By Rattana Lao*
Imagining peace is a noble concept, but what does it take to achieve it?
Where does peace begin?
In modern day Southeast Asia, this can trace back to August 8, 1967 when five foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand joined hands to create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or what became known as ASEAN.
Diverse in nature and disperse in geography, ASEAN has achieved much within the course of fifty years. The Association has grown in size of its membership and expanded to reach ambitious mandates. In 2015, ASEAN Economic Community was created to promote free movement of people, goods and ideas.
Economic integration was just the beginning.
Coated in a long and wordy text and signed on November 17, 2011, the Declaration on ASEAN Unity in Cultural Diversity strived toward achieving “people centered and socially responsible integration,” a socio-cultural integration in short.
Inspired by the European Union, creating one market was not enough for ASEAN. The Association is driven to “forging a common identity”. It is hoped that through such effort, peace, mutual understanding and harmony will be fostered in Southeast Asia.
A common identity for more than 600 million people?
A little lofty.
To achieve this aspiration, the Shared History Project in Southeast Asia was launched by UNESCO-Bangkok Office with funding from the Republic of Korea in 2013 to create a new history curricular to be taught and learned across ASEAN by 2018.
The project brought together historians, educators and researchers across the region to search for common grounds of what aspect of history to teach and how to teach it.
It is all for a higher purpose and a better future.
As the late Secretary General of ASEAN, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, persuasively said, “it is a better history education that will produce and provide a strong foundation for understanding where we have come from and to guide us into the future where we are going, as individuals, as local communities, as nation states, as a greater sub-regional grouping.”
Ideally speaking, a Shared History should be welcomed with open arms. A project so inspiring that it aims to mitigate nationalism and bridge differences across the nations.
In an interview with Dr. William Brehm of Waseda University, he offered insight into this new architecture to build peace in ASEAN. There are many challenges to translate a Shared ASEAN.
Firstly, who will write these new memories? How can a consensus be built among people with diverse cultural heritage, background and social memories?
If history is written by the winners – who are the winners in ASEAN?
In ASEAN, disputes and conflicts among nations are not memories of things past, rather they are confounding issues aggravating daily hatred across countries within the region. Border dispute among nations is the case in point. As Professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic already warned in his luminary policy paper ‘No Asian cenutr… “any absolute or relative shift in economic and demographic strength of one subject of international relations will inevitably put additional stress on the existing power equilibriums and constellations that support this balance in the particular theater of implicit or explicit structure.” Funded by the Thailand Research Fund, Akkaraphong Khamkhun of Thammasat University counted as many as 20 ongoing territorial disputes in ASEAN. These conflicts are between Malaysia and Brunei, Laos and Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
This is not to mention the infamous Preah Vihear dispute that cuts deep wounds between Thailand and Cambodia.
While the wounds are still fresh, how would these stories be told? Whose stories, precisely?
Secondly, how can a Shared ASEAN formed when countries are deeply founded with nationalistic sentiment, where overt nationalism is propagated in and outside of classrooms, where the sense of hatred to “the other” is instilled for students.
The villain of one country, is the hero of the other. Myanmar – Thai historical text books are the prime examples on this. Thai kings are always the heroes for Thailand, while Myanmar kings are presented often and always as the villains.
And vice versa.
This is what well-known Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul called “negative identification.”
For centuries, each country in ASEAN, has been guilty for inflicting negative identification on others to elevate a sense of pride for themselves. It is easier to teach who is “us”, when you know who is “them”.
ASEAN is not alone in striving to form a new memory of themselves. In the case of Africa, Dr. Brehm argued that the Shared History project took as long as 35 years to be successful.
“Dated back to UNESCO’s 1964 General History of Africa project. That project created a set of eight volumes articulating a shared history of Africa. Huge disagreements among the various national historians prolonged the project; it took 35 years before all eight volumes were published.”
If a country is an imagined community, said Bennedict Anderson in his polemic book the Imagined Community, by schools, common language and mass media, is it possible, Dr. Brehm asked, for the UNESCO and ASEAN enthusiastic idealists to dream of a new common identity for 600 million people who speak more than hundreds of languages and dialects?
Is it possible that a common understanding can be reached and harmony can be fostered through a new kind of text book, new knowledge and new understanding to promote something as elusive as a regional identity?
Dr. Brehm is a little skeptical: “So long as education is organized by nation-states, history and historical memory will always promote nationalism and national identity. Everything else will be secondary or retro-fitted for the main purpose.”
Difficult, but does that mean impossible?
Surely a Shared textbook is useful and much needed intervention to cement a mutual understanding among ASEAN students. For political, historical and educational reasons, however, this project requires careful consideration, time and resources to ensure that a new generation of ASEAN will be peace loving rather than nationalistic hawkish. Having a multilateral organization like UNESCO to promote history lesson offers a humble step toward regional peace.
Where does peace begin?
It begins with mutual understanding.
More importantly, it has to begin now.
*Rattana Lao is a long-time insider into ASEAN affairs, a US graduate and Thai national.