“Pushing Boundaries, Shifting Perspectives” — Pacific Asian Studies research conference

The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s School of Pacific and Asian Studies’ (SPAS) 2014 Graduate Student Conference is titled “Pushing Boundaries, Shifting Perspectives: Remapping Asia and the Pacific Through a Transnational Interdisciplinary Lens.” The conference was held at UH Mānoa’s Center for Korean Studies from April 2-4.

Here are a few highlights from UH Mānoa student research that was presented:

Tani H. Sebro
Tani H. Sebro

For Tani H. Sebro, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, fieldwork in Thailand has brought to light the way that refugees and migrants who have fled Burma are using art and performance as a way to create a sense of belonging. “I think my greatest discovery here is that it is impossible to separate art from politics,” Sebro said. “Dancing, singing and expressing oneself while in exile is profoundly political, as well as being a source of joy in times of despair.”

In 2012, while working in Northern Thailand, Sebro witnessed men and women gathering in a Tai Yai temple to practice playing music and dancing in their traditional style called fon tai. At the same time they were gathering for art, many of them were also organizing political resistance movements in the Thai-Burma border.

“One of the Tai Yai monks was a skilled musician and performer who fled from the Shan state in Burma when he was 16 years old,” Sebro recalled. “His parents and siblings were killed by the Burmese military and his village seized. When I asked him why he dances and plays music, he said, ‘I have to.’ He went on to say, ‘How else will we remember who we are and where we came from?’ ”

Sebro says that her next project will take her back to the Thai-Burma border zone. “I will spend nine months conducting in-depth ethnographic research with Tai Yai migrants—learning their dances, recording their music, and also involving Tai Yai themselves in the research process,” she said.

Asami Nago, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, is also working along the border of Thailand. A part of the medical anthropology specialization, Nago is studying malaria among the Karen ethnic minority people along the Thai-Burma border. She has conducted 16 months of fieldwork including interviews with Karen malaria patients, Karen clinic staff, international physicians, and Thai public health authorities.

Nago discovered that Thai public health discourses on malaria and disease control are strongly related to their notions of borderland, ethnicity, and citizenship of minority people. Over the course of her research, she saw a disconnect between patients and clinic staff in regards to understanding of malaria, traditional treatment, and the body in general. Interestingly, Nago also witnessed how non-citizenship status of undocumented migrants and certain aspects of their vulnerability gave them new medical opportunities in international research clinics—opportunities that might not have been available to locals.

Asami Nago
Asami Nago (far right) conducts interviews at the northern Thailand border.

“From the patient perspective, I thought that migrant patents would think that malaria was their primary health problem,” Nago said. “But malaria was only one of the health issues they have.”

“Discourses on minority or migrant populations along the border and the blaming model on these populations as the ‘disease carriers’ and ‘health burden’ are not only the problem of Thai-Burma border area,” said Nago, who hopes to be able to share her research findings with Thai public health officials in the future. “The same phenomena would be found between the United States and Mexico, for example, and elsewhere in the world. Thus, how these medical and epidemiological discourses are created and in what way they play a role in health interventions or non-interventions should be examined.”

Jessica Austin, an MA candidate in Asian Studies with a Southeast Asia focus, sees the heritage films of Cambodia as a unique window onto a culture—and an opportunity for critical analysis, as well as for preservation.

Jessica Austin
Jessica Austin (second from left)

“When I first heard that 400 or more feature films were produced in Cambodia between 1954 and 1979, I was blown away because nobody in academia had even suggested to me that anything like that history of filmmaking existed in Cambodia,” Austin said. “However, when I went to do field research, I found a community of people who were actively searching for those films and very engaged in talking about the history of film in Cambodia.”

Few people are aware that any historic films survived the Cambodian genocide. From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge military force not only tried to eradicate the wealthy class of people, but also all artifacts of wealth and prosperity associated with ‘modernity’—like films.

For her SPAS conference presentation, Austin focused on on representations of gender in two Cambodian heritage films, arguing that representations of gender in pop-culture resources often have important socio-political subtexts.

“Like other parts of our cultures, film is dynamic and up for interpretation, ultimately giving us the opportunity to understand our societies at a deeper level,” said Austin, who has been studying Khmer language for three years. “As a student and an educator, it is crucial for me that we learn how to critically analyze the past and not accept things at face value. In that way, we can ask vital questions about social issues from the past to the present. These include questions about topics such as gender, as in ‘What were the ideas about being a man and being a woman in Cambodia in the 1960s? Can we see examples of those ideas in films? How were those ideas challenged? Can we compare that to today?’ ”

Austin has always loved film and intends to apply for a Fulbright grant to continue her oral historiography research in Cambodia. After she graduates in May 2014, she will return to Cambodia as an intern for the Memory! International Film Heritage Festival 2nd Edition. She is interested in working with non-profit organizations that provide opportunities for arts education for underprivileged youth.