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Interpreting Southeast Asian Politics in Raya and the Last Dragon

by Joanna Kumendong

Image of heroine Raya with the various kingdoms of Kumandra in the background.

Interpreting Southeast Asian Politics in Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon, a Disney film released in the Spring of 2021, promised to be a fantastical journey that represents various cultures of Southeast Asia. The film follows the heroine Raya, as she strives to save the divided kingdoms in Kumandra from destruction in the hands of the evil entity “Druun”. The kingdoms of Kumandra: Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang each have their unique characteristics but lack harmony and distrust each other. In the film, the principal pursuit of Raya is to mend the metaphorical broken pieces of the Dragon Gem to restore and unite Kumandra. The interactions of these fictional nations mirror a key functional element of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) political interactions: Non-Interference. What can viewers take away from this accurate and other diverging representation of Southeast Asia in the film?

Non-Interference Policy

Raya and the Last Dragon portrays various kingdoms interacting with each other, in a style of diplomacy central to the movie’s plot. Since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) establishment on post-colonial structures in 1967, the Non-Interference principle has been a pivotal guide for the group’s operations and style of diplomacy. Adopted by member states — Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand to name a few — the Non-Interference principle is a pact to respect each other’s sovereignty in domestic issues. It is colloquially called “the ASEAN way”. I contend that the film begins by depicting the infamous “ASEAN Way” and then gradually highlights its inadequacies.

In the movie, we see Non-Interference and the ASEAN way fail. Kumandra begins to fall as kingdoms defend themselves and their own interests when fighting against the evil Druun. Fang seeks to preserve its newfound wealth by acquiring all the pieces of the Dragon Gem for itself. The floating kingdom of Talon is an economic autarky but has theft problems and internal corruption. The mixture of conflicting egos and interests, and lack of interest for their neighbor make the kingdoms vulnerable to petrification by the Druun.

The movie goes hand in hand with contemporary thinkers that believe that ASEAN should move beyond this traditional way and into a new, bolder, stance. Like the kingdoms of Kumandra, many nations in Southeast Asia face domestic political, economic, and social issues. Though the ASEAN nations regularly meet in cooperation, the founding principle limits them from conducting any intervention in neighboring countries.

Action toward the military junta in Myanmar. Voices against drowning political stabilities in the South China Sea. Collective recognition of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people. These are just some actions that ASEAN could take but is institutionally prevented from taking. With nations in the region becoming key movers in global politics, humanitarian issues, and concerns for regional stability, how should the association move forward?

There are reasons to suggest a wavering commitment to this stance. ASEAN recently decided to exclude Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s top military official, from the 2021 ASEAN Summit. Prior to that, in an emergency meeting held concerning the issue on April 24, 2021, ASEAN came up with and released a Five Point Consensus. Among other things, it demanded an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar: a scanty yet uncharacteristically bold move from the member states.

In line with this changing dynamic, it is perhaps time for the association to become bolder and more adaptable in its decision-making framework. Conflicting ideologies and individual goals of member states remain a hindrance to such realization. The movie is an idealized version of what ASEAN politics could look like in the future. Could a cooperation model like that of Kumandra be realized — or does it remain a fantasy?

Representation, Alas?

In a roughly 4-hour video series on Raya and the Last Dragon, video essayist Xiran Jay Zhao crowdsourced local Southeast Asian opinions on Discord to provide a poignant critique of various cultural elements of the film. The video series highlights the downfalls and accuracies of the film in representing Southeast Asia. More importantly, it shows a conflicting dynamic between the diaspora that feels seen through the film and the internet community of Southeast Asians that have qualms with the film.

Many elements of Southeast Asian culture are seen spread in the movie through food items, costuming, etiquette, and weaponry. As a third-culture kid, I was enamored when I saw Batik cloth motifs, Wayang puppet shows, and familiar dishes. Yet, the influx of Southeast Asian cultural “Easter Egg” videos suggests that these elements serve only as decorations for the film. Cultural elements only exist for intrigue. The implication is that Southeast Asian Culture is simply commodified to appeal to the Southeast Asian diaspora.

It is easy to ask, why put so much pressure on a light-hearted children’s film? I contend that this is the first international and significant representation of Southeast Asia in film. It is more important in light of Hollywood’s lens of Asia as a monolith centered on East Asian cultures. A film that does not meaningfully involve people of backgrounds they claim to represent will never truly fulfill its aims.

Still, I imagine myself as a young Southeast Asian diaspora kid — the target audience of this film. I would rejoice at the sight of a princess in my skin tone donning my traditional attire in a Disney film. Learning about the basic interrelationships of Southeast Asian nations would make me curious and politically inclined. Acknowledging the commodification of culture, while appreciating the areas where the film succeeds, would allow audiences to responsibly immerse themselves in fantastical lands. Fantastical hopes for the future of Southeast Asian cooperation.

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