World War II ended colonialism in Southeast Asia. This occurred on two fronts. The war in Europe took massive resources from the colonial empires of Western Europe, as they fought the Germans and the Italians. The subsequent devastation that occurred through Europe made them less able and willing to impose their will on the colonies after the war was over. In a Southeast Asian context, the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia completely cut Southeast Asia off from European supplies and administration. Also, the Europeans, who had been seen by some Southeast Asians as unbeatable, were shown clearly not to be invincible as the Japanese overran and occupied Southeast Asia. At times the Japanese trained Southeast Asian ethnic groups, particularly those majority groups such as the Burmans, and also gave them weapons as they wanted the Southeast Asians to fight for the Japanese war effort. This increased the fighting ability of the Southeast Asians. After Japan was defeated, the Europeans could not restore the previous status quo, and nation by nation, were all defeated by Southeast Asian independence movements.
In June 1940, the Nazi forces conquered both Holland and France. Britain itself seemed on the verge of falling. The Japanese saw this as their chance to push forward their expansion in Southeast Asia. At the same time, they wished to block the Germans from taking over the British, German, and French empires in Asia and laying claim to these major resources. The US froze Japanese assets when Japan began to press Vichy France to give its military bases in Indochina to the Japanese.1 This caused relations between the US and Japan to deteriorate further, leading to the events at Pearl Harbor.
Japan's rise to power had major effects on weakening European influences in Asia, even before World War II. In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese war, the first defeat of an European nation by an Asian nation in modern times. This increased Japan's prestige in nations such as Vietnam, and inspired Vietnamese.2 Vietnamese students went to Japan to receive educations and military training. Japan announced its Greater East Asia co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940. Essentially, this was the grounds for the new Asian empire that Japan was creating. Member states where to sell raw materials to Japan, and Japanese companies would take care of all the manufacturing.3
A number of Southeast Asians welcomed the Japanese, at least initially. It was, after all, an Asian power expanding and defeating Western interests. And it seemed to follow the Joyoboyo prophecy. In the words Professor Tagliacozzco, “after years of rule by the white race, a yellow race was supposed to come by and take over Java and the other islands. This rule was supposed to be short lived, and would lead to independence for people in the area.” Many Javanese saw the arrival of the Japanese as fulfillment of this prophecy and celebrated their arrival. Other Southeast Asians welcomed this as well. The instructions that the Japanese superintendent-general gave explicitly said, “Although the present Sacred War originated in the self preservation and self defense of empire, its essence is to rally the various peoples of East Asia and plan the construction of a new world order.” Essentially, the Japanese were promising to create a new world order in which Asians would play a prominent role. This was the appeal to many in Southeast Asia, when the Japanese war machine swept away European control. In promoting Asian cultures, the Japanese made permanent changes to Southeast Asia. While they occupied the Philippines, the Japanese promoted use of Tagalog, in official business in the Philippines4 This altered the Philippines and had long lasting effects on the islands. It tied the Philippines more deeply to the rest of Asia, and since this time period, Tagalog has remained an official language of the Philippines
The Japanese, upon their arrival in Southeast Asia, destroyed the colonial power structures in most states. The French were allowed to remain in Vietnam under Japanese direction for awhile, but even they ended up being completely removed from power and imprisoned.5 The Japanese trained groups that the Europeans never allowed to have weapons, such as the Javanese and the Burmans. They also gave nominal independence to Burma, after training an Independence Preparatory Commission, which, as Ba Maw, “would be truly representative of the peoples of Burma and their opinions.” However, the Japanese kept close tabs on the commission, not wishing to give the Burmese a true independence. As they made serious demands of the Burmese, Ba Maw countered with his own demands. The Burmese realized that rule by Japanese could be as oppressive as British rule, and organized anti Japanese resistance movements.6 Not only the Burmese, but also the Philippinos resisted the Japanese militarily with guerilla movements.7
After the Japanese were defeated, nations throughout Southeast Asia made plans for ruling themselves. The Europeans, on the other hand, came back and tried to restore colonial administrations. The Dutch tried and failed to restore their authority in Indonesia. Sukarno and Hatta had declared Indonesia an independent nation on August 17, 1945.8 The Dutch fought the Indonesians and despite their capture of Sukarno and Hatta, various Indonesian factions continued to fight the Dutch. The United States pressured Holland to end the fighting and to accept Indonesian independence, and the Dutch complied.9 After the war the US granted the Philippines Independence. The British tried to resubjugate the Burmese, when this failed they too accepted Burmese Independence.10 As for Vietnam, after World War II, they feared occupation by the Chinese, who were then led by the KMT party. They invited the French back, thinking that they would be easier to negotiate with and ultimately get rid of. The French had no intention of leaving, but after their defeat at the battle of Dienbienphu, they withdrew from Vietnam. Vietnam was divided by Geneva Agreement into North and South Vietnam; the country wasn't completely reuniting until Saigon fell in 1975, uniting all of Vietnam under the government at Hanoi.11
World War II changed a number of things around the world. It made the previous colonial regimes unacceptable not only to Asians, but even to Westerners. An example of this was the US granting the Philippines independence and pressuring Holland to stop fighting in Indonesia. It also demonstrated that the Europeans were far from an invincible force. Not only did the War in Europe result in certain European countries themselves being effectively colonized, the European empires were handed impressive defeats by the Japanese. Subsequently, this inspired the Southeast Asians to prepare to fight the Europeans. After they got additional training and weaponry from the Japanese, various groups in Southeast Asia fought the Westerners and gained additional victories against them. In a twisted sense, the Japanese achieved what they said they wanted to achieve in their propaganda. Western colonial power was broken, and it died out in big part due to their actions.
Owen, Norman G The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia
Professor Tagliacozzco's Lecture Notes
Maw, Ba Breakthrough in Burma
Benda and Larkin, Japanese Blueprint for Southeast Asia
1 Owen, Norman G The Emergency of Modern Southeast Asia Chapter 18 p.273-274
2 Ibid., p. 337
3 Ibid., p. 303
4 Owen, Norman G The Emergency of Modern Southeast Asia p. 291
5 Professor Tagliacozzco's Lecture Notes
6 Maw, Ba Breakthrough in Burma p. 322-355
7 Owen, Norman G The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia p. 290-291
8 Ibid., p. 307
9 Ibid., p. 308
10 Ibid., p. 330-332
11 Ibid., p. 344-349