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.