Professor Sar Desai’s Southeast Asia: Past and Present professes to be ‘a broad survey of trends and currents in the historical panorama of the region’. Southeast Asia, with its area spread over nine modern states, its diverse ethnicity as well as its several centuries’ old history, poses a formidable challenge for a historical study of this scope. The author can¬didly admits that ‘there are bound to be gaps in informa¬tion’ in his writing of the indigenous history and interpretation of western influence on the region over the last two centuries. ‘Modern history writing is not just a record of every event’, says Sar Desai, at best it is ‘a reflection upon the more significant of the happenings.’ This proposition, however, can pose a serious problem in the absence of a standard yardstick by which to measure what one assumes to be the ‘more significant hap-penings’.
The book, divided into four major parts and containing twenty-eight chapters, begins with a refreshing interpreta¬tion of the region’s early his¬tory. Here Sar Desai differs from Western historians and scholars (such as J.C. Van Leur, D.G.E. Hall and John Cady) who have dealt at great length with the modern history of Southeast Asia, presenting the pre-European period as a prologue to colonial rule: In other words, the pre-European stage of the region’s history is not placed by them in a pers¬pective that would enable a student to understand the compulsions, circumstances, and dynamics behind coloniza¬tion by the West. Asian his¬torians, on the other hand, tend to interpret the historical development from a narrow Asia-centric perspective. Ad¬mittedly, neither of these two interpretations is satisfactory. Sar Desai succeeds in present¬ing a more balanced interpre¬tation and brings into his study the cross-currents of intra-Asian influence, predominantly that of China and India. While the evolving political culture was significantly China-oriented, at the spiritual and religious levels Southeast Asian societies reflected the influence of the Indian sub¬continent. Thus, the impact of Islam in South Asia during the medieval period was im¬mediately experienced by ‘insular’ Southeast Asia. Simi¬larly, when European coloniza¬tion extended to South Asia, the links that India had with ‘insular’ as well as mainland Southeast Asia paved the way for the process of European colonization of the region.
Aspects of the ups and downs in the colonial interlude of Southeast Asian history are competently surveyed in the second part of the book. The author describes at length the British trade interests in China and India which the British pursued profitably from their footholds in Burma, Malaya and Singapore. Following the Napoleonic wars, with the emergence of a balance of power in Europe, British ceded much of those areas in South¬east Asia which had been colonized earlier by other European powers like Portugal and the Netherlands.
The third part of the book is devoted to the rise of nation¬alism in Southeast Asia. The author over-emphasizes the role and impact of western education and thought on the leaders of the independence movement. As an Indian, Sar Desai must be aware that—whatever the degree of Western influence in Indian nationalism—the emergence of the Indian independence movement cannot be ascribed to this alone. In several of the Southeast Asian countries, western ideas played a limited role in the formation and consummation of nationalist movements. The author him¬self acknow-ledges that in the case of the Indonesian in¬dependence movement, during the 1920s for instance, the influence of Indian nationalism is evident in the fact that the PNI, the most powerful nationalist organization, ‘at¬tempted to bring all non-Communist elements under its fold in a non-cooperation movement on the lines of the Indian National Congress.’ The significance of Asian nationalism in general and Southeast Asia in particular is that it was a subterraneous trend which, in the aftermath of the two traumatic World Wars, surfaced to its inevitable culmination. If the inevitabi¬lity of Asian nationalism had been foreseen and accepted by the West, Southeast Asian countries could have avoided the rise and spread of Com¬munism.
In the final section Sar Desai, in as many as nine chapters, deals with contemporary deve¬lopments in these newly emerging Southest Asian countries. The problems of the region are complex but the author, adopting a narrow two-dimen-sional approach, states that the tasks confront¬ing these emerging nations were ‘two-fold’ in nature: ‘liquida¬tion of the foreign domination … political and social’ and the nation-building effort of ‘creat¬ing a political economic framework’—with a view to meet¬ing both internal and external challenges. The difficulty of executing these tasks was fur-ther compounded by the out¬break of the Cold War. The confrontation between the two Super Powers and the inter¬necine ideological differences within the Communist world resulting in the Sino-Soviet-schism, with all three compet¬ing to extend their area of influence in the region, presen¬ted external challenges so overwhelming that the task of nation-building had to be given a secondary place. Placed in such a predicament, the leaders of Southeast Asia were unable to evolve a policy which met both external and internal exigencies. The author’s description of Suk¬arno as ‘stubborn and over¬reaching in his demands’ re¬flects a lack of under-standing and appreciation of the pro¬blems confronted by the leaders of the region. It is gratifying, therefore, to note that in the case of Vietnam, Sar Desai unreservedly agrees that ‘United States’ action(s) completely contradicted their statements and were primarily responsible for the unfortunate events of the next two decades in Vietnam.’ Such reflections, however, are few.
With a fairly exhaustive bibliography of secondary source material appended, Sar Desai’s Southeast Asia could certainly serve as a standard classroom textbook in history. Its implicit claim that it is a reflective work is somewhat exaggerated.
Jayasbri Deshpande is Lecturer in the Department of History, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi, Delhi.