China’s current influence on the African continent has eclipsed that of any other nation. This engagement now spans heightened diplomatic ties, major investment and trade pacts, security agreements, and migration. But China is only the latest Asian country to have a major impact on African trade, governance, human rights, and culture. India, Japan, Korea, and many other Asian countries have long been deeply engaged with the African continent. In September 2015, the Asia Center, Center for African Studies, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School held an inaugural workshop on China-Africa interconnections, featuring panels on Business and Economics, Law and Politics, Global Medicine and Public Health, and Population and Migration. The event concluded with a screening of China Remix, a film on African immigrants living in Guangzhou, China.
Since 2015, the focus of the Africa-Asia Initiative has expanded beyond China to include all of Asia, and the Asia Center is now collaborating with the Center for African Studies, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, the Korea Institute, the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, and the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute to convene scholars from around the world to conduct collaborative research on three themes: Migration, Trade, and Aid; Environment, Science, Infrastructure, and Industry; and Paradigms for Cooperation in Public Health. The Africa-Asia Initiative sponsored a conference at the Harvard Shanghai Center in November 2017, which brought together leaders from a range of professions to discuss Africa-Asia interrelationships (see Shanghai Conference on Africa and Asia policy brief and conference agenda). A follow-up workshop in Johannesburg in 2019 will focus on public health exchanges. The Asia Center also co-sponsors talks and roundtables on Africa-Asia interconnections and is currently working with the Center for African Studies on an exhibition of materials from the Harvard collections on these interactions.
Asian Diasporas Program
The Asia Center is currently developing a program on Asian diasporas. One goal is to strengthen Asian American Studies at Harvard. Please see the Asian American Studies Seminar Series. See also the Borders in Modern Asia Series.
Disaster Response and Resilience
Global crises such as natural disasters transcend borders and disciplinary fields. The Asia Center has for many years been deeply committed to and has supported research and academic activities focused on disaster risk, response, and resilience.
Disasters in Asia Interdisciplinary Working Group
The Asia Center has convened faculty members and researchers from across the University to address natural disasters in different regions of Asia. Coming from Harvard’s professional schools as well as from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the working group offers a range of disciplinary expertise and experience. Participants represent the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; the Department of Urban Planning and Design in the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD); the Program on Crisis Leadership (PCL) in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government; the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute (a University-wide interfaculty initiative); the Harvard China Fund (a University-wide interfaculty initiative); and the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and the Korea Institute, both in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The interdisciplinary group is developing a two-year series of activities including faculty and student research opportunities, seminars, and international conferences.
In 2018-19, the Asia Center will offer grants to faculty members and students collaborating on research on any aspect of disaster risk, response, and resilience. Grant recipients will present their findings to the working group for discussion with the goal of identifying major themes. The group will then organize an international conference focused on these themes and will invite not only Harvard experts but also overseas scholars, practitioners, and other stakeholders, particularly representatives from affected countries.
As a result, by working together with colleagues from across Harvard, the Asia Center will create transnational networks and facilitate co-learning, new collaborations, and strategies for disaster response and preparedness across Asia.
Disaster Response and Resilience in the Philippines
In 2015, the Asia Center initiated an interdisciplinary project with faculty members and researchers from across the University to address disaster response and resilience in the Philippines. Colleagues from HHI and from the Resilience concentration in the Department of Urban Planning and Design in the GSD worked with the Asia Center to integrate on-site research with academic activities.
This collaborative work builds on past and current activities including: research on disaster response and preparedness across a variety of key organizations on the ground; professional training for disaster management practitioners; and academic activities, such as international conferences and grant-funded opportunities for faculty and students.
Other Disaster Activities Supported by the Asia Center
For nearly a decade, the Asia Center has been funding and co-sponsoring disaster activities on campus and overseas with experts from across Harvard’s schools. The Center has supported seminars and conferences with the PCL; assisted with the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies’ research on the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan; supported an international conference in Singapore in 2012; co-hosted an interfaculty panel discussion on the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (2013) with HHI and the PCL; co-sponsored HHI’s research on the strengths and gaps in disaster response across sectors in the Philippines in 2015; supported a conference in 2016 organized by HHI and the GSD that focused on the coordination of and tensions among different organizations post-disaster, and brought together scholars, government officials, professionals in the arts and design, international NGOs, and practitioners in humanitarian aid; funded the design of an educational museum and resource center in Nepal in response to the 2015 earthquake; co-sponsored in 2017 a panel discussion and photography exhibit focused on two communities five years after Typhoon Haiyan; and in 2018, co-funded HHI’s scoping studies designed to map disaster management practices in Nepal and Myanmar.
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 some international organizations have estimated that as many as 22.5 million refugees have been forcibly displaced.
The Asia Center is focusing on issues faced by the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar, which has become one of the largest and fastest-growing refugee populations in the world. Faced with widespread and violent persecution, approximately one million Rohingya have fled their homes in Rakhine state, Myanmar, to camps in neighboring Bangladesh.While the camps have been set up officially by the Bangladeshi government, issues regarding the anticipated length of time to be spent in camps as well as the refugees’ access to services and how to meet their basic needs continue to be unresolved.
The Asia Center is bringing together colleagues from the Harvard Graduate School of Design; the Harvard Graduate School of Education; the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; and the International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School to rethink the purpose, design, and politics of refugee “camps,” and to begin to address a range of issues faced by the Rohingya. Since the estimated average length of time spent in a refugee camp is seventeen years, the team is not only looking at the overall planning and layout of the facilities but also focusing on the impact of displacement on the youngest and most vulnerable refugees. The project is bringing together faculty members, practitioners, and researchers from across the University to look at issues beyond basic survival and is focusing 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 adaptable for other refugee populations, and the Asia Center will continue to look for collaborators to expand the work in other countries and regions.
Southeast Asia Program
Since its founding, the Asia Center has been committed to developing the study of Southeast Asia at Harvard and has consistently supported programming, faculty grants, and student grants dealing with the region. To coordinate these efforts more effectively, the Center formed the Southeast Asia Committee, currently chaired by Professor Sunil Amrith and composed of faculty members from eight Harvard schools: the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Business School, T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Graduate School of Design, Divinity School, Kennedy School, Law School, and Medical School. The fundamental goal of this committee is to build a critical mass of individuals, programming, and resources that will enable the study of Southeast Asia to thrive at Harvard.
An important part of the Asia Center's Southeast Asia Program is the Thai Studies Program, which was established in 2014 at the Asia Center under the direction of Professor Michael Herzfeld from the Department of Anthropology and Dr. Jay Rosengard from the Harvard Kennedy School. The Program has organized numerous talks and seminars, including the Tambiah and Thailand@Harvard lectures and Thai Studies seminars. For more information, see the Thai Studies Program tab.
The Director of the Asia Center and the Chair of the Southeast Asia Committee, together with the Southeast Asia Committee, are currently developing a multiyear plan to strengthen the study of Southeast Asia at Harvard.
The Southeast Asia Committee is a subset of a growing number of Harvard faculty members working in whole or in part on Southeast Asian topics; the Asia Center is playing a key role in nurturing and expanding the ranks of faculty members working on and in the region.
At the most basic level, the Center is actively identifying faculty members at Harvard who may not focus on Southeast Asia but who have done research on or in the region and who have an interest in becoming part of the larger Southeast Asian community at the University. With the goal of adding to the number of permanent faculty members at Harvard working primarily on Southeast Asia, the Asia Center has been leading efforts to raise funds for endowed professorships: the Jeffrey Cheah Professorship for South-East Asia Studies, to which Professor Rema Hanna, Harvard Kennedy School, was named in January 2016; and the Professorship in Thai Studies, expected to be filled in Spring 2019 by Professor Malavika Reddy.
The Asia Center is likewise committed to supporting the research of current faculty members. In recent years, the Center has funded faculty projects such as Apprentices and Artisans in a Bangkok Neighborhood; Reducing Traffic in Southeast Asia: What Drives Carpooling in Malaysia and Singapore?; Rights and Reconciliation in Myanmar; Water Scarcity and Local Collective Action in Vietnam; The Appearance of Filipina Nationalism: Embodying Nation and Empire; and Debating the State in East and Southeast Asia.
The Asia Center organizes and funds numerous talks, lectures, panels, and conferences engaging with the nations of Southeast Asia, including their relationships with regional and more distant neighbors. Supplementing the Center’s ongoing series on Southeast Asia—the Thai Studies Seminar, the Thailand@Harvard Lecture, and the Stanley H. Tambiah Lecture—are talks on Southeast Asia that are part of the Asia Center’s Asia Beyond the Headlines and Tsai Lecture series. All talks related to Southeast Asia are part of the Southeast Asia Seminar Series; a list of recent events can be found Asia Center Southeast Asia Events.
A relatively new category of funding offered by the Asia Center supports student group trips. In recent years, the Asia Center has funded the Harvard Philippine Forum Service Trip, which sends undergraduates to the Philippines during the winter break to work with homeless youth in partnership with local nonprofits; and the HVIET Summer Program in Vietnam, in which undergraduates create a liberal arts curriculum for Vietnamese high school students who are considering attending college in the United States.
The Asia Center actively supports student organizations at Harvard focused on Southeast Asia. These groups’ activities include planning and hosting academic conferences, cultural events, and film screenings. A notable example was the Spring 2017 conference on the Future of Health in Southeast Asia, organized by the Harvard Chan ASEAN Student Organization.
Southeast Asia Events
Over the years, and with increasing frequency, the Asia Center has directly organized or funded numerous talks, lectures, panels, and conferences dealing with countries in Southeast Asia, including their relationships with other countries in the region and beyond. Supplementing the Center’s ongoing series on Southeast Asia—the Southeast Asia Seminar, the Thai Studies Seminar, the Thailand@Harvard Lecture, and the Stanley H. Tambiah Lecture—are talks on Southeast Asia that are part of the Asia Center’s Asia Beyond the Headlines and Tsai Lecture series.
In October 2017, with the guidance of the Southeast Asia Committee, the Asia Center organized a full-day conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This multi-disciplinary conference featured Southeast Asia scholars and dignitaries, as well as Harvard faculty members in various disciplines, and featured two panels, one focusing on peace and prosperity and the other on aging populations and noncommunicable diseases. The conference was preceded by the Center’s 12th Tsai Lecture featuring the late Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, former Secretary-General of ASEAN, who spoke on past accomplishments and future opportunities for ASEAN.
Thai Studies Program
The Thai Studies Program, under the direction of Jay Rosengard, Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, was created with seed funding given to the Asia Center from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand to support language instructors and courses at several levels of proficiency.
The current Thai Studies Program Committee includes the following faculty:
Dr. Jay Rosengard, Lecturer in Public Policy, HKS; Director
Dr. Malavika Reddy, College Fellow, Lecturer, FAS; Chair
Professor David Atherton, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, FAS
Dr. David Bloom, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography, HSPH
Dr. Charles Hallisey, Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures, HDS
Professor Tyler Giannini, Clinical Professor of Law, HLS
The program has been reinforced by private donations that established a new professorship in Thai Studies, 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 annual Thailand@Harvard Lecture has been an important flagship event gathering scholars, students and the wider community around the study of Thailand. Past speakers include:
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 2019 inaugural Surin Pitsuwan Lecture will be given by Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak on "Elections, Coups, and Constitutions: Thailand's Reckoning in Regional Perspective."
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:
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:
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, teaching of the Thai language at Harvard has been offered at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels thanks to the work of Wipa Khampook (pictured right). 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: