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James M. Fenwick

Plunder in Southeast Asia

(April 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 127–128.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Foreign Capital in Southeast Asia
by Helmut G. Callis
Institute of Pacific Relations, New York City 1942, 120 pages.

Unless it has been destroyed by the Japanese as part of their propaganda campaign to win over Javanese support to the “New Order” in the East, there stands in Batavia, Java, a barbaric stone monument to Dutch imperialist exploitation of the Indies.

The monument, one of those serene expressions of the municipal artistic afflatus, consists of a skull cleft with a spear, and mounted on a wall bearing the following inscription in Dutch and Malay: “As a detestable memory of the punished traitor of his country, Pieter Elberfeld, it is forbidden to build or plant on this place from now on. Batavia, April 1722.” The crime of Pieter Elberfeld lay in arousing the natives against their Dutch masters.

The monument bears eloquent witness to the character of the Dutch rule in the East Indies. Detailed data in English on Dutch rule in these fabulous islands has, however, been surprisingly meager up to the recent past. The same holds true for other colonial possessions in Southeast Asia. It was only with the swift overrunning of the area by Japanese troops that bourgeois ideologists began to bring the area into intellectual focus.

The book under review is one of a series published by the Institute of Pacific Relations on its specialty, the Far East. Its books, as a whole, are products of good bourgeois scholarship. As such, they are a welcome relief from the superficial “I-felt-it-with-my-very-own-nerves” sort of journalism the market is currently deluged with. The Institute’s publications are worth the serious attention of every Marxist – though almost wholly for the factual material contained therein. This holds for Callis’ Foreign Capital in Southeast Asia.

The analytical portions of the book serve only to reveal once more that bourgeois scholarship, with all its alleged objectivity, with all its antitheses in exquisite opposition, is only a more sophisticated apologia for the existing bourgeois order.

A “Terra Incognita”

The book offers nothing strikingly new for the Marxist, but it does give valuable data on an area of imperialist exploitation about which there has been comparatively little information available. The field covered includes the following colonies of Southeast Asia: the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, Formosa, British Malaya, Thailand, French Indo-China, Burma.

The dominance of finance capital in the colonies, one of the salient characteristics of capitalism in our era, is revealed throughout the book. In Japanese-controlled Formosa, for instance, “... six corporations produce 95 per cent of all the sugar that is produced on the island ... Through their cartel organization, the sugar manufacturers regulate prices and production in order to eliminate competition and to maintain profits.”

That such practices are not merely a cunning device of the wicked Japanese capitalists but are a universal imperialist phenomenon is shown by the following passage on the teak industry in Thailand, where two-thirds of the teak holdings are in British hands:

“Eighty-eight per cent of the teak industry is in foreign hands, 5 per cent under governmental control and 7 per cent worked by private Siamese individuals,” including some old Lao princes and certain local license holders. But only the great foreign corporations undertake the exploitation of the teak forests on a large scale. The number of small concessionaires has been constantly reduced, since they could not carry the financial burden.

The same condition obtained in French Indo-China:

In 1936 an area of 314,000 acres was planted with rubber in Indo-China and only about 3 per cent of this acreage was in the hands of small Asiatic owners. The really great concessions – approximately 45 in number – which are administered by eminent French colonial corpora-lions ... cover several thousand hectares each. The present value of French rubber holdings in the colony has been estimated to be over one billion francs. [1]

International Cartels

In consonance with the advanced stage of development of capitalist economy, Asiatic colonies and their imperialist exploiters are linked together through international cartels. The British, for instance, by means of the “Royal Dutch-Shell combine, through Shell ... hold 40 per cent of the capital of the two main oil companies, of the Batavian Company for production, and the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company for marketing.” The British stake in the Netherlands East Indies oil production was recently estimated at twenty-six million pounds sterling! [2] Similar ends were achieved by international agreements restricting production, such as the one restricting the production of tin, signed in 1937 by Belgian Congo, Bolivia, French Indo-China, Malaya, Thailand, the Netherlands East Indies, and Nigeria.

International cartels did not lessen international economic tensions, however. Sparks have flown in more than one collision between Britain and the United States over tin-smelting rights, rubber restrictions, etc. Only the all-menacing economic penetration of the Japanese prevented more serious explosions.

The book demonstrates clearly how colonial government is the agent of what the author terms the “metropolitan” exploiter country, bending everything to serve the economic aims of the latter through the erecting of tariff walls, building railroads at the expense of the native population, maintaining the native population in subjection, etc.

The Golden Stream

Naturally, the profits have been handsome. In Formosa: “The rates of profit of the Japanese corporations have averaged 30 per cent. Their dividends have seldom been lower than 10 per cent.” In Burma: “The yearly average dividend of the oil company [the Burmah Oil Co.] on its ordinary shares was 21.8 per cent between 1928 and 1938.” (Note that this covers the worst years of the depression, particularly severe in the colonial countries.) In the Netherlands East Indies: “‘... from one-fifth to one-tenth of the population of the Netherlands is either directly dependent on, or indirectly interested financially in the commerce or industries of Netherlands India.’” (This is probably a moderate calculation.) These super-profits are wrung from a native population which is thereby reduced to economic prostration. Glimpses of the conditions of the native populations can occasionally be caught through the web of the text. In Thailand:

The rice cultivators are heavily indebted and have little or nothing to spend. What little money the lower classes have they bury in the ground or convert into jewelry, while the upper classes are said to send money abroad. “Common gossip gives the foreign deposits at many millions of pounds sterling.”

It is interesting to note that out of a population of fourteen million in Thailand about 3,000 pay income tax.

Formosa neatly illustrates some practices common to the whole area in one form or another: “Administrative and legal means also helped to increase Japanese holdings. The confiscation of all lands and forests for which no written title deeds could be produced is one example of such measures.”

Under such conditions, the struggle of the native masses against their enslavement is bound to make its presence felt, even in a book such as the one under review. And surely enough, running like a dialectical opposition through the entire book is the echo of the insistent voices of the Far Eastern masses.

For this reason, Carl F. Reiner in his introduction feels constrained once more to exorcize the demon of socialism. This he does very glibly, utilizing a convenient fiction of his own creation, a nationally limited, state-capitalist specie of “socialism.” Equally glibly he solemnly advances the following solution for a colonial world crushed by the yoke of finance capital:

We are thus driven to attempt integration by other methods than force. In international relations the state is better adapted to integration by force than to integration by persuasion. Some entity less than the state must be trust with the task of integration if it is to be accomplished by peaceful methods. The business corporation offers the possibility of peaceful integration, and the more so because it is conceivable that the “international” business corporation may at some future time be brought under international control in the general world interest.

The man, it would appear, lives according to the well-known credo of Tertullian: I believe because it is impossible.


1. The good author seems to be a bit dubious concerning the significance of statements such as these. He notes cautiously: “In Malaya as in other colonial areas of Southeast Asia, the metropolitan power is the leading nation in entrepreneur investment. This adds weight to van Gelderen’s opinion that business investments are a form of colonial expansion”! Surely, if this man were a surgeon, he would treat persons for headache by drilling a hole in the skull to let the demons out.

2. Under the circumstances it seems only decent for the British to give Queen Wilhelmina and her hangers-on, now in Canada, bed, board, and, on occasion, an extra-territorial lying-in chamber.

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