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Panel 4. Southeast Asian Politics and History

Chair: Pingtjin Thum (University of Oxford & National University of Singapore)

Governments everywhere seek to use history to justify their retention of power and the fulfilment of their policies. Southeast Asia exemplifies this. The dominant historiography of Southeast Asia is a product of establishment interests of the respective post-colonial states. Government seek to support their weak post-independence regimes by using history to give intellectual depth to the concept of their countries as nation-states, to redefine post-independence boundaries as natural and inevitable, and to suppress and destroy alternative voices and visions for their states. This panel offers a counterpoint to that. It seeks papers which explore how Southeast Asian governments have manipulated or misused history. It also seeks to promote a progressive dialogue by soliciting historical studies which illuminate the fallacies and deceptions which underpin Southeast Asian history. Examples of this might include papers which alter and expand perceptions of politically oppressed minority or dissident groups; papers which challenge the pretensions of governments to either neutrality or beneficence; papers which deconstruct the ideology which governments use to justify the maintenance of the status quo; the illustration of examples of the past which offer the possibility of a better way of life than that which dominates Southeast Asia today; and papers which show how social movements have gone wrong, how leaders betray their followers, how rebels become bureaucrats, and how ideals can become frozen and reified.

Session 1

Paper 1: Afterthought(s) on 9 August 1965: Critique of the contemporary art exhibition “after|thought” and how it challenges and provides an alternative to institutional methods of historical representation in Singapore

Riya de los Reyes (Independent Scholar)

This paper is a post-mortem review of the recent exhibition after|thought, which serves as a case study on how contemporary art can challenge, expose and even be an alternative to institutional methods of historical representation in Singapore. This paper will offer a comprehensive critique of the exhibition as an example of how to creatively engage with the nature of historical representation in the Southeast Asian context. The exhibition demonstrates that art can be a potent tool for historians to unravel dominant national narratives in Southeast Asia. It functions as a site/space for the historian to evince alternative narratives, illuminate attempts at resistance in history, and amplify the plurality of voices that institutional methods of historical representation may have obscured and/or oppressed. This paper will extend the discourse of the themes and issues revealed by the exhibition towards an in-depth inquiry into the historical context and the formation of the national consciousness borne out of 9 August 1965, the date of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.1

Paper 2: Merger, Acquisition, or Takeover? Politics and the creation of Malaysia, and their continuing consequences.

Pingtjin Thum (University of Oxford & National University of Singapore)

The merger of the Federation of Malaya with Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak in 1963, and Singapore’s subsequent split from Malaysia in 1965, continues to define how the two countries are governed. Compromises made in secret by the governments of Great Britain, and the four constituent states resulted in temporary institutional structures and constitutional instruments that became permanent. Decisions made and actions taken by the various governments had consequences which destroyed lives and families, and which continue to impact today on the people of Malaysia and Singapore in very important and meaningful ways. This paper examines the politics of merger from documentary and vernacular sources, deconstructs the events of merger from both English and vernacular perspective, and illustrates how these have shaped governance, political culture, and elite decision-making in Singapore since.

Paper 3: “To the Streets”: A historical study on the Practice of Philippine Democracy

Jared Carlo Lumberio-Echevarria (University of Santo Tomas)

It has been 26 years since the Philippines put forward a new kind of revolution against a dictator that triggered a chain reaction of events that shaped the country’s history and political ideology.  The People Power of 1986 provided the Filipinos a decent place in the international community as perhaps one of the most freedom loving peoples of the Far East. This feat was replicated during the 2001 EDSAII People Power with motives and objectives almost of the same nature as the first. This study aims to dissect the behavior and beliefs of the Filipino People and their fanaticism towards freedom or is it just a bandwagon effect created by a pool of influential groups coming from the different sectors of the populace. This study is part of a growing body of researches that deals with non-violent revolutions that dictate the course of history either for the country’s betterment or loss. With the aid of other researches, references and available oral histories from 1st hand witnesses of the two non-violent revolutions in the Philippines; this study will contribute and will add more details for future researches of similar topics.

Session 2

Paper 1: The Contested History and Heritage of the Rohingya of Burma

Keith A. Leitich (Pierce College Puyallup)

This paper explores how and why history and archaeology have been mobilized and utilized to create a modern national identity in Burma.  An identity that is devoid of its Muslim Rohingya minority.  Since the promulgation of the restrictive Citizenship Law of 1982 Rohingya Muslims have been marginalized.  The law declared the Rohingya “non-nationals” or “foreign residents” and excluded the Rohingya from being one of 135 “national races” recognized by the Burmese government.  As part of the process of “Myanmafication” of Burma there has been a deliberate attempt by the military government to destroy the historical and archaeological evidence of the Rohingya.  The regime used history to legitimize its rule.  The Rohingya view Arakan as their ancestral homeland with a unique historical tradition and a foundation of their national identity. Each with its own version of historical truth and archaeological evidence to show the distinctiveness of a national past linked to the present. This paper argues that the Rohingya’s contested history should be examined as a historical hybrid rather than be exclusive domain of national history.

Paper 2:  ‘Reviving the role of political actors’: Thai elites and democratization processes

Emma Masterson (Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg)

Symptomatic of other third wave democratizing countries (Huntington, 1991) Thailand has struggled to successfully consolidate a legitimate, democratic and stable political order with military rule continuing to alternate with periods of electoral politics. The recent 2010 political protests and crackdown have revealed a deeply divided society with supporters loyal to two competing factions both demonstrating a violence capacity to protect the network most representative of their beliefs and interests. This paper deals explicitly with the role of political elites in Thailand. It explicates upon the role of historically powerful actors i.e. political networks and the key actors upon which they centre themselves to show how their interactions and purposive design have in turn have shaped ‘Thai style democracy.’ Whereas social science literature particularly during the eighties and the nineties moved away from the idea of a ‘power elite’ and toward a multiplicity of explanatory variables to explain institutional change in Thailand, current day media coverage and online fora have become saturated by the role of two key actors and the supporters loyal to, or aligned along similar interests which these key actors are perceived to represent and protect. This paper endorses the view that actors do still matter in Thailand’s democratic transition and that current political dynamics can be explicated upon from an actor centred approach.

Paper 3: The ‘Overseas Chinese Education Problem’ – Bangkokian Chinese Press Reports on Thai Governmental Repression in 1948

York Wiese (University of Freiburg)

Phibunsongkhram’s second term as prime minister of Thailand (1948-1957) marked the most severe governmental repression against the Chinese minority in Thailand’s history.

The effort to bring the country’s primarily Chinese-operated economy under Thai control and to create a unified and dominant Thai culture (Thai-ification) was combined with a strong limitation of Chinese social and political activities to encourage – or rather enforce – assimilation into the Thai society.

Fear of a strong Chinese culture and secret activities against these goals caused the suspicious Thai government to act. May to August 1948 saw new regulations for private schools to restrict Chinese education, the raiding of schools, newspapers, social associations and Guomindang offices as well as the arrests and partly deportation of many people involved in these institutions.

This paper uses the original newspapers of the Chinese community in Bangkok as primary sources to present a more lively historical account of the Chinese’s own perception of these events. While previous works on the Thai Chinese have not given much consideration to these newspapers’ historical narratives and thereby lost a valuable source, this paper aims to give them their place in the writing of history and make use of the many additional details they offer.


1 – The art exhibition, after|thought, was a collaborative curatorial effort by Ng Shi Wen, Stefanie Marianne Tham, Riya de los Reyes, Daryl Goh and Jane Koh. The artists featured in this exhibition are Joel Yuen, Teow Yue Han and Tse Hao Guang. This exhibition was the concluding phase of Curating Lab 2012, an internship programme jointly organized by the NUS Museum and the National Arts Council (NAC). The group spent three months of internship at the Singapore Art Museum before organizing this exhibition. The curators would like to thank Ahmad Mashadi from NUS Museum and Miss Tan Siuli from the Singapore Art Museum for their guidance and mentorship. If you would like to find out more information on the exhibition, please visit: You may also contact the curators at, or follow after|thought on Twitter: @afterthoughtSG.