Cold War monks and new religious activism

Camille Devries

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Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia
Eugene Ford
Yale University Press: 2017

Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar
Matthew Walton
Cambridge University Press: 2016
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Scholars of Southeast Asia are prone to worrying that their region is a political fiction. Writing in 1995, academic Ruth McVey argued that the discipline was a kind of Cold War relic. Research about the region had been shaped by US interests — and funding, she argued. It tended to reinforce Washington’s twin priorities of nation-building and modernisation. In turn, postcolonial elites — from Indonesia to Laos — shared these preoccupations whether they were liberals or communists, in government or in opposition.

Two decades later, scholarship on the region is no longer hidebound in the way McVey described. But Southeast Asia remains an awkward unit of analysis. It is too linguistically diverse, too politically varied, too religiously plural. Political scientists have played this incoherence to their advantage, using the region to develop and test theories of oligarchy or elite support for authoritarian rule. Polyglot scholars like the late Benedict Anderson and James C. Scott have hopscotched from country to country in writing their discipline-defying books. For historians, turning Southeast Asia’s heterogeneity into cogent narrative has been more difficult. The constraints imposed by their method — the painstaking excavation of primary sources, written or oral, in search of new facts or interpretations — are hard to surmount. How else to explain why there are so few truly regional histories written?

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