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What is Post-colonialism?

An introduction to the meaning and complexity of post-colonialism.

Post-colonialism is a period of time occurring after colonization of a country by a foreign power has ended. Depending in part on the nature of the decolonization process, the immediate post-colonial period may be more or less traumatic for the people involved. For example, decolonization in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was only achieved as the result of fierce wars against the colonizing power (France) by the revolutionary communist forces that most represented resistance. In those countries, post-colonialism at first was characterised by turmoil, repression and violence. On the other hand, decolonization after WWII by the British government in Malaysia and Singapore, for example, was much less stressful because it followed periods of negotiation and preparation. There were still problems, certainly, but these were not as severe as they might have been.

One of the main results of post-colonialism is that it grants independence to geographical units which were organised for the convenience of the colonizers and not the colonized. As a result, decolonization can reveal strong differences in terms of ethnicity or religion that had previously been suppressed by the firm rule of the colonizers. One clear example of this was post-Empire India, which then suffered the horrors of partition as Islamic states were created in Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) amidst considerable violence. This does not mean that the colonial period should have continued; it means that it should never have started in the first place.

The post-colonial period involves not just the creation of national governments, the creation of institutions and the settlement of borders, it also involves the creation or recreation or even invention of national culture. Under colonization, it is generally the colonizing power’s culture, language and customs that are privileged: in British Burma, for example, Burmese had to speak English to obtain good state sector jobs and generally had to compete with Indian people imported to run the civil service. Once these restrictions have been lifted, the people have the opportunity to return to their own language, their own forms of cultural expression and so forth. One problem of this is that, for various reasons, English in particular has become a global language and so post-colonial societies that prefer to speak an indigenous language and reduce the use of English also reduce the competitiveness of their economy and their workers in a globalised world. There are many very complex issues in this regard which operate at the individual and the societal level.

In terms of economics, the colony is generally organized so as to extract resources which are exported to the colonizing country for consumption there. Principal cities, therefore, are built on the coast where ports exist and good communications (roads and rails) link the cities with economically important areas of agriculture or mining. In a post-colonial state, the new government may wish to change the nature of its economy so it does not continue to be reliant on the colonial master, although there may be no easy alternative in the short or medium terms.

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