IHJR would like to applaud the ambitious project of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – creating a common history textbook for South East Asia. Educators and academics from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, are coming together to construct a common understanding of their shared past by debating disputed historical legacies. Thai historian Kasetsiri Charnvit was succinct about the importance of this endeavour: “Bad history, bad education, bad neighbor relations” in this recent BBC article.
At present, one of the main difficulties they face is the prevalence of territorial disputes in the region. The idea of a shared textbook originated with the escalation of a dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over sovereignty of the Preah Vihear temple, situated on the border between these two countries. After Cambodia applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for the temple in 2008, interpreted as a claim over the area, diplomatic tensions escalated and fighting erupted on both sides of the border.
Yojana Sharma emphasises the difficulty of creating a shared historical narrative of the region in this political climate, where “governments assert their claims over disputed territory through the rewriting of history textbooks – at the same time as air-brushing versions that could lead to opposing claims”. In such a climate, writing a shared regional history textbook is difficult, as governments can be reluctant to re-examine historical disputes and reconcile conflicting narratives.
IHJR recognises both the importance of and the difficulties faced by this project. In the past, IHJR was involved in reconciliation efforts in the region, in Indonesia in particular, and will continue to closely monitor these developments.