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I’m often attracted to attempts to define Southeast Asia. This is less because I believe that there is a perfect definition out there somewhere just waiting to be conceived and written, but rather because any attempt (by necessity) must be exclusionist and prioritise some elements over others.

One of the best definitons I’ve encountered online is found here. The author, Barbara Watson Andaya, is one of the giants of the discipline so it is unsurprising her work presents so well.

Nevertheless her definiton is not the only possible definition. Note that she begins by stating that “Southeast Asia consists of eleven countries…”, which is true enough but contentious in itself. Why is Taiwan excluded or, for that matter, Papua New Guinea? The answer rests, of course, in political understandings and agreements on borders and sovereignty, flavoured by the (or any) author’s understanding of and agreement with these arrangements.

Andaya’s definition is therefore grounded in a geographic construct with political overtones. In contrast, other definitions could have commenced…

“Southeast Asia is an area contested by muliple religious identities…”

or

“Southeast Asia has conceptually been formed around the axis of mainland and archipelagic identities…”

or

“Southeast Asia is a region characterised by a tendancy towords authoritarian rule…”

I recognise the latter may be contentious, but I supect it is no more or less accurate than a huge number of other descriptions, it is potentially sensitive because it risks offending a raft of self-interests.

There are many, many more possible prisms through which Southeast Asia may be seen and defined, but I hope my point is clear; while ‘Southeast Asia” may be understood conceptually, it isn’t at all unambiguous, and with a bit of questioning any definition is both messy and imperfect.

Note: One problem with starting to write a substantial amount in an ad-hoc way is keeping track of what you have already shared and/or linked to. Apologies if I inadvertently cover the same ground a couple of times, but I hope I at least write about the topic slighly differently when I do!

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