Nationalism and Nation-Building in Southeast Asia: A Comparative Discussion

Joseph C. Negrillo

Master of ASEAN Studies


                      “Nationalism – idea not ideology, taking many forms – has not only been a means to create a state: it has also been a means to sustain one, evoked in a struggle with other states or as a means to consolidate a regime or both.”

- Nicholas Tarling, 2004


It was the Manifest Destiny that brought justifications for the ‘Whites’ to colonize the ‘smaller worlds’ and bring the uncivilized and savage people into the civilized world under their tutelage.  Thus, it created the discourse of Southeast Asian political history marked by the colonization of Southeast Asian countries.  

The growth of Southeast Asian nationalism as a mass movement has different underlying causes in every country but in the regional context, the phenomenon can be explained by four main factors: (a) the rise of China, (b) end of Cold War, and (c) waves of liberalization and democratization in Southeast Asia since the 1980s, and (d) the imposition of interest of Western powers in the region, the so-called neo-colonialism.       

It was in the 1960 when all of the nations of Southeast Asia have become independent.  They achieved self-rule either through revolution and wars against the colonial masters as in the case of Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines in the late 19th century.  Another measure was through co-optation and peaceful consolidation of transferring self-rule to the native elites as in the case of Brunei, Burma, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in the late first-half of the 20th century. Offshoots of nationalism brought about significant movements in the political consciousness of Asian countries.  These are (a)  patriotic defense of national territory, (b) assertion of national identity in a seemingly complex and inter-dependent world, and (c) reconciliation and unification of people divided by the Cold War ideologies. These have resulted to the nation building and state building mechanisms of the countries.  Thus, the concept of imagined communities is very strong to the nationalist pursuit of SOutheast Asian countries.      




Philippine nationalism is manifested in the early resistance against Spanish colonizers up to the point of 1896 Revolution, spurred by Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, and eventually the anti-American imperialism in the late 1940s.  the country has experienced several hundreds of years of colonial exploitation from Spain, America, and Japan.  It was in the 1970 and early 1980s when Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines as a dictator and placed the country under the Martial Law.  Marcos, together with South Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, served as a key link to the United States.  Though Marcos committed gross violation of human rights, the US still supported him in exchange of controlling the state enterprises and strategic position in Asia by promoting capitalism in the region to supplant the communist ideals in the continent.  It brewed the anti-American sentiments of the Filipinos.  After Marcos was ousted, these anti-American ideologue transformed into a popular demand for US troops to set of the the country’s land and continued to oppose hosting of any foreign military bases in the Philippine soil.  This is a form of new nationalism in the premise of nation building by the Filipinos alone to protect state integrity and preserve the genuine interest of serving the country by the Filipinos themselves.  


Indonesian nationalist movement is directed towards the characterization of nation-building.  Just like Marcos, General Suharto’s greater accomplishment was manifested in terms of the country’s economic success.  However, we was not a close ally to US though he was a staunch enemy of communism.  Though at first he suppressed the Islamic demand and forced them to adhere to the state doctrine, he later courted the Muslims and opened up the Indonesian public sphere to them because the Islamic surge might occupy a great strength to challenge the nation building efforts of Indonesia through internal struggles.  This is also to ensure Muslim’s political participation in nation building consistent with Indonesia’s national objectives rather than continue to suppress Islamic demands.  Just like Marcos, Indonesia is much closer to the West than in Soviet bloc but rather chose not to participate in Vietnam War.  


Vietnam’s trend of nationalism is significantly different from that of the Philippine and Indonesia.  The surge of nationalism  in Vietnam is directed to China which is primarily manifested when it fought a border war with this colonial giant when it tried to occupy Vietnam in the past.  While the nationalist wars were not always motivated by Vietnamese defense against Chinese imperialism, the war between these two communist countries in 1980 was about the Vietnamese attempt to occupy Cambodia which is a close ally of China.  Until now, China continues to protect Cambodia as the latter has been deemed to have become the proxy nation and representative of China’s interest in the ASEAN agenda.  

As a form of new nationalism, modern Vietnamese leaders abandoned the socialist ideals of in their economy and reformed its economic policies by de-collectivization of goods and properties, normalization of relations with the United States, and accession to the World Trade Organization.  However,  the country is still internally socialist manifested by a lot of Vietnamese socialist nationals though the external relations does not seem so.  Security and military establishments still are top priorities for nationalist leaders to curb any form of neo-colonialism by foreign powers.  


With great resentment to its domineering neighbors,  Cambodia have long resented Vietnam and Thailand - both of which colonized Cambodia and annexed a big chunk of of the ancient Khmer Kingdom to their respective lands.  The flaring of anti-Vietnamese riots in 1970 led to mass murder of Vietnamese in the Cambodian territory.  This is a form of ultra-nationalism as the highest form of protecting Cambodian territory and identity which are necessary to achieve nation-building efforts by unifying the people and protecting the territory.  The murder of ethnic Thais and Vietnamese became acceptable, as it was widely practiced, in the Cambodian territory in the name of nationalism.  Currently, the Cambodian surge of nationalism is directed towards Thailand ignited by the burning of Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh in an event that a Thai celebrity allegedly remarked that the Angkor Wat - the very heart of Cambodian identity and heritage, is owned by Thailand.  








Acquisition of self-rule

acquired self-rule either through wars against colonial


Acquired through through peaceful transfers of rule to native elites


Bloody Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896; through peaceful transfers of rule to native elites during the granting of independence from America after the Commonwealth Government


Acquired self-rule either through wars against colonial


Charismatic nationalist leader/s

Ho Chi Minh

Son Ngoc Thanh

Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and modern political activists ranging from youth, women patriots to indigenous people leaders

Sukarno and Suharto  

Nature of nationalist movements and challenges

Western armies were defeated at the hand of Vietnamese communists cum nationalists who created a cohesive modern nation-state in the process

Nationalism chafed by totalitarian regime

Nationalism chafed by totalitarian regime which resulted to massive cost of life.  Cambodian Khmer Rouge leaders killed far more Cambodians than the French and Americans ever did.


Broad-based nationalist movement chafed by Ferdinand Marcos serving his dictatorial ambition

Model of anti-imperialist nationalism starting from the 1896 Revolution to the contemporary wave of nationalism


nationalism was intercepted by dictatorship



Contemporary trend of nationalism is seen through the non-intervention of foreign powers in state affairs and the protection of national borders, territory, and identity.  After achieving independence, Southeast Asian nations dedicated their national efforts towards nation-building characterized by pursuing national legitimacy and sovereignty devoid of imperial chaining.   The ultimate achievement of nation-building, is I argue, the making of an image of a nation characterized by sovereignty and independence. Following nation-building is state-building as a form of modern transition from independence-seeking to revitalization of the elements of the state such as its department and agencies which were once shattered by the struggle for independence.  The challenge, however, are the trends of internal nationalist struggles that wobbles down the state authority as these ethnic and minority groups demanded self-rule independent of its mother country.  Oftentimes, this causes internal strife and armed confrontations which saw considerable casualty to the civilian population.  

The imposition of foreign powers in every sovereign states must be curbed down as much as possible.  The resurgence of nationalism is very common in Southeast Asia most especially the countries in the region have experienced the political, economic, and cultural exploitation and this dark side of history should never be repeated again.  With the growing connectedness of ASEAN countries and its external partners, most especially the ASEAN+9 (ASEAN + Japan, India, South Korea, China, USA, New Zealand, Australia, Russia, and European Union), Southeast Asian countries have become more watchful of the subtle imperialistic conditions of partnership and integration most especially these power countries carry a reputation of playing tricks in luring countries under their possession and command.  The partnership of ASEAN organization to these external partners are not always deemed altruistic and mutual by the nationalists ASEAN citizens.  This idea is rooted int he premise that any time possible, the organization might become an unconditional instrument of exploitation and neo-colonization of these foreign power countries.  



Aros, Azhar Mad. ASEAN: ASEAN Countries Under Colonialism. UP Open University, Philippines. 2013.

 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. [Revised Edition]. Verso, London. 2006.   

 Tarling, Nicholas. Nationalism in Southeast Asia. Routledge Curzon. Taylor & Francis e-Library. 2004.  

Ty, Rey. Colonialism and Nationalism in Southeast Asia. File retrieved from: a href="">>. (n.d)

 Vu, Tuong. The Resurgence of Nationalism in Southeast Asia: Causes and Significance. Paper prepared for the Conference on “Issues and Trends in Southeast Asian Studies” at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan. 2010, October 22.   



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