Thursday, October 29, 2020
Home Opinion Op-Ed Columns A nurturing friendship and Southeast Asia

A nurturing friendship and Southeast Asia


IF Renato “Rene” de Villa was prominently referred to as the Fidel V. Ramos clone, I would be a candidate for Professor Xiao Chua’s clone. The Philippines’ most famous historian, Chua was my colleague of seven years in, pound-for-pound, the country’s best history department.

Chua is the guy who duped me into diving head-on into the murky waters of the country’s social media scene and I have not looked back since. As the “Father of Public History” in the Philippines, he mentored me as I navigated this robust sub-field of history. He and I have an immensely successful Facebook Live current affairs and historical show called “Dulowtard History Live” that’s in hibernation of sorts because of the pandemic and the physical distance between us (I am now based in South Korea, he will never leave the Philippines). Now, he’s the man who recommended me to the prestigious presses of The Manila Times.

This is my first column for this historical daily. It would never have come to pass if not for the nurturing friendship and generosity of Professor “Walking History” himself.


It must be said that my professional relationship with Professor Chua grew because, even though I am his clone, our paths actually diverge from each other. He is the compleat and quintessential cultural historian with a very firm grounding in anthropology. I am an economic historian with an international relations background. Thus, our intellectual lives complemented instead of rivaled each other. It will not be any different here at The Manila Times. He writes about everything concerning the discipline of history. I will be more focused on how the Philippines relates with the outside world, albeit with a very clear historical flavor.

I start my very first column with the outside world that is closest to us: Southeast Asia.

A discussion of Southeast Asia would rightfully begin with the title of historian Donald K. Emmerson’s essay, “‘Southeast Asia’: What’s in a name?”

Most of us — except for the immortal Juan Ponce Enrile and his dwindling generation — were all born in a world where “Southeast Asia” already existed. However, it might interest people to know that the term “South East” Asia was coined only during World War 2 by the Allied powers to distinguish the military command (South East Asia Command or SEAC) that was assigned to focus on Burma, Malaya, Sumatra and Thailand. The distinctive qualifier “south” was added to separate it from the China-centric “East Asia.”

It will be evident to the eagle-eyed and historically conscious that the SEAC was organized in 1943 along the lines of British colonial concerns. Burma was a British colony. Malaysia — which came into existence only in 1963 — is completely different in territorial composition from Malaya and should not be confused with one another; Malaya is another British colony. Sumatra was included in SEAC, separately from the rest of the Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia, as was the case of an independent Thailand/Siam, because of its intimate relations with British colonial interests.

The Philippines was not included because she was a special concern of the United States, her colonial master. The French colonies in Indo-China and the rest of the Netherlands East Indies were clearly not considered a priority by the British planners. The Netherlands East Indies, southern Vietnam and Cambodia, but curiously not Laos, were eventually added to the SEAC jurisdiction in 1945.

Prior to World War 2, Southeast Asia as we know it today was not viewed as an entire region, at least not separate from the rest of East Asia. Even the entry of the term “Asia” is curious because the global hegemon of the nineteenth century, the great British Empire, did not refer to the region as Asia. Rather the British viewed Asia in their own distinct terminology: Near East for the region roughly corresponding to the Ottoman Empire; the Middle East for the Arab world; the Indian Subcontinent; and the Far East for today’s North and South East Asia.

It was the subtle American challenge to British hegemony that gave wide usage to the term Asia and its subdivisions. The US was wont to use British terminology to confirm British dominance in global affairs. By the time of World War 2, however, the British were already a spent force exhausted from the hostilities in Europe and had no more strength to resist the American challenge to their hegemony. Thus, the British reluctantly adopted the term Southeast Asia henceforth.

More on the interesting history of Southeast Asia in our next columns before we transition into the more contemporary concerns of the region.


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