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Breaking with bad history: Sharing pasts in South-East Asia through new teaching materials

Thai history scholar Charnvit Kasetsiri offers a simple linkage for the effect that inadequate education about the past can have on present ties between South-East Asian countries: “Bad history, bad education, bad neighbour relations.”




Breaking this cycle was the aim of a recent forum organized by UNESCO Bangkok in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) through the sponsorship of the National Research Foundation of Korea.

The Expert Meeting on “Promoting Intercultural Dialogue and a Culture of Peace in South-East Asia through Shared Histories”, held on 16 and 17 September 2013, was attended by Dr Charnvit and a host of other prominent history scholars, anthropologists and education specialists from around the sub-region and beyond. The experts came together for initial discussions on a daunting proposition: developing shared history texts and learning materials throughout the region.

“Is it possible? Can we get there?” Dr Tim Curtis, UNESCO Asia-Pacific Culture Unit Chief said, outlining the questions to be addressed during the forum at its outset. “It would be a long process and this is a critical first step.”

In his keynote address, former ASEAN Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan said that despite the looming formation of the ASEAN Community in 2015 tensions between neighbours remain.

“There are still fundamental miscommunications, deeply held prejudices and emotionally charged perceptions which we have to overcome,” Dr Surin said. “Some of these go back to relatively recent events, some of these date back generations ... or, rather, to the way these past events have been taught and perpetuated.”

A failure to change this would be hugely detrimental to the region’s future, he said. “The success of our sub-regional community is predicated upon a greater mutual understanding among South-East Asian nations and peoples.” 

Improved education is essential to reaching that understanding, said UNESCO Bangkok Director Dr Gwang-Jo Kim in his opening remarks at the forum.

“We have to reach out to our children and youth through improving their knowledge of past events in order to show the richness of our connections and interconnections with each other,” he said. “To do this, we must revisit our history education, which plays a central role in forming our understanding of ourselves and each other.”

In his opening remarks, Dr Chung Utak, Director of APCEIU, said a new research network was needed to help “jump-start long-term projects that develop teaching and learning materials on the shared histories of South-East Asia”.

Dr Chung added that it was instructive to learn from the experiences of other regions who have taken on similar initiatives in the past.

In this regard, Professor Dr Eckhardt Fuchs from the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research outlined various international initiatives and their approaches to develop shared history textbooks. He highlighted the key role that UNESCO has played in many of these projects since the time of the organization’s founding to modern initiatives in the Middle East and Africa.

How South-East Asian countries currently teach the history of the sub-region and relations with neighbours was the subject of a presentation by Dr Filomeno V Aguilar Jr of Ateneo de Manila University.

Dr Aguilar presented the results of a situational analysis of education systems throughout South-East Asia, which found education about the sub-region lacking and often avoiding contentious issues.

“By excluding these topics, students acquire an incomplete picture of the past and they are deprived the opportunity to learn lessons in peaceful coexistence with neighbors in the region,” he said.

However, Dr Aguilar added that the region-wide push to improve basic education and 21st century skills, such as critical inquiry and self-directed learning, makes this the ideal time for change.

The overall air of optimism tempered by the challenges of the task at hand carried over to the second day of the forum, which was focused on what the “next steps” would be.

Following the second day of discussions, the expert forum agreed that these measures would follow two parallel lines: working out the content and technical aspects of the project, with a focus on producing teaching and learning materials for both teachers as well as students, and seeking political endorsement.

The recommendations from the meeting provide a solid departure point from which UNESCO can spearhead a long-term project aimed at bolstering political support for the shared history texts initiative and ultimately making it a reality.