Virtual conference highlights identity discourse and politics across Southeast Asia

The UC Berkeley-UCLA international conference featured presentations by scholars on ethnic and group identity in the region, a keynote on identity politics in Myanmar and a roundtable about the ongoing coup there.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

From February 8-12, 2021, researchers, scholars and graduate students gathered virtually for the UC Berkeley-UCLA Southeast Asian Studies Conference "Ethnic and Community Identity in Southeast Asia." Hosted by the UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies and UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, this international conference included 5 interdisciplinary panels, a keynote address on identity politics in Myanmar and a roundtable discussion covering the current situation in Burma/Myanmar after the coup.

UC Berkeley CSEAS and UCLA CSEAS form a consortium U.S. Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center for Southeast Asian Studies. This conference event is part of the consortium's ongoing programming to highlight research on Southeast Asia being conducted by scholars within the University of California and California State University systems. Panelists and moderators came from campuses in the UC and CSU systems as well as from other universities and colleges in California.

In the opening remarks, George Dutton, professor in Asian Languages & Cultures at UCLA, noted that the conference "speaks to the enormous diversity of individual and community identity and self-expression in the past and present and explores a wide range of identities as a way to better understand how people think of themselves and the collectivities they belong to." 

The conference theme drew focus to the ways in which people in the region articulate, embrace, or contest different forms and reconfigurations of personal or group identity. Presenters examined how such forms encompass aspects of ethnic, gender, or religious identities and analyzed the political implications of how people and groups articulate or embrace identity and the conflicts between groups and against the state. The conference aimed to explore newly emerging forms of identity as well as long-existing ones that are being reconceptualized or reasserted in new circumstances. 

Panel 1: Madeleine Yakal (UCLA), Tuan Hoang (Pepperdine University) and William Noseworthy (McNeese State University) investigated the intersections and negotiations between religious devotion and identity formation in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Panel 2: Dustin Wiebe (UC Davis), Otto Stuparitz (UCLA) and Triwi Harjito (UCLA) explored music and dance to analyze Indonesian representations of religious, ethnic and gender identity in performance. 

Panel 3: Zachary Frial (UCLA), Anthony Morreale (UC Berkeley) and Tho N. Nguyen (Vietnam National University) looked at built spaces, political writings, and religious rituals that reimagine ethnic placemaking across Southeast Asia.

Panel 4: Andrew Le (UCLA), Phung Su (UC Berkeley) and Stephanie Santos (Metropolitan State University of Denver) presented on the impact of state and institutional policies on class, gender identity, patriarchy, labor and the environment.

Panel 5: Ornwara Tritrakarn (Cornell University), Matthew Reeder (National University of Singapore) and Dan Thuy Nguyen (Columbia University) examined ethnic classification, labeling, and exclusion in Thailand and Vietnam.

In the keynote lecture, chair and professor of political science at University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, focused on the complexities and impact of ethnic identity within her research in Myanmar. She addressed the limitations to the study of ethnic identity in Southeast Asia and how research can be constrained and influenced by the researcher's own identity and understanding of the community. She urged for Burmese studies scholars and ethnic identity scholars more broadly to understand their responsibility "to shed light on diverse opinions and to avoid making generalization based on group membership."

Speakers in the Burma/Myanmar After the Coup Roundtable the following day shared stories about the lived experiences of activists, protestors, and community leaders in the aftermath of the military coup and presented ways to reframe what had happened. UCLA postdoctoral scholar Seinenu Thein-Lemelson underscored how the Burmese media and historical narratives center the military and how journalists and academics often fail to acknowledge the systemic persecution and elimination of members of the National League for Democracy. UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management postdoctoral fellow Hilary Faxon noted that this coup is not about an individual person, but is representative of a difficult moment in a longer history of democratic struggle. UC Berkeley Burmese language lecturer Kenneth Wong offered some encouragement by adding, "We are seeing the resurgence and rebirth of a new democracy energy."

The program also featured songs performed on Thai traditional instruments by Supeena Adler (UCLA) and Christopher Adler (University of San Diego). Over 500 students, faculty, scholars and community members attended the conference on Zoom over the course of the five days.

The conference was chaired by Professor George Dutton (Director of UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies) and co-organized by Nguyet Tong (Assistant Director, UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies), Sarah Maxim (Vice Chair, UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies) and Kitty Hu (Program Coordinator, UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies).




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Published: Thursday, February 25, 2021

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