Harvard Educational Review
  1. Memory in the Mekong

    Regional Identity, Schools, and Politics in Southeast Asia

    Edited by Will Brehm and Yuto Kitamura

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2022. 216 pp. $49.95 (paper).

    In his widely influential book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson (2006) defined a nation as “an imagined political community...imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). Underlining Anderson’s theorization of nations as imagined communities is a perspective that these communities are inclusive and homogeneous, where people assemble together under a common language or shared cultural artifacts. Memory in the Mekong: Regional Identity, Schools, and Politics in Southeast Asia, edited by Will Brehm and Yuto Kitamura, complicates Anderson’s conceptualization by distinguishing national and regional identity formation in Southeast Asia as exclusionary, contested, and incomplete. In doing so, this book brings together six fascinating analyses of the complex associations between education, memory, and social identities in the Mekong subregion and lays the groundwork for thinking about the possibilities and limitations of a regional imagined community in the area.

    Since 2015, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a multinational organization with ten member nations, has intensified its efforts to consolidate a regional identity. While bodies and structures to enable shared political and economic management have already been institutionalized, efforts are ongoing to construct a common ASEAN identity across approximately six hundred million residents of the region. Is such a common regional identity possible, and, if so, what might it look like? How might this shared identity sit with the individual national identities in the region, some of which are highly contested? In exploring these questions, Memory in the Mekong considers “the possibilities, perils, and politics of constructing such a regional identity” (1). Specifically, taking history and citizenship education in countries as the starting point to examine these questions, the book focuses on five ASEAN nations in the Mekong subregion: Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos.

    In the introduction, Brehm makes it clear why the book focuses on history, memory, and schools. Seeing the study of collective memory as “a sociological and political affair” (5), he outlines how the chapters in the volume engage with various types of collective memory—official memory (found explicitly in school curricula, textbooks, etc., and implicitly in the hidden curriculum of schools, etc.), familial memory (found in familial exchanges, lived experiences, anecdotes from elders or peers, etc.), and religious memory (found in religious rituals, mythologies, cultural practices, etc.). These collective memories play a key role in developing an individual’s sense of belonging and thus are key objects of analysis for understanding the formation of social identities in Southeast Asia. The volume’s exploration of the politics of a regional identity construction is organized into three parts; each part deals with the various levels at which these politics play out—the regional, the national, and the public.

    Collective memories significantly influence the formation of social identities. For young people, this development often takes place in schools, where a sense of belonging is driven by official memories via history curricula, discourses, lessons, and textbooks. Brehm’s introduction identifies the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a key actor in attempts to utilize education as a medium to develop an ASEAN regional identity. Between 2013 and 2019, UNESCO’s Bangkok office undertook the ambitious Shared Histories project to develop a set of common history lessons and curricular materials for promoting a shared identity across youth in the ASEAN region. Though it created a set of curricular units, UNESCO allowed the countries to choose lessons based on their needs and to contextualize them accordingly. As readers might anticipate, in the highly diverse Mekong region where both intranational and international relations have been historically contested, this project ran into complications and obstacles during its pilot phase. Several chapters of the book illuminate the myriad tensions and paradoxes that the project did not sufficiently take into consideration. In chapter 1, Metro and Brehm write, “We present this chapter in the spirit of optimism about the project’s potential to build and recover shared histories, and also with interest in the challenges that this worthwhile endeavor raises” (24). This seems to closely reflect the overall contribution of the volume—to not be overtly critical or dismissive of the educational attempts to forge a regional identity in the Mekong, but to show the complexities and nuances that come with such work.

    Indeed, every chapter in the book demonstrates this with remarkable clarity. While chapter 1 explores the paradoxes in the Shared Histories project, subsequent chapters address various historical and educational aspects of regional, national, or public memory in the five focus countries. Each chapter brings forward distinct nuances and complexities—such as how Cambodian bureaucrats balance international expectations with nationalist goals in curriculum development (Brehm), the construction of hegemonic national memory in Thai history textbooks (Phuaphansawat & Brehm), the changing notions of citizenship in a socialist Vietnam trying to embrace the global economy (Duong), the divergences between the official and public memories of a tragic event in Myanmar (Zongollowicz), and educators’ perceptions of connections with other geographic and ethnic groups in Laos (Brehm, Nanthanavone, Larvankham, & Hirosato). It isn’t only the geographies and topics covered by each chapter that are diverse; equally diverse are the methods — interviews, textbook analyses, surveys—that are appropriately used to illuminate the central arguments. Despite the varying objects of analyses in each of the six chapters, Kitamura brings these diverse themes together in the conclusion and proposes possibilities for a potential regional identity in Southeast Asia. Building on Brehm’s introductory note about how the overall volume “argues that a regional identity is challenging to construct because of competing national identities” (8), Kitamura suggests that the path forward for regional identity development in the Mekong subregion might require a “unity in diversity” approach that allows “multiple histories to coexist, instead of forcing them to converge into one” (184).

    This parting thought is, perhaps, illustrative of the biggest strength of this volume: the ability to highlight and hold tensions and complexities without offering generalizable solutions or simplistic conclusions. Across the chapters, even though readers are transported from one country to another, the thematic consistency of the book affords them the opportunity to see similarities and differences. For instance, while chapters 3 and 4 focus on Thailand and Vietnam, respectively, taken together they offer the reader a chance to see how hegemonic national narratives are differently embedded in history textbooks and citizenship discourses. All the chapters present sufficient contextual, historical, and sociopolitical information to invite readers to engage with the nuances at hand, regardless of their prior familiarity with the countries in the Mekong subregion.

    These overarching strengths are complemented by other specific features of this volume, such as its generally accessible language. Additionally, readers will appreciate that the chapters are authored by scholars from various nations across the Mekong.

    While it would be unfair to consider UNESCO’s Shared Histories project as a shared focus throughout this volume, readers might be inclined to think it is given the frequent engagement with the project in the introduction and the first two chapters on regional memory. Yet, as the book delves into levels of national memory and public memory, the chapters do not always explicitly address implications for the Shared Histories project or for the idea of a regional ASEAN identity. In these chapters readers might sense a void or even feel a personal onus to make connections with the Shared Histories project. Nevertheless, readers will appreciate that the volume’s overall implications for educational efforts like the Shared Histories project are discussed satisfactorily in the concluding chapter by Kitamura. These implications concern not just global educational stakeholders and national-level bureaucrats but also educators, parents, and citizens—all of whom have a part to play in “reevaluating national and regional histories from the standpoint of those outside the mainstream, when contemplating how these histories should be transmitted to future generations in Southeast Asia in the future” (184).

    Mainstream scholarship on the cultivation of social identities in school education often focuses on just national, ethnic, or religious identities. What is noteworthy about Memory in the Mekong is that it examines the fascinating aspect of a unified regional identity in the Mekong subregion, one of the most diverse places on Earth. As a result, this endeavor generates complex insights that will interest not just practitioners and scholars of history and citizenship education but any reader interested in themes of nationhood, belonging, and identities. In the foreword to this book, renowned Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul notes that a scholarly enterprise “succeeds when it leaves readers with more questions than answers” (x). On that count, this volume delivers aplenty.

    Abhinav Ghosh


    Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Rev. ed.). Verso.
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