Southeast Asia: Imagining the region

The development of a regional Southeast Asian identity may not necessarily conform to the 'facts' of geography, history, culture or politics. The notion of Southeast Asia as a homogenous cultural or geographic entity can indeed be overstated. But its social and political identity, derived from the conscious promotion of the regional concept by its states, societies, and peoples, is what makes it a distinct idea in the latter part of the 20th century.

Southeast Asia is an 'imagined' region, its physical, political, social and cultural diversity being too immense to qualify it as having a distinctive personality. Yet, what gives it coherence must count as one of the finest acts of collective self-imagination undertaken by a region's nationalist political elite in the wake of their liberation from European and American colonialism. As with nationalism and nation-states, regions may be 'imagined', designed, constructed and defended.

This approach to the study of regions and regionalism shares many elements of the political scientist Benedict Anderson's approach to the study of nationalism and the nation-state, as set out in his work Imagined Communities (Verso, London,1991). There are many parallels between 'imagining the nation' and 'imagining the region'. Particularly, Anderson's focus on the collective imagining of the nation by a nationalist elite is mirrored in the Southeast Asian region-building as a process of elite socialisation. But drawing upon the work of some other scholars, it is also important to highlight the role of traditional political-cultural frameworks and pre-capitalist commerce in building modern social identities.

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Himal Southasian