Southeast Asian integration, changing tides
Researchers studied Southeast Asian integration processes at national and regional levels in the hope of better understanding the dynamics of difference and, with that, new pathways to inclusion in various social, historical, ethno-cultural, political and geographical contexts. The conclusion: Europe has a lot to offer (and gain from) Southeast Asia in terms experience and lessons learned on social integration and diversity.
© DragonImages #115848763 2019, source:stock.adobe.com
Southeast Asia (SEA) is a vibrant region of 600 million people and a pivotal economic and political partner to Europe in such things as trade and security, but also in meeting major international commitments to the environment, sustainable development and regional cooperation. The European Unions counterpart in multilateral areas is an ambitious regional integration experiment called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
The differences between Europe and SEA are many, yet both regions have much to learn from each other, says the projects scientific coordinator, Andrew Hardy of Ecole Française dExtrême-Orient (EFEO), but Europes knowledge of SEA does not always reflect that regions geopolitical importance.
This knowledge gap led to the creation of SEATIDE, a collaborative project which delved into the subject of integration in Southeast Asia, the trajectories of inclusion and dynamics of exclusion. Led by EFEO in France, the research included experts from Germany, Estonia, Italy, and the UK working together with counterparts in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. Teams studied ASEAN integration processes at national and regional levels, and examined how such processes affected social, economic and political transformations.
Prompted by the starter question, In integrative processes, who is excluded?, SEATIDE investigated what ASEAN had achieved and where it comes up short, in particular regarding border issues, the winners and losers in processes of integration, and wider concerns over marginalisation. A grass-roots approach, combining studies in anthropology, sociology and history, brought new perspectives to integration imperatives facing both EU and ASEAN regions.
Indeed, as SEATIDEs final report points out: The ASEAN framework is not the whole story or only narrative of integration in the region ASEANs role in the construction of a SEA identity is an essential part of the regions future integration at the grass-roots level.
National, transnational and regional integration were studied from the perspectives of diversity (political and cultural identities in national and regional frameworks), prosperity (frameworks and practices of mobility and work), knowledge (localisation of imported technology and models of development), and security (the impact of interdependent political communities on human security). All findings were analysed through the prism of how (dis)integration or fragmentation threatens human development and security.
From how to now
Rapid and unprecedented change in the region has had deep consequences for rural and urban populations alike, according to the team in its final report, which documents examples of where social integration has been pushed to the limit, including highly publicised cases in Myanmar, but also lesser-known examples of marginalisation and struggles among minorities and the rural poor in SEA.
Partners were able to learn from the experiences of others in the region but also interestingly from Europe, which has faced its own social (re)integration challenges after the Cold War and more recent refugee crisis and take onboard best practices that could work in their situation, explains Hardy. For this, partners on the ground in SEA were critical.
Working in strategic countries in the region (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam), the projects 50 researchers main concern was to identify the exclusions that necessarily accompany processes of integration. These were analysed at different so-called sites of interaction, including cities, towns, villages, peri-urban areas, culturally significant regions, border areas, but also in government settings and other collective places like schools.
For example, researchers from Chiang Mai University (CMU) examined the dynamics of regional integration in the context of Thailands northern region and shared the results with project partners through regular meetings and research workshops in what has become a sustainable Euro-Southeast Asian scientific network, according to the CMU team. Their findings have also been disseminated online in papers, academic articles and book chapters concerning identities and integration in Southeast Asia. One such volume documented the issue of statelessness and the paradox of national integration in Thailand, religious movements in the Thai-Myanmar borderland and on Thailands muslim populations.
These actions enhanced the visibility of our research on the way development impacts local livelihoods at the international level, and also to relevant stakeholders and the larger public, confirms the Thai team.
The wider results were shared with stakeholders and policy-makers through briefings, fora and other channels (see the project website). One such country briefing, organised at the Southeast Asia division of the EUs European External Action Service, focused on finding long-term solutions to Thailands current political crisis, demographic challenges to economic development, and the issue of refugees in the country.
Other book titles associated with the project cover such topics as Work and mobility in Southeast Asia, and Dreams of prosperity and experiences of inequality in the process of integration in SEA. Numerous films and documentaries were also inspired by the project covering topics ranging from how villagers in West Cambodia reintegrated those who had fled during the genocide, to the plight of Karen ethnic minority refugees in northern Thailand (Inside the Fence).
These and other creative forms of dissemination had a powerful impact and were well received, according to the project team. One direct result of SEATIDE was the creation of a professorship in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Tallinn, which is reinforcing the research and teaching capacity on SEA in Estonia.
Enduring cooperation, a macro-result
Hardy echoes the Thai teams experience: We succeeded in creating an enduring international research network which has been critical in fostering dialogue between researchers, stakeholders and policy-makers in a field dominated by political scientists and economists.
Further evidence of SEATIDEs long-term impact since concluding is the fact that five of the leading research institutions in the project have formed a new consortium (CRISEA) which has won Horizon 2020 backing to explore, at a micro- and macro-level, the multiple forces affecting regional integration in SEA, and the challenges they present to its peoples, and to its regional institutional framework, ASEAN.
This success was really built on specific expertise in the topic, extensive connections to the region, and proven capacity to lead EU projects, concludes SEATIDEs coordinator.