The Asia Center is dedicated to the support of Asian Diaspora Studies (including Asian American Studies), which includes collaborative outreach to both Harvard University and local communities. The Center also provides financial support to students and faculty whose research focuses on Asian diasporas both in the U.S. and globally. As one of the only Asia-related international centers at Harvard University without an affiliation to a specific region of Asia, the Asia Center aspires to expand its support of research, lectures, conferences, and other events with a focus on Asian diasporas.
The study of Asian diasporas is essential to understanding the experience and impact of Asian communities and Asia both historically and culturally. A sampling of recent graduate and undergraduate student Asian diaspora-related research projects supported by the Asia Center includes Vietnamese Catholic Refugee Community Building in Massachusetts, 1975-2000; Overseas Filipina Domestic Workers and the Rituals of Making a Filipino Space in the Diaspora; Southeast Asian American Buddhist Communities in Lowell, MA: An Evolving Landscape; and Moving to the Margins: Tracing the Tricontinental Popular in Indonesian-Cuban Cultural Exchange.
The Asia Center also supports many Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) student organization lectures, social events, academic conferences, and performances, including Harvard University’s first Asian American musical, The East Side. This support connects Asian and AAPI-identifying students across all of Harvard University, including its professional schools, for scholarly collaboration and community-building.
Through its programming and outreach, the Asia Center endeavors to address the troubling persistence of anti-Asian racism as it exists in the U.S. and throughout the world. Through collaborations with other Asia-related Harvard University international centers; the Harvard University Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights; student organizations such as the Harvard University Task Force for Asian American Progressive Advocacy and Studies; and the AAPI COVID-19 Project (a collective research project bringing together faculty, graduate researchers, and undergraduate research assistants at seven academic institutions in the United States) the Asia Center has helped to create programming that focuses on combatting racism while also providing a space for artists and scholars to work in safety.
Disaster Response and Resilience
The Asia Center has been deeply committed to and has supported research and academic activities focused on responses to natural disasters for many years. Beginning with offering support for academic activities such as seminars and conferences, the Center has in more recent years begun to develop collaborations involving a broader range of activities overseas. Research abroad had to be paused due to the pandemic, but we plan to resume in the near future. Past activities as well as opportunities for future research are described below.
Disaster Response and Resilience in the Philippines
In 2015, two years after Typhoon Haiyan, the Asia Center coordinated a panel discussion focused on disaster response, risk, and resilience. Due to the interest expressed across different parts of the University, the Center initiated an interdisciplinary project with faculty and researchers from several schools to address disasters and related issues of flooding, informal settlements, and coordination of multilateral response efforts in the Philippines in more depth.
In collaboration with colleagues from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the group developed an interdisciplinary project integrating research, training, conferences, and graduate student option studios.
The Philippines has been recognized internationally for its disaster response initiatives, and the project built on significant activities already established locally and partnered with colleagues on site. Research uncovered strengths and vulnerabilities and highlighted opportunities for better coordination across governmental and nonprofit sectors as well as with other local stakeholders including businesses and households.
Opportunities for Future Activities
Opportunities for new projects that can have an impact overseas include the development and implementation of innovative solutions on site; tailoring recommendations for other regions of Asia; creating interdisciplinary online courses and open-source toolkits; and co-creating new interdisciplinary collaborations with colleagues at Harvard and internationally. In the longer term, the research aims to inform processes and best practices in other regions of Asia and to facilitate transnational learning and collaboration, regions illustrate how successful preparedness measures can be redesigned for neighboring countries. As additional goal is to establish a regional network of disaster management exchange and cross-learning.
Responses to Refugee Crises
Global refugee crises, whether caused by natural disasters or violent conflict, have become one of the most widespread and urgent humanitarian issues of our time. Displacement worldwide has surpassed anything witnessed since the wake of World War II, and UNHCR estimates that in 2022 as many as 30 million refugees have been forcibly displaced.
The Asia Center is focusing specifically on Rohingya refugees and the displacement issues they face. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar, have been persecuted for decades and have never been granted citizenship status in their home country. In August 2017, widespread violent attacks on Rohingya villages led to a massive exodus of approximately one million refugees to neighboring countries, with the majority relocating to the sprawling refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazaar region of Bangladesh. In September 2018, the U.N. officially recognized the Rohingya crisis as genocide.
To date, the camps in Bangladesh have received approximately 900,000 displaced persons including children, resulting in severe overcrowding and limited access to food, shelter, healthcare, clean water, and basic sanitation. International aid groups struggle to provide ongoing services to address the refugees’ needs and living conditions, but the demand is overwhelming. In addition, issues have been magnified by deadly monsoon rains, landslides, and fires. UNHCR has reported an increased risk of diphtheria and cholera, and acute malnutrition in children above the critical threshold. The COVID-19 pandemic not only threatened the health of the refugees, but safety restrictions limited the number of healthcare and relief providers allowed to enter the camps.
The Asia Center is convening colleagues from across the different schools and programs at Harvard including the International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to rethink the purpose, design, and politics involved in the camps and their host country, and to begin to understand and address a range of issues faced by the Rohingya refugees from their perspectives. Since the estimated average length of time spent in a refugee camp is seventeen years, the Center plans to look not only at the overall planning and layout of the facilities but also at the impact of displacement on the most vulnerable refugees, the children. The projects aim to look beyond basic survival and focus on children’s socio-emotional, developmental, and educational needs. Further, the research group will strive to identify strategies to counteract the traumatic effects on children and engage caregivers and community members in building resilience.
Both practical and academic lessons learned will be valuable for other refugee populations, and in the future, the Asia Center plans to look for collaborators to expand lessons learned to be applicable in other countries and regions.
Southeast Asia Initiative
Explicit in the Asia Center’s mission and connected to the Center’s other areas of focus, is the support and development of Southeast Asian (SEA) studies at Harvard. Unlike East and South Asia, this region has not been the focus of deliberate institutional planning at the university; it has developed organically in different areas, though it still does not have an institutional home. The Southeast Asia Initiative at the Asia Center, a university-wide inter-faculty initiative, is uniquely positioned to take the lead in nurturing and coordinating these efforts. The absence of an existing institutional framework is an opportunity to craft a coherent program that addresses deficiencies in Harvard’s coverage of Southeast Asia. The Southeast Asia Initiative aims to create a structure that transcends borders and builds on the pillars of developing institutional strengths in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand, and increasing activity around Myanmar and the Philippines.
The Asia Center’s approach to Southeast Asian Studies is one that looks from the perspective of “Southeast Asia in the World,” transcending the boundaries of nation states and academic disciplines, while also recognizing the importance of studying individual countries’ experiences and how they inform regional and global interactions. The Harvard Asia Center aspires to become a venue for the production and dissemination of this type of cutting-edge research. We plan to take note of the distinctive contributions made by Southeast Asians to crafting the idea of Asia. The Asia Center plays a significant role by bringing together scholars and scholarship that treat the vast region as a zone of connection, circulation, and shared conversation. We will build closer partnerships with key individuals and institutions in Southeast Asia in pursuit of our study of “Southeast Asia in the World.”
Over the last several years, the Asia Center has increasingly focused on surveying and identifying areas of opportunity and need, and in supplementing resources for students and faculty. We have formed a Committee/Working Group of core faculty members from across Harvard’s schools with whom we have strategically expanded programming, while simultaneously constructing institutional scaffolding on which to build a program that is a destination and resource for scholars that work on and in the region.
A guiding force in our SEA planning is the work of our students at all levels, whom we continue to support with research grants. Recently funded research explored smart cities and urban planning in Thailand and Myanmar, the ASEAN-U.S. relationship and SEA’s role in the making of postcolonial world order; trans-Asian and global migration and cultural exchanges to and from SEA; political polarization, military coups, and the influence of external soft power; Islam and Christianity in SEA; and the impact of COVID-19. Additionally, we are creating a Graduate Student Advisory Group to ensure that the perspectives and priorities of the next generation of scholars are kept at the forefront. Beyond an advisory role, this group will be empowered to create programming and invite speakers that directly connect with their own work. One avenue will be an annual conference by and for graduate students from across the country to workshop their scholarship.
Our current plan for Southeast Asia focuses on the development of language instruction and course development that, along with our programmatic initiatives, will result in a dynamic ecosystem for Southeast Asian studies at Harvard. To that end we have committed to funding a preceptor in Indonesian to begin institutionalizing SEA language instruction at Harvard, and to offering course development grants to faculty members interested in creating SEA courses.
Programmatically, the Asia Center has expanded its offerings of public talks and series, including the Southeast Asia Lecture Series, the Philippines Lecture Series, ongoing talks on the crisis in Myanmar (including a panel performance/discussion on poetry as protest), an exhibit by Indonesian artist Entang Wiharso, as well as the activities of the Thai Studies Program (TSP). The TSP program hosts a talk series as well as the Surin Pitsuwan Lecture in Thai Politics and Society and the annual Tambiah Lecture which brings representatives of academia, business, government, and other professions to Harvard to give public presentations.
We see an opportunity to establish a hub for Southeast Asian studies that is comparable to the existing centers for East and South Asia, by building on the expertise and strengths that already exist across Harvard’s schools, departments, and programs. Now is the time to simultaneously recognize the importance of Southeast Asia while embracing its interconnectedness with the rest of Asia and the wider world.
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About the Thai Studies Program at Harvard
The Thai Studies Program, under the direction of Jay Rosengard, Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, promotes the study of Thailand at Harvard University.
The program has established a new professorship in Thai Studies, as well as running series such as The Surin Pitsuwan Lecture in Thai Politics and Society (renamed in 2018; formerly The Thailand@Harvard Lecture Series), and an annual lecture series named for the late Professor Stanley Tambiah. The Tambiah Lectures bring representatives of academia, business, government, and other professions to Harvard to give public presentations.
The current Thai Studies Program Committee includes the following faculty:
- Jay Rosengard, Lecturer in Public Policy, HKS; Director
- Malavika Reddy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, FAS; Chair
- David Atherton, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, FAS
- David Bloom, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography, HSPH
- Charles Hallisey, Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures, HDS
- Tyler Giannini, Clinical Professor of Law, HLS
- Michael Herzfeld, Ernest E. Monrad Research Professor of the Social Sciences, FAS; TSP Inaugural Director Emeritus
Currently, the Thai Studies Program is working on collecting information about Thailand amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, including the latest updates, how to help, and emerging research. Visit the site here: http://tsp-harvard-covid19.mystrikingly.com
Some examples of events the Thai Studies Program hosted since 2019 include:
- Thai Studies Seminar Series: “CONSTITUTIONAL BRICOLAGE: Thailand’s Sacred King Versus the Rule of Law” with Professor Eugénie Mérieau
- “Charnel Knowledge and Imperial Power: Medico-Legal Science in Siam, c. 1855-1900” with Professor Trais Pearson
- 5th Annual Stanley J. Tambiah Lecture in Thai Studies: “The Thrall of Monarchy: A History of Royalism Through a Study of Prince Prisdang” with Professor Tamara Loos
- 9th Annual Surin Pitsuwan Lecture in Thai Politics and Society: “Use and Abuse of Thailand’s Lèse-Majesté Law: The Peculiarity of Thai Democracy” with Chiranuch Premchaiporn
Past Events Hosted by the Thai Studies Program
The annual Surin Pitsuwan Lecture in Thai Politics and Society (formerly Thailand@Harvard Lecture) has been an important flagship event gathering scholars, students, and the wider community around the study of Thailand. Past speakers include:
- Spring 2021, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, “Use and Abuse of Thailand’s Lèse-Majesté Law: The Peculiarity of Thai Democracy”
- Spring 2019, Ajarn Thitinan Pongsudhirak, “Elections, Coups, and Constitutions: Thailand's Reckoning in Regional Perspective”
- Fall 2016, Pravit Rojanaphruk, “Holding Governments and Journalists Accountable: Rights and Responsibilities of a Free Press in Thailand”
- Spring 2016, Maurizio Peleggi, “Prehistory and the Cold War: American Neocolonial Archaeology in Thailand”
- Fall 2015, Veerathai Santiprabob, “What Can We Expect from Thailand’s Reform?”
- Spring 2014, Duncan McCargo, “Policing Bangkok”
- Fall 2013, Apiwat Ratanawaraha, “Shaping the Future of Thai Cities”
- Spring 2013, Prasarn Trairatvorakul “From Here to There: Economic Transition in Emerging Markets”
- 2012, Komatra Chuengsatiansup, “After the Flood: Reaction, Relief, and Recovery in Thailand”
The Tambiah Lectures bring representatives of academia, business, government, and other professions to Harvard to give public presentations in honor of the late Stanley J. Tambiah, who was a Harvard professor and leading scholar in Thai and Buddhism studies. Past speakers include:
- Spring 2019, Tamara Loos, “The Thrall of Monarchy: A History of Royalism Through a Study of Prince Prisdang”
- Fall 2018, Penny Van Esterik, “Materializing Thai Heritage: Chance and the Life Cycle in the New Ethnology”
- Fall 2016, Thongchai Winichakul, “The Invented Old Siamese Conceptions of the Monarchy”
- Fall 2015, Justin McDaniel, “On the Back Streets of the Galactic Polity: Studying Indian Religions in Modern Thailand”
- Fall 2015, Katherine Bowie, “The Politics of Rituals: Humor and the Vicissitudes of the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand”
The Thai Studies Program has hosted numerous Seminar Series which have brought together Harvard Faculty, undergraduate and graduate students working in Thailand, visiting scholars from Thailand, and scholars of Thailand from throughout the US. Past speakers include:
- Eugénie Mérieau, “Constitutional Bricolage: Thailand’s Sacred King Versus the Rule of Law”
- Puangthong R. Pawakapan, “The Thai Military’s Remobilization of the Royalist Mass”
- Scott Stonington, “Death in Thailand and a Hauntology of Ethics”
- Eli Elinoff, “Subjects of Politics: Between Democracy and Dictatorship in Thailand”
- Andrew Johnson, “The River Grew Tired of Us: Spectrality, Infrastructure, and the Search for Potency Along the Changing Mekong”
- Samson Lim, “Photography and Forgery in Early Capitalist Bangkok”
- Malavika Reddy, “The King in I: Locating Kingship and the Limits of Law in a Thai Border Town”
- Somsak Chunharas, “Reform for Equity and Social Justice: Are There Hopes, or is it Just a Joke?”
- Quentin Parson, “Morbid Subjects: Forensic Medicine and Sovereignty in Siam”
- Scott Stonington, “On Anti-Mindfulness: Competing Figures of Lay and Ascetic Coping for Chronic Pain in Thailand”
- Sitthithep Eaksittipong, “The Politics of T(h)ai History in Sino-Thai Relations”
- Jutathorn Pravattiyagul, “Queer Bodies, Beautiful Masks: Thai Transgender Women in Europe”
- Pandit Chanrochanakit, "A Short History of Truth Commission in Thailand: The Culture of Ambiguity and Impunity"
- Speakers Forum, "Human Rights and Everyday Governance in Thailand: Past, Present, and Future”
- Pinkaew Laungaramsri, "Cards, Colors, and the Culture of Identification"
- Bryce Beemer, "Creolized Kingdoms: Slave Gathering Warfare, Thai Dance-Drama, and the Transformation of Burmese Royal Arts"
- Dzung Nguyen Quang, "They Live in a National Park: Protected Areas, Local Knowledge, Buddhist Environmentalism and Ethnicity of an Upland Community in Northern Thailand"
- Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “The Thai Monarchy and the Ideology of Neo-Royalism: Trap or Opportunity?”
Thai Language Studies
In recent years, the teaching of the Thai language at Harvard has been offered at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels thanks to the work of Wipa Khampook. One of the students to recently benefit from their teaching was Kerry Hammond (College graduate '14), whose senior thesis examined the culture of large family business corporations in Thailand. Kerry writes "Studying Thai was one of the most influential learning experiences I had at Harvard. As a result, I was able to engage more substantially with my senior thesis research and develop a deeper appreciation for the country I had been studying for three years."
The Thai Studies Program newsletters can be viewed below:
Transnational and Transregional Research
The study of Asia from a transnational and transregional perspective is critical in understanding the interconnectedness of Asian countries and their interactions with the rest of the world. Since many current research questions and challenges are not limited to a single country or region but cut across the strongly interwoven global community, studies focusing on multiple countries and regions are paramount.
At the core of the Harvard Asia Center’s mission is the promotion and support of this perspective on Asian studies at the university. This is done by fostering research and bringing together faculty members, students, scholars, and professionals to explore the intersected histories of the region and the significant issues facing Asia today.
Toward this end, the Center works collaboratively with various research centers and individual stakeholders from schools across Harvard and scholars and practitioners from around the world. The Center supports Harvard faculty members with research grants and by organizing conferences and seminars that include more than one country/region in East, South, and Southeast Asia. Financial support is available to Harvard students for travel to conduct transnational/transregional research, attend conferences, and study languages.
The Center has an active visiting scholars’ program which welcomes individuals from around the world whose research projects focus on two or more East, South, and Southeast Asian countries, to conduct independent research at the Center with the support of Harvard faculty members. Another component of the Center’s scholarly community is its Graduate Student Associates Program which convenes students working on transnational topics to receive feedback and support from their peers. Topics being explored by the current cohort of affiliates include Digital Platforms and Promotion of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems in Asia; Afghanistan-India Connections in the 19th and early 20th Centuries; Maritime Security in East Asia; State Inc. and Asian diasporas in Knowledge Spaces; Trajectories of Media Narratives on China Amid the Pandemic in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand; and Asia Africa Relations. Affiliates contribute significantly to the Center and Harvard University by participating in seminars, panel discussions, and other activities where they share their expertise and present their research.
Throughout the academic year, the Center organizes talks and panel discussions on topics of transnational and transregional importance through its seminar and lecture series, Asia Beyond the Headlines, Asia Center Seminars, Borders in Modern Asia, Science and Technology, the Southeast Asia Lectures, the endowed Tsai Lecture, and others. Past events include: South and Southeast Asia and the 2020 U.S. Election; China and Asia in a Changing Climate: Natural Science for the Non-Scientist; Back to the Water’s Edge? Historicizing Current American Security Policies in the Asia-Pacific; The Fractured Himalaya: India, China, Tibet 1949-62; The Print Sublime: Global Scripts in the Age of Mechanical Writing; Border Conflicts in the Himalayas: Bhutan, Nepal, India, and China; The U.S. and Korea: Unfinished Story; and Exploring Asia-Africa Partnerships: Nuances of India’s Approaches and Situating the China Factor. Some of the past speakers of Tsai Lecture include the late Surin Pitsuwan, former Secretary-General of ASEAN; Pritzker Prize-winning architect and humanitarian Shigeru Ban; internationally renowned human rights lawyer and advocate, late Asma Jahangir, the Honorable Caroline Kennedy, the Honorable Kathleen Stephens, and the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa.
The Center will continue to play a critical role in promoting transnational and transregional research at Harvard by providing resources and support to our faculty, students, and affiliates and by pursuing new programs that take innovative approaches to the study of Asia.