June 23, 2018

Unity-in-Diversity? Regional Identity-building in Southeast Asia

Kristina Jönsson:The aim of this paper is to discuss the issue of regional integration and regional identity-building in Southeast Asia. The idea is to problematise the quest for a regional identity by relating the efforts of integration to the issues of multi-ethnicity, national identity-building and multicultural societies in times of globalisation. The article consists of three broad themes intending to capture the complexity of regional identity-building: regionalism and regional cooperation; tensions by diversity; and dilemmas of regional identity-building in multi-ethnic societies illustrated by Laos and Burma/ Myanmar. This analysis is explorative in character and attempts to combine different bodies of literature in order to better understand some of the contradictory processes related to regional identity-building in Southeast Asia. A tentative conclusion is that without an accommodating, inclusive and pluralistic society, the creation of a common regional identity will remain an elitist political project.

1 Introduction
We envision the entire Southeast Asia to be, by 2020, an ASEAN
community conscious of its ties of history, aware of its cultural heritage
and bound by a common regional identity.
We see vibrant and open ASEAN societies consistent with their
respective national identities, where all people enjoy equitable access
and opportunities for total human development regardless of gender,
race, religion, language, or social and cultural background (ASEAN
vision 2020).
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have a
vision to create a common identity in Southeast Asia by 2020. Considering
the recent history of the region, this is quite significant. A little more than a
decade ago, Southeast Asia was divided into two blocs, one with the old
ASEAN members Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and
Brunei, and the other with the newest members Vietnam, Laos, Burma/
Myanmar1 and Cambodia. Despite integration efforts since the announcement,
the region still suffers from unsolved conflicts and substantial socioeconomic
inequalities between, as well as within, the countries. In order to
create stability and to remain in power, the regimes engage in different projects
of strengthening their national identities, which creates contradictory
processes within the countries, as well as between them. The aim of the
paper is hence to discuss the issue of regional integration and regional identity-
building in Southeast Asia and to problematise the quest for a regional
identity, as stated in the ASEAN Vision 2020 cited above, by relating the
efforts of integration to regional diversity and to the issue of national identity-
building. I will argue that the quest for a regional identity is a political
(elite) project and that without an accommodating, inclusive and pluralistic
society, a common regional identity will be hard – if not impossible – to
The literature on regionalism and regional integration has so far primarily
focused on regional security and the economics matters of nation-states,
and the interaction and collaboration between the states together with the
development and functioning of regional organisations. The region’s violent
past, strategic importance, and the last decades’ exceptional economic developments
can partly explain this. Attempts to measure regionalism have often
focused on quantifiable indicators such as level of interaction. According to
Acharya (2000: 1), regional perspectives on Southeast Asian politics and
international relations are scarce. Also, there is relatively little written about
regionalism from the perspectives of the conceptualisation of regions and
regional identity-building in relation to local and national identity formation
processes, and what it takes to integrate individuals of diverse cultural and
ethnic groups into a regional identity (Jones 2004: 143). This despite the fact
that Southeast Asia is a mosaic of different cultural and ethnic groups, and
that it is often pointed out that globalisation processes increase the risk of
ethnic fragmentation (see e.g. Kinnvall 2002). Accordingly, different bodies
of literature will be combined in order to better understand the complexity
of regionalism.
In this paper, “identity” is used in a very simplistic way, as the intention
is to problematise the political project of creating a regional identity rather
than to focus on identity issues as such. The process of identity formation is
extremely complex and varies depending on time and space. Identities can
be overlapping and individuals may have several identities. Southeast Asia
encompasses people from the urban middle class in Singapore as well as
rural ethnic minorities in Laos, and state identity does not necessarily equal
individual identity. Besides, what ASEAN actually means by a “common
regional identity” is not entirely clear. Solidarity and cooperation, an increasingly
integrated market and more open societies appear to be keywords (see
Jones 2004: 141), but say little about how to create a common identity in
The paper is divided into three major parts: the first focuses on the
development of regionalism in Southeast Asia; the second part highlights
tensions of diversity in the region; and the third part presents two cases,
Laos and Burma/ Myanmar, as illustrations of multi-ethnic and multicultural
societies that may challenge the quest for a common regional identity.
Besides the fact that Laos and Burma/ Myanmar are newcomers and the
economically poorest of the ASEAN member states (and having an arduous
path to integration for those reasons), minority groups in those two states
comprise a relatively large part of the population. Still, the two regimes have
chosen different ways to approach the minority issue.
2 Regional Integration
This part of the paper focuses on some of the integration attempts in Southeast
Asia from the 1960s onwards with special emphasis on ASEAN. The
history and development of ASEAN cannot be ignored in understanding
the regional project, even thought ASEAN by no means equals Southeast
Asia as a geographical concept – East Timor has not been allowed to become
a member, for example. Accordingly, the paper also discusses the 
foundations for a region and whether there is anything special about Southeast
Asia that may influence regional identity-building.
2.1 Southeast Asia versus East Asia
During the last couple of decades, cooperation within regions has, in general,
escalated. The most successful example of regional integration, the European
Union (EU), produced a “reform treaty” as late as December 2009 in
order to enhance the integration process. The NAFTA and Mercosur agreements
in the Americas are other examples of regional projects (Jones 2004:
141). In Southeast Asia, ASEAN is promoting increased integration, which,
for example, is expressed in ASEAN Vision 2020. In November 2007 the
first-ever ASEAN charter was signed, and within a year it was ratified
(Narine 2009: 375). ASEAN was created in 1967 with Thailand, Malaysia,
Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines as its founding members. The idea
was to create an organisation for economic, social and cultural cooperation.
However, security issues implicitly played a role (Acharya 2000: 84). For
example, the fear of communism spreading beyond Indochina and Burma/
Myanmar was a major reason for creating the organisation.2 Brunei joined
ASEAN in 1984 as the sixth member. In 1995 Vietnam became a member,
and in 1997 Laos and Burma/ Myanmar followed. The membership of
Cambodia was delayed until 1999 because of internal unrest.3 The enlargement
may be viewed as an act to balance the influence of China as well as a
way to check Thai hegemonic ambitions on mainland Southeast Asia. Another
reason was the increasing competition over natural resources in the
region, an area in which the newer member states are rich.4
The quest for official regional cooperation in Southeast Asia has not
been consistently pursued over the years. The various collaboration patterns
have made the process complicated – partly because of membership
constellations and partly because they have been caught between security
and economic considerations (see Yepes 2003 for a detailed account of the
regionalisation process). Furthermore, while ASEAN has been enlarged and
in that respect has created a stronger regional unit, the concept of East Asia
has begun to emerge. In this context East Asia consists of the ASEAN
member states in Southeast Asia and China, Japan and South Korea in
Northeast Asia. The first attempt to introduce East Asia as a region stems
from the beginning of the 1990s and the East Asian Economic Caucus
(EAEC) within the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), but it failed
to be realised. The second attempt, ASEAN+3 (PR China, Japan and South
Korea), has so far been more successful. According to Takashi Terada
(2003), the major explanation for is the Asian financial crisis, the development
of regionalism in other parts of the world, and Japan’s promotion of
The leaders of ASEAN+3 have met on a regular basis since the mid-
1990s to promote regional cooperation. The first informal ASEAN+3 meeting
was organised in 1997 in order to promote political and economic
cooperation at the top level. The aim was to promote mutual understanding,
trust, neighbourliness and friendly relations to further peace, stability and
prosperity in the region. The Asian financial crisis showed that Southeast
Asia and Northeast Asia were closely linked, which naturally encouraged
increased cooperation in the East Asian region. In parallel regional integration
was expanding in Europe as well as in America, which in turn called for
an Asian response (Terada 2003). Added to that, the Asia–Europe Meeting
(ASEM)6 cooperation contributed to the idea of East Asian through meetings
between the southeast and northeast Asian countries, meetings which
were necessary in order to develop a common Asian standpoint vis-à-vis the
European counterpart (Gilson and Yeo 2004: 28).
Finally, while Japan had previously not been interested in excluding the
Pacific part of an Asian region, it made a surprising turn-about on the issue.
However, some observers still have doubts about more substantial East
Asian regionalism, partly because of cultural differences and partly because
of a fear of ASEAN being marginalised within an East Asian region (Terada
2003). Also, East Asia has nothing equivalent to the European Commission,
or even a regional political structure. APEC is too heterogeneous to be relevant,
and the ASEAN secretariat is sub-regional (Stevenson 2004: 841).
This development could explain ASEAN’s move at its seventh summit
meeting, in Bali, Indonesia, in 2003, where initiatives were taken to revitalise
Southeast Asian regionalism by the establishment of an ASEAN Economic
Community, an ASEAN Security Community, and an ASEAN Social and
Cultural Community. The member states felt there was a need to speed up
economic integration in order to meet the challenges from China and India.
Security collaboration was needed for creating stability in the region, as nontraditional
security threats, such as terrorism, may damage the economies.
Moreover, conventional security issues such as military conflicts between the
Southeast Asian states were not seen as a danger any longer (Dieter 2009;
Ferguson 2004: 396; Singh 2004: 2-3; Smith 2004). The vision of the initiative
was primarily to create a single market with free flow of goods, services,
investments, capital and skilled labour in 2020 (Hew 2004: 47; ASEAN
vision 2020). Hence, there were clear ambitions to create a stronger Southeast
Asian/ ASEAN region, even if the agenda is highly voluntaristic, with
limited supranational and institutional aspects (see Ferguson 2004: 395;
Yoshimatsu 2006: 127). Interestingly, the biggest trade zone in the world by
population and third by economic value, the China-ASEAN Free Trade
Area (FTA), came into effect 1 January 2010, contributing to a Chinacentred
regionalism (although Cambodia, Laos, Burma/ Myanmar and
Vietnam have exceptions in tariff reductions until 2015).7 Besides promoting
regional economic integration it also reduces the perceived threat of China
(Dieter 2009: 83; The Economist 2010).
2.2 Conceptualising Regionalism
Hitherto Southeast Asia has been assumed to constitute a region. But what
actually characterises a region? Most definitions are based on attributes such
as geographic proximity, shared cultural and social characteristics and common
history (Acharya 2000: 4). However, region is a contested concept (see
Kratoska, Raben, and Schulte Nordhold 2005 for a comprehensive historical/
geographical account of Southeast Asia). The term Southeast Asia, for
example, only came into general use during the Second World War (Acharya
2000: 7; Huxley 1996), especially in relation to Japan’s occupation of the
area during the Pacific War (Hemmer and Katzenstein 2002: 591). Scholars
have described Southeast Asia as a “unity-in-diversity”, in the sense that
Southeast Asia contains divergent and overlapping characteristics (see
Acharya 2000: 3). For example, although the countries are neighbours, some
of them are on the mainland while others to a large extent consist of
archipelagos. Furthermore, mountains separate some countries while the
Mekong River connects places creating different kinds of societies; there are
similarities as well as differences between languages, cultures, religious practices,
and so on. On top of this, Southeast Asia today displays more homogeneity
and convergence than ever before (Acharya 2000: 2, 4-5) due to the
increasing integration and globalisation processes and the increasing socioeconomic
disparities in society.
However, “unity-in-diversity” is a confusing term insofar as it is both
descriptive and normative and can be viewed as a possible (political) solution
to the tension involved in the integration process. For example, in the
European case, “unity-in-diversity” well captures the Commission’s efforts
to create a more coherent EU while it at the same time allows for different
national features. “Unity-in-diversity” avoids the (potential) clash between
the creation of coherent political, cultural and social entities (unity) and
“differing internal identity constellations (diversity)”, and can therefore be
used in the process of regional identity-building.8 It is important to keep in
mind though, that the integration process has come much further in Europe
than in Southeast Asia – at least concerning common institutions – and the
socio-economic, political and maybe also cultural differences are more pronounced
in Southeast Asia than in Europe. Moreover, increasing globalisation
may lead to unification in some areas, such as trade agreements, and
fragmentation in others, such as ethnic conflicts.
But even if we can establish criteria for a region, how can we understand
regional integration and regionalism?9 Some scholars see regionalism
as a by-product of globalisation processes, i.e. regionalism is “determined by
location and specificity within the world economy or traditional production
structures”. Regionalism can be described as a kind of re-territorialisation
(Scholte 2000: 42). New alliances and collaboration patterns are created in
order to cope with the new challenges caused by globalisation, and even if
the states lose some of their power, regionalism strengthens the states vis-àvis
the rest of the world. At the same time, a process of de-territorialisation
is taking place, i.e. territories are not as important as they used to be. Borders
simply lose their importance through increased integration, such as
Adherents of constructivism see norm and policy diffusion – where the
concept “unity-in-diversity” could play a role – as drivers of regionalism.
Patterns of interaction in the form of regional collaboration shape the idea
of a region through diffusion of norms, policies and practices of regional
organisations and collaboration (formal as well as informal). For example, a
common identity can be reinforced through peaceful conflict solutions in
political, economic and territorial issues. Also, a united front to the outside
world is identity-strengthening (Acharya 2000: 10; also see Kivimäki 2001:
22), which ASEM could be an example of.
Yet others take a more realistic approach, arguing that the question of
hegemonic power is decisive for regionalism, or that regionalism is defined
by patterns of interaction – both concerning cooperation and conflict
(Acharya 2000: 9). Different Asian regional initiatives such as ASEAN Free
Trade Agreement (AFTA),10 East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC),11 and
Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC),12 can be viewed as examples
that demonstrate that the hegemony of regional politics and economic
arrangements is a struggle between different state strategies that are seeking
to define the regional project (Guerrero 2001: 5). According to Mark Beeson
(2003: 252), the regional integration in East Asia, i.e. the ASEAN+3 Initia-
tive, will continue to be constrained by international tension and a form of
reactionary regionalism. The so-called reactionary regionalism implies that
regional initiatives both have been a response to external events and designed
to mediate and moderate their impacts. For example, the United
States’ wish to form bilateral cooperation with the Asian countries has prevented
region-wide integration and a regional identity (Hemmer and Katzenstein
2002). Further, the ASEAN regional forum (ARF) was created in 1994
(Acharya 2000: 146) as an instrument for ensuring continued American
involvement in the region, and to encourage China in good international
behaviour.13 But China, in turn, viewed the forum as “a vehicle for promoting
multipolarity in the Asia-Pacific to counter America’s unipolar status in a
post-Cold War world” (Emmers 2001: 275). In this sense, ARF is a security
cooperation responding to external events, which also include power-balancing
As indicated above, there is nothing inherently natural about regions.
Benedict Anderson’s (1991) idea about nations as “imagined political communities”
15 can easily be transferred to regions, such as Southeast Asia and
East Asia (Acharya 2000: 2; Sum 1996: 208). Regions have to renegotiate
their identities because of societal changes caused by globalisation, norm
and policy diffusion and/or hegemonic power, forcing them to redefine
their interests similarly to the way states do (Sum 1996: 210).16 This leads us
to the question of whether there is anything particular about Southeast
Asian regionalism that distinguishes it from other regionalisation processes
around the world.
2.3 Southeast Asian Regionalism and Authoritarianism
The governments of Southeast Asia are without doubt the chief advocates
of regionalism and of creating a regional identity. Accordingly, it is important
how these actors perceive and interpret the idea of a Southeast Asian
region (see e.g. Gilson and Yeo 2004: 25-26). It was not until the Cold War
was over and the Cambodia issue was solved that the idea of a region was
reinvented and pursued. Before that, Southeast Asia was deeply influenced
by de-colonialisation processes, nationalism, and the Cold War – all of them
decisive for the regional pattern of international relations (Acharya 2000: 12,
72). In Southeast Asia, regionalism is linked to authoritarianism, as authoritarianism
“created the political basis for a common subregional political
and ideological framework” (Acharya 2000: 59). The regimes could justify
their rule by referring to the communist threat, ethnic unrest, and that economic
development was facilitated by authoritarianism (Acharya 2000: 59).
Authoritarianism, in turn, has been facilitated by the “ASEAN way”, which
is a method of conflict prevention and conflict resolution based on norms
central to ASEAN, such as non-intervention in internal affairs and non-use
of force in inter-state relations. Decisions are made through consultations
and dialogue in order to reach consensus. Quiet diplomacy and informality
are important means to avoid legalistic procedures and public scrutiny
(Sharpe 2003; Katsumata 2003: 107). The “ASEAN way” is made possible
because of the elitist nature of Asian politics. According to a senior Malaysian
diplomat, 80 per cent of the foreign ministers’ important decisions were
made during informal meetings.17 The “Asian value debate” has also fed
into the process of regional identity-building by claiming that there is a common
set of values in Asia. Although toned down the last few years, the
“Asian value” argument still colours the debates on democracy and human
rights in the region (Lawson 2005: 110).
Even today, the ASEAN area is full of potential conflict such as the
Spratly archipelago which is totally or in part claimed by Vietnam, China,
Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei (Sharpe 2003: 240). Another
example is the tension between Thailand and Burma/ Myanmar over border
disputes, refugees, Burmese illegal labour migrants, and the lack of dialogue
with the opposition and ethnic minorities. All of this undermines mutual
trust, which is an important precondition for identity-building (Rüland 2000:
431). Thus, compared to, for example, regional integration in Europe with
its long tradition of democracy and peace (at least in the “old EU” prior to
the Eastern Bloc enlargement), ASEAN stands out as both authoritarian and
relatively burdened by conflicts, aspects that have consequences for a regional
identity. It should be pointed out though, that ASEAN never had the
ambition to become a European Union, with such far-reaching institutional
cooperation. ASEAN was originally set up as a diplomatic community more
than anything else (Smith 2004: 416).
To sum up, the integration process in Southeast Asia has proceeded in
waves, constantly challenged by sovereignty issues and various political
considerations. Different organisations and countries have competed for
spheres of influence over time, and presently “ASEAN+” appears to be en
vogue. A special characteristic of Southeast Asian regionalism is its emphasis
on authoritarianism, and it is perhaps this foundation that creates the greatest
challenge for a regional identity, due to the limits authoritarianism puts
on regional diversity (which will be discussed below).
3 Regional Diversity
This part of the paper highlights regional diversity and nation-building as
counter forces and thus challenges to regionalism and the creation of a regional
identity. It also discusses trans-nationalism and divided loyalties in
times of increasing migration and porous borders, which challenge the present
form of citizenship granted by individual states. This is the part of my
argument that I find missing in the literature about regional integration and
regionalism. While much of the analysis focuses on economic and security
issues, the role of national identity-building and citizenship is being discussed
in other places, omitting an important aspect of the regional identitybuilding
3.1 Challenges for Unity
Despite the efforts to increase regional integration, there are still many challenges
ahead. For example, doubts have been raised as to whether ASEAN
can build a (security) identity based on the “ASEAN way” without
institutionalisation and legally binding agreements (Sharpe 2003: 248).
According to Tobias Nischalke (2002: 109-110), only conditional support
among the member states can be found for the idea of an ASEAN community.
He suggests that ASEAN is a rule-based rather than an identity-based
community. He cannot find evidence of a collective regional identity based
on “shared meaning structures, mutual identifications and norm compliance
with the ‘ASEAN way’”. In fact, according to Nischalke, security is still
guaranteed through outside alliances, the US being the most important.
What has united ASEAN so far is the code of regional conduct enshrined in
the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) from 1976.18 Jürgen Rüland
(2000: 38-39) argues that realist motivations are still valid in foreign policy
behaviour in Southeast Asia, and that policy-making is influenced by precolonial
perceptions of the external world with unstable inter-state relations
and thinking in terms of balance of power and buffer zones. Further, one
should not forget that the military is still influential in the region – Burma/
Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines are cases in point – and that
ASEAN tends to conceal disagreements in public (Nischalke 2002: 91).
Differences in values and political systems within ASEAN also impede
the creation of a common identity. The discrepancies became even more
pronounced after its enlargement, and again after the financial crisis, when it
became obvious that “Asian values” were no guarantee of economic success.
Thailand, for example, has launched a number of initiatives promoting human
rights and democracy that, for obvious reasons, are seen with suspicion
by the more authoritarian regimes (Rüland 2000: 442). The Philippines and
Indonesia have also started to adhere to the universalistic concept of human
rights, which is opposed to the idea of non-interference – and thus not in
line with the Asian concept of human rights (Kivimäki 2001: 9). Malaysia’s
former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who once supported Burma/
Myanmar’s admission to ASEAN, was also one of its critics later on,
threatening to expel Burma/ Myanmar from ASEAN due to its treatment of
Aung San Suu Kyi. The brutal suppression of the street protests in Burma/
Myanmar in September 2007 after the drastic rise of oil and fuel prices
received even more severe criticism from several ASEAN member states
and can be seen as an interesting change from the “ASEAN way”. However,
not all the ASEAN countries are as intransigent in their criticism, as for
example Malaysia above, and it may be premature to suggest that the
“ASEAN way” has given away to a more flexible interpretation of the concept
(Katsumata 2003).19 ASEAN countries are still concerned over state
sovereignty and domestic stability, and so far it has been impossible to agree
on an appropriate style of regional diplomacy (Sharpe 2003; Katsumata 2003:
As indicated above, Burma/ Myanmar has caused a lot of diplomatic
trouble for ASEAN. Another example concerns ASEM, where the European
side for a long time refused to accept a Burma/ Myanmar membership.
A compromise could only be reached by barring high-ranking Burmese
officials from participating in meetings. Burma/ Myanmar constitutes an old
dilemma in the region: the confrontation between commercial activities and
human right issues (Bray 2002). ASEAN has engaged in so called “constructive
engagement”, as the ASEAN governments argued that a strategy of
expanding economic ties was the most effective way to promote economic
and political change, and allowing Burma/ Myanmar to become a member
of ASEAN is part of this strategy. Another reason to grant membership was
to avoid Burma/ Myanmar forming closer ties to China, which in turn could
pose a strategic threat to Vietnam (Hadar 2001: 415).20 However, in recent
years there have been discussions about putting pressure for further political
talks by using a carrot-and-stick strategy, i.e. to increase aid little by little at
the same time as threats of banning all exports from Burma/ Myanmar are
posed if there are no changes towards democracy (Kurlantzick 2002).
However, sanctions are not really effective as long as Burma/ Myanmar’s
largest trading partners refuse to support them (Hadar 2001).
Within the ASEAN group one can also discern various cooperation
patterns. For example, Laos and Vietnam have a special relationship through
their political orientation. The relationship between Vietnam and Cambodia
has been coloured by Vietnam’s support of the overthrow of Pol Pot in the
late 1970s and the succeeding Hun Sen regime. The countries along the
Mekong River (Burma/ Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and
China’s Yunnan Province) cooperate in a number of issues. For example,
they have discussed increased collaboration in the fields of infrastructure,
telecommunication, power links, trade, human resource development and
Simultaneously, self-identity and how others perceive a country impinge
on the relationships between the countries. Border disputes and mutual
distrust go back a long time in history. The legacy of colonialism, the
Cold War and the role of China exert a great influence over politics in the
region. Vietnamese are viewed with scepticism in Laos and Cambodia (see
e.g. Amer 2006), and the Thai tend to look down on Laos as a backward or
underdeveloped country. Many Thai tourists travel to Laos to see “traditional
values”, while the Lao see themselves as protectors of the real Buddhist
values, which the Lao think that the Thai have lost. At the same time,
many Lao look up to the Thai in terms of development and sophistication
(Evans 1999: 30). Consequently, strangers are frequently seen with suspicion
and possibly also as a threat to national identity because they may introduce
new ideas and practices (see e.g. Houtum and Naerssen 2001: 130). It should
be pointed out, though, that there are efforts to change the situation: for
example, ASEAN is trying to create an awareness of a regional identity by
introducing the issue into primary education curricula.21
3.2 National Identity-building and Room for Diversity
One important difference between European and Southeast Asian regionalism
is the legacy of colonialism and the kind of nationalism it has created in
many parts of Southeast Asia.22 This kind of nationalism is in fact anticolonialism
and was important in many parts of the “Third World” during
the 1950s and 1960s. The problem was, however, that at independence the
nationalists inherited the borders established by the colonial powers, and
these did not always reflect cultural or national divisions. Consequently,
nation-building was on the agenda for practically all the new states. Anti-
nationalism of inter-ethnic
disputes and conflicts (Kellas 1998: 94-95; Chatterjee 1993: 3; also see Özkirimli
2000: 182). This happened in Indochina and Burma/ Myanmar. As a
result, conflicts between ethnic minority groups and major groups have been
a problem for the governments for a long time, and still are. For example,
harassment of ethnic, mainly Christian, minorities in the highland of Vietnam
led to a flow of refugees to Cambodia. The majority of ethnic Lao live
in Thailand,23 and there are Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, and so on
(see e.g. Rajah 2002; Jerndal and Rigg 1998).
Thus, ever since the days of national independence the fear of collapse
has haunted the states in Southeast Asia. Ethnic conflict is part of this fear,
which is understandable considering that the region contains 32 ethnolinguistic
groups, with each state containing at least four major ethnic
communities (Yao 2001: 12). The ideology of “ethnicity” has to a large extent
manifested itself in the process of building a modern nation-state. The
ruling, post-colonial, powers became more or less “obsessed” with classifying
people because they believed that modern nations had to consist of
identified populations based on language, territory, economics and culture
(Toyota 2003: 312). National identity is, however, not a straightforward
concept. National identity may consist of more than one identity, for example
an ethnic identity and a state identity (i.e. state as in country), which in
turn may create conflicting loyalties (Kellas 1998: 21). Moreover, nationalism
and patriotism focus on loyalties to the state, while ethnic nationalism may
seek to disintegrate the state (for a comprehensive discussion about
nationalism in Southeast Asia, see Tarling 2004.). In other words, there may
be conflicting nationalisms, which in turn may create conflicts (Tarling 2004:
26). A way to solve this problem is to become a multinational state that
guarantees ethnic rights to the nations within it (Tarling 2004: 67), something
that, for example, Burma/ Myanmar has chosen not to do (see further
Today ethnicity and national identity-building are important issues to
many states. In times of rapid societal changes, nationalism is able to offer
myths of ancestry and kinship to individuals. This in turn, creates a sense of
identity, security and moral authority for individuals (David Brown in Tarling
2004: 24) – even if it may take time to persuade people that nationalism
is the right path, rather than, for example, religion (Tarling 2004: 25). However,
minority nations often exist within states. These minority nations are
dominated by one or more majority nations, which hold the position of a
hegemony, at the same time as most such ethnic groups are ethnically tied to
nations in other states or countries (Donnan and Wilson 1999: 6). Ethnic
nationalism often arises out of a sense of alienation, but also of resentment
against unfair political, economic, or social exclusion (Scheff 1994: 281).
Few governments in Southeast Asia are able to guarantee equal citizen rights
to all. Instead, most Southeast Asian states ethnicise their governance by
informal policy preferences for one ethnic group, or structural discrimination
based on “racial categories” (Yao 2001: 13). Practices of inclusion and
exclusion are in reality strongly associated, or framed, by nation-building
projects (Houtum and van Naerssen 2001: 126). Indigenous people are
often stereotyped as backward and ignorant, and Ken Kampe (1997) argues
that the state authorities’ preoccupation with teaching skills that meet urban
rather than rural needs in the quest for nation-building has contributed to
the alienation of indigenous people and an erosion of their sense of identity.
Thus, the quest for a national identity may weaken as well as strengthen the
3.3 Trans-nationality and Divided Loyalties
The ASEAN states’ assurance that they will not interfere in each other’s
domestic issues has facilitated the completion of the nation-state project
(Tarling 2004: 199-200). At the same time, the nation-state project is challenged
by the process of de-territorialisation and the diminishing importance
of borders through the increased integration. Old bonds of allegiance and
feelings of belonging together with other people upheld by ethnic groups
that are spread across national borders also facilitate trans-national mobility
(see e.g. Evans, Hutton, and Khua Khun Eng 2000). This, in turn, leads to
“trans-localised” identities, which potentially are contradictory (Toyota 2003:
302). As a result, nations have to “deal with the confusing and conflicting
nature of identity boundaries” (Jones 2004: 148). Especially
border people may demonstrate ambiguous identities because economic,
cultural and linguistic factors pull them in two directions. They
are also pulled two ways politically, and may display only a weak identification
with the nation-state in which they reside (Donnan and Wilson
1999: 60).
For example, ethnic minorities in northern Thailand and Burma/ Myanmar
live in areas that extend beyond national boundaries (i.e. national boundaries
do not correspond to state borders). The failure to negotiate ethnic aspirations
within the nation-state has lead to armed separatist movements, which
have extended to the neighbouring states (Yao 2001: 13). According to Janet
Sturgeon (2004), new small entities are being created in the borderland of

China, Thailand and Burma/ Myanmar. These are state appointed and serve
to protect the border for the homeland at the same time as they enable illicit
information, people and goods to cross the borders. This is made possible
by drawing strategically on multiple identities. Violence forcing people to
migrate has also contributed to the development of these small border polities
(Sturgeon 2004: 464, 468).
Such trans-national social spaces and multi-local affiliations are nothing
new. Historically, migrations, invasions and displacements have been common
in Southeast Asia. This, in turn, has led to repeated shifts of cultural
borders and political loyalties. This means that ethnic identities have also
changed over time (Toyota 2003: 310). However, this raises questions about
identity – for instance, whether identity should be related to the place of
origin or to the place of settlement – and today the increasing flows of
trans-national migrants actually opens up new social space for marginalized
individuals and groups previously constrained by officially imposed ethnic
categorisation. Accordingly, identity becomes de-territorialised and an
“imagined community” of trans-localised identities (Toyota 2003: 317), or
“imagined trans-national communities” (Donnan and Wilson 1999: 157),
come into existence. Self-determination movements may also feel part of an
“imagined community” through connection with exiles in diaspora. Their
identity, or perception of identity, differs from that of the regime, and often
such identities can be manipulated in order to motivate struggle. Refugees
are another group that may feel they are part of a wider community through
the Internet, media, travel, clothing and so on (Dudley 2002: 167, 171).
These processes should also be taken into account when discussing regional
To sum up, regional integration in Southeast Asia has manifested itself
in a number of organisations, most notably ASEAN, which has recently
tried to speed up the integration process. However, the quest for a regional
Southeast Asian identity has been challenged not only by conflicts among
the member states, but also by initiatives to create a larger entity, namely
East Asia (ASEAN+3). Economic gains stand against security issues and
(old and new) power balance considerations. There is still a fear of being
dominated by a hegemonic power, be it regional or from other parts of the
world. Integration has, to a large extent, been an elite project with the
underlying goal of creating domestic stability without external interference in
order to stay in power. Nevertheless, the last decades’ democratisation has
lead to disagreements between the member states with regard to domestic
interference and human rights issues. Needless to say, the newest ASEAN
members have made these disagreements even more pronounced. Arguably,
Southeast Asian regionalism is influenced both by power considerations and 
patterns of interaction primarily at the state level. Finally, the importance of
the regionalism/authoritarianism should not be underestimated, especially
not in relation to the issue of ethnicity and national identity-building. By
viewing the linkage from a “unity-in-diversity” perspective, the difficulties
with a regional identity become evident. “Unity-in-diversity” requires room
for differences within the region, but considering the number of (ethnic)
conflicts and the governments’ fear of losing control over their citizens,
there is still a long way to go before such diversity can be accepted by the
governments and “unity-in-diversity” applied as in the European case.
4 The Cases of Laos and Burma/ Myanmar
I did not choose to include Laos and Burma/ Myanmar because I believe
they are representative of Southeast Asia: my goal was rather to exemplify
the difficulties involved in creating a common regional identity. While poor
economic performance and low level of development often are put forward
as the main reasons for regional integration difficulties, the focus here is on
the role of nation-building and ethnic minorities in the respective countries.
4.1 Nation-building and Ethnicity
The nation-state is a fairly recent phenomenon in Southeast Asia (Yao 2001:
4), and the ASEAN countries’ particular concern over state sovereignty is
obvious. Some states have become stable politically as well as economically,
but others are still weak. What they have in common is that their main security
concern is still domestic. Laos and Burma/ Myanmar are among the
weakest states in ASEAN. They are still at a relatively early stage of nationbuilding,
and the governments of the two states are preoccupied with various
domestic political and security issues (Katsumata 2003: 116-117). Many
argue that for a nation-state to gain legitimacy, its people must recognise
that they share memories that can form a nation and that the state’s boundaries
coincide with the nation (Collins 2003: 23). Accordingly, a shared identity
is crucial for the legitimacy of the state – something that has been, and
still is, a challenge in Burma/ Myanmar and Laos. In addition, both countries
face problems with ethnic rebels.24
What makes Laos and Burma/ Myanmar somewhat different from
their neighbours (besides Cambodia and Vietnam) is their relative underdevelopment
(see Rigg 2003: 12). This gap is actually widening between, for
example, Laos and Singapore (Stuart-Fox 2002). Both countries (together
with Vietnam and Cambodia) have experienced sustained stagnation or decline
in human well-being. Socialist development failed in Laos (1975-86),
and Burma/ Myanmar has suffered from economic mismanagement (1962-
today) (Rigg 2003: 328). At the same time, people desire better lives through
economic development and modernisation, 25 and consequently ASEAN
offers a possible solution to their problems. Some observers say that Laos
joined ASEAN to get a sense of identity and belonging both within the
region and on the international level (Pruzin and Weber 1996).
However, regional integration is problematic for a number of reasons –
such as regional inequalities and political obstacles related to non-interference
and human rights. In addition, ethnicity has made international cooperation
difficult when donors focusing on poverty reduction want to
target poor ethnic groups like the Hmong, who have been maltreated because
of their association with rebel groups during and after the American-
Vietnam war. Underdevelopment and social exclusion are closely intertwined,
and in multi-ethnic and multicultural societies such as Laos and
Burma/ Myanmar, the degree of inequality tends to be higher (Jones 2004:
145). Another side to this is that the poor and the socially excluded have
little influence over their situation. For example, in both Laos and Burma/
Myanmar people have been resettled. In Laos, the “resettlement of ethnic
minorities has become a central feature of the rural development strategy”.
However, resettlement implies leaving a well-known territory and changing a
traditional way of life, and settling in a new environment and integrating into
new culture references (Evrard and Goudineau 2004: 938), which many of
the resettled people have had difficulties with. In Burma/ Myanmar poor
communities have been relocated to remote areas. Burma/ Myanmar is also
known for its policy of forced labour (Lanjouw, Mortimer, and Bamforth
2000; Grundy-Warr 2004).
4.2 Laos and the Building of a Multi-ethnic Nation
A shift in consciousness about the nation came to Laos when French colonialism
introduced the idea of “the history of the nation”, and the elite became
aware of the “backwardness” of their country and the reforms that
were needed (Evans 1998: 185). Laos achieved full independence from the
French in 1953, and in 1975 the communists came into power after a long
period of civil war that the royalists lost. Ethnic minorities became important
in official portrayals of the people, which drew on historical conditions
of nation-building and the armed struggle against the enemy (cf. Taylor and
Jonsson 2002). The government’s nationalistic discourse and ethnic categorisation
were thus closely linked (Pholsena 2002: 180). But ethnic minorities
were not only important in official portrayals. In 1975 ethnic minority
groups were encouraged to join the struggle on the side of the communists,
and also today the regime makes an effort to include representatives from
different ethnic groups in leading positions (see Pholsena 2006 for a comprehensive
account of Laos and the making of a multi-ethnic nation).
Ethnicity was already reinforced during colonial times, as ethnographic
classification became an important aspect of the colonial strategy. The
French brought a new model of state and society, where the relationship
between ethnic and racial identities was self-evident. The French identified
peoples as “races”, and they assumed that people could be ranked on a scale
of progress in accordance with the evolutionary theories of the time. Consequently,
people in the highlands were mapped according to their backwardness
(Taylor and Jonsson 2002: 238). This patronising attitude towards the
rural population still exists: one example of this attitude is the National Ethnic
Cultural Garden situated outside Vientiane. It was ostensibly built to
promote and disseminate knowledge about the traditional cultures and fine
customs of ethnic groups, but it has become an amusement and picnic park
for Lao and Thai tourists. Along with a few typical traditional ethnic Lao
houses, the Garden also contains a zoo and replicas of dinosaurs (from
Savannakhet), which according to Grant Evans (1998: 127) reveal a deeper
prejudice that certain ethnic groups are primitive and backwards.
There are today, according to official statistics, 49 ethnic groups distributed
between four ethno-linguistic categories in Laos (60 per cent are
ethnic Lao). In the 1950s Lao Lum (valley Lao), Lao Theung (Lao of the
mountain slopes) and Lao Sung (Lao of the mountain tops) were introduced
as classification terms. The classification was intended to emphasise the
unity of the country in order to eliminate the colonial classification based on
racial connotations, and to build a sense of national identity, and the terms
Lao Lum, Lao Theung and Lao Sung are still commonly used (Pholsena
2002: 185). The government continues to be preoccupied with ethnicity and
ethnic classification. For example, the Lao population census in 2000 was
based on ethnic criteria, and it attempted to map Laos’ invisible ethnicity
through objectification of the “other” ethnic groups by defining cultural
features on the one hand and erasing the dominant ethnic group’s ethnicity

on the other hand (i.e. ethnic Lao). However, the word “Lao” denotes both
the idea of ethnicity and the idea of nationality, and this has in effect made
“Lao” superior as it both includes an ethnic group and the whole population.
To put it differently, there is an ambiguity that is both linguistic and conceptual
(Pholsena 2002). This has caused a debate about how to use the word
“Lao” – not the least among Lao expatriates who often belong to ethnic
minorities (see e.g. Evans 1998: 8-9).
Since 1975 the regime has tried to create a different present by reconstructing
the past through repression and reinterpretation (Evans 1998: 6).
But according to Evans (1998: 11), the writing of history in contemporary
Laos has been problematic. The idea of shared memories has become difficult
in Laos for several reasons. For instance, some people remember the
old regime positively, while others lived in the mountains with the communist
Pathet Lao and only have memories of propaganda against the royalist
regime. In addition to that, the younger generation know little of history and
are more interested in modern lifestyles (Evans 1998: 7). Jerndal and Rigg
(1998: 810-811, 818) argue that Lao identity has been manipulated in the
interests of national unity. They suggest that Laos presents a good example
of Benedict Anderson’s idea of the “invention of imagined national
communities; the creation of state ‘languages-of-power’; the remoulding of
populations into new (national) units; and the retrospective invention of
national identity”. Ever since French colonialism, when France encouraged
Lao nationalism in order to resist pan-Thai nationalism and keep Indochina
together, the question of whether Laos deserves to be labelled a nation has
been debated.
In order to strengthen nationalism and to create a Lao identity, the
authorities try to create myths and heroes. It is important for them to
distance themselves from Thai cultural supremacy, but it can also be interpreted
as a way to seek “local” modernity. One way is to make links to a
royal past. By resurrecting old kings, it is hoped that nationalism will be
inspired (Evans 1998). Another way is to create heroes. There is, for example,
a cult of Kaysone, who led the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party from
1955 and also led Laos itself from 1975 until his death in 1992. The state’s
creation of a cult of Kaysone is a part of its strategy to invent national
legitimizing myths. However, there is a limit to how much a cult can be
developed, as any personality cult may drift too close to the cult of the overthrown
monarchy (Evans 1998: 31).

4.3 Burma/ Myanmar and the Quest for a Mono-ethnic
In Burma/ Myanmar the nation-building project was shaped by its relationship
with Britain and India. Britain defined the borders and offered Western
education. But neighbouring India also affected Burma/ Myanmar through
the British annexation which lasted until the 1930s with the result that
Burma/ Myanmar was treated as a province of India, and also because the
Burmese government found Indian educational and political models useful
to advance their own progress (even if India was also focus of antagonism
because Indians staffed the Burmese bureaucracy and so on) (Tarling 2004:
97-99). Burma/ Myanmar became independent from Britain in 1948, and in
1962 the Burmese military seized power in a coup. In the 1980s a democratic
movement started, leading to an election in 1990 in which the party
National League for Democracy (NLD), with Nobel Peace Prize winner
Aung San Suu Kyi as its leader, won a clear victory. However, the military
refused to accept the results, and Aung San Suu Kyi has thus remained under
close surveillance ever since (Schairer-Vertannes 2001). The regime
promised general elections in May 2010, which have yet to take place. The
elections would eventually pave the way to a civilian government, albeit
military controlled. An election would be the fifth step in the “seven step
roadmap to disciplined democracy”, which was released by the regime in
2003. In 2008 a constitutional referendum was conducted as a part of this
process, but the result was controlled by the regime (Seekins 2010: 199-201;
Mathieson 2010).
In Burma/ Myanmar, nation-building has had, and still has, violent
expressions. Burma/ Myanmar has used a policy of assimilation to create a
mono-ethnic nation (Collins 2003: 27; for a comprehensive account of present
Burma/ Myanmar and its modern history see Kyaw Yin Hlaing, Taylor,
and Tin Maung Maung Than 2005; Ganesan N. and Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2007).
This approach is usually used where the hegemonic group has the control
over the state machinery and can impose its own values on other groups
within the state. However, while this may create a strong national identity, it
may also create resentment in the peripheral communities as their identities
are challenged. In Burma/ Myanmar there are at least eight ethnic communities
based on linguistic, religious and regional divisions. Around 68 per cent
are thought to be ethnic Burmese. The major minority groups are the Karen,
Shan, Arakanese, Kachin, Chin and Mon. Though most are Buddhist, the
Christians have a leadership role in the Karen State, and the Arakan State is
home to about a million Muslims and Hindus (Reynolds et al. 2001: 96).
When it became evident to the ethnic communities that they would not have
autonomy under the military regime, their resistance to the assimilation

policy became military. There are still groups fighting, but since 1989 the
majority of the insurgents groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the
military regime, though many of the groups retain their weapons (Bray 2002:
157; Reynolds et al. 2001: 99; Smith 2005: 78-80).
The tensions in Burma/ Myanmar continue because of the Myanmarisation/
Burmanisation where Burmese culture, language and Buddhism26 are
absolutely hegemonic (in addition to political, economic and constitutional
problems).27 Myanmarisation/ Burmanisation implies that all citizens should
feel like true Myanmar/ Burmese citizens, regardless of “race”. The idea is
to “crowd out all alternative concepts of unity that various ethnic groups
and foreign languages might have expressed throughout history” (Houtman
in Tarling 2004: 203). But the situation is complex, as people are divided by
religion, languages and caste categories. For example, people can be Burmese
Buddhists, Indian Hindus or Muslims, or members of native minority
communities (Thant Myint-U 2001: 245).
Ethnic tensions and conflicts have resulted in migration and flows of
refugees. Even though the Thai government currently is trying to control
and “legalise” some of the undocumented migrants in Thailand, a few years
ago around two million Burmese citizens lived in Thailand. Approximately
125,000 lived in camps close to the Burmese border, and another 500,000 to
1,000,000 were workers who worked in, for example, textile mills and
construction jobs (Human Rights Watch 2003). Ethno-nationalism is being
recreated in some of the refugee camps and could feed fragmentation, but
the articulation of Karen nationalism, for example, is weak as many realise
that they may never return to their homelands (Rajah 2002: 533; also see
Grundy-Warr 2004). The assimilation approach in Burma/ Myanmar has
obviously led to a backlash of the elite’s nation- and state-building project
making Burma/ Myanmar a weak state with areas not under government
control (Collins 2003: 56; Lorch 2006: 19).

5 Concluding Remarks
The aim of this paper was to examine the political project of regional identity-
building in Southeast Asia. One the one hand, the prospect for further
integration appears promising. ASEAN is trying to further the integration
process by aiming at a common regional identity as proposed in the
ASEAN Vision 2020. On the other hand, “one is only as strong as one’s
weakest point”. The newest member states have made the process complicated
by making the organisation more diverse than ever, economically as
well as politically. Even though a country such as Thailand, which is not too
concerned with protecting an imagined national essence, is interested in
further integration, there is also, for example, Burma/ Myanmar, which
adheres to a tradition of resistance (Lynch 2004: 340). Thus, one could question
the gains achieved through the enlargement project considering the
associated problems. However, it makes sense from a balance of power
perspective. The member states are still afraid that powers with hegemonic
ambitions, such as China in relation to Southeast Asia as whole or Thailand
and Vietnam in relation to Laos, will gain too much influence. There is also
a substantial amount of resistance within some countries against too much
external economic, political and cultural influence.
One also has to remember that ASEAN was designed as an organisation
for states engaged in nation-building rather than as a supranational
organisation, and the quotes introducing the paper should not be over-interpreted.
Nation-building is often a brutal business, and the states wanted to
make sure that neighbouring states would not interfere in their domestic
affairs. Consequently, sovereignty remained firmly at the national level
rather than at a supranational level. The idea was to create a strong region
based on strong states, not strong regional institutions. Also, as the security
threats were primarily domestic, the function of ASEAN would be “to
accelerate economic growth, social progress and culture development in the
region” (Collins 2003: 128-129). The increased interest in furthering regional
integration and the interest in the creation of a common regional identity
can be explained by greater global competition which calls for a stronger
region, i.e. a reaction against “the West” (Lawson 2005: 113). Another explanation
may be that ASEAN over the years has fostered a sense of a
Southeast Asia region through collaboration which encourages further
integration. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the “ASEAN way” will
be abolished in the near future, which in turn may slow down the integration

process.28 And, if Southeast Asia becomes integrated in a larger East Asian
region, the integration process will become even more complex.
The forces of globalisation may encourage further regionalism, but
globalisation may also encourage fragmentation. Ethno-nationalism and
trans-nationalism pose a threat to many states, creating divided loyalties and
thus also questioning the legitimacy of the regimes. There are different ways
to deal with multi-ethnic societies in order to create a national identity. For
example, Laos has chosen to create a common past and to include members
of all ethnic groups in the government structure. Although ethnic discrimination
exists, the resistance is – at least so far – limited. In Burma/ Myanmar,
the situation is different. The regime pursues a strategy of assimilation
aiming at a mono-ethnic society based on Burmese values and identity. The
result has been violent resistance against the Burmese hegemonic power, in
the form of not only conflicts, but also of widespread distrust. The behaviour
of the Burmese regime during the 2007 demonstrations and their aftermath
stand in stark contrast to the image ASEAN wants to portray, and
serves as a reminder of how heterogeneous the ASEAN member states are,
and how difficult it is to create a united region when some of its member
states are not interested in complying with the wishes of the others. Thus,
Laos and Burma/ Myanmar provide good illustrations of the difficulties
involved in creating national, and regional, identities in multi-ethnic societies.
Although the two countries are special cases insofar as that they also are
low-income countries and authoritarian, they are members of ASEAN and
they are included in the realm of a regional Southeast Asian identity – despite
their differences.
The analysis above fits well into the picture of Southeast Asia as a region
characterised by some kind of “unity-in-diversity”. But does it work as
a political strategy to enhance a regional identity, as in the case of the
Europe? It depends on how it is constructed, both in regards to “unity” and
“diversity”. Without doubt, Southeast Asia is a region with great diversity,
and each country is, in fact, composed of diverse cultures. The question is,
then, how much “unity-in-diversity” can be achieved? And who should
decide what constitutes “unity” and what constitutes “diversity”?
So far dominant groups have clung onto power and limited the acceptance
of a diverse citizenry, which has made the quest for a regional identity
a political, elite-driven project. According to Jones (2004: 148, 152), regional
identity will be nothing but an imposed superstructure with no facilities of
governance until citizenship becomes a concern and a focus of all ASEAN

nations. The growing number of migrants requires nations to deal with
shifting identity boundaries and, due to the multicultural composition of the
region, the importance of ethnic identity will most certainly grow in
significance. Hence, it makes no sense to discuss regionalism and regional
identity without including the issue of local and national identity-building
together with citizenship – at least not in times of globalisation. It is not
possible to draw any conclusions by looking only at Laos and Burma/
Myanmar, but at least the two cases open up critical discussions of the
political project that is regional identity-building in Southeast Asia.
So, is a Southeast Asian regional identity plausible by 2020? It is questionable.
Maybe it is possible at the state level, if the political will is really
there, but in order to make ASEAN truly regional, the sense of belonging to
a common identity, whatever it may entail, must be “imagined” at the
individual level as well (cf. Emmerson 2005: 182; Nesadurai 2009: 109;
Narine 2009: 377). But maybe that has never been the goal. After all, in an
increasingly globalised world, lifestyles and rural–urban divides may be more
decisive for identity than nationality is. Identities are in a constant flux that
must be negotiated: They are contested depending on political and socioeconomic
developments. Regardless of future developments, additional
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