Nationalism in the Dutch East Indies



The latest podcast episode continues our narrative on Southeast Asia in the early twentieth century, by looking at Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies, from 1901 to 1941 (A.D.).  First we will learn how oil was discovered in the islands, and how it replaced spices as Indonesia’s most important product.  Then we will see how the Dutch administered the islands during that time.  Finally we will follow the development of Indonesian nationalism, and meet Sukarno, the first leader of modern Indonesia.


(Transcript, added 07/04/2020.)


This episode is dedicated to Daniel P., who made a generous donation two weeks ago. Daniel, we’ve come a long way since the podcast was launched, as I have said before, but we still have a long way to go before this story is finished, so thank you for doing your part to help us reach that goal. And since the narrative is now up to the twentieth century, upcoming episodes will discuss events that many listeners may have experienced, or they may have relatives who experienced them. Daniel, thank you for helping us relive those memories, too.

Episode 33: Nationalism in the Dutch East Indies

Greetings, dear listeners! Before we begin today’s episode, I have an announcement about how the podcast continues to spread. Just before the previous episode went online, I was informed that the podcast has been added to the website I have wanted to belong to a podcasting club, besides the two Facebook groups I am already in, but when I tried to join one last year, they wrote back that they weren’t accepting new members. Therefore the History of Southeast Asia Podcast is now available on ten websites that I know of: Blubrry, Acast, Google Play, iTunes, MyTuner,, Podbean, Podfanatic, Stitcher, and now History Podcasts!

Now about this episode’s subject matter. It has been quite a while since we last talked about Indonesia. That was in Episode 22, five and a half months ago in real time. Therefore, if you listened to that episode when it was first uploaded, you may want to listen again, to refresh your memory. Heck, you should listen to it anyway, if you haven’t done so, so you will know what led up to the events we are talking about today.

In a quick recap of Episode 22, we saw the British temporarily occupy Java during the Napoleonic Wars, and though they gave Java back to the Dutch after Napoleon was defeated, the Dutch did not have an easy time of it. For about twenty years after Java was returned to them, the Dutch were busy putting down native revolts on Java and Sumatra. This may have been one of the reasons why the Dutch embarked on campaigns to conquer the so-called “Outer Islands,” after their position on Java and Sumatra was secure. The other reason was colonial rivalry; the Dutch felt that if they did not claim and grab surrounding islands like Borneo and New Guinea, the British, French, Germans, or even the Americans would have beaten them to those islands. The bloodiest campaigns were the last ones, against Bali and against Aceh, the state on the northwestern tip of Sumatra; in both places resistance continued into the first decade of the twentieth century. The Aceh War was especially long and costly; it lasted for more than thirty years, and though it suppressed piracy in the Malacca Strait, at least for the rest of the time that the Dutch were in charge, it also spent the treasury surpluses that the Dutch government had enjoyed earlier in the nineteenth century. From now on, part of the cost of administering the Dutch East Indies would have to be covered by Dutch taxpayers at home.

We are going to divide today’s narrative into two parts. The first part will describe how the Dutch ran the Indonesian islands in the early twentieth century, up to the beginning of World War II. Then for the second part we will look at the development of nationalist movements at the same time, because the Dutch, like the British in Burma and the French in Vietnam, were invaders who were not welcomed when they took over.

But first, let’s talk about a discovery that changed the economy of the entire Far East. Today Indonesia exports more oil than any other nation east of Iran, and that oil was discovered while the Dutch were in charge. This happened in the late nineteenth century, but because the internal combustion engine was in a primitive, experimental stage at this point, not many people paid attention to the discovery. That is why I didn’t mention oil in the last Indonesian episode, but after the twentieth century began, those oil reserves would become critically important.

In the past, there were a few places where petroleum, sometimes called “rock oil,” would seep up from the ground and form pools. One of those places was Azerbaijan, and in medieval times the oil pools gave Azerbaijan a creepy reputation, because when an oil pool caught on fire, the fire never went out. Another place with oil pools was Indonesia, so when the Dutch took over, they knew the islands had oil, but at first they did not know how much there was, nor did they care.

Before 1800, most people did not find “rock oil” very useful; in North America, for example, the main users of oil were Native American tribes, who made war paint out of it. But over the course of the nineteenth century, scientists learned to refine oil into products that were more useful, like kerosene, and when the supply in surface pools ran out, they learned how to drill into the ground for more oil. The first experimental drilling for oil in Indonesia was done in 1884, by a Dutch plantation manager on East Java. However, it was an oil well drilled on northern Sumatra in 1885 that first produced enough oil to sell for a profit. More oilfields were discovered on East Java in 1887, southern Sumatra in 1896, and Borneo in 1897. With the invention of the automobile, the Dutch realized that they had a vast supply of the fuel of the future. A new product had replaced spices as Indonesia’s leading export.

To manage the production and refining of oil, the Royal Dutch Company was founded in 1890. A British-owned company, Shell Transport and Trading, was set up to do the same thing on Borneo’s east coast; there it found oil and set up a refinery at Balikpapan in 1894. The two companies were merged to form Royal Dutch Shell in 1907. Today Royal Dutch Shell is one of the world’s largest corporations, and the parent company for Shell Oil in the United States. I often fill up my car with Shell gasoline, because there are several Shell stations in my home city. Eventually American oil companies like Texaco, Standard and Mobil were allowed to drill in Indonesia as well, after threats were made to block Dutch companies from doing business in the United States. Just before World War II, a joint venture by Texaco and Standard discovered the two richest oil fields of all, Duri and Minas in central Sumatra. Total oil production reached 62,000 barrels a day in 1924, and 170,000 barrels a day in 1939; by then more than 75% of the crude oil produced in the Far East came from Indonesian wells, and 4 percent of the world’s oil was produced by Royal Dutch Shell in Indonesia.

Now back to the narrative! In Episode 22 we saw the Dutch try to manage the Indies in two different ways. From 1830 until the 1860s, the Dutch policy was called the Culture Program, and in a nutshell, it squeezed the native population for whatever the Dutch could get out of them. Then when word got out that the Culture Program was increasing suffering among the natives, it was replaced with free-market capitalism, which the Dutch called the Liberal Program. This brought even more revenue to Amsterdam than the Culture Program did, but it wasn’t perfect either. The main issue was that population grew rapidly in the islands during the nineteenth century, especially on Java, but new land wasn’t being developed fast enough for these additional people to work on it. Finally, there were growing complaints against abuses by private operators, and against lower-level administrators who were not doing enough to improve the lives of the natives.

Because of all this, the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina and her prime minister began the twentieth century by launching a third program for the islands, the Ethical Policy, in 1901. Whereas the first two programs emphasized profit, the Ethical Policy’s first concern would be the social welfare of the Indonesians. Private business was regulated to prevent further peasant exploitation, and the Ethical Policy was described as promoting three projects: irrigation, transmigration, and education.

The irrigation project promoted improved irrigation of the rice fields, of course, but it also introduced banks for the native population, and subsidized native industries and crafts, like batik cloth.

Transmigration meant encouraging people to move from overcrowded Java to Sumatra and Borneo, where new land could be cleared for farming. However, history has shown that you can’t fix an overpopulation problem simply by sending the surplus population somewhere else, because the people who stay in the homeland will still have babies. That is exactly what happened here, as we shall see in a moment.

The education project meant admitting Indonesians into Western-style schools. In 1900, there were already Western schools in the islands, but they were mainly for the children of Europeans who had come there; at that time, the schools had 13,000 European students and only 1,500 native students. However, by 1928 enough schools had been built to give 75,000 Indonesians a primary education, and 6,500 had finished high school. A few Indonesians also got to attend colleges in the Netherlands. Of course these numbers were seen as a sign of success, so keep in mind that with the native population now in the millions, only a tiny fraction had been educated so far.

The education project had one far-reaching side effect. By teaching a small group of natives how to think like Westerners, it gave them the ability to express their opinions and their objections to colonial rule. It also exposed them to Western political ideas like democracy and socialism. Finally, educated natives developed a national consciousness. Instead of seeing themselves as East Javans or Sumatrans or Balinese or whatever, from now on they would see themselves first and foremost as “Indonesians.”

Among the Dutch, the Ethical Policy was understandably less popular than previous programs. Officials carrying out the Ethical Policy faced an uphill struggle against both native apathy and opposition from Dutch businesses. And in one way the Ethical Policy worked too well; improved food supplies and modern medicine meant that Java’s population would continue to grow rapidly, increasing from 28 million people in 1900 to 45 million by 1940. That growth ate up all the economic gains made by the natives, but the Dutch were not alarmed; they saw the growth as proof that they were doing the right thing.

The Ethical Policy’s strongest advocate was a Dutch scholar with a name that will sound odd to those of you who don’t speak Dutch: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. In 1881, when Hurgronje was only in his twenties, he became a professor at the Leiden School for Colonial Servants because he was already fluent in the Arabic language, and he knew so much about Islam that in 1885 he was able to go to Mecca, and spend six months in Islam’s holiest city. Of course Mecca is supposed to be off-limits to anyone who isn’t Moslem, and this ban is strictly enforced even by today’s Saudis. My sources disagree on how he got into the city without being detected as an infidel. Wikipedia suggests that he converted to Islam shortly before arrival, while my older books claim he fooled the authorities into thinking he was a Moslem, by passing an exam in the nearby city of Jeddah, given to him by scholars from Mecca.

In 1889 Snouck Hurgronje became an official advisor to the Dutch government on colonial affairs, and worked closely with Johannes van Heutsz, the commanding general in the Aceh War. In this position he managed to gain the confidence of many Acehnese leaders and gathered valuable intelligence for the Dutch government. His works in this regard remained an official secret for many years. According to Hurgronje, the sultan of Aceh was no longer relevant, and the hereditary chiefs were the local officials most likely to cooperate with the Dutch. On the other hand, the religious leaders of this area, the ulema, could not be trusted or persuaded to cooperate, so they would have to be destroyed. His advice helped General van Heutsz devise a strategy that not only won the war, but also prevented new revolts after it was all over.

Snouck Hurgronje also noted that because there was no place for the chiefs in a modern, Western-style government, the Dutch would have to retire them or pay them off with pensions after the war. However, the war showed that Islam was as popular as ever, so Hurgronje asserted that the Dutch could generate support from the Indonesian people by bringing Moslems into the civil service, and by discouraging Christian missionary activity. His proposal was put into action, but like the rest of the Ethical Policy, it was never popular among the Dutch. Gradually the Ethical Policy was phased out in the 1920s. In its place the Dutch offered no new program; henceforth their main interest would be perpetuating their rule over the world’s largest archipelago. Meanwhile, the first stirrings of modern Indonesian nationalism appeared, and they came from the very same Moslems Hurgronje had befriended, because they now felt that they deserved much more than the Dutch were willing to give them.

The Indonesian Nationalists

It was in 1908, right when armed resistance to Dutch rule was ending on Sumatra, that the first modern Indonesian nationalist movement got started. It was called Budi Utomo, meaning Beautiful Endeavor or Noble Endeavor, and the founder was Wahidin Sudirohusodo, a pensioned government doctor. The doctor felt that native intellectuals could modernize Javan culture without imitating the West, and called for more education and more jobs for Indonesians. However, within a few months he stepped down and let younger members of the organization take charge. In the next decade, Budi Utomo managed to get its voice heard in the Volksraad, a parliamentary body we will be talking about in a few minutes, but it didn’t speak for all Indonesians–only upper-class East and Central Javans belonged to the movement. In fact, the Dutch did not see Budi Utomo as a threat precisely BECAUSE it never had a large following. After World War I it lost its influence to more radical groups that made it look conservative by comparison. Finally in 1935 it merged with Sukarno’s nationalist party, which we will also hear about shortly.

More important than Budi Utomo was another group, Sarekat Islam. My sources disagree on when the movement was founded, either in 1905 or 1911. It was started as a trade union, by a Moslem batik merchant named Hadji Samanhudi. Originally the organization was called Sarekat Dagang Islam, meaning the Islamic Trade Union, and its first members wanted to compete against Chinese merchants in the batik-cloth trade. However, membership was open to all Moslems, no matter what their profession was, and the organization grew so rapidly that in 1912 “Dagang” was dropped from the name, so it became simply Sarekat Islam, the Islamic Association. At this point it had 93,000 members, and by 1916 membership had grown to 350,000 members; the organization’s interest had also switched from business to politics.

All this political activity convinced the Dutch that the natives would be more cooperative if they were put in charge of local affairs, and to give some natives experience in self-government, local councils were set up. A national council called the Volksraad was authorized in 1916 for the same reason, with both elected and appointed members, and its first session convened in 1918. In practice, however, the Dutch never let these governing bodies have real power; the governor in Batavia claimed that he knew what was best for all Indonesians, and retained the power to veto any council’s resolutions. As a result the Volksraad was not a real decision-making body but merely a group of advisors. And until 1929, Dutch members in the Volksraad outnumbered Indonesian members. One local comedian remarked that the Volksraad was the only successful multiracial club in prewar Southeast Asia! Although the Volksraad membership included some nationalists, most nationalists saw it as a useless organization. The last election for the Volksraad was held in 1939; and the Japanese dissolved it after they took over in 1942.

Meanwhile with Sarekat Islam, rapid growth turned it into a disorganized party with conservative, modernist, and radical factions pulling in different directions. As with Budi Utomo, the Dutch tried to work with Sarekat Islam at first, but they could not keep it from becoming an anti-colonial movement, so they began trying to repress it after World War I. Three members of Sarekat Islam would go on to become leaders of political parties in the 1920s: Sukarno the Nationalist, Semaun the Communist, and S. M. Kartosuwirjo, the Moslem mystic. We won’t talk about Kartosuwirjo until we do an episode about Indonesia in the late 1940s, but you definitely want to keep an eye on the other two!

A small group of Dutch socialists, led by an exiled Dutchman named Hendricus Sneevliet, formed an organization called the Indies Social Democratic Association, or ISDV, in 1914. This group infiltrated Sarekat Islam, causing a tug of war between religious leaders and the leaders who preferred socialism or communism. Nobody won that struggle, because it ended with the party breaking up into smaller, better organized parties in the 1920s.

The first defection, which was welcomed, was that of the socialists, who by now had absorbed enough Marxist teaching to become outright communists. In 1920 the ISDV changed its name to the PKI, meaning Partai Komunis Indonesia, or Indonesian Communist Party. At first it was still led by Dutchmen, but in 1921 Semaun, the vice-chairman of the ISDV’s Surabaya office, became the party’s first Indonesian leader. In response, Sarekat Islam held a national party congress, and here the party’s religious leaders passed a motion which declared that no member of Sarekat Islam could hold membership in another party at the same time. Thus, the PKI had to leave Sarekat Islam in 1922. Whereas older political parties favored keeping ties with the Netherlands, the PKI was the first party to call for Indonesian independence.

Next, the communists infiltrated Indonesian labor unions and launched a general strike in 1926, which was meant to be the first step in an armed rebellion. It was a disaster. The Dutch put down the rebellion by arresting 13,000, and of these, 4,500 were given prison sentences. We estimate there were just 3,000 communists at the time, so obviously the Dutch used the trouble as an excuse to go after all Indonesian nationalists. Afterwards the Dutch outlawed the PKI; they left communism so crushed that it would not appear in Indonesian politics again until after World War II. This marked the beginning of a pattern: three times in the twentieth century, the Indonesian Communist Party would start some kind of uprising, in a bid for power. The uprisings were approximately twenty years apart, and each was put down with more bloodshed than the uprisings before it.

At this point, the most important Indonesian nationalist, Sukarno, made his appearance on the scene. I will begin our look at Sukarno by explaining his name. Born in the East Javan city of Surabaya in 1901, he was originally named Kusno Sosrodihardjo, but after he survived a serious childhood illness, his parents renamed him Sukarno, following a Javanese custom that suggests giving a child a new name may improve his luck in the future. Two of my sources call him Achmed Sukarno, but it now appears that Achmed was never his real name. Either it was added by a Western reporter who found it confusing that many Javans only have one name, or Indonesians added it to make their leader more appealing in other Moslem countries. My source for this is a paper by Steven Drakeley from the University of Western Sydney, entitled “In Search of Achmad Sukarno.”

In school Sukarno showed he had a photographic memory, and a talent for languages; eventually he would learn to speak ten languages. He majored in engineering, and after his graduation he and a classmate named Anwari set up an architectural firm named Sukarno & Anwari in Bandung, the city on the western end of Java. But just one year later, in 1927, he and his friends got involved in politics instead, by founding the PNI, the Partai Nasional Indonesia, or the Indonesian Nationalist Party. The party’s goal was independence; it combined Javanese, Islamic, democratic and socialist ideas, and it tried to follow the example of Mahatma Gandhi in India, by refusing to cooperate with the Dutch regime. Another goal was uniting the various tribes and ethnic groups of the islands into one nation, largely by promoting the old Malay dialect used by merchants, this time as a language for everybody, called Bahasa Indonesia.

The PNI worked with other nationalist movements and quickly became the most important among them, mainly because Sukarno proved he was a fiery orator. Those speeches also got the government’s attention, and Sukarno was arrested at the end of 1929. After a five-month trial, which was dragged out because Sukarno made sensational speeches against colonialism and imperialism, he was sentenced to four years in the Bandung prison, but his supporters persuaded the authorities to release him, after he had served just one year of the sentence. Press coverage of Sukarno’s speeches had made him popular among liberals in the Netherlands, as well as among Indonesians.
While Sukarno was locked up, the PNI split into two factions, one that called for violent revolution, and one that called for bringing modern education to all Indonesians first, before making any move towards independence. Both continued to call themselves the PNI, though with the non-violent faction the initials now meant Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia, or Indonesian National Education. After getting out, Sukarno got along best with the two Sumatrans who led the non-violent faction, Sutan Sjahrir and Muhammed Hatta. But their cooperation only led to the imprisonment of all three. This time, Sukarno and his family spent nearly nine years in exile, from 1933 to 1942, first on the eastern island of Flores, and then at Bencoolen on Sumatra. By promptly repressing all but the mildest expressions of nationalism, the Dutch were able to stay in charge until the Japanese invaded during World War II. For the rest of the 1930s, the membership in all nationalist parties was limited to students, and they had to be careful in their activities if they wanted jobs after completing their studies.

Long before World War I began in Europe, the Germans drew up a plan for the war’s first campaign. This plan, the Schlieffen Plan, called for stationing the entire German army on the western frontier, and marching it through most of the Low Countries – the southern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – in order to strike at France. However, when Helmut von Moltke became commander of the German army, he rewrote the orders so that the army would not pass through the Netherlands. That change meant that the Dutch got to sit out World War I completely. In fact, the Dutch town of Doorn became the German Kaiser’s place of exile after the war.

However, with World War II the Dutch would not be so lucky. In May 1940 Germany invaded the Low Countries, all of them this time, savagely bombed the city of Rotterdam, and conquered the Netherlands in only five days. The Dutch royal family and the Dutch government fled across the English channel to London, where they became a government in exile. Next, the Germans overran Belgium and France, so two of the colonial powers in Southeast Asia, the Dutch and the French, now had their homelands under enemy occupation. The Dutch legislature on Java, the People’s Council in Batavia, declared itself loyal to the government in exile, but because Europe was so far away, the Dutch in the islands were now on their own. Although this was bad news, the local Dutch officials didn’t worry about it as much as you might think; though nationalist sentiments remained strong among the native population, all the nationalist leaders were in jail or exile, so it looked like independence could only come in the distant future. But while the Dutch thought they had everything under control, a new player was entering the game in Southeast Asia – Japan.

By the beginning of the 1940s, Japan had been fighting to conquer China for several years, and to win that war, it needed several critical resources, especially oil. Because the Japanese bought most of their oil from the United States, as Japan does today, they looked for oilfields they could take for themselves, so they would not have to depend on good relations with the Americans to keep the oil flowing. And that wasn’t all Indonesia had to offer; it was the world’s second largest producer of tin, after British Malaya, and it had rich supplies of bauxite, coal, rubber, coconuts, nickel, wood, quinine, sugar, rice, tea and coffee.

In 1940 Japan began to expand their war beyond China by moving its troops into French Indochina, since the French government there, like the Dutch government in Batavia, could not expect to get aid from anyone else. At this time Japan suggested that both French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies should be part of their “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” instead of being colonies of Europe. Next, the Japanese put pressure on the People’s Council in Batavia to sell them more oil. A Japanese mission led by Ichizo Kobayashi, the Minister of Commerce and Industry, came to Batavia and demanded fixed quantities of oil, bauxite and other resources, which would be sold no matter what other countries like the United States did. The Dutch negotiated, always holding out for smaller amounts of raw materials than what the Japanese wanted, hoping this would give them more time. As long as the Dutch were willing to sell something, the Japanese would buy it, but trade relations deteriorated when the Western nations decided that words alone would not make the Japanese end the war in China. When the United States cut off oil shipments to Japan in August 1941, the Dutch government in exile ordered Batavia to cut off oil shipments, too, and it did. The Japanese started using the term “ABCD Powers” to define the four enemies blocking expansion of the Japanese Empire: A for America, B for Britain, C for China, and D for the Dutch. To get what they wanted – no, to get what their war machines needed – the Japanese prepared to strike southward, and eastward. I’m sure you know what is coming next.

<War clip>

Yes, I can feel it in the air, too. Since the narrative is up to the beginning of World War II in Indonesian history, we are now done with today’s episode. Before we go on to cover that war, though, we have one more part of Southeast Asia to cover during the prewar years: French Indochina, better known today as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. So join me as we look at the development of nationalist movements in those countries in the early twentieth century. In particular we will meet a famous leader you probably heard about long before you started listening to this podcast – Ho Chi Minh. I’m sure those of you who came to learn about the twentieth-century Vietnam War will want to hear his biography. Then after that, we will be ready for the story of the Second World War in Southeast Asia. Wow, we have gone from the stone age to 1941 in 34 episodes!

In movies there are endtime credits, in podcasts there are endtime announcements. If you enjoyed this episode and want to support the podcast, you can do so by making a donation through Paypal. Just click on the Paypal button, at the bottom of this episode’s page; donations start at one US dollar. And it has been a little while since I have seen a new review on iTunes, so if you listen to this show on iTunes and haven’t written a review already, now is the time for one. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, and tell your family and friends if you think they might be interested. Heck, tell your enemies while you’re at it; that can’t hurt. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Nationalism in British Burma



For the podcast’s 32nd episode (33rd if you count the introduction), we will return to the Southeast Asian mainland, and cover the history of Burma, modern-day Myanmar, in the early twentieth century.  In particular we will concentrate our attention on the nationalist movements that sprang up, to oppose British rule.  Three of the nationalists we will meet here, Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win, will become important in future episodes, so remember their names!


(Transcript, added 06/29/2020.)


<Play Max Sergeant intro>

This episode is dedicated to Chin-Po Ts., who made a generous donation two weeks ago. Chin-Po, your contribution will go a long way towards keeping the lights on over here. And as you heard in the introduction, other listeners are also learning the background for a part of the world they previously knew little or nothing about. Since you told me you are now in Myanmar, I think you will find today’s topic especially interesting. Here in America thirty years ago, we had a series of TV commercials for a drink called Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler, and they ended every commercial with this line:

<Bartles sound clip>

So thank you very much for your support as well.

Episode 32: Nationalism in British Burma

Greetings, dear listeners! First, let’s thank Max Serjeant for his delightful introduction!


Now on to today’s topic. The last time we had an episode about Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, I began by reading a poem from Rudyard Kipling. In case you missed it, that was Episode 24. This time I will also read a selection from a famous author, but it covers a grimmer subject. This is from George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” and here he is a British policeman in Burma, thinking about the evils of imperialism, while hunting a rogue elephant that has killed a native. I first read it in high school, and you can read the whole thing on the website ORWELL.RU. Quote:

“…I was hated by large numbers of people… in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter… As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.

…All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.

…All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty… my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

End quote.

In the last two episodes, our narrative crossed over from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. So what was the situation in Southeast Asia as the twentieth century began? In most places it could be summarized with five words: the West was in command. After all, when this podcast covered events in the nineteenth century, the overall message was that Europe and the United States were taking over. Oh sure, the Thais managed to use diplomacy to save half of their kingdom for themselves, and there were a few areas the Western nations weren’t finished conquering; the first years of the twentieth century saw the Dutch take Bali and the kingdom of Acheh, in northwestern Sumatra, while the Americans subjugated the Philippines. But aside from exceptions like these, foreign empires had definitely brought Southeast Asia under their control, the way they had overran most of the non-European world.

This was the age of imperialism for sure, and the expansion of the empires ended in 1912, when Italy conquered Libya, and France and Spain divided Morocco between themselves. The only places left that weren’t under European control belonged to these three categories:

1. Countries with modern, Westernized societies (e.g., the United States and Japan).
2. Places that weren’t worth the trouble to conquer (Antarctica).
3. Nations that had their independence guaranteed by a Western power (e.g., Latin America and China).

Thus, two years before World War I began, the armies and navies of the colonial overlords finally came to a halt. There was simply no place left where they could go.

So far this podcast has made it to the end of the 1930s with the Malay peninsula, Thailand, and the Philippines. Now it is time to talk about what was happening in Burma before World War II, so here goes.


If you are just joining us, the previous episodes in this podcast about Burma were Episodes 5, 9, 15, 16, 18, 20 and 24. In those episodes we saw three Burmese empires rise and fall between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries. The last one was conquered by another empire, that of the British, in three separate wars. The first war lasted from 1824 to 1826, and the others took place in 1852 and 1885. When it was all over, the last Burmese king and queen were exiled to India, and their palace in Mandalay was converted into a barracks to quarter British and Indian troops.

Burma did not prosper under British rule. Traditional Burmese society was shaped and led by two institutions, the monarchy and Buddhism. When the British took over, they abolished the monarchy and rejected the Buddhist clergy as an unprogressive organization; what they offered in place of those things, the Burmese found unacceptable. For a start, Burmese and Indian cultures have almost nothing in common, but because Burma was next to India, the British Empire added Burma to its Indian colony, and administered Burma as part of India; many Burmese saw this as adding insult to injury. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. In the past Indians and Chinese had never lived in Burma in large numbers, unless you count the Rohingyas in Arakan Province, who were Indian Moslems from Bengal, so Burma’s demographics were altered as well. Few Burmese were allowed to serve in either the army or the government; when filling those jobs, the British practiced the policy of “divide and conquer,” discriminating in favor of non-Burmese minorities like the Karens and Mons.

Before this time Burmese peasants lived in an easygoing communal society, where they only grew enough to feed themselves and pay their taxes and offerings. Now Britain introduced alien concepts like capitalism, individual land ownership, mortgages and foreclosures. Many peasants were forced off their land by Indian moneylenders when they could not pay their debts. The Anglo-Indian legal system was completely outside the Burmese experience, and could not command respect. Perjury, violence, general disregard for the law and disrespect for the British were commonplace, as George Orwell told us in his essay, and this was often done with the consent of the monks. Britain did much to help the economy by building railroads and ports, and by modernizing agriculture and the teakwood industry. When the British arrived, only a small fraction of the Irrawaddy delta was under cultivation, so they enlarged the delta rice fields from 60,000 acres to an astounding ten million acres, making Burma the world’s largest rice exporter and giving it a nickname, “the rice bowl of Asia.” Still, almost all of the profits from these industries went to British and Indian managers. The Buddhist schools, which every Burmese young man attended, were ignored, and secular Western-style schools were built to take their place, capped by Rangoon College. Finally, missionaries were sent in to convert the people of Burma to Christianity.

In these ways the British alienated the social, political and religious leaders and disrupted everything associated with them. It is worth noting that the only successful missionaries were American Baptists, and instead of converting the Burmese they converted the anti-Burmese Karens; this minority saw white people as liberators rather than conquerors. Today Burma represents Britain’s greatest failure as an imperial power, except maybe for Ireland. I find this failure inexcusable because in nearby Malaya and Singapore, the British did almost everything right; the late development of nationalist movements in Malaya and Singapore shows that those places weren’t in a hurry to see the British leave. Because of British mismanagement, when Burma became independent, it was the first former British colony to reject membership in the Commonwealth of Nations.

Like nationalism in the Philippines, Burmese nationalism got started with a religious element. In 1898 an organization called the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, or the YMBA, was founded in Sri Lanka, another Buddhist country under British rule. Its purpose was to preserve Buddhism and the Buddhist culture against the strong influence of Britain, and a few Burmese who had received a modern education liked the idea enough to found a Burmese chapter of the YMBA in 1906.

Before we continue, I think I’d better insert a footnote to explain the YMBA’s name. The founders of the YMBA called it that because they saw their organization as a Buddhist version of the Young Man’s Christian Association, the YMCA.

<Village People interlude 1.>

Yes, THAT YMCA. I am fifty-eight years old, which makes me older than most podcasters and podcast listeners, so you may not know that the YMCA got started as a religious organization. It was founded in 1844 by George Williams, a young man in London who noticed that in the cities where the Industrial Revolution had recently begun, workers in the new factories did not have healthy places for recreation; the only places where most of them could go for fun were taverns and brothels. At first the main activities at the YMCA were prayer meetings and Bible studies; the gymnasiums, weightlifting rooms and swimming pools came later, because sports are a great way to encourage male bonding. When I was young I attended a YMCA that had one room marked as a chapel, but I never saw a service held in it; it was used as an office. Gradually the physical activities became so important that the spiritual activities faded away, so today’s YMCA is just an athletic club. In that sense the YMCA developed like the Olympic Games; the first Olympics, held in 776 B.C. were a festival to the Greek god Zeus that just happened to include a foot race between two hills. Maybe that’s why people have shortened the acronym “YMCA” to just “the Y.” And just the other day I heard that the Village People are going to do a forty-year reunion concert tour; because of the name change, they will probably have to record a new version of their song on this subject.

<Village People interlude 2.>

End footnote.

In the beginning the YMBA was a nonpolitical social club, but soon members began promoting the Japanese formula for success: combine Western technology with Eastern values. In 1916 they launched a series of protests, and the protests won a moral victory by persuading the British to take off their shoes when entering a pagoda, something they had always been too proud to do previously. But then in 1918 the organization suffered a split. Older members insisted that they should stay out of politics, while the younger members broke away and sent a delegation to India to meet with the Viceroy and Secretary of State; at the meeting they requested the separation of Burma from India. This request was not granted, so in 1919 and 1920 they sent delegations to London for the same purpose. Meanwhile at home, they called for a boycott of British-made goods.

In the same year, 1920, a law called the University Act promoted Rangoon College to a full-scale university. However, the school’s administration and curriculum were seen as too elitist, and most Burmese students were not allowed to attend, so the university students went on strike. Soon younger schoolchildren, the Buddhist clergy and ordinary Burmese joined them as they camped in the courtyards of monasteries, reminding folks that in the past, education was handled by the monks. Changes to the University Act settled the strike, but many strikers who had gone to mission and government schools refused to return to them. Instead they were accepted into the YMBA schools, which now called themselves “national” schools, and opened their doors to the strikers.

Soon after the this, politically active former YMBA members formed two nationalist political parties, called the General Council of Burmese Associations and the Independent Party. This showed that you did not have to be young, Buddhist, or male to join them. But over the course of the 1920s, both parties and the original YMBA faded away, because a new, more radical generation was growing up. These Burmese were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s career in neighboring India, and they did not want just moderate reform and independence from India; they wanted independence from the whole British Empire. Two of the most prominent nationalist leaders at this stage, as you might expect in Burma, were politically-minded monks, Hpoongyi-U-Wizaya and U Ottama. Both of them eventually died in a Rangoon prison, in 1929 and 1939 respectively, so they are revered as martyrs in modern-day Myanmar.

In 1922 the British introduced a new constitution, that established a native government with 130 legislators and two prime ministers, but all power ultimately remained in the hands of the British governor. A radical campaign to boycott the first election was so successful that only 7% of the voters participated. This led the governors to believe that the Burmese were too apathetic to receive self-government in as large a dose as India did at that time. Though there was probably some truth to this idea, reforms continued at a gradual rate. The Reform Act of 1935 formally separated Burma from India, placing Burma under its own administration, but kept the veto powers in the hands of the governor.

The Great Depression caused the price of rice to collapse, but taxes were not lowered to match, so Burmese peasants were put in a desperate situation. 1930 saw a number of bloody riots against the Indian and Chinese communities. Then in October of the same year came two earthquakes, one in Bago and one in Pyu. These were seen as signs that a new king would soon occupy the vacant throne of the king of Burma. An ex-monk named Saya San took advantage of these omens. Since leaving the monastery, Saya San had become a physician, and joined the General Council of Burmese Associations, at first just representing his village, but later chaired a commission to survey the living conditions of Burmese peasants. Now he proclaimed himself the divinely appointed king of Burma, and announced that he would restore the monarchy, make Buddism great again, and expel the British.

Next, Saya San adopted all the traditional symbols of Burmese royalty: he put on the traditional garments of the kings, moved into a palace in the town of Tharrawaddy, and recruited a retinue of five queens, four ministers, and four regiments of soldiers. Plans were made to turn Tharrawaddy into a royal city that would be called Buddharaja Myo, or “Buddhist King’s Town.” Saya San was given the title “the Galon King,” and the soldiers became the Galon Army; Galon was another name for Garuda, the great bird in Hindu mythology that carried the god Vishnu. To the followers who took an oath of loyalty to him, Saya San promised they would be invulnerable as long as they wore his magical charms and tattoos; he also drew up some astrological forecasts that predicted they would win.

The uprising against the British began on December 22, 1930, and as you might expect, it was doomed to fail. For a start, Saya San could not trace his ancestry to any previous king; his only claim was that he was born in Shwebo, the home town of Alaungpaya, the great eighteenth-century king that we talked about in Episode 20. So his movement aroused sympathy and patriotic feelings in the Burmese, but I doubt if they all saw him as a legitimate king. Most of the rebels had only swords and spears for weapons, while the British had machine guns. And in case you were wondering about the magical charms and tattoos, they didn’t work. When the British gained the upper hand against the rebellion, Saya San fled to the Shan plateau in eastern Burma. He was captured in August 1931, brought back to Tharrawaddy, tried, sentenced to death, and hanged in November. The rebellion continued without a leader, until the British crushed the last remnants of it at the end of 1932. Saya San’s lawyer, Dr. Ba Maw, gained much attention during the trial, and though he lost the case, he used his newfound fame to become a successful politician afterwards, serving as prime minister from 1937 to 1939.

By the way, I posted a picture of some Burmese money on the podcast’s Facebook page and on the page that hosts this episode. This is a 90 Kyat bill, issued in 1987, and it shows Saya San’s face on the front. 90 Kyat bills were legal tender because Ne Win, the dictator who ruled Burma from the 1960s to the 1980s, believed that 9 and multiples of 9 were lucky numbers, but that’s a wild story I am saving for a future episode.

Now the political initiative passed to the Students Union at the University of Rangoon, who considered the current politicians to be too tame and self-seeking. In their classes, the students were expected to call their professors Thakin, which means master, much like the Indian sahib, so they made fun of this rule by addressing each other as Thakin, until their group was called the Thakin movement. The Thakins denounced everything British as the source of their distress, rejected capitalism, and looked to socialism and even Marxism as ideologies to follow. They were attracted to socialism because Burmese culture emphasizes communal values, so it has more in common with socialism than with other Western doctrines. From their ranks rose the people who would lead independent Burma. Two of them would become future heads of state: Thakin Nu, better known by his real name, U Nu, and Thakin Ne Win. But a third student who never ruled, Thakin Aung San, would become the most popular of them all; he got started as the movement’s magazine editor.

The Thakins scored their first victory in 1936 when the student body president, Thakin Nu, was expelled and others were disciplined for public criticism of a faculty member. The Thakins immediately launched a boycott of the all-important final exams by physically blocking the entrances to the halls. Other students who didn’t belong to the group joined the boycott, because they were delighted at the opportunity to escape the exams. Finally the authorities gave in and reinstated the Thakins. As in other times and places, the university had become a training ground for future revolutionaries.

In 1940 Ba Maw got together with the Thakins, and they formed an ultranationalist coalition called the Freedom Bloc. By now, World War II had begun in Europe, and the Freedom Bloc announced that it would only support Britain’s war effort if there was real progress toward independence. The Freedom Bloc’s leaders were accused of treason and imprisoned, but thirty Thakins, led by Thakin Aung San, escaped to Japan. There they formed an army, called the Burma National Army, which would return in 1942 to help the Japanese drive the British out of Burma. As for Ba Maw, he stayed locked up until the Japanese freed him in 1942, so he would also be on Japan’s side in the war.

Aye Yay Yay, we’re talking about World War II already, and I promised to save that for future episodes, so it is time to end this episode. Now that we’re caught up on Burma before the war, where else do we need to tie up loose ends? Well, we haven’t talked about the Dutch colony in present-day Indonesia since Episode 22, so we will go there next, and finish our discussion on how the Dutch ran the world’s largest archipelago. And because the Dutch, like the British in Burma, didn’t do a very good job running their colony, we will see the development of nationalism in those islands, too. Join me as we meet another player who will become important later in the twentieth century, Sukarno.

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Source of 90-Kyat bill: