Colonial Experiences and 
Their Legacies in Southeast Asia
An NEH Summer Institute ~ June 10 - July 5, 2019 ~ Honolulu, Hawai‘i ~ Hosted by Asian Studies Development Program

Colonialism Experiences and
Their Legacies in Southeast Asia
                                                                                     An NEH Summer Institute ~ June 10 to July 5, 2019 ~ Honolulu, Hawaii ~ Hosted by Asian Studies Development Program

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Institute Rationale

Colonialism is not simply a thing of the past. While nearly all of the colonies established by aspirants to regional and global preeminence during the colonial heyday between the 16th to mid-20th centuries succeeded in gaining independence more than half a century ago, the impacts of colonialism are still being experienced today. Colonial practices not only shaped the course of world history; their legacies continue to do so. The modern nations of Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, are themselves products of colonial policies, while Spain’s inability to extend control over the southern Philippines has left that country with the seemingly intractable problem of an alienated Muslim population.

The study of colonialism also brings to light some distinct features of world history, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. While earlier empires had grown to continental and (in the case of the Mongol empire) even transcontinental scales, they did not generate truly global experiences. In addition, it was during this era of the “great game” of colonial conquest that competition among states assumed truly global proportions. Yet, although the explicit “civilizing” mission, the implicit racism, and the economic exploitation that were bulwarks of the colonial project did create comparable situations in otherwise culturally and geographically disparate world regions, the differences were also considerable.  In some countries, for example, the colonial language(s) were subsequently abandoned (Indonesia, Vietnam), in others they were incorporated into the postcolonial state (India, Malaysia) in a process that was informed less by how heavy the colonial hand had been than by the global futures of former colonial powers and hence the “value” of maintaining their linguistic legacies.

Musiciens Annamites, Saïgon, Cochinchine; Emile Gsell (French,Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines 1838–1879 Vietnam); Photo credit: The MET

Perhaps the single most common colonial legacy is ethnic tension created by demographic changes engineered by colonial powers—usually in instrumental service to meeting labor needs. In some instances, colonial violence threatened the very existence of many indigenous groups. In others, the migration of European colonists overwhelmed local populations. In Asia, however, while there was certainly colonial violence, there was no significant displacement of indigenous populations by colonists. Instead, colonialism was conducted in ways that involved both forced and voluntary mobility. The tragic legacies of these demographic impacts of colonialism can be seen today in the crisis playing out in Myanmar, which was administered as part of British India until 1937. Permitting the arrival of Indian laborers, clerks and money lenders, the colonial experience laid the seed bed for ethnic tensions that have resurfaced to feed the current violence in Rakhine.


These population movements reflect the fact that all colonies, but especially those in Asia and Africa, were incorporated into a network of overlapping economic interests dependent on cheap labor to produce raw materials for the industrialization that fed imperial expansion. And this exploitation of indigenous peoples and the repatriation of economic profits fed steadily growing resentment. By the 1920s and 30s, these resentments were most vehemently expressed by those who had been exposed to Western education and had been directly confronted by the inequities of the colonial system. Across colonized societies world-wide, a rising cohort of nationalists debated the most effective strategies for achieving independence, devising agendas that ranged from cooperation to outright revolution.


The end of the Second World War marked a turning point toward a new world order in which colonialism was increasingly seen as an unacceptable and now “outdated” practice. Yet independence, whether granted by colonial powers divesting themselves of their possessions or won by revolution, did not always result in the hoped-for “new society” purged of inequities of class, ethnicity and gender. Southeast Asian nations are still grappling both with problems like ethnic tensions that are the result of colonial policies and with cumbersome bureaucracies, arcane legal systems, educational deficiencies and economic disparities that are part of their colonial “inheritance.”


Finally, the reality of neo-colonialism is all too evident in the pervasiveness of global capitalism, while in many cases the continuation of links to former colonizers has ensured the continuation of an economic and cultural imbalance. Indeed, the essence of colonialism itself—the extension of political and economic control over other peoples or states—has shown remarkable resiliency. Detached from its Western moorings, it has resurfaced in several different contexts, such as the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the extension of Chinese control over Tibet. In a number of countries, an insidious internal colonization can be witnessed as ethnic minorities are subjugated or assimilated by majority populations.


Unravelling the complexities of colonialism and its post-colonial heritage is thus critical in any understanding of international issues in the contemporary environment. And, while colonial histories tend to focus on political and economic arrangements, colonial and postcolonial experiences are always fundamentally human experiences that also have profound effects on culture and the arts.  Literature, especially in the form of novels and personal memoirs, provide viewpoints from both colonizers and colonized as they experienced the realities of foreign control.


In sum, Southeast Asia provides an ideal laboratory in which to compare and contrast the impact of colonial policies, local responses and the aftermath following independence. Bringing together a range of experiences that reach from the nineteenth century into contemporary times, this four-week program on colonialism and its legacies in Southeast Asia is intended to equip college teachers to expand their horizons in ways that will excite students and stimulate their interest in this dynamic world area.