Identity: Forging Regional Belonging (WP4)

The integration of Southeast Asia is typically framed in economic terms. Its institutional configurations, especially those related to ASEAN, are couched in intergovernmental agreements, increase mobility and the circulation of goods and professionals in key areas. These agreements take advantage of the region’s productive sectors composed of a highly educated youth, aspirational middle class households, and skilled professionals. The awareness that ASEAN integration is thus perceived as elitist serves as a backdrop to our Work Package’s interest in the role of non-state actors in fostering alternative regional identities. More specifically, WP4 investigates different modes of alternative regionalist projects in which non-state actors such as NGOs, transnational corporations, and various types of social networks and movements are involved. This form of regional integration that takes place from below influences the ways citizens think about themselves as members of an ASEAN or Southeast Asian community. It also has an impact on the strategies they deploy to collectively address issues confronting the region today.

The WP will explore how a sense of regional identity related to ASEAN has emerged in recent years and seeks to ascertain to what extent this identity is very much shaped by and confronted with different sets of national, ethnic, religious, and other Southeast Asian identities. These imaginings go far beyond the purely politico-economic realm and also take into account the increasing awareness of the interrelatedness of the region’s diverse cultures. The emphasis of cross-cutting ethnic patterns, over and beyond the nation-state, represents a promising new approach to imagining the region. In this light, WP4 is interested in how integration takes place outside or on the fringes of the official institutions of the ASEAN community. Our general research question thus is as follows: What factors are instrumental in forging regional identities in Southeast Asia?

This broad question will be addressed in three respects. First, we investigate the state of mind of ASEAN youth (millennials), who make up a significant portion of the population. We explore their attitudes toward openness and integration, concerns and priorities for strengthening national identity, and understanding of their role for the future of ASEAN. Second, we seek to explore the role of transnational formations in the region based on ethnic and religious affinities. Third, in our two inter-related research modules on Generations and Violence, we shall study how violence or, to be more precise, the perception and memory (as well as forgetting) of violence shapes and transforms collective identities.

As a transversal theme we will study multiple mobilities –notably mobile populations such labour migrants, pilgrims, tourists, and refugees – to explore whether movements compete with or legitimise forms of Southeast Asian identity. Another transversal theme is the importance of security for regional solidarity among the peoples of Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, As we explore identity construction, gender is another transversal theme that informs our studies. A gendered perspective informs our studies on religious resurgence among Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists based on various motivations including pious feminism, nationalism, prosperity, and proselytization.


Volker Grabowsky


Jayeel Serrano Cornelio