Asia’s Great War Series II: Forgotten Wars
Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper mightily contribute to a better, more complete understanding of post-war Asia, especially the geographic area they denote as “…the crescent of land that stretched from Bengal, through Burma, the southern borderlands of Thailand, down the Malay peninsula to Singapore island”, a crucial zone of interest for the fading British Empire (8). They achieve this not just through an authoritative, chronological overview of key countries (Malaya, Indonesia, India, Burma, Vietnam) in that crescent for the first few critical post-Japanese war years, but with a powerful introduction that I will here borrow generously from.
This zone was one of “…the great frontiers of modern history. For centuries it had drawn in millions of people in search of a livelihood, particularly from the ancient agrarian civilizations that bordered it. the advent of the imperial economy had created new opportunities” (8). Bayly and Harper place this brief (in some cases non-existent) ceasefire necessitated by the Japanese cessation of hostilities as the midpoint in a “Great Asian War” that had been ongoing since 1931 and “…was a connected arc of conflict that claimed around 24 million lives in lands occupied by Japan; the lives of 3 million Japanese, and 3.5 million more in India through war-related famine” (7).
The GAW “…was the most general conflict in SE Asia since the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, and the most intense since the great struggles for primacy on the mainland of Asia in the seventeenth century. And it had its serial holocausts, in the extermination of civilians, the coercion of slave labor, and mass rape” (7). It was longer than any other “hot” conflict of this century, even as violence jumped from country to country for a nearly 50 year period from 1931 to 1979.
The authors emphasize that nothing was resolved by the war, a reality not fully appreciated in some capitals across the world who discounted efforts to stabilize the numerous situations amid an understandable fixation on post-war Europe. Their description of this mother of all post-conflict arenas is searing and unforgettable:
“None of the fundamental causes of the Great Asian War had been eradicated. Imperialism, grinding poverty, and ideological, ethnic and religious conflict continued to stalk the land. In many ways they had been strengthened by the destruction and butchery of combat. It was plain to see that the war was continuing under another guise. Those huge forgotten armies of malnourished soldiers, prisoners of war, guerrilla bands, coolie laborers, sex slaves, and carpetbaggers were still on the march. They were to march on for decades more as the British Empire dissolved and new nations were born amid racial and religious strife.” (8)
The latter condition is where the authors shine brightest, ably filing in gaps and misconceptions about ethnic and religious strife and its role in poisoning early attempts at successful independence governments and equitable social relations amongst often opposed groups within the countries they examine. These embryonic failures in the womb of nationhood spawn serious headaches and spasms of violence even to this day.
Before the social fabric of these budding nations could be torn apart, the authors zoom in on a reality of governance and daily life the Europeans and Japanese never appreciated.
“The main points of arrival for most of these pioneers were the great port cities such as Rangoon and Singapore: dynamic and diverse, they were built for play as much as trade or gov’t, and the citizens were obsessed by their own modernity. They were glittering out posts of the West, where the colonial elite enjoyed a lifestyle they could never aspire to at home. Yet the lives of the Europeans, contained by their gross obsessions with race and hierarchy, barely touched the complex Asian worlds around them. The cosmopolitanism of a place like Singapore, for example, was built by Chinese, Indian, Arab, Armenian and Jewish merchants and professionals, many of whose own businesses were now regional in scope. Not least among them, and concentrated in new ‘modern’ sectors, were the Japanse: as dentists, photographers, and shopkeepers.” (9)
The authors’ insight into the British failure to understand how things had changed in four years of Japanese occupation and exploitation could be extended to all the European imperial powers.
“What the British did not immediately appreciate was the extent to which Asian nationalism had been transformed by the war.”“The Japanese war, however, had given nationalism a new face–a youthful, militaristic one. “(16)
This absence of sophisticated cultural awareness and perception would prove fatal to European efforts to retain their colonies and (later) to help them achieve a successful transition from colonized subjects to independent partners. Malaya exists as a lone exception, primarily because the British revolutionized their colonial program in the fading light of their empire (more on this in the next post about the rest of the book).
They also failed (as did the USG aside from a few highly perceptive OSS operatives in country) to comprehend what the GAW’s Japanese phase had changed about nearly every ethnic and religious group in the region. A great awakening had come to pass, with ominous implications for decades to come.
“Alongside these big nationalisms- Indian, Malay and Burmese- the war had mobilized and militarized a host of minority peoples across the vast swathe of South and Southeast Asia. It was not only the leaderships of easily recognizable minority groups, such as the Karen of Burma, who were asserting their claims to autonomy in the autumn of 1945. Other older and more shadowy entities seemed to be rising from the grave of history to plague both the would-be new imperialists and the new nationalists who were on the point of grasping independence.” (23)
The British had a date with history, whether they fully comprehended what was about to be undertaken or not. It began with a renewed push for empire and stability.
“The great crescent was to be forged anew. The instrument for this was South East Asia Command (SEAC), and the tribune of the new imperial vision was its supremo, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten…(12)”
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