Colonial Experiences and 
Their Legacies in Southeast Asia
An NEH Summer Institute ~ June 10 - July 5, 2019 ~ Honolulu, Hawai‘i ~ Hosted by Asian Studies Development Program

Colonialism Experiences and
Their Legacies in Southeast Asia
                                                                                     An NEH Summer Institute ~ June 10 to July 5, 2019 ~ Honolulu, Hawaii ~ Hosted by Asian Studies Development Program

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Institute Overview

For more than two millennia, Southeast Asia has been a circulatory nexus of indigenous, East Asian, South Asian and later European practices and values. As such, it is a region particularly well suited to understanding the historical circulation of, for example, goods, ideas, artistic practices and religious practices, but also for critically engaging such global historical phenomena as colonialism. Yet, apart from courses addressing the Vietnam era, Southeast Asia remains comparatively understudied in the American undergraduate classroom.

This relative neglect is in part because of the size and inherent complexity of Southeast Asia as a region. From west to east, it encompasses Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines; and from the Asia mainland it stretches south and eastwards through Malaysia and into the Indonesian archipelago, encompassing Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and East Timor. With a population of more than half a billion people, about a thousand spoken languages, and a long history of interactions with the Indic, Sinitic and European worlds, the cultural tapestry of Southeast Asia is both extensive and intricately woven. In terms of religion, for example, across the region there are some 240 million Muslims, 170 million Buddhists, and 100 million Christians, with national populations ranging from 90-95% Buddhist (Burma, Cambodia and Thailand), to 70-90% Roman Catholic (Philippines and East Timor), 40% animist (Laos), and 80-90% Muslim (Brunei and Indonesia). In terms of ethnicity, Southeast Asia is home to more than 50 major ethnic groups and all of the region’s national populations are multi-ethnic.

Moreover, in sharp contrast with China to the north and India to the west, Southeast Asia has never been united under the rule of a single nationality or ethnic group. Indeed, if there is a single term characterizing the region, it is diversity. This poses particular problems for undergraduate teachers working to infuse significant Southeast Asian content into introductory humanities and social science courses. While India and China are remarkably diverse in their own rights, they can be taught as relatively coherent historical and cultural entities. This is not the case for Southeast Asia. As a result, many teachers of the undergraduate core curriculum veer away from teaching about the region at all.

Angle d'Une Cour Intérieure de la Grande Pagode; Emile Gsell (French, Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines 1838–1879 Vietnam); Photo Credit:  The MET
A second challenge to undergraduate teaching about Southeast Asia is the relative lack of accessible English-language scholarship on the region. While teachers infusing Chinese or Indian content into their courses might face the problem of selecting from among a number of good secondary resources and primary texts in translation, those wanting to focus on Southeast Asia have difficulty in locating pedagogically useful books and resources. Because of the complexity of the region and the importance of oral and material (rather than literate) cultural expressions, much of the publishing on Southeast Asia has come out of field research. This presents particular difficulties for the undergraduate teacher who must make broad, yet responsible and valid regional comparisons in the space of a single course.


Drawing on years of experience, the Directors are confident that the challenges of teaching colonialism in Southeast Asia can be met effectively by focusing thematically on the creative and at times contested process by means of which indigenous impulses and traditions—themselves highly complex or syncretic—have accommodated, adopted and adapted outside influences.