In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonial Southeast Asian Military History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographic and Other Reference Resources
  • Military Installations
  • Colonial Military Recruitment in Island Southeast Asia
  • Colonial Military Recruitment in Mainland Southeast Asia
  • Ethnicity and Martial Races
  • Mutinies
  • Internal Security and Rebellions
  • Technology
  • Philippine-American War, 1899–1902
  • The Early National Revolutions and Decolonization
  • The Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960
  • First Indochina War, 1949–1954
  • The Brunei Revolt and the Indonesian Confrontation
  • Historical Memory

Military History Colonial Southeast Asian Military History
Michael Charney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0155


This bibliography focuses on the military history of colonial Southeast Asia from the beginning of the 20th century, the period after the late colonial wars of the 19th century covered in the Oxford Bibliographies in Military History article “Precolonial Southeast Asian Military History” by Michael Charney. By the time that most of Southeast Asia was brought under European rule at the end of the 19th century, the African interior was in the process of being carved up. The intersection of timing between African exploration, campaigning, and adventuring on the one hand, and the emergence of a large literate public on the other, meant that when Europeans imagined colonial warfare, they most likely thought of Africa and not Southeast Asia. Indeed, by comparison with Africa, colonial Southeast Asia seemed passive and uninteresting, at least until the Japanese occupation of 1942–1945. Military historians have mainly been interested in colonial Southeast Asian militaries in order to explain Japan’s easy successes in the region in 1942. Colonial Southeast Asian military history thus suffers from a weaker and more divided historiography than the fields of precolonial indigenous warfare and the military history of the region from 1942. The statuses of the armies in this period as colonial armies and of the rebels as insurgents has reinforced assumptions that both the region’s militaries and their methods of waging war do not stand out as exceptional in terms of weaponry, culture, religion, or ways that make precolonial indigenous warfare so exciting. To a degree, Southeast Asian militaries during this period were modern, subject to European drill and Western tactics, and they followed military procedures outlined in handbooks issued from London or Paris. But in ways perhaps subtler than in the past, colonial militaries in the region, in the case of indigenous soldiers, were still informed by their own history and culture, and white soldiers and officers found that accommodations had to be made with local cultural and geographical realities in military practice.

General Overviews

While precolonial Southeast Asian warfare seems unable to escape across-the-board generalizations, colonial Southeast Asian warfare seems to be completely immune to such efforts. In some ways, the military history of the region benefits from the absence of sweeping treatments, as local peculiarities can be examined on their own terms without the need to demonstrate their correspondences to an artificial regional singularity. Discussions of colonial militaries also tend to take place in imperially rather than colonially framed discussions, as in the groundbreaking Perry 1988. Efforts to understand colonial Southeast Asian experiences can be aided by examinations of imperial military experience, for as shown in Jackson 2010 (cited under Technology), the kinds of institutions involved and the means of circulation of military knowledge and organizational technology were the same throughout the possessions of a given European power. However, it has also been increasingly recognized that seeking to understand the regional context will bear fruit as well. Military historiography broadly concerned with developments in colonial Southeast Asia begins with the publication of Killingray and Omissi 1999. A little over half a decade later came the edited work Hack and Rettig 2006 specifically devoted to colonial militaries in Southeast Asia. Together these two works still remain benchmarks on the state of the field generally, although work on specific subthemes has moved substantially further in some areas. See also the examination of the military history of a particular colony over the full length of colonial rule in Murfett, et al. 1999. Work on specific colonial militaries in the 1930s and after, however, very easily loses itself in the quagmire of nationalist historiography/hagiography and postindependence developments that have very little to do per se with military history.

  • Hack, Karl, and Tobias Rettig, eds. Colonial Armies in Southeast Asia. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203414668

    The editors bring together a number of papers on various aspects of colonial armies in Southeast Asian history. The definition of “colonial” and of “military” here is broadly considered and some of the chapters would not normally fit both of these categories. The other chapters mark the state of the field at the time of publication and are included separately in the present bibliography.

  • Killingray, David, and David Omissi, eds. Guardians of Empire: The Armed Forces of the Colonial Powers c. 1700–1964. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

    This collection draws upon various examples of colonial militaries throughout Africa and Asia (it includes two out of ten case studies on Southeast Asia, alongside one on the Pacific, two on India, and five on Africa). Military historiography on Southeast Asia has followed suit and has more frequently than not pursued local case studies in the region to understand broader, worldwide imperial phenomena rather than understand colonial military history across the region.

  • Murfett, Malcolm, John Miksic, Brian Farrell, and Chiang Ming Shun. Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    This is one of the general surveys of the military history of a particular colony and country during this period.

  • Perry, F. W. The Commonwealth Armies: Manpower and Organisation in Two World Wars. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1988.

    Perry provides an overview of the military recruitment practices of the British Empire.

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