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ISBN/ASIN : 0140293310
Manufacturer : Penguin Books Ltd|
Release data : 04 August, 2005
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Insightful study of the war in British Asia
Few events in the twentieth century did as much to shape the world in which we live than the fall of the British Empire. Every corner of the globe bears some stamp of its once-mighty presence, yet only now are we beginning to understand its true impact and legacy. In this book, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper focus on British rule in southern Asia -India, Burma, Malaya, and Singapore - during the Second World War, showing not just how that conflict accelerated the collapse of their empire in the region but how it set the parameters of the subsequent course it took in history.
The authors chart this progress from events immediately prior to the Japanese invasions of 1941-2, depicting a region at the crossroads of change. On the surface, British rule continued in the routines of rule that had existed for decades, with colonists engaged in their intricate social rituals at the top of a racially stratified society. Yet beneath these placid assumptions, a growing nationalism was beginning to erode the sureties of the British presence. Bayly and Harper's coverage of these groups is one of the many strengths of the book, as they describe the numerous racial groups and the complicated politics of their interactions with impressive breadth and confidence.
Japan sought to exploit this nationalist sentiment by posturing as liberators seeking to create an 'Asia for the Asians.' Yet the success of their conquest was due more to British weakness than the success of any Japanese appeal. Stunned by the rapidity of the Japanese advance, British forces collapsed in a matter of weeks, irreparably damaging the imperial prestige upon which much of their rule rested. Racial attitudes only exacerbated tensions, as white colonials often 'pulled rank' in their eagerness to escape the Japanese onslaught. The memory of this would color relations in the region for years after the war.
Though the Japanese advanced as far as northern Burma, overstretched supply lines and the annual monsoons brought an end to their offensive in the region. Yet with their forces shattered and their resources strained, initially the British could do little to dislodge them. Here the authors turn their attention to the suffering brought about by war, particularly a devastating famine in India, the result of wartime disruption, a devastating cyclone, and British misgovernment. With tensions high and many leaders of the Indian National Congress in prison, the Japanese tried to take advantage of the situation by sponsoring an Indian independence movement under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose. Yet this, like their efforts in Burma and Malaya, soon fell victim to the brutality and abuse of Japanese rule, which alienated the native populations and fueled resistance throughout the region.
With the failure of their U-Go offensive in the spring of 1944, the end of Japanese rule was increasingly apparent to the peoples of the region. Yet even as the British prepared to reassert imperial rule, their former subjects were positioning themselves for independence. Here the authors illustrate both how much the experience of war had changed the region and how blind the British were to these changes. For all of the insincerity of Japanese motivations, the rhetoric of independence and the creation of local military forces had fanned nationalist hopes and accelerated what ultimately became an irreversible end to the British Empire in Asia.
Bayly and Harper have provided an excellent history of the war in southeastern Asia and its role in decolonization. The breadth of their coverage is impressive, particularly in their examination of Asian perspectives towards both British and Japanese rule - something all too often absent in histories of the conflict. Though the narrative often suffers from stilted writing, the insightful analysis the authors offer more than compensates for the lack of polish in the prose. In fact, the abrupt termination of their account with the end of the fighting left me hoping for a follow-up volume that tracks these developments to their eventual conclusion - independence and the creation of a new Asia.