Written by William P. Guzman //

Southeast Asia is difficult to capture in words. Covered by large swaths of grasslands and rainforests, the region is currently home to over 684,000,000 people. Scholars, politicians, and working people alike must understand Southeast Asia and her populations in order to approach problems of geopolitics, humanitarianism, and climate change. One cannot understand a nation, region, or people, however, without first understanding their history. Additionally, one cannot understand the history of Southeast Asia without understanding colonialism. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which colonialism shaped Southeast Asia, and many books have been written towards deconstructing the era of subjugation and forced modernization. In this essay, I seek to concisely outline some of the key ways colonialism impacted Southeast Asia in order to provide a useful reference for scholars, politicians, or a generally interested public.

First, I will examine the definition of “Southeast Asia” to illustrate one of the most enduring impacts of colonialism: the establishment of borders. Then, I will turn towards changes in infrastructure that enabled both the cohesion in the new colonies and the rise of colonial cities across Southeast Asia. Discussions of colonial cities and peasentization will lead to a brief analysis of the social changes during colonialism. I will end by looking at the rise of Nationalism and the dramatic end of colonialism in the mid-20th century, then considering how historical literacy in this topic can improve discussions surrounding difficult and divisive topics today.

It is important to understand where the term “Southeast Asia” comes from and what is meant by it. In his essay, “Southeast Asia as a Regional Concept,” Russel Fifield acknowledges that the term, “was used in scholarly literature […] some time before the outbreak of World War II.” Indigenous peoples did not have a concept linking the region together, but Europeans had used “Southeast Asia” possibly as far back as 1839. Nevertheless, use of the term rose during WWII when Allied powers used “Southeast Asia” in official war documents. Post-WWII saw widespread adoption in academic disciplines, military communication, and not least from Southeast Asians themselves, who applied the term towards building a sense of regionalism. This regionalism manifested via the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which today includes many of the largest nations in Southeast Asia.

These countries did not emerge out of thin air, however, and their territorial existence stands as one of the most enduring reminders of colonialism. Before European arrival, Southeast Asian people rarely demarcated borders. Instead, political entities functioned in what Fred Riggs referred to as the light bulb image, where a king’s influence radiated from a central source and dissipated with distance. This style of land management contrasted European nation-states, where each power clearly outlined its region.

Europeans imposed the nation-state concept onto Southeast Asians when they began colonizing. This push mainly derived from European desires to make territorial claims against other European adversaries; the British and French were feuding on the mainland while the British and Dutch were feuding in the archipelago. In his book, A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads, Anthony Reid describes how British officials, “constantly pressured Siamese authorities to negotiate an exact boundary,” and when forming Burmese borders, extended, “state space into distant mountains that it would never have occurred to Southeast Asian monarchs to covet.” We see a key ideological difference play out, as Europeans sought to capture large swaths of uninhabitable land the indigenous people never saw use in claiming. Similar trends took place in the archipelago where the British and Dutch fought for land and power. These border impositions characterized the ideological mismatch between European rule and traditional Southeast Asian ideals.

As Europeans set clear boundaries across Southeast Asia, they also implemented new infrastructure to strengthen the social and economic position of their colonies. This infrastructure largely took the form of telegraph lines and railways. European powers installed telegraph lines linking major cities and international powers making, “high imperialism and the new global order possible through unprecedentedly rapid communication.” It also “enabled resident colonial elites to be much more British, Dutch, and French.” By connecting different cities throughout Southeast Asia as well as cultural elites, telegraph lines facilitated bustling trade and new developments in elite social structures.

European powers also constructed railroads to effectively move people and cargo across the colonies. These railways, “introduced very different integrations than had been possible […] in the past.” Cities such as Rangoon were linked through railroads in ways they hadn’t been before, connecting to Mandalay, Myitkyina, and Lashio, among other places. Railways in French Indochina also had a significant impact not on commerce but on the local populations, as, “Vietnamese made up 90% of the passengers.” In this way, railroads functioned not only for the benefit of financial and colonial institutions but also for the benefit of native people. Railroads, in addition to telegraph lines, went a long way in connecting the respective colonies and also in strengthening colonies’ sense of themselves.

This new infrastructure was built around and between the new colonial cities which saw rapid development during the colonial era. These cities, however, were not dominated by the local populations but instead by European and Chinese immigrants. In the Philippine Sociological Review, Wilfrido Villacorta notes that there was “preferential treatment accorded [to] the Chinese by the Dutch,” leading to Euro-Chinese “unrivaled control of the [Indonesian] economy.” Such preference led the Chinese immigrant population to dramatically increase over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The large European and Chinese immigrants dominated the economic landscape, while natives were “stuffed […] into agriculture,” in a process that Reid calls, “peasentization.”

The Southeast Asian population grew rapidly during the early years of colonialism. Historically such population increases led to strong urban workforces encouraging growth and industrialization. European powers, however, oppressed the growing population into agricultural labor to support the export economy. This led to, “Southeast Asia becom[ing] one of the world’s least urbanized regions,”; a trend that only “began to be reversed in the 1920s.” The economy then became stratified where the local farming economy, run by natives, functioned almost independently from the bustling trade economy, run by Chinese and European immigrants. With an unequal economic structure, the economies of Southeast Asia stagnated, as immigrants got rich and natives sunk into communal poverty. 

Forced peasentization and stagnating economies also led to negative social shifts. Southeast Asian women were especially negatively impacted by colonial rule, as Reid notes that, “up until the nineteenth century, […] Southeast Asian women had more […] agency than their European (or Chinese or Indian) counterparts.” Southeast Asian women managed finances and worked in trade, as “Early European and Chinese traders were constantly surprised to find themselves dealing with women.” Southeast Asian women also frequently participated in diplomacy and the arts demonstrating that, prior to colonial rule, they were afforded substantial freedoms and autonomy.

This autonomy troubled colonial rulers, and they instituted policies to promote patriarchal structures and lower women’s status. In British colonies, officials “were dismayed by the female control of rice land,” and, “entrusted men with coffee land to reverse this pattern.” Women were pushed out of agriculture into domestic roles. Ann Stoler additionally notes that despite internal disagreements among colonial officials, one thing everyone could agree on was that “the family was the crucial site in which future subjects and loyal citizens were to be made.” Traditional constructions of family in Europe necessitated a working father and domestic mother, thus endorsing a patriarchal society. As a result, “some of the modernizing legislation on names, marriage, and inheritance explicitly required a shift to patriarchy.” Urban social structures similarly mirrored European trends, as women in higher social spheres were expected to withdraw from professional life towards developing ideal images of domesticity. At every level of Southeast Asian society, women were subjugated to typical European roles of domesticity despite a long history of Southeast Asian female engagement in politics, trade, and labor.

Subjugation of female populations reflects the relative subjugation of the population at large and stagnation of living standards throughout the twentieth century. Ann Booth analyzed living standards in Southeast Asia during the twentieth century, finding that “improvements in living standards were modest, and by the late 1930s, most colonies had low educational enrolments and high mortality rates.” Booth notes that, “given the resources [colonial governments] had or could have mobilized, far too little was done,” for local populations. Colonial governments had the power and resources to improve the social standing and health of many colonial citizens, but refused, instead seeking to improve profits. Low social mobility, enforced patriarchy, and weak institutional support culminated in a crippled Southeast Asian population with little to no improvement in living standards, highly oppressive structures, and an ineffective economy.

Despite the oppressive colonial rulers, the long-term establishment of borders, interconnection through updated infrastructure, and identification with the land through farming led Southeast Asians to identify with their colonies. Colonial governments nurtured key ideas such as territory and national identity, and as colonial citizens thus developed a sense of solidarity among those who resided in their same territory. In this way, people became more connected not only to their local community but to their entire colony.

Simultaneously, cultural and intellectual elites emerged espousing new ideas of nationalism. These elites were Southeast Asian natives educated within the colonial education system. They saw cracks in imperial justifications and built nationalist movements towards gaining independence. Early attempts towards independence, however, failed. Filipino political movements in the late 1890s sought liberation from Spanish colonial rule, but the movement was, suffocated by the United States during the Philippine-American War after the United States requisitions the Philippines from Spain. Similar pushes for independence emerged throughout Vietnam and Indonesia, but neither gained significant traction.

WWII, though, brought swift change, as the Japanese imperial Army swept through Southeast Asia, unseating long-entrenched colonialists. This disruption followed by the fall of the Japanese empire accelerated calls for independence. Some countries, such as France and the Netherlands, fought for the revival of colonial rule post-war, but other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, worked with local populations to peacefully end colonial rule. Through armed conflict or peaceful succession, most Southeast Asian nations had gained independence by the 1960s.

Nevertheless, conflict continued in the region for a large part of the twentieth century. Armed clashes took place at the hands of both former imperial powers (U.S. involvement in the Second Indochina war) and between newly emerged nations (Indonesian aggression against Malaysia). While western powers claimed to be ridding the world of imperial rule, they had to deal with their respective continued interests in the region as well as the consequences of decades of oppressive rule. Colonizers granted independence to former colonies, but the continued conflicts demonstrate the ongoing legacy of colonial rule that destabilized once vibrant populations.

In the intro to the collection The Philippines and Japan in America’s Shadow, Kiichi Fujiwara makes an important distinction regarding imperialism in Asia: while European powers were old colonizers, the U.S. and Japan were latecomers to colonialism. He makes this comparison not only to push back on a narrative of US exceptionalism, but to discuss how, post-WWII, the U.S. adopted a novel strategy of imperialism, that of the informal empire. The resulting spheres of influence demonstrate how the legacy of colonialism in Southeast Asia continues to influence modern events.  

Given the context of these spheres of influence and informal empires, we must recognize the historical and enduring impacts of colonialism in order to understand the complex geopolitical issues plaguing East and Southeast Asia. What’s more, we must be conscious of the ways colonialism goes beyond geopolitics to impact real people. By considering colonialism in Southeast Asia, we can gain the insight necessary to innovate and solve problems towards a more sustainable and equitable future. 


Booth, Anne. “Measuring Living Standards in Different Colonial Systems.” Modern Asian Studies 45, 5 (2012): 1145-1181.

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Climate of Asia.” Last modified August 24, 2022.  https://www.britannica.com/place/Asia/Climate

Fifield, Russel H. “Southeast Asia as a Regional Concept.” Journal of Social Science 11, no. 2 (1983): 1-14.

Fujiwara, Kiichi. “The Tale of Two Empires: Japan and the US as Latecomers in Colonialism.” In The Philippines and Japan in America’s Shadow, edited by Kiichi Fujiwara and Yoshiko Nagano, 1-12. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2011.

Reid, Anthony. A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads. Malden, Oxford and Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. 

Reid, Anthony. “Female Roles in Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 22, no.3 (1988): 629-645.

Riggs, Fred. Thailand: The Modernization of Bureaucratic Polity. East-West Center Press, 1966.

Stoler, Ann. “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Colonial Southeast Asia.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, no. 3 (1992): 514-551.

Villacorta, Wilfrido. “Chinese in Southeast Asia: An Introduction.” Philippine Sociological Review 24, no.1/4 (1976): 5-15.

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