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Projecting War Debris: Transmedial Configurations of the Violent Past in Southeast Asia


Chairat Polmuk
Cornell University

May Adadol Ingawanij
University of Westminster

May Adadol Ingawanij
University of Westminster


During the past decades, memory of wartime violence has been a crucial force in shaping political and cultural landscapes of Southeast Asia. The aftermath of the Cold War, which was actually ‘hot’ in many Southeast Asian countries, witnessed increasing global and national recognition of traumatic events in the form of public commemoration and museum preservation. While such dominant modes of remembering promise to break the silence of the violent past, they often neglect how the precarious memory of war remains immanent in ongoing everyday practices. In many parts of the region, corpses of war victims have yet to be uncovered and unexploded ordnances have yet to be collected. Debris of war are thus material and embodied manifestations of the immanent violence in the present that contests nostalgic and redemptive versions of the wounded past in the global and national imagination.

This panel investigates the mediation of vestiges of war across Southeast Asian literary, visual, and material cultures. Panelists from different disciplines, namely, film studies, Asian studies, and history, share their commitment in accounting for alternative approaches to historical trauma, especially that of World War II and the Cold War. Looking at multiple sites of war memory in Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines offers comparative perspectives on different temporalities of trauma shaped by political contexts and cultural repertoires. We engage in the pressing question of how to “archive” the violent past by examining curatorial, literary, and cinematic techniques in forging new grounds to imagine community, sociality, and relations between humans and the nonhuman. This results in modes of remembering and witnessing that move away from eventful and anthropocentric narratives of historical trauma to an emphasis on the everyday traumatic experiences that affectively bind the human with the dead, the animal, and the material remnant of war.


Paper 1: The Filipino Forest and the Nonhuman Witness

Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn
Queen Mary, University of London

Over the last decade, the group of Filipino art cinema which emphasizes the extended duration and the contemplative spectatorship is emerging as ‘slow cinema’. One characteristic of such cinema is that many of the work has the forest as a main setting, telling the traumatic stories of the history of the Philippines. This paper depicts the forest as a site embedded with alternative histories. In a way the forest becomes a ‘nonhuman archive’ in which the filmmakers gives it a new life. The paper looks into case studies from the films of Lav Diaz and Raya Martin.


Paper 2: American Bones and Bombs: Narrating Trauma in Postwar Laos

Chairat Polmuk
Cornell University

American air raids during the Second Indochina War (1961-1975) made Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. However, this violent episode of Lao history is virtually absent from international and national memory. Laos’s peripheral position within dominant narratives of Vietnam–American War partially elucidates this historical amnesia while the country’s socialist modernity explains the lack of local commemorative practices. Nonetheless, these explanations remain inadequate in understanding how the Lao people cope with trauma both in collective and individual levels. This paper investigates narratives about wartime violence in personal accounts (Fred Branfman’s Voices from the Plain of Jars), short stories (Bounthanong Xomxayphol’s American Bones) and films (Kim Mordaunt’s Bomb Harvest and The Rocket) to account for the ways in which traumatic experiences shape collective and individual memories in Laos. Focusing on how trauma is intimately tied to remnant of war such as unexploded ordnances and excavated bones of war victims, this paper offers an alternative account on trauma that moves away from emphasis on the human subject to an object-oriented analysis. This mode of analysis is also informed by Buddhist conceptions of temporality and materiality that aim to shed light on historically and culturally specific experiences of trauma in Laos.


Paper 3: Singing the Unsung Thai Hero: Boonpong’s Legend and Transnational Memory

Natthanai Prasannam
University of St. Andrews

Memory of the prisoners of World War II at the Thai-Burma Railway has been circulated in the Anglo-European literary culture since the end of the war. The memory was dramatically solidified by the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957). Recently, memory of the POWs has become more apparent in the global screen culture. In Thailand, the tale from The Bridge on the River Kwai was appropriated and televised in 2013. Its focus shifted from the POWs to their Thai savior−Boonpong. This paper aims at mapping memory of Boonpong with various sites of World War II memory in official memory and in Kanchanaburi province. It is found that memory of Boonpong is not acknowledged in Thai official memory: textbook, monument and museum. Therefore, Boonpong’s legend was restored by some young casual historians in ‘Memory Boom’ era−after the economic crisis in 1997. As he saved many lives of the POWs, Boonpong has been curated in the museums built by the Australian government and other related private sectors. His legend was reconstructed along with one of the most prominent Australian historical figure, Colonel Sir Ernest Edward “Weary” Dunlop. The television biography also represents the POWs through comradeship as seen in Australian films on World War II. This way, Boonpong’s legend relies on commemorative rituals conducted by the Australians. In subversion against the Thai official memory, Boonpong lives on through transnational memory interwoven with the vernacular World War II memory in Kanchanaburi.


Paper 4: War and Weapons: Watching the Korean War in Thailand

Rebecca Townsend
Cornell University

This paper examines the use of Korean war films in early psychological indoctrination operations run by Thailand and the United States. As the US-Thai alliance grew closer after 1950, and with the appointment of William Donovan as ambassador to Thailand in 1953, psychological operations were used to combat communist influence and promote government interests. Meanwhile, over eleven thousand Thai soldiers would serve in Korea throughout the course of the war. At home, the government actively promoted Thai service in the conflict. Films of Thai soldiers in Korea were used in psychological indoctrination efforts, often to great effect. I argue that these films serve as evidence of changing dynamics in Thailand’s negotiation of international politics, and the Bangkok government’s relationship with provincial citizens.