The Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS) organized a New Buds Salon entitled “Rebalancing Southeast Asian History among Communities, Nations and Beyond” on December 10, 2019, and invited Maitrii Augn-Thwin, associate professor of Myanmar/Southeast Asian History at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and deputy director of the Asia Research Institute at NUS, to shed light on researching Southeast Asian history. The salon was moderated by Xie Kankan, an assistant professor of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies of PKU's School of Foreign Languages.
Aung-Thwin first reflected on his study and teaching of Southeast Asian history, a field that he has long been engaged in, before sharing his latest research. He argued that historiographies on Southeast Asia have long been inclined to take on a national or regional perspective and thus have neglected minority communities that are less representative. He pointed out that the idea of “community” is not only a term that can be used to describe a group of people but can also be a method of thinking about history. He asked the question: What kind of history can accommodate different communities' world views, notions, and experiences in a satisfying way? He offered an answer through a case study of the statues put up to celebrate Singapore's 200th anniversary of its establishment. Within Singapore, discussions on national history have always been full of controversy. Beyond the national level, Singapore also faces various obstacles in its endeavors in pushing for further regional cooperation within ASEAN.
Prof. Aung-Thwin also analyzed the issue of writing history in the nation-states in Southeast Asia. Since the end of the Second World War and the following waves of national independence movements, there has been a zeal among nations to rewrite their own histories in the hope of facilitating their decolonization processes. Up to this day, Southeast Asia is still a very heterogeneous region in terms of ethnicity and religion, and some countries' nation-building processes have not been completed yet. These circumstances plus unstable domestic politics and various existing conflicts resulted in the absence of a national identity. Aung-Thwin sees Jean Taylor's Indonesia: Peoples and Histories as a brilliant work, a historiography of a nation-state as it reviews the contacts and communications between Southeast Asia and Europe from a local perspective. It stands out as an example for scholars on how to use community as a framework for writing history.
Prof. Aung-Thwin took the works of Victor Lieberman and of James Scott as examples to discuss methods for researching regional histories. Although these scholars' works break through the borders of nation-states, they lay too much emphasis on “specificities” and are lacking in exhibiting “commonalities.” Scholars have increasingly started to focus on the similarities between different places in Southeast Asia and gradually moved to studying Southeast Asia as a whole, by connecting multiple regions and comparing respective cultures, geographies, and histories.
In the end, Prof. Aung-Thwin examined the specific methods of writing history from the perspective of “community.” He maintained that such a perspective takes advantages of various methodologies of historical research, covers a wider scope, allows more people to talk about their own experience and can eventually form a true “public history.” He pointed out that writing about the past is a kind of cultural expression and that historiographies should be manifold. We should try our best to understand the attitude of different communities toward their own histories and find consensus among them.
Xie Kankan commented on Prof. Aung-Thwin's presentation afterward. He discussed the multiple ways to translate the word “community” and explored the profound connotation of community in the context of Southeast Asia studies. Faculty members and students attending the talk also actively engaged in the discussion and exchanged ideas with Prof. Aung-Thwin on topics such as the interactions on history education between groups, ethnic politics and identity and multiethnic state governance.