How effectively did colonial governments respond to the rise of nationalism in Southeast Asia up to World War two?
Nationalism is undoubtedly the single most potent, dynamic, emotive element that has altered the political configuration of Asia in the twentieth century. In order to deal with this, the colonial government took several measures including repression and collaboration. Colonial governments used repression in varying degrees. Although repression did stop radicals and revolutionary groups, the effect was not permanent. In fact, in 1920s, Vietnam’s underground secret organizations sprang up, VNQDD being the most prominent. Some colonial governments also appeared consultative that seemingly allowed local powers to make decisions though they were truly just puppets. Dutch creation of 1918 Volksraad made the government look representative and prevented discontentment. They used concessions to fulfill the desires of the nationalists. However, they were usually not enough and unsatisfying. This is made worse with the effects of the Second World War. The incredible defeat of the western colonial powers all over Southeast Asia completely destroyed the myth of Western supremacy.
Colonial powers used force and coercion to clamp down resistance. The manner in which the nationalists from all levels of Indonesian society rushed to become members of the PNI alarmed the Dutch, who were shocked at its rapid growth. In an effort to check this, they arrested Sukarno and the other leaders at the end of 1929 and the PNI was outlawed the following year. So was the popular newspaper, Persatuan Indonesia, which had played a leading part in not only spreading anti-Dutch propaganda but also in demanding an independent Indonesia. But the arrests of the leaders forced the party underground. In the face of this, the Dutch were left with no option but to release Sukarno, which they did in 1931. Sukarno returned to form a new nationalist group, the Partai Indonesia. He was rearrested in 1933 and interned, until released by the Japanese in 1942. Sukarno was followed by other nationalist leaders, including Muhammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir in 1934. The only nationalist leaders who were not arrested were those whom the Dutch believed posed no danger to their position. The Dutch had the manpower and the weapons and had illustrated it time and again that they were not shy to use these to keep themselves in power. This conclusion was best revealed in a statement made by Jonkheer de Jonge, a businessman who was Governor-General (1931-36), “We have ruled here for three hundred years with the policeman’s club”, he said, and things will be no different in the next three hundred.” It was this uncompromising attitude of the Dutch that hardened the determination of the nationalists who were becoming aware of the life and death struggle that they would have to embark on, if they wanted to procure their independence from the rule of the cursed Dutch. Thus from the members of the PKI, a number of nationalist parties emerged. The most important of these, up to the Japanese invasion in 1942, was the Perserikatan National Indonesia (PNI). It was founded at Bandung, in June, 1927, by a group of western-educated Javanese and led by a young Javanese engineer, Sukarno. The aim of the PNI was to unite all the nationalist groups of Indonesia and to organize a united front against the Dutch regime. Also, Between 1923 and 1926, the Communists turned to their aim of an armed revolt and organized a series of attempts to overthrow the Dutch regime by the adoption of tactics which were aimed at dislocating the political and economic life of the country. But the Dutch were not caught napping and they put down by force the rail strike (1923) and the other that the PKI organized in the metal industries (1925). Undeterred by their initial failures, the PKI struck again during the following November, when an uprising broke out in Java and Western Sumatra against the hated Dutch. But the attempt failed once again because it lacked mass support which was necessary for the success of such a widespread uprising. Having nipped the rebellion in the bud, the Dutch struck at the PKI, by banning it and having its members either exiled or interned in New Guinea. Thus, ended the initial attempts of the militant, left-wing nationalists to oust the Dutch by the use of force whilst the leadership of the nationalist movement reverted to more moderate parties. But the attempts of the PKI did have an effect on the Netherlands Parliament which, in an effort to appease the nationalists brought about some changes in the constitution of the Volksraad in 1925. But once again the Dutch failed in their move, mainly because they still retained a majority over the Indonesian members by thirty to twenty-five. On the contrary, Dutch attempts to come to terms with the Indonesians were interpreted as a sign of weakness and helped to strengthen the demand for independence on a scale which was more widespread than anything that had taken place before 1926. On the other hand, in Vietnam, a series of a well-organized uprisings and demonstrations under Phan Chu Trinh, a prominent Vietnamese scholar, broke out in Annam and Tongking, including an unsuccessful attempt in 1908 to poison the French garrison stationed at Hanoi. The scene then shifted to Annam where in 1916, the scholar Tran Van Cao organized a large scale uprising. But the French were able to suppress it without much difficulty because it was poorly organized. The French followed this by letting loose a scourge of reprisals which saw a few lucky nationalists make good their escape to Canton and Japan. Those who were unlucky to be caught in the French dragnet were sent to rot in the forced labour camps on Pulau Condore and Lao Bao. When the new Popular Front came into power in France in 1936, the Caodaians got involved and began to take part in the spread of nationalist propaganda and adopted pro-Japanese but anti-Anglo-French attitude. As its political strength grew, Caodaism also shifted its ultimate aim to the overthrow of French rule. The French reaction to this was that the movement was officially outlawed. But in spite of this attempt to crush it, the movement survived in many parts of Vietnam. Though repression can be seen as effective approach to end uprisings led by radicals, no political and military action in reality could effectively suppressed nationalism effectively.