The Newsletter

Reading space, society and history in Asia through its ruins

Ruins are everywhere. In Asia, aspirations for socio-economic development have led to the rapid transformation of the environmental, social and economic landscape. Led by a diverse range of local, national and international actors these transformations have informed the creation of new forms of ruins and ruinations, the disintegration of recognizable forms whether they be material, ideational or institutional. From ruined environmental landscapes, abandoned industrial estates, derelict housing estates, failed infrastructural projects to political disruptions, economic breakdowns and cultural disintegration, ruins are ubiquitous and varied in their manifestations. Ruins produce long-term effects and affect societies and individuals in expected and, often, unexpected ways. Therefore, these ruptures and their afterlife call for a wider conceptualisation of ruins that locates their materiality within wider social, political and economic contexts.

A collective and interdisciplinary analysis of social progress

The recent decades have seen a decline in world poverty and an extension of democracy in many countries around the world. Nevertheless, many people have the feeling that this has also been a period of social setbacks, and there is a general atmosphere of skepticism regarding the possibility of long-term substantial social progress. A new report compiled by the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) seeks to gain insights into what the current main risks and challenges are, and how institutions and policies can be improved if the plagues of inequality, segregation, intolerance, exclusion and violence are to be fought. This Focus shares the message of hope found in the IPSP report: A better society is indeed possible, its contours can be broadly described, and all we need is to gather forces toward realizing this vision.

Heritage expertise across Asia. Preservation through specific and diverse interventions

This Focus section proposes to examine and study cultural heritage debates less on heritage objects and practices and more on the human agents that create, promote, and study cultural heritage and its preservation through specific and diverse interventions. These interventions do not occur in a void: they are often attached to distinct disciplinary approaches and informed by specific political contexts and historical circumstances. Therefore, the six contributors to this section, addressing challenging case studies of preservation of tangible and intangible heritage in six different regions of Asia, aim to highlight how the involvement of heritage experts affects the very nature of cultural heritage objects and practices, including the choice of approaches that are used for their study.

Vietnam and Korea in the longue durée. Negotiating tributary and colonial positions

Vietnam and Korea are rarely compared per se in scholarly work, whether in the field of social sciences or that of area studies. Yet, obvious convergences in their recent histories are apparent: both are Asian countries where the Cold War was indeed hot, tragic and deadly; and both nations were situated at the core of the big divide of the 20th century between capitalism and socialism — Korea still divided, Vietnam reunified in 1975. A conference hosted in March 2016 in Hanoi at the Vietnam National University, and co-organized by IIAS, Seoul National University and Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), pioneered new attempts to compare Vietnam and Korea, with their similar tributary and colonial positions, as longue durée subjects of history. This instalment of the Focus presents a selection of a few excellent papers presented at the conference.

Politics and Society in Contemporary Cambodia

Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 Cambodian politics has been dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Profits of the widespread marketisation of natural resources, cheap labour and foreign investment are distributed among the dominating elite of Cambodia’s patrimonial society, whilst the majority of the population remains bereft of the advantages of economic growth. Taken together, the contributions to the Focus of this issue reveal a political modus operandi, in the context of a politics that has facilitated the CPP’s domination, but which now provokes an increasing challenge to this hegemony

Cover image: Kul (58) is a farmer and community activist; here she stands on logs that were once the forest where she lived since her childhood. Kul was forcibly evicted from her land by the government, who sold it to foreign companies to grow sugarcane and rubber, ultimately benefitting politicians and military. Photo by David Rengel.

Learning to love the city in Northeast India

The rapid urbanisation of India’s Northeast frontier is one of the most crucial transformations the area has witnessed, yet urban environments are rarely part of imaginations of the frontier, unlike the stereotypical images of plantations, jungle insurgency, spectacular topography, and colourfully dressed ethnic minority communities. In the Focus section of this issue guest editor Duncan McDuie-Ra explores the cities of India’s ‘unruly borderland’ as crucial sites in their own right, and as sites in which to experiment with different ways of researching the region.

Artistic Alternatives in East Asia

This special issue examines the artistic and creative practices emerging in East Asia and how they are gaining prominent status, not only in the art scene, but in society as a whole. Rather than mirroring social transformations, these groundbreaking practices initiate thought-provoking alternatives for both art and life. They have become instrumental for bringing forward new subjectivities and reshaping the intrinsic values of social and cultural well-being.

Does language equal ethnicity in Burma?

This Focus moves forward a long-stalled reconsideration to argue that the relationship between language, ethnicity, and identity in Burma is not necessarily set in stone. Rather, language may be one element informing an ongoing process that various groups engage in to define themselves in relation to others.

Memory and commemoration in Central Asia

Across Central Asia, heritage sites and commemorative practices have become visual protagonists of a nationalist rhetoric. This special issue analyses cultural memory practices used by former and current Central Asian elites as a tool for boosting ethno-nationalism. Multiple commemorative sites serving as visual representations of the past are used to foster a sense of belonging and national pride among the multi-ethnic population. Guest editor Elena Paskaleva asks, how can these practices and local historical contingencies provide a better understanding of the search for national and religious identities in modern Central Asia?

Producing & living the city in Vietnam

After decades of de-urbanisation under the socialist economic regime, urban growth is now exploding in Vietnam: the country’s urban population has doubled since 1980. This Focus offers a fresh perspective on the production of urban forms, the reconfiguration of local governance, and the renegotiation of daily practices, mainly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Our intention is not only to highlight the path-breaking transformations taking place in today’s Vietnam, but also to contribute to the ‘Asianisation’ of urban studies’ paradigms through grounded analysis and interpretation, based on extensive fieldwork conducted with local colleagues in Vietnamese cities and neighbourhoods.


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