Friday, March 30, 2007

Contemporary lessons drawn from SE Asia two centuries ago?

As an intellectual toddler who only realized that a world beyond the front door existed a few years back, I'm relentless in trying to draw analogies between the present and the historical accounts I read. When your body of knowledge is so limited, you don't have many other options. Still, sometimes things are so blatant that even I can come up with something 'profound' in them.

I'm reading The Colonial Impact on Southeast Asia by former UMKC academic Donald Carlson. It's an obscure scholarly tract with a liberal inserting of other academic essays throughout. That it was written more than three decades ago with a geographically-specific focus, in a manner that is impressively non-political (as a student of the early 21st Century university system, I'm jaded--just about everything from the past seems free of tendentiousness by comparison!), makes the contemporary 'lessons' I draw from it all the more powerful.

On page 38, Carlson writes:
In the mid-1880's, Britain occupied Upper Burma and abolished the royal government, resulting in overwhelming hostility toward the British. Though the monarchy had failed to respond to the needs of the Burmans, it had represented a long tradition in Burman life and had served as a symbol of Burmese culture. This rapid break with tradition resulted in an armed insurrection against British authority under the leadership of the monastic orders, the defenders of tradition and Burman culture.
The British weren't welcomed as liberators. For overthrowing native miscreants, they were rewarded with ire. Religious leaders headed the insurrection against the Brits. Sound familiar?

Compared to Malaysia and especially Singapore, where the British were involved in at the same time, Burma was a major headache. The more Burkeian administrative bent in Malaysia was also more lucrative, less costly, and ultimately turned out a lot better than Burma by just about any measure.

As corrupt and unfriendly to private enterprise as Communist China was from the late forties on, Zedong knew how to utilize his industrious expatriates making money outside of the Middle Kingdom. In his treatment of the circumstances faced by the ethnic Chinese living in Southeast Asia, Carlson writes on page 170:
Within limits Peking was willing to help, since it wanted the Overseas Chinese to contribute liberally to the party funds and repatriate their money for investment in China. In addition they could be a very useful fifth column. A special government department, the Commission of Overseas Chinese Affairs, was set up in 1949 to protect the interests of Chinese abroad, foster close ties between them and China, and persuade them to send money home on a generous scale.
Chinese consulates lobbying for special privileges in Jakarta, the ethnics they're lobbying on behalf of sending money to sustain an ugly government at home. And in preparation for future hostilities, it's good to have a substantial population situated in the bowels of the enemy. No word on whether Peking had the audacity to berate Jakarta or Manilla for allowing opium to make its way onto the Chinese mainland.

The similarities with today need to be tempered with a few considerations, though. It wasn't all bad for the Southeast Asian countries. The ethnic Chinese were more intelligent and industrious than their native populations at large, and helped sustain competitive manufacturing and export economies on a viable scale. Instead of being subsidized by Indonesians and Malaysians, the Chinese migrants subsidized them. They virtually abstained from violent criminal activity. And they only ended up with the small city-state of Singapore--it's not like they gobbled up the entire southwestern island of Sumatra!

Those who don't learn from history are bound to repeat it.


Anonymous said...

Of course, as you know, you don't need to go that far back or to SE Asia to find a British colonial analogue for Operation Iraqi Freedom (which I take it was your Burma comparison). They had their own misadventures in Mesopotamia in the 1920s with Churchill as Colonial Secretary creating the tri-partite mess of "Iraq." The clear historical parallels were ignored with predictable results.

JSBolton said...

What do you find in terms of high-IQ diasporic minorities, regarding participation in leftist, internationalistic, or outright communist political over-representation? Do you find groups like Chettyars mentioned, or do you see mostly overseas Chinese?
There could be evidence of something universal in this sort of history.

crush41 said...


In the case of Ashkenazi Jews, I suppose it is at heart anti-nationalist.

But are expatriated Chinese and Indians more communist than the brethren in their places of origin? Both the Brahmin and Chinese I've come into contact with in school and in my working life have been enthusiastically free-market, especially the Indians. A substantial portion of the KU business school hails from India, and there are several professors and graduate students from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

crush41 said...


Right, there are plenty of examples, the British and French misadventures in the Middle East the most conspicuous of all. But that what was written about SE Asia in the early 1800s could almost have been written today about Iraq got my attention.

kurt9 said...

Perhaps the lesson in all of this is that it is not worthwhile to colonialize places that lack a reasonable IQ people.

crush41 said...


And higher IQ populations tend to break free of their colonizers through their own volition (Korea, the US), colonizing in general doesn't seem to be the wisest of long-term strategies. Let the MNCs do the exploiting if it has to be done.