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8 Jan, 2006

Beware the new colonialism

Originally Published: 08 Jan 2006

The primary challenge facing the new generation of leaders in the developing world will be to maintain national independence against the influence and reach of global multinationals which are becoming more powerful than countries.

Unless one is a keen student of global history – and let’s face it, who really wants to become an historian anyway – there is an even chance that this phenomenon called neocolonialism will arouse little more than a yawn.

Yet, it is becoming imperative to study its history in order to recognise the signs of what is commonly positioned and marketed as ‘globalisation’.

Neocolonialism is defined as “a policy whereby a major power uses economic and political means to perpetuate or extend its influence over underdeveloped nations or areas.”

The policies and strategies used to expand the great colonial empires of the 16th to the early part of the 20th centuries are being duplicated in the 21st century, and the developing world is again falling victim to it.

The key difference is that neocolonialism is led by economic, not military conquest, with the troops of globalisation targetting takeovers of companies (especially in key infrastructure areas like transport, telecommunication, finance and utilities).

Once that happens, it is immensely difficult to undo. Large organisations like the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organization are all part of this strategy; the WTO pushes ‘free trade’ while the banking conglomerates incentivise the decision-making process with irresistible lollipop-loans.

Because Thailand was never colonised, and proudly so, its people may not know much about the history of those who were. Indeed, the legions of young people emerging from Thai universities probably see no practical use in such studies.

Their focus is primarily to amass a stack of degrees so that they can join a brand-name global multinational, thereby becoming, perhaps unwittingly and inadvertently, part of this ‘globalisation’ process.

While Thai diplomacy and astute political manoeuvring may have helped stave off colonisation, simply having plenty of rice in the fields and fish in the rivers may not have been enough of an attraction for the French, Dutch, Portuguese, British and Spanish empires that pursued the far more critical mineral and natural resources of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Both economic and religious domination were part of all colonial empires. Change the education system, social and cultural systems as well as the economic systems, and political control falls into place.

The world spends a lot of time commemorating the history of Western victories, such as those in World War II. But not much attention is paid to the sacrifices of the anti-occupation leaders and people of Asia.

These revolutions were triggered by people who refused to be hoodwinked and decided that they had enough, with a single event usually changing the tide.

The rebellion against Spanish colonialism of the Philippines gained fresh impetus with the execution of resistance leader Joseph Rizal on December 30, 1896 after being ‘convicted’ by a kangaroo court on fabricated charges.

The 55-day battle of Dien Bien Phu, which saw the defeat of the French colonial forces by the Vietnamese, is a milestone in the global anti-colonial struggle. In the battle, which lasted from March 13 to May 7, 1954, the Vietnamese were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, a man who was later to play a crucial role in the war against U.S. forces in South Vietnam.

In India, 13 April 1919 was the day on which hundreds of unarmed Indians were killed by the British occupying forces in an event known as the Jallianvala Bagh Massacre. It occurred in the holiest city of the Sikhs, on a day sacred to them as the birth anniversary of the Khalsa.

From March 12 to April 6, 1930, Indian revolutionary leader Mahatma Gandhi led the 240-mile Salt Satyagraha, also known as the Salt March, an act of protest against the British salt tax.

Taxing salt was one of many economic means used to generate revenue that supported British colonial rule. The sale or production of salt by anyone but the British government was a criminal offence.

Salt was readily accessible to poor workers, but they were instead forced to pay money for a mineral which they could easily collect for free. Gandhi’s choice of using salt as the focus of a non-violent protest met the important criterion of appealing across regional, class, religious, and ethnic boundaries.

In November 1945, thousands of Indonesians were killed in attacks by Dutch and British occupying forces. One of the major battles is commemorated on 10 November is what is known as Heroes’ Day. The area known as Batavia in Jakarta reflects this occupation and the resistance by Indonesian leaders like Soekarno and his deputy Hatta.

In Latin America, much of the revolutionary zeal firing up leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is inspired by predecessors like Simón Bolívar, who defeated the Spanish colonialists in 1819, became president of Greater Colombia (now Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador), and helped liberate Peru and Bolivia.

In the Patpong flea-market, T-shirts are sold with the image of Ernesto (Ché) Guevara, with little else being known about the physician and political activist who played a key role in the Cuban revolution.

Today, many of these resistance leaders probably would have been called “terrorists”. Even Nelson Mandela was called one by the forces of South African apartheid.

Although Thailand may never have been colonised, the fact that the 1997 economic crisis began with a speculative attack on the Thai baht should be enough to send a strong warning about the dangerous vulnerabilities posed in an era of borderless economic globalisation.

I daresay not too many MBA courses study globalisation from this angle.

Indeed, the history of colonialism needs to be studied carefully by the Europeans who like to present themselves as champions of human rights but have got plenty of historical baggage to clear.

Next time you read about those protesting against the IMF, World Bank and the WTO, try and better understand why rather than accept the line peddled embedded corporate journalists trying to dismiss them as leftist looneys impeding the progress of that great economic ‘saviour’, globalisation.

Said U.S. philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That would be a tragic shame, indeed.