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BOOK REVIEW: What it means to be Lao - Coffee Break - 08-07-2006 01:06 PM

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BOOK REVIEW: What it means to be Lao

By Bertil Lintner

07 August 2006

An exploration of the formation and definition of a national identity

Who exactly is a Lao and why? Ethnically and linguistically, it would appear to be the wet-rice cultivating inhabitants of the Mekong River Valley and other lowland areas who speak various Tai languages and dialects.

But in an attempt to foster national unity in an ethnically diverse country – Laos’ official population census lists 49 different ethnic groups, while another, independent survey reveals a myriad 236 peoples and tribes – they are just the Lao Lum, literally “Lao of the plains.”

Ethnic groups practicing slash-and-burn agriculture on hillsides and speaking Austro-Asiatic and Mon-Khmer languages are called Lao Theung, or “Lao of the mountain slopes.” At even higher altitudes, the Lao Sung, or the “Lao of the mountaintops,” cultivate hill paddies as well as opium poppies and speak Hmong-Yao and Sino-Tibetan languages. Together the Lao Lum comprise some 56 percent of the total population of 5.3 million, the Lao Theung 34 percent, and the Lao Sung 9 percent.

This classification was initiated in the 1950s by the then Royal Lao Government and is still being used today in the communist-run Lao People’s Democratic Republic, although its founder, Kaysone Phomvihane, once deemed ethnic categorization to be anti-revolutionary. He emphasized national unity based on the conflicting concepts of cultural diversity and political control of ethnicity. In addition to the “indigenous” peoples, there are also large Vietnamese communities in the towns of the Mekong Valley as well as Chinese and a sprinkling of Indians.

Vatthana Pholsena’s new study of Lao identity examines how the post-1975 communist regime has attempted to “construct a legitimizing nationalist discourse by imposing its own cultural preferences, view of history, and ethnic classification,” or what makes multi-ethnic Laos a unified nation. She comes from one of Laos’ most prominent political families – the Pholsenas – but grew up in France and earned her PhD from the University of Hull in the United Kingdom. She is now an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.

With her own diverse background, Vatthana is well placed to analyze objectively the issue of Lao identity, and she does it extremely well. She outlines how the communists initially tried to eradicate “old” identities and replace them with a “socialist” one. But as Laos’ experiment with socialism led to economic collapse – and the reintroduction of free trade and private enterprise – other traditional Lao values and beliefs also came back to life, but in a somewhat different shape and form. Buddhism and traditional Lao festivals as well as respect for the old royal family have been revived – alongside a cult of Kaysone and lavish celebrations on December 2, the anniversary of the day when the communists seized power in 1975.

And, in many ways, it is working. Laos today is a more unified state than it has ever been, or, as a member of one of the smaller ethnic groups in the country told Vatthana, “Our race is Lao, our blood is Lao, and our nationality is Lao.” Educated members of the national minorities do not necessarily perceive their ethnic identity as one opposed to the majority.

At the same time, there are contradictory aspects of the identity of non-Tai-speaking Lao. The regime now calls for modernity and development, she argues, and therefore the question of identity and culture “is closely tied to the issue of overcoming ‘backwardness.’” The revolutionary war in the 1960s and early 1970s turned “backward tribes” into “revolutionaries” and “patriots.” Seen in a broader perspective, it shows how political and social developments in any multi-ethnic country can create new identities.

Or, as Australian Lao scholar Martin Stuart-Fox says about the book: “Post-war Laos makes not only a contribution to the study of Lao identity, society and history, but also more broadly to the vexed problem of multiple identities among the peoples of Southeast Asia.” Ordinary readers may find Vatthana’s study heavy on the theoretical, yet it not only sheds light on nation-building in a small, little-known, multi-ethnic country, but is also a major contribution to the understanding of the complex issue of ethnic identity in Southeast Asia.

Significantly, she also builds on the scholarship of leading Lao expert Grant Evans, who has written widely on Lao culture, society and identity, shining new light on the ideology of Lao nationalism through examination of the relationships between majority and minority populations. She also nicely puts into cultural, historical and political context the often overlooked role of educated members of ethnic-minority groups.

The end of the Cold War did not lead to a new world order, an international community at peace with itself where social and political stability are the norm. Instead, ethnic conflicts, which had remained dormant for decades, have resurfaced, and Southeast Asia has become one of the most ethnically volatile parts of the world. There may be no significant ethnic conflict in Laos, apart from the government’s decades-old low-intensity conflict with Hmong rebels. On the contrary, given its ethnic diversity, it remains surprisingly peaceful and harmonious, and Vatthana’s book stands out as an excellent case study of the formation and definition of national identity and how state policies can shape a nation.

She argues that the legacy of pre-colonial Buddhist ideologies of ethnic identity, combined with the current regime’s obsession with state control, “do not provide propitious conditions for the emergence of a liberal conception of multiculturalism.” Cultural diversity may grow stronger if, or when, Laos becomes more democratic. That happened in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in 1998, and it may happen in the future in Myanmar, another ethnically diverse country in the region. Or perhaps even one day in Laos.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, where he wrote extensively on Lao politics and economics. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

‘Post-war Laos: The Politics of Culture, History and Identity’

• By Vatthana Pholsena

• Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2006

• 256 pages

• 700 baht

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