Evolution of Mainland Southeast Asian Studies Over the Last 20 Years

Evolution of Mainland Southeast Asian Studies Over the Last 20 Years

Research and teaching on mainland Southeast Asian countries in Australia over the last 20 years have been shaped by the same forces affecting other areas of university life during this period: increased managerialism, difficult budgetary circumstances, the precariousness of academic employment, the casualisation of teaching, constraints on research funding, a persistent Eurocentrism in some disciplines, and a global decline in area studies. Such factors tend to be seen anecdotally as having had adverse effects on the study of Asia in Australian universities. The study of mainland Southeast Asia, however, while not immune from such factors, in some respects is stronger and more diverse than ever before in Australia.

Until very recently, “mainland Southeast Asia” was a concept used mainly in teaching and research about Southeast Asia rather than to describe a subregional academic grouping. The term of course refers to the countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is intended to distinguish that region from the countries of island or archipelagic Southeast Asia – Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and more recently, Timor-Leste.

The recent origin of this subregional academic grouping makes it difficult to easily summarise its long-term development in Australia.

However, in 2017 Professor Michele Ford, Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC), and her colleagues carried out a survey into the current state of teaching and research on mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA) across Australian universities. The survey is the most accurate snapshot of the state of this field that we currently have.

Among the key findings of the survey are the following: there are approximately 398 researchers in universities around Australia who work on MSEA. Of these, 173 or about 43 per cent, are women. 126 work on Vietnam; 115 on Thailand; 98 on Cambodia; 75 on Myanmar; 59 on Laos, and 54 on the MSEA subregion.

The disciplines in which staff carry out their work include: Agriculture, Development, Environment, Geography, Tourism (92); Economics, Demography, Public Health (80); Business, Law, Criminology (67); Politics, Political Economy, International Relations, Security Studies, Sociology, Economics (50); Linguistics, Education, Language (41); Anthropology, Culture,  Religion, Music, Art (32); History, Heritage, Archaeology, Architecture (31); Cultural Studies, Literature, Media (10).

Partly based on the findings of this survey and partly to compensate for the weight that the study of Indonesia tends to have in considerations of Southeast Asian Studies in Australia, in 2017 Professor Ford convened a steering committee to establish the Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Scholars (AMSEAS). It is the first regional association to support teaching and research on this subregion. Its members were Michele Ford (USyd), Melissa Crouch (UNSW), Nick Cheesman (ANU), Simon Creak (U.Melb), Lan Anh Hoang (U.Melb), Patrick Jory (UQ), Sverre Molland (ANU), Lee Morgenbesser (Griffith), Kearrin Sims (JCU), and Aim Sinpeng (USyd). Melissa Crouch took on much of the work associated with incorporation. An interim Council was subsequently established, which included country representatives for the study of each MSEA country, an international liaison officer representative based in Singapore, postgraduate and media representatives, and later a representative of MSEA studies in New Zealand.

The relative health of mainland Southeast Asian studies in Australia is also suggested by the take-up of membership of the new Association. Based on data obtained from membership applications, as of June 2019 the Association has 340 members, of whom approximately 41 per cent are women. Forty per cent are postgraduate students. The disciplines in which most members are located are, in order: Political Science, Anthropology, International Relations, History, and Development Studies. Research interest in the five countries of MSEA is reasonably evenly distributed, but 65 per cent of members, more than for any single country, registered a research interest in the MSEA region as a whole, suggesting the coherence of the concept of MSEA among members. AMSEAS’s members also include at least 24 people from MSEA universities or research institutes.

The Association’s profile has been boosted by recent academic activities. In 2018 the Association invited the out-going President of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), Professor Katherine Bowie, to give the inaugural AMSEAS keynote address at the ASAA conference at the University of Sydney, which was generously supported by SSEAC and the ANU’s Southeast Asia Institute. In June 2019, AMSEAS organised a workshop on the theme, “China’s Influence in Mainland Southeast Asia”, hosted by SSEAC and generously funded by ASAA. A number of papers from the workshop are currently being prepared for publication.

Area Studies and MSEA

While MSEA studies implies the study of an area, the traditional area studies approach with its emphasis on learning the language, long periods of fieldwork, and sole focus on a country or region no longer appears to be as influential for many scholars as it once was. “Asian Studies” majors have disappeared in many universities. PhD students find it difficult to spend long periods in the field learning languages as universities increase pressure on candidates to finish their degrees within four years. Publication in discipline-based journals tends to carry more prestige than in area studies journals. Scholars and PhD students researching MSEA tend to work in disciplines alongside colleagues working on other parts of the world. This changing institutional ecology does not seem, however, to have been an obstacle to the recent growth in the study of MSEA in Australian universities.

Positive Developments and Future Directions

  1. The opening up of Myanmar since 2011 has resulted in a surge of interest in Myanmar at government, media, and university levels. Academics and postgraduate students are now able to conduct field work in Myanmar, which has contributed to the scholarly interest. Scholars from Myanmar have had greater opportunities to travel abroad for academic events and engage in collaboration with Australian scholars. The ANU’s establishment of a Myanmar Research Centre in 2015, and the University of Melbourne’s recent founding of a Myanmar Research Network, reflect this increase in interest in the study of Myanmar.

  2. A similar surge of research interest is true for the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, though the change has been less dramatic. Surprisingly, even the study of Laos, a small country, is healthy in Australia, judging by the number of academics with research interests in this area. The study of Thailand, long the most open of the mainland SEA countries, remains healthy. 346 participants registered at the International Conference of Thai Studies held at the University of Sydney in 2014, of whom 154 were listed as coming from Thailand. SSEAC hosted a “Symposium for Thai Studies” at U. Sydney in 2016 which attracted 170 attendees, including 79 from Thailand, all self-funded.

  3. The rise of China, its Belt-and-Road-Initiative, infrastructure projects, and growing strategic influence in the countries of MSEA, and growing intra-regional connectivity, are all factors that are giving the MSEA region more coherence. There is new research interest in the economic, political, strategic, and environmental consequences of China’s influence in mainland Southeast Asia. This trend is likely to continue.

  4. One of the most important growth areas for MSEAS in Australia is postgraduate students from MSEA countries. The rapid growth in the numbers of international students in Australian universities over the last two decades includes many students from MSEA countries. Thailand and Vietnam rank in the top ten source countries for international students to Australia, but scholarship programs for students from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, are also attracting very capable postgraduate students to Australian universities working on MSEA topics.

  5. The rise of the internet, blogging, online messaging, voice, and video, and social media as mediums of academic communication has been a significant factor in the development of MSEA studies in Australia over the last two decades. It has greatly facilitated networking and the sharing of knowledge among scholars of MSEA. Since 2006 the New Mandala blog, set up by former ANU academics, Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly, earned an international reputation as a centre of scholarly debate about the politics, societies, and cultures of Thailand and Myanmar (later the blog expanded to cover Southeast Asia as a whole). On-line communication has helped overcome the isolation that some MSEA scholars can sometimes experience in their home departments, schools, and universities.

  6. A key factor in the health of MSEA studies is the growth in collaboration between researchers in Australia and scholars in MSEA universities. As these countries become more prosperous and the quality of universities and scholarship improves, this is leading to an increase in the co-production of knowledge about MSEA.


Most of the growth in scholarly interest in MSEA has been in development studies, ecology and environment, agriculture, natural resources, regional political economy, law, business, and other social sciences. Far fewer staff and students are engaged in humanities disciplines such as history, literature, the study of religion, and philosophy. Language studies face particular difficulties. Programs in MSEA languages around the country are generally weak or non-existent, although a new Burmese language program has recently opened at the ANU, which is also available online. This issue needs to be understood in the context of the challenges that Humanities faculties face nationally and internationally. In Australia they are stubbornly Anglocentric in content and outlook, despite our geography, economy, security considerations and changing demography. Combined, these factors tend to accentuate the already marginalised positions of scholars working on MSEA in the Humanities.


Despite the real problems affecting the study of Asia at Australian universities , renewed Australian government interest in Southeast Asia in the context of the rise of China and the government’s promotion of the “Indo-Pacific” concept mean that it is likely that research and teaching about MSEA will continue to attract government and student attention. International students from MSEA will continue to be an important driver of research on MSEA in Australian universities. Online communications, the opening up of formerly closed MSEA countries, and even budget airlines, are enabling much easier networking and collaboration between Australian and MSEA scholars. In place of the old area studies paradigm of Western scholars immersing themselves in the language and cultures of the country or region they study, a new model of scholarship appears to be emerging which is more interactive and collaborative between scholars in Australia and MSEA countries.

Scholars interested in joining AMSEAS can sign up here

To find out more about AMSEAS, see the write up in New Mandala here

Patrick Jory is senior lecturer in Southeast Asian History, University of Queensland.He is the president of the Association for Mainland Southeast Asian Studies.

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