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Collective memory in the Mekong: schooling, history, and politics in an era of regionalization

Mon, April 15, 3:15 to 4:45pm, Hyatt Regency, Pacific Concourse (Level -1), Pacific O

Group Submission Type: Formal Panel Session


Southeast Asia is building a regional community through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a multi-national institution comprised of 10-member states. After successfully establishing an economic community in 2015, where capital and people can freely move across national borders, ASEAN and its partners now aim to build a socio-cultural community by 2020. As part of its envisioned regional community, ASEAN wants to construct a regional identity by uniting over 600 million people, which the technocrats believe will be achieved partly through national school systems that teach shared versions of history. UNESCO Bangkok is in the vanguard in developing a shared history, while country level policy makers try to balance both global and national interests.
What does an ASEAN identity look like? Is it even possible or desirable to establish a common identity across the diverse peoples of Southeast Asia? And how would a regional identity exist alongside national-identity given the divergent memories of history?
In effort to begin answering these larger questions, this panel offers three presentations that collectively compare the development of UNESCO Bangkok’s Shared Histories project with Cambodia’s on-going history curriculum reform and a historical analysis of the concept of “citizenship” in Vietnam. The panel is situated within the idea of “collective memory,” which conceptualizes memory as a dynamic social process where subjective accounts of the past are framed in the present. Who frames the past and how makes collective memory an inherently political process. This struggle can be empirically found inside schools.
Creating a regional identity has been a goal of ASEAN since its inception in 1967. At first, the regional identity revolved around issues of security. Whether it was the regime change in Indonesia or the external threat of Vietnam, the “ASEAN spirit,” as regional identity was known in the 1970s, gained traction to thwart socialist uprisings. The ASEAN spirit meant above all political stability for ruling powers. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, which marked the end of the Soviet Union’s influence in the region, the ASEAN spirit evolved towards economic interdependency, trade, and growth. Capitalism would be the common economic system tying together the region’s diverse people. By the 21st Century, “ASEAN-ness,” the new term used to describe regional identity, evoked ideas such as good governance, human rights, sustainability and resilience. Economic integration was still at the heart of regional identity, but a more “people-centered” focus emerged to ensure fair distribution of economic gains as well as equal representation for minority groups. Today, ASEAN policy documents speak of creating a “we-feeling” across the region. Exactly how such a feeling should be constructed usually falls to schools to figure out.
In the current epoch of regional identity making, education generally and schools specifically play a central role. Education socializes youth into the capitalist economic system as well ties students together through common understandings of the past. On the one hand, education is believed to be the necessary input to produce the needed human capital for national and regional economies to participate in the global knowledge-based economy. Workers are told they need “21st-Century Skills” like computer programing and entrepreneurship to successfully compete in the global economy. On the other hand, education can create a sense of social cohesion among diverse groups of people. By learning about the region and interacting with others, students can understand each other, creating a sense of belonging to a single community. A shared history can be constructed through schools where people from different countries hold similar memories – of past events, regional heroes, or ancient kingdoms. History education is an important location where this knowledge is imprinted on students.
The use of education to construct social cohesion at the regional level remains nascent. One effort has been spearheaded by UNESCO Bangkok, a partner of ASEAN. Its project aims to develop common history lessons across the Mekong to promote, at least in theory, mutual understanding and peace. UNESCO labels this regionalization strategy “shared histories.” The use of the term shared history, or what has been called “collective memory” or “historical memory” in academics, is an important way of creating what Benedict Anderson labeled an “imagined community.” By teaching a common history, students begin to feel a “deep, horizontal comradeship” with other students. Memories of past events become shared, uniting people together despite their differences. Although Anderson theorized imagined communities with respect to the emergence of nationalism, UNESCO Bangkok assumes a similar dynamic can work across the region: an imagined regional community can be inclusive even in one of the most diverse places in the world.

But is building a regional identity so simple?

The politics of memory are never straightforward. Powerful agents construct memory to align with their interests. They codify what Michael Apple called “official knowledge” into policies, priorities, and public discourse. This knowledge is always selective, forgetting certain elements that go against the accepted narrative. The historical memory that is constructed thus evolves out of a process of intense debate and tension by the changing powers of a social group.
The typical social group out of which historical memory emerges is the nation-state. This social process is as much about excluding certain people as it is based on inclusion. Through what Thongchai Winichakul calls “negative identifying,” nation-states can decide the groups of people who count as “Thai” or “Khmer”, for example, and those who do not. Borders are drawn in places where they did not exist previously, and subsequently cultural heritage is mapped onto modern nation-state boundaries.
The nation-state configuration of historical memory will necessarily come into conflict with UNESCO Bangkok’s shared histories project across the region. Exclusion is a key feature in many of the national narratives in the Mekong countries. Overcoming these deeply ingrained historical memories will challenge the legitimacy of the ruling powers. This panel explores the debates, problems, and opportunities of building a regional identity across the countries in the Mekong.

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