For members of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), festivals are used to promote a concept known as ‘the ASEAN Way’: respecting each other’s sovereignty, non-interference in the one another’s internal affairs, and peaceful settlements of disputes.
In his most recent paper, Dr David Ocón of Singapore Management University researches the ‘ulterior motives’ of festivals and how they can be used for political and economic ends.
Read the original article: doi.org/10.1163/1871191X-bja10081
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In this episode, we’ll delve into the research of Dr David Ocón, who has been conducting research into the role that arts and culture festivals play in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
It’s well known that festivals are used as entertainment, forms of expression, and communal meeting places, but Dr Ocón digs deeper. He argues that festivals are also a place for diplomacy and cooperation between ASEAN members.
In his most recent paper ‘Cultural diplomacy and co-operation in ASEAN: The role of arts and culture festivals’, Dr Ocón researches the ‘ulterior motives’ of festivals and how they can be used for political and economic ends. Specifically, he looks at how Southeast Asian nations have used cultural festivals over the last 50 years as a way to reduce political tensions and why they’ve struggled to do that in recent years.
Dr Ocón offers a broad definition of festivals as ‘featuring or staging a variety of “time out of time” artistic and cultural forms to the public’. They’re designed to take place outside of ordinary schedules, in one or more designated venues, and can last anywhere from an hour to a month, but tend to be held at regular intervals.
Each festival is something for the local community to look forward to. In ASEAN, they revolve around ritualistic traditions, food, and the wearing of traditional clothing. Cultural festivals can focus on any kind of culture, from literature and photography to music and dance.
ASEAN-focus events weren’t initiated by communities, but hosted by leaders looking to achieve their political goals. After all, ASEAN is fundamentally a political association looking to pursue economic, and socio-cultural benefits for its members. Organisation and funding come from state, regional, and local bodies, which put forward their rationale for hosting such events. Politicians will often highlight how a festival promotes a particular set of social values or how it can raise the profile of a city, which in turn brings in tourists and increases economic prosperity.
While these claims are true, Dr Ocón’s research digs a little deeper below the surface to determine whether there are other reasons for hosting such events, which organisers may not be fully disclosing.
According to Dr Ocón, one of the primary uses of cultural festivals is to reinforce a sense of identity. Beyond this, though, he argues that festivals can be used as a way to wield political authority. They can be used as a distraction from recent government failures or even to influence public opinion. For ASEAN members, festivals are used to promote a concept known as ‘the ASEAN Way’: respecting each other’s sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of one another, and peaceful settlements of disputes.
Dr Ocón’s paper traces the last 50 years of cultural festivals in ASEAN, including how they have evolved and been used as political tools. He splits this 50-year period into three sections. The first decade or so was a time of cultural cooperation, which was a period of cultural self-discovery for ASEAN’s five founding members. The second period stretched from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, in which Japan’s funding supported the organisation of cultural events as a way to further promote the ASEAN Way in the region.
The third and final period began in the early 2000s, which saw rapid growth in these cultural festivals, many of which were organised by local communities. During this period, and still today, there are inconsistencies in both the themes and quality of the events. Through tracing the growth and evolution of these arts and culture festivals, Dr Ocón is able to identify how they are being used as a way to conduct cultural diplomacy.
The first decade of ASEAN’s existence, from the late 60s through to the late 1970s, was dedicated to engineering a shared community across the region. This bore similarities to the views of English philosopher, John Locke, who believed that international relations could be cooperative, peaceful, and focused on wellbeing. This vision was shared by Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and an influential figure in modern Western philosophy, who viewed ‘perpetual peace’ between independent nations as the ultimate goal of humanity. These views were institutionalised after World War Two and became the underlying goal of ASEAN.
Dr Ocón argues that Southeast Asian countries aren’t given enough credit for the tradition of cooperation between nations. For centuries, the historical empires of Funan, Srivijaya, Majapahit, Khmer, and Ayyuthaya were able to cooperate politically and economically. In the 1960s, this cooperation was no longer present, so ASEAN was created to reinvigorate it. Its aim was to use cultural festivals to cut through political barriers, reduce tensions, destroy stereotypes, and find cultural commonalities between nations. Events like the ASEAN Film Festival rotated between countries, creating a need for different nations to cooperate in hosting this much-loved annual event.
This first decade was a period of the rediscovery of Southeast Asia’s traditional culture. Through audio-visual platforms, local communities were reminded about the heritage of this region. This was designed to construct a united Southeast Asian identity and a sense of belonging that transcended borders. This community was somewhat ‘imagined’ but eventually became ingrained in the consciousness of ASEAN citizens. At first, there was little difference between the five ASEAN nations. As time went on, though, this constructed identity was driven by wealthier nations, leading to what Dr Ocón refers to as an ‘asymmetrical interdependence’. For all the benefits of creating a shared identity, it risks erasing one nation’s values while promoting another’s.
The next period of cultural festivals hosted by ASEAN was dedicated to creating a functioning alliance that would be taken seriously by the rest of the world. Although not part of ASEAN, Japan led the way. As an external actor, Japan hoped to rebrand itself, improving its image to advance cultural relations with other Asian nations. This meant hosting a range of events from conferences and exhibitions to music festivals and studies of indigenous architecture.
Since the early 2000s, new challenges have arisen for nations looking to use festivals to conduct cultural diplomacy. This is referred to as a ‘we-ness’ of ‘we-feeling’. However, this constructed identity was founded on the idea of neoliberalism, which came under pressure during the economic crises that hit Asia in the late 1990s.
Destabilised economies led to an increase in the desire to construct social togetherness. Without it, social unrest was all but inevitable. The theory was that cooperation begets more cooperation and can keep communities united for long periods of time. This was cemented by the Bali Concord II Declaration, which encouraged countries to ‘promote a common regional identity’. ASEAN symbols like their unique handshake and traditional clothing were also heavily utilised during this time.
Ultimately, though, the financial hardship meant that funding for cultural festivals dried up. These community initiatives didn’t have the support they needed. By 2003, these cultural festivals had lost much of their mass appeal. Formats shifted to favour indulging VIP guests and political elites in feasts and showcases, with less on offer for the 650 million ordinary Southeast Asian citizens.
Between 2010 and today, there have been renewed attempts to launch effective festivals in the region. With so much of the recent ASEAN secretariat focus on exclusive events, a gap opened for other sections of society to start hosting their own events – ASEAN came to mean any event with a Southeast Asian flavour. For instance, there was the ASEAN Literary Festival in Jakarta from 2014 to 2017 and ASEAN Music Festival in Bangkok in 2016. These events showed a high level of engagement and were evidence of renewed public support for such festivals. While these came with the benefits of promoting Asian priorities, and were within popular reach, inconsistency in festival content and presentation risks causing confusion, with no clearly defined idea of what a Southeast Asian cultural festival should look like.
Unfortunately, many of these festivals were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, although this was in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the threat of the coronavirus decreases, there is hope for the resurgence of such cultural events.
ASEAN has been hosting and promoting arts and culture events for more than 50 years. For much of this period, these festivals were effective in creating a shared sense of identity, centred around peace and cooperation. In the last couple of decades, however, the reach and impact of cultural festivals in the region have been limited due to economic and health crises. It’s important not to downplay the role these festivals play in reducing tensions and building trust to increase the wellbeing and prosperity of Southeast Asian citizens.
However, too many events can lead to disjointed and confusing messaging. Dr Ocón recommends that leaders in the region focus on creating ‘clear and recognisable cultural agendas, where festivals feature consistently, with adequate visibility and financial support’. This would go a long way to ensuring the continued peace of Asia and the world beyond.
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