Theorizing the Cold War in Southeast Asia: Approaches and Concerns

Conference: AAS-in-Asia2020 (AAS-in-Asia2020)
Title: Theorizing the Cold War in Southeast Asia: Approaches and Concerns
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, dance and architecture.

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. Finally, as the postcolonial Cold War was reflected in architecture and urban space, Malek demonstrates how Manila’s significant reconstruction in this period demonstrated a Philippine spirit, but also contended with the legacies of imperialism, and ideological concerns.

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.