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Book Review


Frey, Marc, Ronald W. Pruessen, and Tan Tai Yong, editors. The Transformation of Southeast Asia: International Perspectives on Decolonization (Armonk: M. E Sharpe, 2003). 358 pp, $27.95.

     Southeast Asia does not figure prominently in most World History survey courses, even when it comes to the critical period of decolonization during the Cold War era.  For example, most courses completely neglect Indonesia, despite the fact that it is one of the largest nations in the world and possesses the world's largest Muslim population.  This new collection of essays written by experts from important research institutions in Southeast Asia, the United States, and Europe constitutes a crucial step in correcting this neglect.  Yet most importantly, this volume firmly positions the United States as an important player in the history of decolonization in Southeast Asia 1
     The authors in this volume propose to shift the traditional analysis of decolonization in Southeast Asia by moving beyond conservative political and strategic approaches to embrace the cultural and economic concerns of post-colonial scholarship. The volume's methodology broadens the accepted periodization of decolonization in Southeast Asia by extending it backwards to the late nineteenth century and forward beyond the formal transfers of power during the Cold War era.  The comparative analysis of empires and the collaborative multinational scholarship provides a careful analysis of the distinctiveness of the British, Dutch and French empires, and the particular roles played by European and American powers in decolonization. 2
     The first set of essays focus on the interplay of endogenous and exogenous factors in the decolonization of Southeast Asia, emphasizing how decolonization was affected by debates about colonialism in both metropole and colonies before WWII, by German and Japanese colonial advances, and by Dutch and French projects to create a federal form of colonial political organization. The second set of essays pertain specifically to the British role in Southeast Asian decolonization.  The authors argue for the crucial importance of the Japanese forward movement of the 1930s and 1940s in accelerating British "moves towards rationalization, bureaucratization, and building more inclusive state structures" (108). As a result of these efforts, the British were able to see their colonies as interrelated rather than discretely separate. Just as the role of Japan was a crucial factor, so were the cases of India and China, since the British envisioned India as a powerful framework for conceptualizing Southeast Asia and as a possible counter-influence to Chinese communism. Furthermore, the authors emphasize the role played by Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia by calling attention to the simultaneous fear of Chinese communist infiltration and immigrant economic power in the colonies. 3
     About one-third of the essays focus specifically on the United States, and give attention to both strategic and ideological factors. Indeed, strategic interests are not seen as the only explanatory framework for U.S. actions in Southeast Asia. Rather, cultural and ideological factors—including the American "fixation" with the "psychological underpinnings of power," the need to affirm the credibility of the American mission (218), the simultaneous commitment to freedom and fear of revolution, and the nation's belief in racial hierarchies—all receive attention. In the case of Vietnam, for example, although the United States celebrated its own exceptionalism and anti-imperialism, American views of the non-European "Other" were in fact shaped by wider Orientalist discourses shared by all of the Western imperial powers. While American condescension and paternalism made cooperation difficult and bred resentment in the area, its drive to be an agent of modernization was compromised by its insistent anti-communism, its disapproval of political neutralism, and the incorporation of racialist ideas in its discourse on development. 4
     This is a volume for upper-level undergraduates or first year graduate students in Southeast Asian history and is an excellent source of information for the lecturer when integrating Southeast Asian decolonization into world history courses.  It does not contain maps or visuals, but offers a strong perspective for advanced students written by leading scholars in the field. It assumes a good knowledge of the region's history and the debates on decolonization.  There are some flaws, such as the relative neglect of America's early involvement in the Philippines after 1898 and an insistent conceptualization by the authors of Southeast Asian peasants as apolitical. Yet the authors' awareness of the global context of decolonization and the economic, cultural, and strategic processes that framed its evolution makes this volume as an important addition to World History historiography. 5
Victor Rodriquez

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