- Reconsidering World Wars Won (and Two):Recent Books About Burma and Southeast Asia in the Context of Great Wars
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To reconsider World War in Southeast Asia in general is to question the relationship between military history and political transformation, inevitably transcending nationalist approaches to the subject. Two new books offer valuable new insight on the subject: how a world history approach can be valuable to consider Southeast Asia's role as a region in the context of the First World War; and the challenging, contradictory expectations placed on twenty six international war correspondents during the 1942 allied retreat from Burma.
Streets-Salter's book, drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources weaves Southeast Asia's role into the picture of the First World War, often characterised, and therefore studied as primarily a European war. Indeed, as a region, Southeast Asia is described as "not a major player." But this does not mean that it was not affected by the war, nor that its contributions were negligible. In addition to thinking about Southeast Asia's importance because of its location and geopolitics, the stories of sedition, conspiracy, and arms smuggling during this period challenge archetypical notions of metropole/colony relationships, the latter of which, as the author rightly points out, have tended to dominate the historiography of empire (Streets-Salter, 5).
In addition to the Introduction and the Conclusion, World War One in Southeast Asia contains six chapters, or case histories of transnational conspiracies for sedition in the region during the Great War. These include: 1, The Singapore Mutiny of 1915; 2, The Defeat of the Singapore Mutiny; 3, Germans, Indians, and the War in the Dutch East Indies; 4, The S.S. Maverick and the Unraveling of a Global Conspiracy; 5, Siam and the Anti-Allied Conspiracies; and 6, China, Germany, and the Viet Nam Restoration Association. From these cases across the region, readers learn about how transnational German networks sought to arm and to stoke uprisings through both funds and propaganda; as we learn as well, neutral (or provisionally neutral) states in Southeast Asia served as important transit points and shelters for anti-colonial nationalists to connect with European conspirators. [End Page 414]
The truly transnational span of the conspiracies is illustrated in the many case studies, but to give readers a taste of this, especially in the context of Burma Studies, the story of the S.S. Maverick is particularly compelling. The ship, evading inspection, departed California with a lood of ammunition as well as five Sikhs of the Ghadar Party, with a cargo of revolutionary literature to boot. Their networks, from the US also extended to cities in Southeast Asia, and they saught to take advantage of the neutrality of the Dutch East Indies. The plan was to meet with the schooner Annie Larsen to transfer more arms, though the rendezvous eventually failed. The mobilization of resources was due to German-Indian collaboration against the British (Streets-Salter, 116) and ultimately the conspiracy's failure to succeed offers an example of increasing security regimes, including those on the high seas.
In sum: Streets-Salter's work is a fantastically readable history of transnational networks of military strategy and colonial sedition during the First World War. Whereas the Second World War is often looked at as ushering in Southeast Asian states' independence, Streets-Salter's book provides solid evidence that we should not only rewind our timeline, but also broaden our scope. It was the upheavals of war which induced colonial states to reconsider their vulnerabilities in Soutehast Asia, because these same contexts allowed Southeast Asian nationalists to seek potential allies far beyond their shores.
Fast-forwarding to the Second World War, the topic of Woods' book, Reporting the Retreat is the situation of 26 war correspondents who covered the 1,000 mile retreat of the British and Chinese armies from...