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Asean identity: Doing it right

Publication Date : 16-06-2012

 

If the Asean ministers insist on forging a common Asean identity, then they need to apply the same methods that Southeast Asian states have used for centuries to create national identities.

There are plenty of arguments that could be made against a common Asean identity in the first place: the region is too diverse, the people do not feel a natural bond with each other, and it is not the place of an organisation like Asean to dictate identity. All of this is true; identity forms from the bottom up, and so far the people could not be less interested in "Asean identity".

Nevertheless, there is a way to do it, and if Asean insists on taking on this endeavour, then it should do it right.

Historically, the countries that make up Asean were each, within their own borders, as diverse and disconnected as Asean is today. The kingdoms of Lanna, for example, were as likely to side with Ayutthaya as they were to fight against it; there was no common identity, no unifying notion of a Thai nation that was exclusive of neighbouring Burma (Myanmar) or Cambodia.

National identities came about due to prolonged national propaganda campaigns that pushed the idea of a common enemy, and of common "national" heroes. In Thailand (or Siam as it was known then), King Naresuan is the supreme example of a common national hero: he is celebrated even in parts of the country that he never saw.

With some careful selection, there is no reason why Asean cannot portray certain historical figures as heroes, not just to their home countries, but to the region. Naresuan is famous as an enemy to the Burmese, so he would not be helpful as a regional unifier, but consider King Chulalongkorn. He handled Siam's foreign relations so deftly that he outfoxed every colonial power and kept his country independent.

The colonial powers took much of Southeast Asia, but they never took all of it. As such, Chulalongkorn was not just a great Thai king, he was a great Southeast Asian king. Everyone from Mandalay to Manila can draw inspiration from Chulalongkorn's story, if that story is told in the right way.

There are plenty of other Southeast Asians who, while famous in their own countries, have yet to have their stories told in ways that would allow other Southeast Asians to identify with them. One is King Fa Ngum, of Laos, who lived a life every bit as exciting as Naresuan's. Schooled by the Khmers, Fa Ngum united his country, fought off the Mongol hordes, and ushered his people through great spiritual struggles. The map of Southeast Asia would not look as it does today if it were not for Fa Ngum.

Or there is Jose Rizal of the Philippines. A poet, a lover, a political firebrand, and - unknown to most people - the originator of non-violent resistance, long before Mahatma Gandhi. Rizal's cruel execution at the hands of the Spanish is believed to be what kicked the Philippine independence movement into high gear. This dashing, romantic figure should be world-famous, yet he is little known outside the Philippines. Here is someone in whom any Southeast Asian can take immense pride.

The Filipinos have made countless movies about Rizal, and movies would be the perfect medium for the message that Asean wants to put forward. A string of entertaining movies, filmed perhaps in English with local subtitles, could be made and distributed throughout the region, to tell the stories of the popular heroes of Southeast Asia.

People will go to see a good movie, regardless of who the protagonist is. So long as the film is entertaining and marketed well, audiences will turn up. If the story is emotionally stirring and the protagonist is appealing, audiences will identify with that protagonist. The goal should be a film that portrays, say, GenenralAung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) as a Southeast Asian hero, rather than just a Burmese hero, to give non-Burmese audiences permission to cheer for him.

Such movies should be made not with exacting historical accuracy, but stylised and popularised, as they are in their home countries. There are two reasons for this. First, popular (if historically imprecise) stories have proven durability and appeal; people like them. Second, if Asean gets a reputation for making movies that "get the story all wrong" in the eyes of local people, then few will turn out to see them. Filipinos will not turn out to see the Fa Ngum movie if it was produced by the same group whose portrayal of Rizal was at odds with the popular imagination. Tell the same version of the hero's story that his countrymen tell.

Naturally, some movies will be more popular than others, and here is where the bottom-up influence makes its return. There must be multiple films, because the people will choose their heroes; they always have. They will choose their identity. Asean can make suggestions, but if it wants to succeed in forming a common Asean identity, then it will leave the details and the final decisions up to the people.

The author is pursuing an MA in Southeast Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

 

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