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Is there a Sovietology of South-East Asian studies?

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This article provides an indictment of the study of South-East Asian international relations by confronting head-on the problems that have arisen within this field, in particular the way in which Western academics ended up colluding with deeply illiberal regimes in the area, which excluded dissenting opinions, often by deliberately denouncing these opinions as ‘polemical’. This study uses the discipline of Sovietology to explore the reasons why South-East Asian studies developed into a closed community of scholarship, often hostile to dissenting viewpoints. The disciplines bear comparison because they both manifestly failed to predict the cataclysms that befell their respective areas of study. The analysis identifies similarities in the way in which the two disciplines seemed to ignore sceptical voices and evolved a shared belief in ‘system stability’. As a result, both Soviet studies and the study of South-East Asian international relations developed serious methodological flaws. However, this study argues that South-East Asian studies suffered even more severe disciplinary shortcomings than its Sovietological counterpart because the academic space was further de-intellectualized by the pervasive influence of the authoritarian South-East Asian developmental state which blurred the distinction between scholarship and bureaucracy and which succeeded in co-opting Western academics. The result was to create a field of study that promulgated the tyranny of the single truth, which erroneously perceived South-East Asia as a region of domestic tranquillity and regional order. What, in fact, emerged was an intellectual culture of self-censorship that kept South-East Asian studies within tacit, self-regulated boundaries.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: School of Government at the University of Tasmania 2: Lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King's College, University of London

Publication date: October 1, 2001

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