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Southeast AsiaThe Structure Of Westernization In Southeast Asian History

Most scholars have approached the structure of Westernization in Southeast Asia as a process that has developed over stages and varying intensities according to location, internal receptiveness, and the circumstances in which the encounter took place. One of the most important mechanisms contributing to the transmission of Western culture to the region was trade. In this context, trade consists of the movement, over the centuries, of peoples, goods, and ideas between the Mediterranean, Bengal, and Southeast Asian waters. With this in mind, Western interaction with Southeast Asia can be organized chronologically into four stages.

In the first stage, labeled Early Maritime Influence (1511–1670), initial contacts were made through the agency of European and Southeast Asian traders. The nature of interaction here could be described as minimal in terms of cultural penetration, but certain important technological exchanges did occur. During this period the Portuguese and the Spanish began to make headway into the region, securing the regional port of Malacca in the case of the former and Cebu in the case of the latter. The Dutch also began to initiate activity in the Southeast Asian waters, but powerful Muslim states and trading networks still continued to thrive, producing minor levels of exchange. Although Portuguese firearms would contribute to the reintegration of the Burmese kingdom in the 1550s, European influence was marginal on the Southeast Asian mainland.

By 1670, Dutch penetration of the regional trade networks intensified as they slowly began to involve themselves in internal political issues of succession and power relations. Under this second stage of Accelerated Influence (1670–1820), the main Muslim kingdoms disintegrated and regional trading networks fragmented as the Dutch (in particular) increased their influence in the island interiors. Similarly it is during this period that the Spanish increased their role in the Philippines, inserting the religious-political structures that would become the foundation of their strong presence among the local communities there. While the islands of Southeast Asia were beginning to be exposed to Western technology, religion, and economic pressures, the mainland on the other hand was left on its own, as the spices and other natural resources of the island world continued to draw Europe's attention.

By the early nineteenth century, however, the mainland was to bear the brunt of new European initiatives in the form of Full Scale Conquest (1820–1870). Because of European political maneuvering and competition, and the promise of the Chinese market, mainland Southeast Asia was conquered during this period by the British (Burma) and the French (Indochina). With the establishment of colonial governments, mainland Southeast Asian communities were slowly integrated into new economic, political, and ideological shadows of empire. For the most part, because of the limitations of military operations, coastal sections of the mainland were more intensely affected than the interior, leaving the people in the latter area and their ways of life somewhat unaffected.

With the opening of the Suez Canal, the improvements in steam technology, and the development of the telegraph, Southeast Asian societies experienced an intensification of Western influence under High Imperialism (1870–1942). Because of changing world demands for natural resources, the potential for capital from the taxing of local populations, and the influence of new theories of European cultural superiority, Europeans began to actively pursue and initiate programs designed to colonize the consciousness of ordinary Southeast Asian people. Colonial bureaucracies, churches, schools, and other institutions produced a consolidated view of the world that placed European civilization at the peak of humanity's development, self-justifying the role and influence Europeans had on indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia. New standards of language, authority, health, and knowledge were produced, professed, and dictated that fundamentally questioned the role and place of indigenous values and beliefs. Throughout the region, colonialism would change the character of Westernization by restructuring the nature of this global exchange through the reduction of local autonomy.

Yet the contribution by Southeast Asians to the shape of Westernization was not minimal in any regard. Southeast Asians adapted, modified, and reshaped colonial influences to fit their needs and concerns—just as they had done for centuries through Indianization, Sinicization, and Islamization. Colonialism produced a particular body of knowledge and symbols that were consciously (and at times unintentionally) adopted by indigenous elites in order to improve local power and prestige. The idea of nationalism in Southeast Asia developed in just this manner, through local innovation and appropriation of ideas either introduced in schools or through the mechanics of the civil service. Southeast Asians contributed to the construction of what was Western and especially what was not—by identifying and constructing elements of "traditional" Southeast Asian culture (using Western modes of knowledge production) that might stand independent of Western influence. In the case of Thailand, the monarchy actively engaged European education, nation-building, and popular culture in order to transform itself into a modern country based on European definitions. Though not formally colonized, it initiated reforms that paralleled colonial legislation in British Burma, French Indochina, and Dutch Indonesia. In short, Westernization was as much a part of Southeast Asian regional processes as it was an encounter between cultures.

In postcolonial Southeast Asia, the nature of engagement continued in much the same way, though the colonial powers were no longer formally (except in the case of Vietnam) dictating the nature of this exchange. Southeast Asians continued to view Western technological and economic influences with interest in some cases and distrust in others. Burma withdrew into itself and limited interaction with what it viewed as the colonial "West," though it continued to adopt certain principles of European economic planning in order to craft a locally sensitive state policy called the "Burmese Way to Socialism." Because of its history of direct colonialism and the disruption of its most important cultural institutions, Burma's postcolonial history has viewed Western influences with considerable hesitation. Understandably, measures to "de-Westernize" or decolonize itself have even included changing the nation's name back to its precolonial form, Myanmar. In contrast, Thailand's autonomy throughout the age of High Imperialism has left it more culturally secure, with its institutions intact, and less wary of Western influences. While sharing a similar historical and cultural trajectory as its Western neighbor, it has chosen a completely different path from Burma, choosing to adopt Western forms and ideas at a ferocious pace while at the same time applying adjustments along the way. In short, the intensity of colonialism has affected the intensity of the response to colonialism and its cultural features.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz BiographyWesternization - Southeast Asia - Approaching Westernization In Eurasian History, The Structure Of Westernization In Southeast Asian History, Shaping Westernization In Southeast Asian Studies