Afro-Asian Visions
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Afro-Asian Visions

‘Bandung’ and the decolonization of the academy in Southeast Asia

History journal Itinerario celebrates its fortieth anniversary next year, which will include an anthology of the journal’s most interesting interviews over the years. Preparing this volume for publication was a good opportunity to reread all of them. Unexpectedly, viewed through the lens of the Afro-Asian Networks project, some of the early interviews took on new significance, especially a 2003 interview with famous Indonesian maritime historian Adrian B. Lapian (1929–2011) and a 1982 interview with Lapian’s mentor, Sartono Kartodirdjo (1921–2007). Both interviews show how the new regionalism of the 1950s gave rise to regionalism in academia as well, and as a result contributed to a re-orienting, in both senses of the word, of the historiography of Asia.

Southeast Asia, National Geographic Magazine May 1961

In some ways, Adri Lapian literally became a historian at the Bandung Conference, and this unusual starting point marked much of his career. After discontinuing his training as an engineer at the Technical University in Bandung in 1953, he had become a journalist for the Indonesian Observer in 1954. A few months later, he was tasked to report on the Bandung Conference and recollects:

As a young reporter, I could meet great political leaders such as Nasser, Nehru, Ho Chi Minh, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, the Burmese premier U Nu, and the like. […] There was also Zhou Enlai of China, but I couldn’t get near him. He was always surrounded by a host of big senior reporters.

At 26, this left a profound impression on Lapian. After the conference, he was appointed to the newspaper’s foreign desk, where it was up to him to select the most newsworthy telegrams that arrived from the major press agencies. Most vividly he recalls his reporting on the Kashmir conflict, which would inevitably lead to visits from either the Indian or the Pakistan press attachés to protest bias. This stimulated him to read more on the history of the region, tying the historical moment he had witnessed at the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung to the evolving map of Asia. It was through the same press telegrams that he learned of the first history graduates from the Fakultas Sastra of the Universitas Indonesia. In his own words, new university graduates were newsworthy enough to appear on Antara, the Indonesian news agency. He decided to apply and re-enroll as a student.

Lapian attended courses given by the first generation of post-Independence scholars such as Husein Djajadiningrat, who taught the history of Islam and the Middle East, and Tjan Tjoe Som, a Sinologist who not only taught the long story of China’s past, but also Chinese historiography. Having received schooling in the 1930s and 1940s in a very different framework, this likewise contributed to a regional turn in Lapian’s thinking. But it was when he met the famous historian Sartono Kartodirdjo in 1958 that he returned to the new internationalism he had witnessed firsthand in Bandung. Kartodirdjo was looking for an assistant at MIPI (Majelis Ilmu Pengetahun Indonesia, later LIPI), the Indonesian Council for the Sciences. MIPI was involved in several regionalist projects, and this was something Lapian enthusiastically undertook in his new function in the public relations section. Tasked with the popularization of science, he set up local science clubs but also organized regional conferences, which was a breakthrough in the decolonization of the academy in Southeast Asia:

It was the first time when Southeast Asian scholars had worked together. Before independence, each of them was oriented towards their respective colonial metropoles.

Lapian’s biggest challenge came when he was appointed coordinator of the second Science Congress, held in Yogyakarta in 1962. It was still difficult to organize such an event in the early sixties, and he recounts travelling to a tire factory in Bogor to personally procure tires for the conference delegates’ cars. More troublesome still was that Sukarno was to open the conference. There had been several attempts on Sukarno’s life, and he already suffered from a kidney problem. A special toilet was reserved for him and the organizers went through great lengths to make sure it was safe. Lapian recollects that keeping the key felt as a momentous responsibility. But he also recounts with glee that when Indonesia played host to the IAHA (International Association of Historians of Asia), also in Yogyakarta, former Vice President Hatta was the keynote speaker. And: ‘curiously enough, he also had to go to the toilet and I had to be on guard. I guess I’m the only historian who has guarded the two proclaimers of Indonesian Independence in such a way!’

Lapian started teaching Southeast Asian History himself in 1961, and incorporated the transnational perspective he had first encountered in Bandung into his classes. He networked with Singaporean and Thai historians, and developed a particularly high regard for his colleagues in the Philippines. As a maritime historian, this included the maritime archaeology and shipwreck excavations pioneered there, but also new historiographical insights. The last semester before he retired he invited Philippine historians to teach a seminar on new approaches in Philippine historiography, supported in part by a Japan-funded program for Southeast Asian Studies.

The regional networks that he and his colleagues built were both created by, and constitutive of, the larger Bandung moment. But so was the historiography of the region itself. As Sartono Kartodirdjo notes:

We are now each writing our national histories and later on we will use these national histories to write our common Southeast Asian history […] Taking into account differences and similarities with the other neighboring nations will have a good effect on the writing of national history.

This decolonization of Southeast Asian historiography had important antecedents. It is also an ongoing project today. But the Bandung beginnings to Lapian’s long career as a historian allowed him to imagine, and institute, new forms of regional cooperation. It also vividly shows that his steps towards decolonizing academia in Southeast Asia — faculty as well as curriculum — were rooted in Bandung’s ability to convene independent Asian nations, poised to write history on their own terms.

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

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Carolien Stolte

Carolien Stolte

Historian at Leiden University.

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