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Laos Culture and Society. (Book Reviews: Laos).


Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000. Pp. xi, 313. Bibliography, Index.

The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975


Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1998. Pp. xxiv, 216. Photos, Bibliography, Index.

Theravadins, Colonialists and Commissars in Laos


Bangkok: White Lotus, 1998. Pp. xxi, 276. Bibliography, Index.

Essai d'anthropologie politique sur le Laos contemporain: Marche, socialisme, et genies


Paris and Montreal: L'Harmattan, 1997. Pp. 398. Photographs, Bibliography.

The past few years have seen the appearance of several important works of scholarship on Laos. As the books reviewed here are working primarily from the perspectives of political science and anthropology, their work nicely complements the recent publications on Lao history by Martin Stuart-Fox, reviewed in a previous issue of this journal. And as much of the research and fieldwork for these books was done during the 1990s, they provide a very current and timely perspective on developments in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR).

Theravadins, Colonialists and Commissars in Laos is a collection of Geoffrey Gunn's articles spanning the period 1982 to 1996; the one completely new piece, a study of the Viet Kieu (Vietnamese emigre) community in Siam during the colonial period, builds on his 1988 study Political Struggles in Laos 1930-54: Vietnamese Communist Power and the Lao Struggle for National Independence (Bangkok: Duang Kamol, 1988). The articles cover a wide variety of topics relating to modern Lao political history, as shown by the six headings under which they are grouped: Facts and Theory; Anti-Colonial Stirrings; Civil War; Men Who Make History; State, Nation and Army; and Problems of Development.

Gunn's strongest and most original pieces are those that make best use of his scholarly strengths: careful archival research and the ability to articulate important issues relating to how we view Laos from the outside. The first strength is reflected in the new article on the Viet Kieu ('Rear Base of the Revolution') and the reprinted 1987 piece on 'Minority Manipulation in Colonial Indochina'. This latter article will whet the reader's appetite for Gunn's monograph, Rebellion in Laos: Peasant and Politics in a Colonial Backwater (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1990), which is unfortunately out of print. Although the reader must wade through a great deal of rather dreary Marxist rhetoric, it is worth the effort, as Gunn chronicles in detail the aspects of French policy towards upland minorities which serve as a backdrop to the multi-ethnic character of the Lao revolution. These two articles, along with the monographs, contain a wealth of important information from the French archives.

Gunn's thoughtful perspectives on studying Laos are the basis for the first and last articles in the collection. Chapter 1, 'Approaches to Tai-Lao Studies: From Orientalism to Marxism is a wide-ranging piece that provides a historical overview of scholarship on Laos while also summarising various theoretical issues and debates concerning the study of Thailand, many of which are equally relevant to the other side of the Mekong. While the first chapter looks largely at the past, the concluding essay, 'Research Agenda for the Lao People's Democratic Republic', is very much forward-looking, giving a short but insightful discussion of issues facing Laos in the 1990s (and beyond) as well as the general state of Lao studies. Fortunately, some of the gaps in scholarship that Gunn mentions in this 1996 piece are gradually being filled by recent works such as those reviewed below.

Most of the remaining articles cover political, military and economic topics relating to both sides of the pre-1975 civil war and to the post-1975 regime as well. Although there is considerable overlap in terms of content with previous work by other scholars, Gunn positions himself rather further to the left on the political spectrum and makes greater use of theoretical models than, say, Stuart-Fox or Joseph Zasloff. As a result, his contributions on these issues complement rather than duplicate existing scholarship. He includes brief but interesting biographical studies on Prince Souphanouvong and Wilfred Burchett. In both cases one might prefer a rather more critical perspective: the piece on Souphanouvong tends to be more hagiographical than analytical, and the discussion of Burchett's involvement with Laos glosses over the 'fellow-traveller' naivete and unquestioning acceptance of revolutionary propaganda which characterised his work. Even so, Gunn's observations undeniably help us to better understand th ese two important figures.

The wide-ranging scope of Gunn's interests is matched by the diversity of topics covered in Grant Evans' edited volume on Laos: Culture and Society. The book is anchored by three solid chapters by Evans: an introduction discussing the question 'What is Lao Culture and Society?', one on the ways in which Vietnamese ethnology has influenced the study of minorities in Laos, and a case study of ethnic identity and change in Houa Phan province. Other anthropologically oriented pieces include studies of women border traders in north-western Laos (Andrew Walker), the Lue minority (Khampheng Thipmuntali), rituals in post-1975 Luang Phabang (Ing-Britt Trankell), and the role of women in their sons' ordinations (H. Leedom Lefferts, Jr). Si-ambhaivan Sisombat Souvannavong offers an interesting study of two prominent families split between lives in France and in Laos. Soren Ivarsson's chapter on the famous Lao Nhay newspaper -- the mouthpiece for the 1941-45 nationalist 'awakening', often cited but never actually studied until now -- includes a discussion of language reform, which is also the focus of N. J. Enfield's piece on 'Lao as a National Language'. Both of these chapters straddle the Mekong in their discussion, as does Peter Koret's piece on Lao literature. Finally, Randi Jerndal and Jonathan Rigg offer a contribution on the LPDR's transition from 'buffer state' to 'crossroads state'.

As will perhaps be clear from the list of topics just given, this volume is to some extent a collection of chapters in search of a theme. The effect is rather like working one's way through the proceedings of IAHA or an International Thai Studies Conference: each of the papers is interesting, and a couple of them can be linked to others (Ivarsson and Enfield, for example), but the overall impression is one of fragmentation rather than cohesiveness. Evans' introduction is a fascinating piece that does make reference to the other chapters in the book, but without really linking them together. He raises interesting issues, but those issues are generally peripheral to the topics of the other pieces. Armed with this caveat, however, the reader will enjoy the diversity of subjects and perspectives found in the book.

In terms of linguistic and cultural understanding, Grant Evans is arguably the Western scholar with the best grasp of contemporary Laos, and this fact is clearly demonstrated in his monographic work, Politics of Ritual and Remembrance, a rich and highly readable study of Lao society and culture after a quarter-century of socialist rule. As the book's title suggests, his main emphasis is on symbols, memories and traditions and the ways in which they have been preserved, manipulated or distorted -- but almost never completely abandoned -- under the revolution. He has deftly combined anthropological theory with years of observations and insight to produce a wide-ranging chronicle of Laos in the 1980s and 1990s.

The book is divided into 15 short chapters, many of which could stand alone as journal articles, but which all fit together and refer back to each other. One of the most important themes is the memory of royalty and the extent to which the revolutionary regime has failed to supplant the traditional socio-political and cultural roles of the Lao monarchy. This is, Evans suggests, due partly to the lack of 'closure' attributable to the government's silence on the fate of the imprisoned royal family, partly to 'an awareness that [state-sponsored] rituals do not have the same grandeur as before' (p. 172), and partly to the simple fact that the leader of the Lao revolution, Kaysone Phomvihane, could not hope to fill the 'structural space' once occupied by the king. Ironically, he notes, the Chakri Dynasty is increasingly filling this space 'from a distance, at least in the [Lao people's] imagination', through the influence of Thai media and the high-profile visits of Thai royals, particularly Crown Princess Sirindh orn. Meanwhile, the Party's attempts to redefine national symbols such as the That Luang shrine by eliminating psychological and cultural links to royalty, and to promote a small-scale 'Kaysone Cult' as a substitute for memories of the old rulers have been generally unsuccessful.

A second main theme of Evans' study is the extent to which certain elements of Lao culture and society are returning, as much as possible, to a pre-1975 status quo ante. This is true to a large extent for Buddhism and spirit mediums; the chapter on the latter topic gives a broader overview that nicely balances the more 'micro' perspective of Bernard Hours and Monique Selim (see below). After a period of repression during the early years of the regime, both of these fundamental components of the Lao religious tradition have been able to thrive with few or no constraints, despite the possibility of subversive or 'reactionary' spirits making their voices heard through mediums. In a short but fascinating chapter on 'Bodies and Language', Evans describes how gestures and words associated with 'feudal' society are now re-asserting themselves as the norm. The nop (the Lao term for the gesture known as wai in Thai) has once again become virtually universal, replacing the 'more egalitarian handshake' and the even more awkward Soviet-style hugging and kissing once favoured by revolutionaries (p. 84). Even more significantly, the response particles doi and doi khanoi (roughly equivalent to Thai khrap and kha), which explicitly evoke the hierarchy of pre-1975 Lao society, are coming back into vogue at the expense of the term chao, promoted under the revolution to express courtesy without 'feudal' deference.

The only real defect of this book is mechanical. The Lao-language entries in the bibliography are not arranged in any discernible order, so that it takes a bit of searching to find the specific source cited in the text. Moreover, the text contains several references for sources which do not appear in the bibliography. In most cases, there are other works by the same author, but it is not clear whether the year given in the citation is incorrect or whether there is in fact another source by that author which has been omitted from the bibliography.

Essai d'anthropologie politique sur le Laos contemporain is written by a pair of French anthropologists, one of whom (Hours) has previously worked on Laos. It is a bit heavy on anthropological and sociological jargon, which somehow sounds even more ponderous in French than in English, and the book gets off to a rather slow start as it establishes the political and social context for the particular topics it focuses on. Moreover, in attempting to describe the psychological climate for their study, the authors make socialist Laos sound like something halfway between North Korea and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, which strikes a discordant note for anyone who spent time in the country during the early 1990s, when the authors were doing their fieldwork. As one goes deeper into the book, however, it is clear that the frequent references to 'fear' and 'terror' reflect memories of the early years after the final victory of the Revolution in 1975, memories which were obviously very real to the authors' informants.

The particular focus of the book is reflected in its sub-title -- 'Market, socialism, and spirits'. There are three specific case studies: rural hospitals and clinics, a pair of pharmaceutical factories near Vientiane, and a group of spirit mediums. Again, the chapter titles for the case studies are a bit murky: 'Public health as a metaphor for political order', 'Figures of domination at the factory' and 'Spirits -- political therapists in the service of the market'. If one can weave one's way around the jargon, however, there is a tremendous amount of valuable information, accompanied by some very acute observations. Despite the frequent presence of local officials and what appears to be a relatively limited command of the Lao language (based on the authors' own admissions and the errors in spelling and translation of Lao terms in the text), the writers have interviewed a surprising number of people and acquired a considerable store of revealing responses in the process. Clinic and factory employees of vario us ranks, as well as the rather more colourful figures of mediums, appear as thoroughly three-dimensional characters with articulate voices and detailed personal histories.

These voices constitute the book's greatest strength. We are exposed to a considerable number of individual biographies which clearly reflect the shared trajectories of many Lao lives before and after 1975. The fundamental dichotomy is between pati vat and patikan, those linked to the revolution and the 'reactionaries' tied to the old regime. Ironically, the 'upward mobility' enjoyed by the first group and the 'downward mobility' suffered by the second have ultimately mixed them together in a sort of uneasy coexistence at various levels of the bureaucracy. Through anecdotes and interviews, Flours and Selim illustrate the coping strategies on which both groups have increasingly relied during the transition toward a more market-oriented system. The ultimate coping strategy, they suggest, is the use of mediums, a practice which has returned in full force after being discouraged and partially suppressed during the early years of the LPDR.

The book is hardly a paean to Lao socialism, to say the least, and the evolution of Laos over the past quarter-century is painted in colours ranging from grey to black. Even as the trauma of the regime's early years has somewhat faded, the authors suggest, the sense of failure and helplessness has only grown stronger. The overall conclusion of the book is that this combination -- failure on the part of the government and helplessness on the part of those under its authority -- is directly responsible for the resurgence of spiritism. It is not just a matter of falling back on traditional practices in a time of socio-economic disruption; rather, the writers argue, 'the power of the animistic spirits becomes more of a presence and more concrete than the power of the State, which it neutralises and, in some ways, subverts'. In a broader context, they conclude, the return to mediums and the rituals that surround them 'probably constitutes the main weapon and symbolic dynamic available to Lao society to confront th e 21st Century and the Asian dragons which surround [Laos]; this future raises so much fear and trembling that resorting to the mediation of the spirits becomes a must' (p. 385).

While Hours and Salim are perhaps more directly critical of the LPDR regime and pessimistic regarding its prospects, much of the other scholarship cited in this review implicitly or explicitly supports their conclusions. Evans' work shows very clearly the extent to which the revolutionary 'transformations' of Lao society have been quietly shelved and even reversed. (This is possible partly because of a somewhat higher degree of continuity between the old and new regimes than is the case in, say, southern Vietnam, especially in terms of the powerful and well-entrenched families who have been the backbone of successive Lao regimes.) Several of the pieces in his edited volume demonstrate how traditional economic and cultural activities (such as cross-border trading and Buddhist ordinations) have regained their pre-1975 importance under a putatively socialist regime. Gunn's articles on 'Socialist Dependence and Undervelopment', 'Prospects for Reform', and 'Winds of Change' provide balanced and realistic assessmen ts of the lack of political and economic dynamism in the LPDR. After working through the 1,000-odd pages of scholarship in these four books, one cannot help concluding that the Lao revolution is in fact a 'revolution in retreat.' Just how far-reaching and how dramatic this retreat will be remains to be seen.
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Author:Lockhart, Bruce M.
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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