Historians of Communism in Southeast Asia typically focus their efforts on the period immediately following World War II, when the shared experience of Japanese occupation and attempted return by European colonial powers makes comparisons between societies particularly interesting. Given the contemporary assumption that Southeast Asia was the frontline in the Cold War and the large number of Communist insurrections that broke out in the region soon after the war, the battle between Communism and anti-Communism is seen as central to the history of the region during this period.

However, only one of the Communist movements in Southeast Asia was successful. Even the Indochinese (Indochina is Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) Communists took thirty years to achieve their goal and paid for it with millions of lives and the devastation of their countries. The centrality of Communism to Southeast Asia's history in the post-war period lies in the significance of anti-Communism among the states of the region, following their achievement of independence on a non-Communist basis. To combat the Red tide, states pulled together to preserve their independence and integrity. Given the frequent assumption that there is a metaphysical connection between impoverished people and radical politics, the failure of Communism is what has been seen as needing explaining.

I hence will try to provide an answer to the question of why Communist movements outside of Indochina had so little success in Southeast Asia.


The Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during the Pacific War was a catalyst for great change in the region, the effects of which became clear when the colonial powers attempted to return to their past possessions. One effect was to give a new lease of life to Communist movements. Across Southeast Asia, Communist parties had been either illegal or nonexistent in 1941, clamped down on especially hard after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. However, following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and during the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, the Communist parties gained much credit for their resistance to occupation and anti-fascist credentials. Furthermore, many had been armed by the Allies and retained these weapons after the end of the Pacific War.

As the victors of the Pacific War moved to reassert authority over their old possessions, Communist movements in Southeast Asia moved to stop both capitalism and imperialism from regaining any control over their areas. However, despite the impoverished nature of societies in the region and the dislocation wrought by war and occupation, the success of these movements was far from guaranteed. As Communist insurgencies broke out all across the region in 1948, Southeast Asia appeared to be the front line in the new Cold War. But thirty years later, the only 'success story' of the Communist movements was Indochina, and this had come at the cost of millions of lives and the devastation of large areas of its three constituent states.

The Vietnamese Communists appeared to be Southeast Asia's strongest Communist movement in the immediate aftermath of the Pacific War, sweeping aside the Japanese administration in the August Revolution and declaring the existence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam shortly afterwards. This was accomplished under the banner of the Viet Minh united front which downplayed the Communist core of the movement. However, Communist control of the movement cannot be in doubt and nor was it doubted by the United States of America, who footed the majority of the French war bill after 1950. In 1954, the Viet Minh inflicted decisive defeat against the French at Dien Bien Phu just as the Geneva Conference on the future of Indochina was opening; complete independence was subsequently granted.

Then, in 1959, the North committed itself to a strategy of revolutionary violence in the South that would not end until the final victory over the RVN and its American patrons in 1975. The reasons for Communist victory in Vietnam are much debated and highly complex, ranging as they do over thirty years and involving superpower as well as regional politics. However, broad themes can be discerned that enabled the Communists to drive first the French and then an international coalition led by the Americans from Vietnam, while still maintaining their identity as a Communist movement.

The Communist movements

The first level of analysis should be of the make-up of the Communist movement itself. The ICP was a very tightly-knit and well-organised party which pursued its goal resolutely over a series of decades, never fracturing outwardly or allowing itself to be overtaken by a more dynamic national movement. This was in sharp contrast to its opponents, who were split into many fragments, such as the Asia-looking Hoa Hoa and Cao Dai (who had supported the Japanese occupation), Euro-centric Catholics, and earlier groups such as pro-French Cochinchina separatists. The regimes in the South of the country were entirely dependent on Western aid for their survival and lacked a broad support base. This disparity of legitimacy and power between Communist and non-Communist nationalist organisations was unique to Vietnam.

In Malaya, the Communist Party was better organised than that of Indonesia, but its organisation and membership base were also a source of weakness. Its overwhelming identification with the Chinese of Malaya and its majority Chinese membership meant that although it received considerable support from dislocated Chinese in the forests, it never had mass support from Malays, who were the privileged ethnos in the new Malayan state. Malayan antipathy to the Party grew rather than waned during the Emergency, when terrorist acts by the Communists were frequent. This prevented a widespread identification with the Communist movement, as occurred in the rural regions of Vietnam.

In Indonesia, the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) lacked a national organisation that was committed to violent social revolution. Although local cadres were successful in tearing down the social structure in some localities, without co-ordination or support at a national level they had difficulty instituting long-term change. This meant the PKI was mainly destructive and failed to take advantage of the vacuum of power between the end of the war and the arrival of Allied troops. Several factors militated against a social revolution in Indonesia, both from above and from below. The international Marxists who made up the leadership of the PKI judged the conditions for revolution to not yet be ripe – taking the Russian Revolution as their guide, they clung to the orthodoxy that a proletarian revolution could only follow a bourgeois one.

More pragmatically, the primary goal in Indonesia immediately following the war was to achieve the national revolution and stop the Dutch from reasserting control over their colony. A violent social revolution would alienate the support of the occupying UK and of the USA, whose pressure on the Dutch would be vital to stop them retaking Indonesia by force. Finally, the pluralism of Indonesia was a factor – there was a shared assumption among the Dutch-educated urban elite that only they could bridge the gap between Indonesia’s many diverse ethnic and cultural groups and forge a unitary national identity. To encourage attacks on this group would hence be fatal to the national revolution.

The Vietnamese Communist movement was not fatally inhibited by any of these limitations. It too contained elements, especially in poorer areas, which were considered too radical during the national stage of the revolution. But it had the ability to reel them in and discipline them until the time was right. The skill of the Vietnamese Communist movement was in being simultaneously nationalist and Communist, and camouflaging the one behind the other when circumstances demanded it. It was aided by the existence of a unified national consciousness in Vietnam, one which was proud of its history of resisting two millennia of Chinese attempts at domination and of an expansion south at the expense of neighbouring peoples. Vietnamese Communism and nationalist anti-colonialism had a symbiotic relationship, and for most of its history the Communist movement had been accepted as a legitimate representative of Vietnamese national aspirations.

This contrasts sharply with the situations already described in Malaya and Indonesia. In Malaya, the Chinese-dominated Communist Party was perceived as having loyalties divided between Malaya and China. After the formation of the Malayan Chinese Association, which worked with 'moderate' Malayan leadership to reach a compromise between Malays and Chinese, the MCP could not even claim to legitimately represent the interests of the Chinese community in Malaya. In Indonesia, Sukarno's call for the Javanese public to support either him or the Communists in 1948 showed that the public sided with him and his vision of the future Indonesia.

Structural factors

Communist movements do not exist in a vacuum and although Party organisation and leadership was certainly a factor in Vietnam’s successful revolution and the failure of contemporary movements, it is not a deus ex machina that can itself explain their results. The success of the Vietnamese Communist movement can be to a large extent ascribed to its ability to 'go rural', following the example of Mao and surrounding the cities from the countryside. The maintenance of a power base in the countryside obviously depended on the social and political conditions in rural areas. Such bases were vital to the success of both the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist movements.

The Communists were soon driven from the cities during the Franco-Vietminh war, and during the American War their support in the South was based in the countryside. The first 'liberated zone' in Vietnam was the Viet Bac near the Chinese border, where favourable topographical conditions allowed the Communist leadership to plot and harass the authorities. A strong liberated zone was unique to Vietnam, and owed its existence there to a measure of luck – the French had planned an offensive in the Viet Bac to occur just days after the Japanese coup de force. It remains to be accounted for why the Communists could become so strong in the rural areas of Vietnam while in the rest of Southeast Asia Communist Parties failed to 'go rural' decisively.

The collaboration of many local Vietnamese leaders with the Japanese during the war had lead to widespread revulsion, especially during the famine at the end of the war. This group was specifically targeted for 'land reform' and liquidation in Communist-controlled areas. On top of this, the patriotic scholar-gentry who were the traditional rulers of Vietnam had as a group become largely sympathetic to Marxism since the doctrine had arrived in Vietnam. It has been convincingly argued that the moral universe of Confucianism is receptive to the tenets of Marxism, and it hardly seems a coincidence that the two successful Communist movements in the region occured in China and Sinicized Vietnam. Antagonism between the elites in the countryside and the largely Chinese merchant class in the cities meant that they never organised together as a group, and the urban bourgeoisie mainly worked in the civil service or education and hence had little economic experience.

This meant there was no basis for conservative political action based on an alliance between town and countryside. The exact opposite occurred in the Philippines, Malaya and Indonesia. In Indonesia, the 'pemuda' armed gangs that forced violent change in the rural social structure either failed to make truly revolutionary change or displayed conservative tendencies when in power themselves. In the Philippines, the traditional social structure in the countryside proved extremely durable and returned to power after the war. Lastly, in Malaya, an alliance between conservative elements in the countryside and towns prevented radicals from decisively changing the politics of the countryside. After being driven from the towns by colonial governments or proto-nations after the war, Communists would find it very hard to survive in a conservative social structure in the countryside. As at a national level moderate politicians were able to deliver independence in Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia, the Communist challenge to authority in the countryside looked like a foolish move to destabilise the new nation and lose it the support of the anti-Communist Western powers.


This perceived need for moderation and the ability to make gains through it is the last crucial point that separates the experience of Indochina from that of other Communist movements in Southeast Asia. The path of the Vietnamese Communists was the path appropriate to Vietnam, and they were successful as much because they were recognised as national, not just because of their Communist credentials; indeed, at various parts of the struggle they downplayed these credentials. In other Southeast Asian countries, where the olive branch might work alongside the freedom fighter's gun, the Communists could be seen as wielding this gun far too freely. A protracted people's war might have worked against the Dutch in Indonesia, who did indeed suffer high casualties during their two 'police actions'.

However, the involvement of America, Britain and the United Nations in the Indonesian conflict meant that too strong a focus on violence would have undermined the Indonesian national movement; hence the Communists were sidelined. The French were as implacable as the Dutch in trying to regain control of their former territories, and in Vietnam there existed no moderate alternative nationalism which could present itself as an alternative to the Communists and negotiate with the French. Besides, the French were little interested in negotiation until a decisive conventional defeat was inflicted on them at Dien Bien Phu. Communism was successful in Vietnam because of the failure of non-Communist nationalism and its own strengths in organisation and mobilisation of the masses. This was crucial to the national as well as the Communist struggle in Vietnam, whereas elsewhere the national struggle could be based on non-Communist grounds.

In the final analysis, the failure of Communist movements in Southeast Asia outside of Indochina was usually the success of alternative nationalisms. The relationship between these two concepts was sometimes confused in Vietnam, but they enjoyed a symbiotic relationship there that was repeated nowhere else in Southeast Asia. Alternative nationalisms were not strong enough to compete, despite French and American aid to Emperor Bao Dai and American aid to the RVN. That the Communists managed to overcome such overwhelming opposition in both of the Indochina Wars shows the position of strength they were in.

The ability of Sukarno and the nationalists in Indonesia to fend off the Communist challenge and foster an alternative nationalism based on unity in diversity for Indonesia's myriad ethnic and linguistic groups showed that other paths to independence were possible. The Indochina Wars show that a Communist insurgency, especially in the climate of the Cold War, was a costly way to achieve independence. For Vietnam, it may have been the only way – but for emerging nations in which nationalism was based on something different, such as the Malay-Chinese compact fashioned by Malaya's first independent ruler, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, an alternative road without the violence of social revolution was possible. As Mao understood, a Communist insurgency in Asia could only succeed with mass support in the countryside, support which it was denied to a large extent in most countries in Southeast Asia in favour of alternative nationalisms.

Bibliography and further reading

William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam
B. Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World
D.J. Steinberg (ed.), In Search of Southeast Asia: a modern history
Marc Frey, R.W. Pruessen, Tai Yong Tan (eds.), The transformation of Southeast Asia: international perspectives on decolonisation
R. Jeffrey (ed.), Asia: the winning of independence
T.N. Harper, The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya
A. Reid, The Indonesian National Revolution, 1945 - 50
The review by S.L. Popkin of Marr's Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920 - 45 which was published in Journal of Asian Studies, February 1985