Threatening Discourses and State Anxieties in Southeast Asia, Past and Present

Title: 1298 | Threatening Discourses and State Anxieties in Southeast Asia, Past and Present
Area: Southeast Asia
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Matthew Reeder, National University of Singapore, Singapore (organizer, chair, presenter)
Kankan Xie, Peking University, China (presenter)
Eva Danayanti, University of Colorado Boulder, United States (presenter)


In the heyday of Marxist and nationalist scholarship on Southeast Asia, writers of the 1970s and 1980s revelled in recounting histories of overt resistance to colonial or state authority such as riots, rebellions, and revolutions (Kerkvliet 1977, Chatthip 1984, U Maung Maung 1990). However, since the publication of James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak (1985), historians, anthropologists, and other scholars have turned our attention from actions to speech. We have become increasingly interested in patterns of complaining, critiquing, and mockery. We have begun to notice the ways in which subaltern histories and narratives subvert dominant ones, and how these “discourses of resistance” have provoked fierce responses from authorities and elites. Still underexplored, however, is the range of forms these discourses have taken and the grave concerns among state authorities they have caused. This panel examines a range of discursive attempts to challenge conventional frameworks of power, and the anxieties they have engendered. By posting anonymous letters, attacking government mouthpieces, corresponding across borders, and circulating online petitions, such “weapons of the weak” are revealed to be surprisingly influential modes of resistance. Throughout Southeast Asia, from past to present, they have stoked anxieties that authorities find difficult to overcome.

Panel Abstracts:
Anonymous Letters, Hanging from Trees: Challenges to Authority and Omens of Unrest in Siam (1780s-1870s)
The discovery of an anonymous letter, left hanging from the boughs of a tree in a public place, always caused a great commotion among the officials of premodern Siam. These letters challenged state authority by claiming dissatisfaction with general conditions, state policies, or specific officials. Unsigned, the letters offered their writers the opportunity to challenge authority without repercussion. To representatives of the state, they were powerful symbols of popular distress. Officials responded with honest efforts to rectify problems, campaigns to identify and prosecute the writers, or attempts to use the letters as weapons in factional disputes. The letters also served a powerful discursive role as omens of political crisis. In this paper, I discuss the content of two anonymous hanging letters (nangsue khwaeng) and the ways in which officials responded. One letter, hung by Karen villagers in the 1780s, decries their precarious position on the frontier between two warring states. Another, complaining about conditions in Bangkok in 1875, was deployed in a factional dispute between the young King Chulalongkorn and his cousin, the second-ranking royal in the kingdom. By identifying hanging letters as a potent vehicle of dissent available to royal subjects of all stations, this paper upsets historiographical assumptions of a benevolent monarchy and a docile populace in Bangkok’s first century.

Dealing with Neighbors' Troubles: The Origins of Anti-Communist Cooperation in British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies, 1925-1927
While imperial powers struggled to recover from the damage of the Great War, nationalism was on the rise in the colonized and semi-colonized world. Communist Parties of China (CPC) and Indonesia (PKI) experienced dramatic ups and downs during the brief period between 1925 and 1927, as they both rose to play prominent roles in their respective nationalist revolution, but soon suffered fatal setbacks due to anti-communist suppressions. The impact of Chinese and Indonesian Revolutions was also discernable in British Malaya, where immigrants-involved radical activities alarmed the authorities even before communism took a strong hold in the colony. By juxtaposing China, the NEI, and British Malaya at the same historical moment, this paper explores why the British and Dutch authorities came to cooperate in anti-communist suppressions. I argue that due to the concurrent events in China and the NEI between 1925 and 1927, the Malayan colonial authorities adopted strict measures against communism. The British crackdown of the leftist movement in Malaya was largely a preemptive action towards perceived communist threats, rather than a reaction towards the establishment of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The Anglo-Dutch cooperation was effective in the following years. As a result, the Chinese and Indonesian movements never came close to convergence in Malaya, as the British and Dutch governments managed to keep communist activities in check both within and beyond their respective colonies.

An Online Petition as a Digital Advocacy Campaign to End the Impunity of a Journalist's Killer in Indonesia
This paper delves into the characteristics and effectiveness of online petitions by examining the digital advocacy campaign run by the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) of Indonesia. The campaign aimed to challenge the impunity of a convicted killer of a journalist. By expanding the range of activism in the digital world, online petitions open up alternative grounds for social action, collective awareness and follow-up organizing. They attempt to mirror earlier strategies of public writing with the aim of drawing the attention of a wider audience to reach a scalable distribution. In short, they combine innovation with a wide distribution in digital space (Carlson, 2019). Online petitions are a key component of new media activism due to their promotion of social, political, and economic reform with the goal of making changes in society. However, some critics dub online petitions as “slacktivism.” Since they are so easy to create and distribute, their actual impact is sometimes questioned (O’Connor, 2012). Using the case of the AJI’s online petition campaign, this paper makes the claim that online petitions, as a media-activism tool, cannot work alone. It is found that they have the potential to reach a mass audience and boost awareness of a cause. But, while they can be the cornerstone of a digital campaign, they will only make a strong impact when combined with other tools and strategies

This panel is on Tuesday - Session 02 - Room 4

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