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10-08-2015, 16:42

Modern Nationalism

The first stage of resistance to the West in Asia and Africa must have confirmed many Westerners’ conviction that colonial peoples lacked both the strength and the know-how to create modern states and govern their own destinies. In fact, however, the process was just beginning. The next phase began to take shape at the beginning of the twentieth century and was the product of the convergence of several factors. The primary sources of anticolonialist sentiment were found in a new class of Westernized intellectuals in the urban centers created by colonial rule. In many cases, this new urban middle class, composed of merchants, petty functionaries, clerks, students, and professionals, had been educated in Western-style schools. A few had spent time in the West. In either case, they were the first generation of Asians and Africans to possess more than a rudimentary understanding of the institutions and values of the modern West. The results were paradoxical. On the one hand, this new class admired Western culture and sometimes harbored a deep sense of contempt for traditional ways. On the other hand, many strongly resented the gap between ideal and reality, theory and practice, in colonial policy. Although Western political thought exalted democracy, equality, and individual freedom, these values were generally not applied in the colonies. Democratic institutions were primitive or nonexistent, and colonial subjects usually had access to only the most menial positions in the colonial bureaucracy. Equally important, the economic prosperity of the West was only imperfectly reflected in the colonies. Normally, middle-class Asians did not suffer in the same manner as impoverished peasants or menial workers on sugar or rubber plantations, but they, too, had complaints. They usually qualified only for menial jobs in the government or business. Even when employed, their salaries were normally lower than those of Europeans in similar occupations. The superiority of the Europeans over the natives was expressed in a variety of ways, including “whites only” clubs and the forms of language used to address colonial subjects. For example, Europeans would characteristically use the familiar form of direct address (normally used by adults to children) when talking to members of the local population in their own language. Out of this mixture of hopes and resentments emerged the first stirrings of modern nationalism in Asia and Africa. During the first quarter of the century, in colonial and semicolonial societies across the entire arc of Asia from the Suez Canal to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, educated native peoples began to organize political parties and movements seeking reforms or the end of foreign rule and the restoration of independence. At first, many of the leaders of these movements did not focus clearly on the idea of nationhood but tried to defend the economic interests or religious beliefs of the native population. In Burma, for example, the first expression of modern nationalism came from students at the University of Rangoon, who formed an organization to protest against official persecution of the Buddhist religion and British lack of respect for local religious traditions. Calling themselves Thakin (a polite term in the Burmese language meaning “lord” or “master,” thus emphasizing their demand for the right to rule themselves), they protested against British arrogance and failure to observe local customs in Buddhist temples (visitors are expected to remove their footwear in a temple, a custom that was widely ignored by Europeans in colonial Burma). Eventually, however, they began to focus specifically on the issue of national independence. A similar movement arose in the Dutch East Indies, where the first quasi-political organization dedicated to the creation of a modern Indonesia, the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association), began as a self-help society among Muslim merchants to fight against domination of the local economy by Chinese interests. Eventually, activist elements began to realize that the source of the problem was not the Chinese merchants but the colonial presence, and in the 1920s, Sarekat Islam was transformed into a new organization— the Nationalist Party of Indonesia (PNI)— that focused on the issue of national independence. Like the Thakins in Burma, this party would eventually lead the country to independence after World War II.

 

 

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