Organizer: Patricia M. Pelley, Texas Tech University
Chair and Discussant: Laurie J. Sears, University of Washington
Postcolonial politics is inevitably premised on the idea of a dramatic break with the colonial past and on the fantasy of a well-ordered social domain. But in practice the postcolonial is always postponed: the social domain is filled with contention and colonial norms linger on long after the scholars, soldiers, and bureaucrats have gone. The issue of order figures in two different ways: first, as a topic or a problem. This panel as a whole explores how order-in its broadest sense and as both a practice and an ideal-is conceived, articulated, represented, or enforced in the postcolonial societies of Southeast Asia. Individual papers examine key problems in the institution of postcolonial society: the danger (to elites) of mass politics in postwar Malaya, the effort to decolonize representations of the Vietnamese past, the "disorder" of civilian government in Burma, and the proliferation of religious heterodoxy in Malaysia. Each paper also addresses the unintended consequences of order: in other words, what kinds of chaos inadvertently issue from a particular practice or ideal of order? By taking a comparative and interdisciplinary approach to the problem of decolonization, this panel does not plan to reduce the singularity of each experience to a taxonomic scheme; but it does seek to link the discussion of national histories to a broader regional context and to open it up to the global dimensions of decolonization.
Mass Politics and Aristocratic Power in Postwar Malaya
Donna Amoroso, Wright State University
World War II ushered in the possibility of a genuinely mass politics within the Malay community. To those opposed to the reimposition of what they termed "feudalism," this new politics meant an end to the upper class monopoly of power and an opportunity to critique colonial and aristocratic power. For these nationalists, mass politics was a new arena in which the old social order could be both questioned and transcended. The bureaucratic elite, however, with its aristocratic lineage and its links to the colonial regime, sought to extend its own social dominance into this new arena through UMNO, the United Malays National Organization. In order to fashion a more conservative version of pan-Malay nationalism-and thereby defuse the question of class-UMNO appropriated the language and symbols of nationalism for its own aristocratic agenda. Conservatives sought to depoliticize Malay nationalism by suppressing political debate; in the process they neutralized Malay critics and averted calls for immediate independence. Crucial to this process was the invocation of Malay unity as the very core of the community. A resulting emphasis on "Malayness" allowed conservatives to introduce into modern politics ideas and practices presented as intrinsically Malay-namely, updated conceptions of deference, loyalty, and treason. These "authentic" Malay practices were used to consolidate a nationalist mainstream which threatened neither aristocratic nor British colonial interests and to secure a privileged position for elites, both in late colonial and postcolonial times.
The Cult of Antiquity in Postcolonial Vietnam
Patricia M. Pelley, Texas Tech University
The rituals and practice of history in postcolonial Vietnam routinely affirmed that Vietnamese national essence lay in its tradition of resistance to foreign aggression. As the outcome of the Second Indochina War became more assured, however, this "tradition" lost its exaggerated role and in its place the cult of antiquity, with its roots in prehistory, assumed new prominence. This paper begins descriptively by observing the cult of antiquity as it was (and is) manifested in the visual culture of everyday life; it documents the cult's salience in civic rituals and explores its prominence in official histories. It goes beyond the descriptive level by asking what kinds of problems-social as well as intellectual-the cult of antiquity resolves. Whereas colonial histories insisted on the derivative status of Vietnam, the cult of antiquity decolonizes Vietnamese history and celebrates its generative powers. By shifting Vietnam's geographic orientation from the border in the north (which connects it to East Asia) to the long coastline that opens to the Malay world (and links Vietnam to Southeast Asia), the cult of antiquity desinicizes Vietnam and makes it the author of its own "authentic" traditions. At the same time, it smooths over internal divisions: just as siblings in a single family are all inextricably related, each is also different from the other. The cult of antiquity proposes that all Vietnamese-not only ethnic Vietnamese-trace their descent to the Hung kings of Van Lang.
The "Birth" of Military Rule in Burma
Mary P. Callahan, Naval Postgraduate School, California
The prominence of the Burmese armed forces in postwar politics is often traced to the Japanese occupation when, for the first time in history, a national army was created in Burma. Metaphorical references to the army's "birth" underscore the idea of continuity with the immediate past and present the occupation as a kind of gestational period which nurtured Burma's postwar tatmadaw. This paper begins with an empirical argument: military rule in Burma should be assessed within a much broader context and linked to the coercive institutions and practices of the British, beginning with the annexation of Burmese territory in the 1820s. While colonial government granted nominal authority to civilians, the extent of the British and Indian armies' involvement in internal security circumscribed civilian power. The prevalence of armed force in the colonial period also clearly influenced the policies and practices of the Japanese occupation. Having reassessed the origins of Burma's military state, this paper concludes with a more interpretive question: why does this particular myth of origin persist? Why do official histories consistently suppress the British antecedents of military rule and focus, instead, on the Japanese occupation? Why is the figurative midwifery of the Japanese imperial army politically and intellectually more appealing than the real and demonstrable links to the British institutions of colonial times?
Islamic Orthodoxy in Postcolonial Malaysia
Shanti Nair, National University of Singapore
This paper investigates the overt policies as well as the implicit strategies which the contemporary state of Malaysia has adopted in order to forge an Islamic orthodoxy. This "orthodoxy," which provides the basis for a new Malay Muslim-and therefore Malaysian-social order, derives from the state's distinction between authentic and inauthentic versions of Islam. This construction of Malay Muslim orthodoxy reflects global tensions between the Sunni and Shia traditions and creates a universe of "moderate" vs. "extremist" Islam. In this schematization, the "moderate" version of Islam is privileged as a more compelling defense of Islam's universal appeal. Ironically, however, as the state attempts to authenticate this more moderate reading of Islam, it is trapped into demonizing other interpretations of Islam, even while it asserts the universal value of Islamic culture and the importance of intellectual rigor and independence in sustaining it. This paper will focus on the state's strategies for authenticating Islam and for controlling its effects on the social order by centralizing and bureaucratizing religious authority, by policing religious culture, and by restructuring religious and sectarian education. While it examines the state's creation of public (and increasingly international) fora for asserting the authority of Muslim intellectuals over and beyond that of the ulama, it also attends to the state's intervention in more private spheres, such as that of marriage, divorce, and family life.