4 Minutes To Read

Tea Circle in Toronto: Shifting Southeast Asia(s)

4 Minutes To Read

Siew Han Yeo writes about Tea Circle’s transition to the Southeast Asian Studies community at the University of Toronto.

I first heard about Tea Circle in the first year of my PhD at the University of Toronto a few years ago. At that point, I was still new to the field of Burma Studies, and was avidly seeking out additional non-academic resources on Myanmar. The variety of topics and posts that Tea Circle had intrigued me: it was neither an academic journal, nor a media outlet per se – yet this site was one of the few forums where I could peruse a diverse range of research on Myanmar through research reports, opinion pieces, reflection essays, and sometimes, even the oft-hidden notes from researchers conducting academic research in the field. I’ve since followed Tea Circle quite closely. In June 2018, I received the news that Tea Circle was now moving to the University of Toronto; this was a pleasant surprise. Tea Circle’s role as an intellectual forum for varied engagements with Myanmar was clear. However, my previous experience as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto would not have suggested Toronto as a hub for Southeast Asian Studies.

Since returning to Toronto in recent years to pursue a PhD, the area’s growing community of scholars specializing in Southeast Asia has been a welcome surprise – owing in large part to the hard work of faculty and staff across the University of Toronto who have expended tremendous amounts of social, and economic capital to see these changes through. The most recent sign of this shift is Tea Circle’s institutional move: an endeavour detailed in a separate post by Dr. Matthew Walton, one of the co-founders of Tea CircleTea Circle’s involvement with Myanmar and Southeast Asian studies will be a formative part of the future growth of SEA Studies in Toronto.

The University of Toronto boasts several researchers and graduate students working on Southeast Asia. They are dispersed throughout the Political Science, Anthropology, History and Geography departments, and the Department of the Study of Religion. Much like the demographic of Southeast Asia’s varied constituent parts, the research interests of faculty and graduate students at the University of Toronto are as diverse as the region itself.

The largest cluster of scholars are Indonesian specialists in the fields of anthropology, geography and political science –  featuring eminent researchers and major scholarly contributions such as Tania Li’s research on development and the environment and indigenous politics in the uplands of Indonesia; Jacques Bertrand’s work on democratization, ethnic politics and nationalism in Indonesia and Southeast Asia (including a new project on decentralization and public service delivery in ethnic minority areas in Myanmar); and Rachel Silvey’s mapping of women’s labour and migration networks in Indonesia.

Toronto’s academic expertise includes scholars of some of Indonesia’s regional neighbors, too: Burma and Vietnam. Historian Nhung Tuyet Tran looks at the sociocultural history of Catholicism, law, and gender in early modern Vietnam. Matthew Walton recently joined the Political Science Department – his work on Burmese Buddhist political thought is well-known to the Burma Studies community. Christoph Emmrich specializes in the study of Nepalese and Burmese Buddhist practices. The newest addition to U of T’s historians includes Cindy Ewing, whose IR history of decolonization in modern Southeast Asia – including Burma – provides a much-needed focus on the Non-Aligned Movement in SEA contexts. At nearby York University, historian Alicia Turner and her work on sasana and Burmese Buddhism is necessary reading for those interested in the history of colonial Burma. One of the latest additions to the ranks of global SEA scholarship features one of Toronto’s own alumni: Stephen Campbell. Campbell’s research on labour issues in Mae Sot and Burma is detailed in his latest publication – he is now based at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

The University of Toronto’s strengths derives from its excellent faculty and graduate students, as well as the sustained institutional, financial and intellectual support. Graduate students in Burma Studies at the University of Toronto are researching an equally dizzying array of topics: Andrew Dicks studies Buddhist recitation cultures, with a particular focus on the historic and contemporary mediations of the Abhidhamma and Paṭṭhāna (Conditional Relations). Rachelle Saruya explores how the formal and informal educational networks of nunneries in Sagaing engage with the role of knowledge production and gender in Buddhism. Tony Scott studies Pali commentarial literature and the post-independence politics of Buddhist revivalism. Alexandre Pelletier’s work on Indonesia includes a comparative focus on ethnic minority representation and Myanmar’s peace process. My own research looks at the history of the Chinese diaspora in colonial Burma. Grants for graduate students to support the pursuit of Southeast Asiam languages, as well as dissertation research – regardless of what stage one is at ­­– are always within reach through the extensive support provided by the School of Graduate Studies and individual departments.

Toronto’s cohesive SEA community is also dependent on the strong collaboration between various area studies centres. The rigorous interdisciplinary strengths of Toronto’s SEA community are evident in the range of lectures, book launches, and panel discussions offered in 2017-2018, that featured the latest research in SEA studies. The Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and the Asian Institute have hosted leading scholars in the field, including Tyrell Haberkorn’s new book on human rights and impunity in Thailand, Geoffrey Robinson’s new research on the famed killings of ’65 in Indonesia, and Janice Stargardt’s archaeological work on the Pyu city of Sri Ksetra – one of the largest Southeast Asian urban settlements in the time before the Khmer empire (9th-15th centuries). The Robert H.N. Ho Center of Buddhist Studies and the Department of the Study of Religion sponsored roundtable discussions heralding new directions for Burma and its positionality in South Asia/SEA scholarship, and pressing conversations about the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state. Regardless of one’s academic affiliation, the impressive public turnout at these events attests to high levels of interest in these topics in the greater Toronto area, as well as being a tacit acknowledgement of the increasing pertinence of issues afflicting Burma and Southeast Asia for the wider, international political climate. The intellectual rigor and interdisciplinary strengths of University of Toronto’s Southeast Asian Studies thus provide an excellent ground for the newest addition to the community: Tea Circle.

The financial and intellectual support from the University of Toronto’s faculty, departments, and centres of varying research areas have allowed the sustained growth of a vibrant community of scholars and graduate students whose interest in Southeast Asia, and more specifically, Burma studies have encouraged provocative conversations through interdisciplinary collaboration. Tea Circle’s move is a promising sign that Toronto may well be a new hub for Burma studies scholars alongside the more well-established SEA centres in North America: an encouraging moment for the emergence of new ‘Southeast Asia(s)’ in Toronto.

Siew Han Yeo is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. Her background includes an MA in Southeast Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her research looks at the social history of the Chinese diasporic community in colonial Burma and the wider Southeast Asia region.