Diversity
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One fundamental divide in the region is between island (insular) and mainland Southeast Asia. Regional specialists tend to focus on one or the other of these zones; we have joined together in editing this book in part to unite our personal regional specializations. This divide between mainland and island Southeast Asia is more than a disciplinary convenience. The mainland has long had ties of commonalities in culture and language, overland trade, and population movement with the peoples of southern China. In fact, this region of the northern mainland and southern China has often been recognized as a unique economic and cultural region in its own right, with a range of names devised for it, the most recent being “Zomia,” coined by Willem van Schendel and popularized by James Scott (2009). Similarly, the islands of Southeast Asia share a variety of features. Some of these features, such as language family and a tendency for traditional houses to embody social groups’ identities and visions of the world, stretch beyond island Southeast Asia through much of the Pacific (cf. Fox 1993). In addition, although linguistic similarities exist along broad swathes of Southeast Asia, no single language family unites the entire region, and language families often cross national boundaries. As one might imagine, this has presented an ongoing problem in state policies. The dominant language family in island Southeast Asia is Austronesian, which extends from Madagascar through Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, east all the way through the Pacific up to Hawaii (excluding certain pockets on islands such as Alor in eastern Indonesia and the island of New Guinea). Mainland Southeast Asia’s diversity is also linguistic in basis. Outside of the widespread Austronesian languages in southern regions of mainland Malaysia, mainland Southeast Asia is home to several language families. Tai languages are found throughout northeast India, northern Burma, southern China, Thailand, Laos, and northern Vietnam. In contrast, the language of the people of Cambodia (Khmer) is not a tonal language, and belongs to a differentlanguage family (Mon-Khmer). Vietnamese is again entirely different (and while tonal, has very different tones from those of the Tai languages). Up land minority peoples speak a range of languages from unrelated language families, such as Hmong-Mien and Tibeto-Burman (Lisu, Lahu, Akha, possibly Karen) (Matisoff 1983). These linguistic differences underlie variations in cognition and culture, and yet these boundaries are ephemeral in that many people of Southeast Asia speak multiple languages and in fact can shift their ethnic identities by switching languages. The colonial histories of the countries that comprise Southeast Asia differ dramatically as well: Burma was a part of the British Empire in India and so tied to Malaysia and Singapore; Indonesia was a Dutch colony; Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia formed French Indochina; the Philippines was a colony of Spain, then the United States; and East Timor was a Portuguese colony, and later colonized and incorporated for a time by Indonesia. That Thailand maintained its independence was in part due to its role as a buffer state between British and French colonial territories, as well as due to the astuteness of its ruling kings in assimilating Western technologies of governance such as mapping, as Thongchai Winichakul demonstrated in Siam Mapped (1994). Given Southeast Asia’s complexity and the dichotomies it embodies, it is not surprising that scholars have debated how we might best conceptualize this region. Scholars periodically revisit the issue of what makes Southeast Asia a region (cf. King 2005). At the core of this is the debate about whether Southeast Asia is an invented fiction or an actuality based on shared cultural and geographic features (unicorn vs. rose). As Donald Emmerson pointed out, the naming of the region simultaneously described and invented a reality (Emmerson 1984). Although the term Southeastern Asiamost likely debuted in an 1839 travelogue, it was not until the 1920s that the field of Southeast Asian studies was founded (ibid.). Emmerson observed that the region of Southeast Asia was constructed in the Cold War culture of designating “area studies” as a means of collecting security information on world regions (see also Cumings 1997), a perspective that implies that “Southeast Asia” is an invented fiction. The illegitimacy of regions as bounded units for analysis (the “jigsaw puzzle” model) has been further eroded by the rise of globalization and by post-modern rejections of notions of cultures as bounded discrete units. That is, the idea of Southeast Asia as an entity unto itself is seen as based on false premises.

 

 

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