Australia’s peak body for Asian studies — Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) — recently announced the winners of its most prestigious prize, the 2018 ASAA John Legge Prize for Best Thesis on an Asian topic.
Kathryn Dyt won the award for her thesis, "The Nguyễn Weather-World: Environment, Emotion and Governance in Nineteenth-Century Vietnam", and Rebecca Gidley was runner-up is for her thesis, "Illiberal Transitional Justice: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia".
Both Kathryn and Rebecca completed their thesis at School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) at The Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP).
The prize is named for Professor John Legge, one of world’s foremost scholars of Asia with particular expertise in political history of Southeast Asia.
"The list of past winners of the John Legge Prize is a who’s who of the best Asian scholars in the world. It is fantastic to add two emerging scholars of Mainland Southeast Asia to that list in Kathryn Dyt and Rebecca Gidley," said Professor Kent Anderson, President of ASAA.
"The fact that they were contemporaries at the School of Culture, History and Language at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU speaks to the quality of expertise and supervision held by ASAA members within that school," he said.
"In navigating for the Asian Century, Australia needs more scholars like Kathryn and Rebecca and through the ASAA’s sponsorship of this prize we are excited to be investing in the expertise that will serve us into the future."
Rebecca Gidley’s thesis examined a tribunal that is currently operating in Cambodia to put on trial the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime who were in power 1975-1979. She looked at the creation, operation, and outcomes of this tribunal and how it is playing into the existing historical narratives about the Khmer Rouge.
"Most scholarship assumes that trials such as these, part of what we term transitional justice, are being employed to benefit victims of mass atrocities and to help the country move on by developing rule of law, ending cultures of impunity, and strengthening democracy," said Rebecca.
"However, I argued that this is far from the case in Cambodia. Instead, the Cambodian government is actively ensuring that the tribunal cannot improve the quality of the rule of law or democracy and instead is using it as part of a multi-facetted strategy to strengthen its own hold on power."
"The ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was not a cheerful one but was crucial nonetheless. I was asked early on in my thesis journey where the victims would figure in my research. And the unfortunate answer is that they don’t, precisely because the people creating this tribunal were never thinking about the victims."
"It wasn’t the answer I wanted to give but helped me to understand that we need new ways of thinking about these trials."
Rebecca’s interest in Cambodia began at the age of 16 when she randomly chose a question for a high school essay.
"It’s a country whose past teaches you about some of the worst things people can do to each other, but visiting in the present you encounter immense levels of generosity. It also brought me into contact with passionate and inspiring scholars, colleagues and friends first at the University of Queensland and now at the Australian National University," said Rebecca.
Rebecca is currently teaching history, international relations, political science and security studies at CAP. The book based on her thesis research will be published in the first half of 2019 with the Palgrave History of Genocide series. Her next research projects are examining the construction of political narratives at these transitional justice trials in a broader range of countries across Asia, and another writing the history of a national park in the south of Cambodia that is now a casino development.
"It’s an immense pleasure and surprise to be recognised in this way by the ASAA given the depth and breadth of research being done on Asian studies at Australian universities, and the important role that the ASAA plays in promoting that research," said Rebecca.