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
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.