The Context in Colonial Asia


Most of Asia has been colonized for 150 years. Even countries like China and Thailand that were not legally colonized had to change their economic and legal systems to suit the needs of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. These changes were felt, firstly, in the nature of the economy imposed on them. Each colonizer allotted a specific role to the countries in Asia it colonized. Common to all of them was that they were turned into suppliers of bullion and raw materials for the Industrial Revolution in Europe and as captive markets for its finished products.

To ensure that they adhered to this role, their land laws and ownership patterns were changed to suit colonial needs for transferring revenue for administration and the Industrial Revolution and for providing land for plantations within each colony. This also involved introducing monoculture in many countries, for example, sugar cane in Indonesia, and transforming them into exporters of a single product. Thailand, for instance, was turned into a producer of rice. Other commodities, like fisheries, were discouraged.

A consequence of new land laws was that the landless agricultural laborers who had until then lived in a system based on the exchange of labor lost the material security they had without any addition to their social status. In Europe, such excess labor was absorbed in the new factories that were established as part of the Industrial Revolution. The colonies, on the contrary, were not only not industrialized but were even deindustrialized in order to support industrialization in Europe. The excess labor that became available was exported to other countries as indentured workers under slave-like conditions. In other cases, they became plantation and mine laborers within their own country under inhuman working conditions.

Asia, colonized by Europe and later by Japan, therefore, became a source of cheap raw materials and cheap labor for the occupation forces. Thus, the foundation of the present debt trap was laid by converting the colonies into subordinate economies. The colonized peoples were also used as soldiers to fight colonial wars elsewhere in Asia and Africa and the internal wars of the colonizing countries, for example, the two World Wars. The financial system of these countries was adapted to suit colonial needs, and they were made to subsidize colonial wars and administration in manyi other ways, not only financial but also in the form of food, timber for shipbuilding, etc.

The forest laws were changed for this purpose, and the foundation of ecological destabilization was set. Rural villages, particularly tribal andl other indigenous communities, were the worst affected by these changes. They had maintained biodiversity until then and had developed a culture of sustainable development by using resources according to the needs of the community and to preserve them for future generations. The transfer of these resources to the State through a legal system that did not recognize community rights over these resources but only individual rights deprived them of their livelihood and resulted in their impoverishment and marginalization. Community control over the resources gave women a share in their control and in decision making. The introduction of individual property transferred all power to men who came to be considered the heads of families.

The colonizers ran the colonial administration with the help of the local elite that collaborated with them, thus, resurrecting the dominant classes of the feudal system that existed before the coming of the colonizer. Colonial education was introduced to reproduce in them colonial values so that they might become agents to transfer the commercial value system to the masses in order to make the finished products of the Industrial Revolution respectable. The religions and cultures of the colonized peoples were devalued and degraded. The economic exploitation of these colonies was therefore legitimized in the name of civilizing education, just as the preceding feudal colonialists had legitimized it in the name of evangelization.

In countries that attained peaceful independence, power was transferred to this elite. They have continued the colonial economic and legal system to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of the poor. The international economy retains its colonial character with most poor countries being producers and exporters of raw material and cheap labor and the former colonizers producing manufactured goods. The debt trap in which most poor countries have fallen is the result of these unequal relationships. The elite to which power was transferred is continuing this unjust system. They also use religious, caste and ethnic identity to keep themselves in power. As a result, in many former colonies, one witnesses the birth of religious fundamentalism and caste and ethnic conflicts.

Based on this analysis of the colonial and neo-colonial experience, the former colonies are justified in demanding compensation from the colonizers who have destroyed their economies. In order to ensure that justice is done to the colonized peoples, we demand that their foreign debt be canceled immediately. Afterwards, the human, material, social and cultural losses suffered by them should be quantified, and the debt the North owes to them should be calculated. The cultural artifacts, manuscripts and other riches taken away from them and now lying in the museums of Europe and the Americas should be identified and restored to them. The colonized peoples, for their part, should rebuild their injured psyches and rebuild a new system in which the poor have basic rights, women attain their dignity and the environment is regenerated for sustainable development.

(Ed. note: The description of the colonial context ofAsia below was prepared following discussions among participants at the African and Asian Forum on Spirituality. Jubilee 1998, July 1994, Colombo, Sri Lanka.)