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SEA Studies Symposium 2013 – Report

Southeast Asian Studies Symposium group photo

The Southeast Asian Studies Symposium 2013, organised by Project Southeast Asia, University of Oxford, attracted 105 papers in 22 panels and over 240 participants, making it the largest annual Southeast Asia conference worldwide in only its second year of existence. The conference was sponsored by the Indonesian Embassy; the Asian Studies Centre, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; the Association of South East Asian Studies in the UK (ASEASUK); Universiti Malaysia Sarawak; and the Sarawak Ministry of Tourism.

The conference was held in St. Anne’s College, Oxford, on 9-10 March 2013, with speakers and paper presenters coming from over 20 different countries, representing a wide array of disciplines and expertise. Next to the academic participants, ambassadors and high commissioners of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei and Thailand attended the conference. The keynote speech was delivered by Mark Pritchard MP, Member of Parliament for the Wrekin in Shropshire and Chair for the All-Party Group for ASEAN in the UK Parliament. Other speakers included Hamzah Thayeb, Ambassador of Indonesia; Lord Cranbrook, environmental biologist and former Chairman of the Institute for European Environmental Policy; and Datuk Amar Abang Haji Abdul Rahman Zohari, Sarawak Minister of Tourism. The cultural highlight of the conference was “Transition”, a performance by the Burmese artist, activist and former political prisoner Htein Lin.

Reacting to recent developments within the region, a roundtable on “The Future of Myanmar” formed one of the highlights of the conference. Chaired by Dr Lee Jones, a distinctive group of scholars and practitioners with various backgrounds exchanged opinions, which focused on realistic and pragmatic evaluations of Myanmar’s development.  Participants included Anna Roberts, Executive Director of Burma Campaign UK, Dr. Mandy Sadan, academic and author of Being and Becoming Kachin, Dr. Peter Carey, academic and author of Burma: The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society, Vicky Bowman, former UK Ambassador to Myanmar and Zaw Nay Aung, Burmese political exile and Director of Burma Independence Advocates.

After years of isolation, the changing political climate in Myanmar caught many experts off-guard. Participants expressed sincere surprise about the ongoing changes in the country. However, questions regarding the future of the country remain. All participants agreed that a more measured and realistic view of Myanmar’s democratisation was necessary for constructive engagement to support Myanmar’s continued development. The panelists also expressed great concerns on the diminishing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s authority due to the difficult task of balancing the two roles of moral icon and politician.

Apart from the roundtable on Myanmar, the Symposium also featured roundtables on the environment in Southeast Asia and the future of Borneo/Kalimantan studies. Parallel to the roundtables, 19 panels were grouped within the areas of history and politics, culture and religion, environmental studies, disaster management as well as health and social change. This reflected the central aim of Project Southeast Asia, which is to develop interdisciplinary and transnational approaches to Southeast Asia.

Three broader themes running through the various panels were communication, environmental protection and contemporary politics. Participants agreed that it is crucial to communicate and connect Southeast Asia to the world. More opportunities for discussion on, and relationship building with, Southeast Asia were needed. Likewise, stressing the importance of the region to the UK, keynote speaker Mark Pritchard underlined that “ASEAN has huge potential” and called for a Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN and bilateral treaties with all ASEAN states. He also encouraged greater academic engagement with and research on the region and urged his government to enable more Southeast Asian students to take advantage of the opportunities offered by British education.

Secondly, it was agreed that environmental changes need to be accommodated with the developmental aspirations of a fast-growing region. While environmental policies were generally sound, the implementation of these policies was lacking, and often took a backseat to economic, political, and sovereignty concerns.

Finally, the generally favorable political changes taking place were a reason for optimism. Panelists highlighted numerous ways in which democracy has progressed, but continues to be resisted by those with a vested interest in holding back its progress. However, in a wide range of subjects, policy making and implementation has improved.

The Symposium will be next held in Oxford on 22-23 March 2014.

Photos of the event are also available  (links open in a new page):