“What impact did Western imperialism and colonialism have on Asia”
That Colonialism and imperialism played a significant role in shaping the modern world and particularly Asia is a prudent judgment. Colonialism is “a policy in which a country rules other nations and develops trade for its own benefit” and “the extension of power or authority over others in the interests of domination” (2004). ‘The West’, which refers to the societies of Europe and their genealogical, colonial, and philosophical descendants. Spain, France, Britain, Canada, and the United States of America are some examples of Western societies.
These countries have spread their influence and hegemony over other nations for centuries; shaping today’s North America, Central-America, South America, Africa, Oceana, and Asia (Western Society, 2004). Indochina is a region that today we would consider as Southeast Asia, comprised of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (Indochina, 2001). Its most recent and most important contact with the West came from France and America. The West had a negative impact on Indochina because its influence damaged Southeast Asia’s system of government, destroyed and diluted the indigenous culture, caused many people to lose their lives and liberty, and set the course for future economic depressions and poverty.
Under French colonisation, the Indochinese political structure went into shambles (Hammer, 1966). The puppet governments installed after French colonization were “repressive, totalitarian, and corrupt which meant that age old traditional and cultural monarchies were replaced by despots under French influence. In little time, each country lost its own unique identity; Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam disappeared off maps and were replaced simply by ‘French Indochina’ (Vietnam War, 2004).
Only French-speaking or French-educated people were allowed to gain high positions in government, while others were treated as second-class citizens and toiled in the fields.
Opposition to these policies was punishable by exile or imprisonment. This system of government ensured absolute French political control over Indochina’s administration and contributed to lost initiative among the working class people (Hammer, 1966). This system would dominate for about a hundred years, suppressing regular riots and movements undertaken by the Indochinese people. As time went on, communism’s appeal grew stronger as the repressed saw a light in forms of promised equality, housing, education, money, and better jobs (Vietnam War, 2004).
Culture was also affected. Before French colonization, Vietnam was China’s ‘sphere of influence’. After French colonization, however, Vietnam was torn between two spheres of influence, Chinese and French. The French also imposed their influence on Laos and Cambodia. As a result, many Indochinese people became confused. They did not know whether they should embrace the new forceful French influence, or try to live their shattered pre-existing lifestyle in secrecy (Vietnam War, 2004). Hammer states, “the widely diffused Chinese educational system, teaching history and morality as well as language, which linked Vietnam with its past, was abolished.” (1966, p.63). The French did whatever they could to stuff their culture down the throats of the people of Indochina; one strategy was manipulating the education system.
They implemented a policy where all public secondary education would be taught in French, not the native language of the people (Clayton, 2002). Since the beginning, France had plans to seed their culture in Indochina. Even before colonization of Indochina, French missionaries were sent around the world to spread the French culture through mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission). This policy affirmed that it was France’s “duty to spread the ways of the superior beings to inferior beings with inferior ways of living” (Ty, n.d., para.17). In addition to implementing new policies and changing existing ones, assimilation was another method of cultural dominance. The French were not hesitant to intermix with Indochinese women and assimilate them and their children to adhere to Western ways of life (Vietnam War, 2004).
Everyday lifestyle changes were another method of ensuring cultural dominance. The French manipulated those who had power. A portion of the elite class in Indochina admired the French for their ‘prestigious’ lifestyle and converted to Catholicism, setting an example for the lower classes (Vietnam War, 2004). Literature is an important part of culture, seeing that countries keep their records, history, and information in texts which would be stored for future generations. A French missionary named Alexander de Rhodes romanized the Vietnamese language, which used to utilize Chinese symbols. This new script, called ‘Quoc Ngu’, detracted Vietnam from its original culture and China’s sphere of influence.
Quoc Ngu’s impact is so large, that it is the how the Vietnamese language is written and read today (Quoc Ngu, 2001). In the later 20th century, the Western urban youth’s rebellious lifestyle leaked its way to the Indochinese people. Many young Indochinese people embraced sexual freedom and the movies, clothing styles, and rock music from Western cultures became popular (Vietnam War, 2004). As well as corrupting the way of life for all of Indochinese people and destroying the cultural language of Vietnam, many important historical and cultural cities such as the ancient dynastic capital of Vietnam, Hue, were physically destroyed during the Vietnam War’s bombings (Vietnam War, 2004).
As most people lost their government and culture, they became restless and weary of living their peasant lifestyle. Peasants struggled under heavy taxes and high rents. Workers in factories, in coal mines, and on rubber plantations labored in abysmal conditions for low wages. A growing nationalistic fervor was growing by shared feelings of anger, poverty, destitution, and lost liberty. This fervor contributed to the formation of many revolutionary movements. Many people died, became refugees, or became homeless while trying to overthrow foreign invaders out of their country to unify their people.
The Vietnamese revolutionary group, the Viet Minh, had a prime objective to overthrow the oppressive governments and install a Communist regime to unify Vietnam. After the end World War II, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, declared Vietnam’s independence from France (Vietnam War, 2004). Minh was prepared to go at great lengths and sacrifices to achieve his dream of a unified Vietnam. “You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, yet even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”, decreed Minh himself (Karnow, 1998, para.2). The French were unwilling to give up their colony, a symbol of their world power, so they opposed this informal declaration and attempted to reassert their power back into Indochina by militarist means. This resulted in the bloody Franco-Viet Minh war where the French were defeated, but at a large human cost to the Vietnamese freedom fighters (Vietnam War, 2004).
The victory for the Vietnamese in the eight-year-long Franco-Viet Minh war was supposed to end Indochina’s colonization, and end the bloodshed to unite their people. For nearly a hundred years the people of Southeast Asia resisted and rebelled to no avail, until this landmark victory. But the bloodshed did not stop. Minh’s declaration of independence and liberation would not happen for thirty more years of fighting. The second Indochinese War, The Vietnam War, had an even greater effect on Southeast Asians’ lives.
American ‘Secret Bombing’ campaigns and countless napalm strikes lead to the destruction of many homes and at least 10 million people became homeless, and 800,000 became war orphans in South Vietnam alone at the end of the Vietnam War. Most crucially, most of these casualties were civilians. South Vietnamese civilians made up a significant portion of victims of the bombings, even though they were allied to the Americans. Entire cities, forests, mountains, and fields were laid to waste. One quarter of Laos’s population became refugees; which is approximately 500,000 people. In total, over 5 million Indochinese lives were lost fighting for their independence and freedom (Vietnam War, 2004).
Indochina’s economic problems today can be traced back to colonial times. France’s mercantilist policy exploited the land, labour, and resources of Southeast Asian countries. Indochina was simply a large pool of natural resources for French industrialists. France would get the resources it needed from Indochina, manufacture them into goods, and sell them to her colonies at inflated prices. In addition, Indochina was not an autonomous colony, meaning it could not be self-sufficient. This was intentional because France wanted to have a monopoly on trade with her colonies (Hammer, 1966). France’s attempt to industrialize Indochina only ravaged the land. The sudden shift from calm subsistence farming to large plantations lead to a precariously unbalanced economy that was extremely dependent on agricultural exports; which would eventually be disastrous because of future land degradation (State of the Environment Vietnam, 2002).
A large decline in the number of farmers was not good for agriculture, either. During the time of European domination, productions of rice grew immensely. With this increase of production came an increase in quotas that impoverished peasants had to yield to their landlords, causing widespread famine (Hammer, 1966). Hammer states, “[Both areas referring to Vietnam] In the 1930’s, at a time when the Vietnamese people did not have enough to eat, Cochin China exported rice in considerable quantities, even Tonkin managed to export some.” (1966, p. 64). Adding to the famine was the insistence that nonfood crops like jute, oil seeds, and opium be grown in certain areas instead of rice (Hammer, 1966).
Today, economic expansion is extremely difficult because of Indochina’s history. Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia rank as some of the most undeveloped and impoverished countries in the world. Strained foreign relations as a result of Indochina’s wars and its communist system of government have lead to significant decreases in foreign aid over the past decades (CIA World Factbook, 2003). Although agriculture makes up a significant portion of Indochina’s economy, Indochina cannot even rely on their agricultural economy because Vietnam’s fields, forests, and streams have been contaminated or destroyed by Agent Orange and napalm strikes. As well, Laos’s beautiful jungles consisting of exotic woods, timber, and stones are laden with millions of deadly, unexploded land ordnance, and Cambodia’s prolonged anarchy has proven fatal for any form of significant economic growth. The effect of Indochina’s hardships created by the West has even hindered its ability to pick up where it left off, before foreign influence (Vietnam War, 2004).
Even decades after formal European military conquest and intervention, Indochina continues to feel the sting of the West’s influence. Today, Southeast Asia is among the poorest places in the world, where people enjoy very little personal freedom and opportunity. Indochina’s primitive infrastructure and poverty-stricken society is burdened by its history and injured foreign relations. The future for Southeast Asia in terms of political stability, human liberty, and economic growth looks unpleasant because of on-going internal civil tensions caused by unresolved conflicts brought upon by Western imperialism and colonialism. The West truly had a detrimental impact on Indochina because it caused the collapse of Indochina’s traditional system of government, loss and weakening of its pre-existing culture, diminishment of its people’s prosperity and freedom, and destruction of its economy. Concisely, Indochina’s relationship with the West brought nothing but bloodshed, tears, poverty, famine, and a legacy of economic and social problems that will continue to plague Southeast Asia for centuries to come.