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SEA Studies Symposium 2014 – Report

3rd SEA Studies Symposium

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The contest for democracy in Southeast Asia’s transitioning economies and the changing political landscape were the prevailing themes at the 3rd Southeast Asian Studies Symposium held at Keble College from 22 to 23 March. The world’s largest annual Southeast Asian Studies conference, the Symposium was attended by 310 participants from 32 countries, and saw some 166 papers presented in 32 panels on subjects ranging from museology and classical literature to the contemporary political economy of Southeast Asia. Seven thematic roundtables saw academics engaging with cabinet ministers, NGO activists, diplomats, politicians and business leaders. The ambassadors of Indonesia and Viet Nam, and representatives of the Malaysia, Brunei, Philiipines and Thailand governments were also present.

In his keynote address, Stephen Lillie (Head of the Asia Pacific Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), outlined the UK’s involvement in development and humanitarian aid in the region, particularly in Myanmar and the Philippines (Hurricane Haiyan). Lillie emphasised the UK and Southeast Asia’s ‘shared history’ as the basis for British investment and the promotion of democracy in the region. He stressed that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office is sensitive to the challenge of corruption and electoral tensions which could undermine Southeast Asia’s economic development and the establishment of  ‘free societies’.

Malaysian Democratic Action Party MP and opposition leader, Tony Pua, delivered the second keynote address on the challenge of democratic action in mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. Locating the principal challenge in the overlooked urban-rural divide in Thailand and Malaysia, he discussed the way in which gerrymandering and bribery by ruling parties in poorer rural communities deprive voters of political choice and social welfare. Pua cited corruption and mismanagement of natural resources in East Malaysia as the principal motor for the deepening rural-urban divide where rural populations develop a dependency on handouts by parties in return for votes.

An interesting discussion followed, moderated by Sir Tim Lankester.

Reflecting the keen interest on Myanmar, there were a large number of panels on the country. The highlight was a roundtable on Regime Transitions in Southeast Asia: Lessons for Myanmar?, organised by Lee Jones (Queen Mary, University of London), which compared Myanmar’s current transition from military to civilian government with the experiences of Indonesia, East Timor, and Cambodia. Other panels included Myanmar: Ethnicity, Memory and Identity; Burma and Drugs: national problems, regional solutions; Evolution or Revolution: Imagining a future for Burma’s rural economy; Tangled Crossroads: Flows of ideas, commodities and people through the Thai-Myanmar borderworld; and two roundtables, Myanmar in Transition: Primary Care and Public Health and Why have there been no ‘gender turns’ in Myanmar/Burma research: Why and how does it matter? The latter, moderated by the Chair of Oxford’s International Gender Studies Centre, Dr Maria Jaschok, brought together scholars and activists from Myanmar to discuss the imperative of the ‘gender turn’ in Burmese Studies. Misconceptions of gender equality in Burmese culture have unwittingly reinforced entrenched discrimination against women in development, political mobilising, and the peace-building process.

The roundtable 50 Years of the Malaysian Dream and the Future of Malaysia generated a lively discussion on Malaysian identity. Chaired by the co-founder of Project Southeast Asia, Dr PJ Thum, it featured Senator Dato’ Sri Abdul Wahid Omar (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for  Economic Planning, Malaysia; Founder-CEO of Maybank), Tony Pua (Democratic Action Party Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara, Malaysia), Dr Graham Brown (Senior Lecturer in the Politics, University of Bath), Dr Alice Nah (Research and Teaching Fellow at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York), and Clare Rewcastle (Founder, the Sarawak Report). The roundtable agreed that a fixation on ethnicity impeded socio-political progress and concluded with an urgent call for a Malaysian identity that transcended ethnic and party boundaries. Nah stressed that Malaysian politics need to rethink the concept of citizenship as a way of moving beyond parochial contestations over identity. Pua argued that the fixation stemmed from the politics of exclusion, where the ruling coalition perpetuated differences between ethnic communities as part of its strategy for maintaining its rule. Senator Dato’ Sri Abdul Wahid, offered a robust defence of his government, arguing that existing policies were highly targeted and had  vastly reduced poverty levels.

The Natural Resources and the Environment panel arranged and chaired by Professor Jeff Burley. The group agreed that there were many common features about the environment and natural resources of Southeast Asia. These included the needs for:- defined and updated government policies; establishment of local and community partnerships in management of natural resources and marketing of products; updated education (content and methods of delivery) related to integrated resource assessment and management; development of small and medium enterprises to enhance the productivity, efficiency and profitability of land management systems that can yield environmental services as well as direct financial benefits.

The human and personal cost of conflict in Southeast Asia was brought intimately home to Symposium participants by a panel on The Bangsamoro (Sub)State: Its Identity, Nature, Struggle and Movement, organised by Nassef Adiong of Co-IRIS and Middle East Technical University. Its participants were people who had lived through, studied, and had their lives impacted by the conflict, and so they were able to discuss the problems facing southern Philippines at both an academic and intensely personal level.

A roundtable on The Energy Future of Southeast Asia, organised and chaired by Dr Nigel Gould-Davies (BG Thailand), brought together academics, energy industry professionals, NGOs, and government representatives to examine how governments, business and civil society can work together to meet Southeast Asia’s rapidly growing energy demand with secure, affordable, and environmentally sustainable supplies

The Symposium also featured panels on security; political economy; comparative law; political, economic and security issues surrounding the Mekong region; the continuing impact of colonialism; the politics of art and culture; ASEAN; religion; and identity, among other topics.

Dr Philip Kreager, Senior Research Fellow in Human Sciences, Somerville, delivered the closing speech on the future of Southeast Asian Studies in the UK, noting that its fate is far less certain than Stephen Lillie’s hopeful review of Britain’s diplomatic progress in the region. Kreager nonetheless identified several optimistic trends evident at the Symposium, including the panel on primary healthcare in Myanmar, which fostered discussion between local and global experts in medical service provision, highlighting the key role of bottom-up collaboration between local practitioners, health interventions, scholars, and activists.

The 4th Symposium will be next held in March 2015. Please visit for updates.