The failure to achieve political independence of pre-war nationalism in Southeast Asia was mainly due to the interplay of nationalist factors, impact of colonial response and inherent society composition. Nationalist disunity watered down mass support which was key to success, while colonial rule hindered the development of nationalism and the nature Southeast Asian society made unification hard to achieve. Different causes had different level of significance in different countries.
Firstly, the ideological disunity among nationalist manifested through the existence of a myriad of different movements with diverging aims and methods, causing the dilution of mass support necessary for the attainment of political independence. For example, in Burma, the coexistence of the traditional-religious, radical movements led by the pongyis and moderate political movements led by the Western-educated politicians created a factious nationalism scene and this disunity was reflected in the diarchy elections in 1922 when only 6.9% of voters turned out due to pongyis boycott. Such internal divisions prevented the Burmese nationalists from exploiting British benevolence to achieve political independence. Similarly in Vietnam, as early as the 1900s two starkly contrasting approaches to the French were presented by Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh. The former believed in radicalization and retaining the monarchy as a unifying symbol of the country whereas the latter was a moderate who sought to remove the monarchy.The coexistence of contrasting movements caused an incoherent and confused nationalist front, leading to insufficient support from the masses and the eventual failure of movements.
Secondly, the inter-party disunity manifested through the narrow appeal of movements to specific groups with sectarian interests, thinning down broad-based support. This was evident in Malaya where movements were clearly divided on racial lines. The KMS focused on protecting the superior position of Malays, thus practically marginalized support from the Chinese and Indians. Concurrently there were the SCBA of the Straits-Chinese and CIAM of the Indians, each targeting to secure their own racial interests and rights. Also in Vietnam Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh appealed specifically to different target groups. The failure to establish common interests and goals as a nation instead of race and beliefs groups splintered support for nationalist movements, resulting in its failure.
Thirdly, the intra-party disunity undermined the coherence and credibility of movements, attenuating support for their causes and causing its failure. For instance in Indonesia the PKI was a promising movement that suffered from the conflicting party aims due to the regional differences. The educated inner circle focused on long-term communism goals whereas the rural outer circle was concerned with immediate impacts of colonial rule, resulting in the failed 1926 uprising and the effective end of the party. In Vietnam Ho’s ICP faced challenges from the southern Trotskyites who criticized Ho for working under the French Communist Party. The rifts existing within a party led to self-sabotage and weakened the political strength of a movement as a coherent nationalist force against the colonial powers.
Also significant was colonial suppression which incapacitated promising movements before they had time to rally support and pose a threat to the colonial governments. This was seen in Vietnam where harsh French stance caused nationalism in the 1920s to be characterized by short-lived movements, such as the VNQDD, ICP and Vietminh. These movements were left with little space to maneuver before being harshly cracked down, let alone to achieve political concessions from the French. In Indonesia the Dutch exiled key leaders to create a leadership vacuum and obscure direction...