I WISH TO EXPRESS MY APPRECIATION TO The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs, especially Harish Mehta, for taking an interest in my book and facilitating this discussion. I wish also to thank all three reviewers for taking time amidst their busy schedule to read and share their thoughts on my book. I am very heartened that they found the book a welcome and valuable contribution to the study of the Cold War International History of Southeast Asia.
Joey Long noted that much of the material would be familiar to specialists. I wrote this book essentially to fill a lacuna in the historiography of the Cold War—the lack of a singular account of the Cold War in Southeast Asia. It is written with the non-specialists, particularly students interested in the international and political history of Southeast Asia during the Cold War years, in mind. I do hope that those who teach such a course will find the book handy and useful.
Readers who are familiar with my previous writings will know that I am very much a ‘stickler’ for chronology in the writing of history. I believe that time and context must take precedence over everything else. Thus, at times, it unfortunately leads to what appears to be “disjointed discussions” as Joey Long observes, or gives the impression that the account may “lack a certain degree of cohesion” as Wen-Qing Ngoei remarked. In the writing of international history, there is the need to help the reader see all the developments of the chosen countries in one frame, frame by frame, sequence by sequence, so that he/she can see the connections and differences within the same period. One of the most difficult problems in writing international history is to strike the right balance between the analysis of situations in terms of everything happening at one time (within the chosen perspective), and the pursuit of a narrative of the sequence of events in one place or institution over a period of time.
For example, regarding the Burma account that Joey Long referred to: Chapter 4, Frame 1 (covering the years 1955-1965), focuses on the four countries that participated at the Bandung Conference (recounted in the previous chapter). The narrative on Burma on pages 91-92 in Chapter 4 describes the difficulties Rangoon faced in balancing its relations with the United States, China and the Soviet Union in the immediate years after the Bandung Conference in 1955, whereas page 110 takes up the story from the March 1962 coup, which saw Ne Win taking over the leadership. Ne Win assured that Burma’s foreign policy of neutrality would remain unchanged. However, before reaching the March 1962 coup, the developments in Thailand and the Philippines between 1955 and 1962 had to be told first. In fact, there were many other significant developments in the other Southeast Asian countries during this period that needed to be documented before we could reach the March 1962 coup in Burma in Frame 5 of the same chapter. I hope that in this way the reader can visualize everything happening simultaneously. I must admit this technique does not make the narrative an easy read. However, it is my hope that at the end of it all, the reader will think it is worth the effort.
The region is diverse and complex. I found it difficult to “make a grand claim about the sub-region’s experiences with the global conflict” or in the words of Wen-Qing Ngoei, “a unifying theme,” without having to forsake some of the nuances in the accounts, even between different Southeast Asian states. In my research, I did not find an overarching theme across the layers of diversity. What emerged instead were pieces of jigsaw that did not always or necessarily form a singular picture but a tapestry of vignettes, some awkwardly juxtaposed beside each other. No one statement, paragraph or argument can accurately capture the varied experiences over such a long period. I have no intention to alter the reality just to invent a ‘catchy’ phrase or sentence. I felt that the book was on more solid ground if I could make less grand claims. For example, “…the wars in Southeast Asia were not proxy wars, as they were once thought to be”; “To the Southeast Asian countries, China rather than the Soviet Union was in fact the longer leg of the tripod”; or “the beginning of the end of the Cold War in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea.” I would also like to believe that sifting through fifty or more years of primary and secondary literature to produce a coherent and detailed account of the evolution of the Cold War in Southeast Asia (comprising multiple states) could be considered “interpretive.”
I am personally unpersuaded by the cultural history of the Cold War. To be sure, the Cold War influenced many countries and many people, but not all of them actively planned their lives around cold war realities and engaged in the Cold War. They might have their own conceptions of the Cold War, but their peripherality to the pushes and pulls in the development of the Cold War makes them material for a sub-field that is not my concern and interest in this book. I also found it difficult to weave the complexity of culture (without essentialising it) into the political history. I must, therefore, leave that in the hands of more able scholars. As the book is primarily focused on a single region, and being as dense as it now stands, it was also not viable to extend into meaningful comparative analyses of the Southeast Asian experience with that of other regions. Such an endeavor would require a different book and approach.