The Foreign Service Institute conducted a Mabini Dialogue entitled Assessing the Historiography of Southeast Asia on 27 October 2017 at the Benedicto Room, Carlos P. Romulo Library, Department of Foreign Affairs. The guest lecturer was Professor Ariel Lopez, assistant professor of the Department of History at the University of the Philippines and PhD candidate in History at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Prof. Lopez shared his insights on the roots and themes of historiography in Southeast Asia, its impact on the development of national and regional identities, and the prospects of Southeast Asian scholarship in the era of global perspectives.
As early as the 19th century, the foundations of historiography in the region were established through scholarly journals and academic institutions, led by European scholars with the primary goal of understanding the historical origins of former colonies and their societies. Prof. Lopez underscored two major themes that were prevalent at that time in portraying Southeast Asian history. First, most scholars framed the region a byproduct of the Indianization and Sinicization phenomena after discovering cultural similarities with its neighboring civilizations. This influential framework led to the heightened interest in the region’s archeology and historical linguistics. Second, Southeast Asian historiography focused on the successes of the European colonial enterprise in order to justify its presence in the region. However, divergence of perspectives among colonial powers in studying their respective territories reflected differing interpretations of Southeast Asian societies.
In the next stage of its history, the emergence of nationalist historiography coincided with the rise of independence movements in Southeast Asia. According to Prof. Lopez, the writing of the region’s history shifted towards justifying social revolution and the existence of nation-states. With the introduction of a “nationalist” school of historical thought, historiography was utilized to express the sentiments of nationals on their own history. Prof. Lopez demonstrated these recurring elements by drawing comparisons between state-sponsored historical narratives in Indonesia and the Philippines written in the 20th century. In addition, he explained the impact of ideological warfare during the Cold War on the depth of nationalist historical perspectives of Southeast Asian countries, which expanded to themes of local development and agrarian studies.
In examining the global trajectories of Southeast Asian historiography, Prof. Lopez highlighted the expansion of academic sources and opportunities that are no longer limited to Western countries. He noted the emergence of research institutions in countries within East and Southeast Asia as milestones in promoting the discipline. However, he identified the lack of intra-regional academic exchange, financial support, and teaching opportunities as current challenges in writing Southeast Asian history “from within”. The difficulties in advancing Southeast Asian studies stem from minimal support of national governments and the tendency of scholars to focus on national histories rather than referencing regional commonalities.
During the open forum, inquiries of participants from the Philippine Historical Association and the academe centered on the role of ASEAN in defining a regional identity. According to Prof. Lopez, there is consensus that the peoples of the region share common characteristics. He added that the increased intra-regional movement of ASEAN citizens would enrich the appreciation of their common history.