Dr Mathew Davies

Dr Mathew Davies

Performing Unity: The symbol and ritual of ASEAN

20 February 2018

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Fellow & Head, Department of International Relations & School Deputy Director - Education

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been a paradox from the very beginning. So argues Dr Mathew Davies in a book he is writing for Cambridge University Press. The intergovernmental organisation is often criticised as being ineffective, with its principles of non-interference and sovereign equality often unenforced or undermined. “The question is why do these states stick with it?” Davies asks. “Why do they agree to all these things and then not do any of them in a consistent way?”

The role of performance, ritual and symbolism is a large part of his answer. Davies argues that ASEAN simulates its expressed principles, it doesn’t embody them. In his words, the association is a shared performance. The flags, banners, group photos, smiles and handshakes of its summits are all symbols of unity. For Davies, “that is actually all there is.” But even such acts serve a purpose. “Where ASEAN achieves the goals of its founders is that this performance serves to limit regional tensions,” he says.

It is his hope that by focusing on the role of performance he can cut a middle path between perspectives that either overinflate or discount the association’s significance. “This is actually what ASEAN is,” he says, “these orchestrated, embodied performances.”

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