Conference Addresses Development in Southeast Asia

ASEAN@50 Conference attendees mingle in the Center for Government and International Studies South building Friday afternoon.
Professors and experts discussed the role an intergovernmental organization has played in shaping political, economic and social development in Southeast Asia as part of a Harvard University Asia Center conference on Friday.

The event, held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is one of several initiatives to bring greater awareness of Southeast Asia to Harvard, said Jay K. Rosengard, a senior advisor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia, who co-organized the conference.

“Harvard normally thinks about Asia stopping at the Southern border of China,” Rosengard said. “Southeast Asia kind of gets lost. So [we’re] using the fiftieth anniversary of ASEAN as a way to highlight the importance of this region and elevate its profile at Harvard.”

The conference, dubbed “ASEAN @50: Achievements and Challenges in Southeast Asia,” featured a lecture from Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and two panel discussions. Panelists analyzed the triumphs and difficulties of ASEAN, a regional organization founded in 1967 to integrate the countries of Southeast Asia and bring development to the region.

Rosengard, who organized a panel on “Peace and Prosperity,” said he selected panelists with a goal of creating a “diversity of perspective in terms of areas of expertise” as well as a balance of “practitioners versus academics.” Both panels included professors and specialists in fields such as finance and public health, and panelists came from countries all over Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Doreen Lee, a panelist and associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Northeastern University, said ASEAN has been successful in driving economic growth but believes the organization has neglected humanitarian issues such as the drug war in the Philippines and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

“The traditional ASEAN policy of non-interference in member states’ domestic affairs creates a strange absence of political discourse at the regional level, even though many of the issues I’ve mentioned constitute national and human rights crises,” Lee said. “Peace has come at the expense of justice and prosperity is widening inequality.”

The event attracted a similarly diverse audience. Yuqing Li, a visiting fellow from Tsinghua University in Beijing, said she attended because she thought the topics of discussion were relevant to her Thai Studies major.

Andre Prawira Putra, an Indonesian student at the Harvard School of Public Health, said he believes ASEAN could help countries such as Indonesia address systemic problems too large for a single government to handle.

The conference was held in conjunction with an appearance from Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN’s former Secretary-General. On Thursday, Pitsuwan spoke at the Asia Center’s 12th Tsai Lecture, an annual event which brings “notable academics, government officials, business leaders” to Harvard each year, according to the Asia Center’s website.

Harvard has also launched three different professorships of Southeast Asian studies and created language programs for Thai and Indonesian, said Rosengard.

“There’s been a general movement across the University to try to increase our capacity to do serious scholarship in Southeast Asia,” he said.


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