were lucky numbers, but thatís a wild story I am saving for Chapter 6.

Now the political initiative passed to students at the University of Rangoon, who considered the current politicians to be too tame and self-seeking. This group was called the Thakin movement because the members addressed each other as Thakin, meaning master or sahib. The Thakins denounced everything British as the source of their distress, rejected capitalism and looked to socialism and even Marxism as ideologies to follow.(5) From their ranks rose the people who would lead independent Burma, notably Thakin Nu and Thakin Ne Win.

The Thakins first gained renown in 1936 when the student body president, Thakin Nu, was expelled and others were disciplined for public criticism of a faculty member. The Thakins immediately launched a boycott of the all-important final exams by physically blocking the entrances to the halls. Other students joined the boycott, delighted at the opportunity to escape the exams. Finally the authorities gave in and reinstated the Thakins. As in other times and places, the university had become a training ground for future revolutionaries.

In 1940 Ba Maw and the Thakins got together and formed an ultranationalist coalition called the Freedom Bloc, which then announced that it would only support Britain in World War II if there was real progress toward independence. The Freedom Bloc's leaders were accused of treason and imprisoned, but thirty Thakins, led by Thakin Aung San, escaped to Japan. There they formed an army, called the Burma National Army, which would return in 1942 to help the Japanese drive the British out of Burma.

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Nationalism in the Dutch East Indies

It was in 1908, the same year that armed resistance to Dutch rule ended on Sumatra, that the first modern Indonesian nationalist movement got started. Called Budi Utomo (beautiful or noble endeavor), it looked for a way to modernize Javan culture without imitating the West, and to gain equality for Indonesians in education and employment. It managed to get its voice heard in the Volksraad, but it didn't speak for all Indonesians--only upper-class Javans belonged to the movement. After World War I it lost its influence to more radical groups that made it look conservative by comparison.

More important than Budi Utomo was the founding in 1912 of Sarekat Islam (the Moslem League), which was started by a group of Moslem merchants to compete against the Chinese in the batik-cloth trade. Because membership was open to all Moslems, the movement grew rapidly, gaining 350,000 members in the first four years. Unfortunately the rapid growth made for a disorganized party with conservative, modernist, and radical factions pulling in different directions. A Marxist group, led by a Dutch communist named Hendricus Sneevliet, infiltrated and gained control of Sarekat Islam in 1917, giving the whole movement a radical look until it broke up into smaller, better organized parties in the 1920s.

The first defection, which was welcomed, was the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), founded in 1920 and formally separated from Sarekat Islam in 1922. The PKI infiltrated the country's labor unions and launched a general strike in 1926, which was meant to be the first step in an armed rebellion. It was a disaster. The Dutch put down the rebellion, outlawed the PKI, and left communism so crushed that it was not again a factor in Indonesian politics until after World War II.

In 1927 an east Javan engineer, Dr. Achmed Sukarno, founded the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), which sought to follow the example of Mahatma Gandhi by refusing to cooperate with the Dutch regime. His flamboyant oratory got the government's attention and he was exiled from 1930 to 1933. In 1932 a pro-Marxist socialist party was founded by Sutan Sjahrir and Muhammed Hatta, both Sumatrans. Their cooperation with Sukarno only led to the imprisonment of all three. By such prompt acts of repression the Dutch were able to keep the lid on Indonesian nationalism until the Japanese invaded during World War II. For the rest of the 1930s, the membership in all nationalist parties was limited to students, and they had to be careful in their activities if they wanted employment after completing their studies.

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Nationalism in French Indochina

In Vietnam the French installed the most exploitative and repressive regime among the Western-ruled colonies in Asia. The emperor and many of his bureaucrats were kept around, but given no power whatsoever. The administration was staffed from top to bottom with officials imported from France; Vietnamese were employed only in minor positions that paid very low salaries. A mercantilistic economic policy told the Vietnamese people what they could and could not grow, impoverishing them to bring a profit for French investors and their immigrant Chinese vassals. The north was rich in manpower and mineral wealth, but industrialization was discouraged to protect the market for French manufactured goods. Even French wines were protected under the system; each province was required to purchase a specific number of cases of wine every year.

The French did whatever they could to promote the civilization of France, discouraging the native culture at the same time. Those Indochinese who were fully assimilated into the French culture were recognized as citizens and equals, but only 2,000 natives were ever allowed to achieve this, because the French believed that when you educate a native you lose a coolie. This was especially the case with the part-Chinese upper class, which had lost its power and privileges, and thus had little to thank the French for. It was from this group that anti-Western feeling was the strongest. Because they were also excluded from modern industry & trade, they came to see capitalism as a foreign economic system, unsuitable for them. That, coupled with the lack of democracy, would have a major impact on the development of Vietnamese nationalism.

The anticolonial movement of the Vietnamese people started with the establishment of French rule. In 1863 the local mandarins of Cochin China led an uprising against the French, which was suppressed in a few weeks. More armed resistance appeared when the French conquered the rest of the country; the last anti-French rebellion was not put down until 1897. In all of these cases, the rebel leaders were mandarins and scholars who wanted to restore the old society of pre-colonial Vietnam. This goal had little meaning for those who grew up after 1900, so after the mandarins were defeated militarily, they were also dead politically.

The first modern Vietnamese nationalist was Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940), who founded a group called the Association for the Modernization of Vietnam. Chau rejected French rule but not Western ideas; he wanted Vietnam to modernize itself under a progressive monarch, as Japan and Siam had done. Japan's amazing victory in the Russo-Japanese War seemed to prove him right, so after 1905 he smuggled a number of young Vietnamese into Japan, including a prince named Cuong De. There they met other Asian nationalists, and studied science and all manner of clandestine activities, including propaganda and terrorism. When they returned to Vietnam they launched anti-French demonstrations and uprisings, but they were suppressed easily. As for Chau and Prince Cuong De, they were expelled from Japan in 1910 after the Japanese received a loan from France. They went to China and set up a government in exile at Canton, but their movement declined rapidly afterwards. In 1925 Chau was kidnapped by French agents and taken to Vietnam, where he lived under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The years during and immediately after World War I saw a number of anti-French terrorist acts, demonstrations, and disorganized local revolts. In 1916 the 18-year-old Emperor Duy Tan led an unsuccessful revolt, and was exiled to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. In 1925 a teacher named Nguyen Thai Hoc founded a revolutionary group called the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNQDD). The VNQDD preached terrorist action and infiltrated the garrisons of native troops to launch an anti-French mutiny. On the scheduled night of the uprising (February 9-10, 1930), the troops of only one garrison, Yen Bai in Tonkin, killed their French officers, but they were overwhelmed and executed a day later. Nguyen Thai Hoc and twelve of his collaborators were arrested and guillotined; thousands of others were killed or dumped in concentration camps. What was left of the VNQDD fled to China, where many of them later became communists.

The most important figure in modern Vietnamese history was Nguyen Sinh Cung (1890-1969), better known as Ho Chi Minh. The son of an unemployed scholar, he was one of many Western-educated Vietnamese who had little opportunity to succeed at home. In 1911 he went to sea as a cabin boy, traveled widely, and worked at various odd jobs until he settled in Paris six years later. There were 80,000 Vietnamese in France at this time, either fighting in the trenches of World War I or working alongside French women in the factories. When Vietnamese police units were used to fire at mutineering French soldiers, he knew that the myth of the white man's superiority, so carefully cultivated by colonial regimes everywhere, was exactly that--a myth.

By this time he was starting to show his intellectual talent by writing articles in leftist political journals. He also got in the habit of changing his name more frequently than his address, to keep one step ahead of any authorities he might offend. When he first arrived in France, he was already calling himself Nguyen Tat Thanh. During his next few years he wrote under more than a dozen aliases, until only his friends knew who he was; his favorite pseudonym was Nguyen Ai Quoc, or Nguyen the Patriot. In 1943 he took the name Ho Chi Minh ("The Bringer of Light"), and has been called by that name ever since.(6)

In 1920 he joined the Communist Party of France, after concluding that communism was the only political movement that was serious about ending colonialism. Then he went to Moscow, where he attended the meetings of the Comintern, and studied and translated the works of Marx and Lenin into Vietnamese. In 1925 he was sent to China to work as an interpreter for Chiang Kai-shek's Soviet advisor, Mikhail Borodin. After the collapse of the alliance between Chiang and the Chinese communists, Ho was put in charge of organizing communist activities in Southeast Asia. In 1930 he formed the Indochinese Communist Party by bringing together several competing communist organizations; later in the same year the party (without his approval) launched a peasant uprising that set up "Soviet" administrations in two provinces. The French responded brutally, but unlike the previous nationalist groups, the communists were able to recover quickly from their setback. Ho Chi Minh himself had a close call when he was arrested in Hong Kong and placed in a prison hospital (he had tuberculosis at the time). To avoid being handed over to the French, he persuaded a hospital employee to report him dead, and then escaped to south China. By 1933 Ho was again engaged in underground activities. At the outbreak of World War II the Communist Party was beyond a doubt the most effective faction in the entire movement of national liberation.

In Cochin China Ho Chi Minh's communists had to contend with La Lutte, a strong Trotskyite faction, and two new religious sects with political leanings, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. Cao Daism was founded by Ngo Van Chieu, a Vietnamese civil servant with an interest in spiritism. While attending a sťance in 1919, he experienced a vision calling him to start a new religion, which he called Cao Dai, meaning "High Palace." According to him, the Supreme Being (God) spoke to mankind twice in the past, and introduced new creeds each time. The first message created Judaism and Hinduism, which the Cao Dai believe got started around the same date. Likewise, the second message created Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism and Daoism--again all at once.(7) Supposedly God created multiple religions to make them compatible with the world's different cultures, and the religion created by the third massage would be the last, because it will be understood by everybody. To do this, Cao Dai carries the idea of syncretism to the limit; it combines Confucian ethics, Daoist occult practices, Buddhist ideas about karma & reincarnation, and the organization of the Catholic Church. The saints claimed by the Cao Dai as their own come from equally diverse backgrounds: Confucius, Buddha, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen. The new creed grew rapidly, claiming 300,000 new followers by 1938. Around that time its leaders started preaching anti-French and pro-Japanese sermons, and the French acted to keep the sect from spreading out of Cochin China. During World War II the Japanese recruited a Cao Dai army.

The Hoa Hao sect had a bizarre origin. On a stormy night in 1939 a sickly 20-year-old monk named Huynh Phu So was miraculously healed. He suddenly started preaching eloquently for hours about the need to reform Buddhism; the witnesses who saw his healing became his first converts. Soon he was known all over south Vietnam as the "crazy bonze" or the "living Buddha," depending on one's point of view. His prestige grew tremendously when three of his first prophecies--the beginning of World War II, the fall of France, and the Japanese invasion of Indochina--all came true. The French put Huynh Phu So in a mental hospital, then exiled him to Laos after he converted his psychiatrist. He returned home in 1941, and faded into obscurity while his movement continued to grow. Later on the Hoa Hao, like the Cao Dai, organized an army of their own. Today the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao claim a combined total of three million followers, and the two sects were powerful forces in Vietnamese politics until Saigon fell to the communists in 1975.

This is the End of Chapter 3.


1. France called the southern part of Vietnam "Cochin China." The north was renamed Tonkin, while the old name of Annam could mean either the center of the country, or Vietnam as a whole. The Vietnamese people, called Annamese or Annamites by the West at this time, never used these foreign names. They called the north Bac Bo, the center Trung Bo, and the south Nam Bo.

2. The author believes that this fiasco helped persuade the French to conquer Vietnam instead.

3. Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in America, was appalled to hear that the Spanish-American War ended with the US buying the Philippines. He saw this as an act of blatant imperialism, and personally offered $20 million to the Filipino nationalists so they could buy their independence from the US government. Obviously they didn't take him up on his offer, and I'll leave it to the readers to speculate on how different the history of the Philippines would have been if they accepted it.

4. There was a suggestion that the Philippines be promoted from a colony to a US state, rather than prepare the islands for independence. After all, Hawaii was annexed in the same year as the Philippines, and it eventually became the 50th state. However, Washington only considered doing this for a few years. The first obstacle to statehood was distance; the Philippine archipelago is four times as far from California as Hawaii is. The second was racism. Polite people didn't discuss this factor, but they surely must have thought about it. A 1903 census of the Philippines put the population at 7.6 million, almost 10 percent of the total for the rest of the United States at that time. This meant that if the Philippines became a state, they would have two senators and almost forty representatives in Congress, and whereas Hawaii had a growing white community (the Haoles), anybody in the Philippines who was important enough to get elected would be Filipino. In an era when many Americans wanted to see immigration from Asia stopped completely, they wouldn't have accepted an Asian caucus that large on Capitol Hill. Finally, Hawaii had been acquired peacefully, so while some Hawaiians may have wanted independence rather than statehood, they weren't as obvious as the Filipino nationalists.

5. In any case, socialism had more in common with the communal values of Burmese culture than other Western doctrines did.

6. After World War I, the 28-year-old Ho Chi Minh tried to meet with the Allied leaders at Versailles, to plead the case for Vietnam's independence. He rented a proper coat and top hat for the occasion, but the Allies refused to grant him an audience. Imagine how different the twentieth century would have been for Vietnam, France and the United States, if the Allies had paid attention to him.

7. The timing doesn't work on the second message, because we know from all our other sources that Jesus lived more than five hundred years after Laozi, Confucius and Buddha. It is also worth noting that the Cao Dai sect takes no teachings or practices from Islam, because they consider Islam too barbaric.

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A Concise History of Southeast Asia


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