Contemplating Memory in the Asian Region

Report by Hannah Loney, Jason Ng and Shan Windscript 

In late February 2014 Professors Antonia Finnane and Kate Darian-Smith, and Drs Julie Fedor and Katharine McGregor of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies (SHAPS) hosted a number of events that focused on the themes of history, memory and commemoration based on their shared interest in this research areas. These events, supported by a University of Melbourne International Research and Research Training Funding grant and SHAPS, brought together researchers from the University of Melbourne, postgraduate students, and other local and international scholars working on memory studies in several Asian and Western contexts including India, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, East Timor and Iran.


History, Trauma and Memory: Perspectives from South Asia: A Postgraduate Masterclass with Professor Yasmin Saikia

On 19 February 2014 Professor Yasmin Saikia, the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and a Professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, taught a Postgraduate Masterclass entitled, “History, Trauma and Memory: Perspectives from South Asia”. A small yet diverse group of postgraduate students attended the workshop, and brought with them a range of experiences in memory studies from Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and Australia. In this Masterclass, Professor Saikia discussed why the 1971 War in Bangladesh can be seen as an entry point into the study of the history of South Asia and how its history can be explored without relying solely upon twentieth century artefacts, such as maps, to artificially delineate and separate geophysical spaces of the region. Professor Saikia described learning history as investing in the future, and stressed the importance of highlighting the reasons for injustices within history rather than just fighting contemporary injustice. In studying traumatic events, such as the case of the War of Bangladesh in 1971, she argued that it is equally important to look for the ‘middle actors’ of history, rather than focusing solely on perpetrators and victims. Because memory of these traumatic events still haunts those involved to this day, she argued, it is vital for scholars to ‘dignify’ the history being studied by shaping it into constructive contributions to scholarship, as opposed to destructive. In her concluding remarks, Professor Saikia talked about how trauma has no conclusion and the importance of researchers not turning the people being studied into simply ‘stories’. Lastly, she challenged the students to push the boundaries of historical knowledge and to think of the ‘next frontier or paradigm’ within historical scholarship that might stem from our studies of Asian case studies.

Memory and Commemoration, East and West: An International Workshop

Following the Postgraduate Masterclass scholars from the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies hosted a two-day workshop titled “Memory and Commemoration, East and West”, at the University of Melbourne on 20-21 February. Focusing on comparisons and intersections between memory studies in Asia and the West, the workshop provided a vibrant and stimulating forum for international and local scholars working in the field to come together and share their knowledge and ideas. Speakers presented on a diverse spectrum of topics through a series of panel sessions, covering practices and issues arising from memory and commemoration across a wide range of geographical and cultural contexts, including those associated with Asia. Some key themes discussed by the participants were memory and its trajectories of violence, trauma, historical injustice, human rights, gender, and temporality.

Three papers examined Indonesian case studies. Dr. Katharine McGregor of the University of Melbourne focused on the Indonesian remembrances of the 1946-1947 Captain Westerling Massacres that occurred during the Dutch-Indonesian Independence War, and outlined how memories of that event have shifted through time in relation to changing national and international views about human rights. Professor Bambang Purwanto of Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia, discussed Indonesian official historiography and societal views about the 1945-1949 Indonesian-Dutch War reflecting on the place of the scholar in societal debates about memory. Dr. Mery Kolimon of Universitas Kristen Artha Wacana reflected upon the unresolved historical wounds of the 1965 anti-communist tragedy in East Nusa Tenggara Province, and the tensions and differences between the memories of the victims and perpetrators over the historical trauma.

From the Chinese perspective, Professor Zhang Lianhong of Nanjing Normal University reflected upon the social memories of the Nanjing Massacre and discussed the possibility of ethically engaging with the survivors’ traumatic memories of the atrocity. Professor Li Lifeng of Nanjing University explored the interplay between personal and collective memories, examining how revolutionary memories of rural Chinese people were constructed through the active performance of su-ku (outpouring of bitterness) during the Chinese communist revolution.

Several papers reflected on the perspectives of Asian diaspora and memory practices. ARC post-doctoral fellow Dr. Mammad Aidani of SHAPS talked about pain and suffering experienced by Iranian Men by examining their narratives of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Dr Rachel Hughes of the School of Land & Environment at the University of Melbourne, reflected on how the participation of members of the Cambodian diaspora as civil parties in the Mixed Tribunal was assisting to break down barriers between the diaspora and Cambodians at home. Based on interviews with members of the Australian Vietnamese diaspora Associate Professor Nathalie Nguyen detailed the little acknowledged memories of South Vietnamese soldiers who fought for the Southern regime.

In addition, three PhD students from the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne delivered papers on memories of Southeast Asia and China. Jason Sze Chieh Ng focused on counter-official memory to examine autobiographical works produced by retired Malayan Communist Party members. Hannah Loney, drawing on oral history interviews with East Timorese women who grew up under Indonesian rule, explored the dynamics of memory and emotion, and the interplay between individual memories and the national narrative. Shan Windscript highlighted the prospective aspect of memory by examining how ordinary Chinese people diarised their memories about the Chinese Cultural Revolution for an imagined future during the historical occurrence of the political movement.

Other papers that included Asian case studies were those of Professor David Lowe and Tony Joel (Deakin University) who considered case studies from Vietnam and Japan in their paper on Remembering the Cold War and Monash PhD candidate, Phyllisa Yu-ting Huang, who presented a paper on different narratives of military dependant villages in Taiwan.

All of these papers were fruitfully combined in the program with papers focusing on case studies from Australia and East and West Europe.

Public Lecture: Professor Yasmin Saikia, Perpetrators Remember: Re-Telling the 1971 War of Bangladesh

On Thursday 20 February 2014, Professor Saikia presented a Public Lecture entitled “Perpetrators Remember: Re-Telling the 1971 War of Bangladesh”. In this Public Lecture, Professor Saikia discussed the ways in which the “hidden” narratives of men can offer an entry point to reflect upon the dilemma of memory about the 1971 war of Bangladesh. According to Professor Saikia, the complex story of the construction of the ‘Other’ in less than human terms led to extreme violence that is fearfully remembered by survivors in Pakistan and Bangladesh today. In official history books, men are represented as heroes of the war. The tormenting memories of violence, however, have reduced these men in their own estimation into perpetrators that they want to overcome. Professor Saikia also spoke about the process of conducting these interviews and the horrific experience of listening to the memories. In her reflections she raised some of the ethical dilemmas associated with the interview process, the public role of memory, and the way in which these memories are ‘re-told’ by the listener and shared with broader audiences. This approach is demonstrative of a broader effort to reconstruct a ‘people’s history’ of the subcontinent – one that includes perpetrators within our frame of reference.