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Reading response to Coedes, Smail, and Heryanto

photo credit: Southeast Asian Studies (SEAS), Kyoto University

"Some Problems in the Ancient History of the Hinduized States of South-East Asia" by George Coedes, Source: Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 5, No. 2, Papers on Early South-East Asian History (Sep., 1964), pp. 1-14.

Coedes pointed out that the contact of Indian civilization and indigenous civilization did not turn into a western style political colonization, but rather, the Indian elements have penetrated into many aspects of Southeast Asian culture and social life. While it is undeniable that there is “constant parallelism between the great spiritual currents in India and in Southeast Asia”, local civilizations also maintained many of their original features, which are often manifested by sociologists’ ethnological observation conducted amongst present populations. In this sense, the so-called Hindunization or Indianization process can be actually regarded as one of many domestication processes of foreign influences in Southeast Asia, which is equally applicable to the subsequent Islamization and colonialization (also related to Smail’s piece). Therefore, the Indianists’ view that “the ancient civilizations of the Indianized countries as branches which stem directly from the trunk of Indian civilization” looks somewhat oversimplified to me. Coedes also raised interesting questions in the comparison of foreign political influence and cultural influence in Southeast Asia. He noted that despite the fact that India has never had a centralized dynasty to exert its political influence, its cultural influence on Southeast Asia was constant. By contrast, “events in China have had very definite influence on the history of (Southeast Asia),” but “the rise of Southeast Asian kingdoms generally correspond to the weaker periods of the great Chinese dynasties.” Again, this also seems quite farfetched and oversimplified to me. The coincident overlaps of time period are not sufficient to make this argument, unless there was concrete evidence to prove that it was during these particular periods that China’s political influence had been completely cut off. In fact, even during the so-called weak periods when China was in the state of disintegration, the tributary system was still maintained, as the relatively weak regimes still needed to prove the legitimacy of their rules. In other words, the connections should not be that easy to be shut down.

"On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia" by John R. W. Smail Source: Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 2, No. 2, Indonesia. Being a Collection of Papers Submitted to the 1st International Conference of Southeast Asian Historians, Singapore, January 16-21, 1961 (Jul., 1961), pp. 72-102.

Traditionally, the problem of ethno-centrism is central to anthropological debates, as anthropologists cannot easily “escape from his own past, from his own cultural heritage.” When it comes to the writing of Southeast Asian history, “Europe-centric” and “Asia-centric” appear to be two major conflicting perspectives (ostensibly). But in Smail’s paper, he has wonderfully demonstrated why the terms Europe-centric and Asia-centric actually represent a false antithesis—Other than A and B themselves, there are also varied forms of AB, Ab (neo-colonial), aB(anti-colonial)…, which all reflected certain biases in the writing of history, especially by ignoring the “autonomous history”—B. By using the examples of van Leur’s work, Acehnese war and Dutch colonial domination versus Indonesian vernacular social life, Smail called for paying more attention to the importance of domestic history of Indonesia without focusing on too much of the Dutch-Indonesia relations (Dutch framework). To do so, a new “Indonesian framework” is required, as “there is an authentic Indonesian body beneath the cloths we call the Netherlands Indies, this body has its own history, autonomous in the fundamental sense.” All his arguments are quite plausible, but I still think that there is one more technical problem: the availability of primary sources that plays critical roles in the writing of history. While it is true that an alternative framework will deepen our understanding in historical issues, but for most scholars, regardless of their ethnic and educational background, accessing B-related materials is still so much easier through the channel of AB. Practically, constructing framework B set a higher standard for the materials rather than the epistemology and skills of historians who use them.

Heryanto: "Can There Be Southeast Asians in Southeast Asian Studies?"

As Craig Reynolds put it, “authenticat(ing) Southeast Asia as a region and a field of study is very much a Western, postcolonial project.” The case of Southeast Asian studies itself has vividly portrayed the hierarchy of knowledge—“modern intellectual apparatus has largely been both indebted and subordinated to the West.” This irony reflected another form of “orientalism” which has been criticized by Southeast Asianists themselves.

This also can be related to Smail’s call for autonomous history. Theoretically, pure “domestic” histories are the real missing puzzles of the scholarship of Southeast Asian studies, in which Southeast Asianists from Southeast Asia are most qualified to accomplish. But practically, this is very difficult due to the barriers that the local scholars are facing: the nationalist orientation of education in SEA nations; language; and the difficulties for Southeast Asians to get into the centers of Southeast Asian studies; and most importantly, the recognition of SEA scholars home-grown knowledge. Heryanto noticed that there are already new trends [Islam and “plural, non-purist, non-essentialist, but more hybrid and globally embedded (Southeast) Asian agencies] that enable SEA scholars to develop their own paradigm distinct from the Western-derived practices. But again, given the existing hierarchy of knowledge (power), structuring a new “framework” is never an easy task for scholars from outside of Western academia. As Ruth McVey pointed out, “Southeast Asia itself has changed far more massively and profoundly than have Southeast Asian studies, whether carried out by indigenous or foreign academics”, the shifting of power in academia might also be so much slower than that of the outside world.

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