Beyond national borders – Citizenship and belonging in Southeast Asia in the 21st Century

Panel organizers

Mirjam Le (University of Passau)
Mandy Fox (University of Passau)


Mandy Fox (University of Passau)


Mirjam Le (University of Passau)


Silvia Mayasari-Hoffert (University Frankfurt)
Luzile Satur (University Passau)
Melanie Hackenfort (University Koblenz)
Rüdiger Korff (University Passau)

Panel abstract

In recent years, Southeast Asia, tensions between democratization and authoritarianism, social conflicts and nationalism, and thus questions of identity and belonging moved beyond the national framework. However, often academic research is still confined to national borders. Thus, we aim to start an academic discourse beyond the singular nations to understand questions of identity, belonging and citizenship in a broader regional frame.

In recent years, a growing crisis of legitimation in many Southeast Asian Countries is countered by increasing authoritarian governments and state repression. At the same time, the role of elites and their relationship with the heterogeneous middle classes puts processes of democratization into question. Ideas of citizenship become fields of intensive tension surrounding identity and belonging. This process is reinforced by the marginalization and exclusion of ethnic and social groups and an increasing inequality, which puts pressure on the social order. Within these dynamics, the media plays a double role as medium of expression but also of propaganda. Consequently, a diverse set of fields of conflicts emerges in which environmental protection, local and national identity, corruption and land rights are hot topics and used as tools of social mobilization. Social media further provides new means of engagement, mobilization but also political persecution. Furthermore, transnational networks of refugees, activists and workers further blur our understanding of identity, citizenship and nation.

In this conflicted political and social landscape, a new nationalism, often coupled with ethnic and religious ideologies emerges to promise solutions to a wide range of problems. At the same time, transnational movements and mobilities of ideas, people and goods – part of the globalized world – transcend simple national solutions to questions of identity of identity, citizenship and belong.

Therefore, as national borders become increasingly blurred and frontier spaces emerge, it becomes a necessity as researcher to move beyond old national boundaries and categories. The aim of this panel is thus to develop new frameworks of understanding for Southeast Asia as civil unrest, environmental problems and national security demand a cross-border approach.

Silvia Mayasari-Hoffert:  Ethnic Trauma in Indonesia: Bridging the Gap through Literature

Chinese minorities have been victimized in Indonesia and used as a scapegoat with regards to economic dissatisfaction under various governments in power since the colonial period. The most severe discrimination took place under the authoritarian New Order regime (1966-1998), whose legacy are still felt long after the end of the regime. The New Order administrations facilitated a few ethnic Chinese to become tycoons but at the same time discriminated the rest by banning Chinese language and traditions and portrayed them in a bad light. Systematically inculcated since 1966, the simmering anti-Chinese sentiments culminated in 1998, where, following an economic collapse, shops and houses owned by ethnic Chinese were ransacked and burnt, and the women were subjected to sexual violence. Unlike in 1974, however, the riots in 1998 resulted in the end of the regime despite the well-known gambit of diverting people’s anger toward Chinese Indonesians. Only a privileged few could flee the country, heading to the neighboring Singapore and Australia. Many of them never return to Indonesia and subsequently change their nationality. After the end of the regime, there was an impulse to defuse the tensions between the ethnic majority and minority. As it is impossible to rewrite the country’s history overnight, many writers in the early post-authoritarian period resorted to literature to discourage anti-Chinese sentiments. Generally depicting the tribulations of Chinese Indonesians, the novels attempt to trigger a critical attitude in assessing the suffering of others. They also received high publicity from the media. The first of such novels, Ca Bau Kan, was made into a theatrical film. Many literary texts from the early post-authoritarian days played part in encouraging people to question the New Order’s long-held national-populist rhetoric. After being an initial trend, however, novels depicting Chinese Indonesians have been slowly ceased to receive high publicity. In the meantime, there has been a steady rise of renewed animosity toward Chinese Indonesians. In 2018, the novel Chinese Whispers, which revisits the anti-Chinese riots in 1998, received media mentions amidst the growing animosity – although not in the scale of Ca Bau Kan. Chinese Whispers was written by an Australian-based Chinese Indonesian who fled the country in 1998. By analyzing the features in the literary texts which elicit empathy, this article aims to examine the concept of ‘empathy’ and its connections with traumatizing grievances which have yet to be resolved.

Luzile Satur:  The War on Drugs and the Role of Public Space in Indonesia and the Philippines

This research aims to analyze the legitimacy of the ferocious campaign on the eradication of large-scale and small-scale drug personalities in Indonesia and the Philippines being at the forefront of regional and global concern. It also investigates an emerging alternative grassroots strategy towards drug use problems by examining the role and usage of public space as space of humanization.

We need to understand the legitimatization of the ‘War on Drugs’, initiated by both Presidents Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte, which will be analyzed in a first step to develop a different approach towards reintegration of drug users into society. Widodo and Duterte share similar pattern of political success. Both became mayors of their hometown—Widodo from Surakarta/Solo and Duterte from Davao—before they were catapulted into the presidency in 2014 and 2016, respectively (Heydarian, 2017; Nugroho, 2014). Further, both presidents distance themselves from the political elites in their national capitals. Notwithstanding the alienation from national elites, both executives won popular approval on the drug war from their local origins and nation states despite their tendency towards authoritarian rule or Herrschaft (Weber, 2009) including alleged human rights violations, summary executions, and political intimidation (Curato, 2017; Schaffar, 2018). Both hence utilize strategies of legitimation as populist method of endorsing the acts of violence of the state against the targeted drug personalities. By following the concept that legitimation is deciphered in discourse, this study will identify the strategic means of legitimation. It will then anchor on Giorgio Agamben’s (1998) concept of ‘homo sacer’ which is translated and equated into Asian context as the ‘big man’ or ’father figure’ who forcefully oversees the collectivist source of legitimacy. Duterte and Widodo emerge into state of exception being the ‘big man’ or ’father figure’ in their respective nation states.

In a second step, this research studies an alternative strategy towards drug-users which neither legitimizes the violence nor approves the war on drugs but seeks to use public spaces in order to reduce the potential victims in extrajudicial executions. By combining the philosophies of Henri Lefebvre (1991) and Alain Touraine (2000), this study will elucidate that the core of perceived, lived, and conceived public spaces is ‘the Subject’. Once the Subject utilizes the public sphere to instill social action, social space is ultimately produced. The social Subjects partaking in democratic process is an alternative step towards re-humanization of potential objects i.e. homeless minors in extrajudicial executions. The Subjects take on the roles as tutors and artists in the reduction of dehumanized individuals in public spaces in the cities of Davao and Surakarta, amidst the violent operations against possession of abused substance. Thus, the Subjects utilize urban public spaces as venues of social transformation.

Melanie Hackenfort: Promotion of Democracy in the Philippines – The example of a social housing project in Cebu

will follow soon

Rüdiger Korff: Pattern of state formation and civilization in Southeast Asia

Independence after colonialism meant to establish a state based on the same principles as the former colonial motherlands. As a result, the states followed and enforced the existing world model of how a state should be organized. One important aspect of this world model was the existence/establishment of a Nation based on a collective consensus. Obviously, the process of nation building or of institutionalization of a nation as base for the nation state faced certain obstacles in Southeast Asia.

Furnivall speaks of plural societies. This meant that they were multi-cultural without a common consensus beyond the respective ethnic or cultural group. Within the colonial system, these minorities played specific roles. The migrant minorities were closely connected to the colonial economy and administration. One aspect of nation building was then to define the national culture, and/or main national ethnic group.

Besides specific relations to the colonial power of ethnic groups, certain classes were connected to colonialism. These were first of all those involved in the administration and those involved in export – import trade as well as plantations, mines etc. In this case even the workers were closely integrated into the colonial system

Taking the issues of ethnic multi-culturalism and the involvement of groups in the colonial economy and administration together, it is not surprising that independence was not seen as something desired by all. Thus, after independence was achieved, conflicts started. Furthermore, independence required a re-structuring of the administration, as well as the economy away from the colonial orientations. Only where independence was a slow process, mainly in Malaya, these shifts were quite smooth. Elsewhere, the administration lost a lot of its former professionalism, as professionals were missing and the “fighters” had to be supplied with jobs. Similarly, the economy was weakened. The result was that the two main frames of the colonial plural societies: Market/Economy and legal system/administration did not function properly anymore. In such a situation of loss of social integration, unifying power could only result from the charisma of the political leader.

During the first phase of state formation after independence, mainly from the late 40th to the mid 60th, we have famous charismatic leaders like Sukarno, Ho Chi Minh, Pridi and Phibu, Prince Sihanouk etc. Myanmar is a special case, because Aung San, the charismatic leader was killed and persons with less charisma like U Nu and Newin took over power. In Malaysia due to the well working administration Charisma was less relevant. However, as a means for identification and personalization of political power and the state, the leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Razak were “charismatized” by an efficient bureaucracy.

During the sixtieth, the initial competition between different groups to establish as elites, was ended and a figuration of Tycoon business, military/bureaucratic leaders and a few professionals and intellectuals formed the new elite. The members were interdependent that means the military/bureaucrats depended on business to gain financial resources, while the Tycoons depended on licences, monopolies etc. handed out by the bureaucrats. Both needed professionals and intellectuals, mainly to create ideologies of legitimation for the new elites and the state formed according to their interests. Basically, these elites are still the dominant power. It is thus necessary to look at the state and state formation Southeast Asia through a Southeast Asian perspective. Whereas most theory building had a strong country focus, there can identified underling processes which connect the region.