Is the Asean Economic Community too ambitious a concept?18 February 2014
Rahul Goswami :
Some time next year, we are told, the countries that form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will form an economic union. The model is purportedly the European Union and the proponents of a similar Asean union have but one over-riding factor that seems to guide them, and that is economics and trade, industry and business. This will be a rickety enterprise because the path of capitalist union is one doomed to long-term failure, and any of the many fine historians in the Asean countries will be familiar enough with the depressingly long list of social and ethnic problems in the European Union, their preferred model, to advise their governments otherwise. But governments are not known to heed good advice and these, obsessed with fulfilling their roles as 'Asian tigers', will energetically stop up their ears.
There is an irony that haunts this megalomanic enterprise of seeking a large union where only three generations ago freedom struggles were being bitterly fought to escape smaller ones. When we look at the recent histories of the countries of Southeast Asia, there is a common emergence from colonial domination or from an economic overlordship. Not all have retained the boundaries they were recognised by in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and a few are reduced. Myanmar and Malaysia (what were once known as the Federated Malay States) came out of British colonisation; Vietnam and Laos (the Lao republic) and Cambodia (kingdom of, not to forget) emerged from French tutelage; Indonesia from Dutch hold (Jakarta and Batavia).
The Philippines won free from the Spanish. A disparate group, it included Malacca (or Melaka), Ternate, Tidore and Flores. The enigmatic Timor-Leste won free from the grasp of the Portuguese. In a sense, all of Southeast Asia from imperial Japan, in the context of its war-time 'Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere'; again the Philippines from the United States of America (the sole formal colony in the history of the USA); and to a degree that is linked with the rise and growth of communist and socialist movements, much of the old domains that fall under the term 'Indo-China' emerged from the indirect ideological control of China (Red China, as it was popularly called even into the 70s) and the Soviet Union. Siam of an earlier era and Thailand of ours is one of the very few states in the world which have never been any greater power's colony, mainly because of its geographical position as a buffer between the French area of influence to the east and the British to the west (but if distasteful mass tourism is a greater power then Thailand is indeed a colony today).
These routes to eventual national independence - and the richly embroidered histories that precede the many nationalist movements of Southeast Asia - were enumerated most magisterially in A History of Southeast Asia by D.G.E. Hall (1955 was the first edition) and this is a work that over half a century later continues to be the essential reference for all those who study the region with a serious, culturally attuned and historically sensitive eye. Hall is regarded as the first amongst Western scholars of Southeast Asia to castigate Eurocentrism in writing histories of the region. He was just as critical of some of the forms that the indigenous response to Eurocentric history took, and disliked particularly the one called 'nationalist'. It was in 1955 that Hall made his call "to present Southeast Asia historically as an area worthy of consideration in its own right, and not merely when brought into contact with China, India or the West" because "its history cannot be safely viewed from any other perspective until seen from its own".
That galvanised a good deal of new thought about how to frame the questions that would lead to more local, representative and endogenous histories about Southeast Asia being written. One of those who responded quickly was John Smail whose 'On the possibility of an autonomous history of modern Southeast Asia' (in the Journal of Southeast Asian History) followed in 1961. The change in point of view (a change much more for the 'West' than for the stoic lowland farmers or the artisans of the region) he called "a painful and confusing business and has barely begun". Over 50 years later, the ambitions of Asean guarantee a continuing confusion.