Understanding Southeast Asia

Themes and issues from Southeast Asia crop up fairly frequently in UnderstandingSociety. Red shirt demonstrations in Thailand, ethnic conflict in Malaysia, corruption and repression in Burma — I think these are some of the more interesting social developments underway in the world today. And the resources needed for non-experts (like myself) to get a preliminary but factual understanding of these developments are now readily available on the web — blogs, international newspapers, twitter, and google provide a truly unprecedented ability for any of us to gain insight into distant social processes. (A recent widget on the iPhone and iPod Touch is a case in point: the World Newspapers application gives the user easy access to almost 4,000 newspapers in 100 countries.)

One blog that I’ve come to appreciate quite a bit on subjects having to do with Southeast Asia is the New Mandala, based at Australian National University. Andrew Walker is one of its founders and frequent contributors, and he and several other New Mandala contributors have recently published what promises to be a very interesting book. The book is titled Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, and its focus can best be described in the contributors’ own words. Here are the opening paragraphs of a chapter on the orientation the contributors have taken on studying “Thai” identity:

This book provides a new approach to the study of community in the Tai world of mainland Southeast Asia.

Much of the current ethnographic work in the Tai world is constrained by a conceptual framework that associates community with tradition, locality and subsistence economy. This traditional community is commonly portrayed as being undermined by the modern forces of state incorporation, market penetration, globalisation and population mobility.

In this volume, we take a very different view. We challenge the widely held view that community is a traditional social form that is undermined by modernity. Using case studies from Thailand, Laos, Burma and China, we explore the active creation of ‘modern community’ in contexts of economic and political transformation. Our aim is to liberate community from its stereotypical association with traditional village solidarity and to demonstrate that communal sentiments of belonging retain their salience in the modern world of occupational mobility, globalised consumerism and national development.

Our focus is on the Tai world, made up of the various peoples who speak Tai languages. The largest groups are the Thai of Thailand, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Burma and the Dai of southern China. Of course, each of these categories is problematic; they are all the modern products of historical circumstance rather than being natural or self-evident ethnic groups. There are certainly linguistic and cultural similarities that justify the shared label ‘Tai’ but this must be treated as a preliminary delineation of a field of interest without rushing to assumptions about a common identity or a sense of shared history. Indeed, our primary goal is to critically examine contemporary notions of belonging in this Tai world.

This is a highly engaging and innovative approach to the intellectual challenge of understanding the culture, history, and current trajectory of a large part of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The contributors capture some of the best current thinking about the fluidity and plasticity of cultural identities and the complicated ways in which cultures and modern social forces interact. Particularly pressing for historians and area specialists is the challenge of taking adequate account of language, culture, local community, extended networks, and varied political and economic interests when we try to make sense of a large population dispersed over a macro-region.

Take “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. These are two constituencies in contemporary Thailand. In the past two years there have been massive popular movements corresponding to each of them, leading to major demonstrations and challenges to the government. They are often characterized in terms of differences in social class and economic sector: rural, poor, disempowered, versus urban, affluent, and privileged. This characterization is one that political scientists and economists would be comfortable with; it locates the two groups in terms of their interests and their location within the relations of wealth and power that exist in contemporary Thailand. But it’s at least worth posing the question: does this “interest”-based definition of contemporary politics in Thailand leave out something crucial, in the general zone of culture and identity? And are there possible cultural differences between the groups that are potentially relevant to political behavior and mobilization? Is there an ethnography of the red shirt movement and its followers yet?

Or take the issue of refugees, displaced persons, and migrant workers. There are flows of people across the borders of Burma and Thailand; Burma and Bangladesh; Thailand and Malaysia; and even from Burma to Cambodia. (For that matter, there is a significant population of Thai “guest workers” in Tel Aviv and other parts of the Middle East and Gulf.) How do differences in culture and identity play into the situation of these displaced people when they find themselves in the foreign country?

So research along the lines of Tai Lands and Thailand is highly valuable. It is likely to give us some new conceptual tropes in terms of which to understand these large social realities — modern community, provisional identities, and a multi-threaded understanding of the social worlds of Southeast Asia. And I think it demonstrates another important truth as well: there is always room for fresh thinking when it comes to trying to make sense of the social world.

(See an earlier posting introducing a spatial representation of the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed on Southeast Asia. Here is a direct link to the google map for this effort.)


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