Lisandro Claudio’s 2017 book _Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in the 20th-Century Philippines_ confronts scholars of Southeast Asia with the need to submit the first several post-1945 decades in the region’s history to fresh and intense scrutiny. It underlines how dramatically that scrutiny may shatter extant paradigms and force reconsideration of the region’s path toward the present. It impels scholars to recognize that acceptance of current frameworks for the history of contemporary Southeast Asia may serve to compound the tragedies of that history.
The purpose of this panel is to take up Claudio’s charge as it relates to Mainland Southeast Asia—specifically to the much-studied cases of Thailand and Vietnam. The panel approaches that charge through four fine-grained examples of the historian’s craft. Panel members ground re-examination of the era in neglected sources for and dimensions of the post-war histories of the two countries. They draw inspiration from K.W. Taylor’s 1998 article, “Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region”, to focus on the ways in which Thais and Vietnamese of the 1950s-1970s were “oriented toward the surfaces of their times and places” rather than toward the concerns that have come to figure in the dominant historiography of those times and places. They rest on the contention that this orientation led Thais and Vietnamese to assign importance to practices, ideas, realities and forces different from those stressed in extant master narratives of “the Cold War”, “anti-communism”, “tradition and modernity”, “economic development”, “dictatorship and democracy”, and others.
The papers not only expose the ways in which master narratives of those decades come up short, but they also deploy of unfamiliar empirical material to excavate social consciousness in post-1945 Mainland Southeast Asia. That consciousness informed the relationship between associational life and understandings of the nature of society in one “new state”, and the construction of national literary canon for an “old nation” in another. It shaped the encounter of different generations of intellectual activists as they thought through connections between forms of power in their society and relations with Asia’s dominant power. It marked provincial merchants’ localization of a statist socio-political vision and of the forms of economic life that that vision prescribed. In eschewing teleological narratives about nation, society, identity, and global politics, the papers thus suggest episodes of the sort from which historians of Southeast Asia must begin to construct new narratives of its recent past.