Areas of Focus & Funded Activities

Africa-Asia Initiative

Africa-Asia Initiative

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

Asian Diasporas Program

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

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

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 Program

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.

Faculty Support

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.

Student Support

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


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:

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:

Fall 2019

  • Eugénie Mérieau, “Constitutional Bricolage: Thailand’s Sacred King Versus the Rule of Law”

Fall 2018

  • Puangthong R. Pawakapan, “The Thai Military’s Remobilization of the Royalist Mass”

Spring 2018

  • 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”

Fall 2017

  • Somsak Chunharas, “Reform for Equity and Social Justice: Are There Hopes, or is it Just a Joke?”

Spring 2016

  • 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”

Spring 2015

  • 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"

Fall 2015

  • 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: 

Spring 2019 

Academic Year 2019-2020


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