Kim’s intriguing exploration of the establishment, operation, and eventual dissolution of lucrative opium monopolies in British and French colonial regimes in Southeast Asia reveals a process that belies the assumption that imperialist governments/enterprises were exclusively extractive and largely indistinguishable. Opium monopolies appeared in a variety of forms across Southeast Asia, but the timing and motivation (both stated and actual) varied considerably, in some cases focusing on the moral ramifications and in others, on tax revenue. Kim argues that the path to prohibition was different in each country, and less informed by the post–World War I international political landscape than by the concerns expressed and documented by local colonial bureaucrats. Those men engaged in what Kim describes as an “overlooked layer of activity undergirding high bureaucratic expressions of official knowledge” (50). The book successfully combines theoretical and methodological tools from history, political science, economics, and sociology to dig deeply into that layer.
The volume is divided into three parts: The first establishes the theoretical, interdisciplinary framework for Kim’s analysis; the second delves into more detail about three specific monopolies; and the final part analyzes the lasting impact of those institutions in the post–World War II era. The country-specific analyses move in a chronological fashion, from British Burma in the 1870s to the 1890s to British Malaya from the 1890s to the 1920s, and then to French Indochina from the 1920s to the 1940s. The final section argues that the ways in which colonial opium monopolies were both conceived and dismantled in all three cases had important impacts on post–World War II drug prohibitions and illegal drug trafficking in those countries.
Kim effectively blends the extensive archival work (in French and English-language sources) of a historian with the state-centered analysis of a political scientist, and she incorporates a sociological focus on the ways that the lower levels of colonial bureaucracies functioned. Plumbing archives in Britain, France, and the United States, as well as in former French and British colonies (today’s Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam), Kim examines the voluminous documentation of colonial governance, revealing the surprising influence of lower-level bureaucrats who were responsible for categorizing, summarizing, and deriving meaning from those documents. Such men were assumed to be “weak actors,” in comparison with top-tier colonial administrators or the world leaders and diplomats who devised international narcotics-control policies after World War I. Those lower-level bureaucrats constituted, as Kim notes, “a small group of privileged [white, male] British and French administrators [who] wrote about what they did, said, and claimed to believe” (27). However, in some cases, they managed to privilege their own observations, impressions, and anxieties over verifiable statistics, and in others, to generate actionable statistics based on those impressions. Their very presence on the ground established their authenticity and authority, and their concerns often shaped or created the problems that colonial regimes decided to address.
This volume is neither a study of the intricacies of the opium monopolies themselves nor an exploration of the social or economic consequences of opium consumption, cultivation, prohibition, or trade. Rather, the book reveals the often mundane but crucial processes by which “colonial reality” and morality were created, and how the data that informed colonial policymaking was often generated by low-level bureaucrats (107). The blending of historical evidence with political and sociological theories about the state and bureaucracy, along with a focus on colonial economies, enables Kim to present an engaging study that disproves the notion of monolithic colonial regimes and adds welcome nuances to our understanding of narcotics control in Southeast Asia.