HISTORY is repeating itself in South-East Asia, says Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, speaking of past, present and future Sino-Indian interaction, but it 'will not be reproduced in exactly the same form' because 'nothing ever is reproduced exactly the same'. The form it takes will depend to a large extent on the lessons South-East Asia is able to draw from its past. The region's Indic underpinning is its best-kept secret. In fact, ASEAN, the 10-nation grouping, can be called the 'Indianised states of South-East Asia' - in the words of French orientalist George Coedes — in modern garb.
Asean's members enshrine the traditions of Temasek, Champa, Funan, Kataaha, Mataram and all the other lost kingdoms of the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires that ancient Indians knew collectively as Suvarnabhumi — Land of Gold.
'When we refer to 1,000-year-old ties which unite us with India, it is not at all a hyperbole,' former king Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia said when dedicating a boulevard in Phnom Penh to India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. 'In fact, it was about 2,000 years ago that the first navigators, Indian merchants and Brahmins, brought to our ancestors their Gods, their techniques, their organization. Briefly, India was for us what Greece was to the Latin Occident,' he said.
Language, religion, art, architecture, governance, institutions, temples, folk culture and — above all — a buoyant tradition of maritime trade and merchant guilds also marked the mission goals and influence that more than 50 eminent scholars from a dozen Asian and European countries will discuss at this conference. The event is jointly organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, the National Library Board, the Institute of South Asian Studies and the Asian Research Institute.
Singapore's first foreign minister, the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, saw Chinese-majority Singapore's retention of its Sanskrit name as an affirmation of British historian A.L. Basham's thesis 'that the whole of South-east Asia received most of its culture from India'.
And an Indian word — bumiputera — encapsulates Malaysia's most cherished political concept. Making images of the elephant — headed Hindu God Ganesha is a cottage industry in Java, while Thailand's Buddhist kings claim spiritual descent from India's legendary God-king Rama.
For Minister Mentor Lee, ASEAN's Indic past resonates in the fun and frolic of Indonesian politics as opposed to the religious austerity of Malaysian election campaigns. Indonesians might also have succumbed to the passions that sweep Kelantan and Terengganu without 'that underpinning of Buddhism and Hinduism that gives them, particularly the Javanese, a certain balance'. He blames Jemaah Islamiah leaders of Arab descent for corrupting some Javanese.
The 'Indian influence came from the west, in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Malaysia, Indonesia', he said. 'The Chinese influence came through Vietnam and the city ports, the coastal ports of South-East Asia.' The porcelain cargo of sunken ships from before Admiral Cheng Ho's time bears this out.
But the past was not only a time of peace and plenty. About 10 conference papers will focus on the naval might of India's Chola kings, who interacted extensively with South-East Asia in an age that has left behind some vexed questions with an intriguingly contemporary ring.
Did Rajendra Chola raid Sumatra and Malaya because the Srivijayans obstructed his shipping? Did Mataram attack Srivijaya over the spice trade? Why did Majapahit overthrow Srivijaya? Undoubtedly, commerce was a major cause for the rise and fall of empires for, as the Portuguese Tome Pires who visited Malacca in the 1500s wrote: 'Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.'
Politically, did the Cholas accept Sung suzerainty or was this another Celestial Empire pretension? The suggestion that while South-east Asia saw India as the land of Hinduism and Buddhism and a major trading center, it also viewed China as exerting political and economic power sounds familiar.
'I see now, with the revival of these two great powers, the same thrust coming in from the East and the West,' said Minister Mentor Lee. Much will depend on how Asean composes its internal differences to manage great-power mingling.
(Source: Lasting impressions of dynasty by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, for the Straits Times. The writer is visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.)