Theorizing the Cold War in Southeast Asia: Approaches and Concerns

Title: 1062 | Theorizing the Cold War in Southeast Asia: Approaches and Concerns
Area: Southeast Asia
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Sandeep Singh, UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Australia (organizer, presenter)
Kisho Tsuchiya, National University of Singapore, Singapore (presenter, chair)
Darlene Machell Espena, Singapore Management University, Singapore (presenter, discussant)
Marek W. Rutkowski, Monash University Malaysia, Malaysia (presenter)


Southeast Asia is becoming featured more prominently in studies of the Cold War, however, existing works tend to reinforce traditional approaches to its study. Theorizing the conflict in the region overturns established understandings, and reconceptualize the Southeast Asian Cold War, as a major and not peripheral part of the global conflict. This panel brings together unique perspectives on the period, from diplomacy to literature, and dance.

As diplomacy can be seen as performance, Espena explores the role of traditional Cambodian dance between 1953 and 1979, that embodied various ideologies, in decolonization and nation-building. Looking into the South-South cooperation, Rutkowski traces India-Vietminh relations in the first Indochina war that highlight conflicting agendas that allow a rethinking of Cold War diplomacy in the global south during the period. As discourse is a key issue of narration and ‘reading’ of the period, Tsuchiya reads East Timor between 1974-75 as a simulacrum, which became the ‘Cold War issue’. Similarly, Singh reads novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and F. Sionil Jose from Indonesia and the Philippines as an aperture into asynchronous studies of fiction and regional writing.

The dynamic between performing, reading, and reconstructing is integral to formulating a new shape of thinking about the period, which informs legacies until today in the region.

Panel Abstracts:
“Reconceptualising the Postcolonial Cold War in Southeast Asia through Literary Studies: Works by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and F. Sionil Jose”
This paper examines the role of regional Southeast Asian writing, in the form of the novel, in bridging scholarly conversations relating to the fields of Postcolonial and Cold War studies. While these two fields intersect and bring forth questions that appear similar, and concerns about the multiplicity of narratives around the globe that constituted both the postcolonial and the ideological conflict in the second half of the twentieth century, there seems to be a lack of conversation among scholars as to how to develop conceptually an appreciation of the role of the literary as an alternative regional set of archives that live and respond to, as well as play at the margins of, historical narratives of regional conflict and the emergence of the modern nation state.The novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and F Sionil Jose, from Indonesia and the Philippines respectively, in the Buru Quartet and The Rosales Saga, feature as sets of novels that can be read in conversation with their unique historical contexts. These novels help us to rethink questions of the permanence of a singular time, especially as these novels are asynchronous to the times they were written it, yet conversant in terms of simultaneities. This asynchronous familiarity, I would argue, is part of a broader structure of feeling that has as its core parallels that run through the twentieth century and reshape all too easy understandings of decolonization, the rupture of time with the nation state, and the local and global nature of ideological entanglements.

Making of a Simulacrum: Reconceptualizing Timor’s Cold War, 1974-1975
In August 1975, a civil war broke out in Portuguese Timor, and quickly spread to districts. The initiators of violence called themselves as the “Anti-communist Revolutionary Movement,” demanded elimination of the “communists,” and attacked real and suspected FRETILIN party members and sympathizers. During this civil war, the supporters of both sides unleashed their ancestral, communal and personal grudges under the names of anti-communism on one hand, and nationalism on the other. This was the prelude to the notorious Indonesian occupation of eastern Timor. However, Portuguese Timor was described as a “sleepy island” and never a stronghold of a communist party, USSR or the United States before 1974. The “Cold War” was something that Portuguese officers associated with the anti-colonial wars in Africa. Then, why did Timorese people end up killing each other under the Cold War logic? Why Suharto’s Indonesia decided to invade such an unprofitable neighbour? This paper analyses the discursive formation of East Timor as a “Cold War issue” during 1974-75, the period that preceded the Indonesian occupation. It approaches the “Cold War” as a simulacrum constructed by various groups of people’s simulation of the antagonism between the capitalist and the communist. The “Cold War” framework was useful to simplify the situation, and ignored and overwhelmed the highly complex reality in Timor. Political actions based on such simplification ended up in a disaster, which we may call the C̶o̶l̶d̶ strikethrough word) War, striking the “cold” out.

Choreographing The Nation: Dance as Diplomacy in Cold War Cambodia, 1953-1979
The end of the Second World War signalled a new era in for Southeast Asian decolonization andnation-building. During this period, the newly emerging nation-states of the region utilized traditional dance asan instrument for political and cultural expressions. Traditional dance afforded Southeast Asians a platform tonavigate, interrogate, and make sense of the labyrinthine and convoluted postcolonial period which alsocoincided with the emergent Cold War. This exploratory research looks into the specific case of Cambodiafrom Sihanouk’s rise to power in 1953 up until the demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and asks the followingquestions: How did the Cambodian political leaders leverage traditional Khmer dances in both domesticpolitics (decolonization and nation-building) and foreign relations (during the Cold War)? How did the Khmerdance performances embody the changing Cambodian political interests, ideology and expressions? How didKhmer dance evolve to capture the new constructed, albeit nebulous, cultural identity and national image ofCambodia.Premised on a multidisciplinary approach engaging historical analysis, cultural criticism, and constructivistinternational relations approaches, this research highlights dance/art/culture as an active space where twohistorical phenomena merged: decolonization/nation-building and the Cold War. It also sheds light on theCambodian perspectives and performances during this period which provides more nuances to the currentWestern narratives about Cambodian politics, particularly during the Khmer Rouge.

The Complexity of the South-South cooperation in the Cold War: A Case Study of the India-Viet Minh relations
The Cold War had been traditionally viewed as a big power confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. While the growing literature of the New Cold War History has opened the field to the perspectives and agency of smaller powers, the scholarship on the South-South connection in the Cold War environment is still rather limited. This paper is set to explore the theme by looking at the case study of the India-Viet Minh relations during the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Newly independent India under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru was an active proponent of decolonization across Asia. The situation in Vietnam was, however, complicated by the communist affiliation of the nationalist Viet Minh movement led by Ho Chi Minh. New Delhi ultimately chose not to recognize Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) after the semi-independent and anticommunist State of Vietnam was created by the French in 1949. While the decision could be ascribed to a geopolitical calculation, a close look at the Indian archival documents reveals complicated picture of conflicting agendas on multiple levels, in New Delhi and on the ground in Vietnam. The Indo-Vietnamese relations, the paper argues, can offer an insight into the complexity of South-South Cold War relations where the big power politics came in conflict with nationalist aspirations and internationalist sentiments.

This panel is on Tuesday - Session 03 - Room 4

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