VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > G. South and Southeast Asia, 1914–1945 > 2. Southeast Asia
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Southeast Asia, 1753–1914) (See 1906)
2. Southeast Asia
The period between the two world wars saw significant social change, including the emergence of nationalism throughout the region. The course of events during World War II significantly heightened these changes because they strengthened the demands for independence.  1
Peasant rebellions punctuated the period. Seldom if ever “nationalist” in their ideology, they nevertheless responded to the increasing interference of Western colonial rule in peasant welfare and social values via administrative, economic, and social changes. Such peasant uprisings continued a historical pattern that had preceded the colonial era. Common characteristics among peasant revolts included a rural and agrarian setting; highly localized frames of reference; a leadership characterized by emphasis on return to “traditional” values; and, often, strong religious overtones. Representing resistance to changing times and seldom espousing far-reaching aims, these movements therefore differed in character and intent from urban-based nationalism, which they often paralleled. Eventually, however, they were absorbed into the urban-based nationalist movements.  2
The emergence of nationalism during this period owed much to the hastened process of urbanization. Part of this process related to the establishment of new urban centers: these developed primarily in response to demands of alien trade and commerce but also as important communication and administrative centers for the surrounding countryside. Part of the process also related to the emergence of new elites: as traditional elites were displaced by colonial changes, new urban elites grew up to serve the administrative and commercial needs of the colonial powers. Because of their exposure to Western education, members of this elite had aims and ideas that owed a great deal to Western ideas and organizational forms. Social change thus resulted, as well, in new social security networks and new interest groups: the formation of “voluntary associations” proved especially significant in influencing the patterns of nationalist activities. Beginning with recreational gatherings, especially football clubs, these voluntary associations soon expanded to include cultural and intellectual societies focused on self-improvement and ranged from debating clubs to literary circles, study groups, religious reform societies, and language improvement associations.  3
This period witnessed an increase in the importance of what had been a persistent feature of Southeast Asian society because of the needs of the colonial powers: since many of the commercial and trading functions were in the hands of foreigners, the diaspora of Chinese and Indians into Southeast Asia grew rapidly. This pattern became more pronounced because the indigenous “middle class” (the new bourgeoisie in most of Southeast Asia) concentrated on roles as bureaucrats and government servants, while commercial and trading activities remained the exclusive domain of nonindigenous immigrants. Since most Chinese lived in towns, they represented a majority of the population in most of the urban centers of Southeast Asia.  4
In the early decades of the 20th century the Chinese were politicized by events in mainland China which strengthened a sense of internal Chinese cohesion and distinctiveness and prevented further assimilation into the indigenous Southeast Asian cultures. This in turn prompted suspicion and hostility on the part of the indigenous Southeast Asian populations, with long-term ramifications for developments in the region in the face of nationalist demands for independence. (See Overview)  5
a. Mainland Southeast Asia
1. Burma
Tentative scheme of reform by the British in the process of separating Burma from India. Local self-government was to be strengthened.  6
The Young Men's Buddhist Association split reflected the generational divide between conservatism and activism. Younger members renamed the organization the General Council of Burmese Associations, making explicit their nationalist and political purposes. First activities focused on student strikes regarding the proposed rulers of the University of Rangoon; soon the GCBA began encouraging the organization of village-level nationalist organizations (wunthanu athin, “own race societies”) to boycott government officials and refuse to pay taxes and rent.  7
Dyarchy (British system created in India to divide governance responsibilities between colonial administration and indigenous representatives) introduced. Legislative Council with 80 elected members (of 103 total) was created, with communal constituencies that reinforced Burma's awareness of ethnic identities (categories included Indians, Karens, Anglo-Indians, British). Working the institutions introduced under dyarchy underscored the very different interests of urban and rural participants.  8
The impact of world depression led to a fall in rice prices by one-half, while peasants' costs (land rents, payments on indebtedness, taxes, and prices of imported necessities) remained steady or declined only slightly. Almost 20 percent of the mortgages on agricultural land were foreclosed between 1928 and 1934.  9
1930, May
Anti-Indian riots began in Rangoon as a response to world economic pressures; these spread to the countryside in the year following. General anticolonial disorder followed.  10
Peasant revolt, led by Hsaya San in Tharrawaddy District. Hsaya San was a former monk practitioner of indigenous medicine and a GCBA organizer. His arguments gave voice to peasant grievances (which he had surveyed in the countryside in the late 1920s), as he asserted that colonial rule had destroyed rural life through taxation, increased crime, and led to rising rice prices, land alienation, Indian immigration, unemployment, and the denigration of Buddhism. Although this kind of insurgency had no hope of ultimate success, it provided martyrs and an example of anticolonial activism much romanticized by later resisters.  11
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.