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Classifying Historical Memories: A Political-Economic Analysis of the World Heritage Application and the National Identity Construction in Southeast Asian Countries

Issue 8: Classifying Historical Memories: A Political-Economic Analysis of the World Heritage Application and the National Identity Construction in Southeast Asian Countries

This project is proposed by Shaw-Herng Huang at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Chiao Tung University.


This research intends to analyze the text of world heritage applications submitted by Southeast Asian countries. Along with field work investigation and interviews with those who are involved in the application process (in the academia, industrial sectors, and the government), it will collect viewpoints about world heritage in each country, and the impact resulted from the process of application upon political, social, and economic aspects. In particular, this research attends to the ways that the Chinese and the history of Chinese are situated in the collective memories of each country, and investigates the economic effects brought about by the world heritage. After the Second World War, the Southeast Asian countries that were formerly colonized by the Euro-American powers, one by one, established itself as an independent nation-state.  It was not easy for these emerging countries to move from a “complex society” during the colonial years to a “citizen state” consisted of diverse ethnic groups.  Nor was it easy to narrate a history to reach a common ground—this became one of the most important tasks in the nation-building process. The process and consequence, naturally, entails a variety of connotations, “including a historical process of colonization, de-colonization, and post-colonization, Asian modernity and state violence, as well as the internal social division resulted from cultural ideologies and  regional political economic structure  formed throughout the Cold War and the post-Cold War.” Although Thailand has remained independent, it shares with other emerging countries such a similarity because of its multiethnic complex society. In this sense, it was inevitable that the formation of national identity in Thailand was influenced by the neighboring countries as the latter were moving toward and becoming multi-ethnic citizen nation-states. The historical memory of Thailand, therefore, might have been changed accordingly. In recent years, the Southeast Asian countries devote themselves to registering certain  historical sites as world heritage through the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. To be qualified for the UNESCO World Heritage registration, it is required to submit a document of application that self-describes how many world-heritage criteria out of six the specified object has already met. Needless to say, either the historical object/site per se, or the historical significance and values demonstrated in the application, has not only presented a specific politics of memory and knowledge production, but also showcased the ways that the applicant country manipulates how its own histories are to be perceived and remembered.  Textual analysis of  application documents, therefore, is the best material that enables us to understand how the postwar Thailand and other emerging countries in Southeast Asia (re-)construct and write a kind of historical memory that caters to the need of a “citizen state.” In addition, as a source of sightseeing in the industry of international tourism, the economic benefits of the world heritage would be valued the most highly.  In this way, the application could be considered as revealing  the predicament of the relatively poor countries amidst the so-called waves of “globalization.”