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Memory, tourism, and development: changing sociocultural configurations and upland-lowland relations in Houaphan Province, Lao PDR.

The cave where the late secretary general Kaysone Phomvihane (1920-92) established a secret party base during the "American War" (1964-73) is nowadays the key exhibit of the increasingly popular Viengxay Caves Tour. This tour explores the history of the Second Indochinese War in the remote and mountainous province of Houaphan (NE Laos), one of the first "liberated zones" of the Lao revolutionary struggle. Large groups of Lao visitors and the occasional Western traveller dive into the ambiguous past of modern Laos, at the time when it was drawn into the maelstrom of Cold War antagonisms and witnessed a fierce civil war stoked by both North Vietnamese and U.S. forces. The guides, most of them from the Hmong ethnic minority, take the visitors through a complex of caves that were enlarged and equipped to shelter Kaysone's residence, his office, and a large meeting room for the politburo. It is not uncommon for groups of Western mountain bikers in colourful sports clothes to mix with a Lao delegation from some ministry in Vientiane while strolling through the narrow walkways and stairs in the depths of the karst mountains. Sometimes they meet again in the few guesthouses and noodle soup stalls of the small town of Viengxay. What makes these encounters so remarkable is the fact that not long ago Viengxay was a so-called khet phiset (special zone), strictly off limits for any visitors and even a site where re-education camps mushroomed after the revolution of 1975. Viengxay thus stands emblematically for changes taking place in the socio-political climate of Laos. In addition to the growing tourism market, globalizing influences are evident as well in the economic domain. Upland development projects supported by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and the integration of the Lao periphery into a transnational market economy entail considerable changes for the livelihoods of the local population. Despite these tendencies towards economic liberalization, the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains its strict control over the political domain and utilizes sites of memory such as Viengxay to foster its legitimacy.

This article seeks to explore some of the recent developments of Lao late-socialist modernity from a peripheral perspective--how the state manifests itself in different fields of everyday life and how state activities are perceived on the margins. Three aspects of globalization and state intervention will be explored in Houaphan Province: state-controlled memory and historiography in the context of ideological nation building, transnational tendencies as represented by the tourism sector, and upland development politics directed by the state and international agencies. My findings are based on conversations and observations from field trips in 2008 and 2010.

The Province of Houaphan

Houaphan is a mountainous region in northeastern Laos with a population of only 280,898 people (2005) on 16,500 square kilometres. Several rivers criss-cross the province, along whose banks the majority of the population lives. Local subsistence is dominated by both wet and dry rice cultivation (Lao: het hai het ha) with the latter being part of the traditional swidden cultivation. The majority of the population is non-Lao. The Tai Deng (Red Tai) migrated from Thanh Hoa in Vietnam and took over many deserted fields and villages in the years after the disastrous Ho raids of the late nineteenth century. Some Tai Dam and Tai Khao, dominant in Sipsong Chutai, found their way to the river valleys of Houaphan as well. In the late nineteenth century, another prominent group spread over the territory of Houaphan: the Hmong. They settled mainly on remote hilltops and ridges and were from the beginning considered by the French as "greatest destroyers of forests" (Cupet 2000 [1900], p. 35)--until today a resilient cultural stereotype. As in other Lao provinces, the Khmu are an important minority as well, considered as autochthonous people. Together with some smaller ethnic groups the aforementioned people form the so-called "Lao multi-ethnic people"--an ideological construct of the LPRP to create a kind of multi-ethnic national identity (Pholsena 2006; Tappe 2008).

A quick glance at the history of Houaphan reveals that this remote region used to be a zone of refuge from state power as well as a contact zone between lowland and upland societies, between imperial and colonial forces and local social organizations (cf. Scott 2009). During the nineteenth century, shortly before France established her colonial administration in Indochina, Siam and Annam vied for influence in Houaphan and were played against each other by local Tai chiefs. In the 1870s, marauding bands of Ho Chinese crashed into these power struggles and pillaged parts of northern Laos. Most Lao who had settled in the mountain river valleys since Houaphan came into the orbit of the Lao Buddhist kingdoms in the sixteenth century, fled back to the lowlands, other Tai groups and the Khmu retreated into remote mountain areas. French colonial accounts mention deserted villages and destroyed temples (Cupet 2000, p. 39). At the turn of the century, the French administration was confronted with confusing migration movements of diverse ethnic groups and tried to re-establish either Lao or Vietnamese control. The administration of Houaphan changed between Annam and Luang Prabang before Houaphan was finally declared part of French Laos in 1903 (Gay 1999). After colonial consolidation--every now and then disrupted by millenarian rebellions of different ethnic groups --Houaphan occupied a certain in-between position within French Indochina. The province remained peripheral and a challenge for state control. According to a French observer, "La province des Hua-Phan est bloquee dans ses montagnes et il nous semble premature d'envisager l'imminence de son eveil economique" (Foropon 1927, p. 20). Despite all remoteness and topographical friction, Houaphan can hardly be considered a non-state space, however, even though it provided niches for refuge--the retreat to the forested mountains during the Ho raids a strategy of survival adopted again during the American bombing campaigns of the Second Indochinese War. I argue that the recent transnational processes in the Lao periphery are not a complete novelty but just a more intensified and accelerated variant of the situation in the nineteenth century.

After independence the complex sociocultural entanglements in Houaphan were confronted with interventions of North Vietnamese communists who took advantage of the alienation of many ethnic minorities from the central state and instilled revolutionary guerrilla activities together with their Lao communist counterparts. Local livelihoods were transformed by warfare and war-induced internal displacement, followed after the revolution by large-scale resettlement programmes. As a result Houaphan is characterized by volatile and flexible local sociocultures, i.e., configurations of past and present social structures and divisions of labour (Rehbein 2007; cf. Bourdieu 1984). The present article will be less an analysis of social structures than a discussion of external influences on local sociocultural configurations. Besides state intervention these influences include the manifold effects of forces of globalization (cf. Nederveen Pieterse 2004) such as tourism, transnational market integration, and global lifestyles. The peripheral Lao uplands are arenas were these tendencies of local-national-global interaction unfold their ambivalent power while crossing the highland-lowland divide. What is more, Laos is a special case since most of its territory is a kind of frontier region in the sense of Scott's (2009) schematical division between state and non-state spaces. One can even argue that the Lao People's Democratic Republic has its origin in the struggle against the state since the revolution literally came "down from the hills" backed by a marginalized and ethnically heterogeneous population. However, the contemporary Lao nation state is dominated by lowland Lao who maintain control over the political, economic, and cultural fields. Politics figured out in Vientiane--partially reflecting foreign interests--affect the upland social organization and individual dispositions to various degrees, provoking different reactions and adaptations. Houaphan makes an interesting regional case study to explore the relation between the Lao central state and its upland margins because it is at the same time target province of rural development programmes, a tourism destination, and an important key revolutionary site of memory. In the following sections the dynamics of upland-lowland and transnational relations and the effects on local lifeworlds will be explored under the three keywords: memory, tourism, and development.

Memory Politics and Nation Building in Viengxay

During the "liberation struggle", 20,000 people--revolutionary leaders, soldiers, and civilians--sought shelter in about 200 caves hidden in the limestone karst mountains of Viengxay. Between 1964 and 1973 a cave city with army quarters, schools, shops, factories, and hospitals emerged. After the ceasefire the revolutionary leaders built houses in front of their residence caves and made Viengxay a provisional capital. When the leadership moved to Vientiane after the revolution of 1975, Viengxay and Houaphan Province in general fell into isolation and faced the establishment of several re-education camps. In the 1990s Viengxay was "discovered" as a tourism destination (Rogers 2005) and key site of revolutionary memory--as the "birthplace of the Lao PDR" according to official brochures. It is now a typical national lieu de mdmoire (see Nora 1989) where official narratives of the past interact with local memories. In the caves of the revolutionary leaders such as Kaysone Phomvihane and the "red prince" Souphanouvong, information plates tell the narrative of the brave Lao multi-ethnic people and their patriotic leaders fighting against foreign aggression. Cooperation with the Dutch development agency SNV and Deakin University (Australia) ensures a well presented account of the traumatic history of the war while perpetuating key motifs of the revolutionary narratives. This tension is emblematic for many development efforts aimed at the rural poor that in the end benefit the authoritarian regime and its self-legitimizing policies. The cave tour largely reflects official Lao views on the past and thus hegemonic historiography. The comments of the audio tour also consider individual "small" fates, yet these selected memories reflect the standard narrative of the valiant Lao people fighting imperialist superpowers.

The input of foreign heritage and tourism experts made the caves tour suitable for both Lao and Western audiences. The "hidden city" of Viengxay unites aspects of education and entertainment. These pedagogical and performative aspects are crucial in the context of national lieux de mdmoire that are visited by "insiders" and "outsiders" alike. Mitchell (2001, p. 215) distinguishes nation as pedagogy where community comes to self-awareness from nation as performance where the nation is made out of encounters and interactions with "Others". The tourist sphere is one arena of these encounters where the Lao multi-ethnic population in Houaphan is presented and presents itself to both Western and (lowland) Lao visitors as will be explained below. Concerning the establishment of Viengxay as national site of memory, the field of state-controlled historiography demands some differentiation since stereotypes of revolutionary narratives have to be harmonized with international conventions of historical perception. Since provincial authorities and SNV worked closely together in planning the caves tour, the result is a combination of revolutionary glorification and educational entertainment that appeals to most visitors. It remains to be seen if this transnational collaboration will lead to a gradual differentiation of the rigid historical discourse in the Lao PDR or to a stabilization of the revolutionary "myth"--or rather an ambiguous and contradictory combination of both. Besides, one sensitive issue still awaits historical representation in Viengxay: the re-education camps. According to a Western tourism advisor, the support of SNV focuses on poverty reduction and heritage preservation--two goals that would be put at risk by inquiring too much into this dark chapter of recent Lao history.

Both revolutionary and cultural heritage are key issues for identity politics in Laos. Contemporary Lao nation building links revolutionary memory to a Buddhist cultural heritage by enriching war commemoration with Buddhist symbolism (Evans 1998; Tappe 2008, forthcoming). Even in the revolutionary stronghold, Viengxay, a Buddhist temple was inaugurated in March 2010 although a large part of the district's population is non-Buddhist. It is evident that the "birthplace of the Lao PDR" had to have a Buddhist temple since Lao history is closely linked to Buddhist "civilization" and Viengxay is gradually established as the upland counterpart of Vientiane in official memory politics. Yet, the inauguration of the temple mobilized not only the local Lao Buddhists and many visitors from the Mekong cities, but also the members of different ethnic groups. One may argue that this public event aimed at the reification and essentialization of a specific national culture (cf. Herzfeld 1996), here a culture of multi-ethnicity under the umbrella of Lao-Buddhist "civilization". The upland-lowland dichotomy was even enacted by a dancing performance of so-called "Lao Lum" (lowland Lao) women with traditional khaen flutes and another one by Hmong schoolchildren in colourful traditional dress. The latter so-called "Lao Sung" (upland Lao) performance revealed an ironic twist since it was accompanied by modern Thai-style techno music. Anyway, by erecting a temple and installing Buddhist monks in this highly ethnically heterogeneous highland region, the LPRP gave a touch of Lao-ness to Viengxay where before only the memory of the "struggle" was relevant for the state's history and identity politics. An official alms-giving ceremony marked this shift and highlighted the difference between the dominant lowland Buddhist Lao culture and the non-Buddhist minorities.

It remains to be seen how the local non-Buddhist majority will perceive the temple and the religious activities. Some Hmong I have talked to after the festival appeared either indifferent or sympathetic towards the new temple since they considered it more as a community centre than as a sign of cultural difference. One elderly Hmong stated that in the future the Hmong children might be Buddhist anyway and that Hmong dances always form part of Buddhist festivals in the uplands--an example of mimetic practice asserting both ethnic distinction and national "compatibility" (see Jonsson 2010). Perhaps the official recognition of their cultural specifity within the context of a Lao Buddhist culture prevents open criticism or feelings of exclusion. Ironically, some non-Buddhist Tai Deng showed more resentment than the Hmong towards the construction of the temple. Since they consider themselves as "Lao Lum", the construction of the temple confronted them with a sense of exclusion from the lowland Lao cultural mainstream.

The temple marks a certain tension between the Lao-dominated state --represented here by the official delegation, the names of sponsors from Vientiane, and the latent discourse of lowland "civilization"--and upland local communities. In such contexts the discourse of samakkhi (solidarity) is usually used to counter inter-ethnic tensions. During the temple festival, mo lam singers praised the solidarity among all the ethnic groups in Laos while the visitors danced the so-called lam vong samakkhi--the "solidarity dance". Solidarity is iconified by some monuments and mentioned in the revolutionary and patriotic slogans written on large plant tubs throughout town. With regard to difference in contemporary Laos--ethnic difference in the context of the "Lao multi-ethnic people" and difference concerning social differentiation in a globalized modernity as discussed below--the discourse of solidarity alludes to Durkheim's idea of organic solidarity as coexistence of difference in modern society. Yet while Durkheim assumes an automatic evolution of this kind of solidarity over time (Muller 1994), the LPRP appears to feel an urge to emphasize or even conjure solidarity in Lao society--in the chaotic time of the revolutionary struggle as well as in confusing hybrid modernities that put social solidarity at risk.

The keyword samakkhi also occurs in a different context: the "special relationship" of Laos and Vietnam during the war and after. The Lao revolution is without doubt hard to imagine without the political and military support of Hanoi--a historical debt that Vietnam nowadays plays on to get more economic influence in Laos vis-a-vis Chinese advances. Apart from the provinces where the Ho Chi Minh Trail provided the North Vietnamese with an essential supply network during the war (see Pholsena 2008), Houaphan is one key site of war commemoration where regular meetings of Lao and Vietnamese officials occur. Viengxay is likewise established as a site of peace and a showcase of Laos' change from isolation to openness. Moved into a global field of vision, the town is not surprisingly becoming a focal site of development within the framework of the general political programme of poverty alleviation in the rural uplands (see below). The "Rehabilitation of Viengxay Urban Roads Project" aimed at the improvement of the eight kilometres of roads in this tranquil town and the large German-funded vocational school are only two prestigious projects to make Viengxay a beacon of modernity in the region. Meanwhile, tourism plays an important role in the promise of development while producing ambivalent encounters between the local and the global as will be shown in the next section.

Transnational Encounters

Years of involvement of international organizations in the development sector and the mantra-like propagation of kanphatthana (development) by the Lao Government have raised certain expectations among the rural populations: socio-economic development, job opportunities, access to money and consumption goods, and infrastructural projects are all aspects of modernity as seen in neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and China or disseminated by the imagery of the omnipresent Thai soap operas. Because they embody images of the good life, the influence of urban Lao visitors on local lifestyles is perhaps more relevant than the one of foreign backpackers, even though the latter might provide new perspectives on the world. In Viengxay, tourism is expected to improve the living standards of local people by creating opportunities for private business and other means of poverty alleviation (cf. Suntikul et al. 2009). The owner of a noodle soup stall at the market where tourists usually arrive via songthaeo (pickup taxis) told me in 2008 that he hoped for increasing income from the tourists. However, two years later he was disappointed that there were not as many customers as expected. As reasons, he mentioned the competition between similar food stalls at the market and the fact that larger tour groups mostly frequent the restaurants in Sam Neua. Then again, Western tourists complain about the limited choice of food in Viengxay. The few guesthouses are only occasionally fully booked since many visitors stay in Sam Neua and do only a day trip to visit the caves. Apart from passing individual bikers, hardly any effect of tourism is discernable beyond the town of Viengxay.

Encounters between Westerners and locals are limited to conversation with the few guides who speak English. Even the owners of guesthouses and restaurants only rarely speak English--and most foreigners do not speak Lao let alone the local Tai Deng dialect (which is also spoken by employees who are often family members from remote villages with previously little contact to foreigners). These circumstances make interaction difficult and embarrassing for many locals. The uncertainties of what to expect and how to communicate have considerable implications for hospitality and service orientation. As for the tourists, after they have learned about the hardships of the local population during the war, they feel respect for the people and try to communicate it at least to the guides. Many politically critical travellers are happy to discuss their anti-American sentiments and link the "American War" with present American interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Interestingly, these sentiments are usually not shared by the guides who emphasize present peace and cooperation and point to Western development projects. Two sensitive issues remain: the legacy of the heavy bombing campaigns of the United States (1) and the role of the Hmong in the war. Here, the ambivalences of cultural intimacy (Herzfeld 1996) in the interaction between tourists and Hmong guides become evident. I recall a conversation between a Dutch couple and a Hmong guide with one of the tourists bluntly stating: "You are suppressed by the government, aren't you?" The guide whose elder relatives were mostly fighting on the communist side was caught completely by surprise and just could say "No" with a few seconds of embarrassed silence following} It turned out that the foreign couple got their historical knowledge mainly from Lonely Planet and expected "the" Hmong to represent the typical marginalized hilltribe--which is admittedly valid for many groups but not the Viengxay Hmong in general. The guide stressed his pro-government attitude by showing around an image of politburo member Pani Yathotou, daughter of communist Hmong military leader Thao Touya. However, the memory of the internal antagonism of the Hmong re-emerged when it came to the alleged assassination of Souphanouvong's son by a so-called CIA Hmong in 1967, again a source of embarrassment for the guide) The ambiguous history of the Lao Hmong is without doubt one of the most important educational effects for many tourists. In general, the encounters between tourists and local guides leads to learning effects for both sides and creates mutual understanding, even though this is mainly restricted to Westerners and male, English-speaking locals. (4) Another effect besides a general feeling of respect for the "people" is sometimes certain sympathy for the hardships of the revolutionary leaders who do not appear as some kind of "evil communists" but as patriotic and selfless fighters on behalf of the common people against aggressive imperialists--a significant success for the public relations of the Lao Government.

The increasing presence of Chinese and Vietnamese traders is another aspect of transnationalism in Houaphan. At the market a Chinese motorbike vendor presents dozens of brand new bikes that do not seem to fit in the contemplative rural environment. Yet motorbikes are the main means of mobility and an indispensable symbol of status and modernity. Chinese and Vietnamese stalls at the market in Sam Neua recall colonial times when there used to be a "quartier sino-annamite" (Foropon 1927, p. 36) in the provincial capital. In addition, mobile Vietnamese traders with motorbikes stacked with household items and other goods cruise the mountain roads to remote villages.

How the population perceives these icons of market economy remains to be explored further. Yet only minor resentment can be observed when people complain for example about the extensive building activities and engagements of foreign construction companies. Prestige objects of the provincial government in Sam Neua--such as the central monument, the new bridge across the Nam Sam River, and the new cultural hall--rely on Vietnamese technical and financial support that is praised as another example of socialist solidarity in the tradition of the Lao-Vietnamese "special relationship" based on the joint anti-imperialist struggle. Conversations with the townspeople reveal that it is all about business nowadays and one has to note the increasing inclination to take entrepreneurial risks to gain a share of the modest boom. It seems that the opening of the country and the corresponding economic opportunities are in principle welcomed but with growing unease concerning foreign influence and competition in particular from Chinese and Vietnamese entrepreneurs and work immigrants. What produces embarrassment here is the resurgence of colonial stereotypes that favoured Vietnamese diligence against the Lao "laziness" (Ivarsson 2008). Vietnamese and Chinese involvement in the Lao economic field and increasing dominance raise anew discussions of Lao identity and self-respect and the future roles of Laos within a new network of "economic corridors" (Asian Development Bank) and travel routes.

Poverty Discourse and Development Politics

The transnational dynamics in the Lao periphery entail transformations of local economies and livelihood strategies. Engagements by neighbouring countries and international development agencies aimed at the improvement of infrastructure and at investment in market-oriented agriculture trigger processes of social differentiation that partially go along Durkheim's ideas on differentiation in modern Europe. However, regions like Houaphan are still characterized by the scarcity of wage-labour and the coexistence of peasant economies, small-scale trade, and jobs in the military and state bureaucracies. This hybridity of family income generation demands a considerable degree of flexibility to lift rural households out of poverty.

Socio-economic development and poverty alleviation are the main political goals of the Lao Government. The official "National Poverty Eradication Program" was established with the goal of leading the country beyond the status of a least-developed state by 2020 (Lintner 2008). In a country still characterized by agriculture, an ambitious project of rapid economic development is to be realized through agricultural intensification. Many development activities are directed at the rural upland populations and their "backward" agricultural practices, namely swidden cultivation. Within this developmental discourse of backwardness and poverty, being a member of an ethnic minority in the rural uplands who practises swidden cultivation is taken as a condition for being poor. In 1997-98 the incidence of poverty in Houaphan was estimated at 75 per cent, with all districts except Sam Neua officially declared "poor districts" (Rigg 2005, p. 75). A recent report states that 43 per cent of the people in Houaphan are poor (Ventiane Times, 11 December 2010).

Projects aimed at transforming upland livelihoods entail risks and uncertainties while producing new divisions of labour and lifestyles. Many rural people in Laos show a proactive attitude to development initiatives or at least a belief in promises of modernity mirroring idealized images of lowland urban settings. Lowland Lao culture appears as modern and civilized from the highland perspective, so that many minorities share the hope for a better life after having received kanphatthana. However, the outcomes of rural development are incalculable and sometimes even result in a deterioration of living conditions, especially if upland development strategies involve wide scale resettlement programmes (see the stimulating debate on this sensitive issue between Baird et al. 2009 and High 2008; 2009). The Lao Government, supported by the World Bank, has undertaken an extensive land titling and allocation programme on the assumption that property rights and the security of land tenure would sustain the intensification of agriculture and encourage land markets and investment. Zoning projects--illustrated by the spread of village maps thoughout the country--are implemented to separate farm land from forest land. This policy of territorialization (Peluso and Vandergeest 2001; Buch-Hansen 2003) leads to a strict state control over spaces, inhabitants, and resources. In the course of this process the land available for agriculture is effectively reduced in favour of the exclusive control of forest resources by the state. For the land under cultivation, the fallow periods are reduced from 15-20 to 3 years. This is not only due to population pressure but also to the fact that land left alone for too long is considered to be abandoned and can be reallocated. Thus, the land titling project ignores customary laws that accept long fallow periods without contesting land use rights. Even though tenure security and the intensification of agriculture aim at higher yields, the result is often soil depletion and weed infestation (Ducourtieux et al. 2005; Fujita and Phanvilay 2008). (5)

Viengxay exemplifies some of the challenges of land tenure in upland Laos. Swidden cultivation is officially restricted but tolerated because of land scarcity--aggravated by the resettlement of numerous Hmong villages in the plain of Viengxay for more than two decades. For the Hmong it seems to be more practical to cultivate various cash crops and buy cheap rice from Vietnam than to grow it for the household subsistence. When I visited the small house of a Hmong farmer--who had a small parallel job in the village administration--in Ban Phu Sai, I was surprised to see one wall completely covered by rice sacks stacked up to the ceiling. He told me that most of the villagers buy such a large amount of relatively cheap rice once a year from Vietnamese traders. That does not mean that the Hmong do not cultivate dry rice at all--in fact some upland rice fields are distributed among the village households. Still they grow a variety of cash crops to generate income following the example of successful Hmong villages in Vietnam (see Friederichsen and Neef 2010). My Hmong informant showed me small tracts of maize, sugarcane, and cassava ("they buy it to make chicken food"). Moreover, he gets a considerable harvest from fruit trees and homegrown ginger. Although the farmer praised the new market opportunities, he complained about the costs of some of the benefits of "development" such as schools and hospitals and articulated certain nostalgia for the "free" life in the forested mountains that are now off-limits.

In further conversations with upland farmers I learned about the long distances some of them have to overcome to reach their fields and difficulties encountered gathering forest products (e.g., for traditional medicine). Some of them pin their hopes on the new land rights regimes, but are sceptical about their correct implementation by the authorities.

According to the farmers, the differentiation of agriculture is not a new phenomenon since Hmong always grew diverse crops. However, the fact that the basis of nourishment is purchased, and for which cash is needed, might cause problems for many households. While in the twentieth century opium was a key cash crop, the Hmong today have to experiment with a variety of potential market crops. Programmes such as the "Alternative Livelihoods Development Project" of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) (6) are directed towards this issue and promote income generation opportunities, infrastructure, and market access to prevent land degradation and poverty. In the target areas, subsistence ethics increasingly give way to market orientation (Rehbein 2007).

One of the central aims of rural development has not been reached yet: the effective reduction of swidden cultivation and provision of viable alternatives. When passing the "ADB road" in the southern part of Sam Tai District in March 2010, I was struck by the frequency of fires on the mountain slopes. It is evident that there is still no convincing alternative for swidden cultivation in remote upland areas to secure subsistence. Only recently the Lao Government admitted that the eradication of this agricultural practice is still not in sight (Vientiane Times, 28 December 2010).

Lao development politics appear at first glance to be inspired by neo-liberalism with its focus on the free market and individual rights. However, the exclusion of the population from large forest areas to make the forest resources available to the state for exploitation strikingly recalls colonial capitalism. In particular, the sale of concessions for logging or rubber plantations to Chinese and Vietnamese companies is an example of the primitive accumulation and the dispossession of many highland groups that took place under French rule (Ducourtieux et al. 2005, p. 519). The plans of the Lao Government to establish "special economic zones" in the upland provinces (Vientiane Times, 23 November 2010) raise further worries about the future of the local people. The same can be said for the ADB's plan to develop the so-called "Northeastern corridor" connecting the Mekong region via Houaphan with the Vietnamese port in Thanh Hoa (Vientiane Times, 9 December 2010). The consequences of these development programmes on rural livelihoods in the Lao uplands are difficult to predict. Present tendencies suggest a growing social differentiation with some groups demonstrating a disposition (cf. Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992) to "play the game" of the new system and others in danger of becoming part of a new class of landless rural poor.

As we have seen in the case of the Hmong in Viengxay, employment in the tertiary sector does not make peasant lifestyles obsolete, but creates hybrid livelihoods that include elements of rural subsistence ethics and semi-urban lifestyles. It can be expected that certain dispositions and adaptations lead towards differentiation and specialization. For example, a Hmong civil servant with peasant background who was selected for training as a tourist guide might capitalize on his skills in future jobs in the international development sector, thereby generating income that can be invested in additional land and experimental agricultural intensification. Other examples are the well-organized weaving cooperatives in Houaphan. Even remote communities such as Tai Deng villages in Sam Tai District communicate with American or Japanese entrepreneurs and sell their famous hand-woven silk textiles on a large scale. Contrary to the example of the male Hmong guides, it is the local women here who enter transnational relations and thus overcome gender-specific exclusion. Here, the mobile phone joins the motorbike as symbol of a hybrid globalization in the Lao periphery.


Houaphan is becoming again a transcultural and transnational crossroads that it was in the late nineteenth century--a time when French colonialists allegedly defended Vietnamese rights in the region and sought economic opportunities, Siam gradually lost its influence over the Buddhist Lao kingdoms, Ho Chinese plundered the region, Lao fled to the lowlands, Khmu retreated deeper into the forested mountains, and Hmong occupied niches within the chaos. In the Second Indochinese War, Houaphan occupied an important strategic position close to the remote bases of the Vietnamese Communists, though it was constantly harrassed by American air raids and anti-communist Hmong guerillas. While these two historical episodes were characterized by warfare and imperial expansion, the present complex situation is characterized by concerns of socio-economic development and the exploitation of natural resources. Houaphan and its heterogeneous population witness the competition of neighbouring powers like China and Vietnam for economic (and political) influence. Western and Japanese development experts bring in additional transnational influences through the transfer of knowledge, legal systems, and universal discourses of human rights etc. Tourism promotes these flows and interactions of the local with the global. In addition, the Lao state exploits the revolutionary lieux de memoire of the region as an ideological resource for the legitimization of LPRP power and continuation of the socialist special relationship between Laos and Vietnam. As in the past, one has to look at who takes advantage of the changing social order and political relations and who becomes or stays marginalized.

Viengxay as focus of state commemoration, tourism promotion, and socio-economic development represents processes of social differentiation in a rural multi-ethnic setting--away from a mere peasant society towards a differentiated market economy, creating hybrid "peasant modernities". While these shifts occur unevenly depending on the success of infrastructure and other development projects, social inequalities and internal migration may be expected. The question of local livelihoods remains a critical one, especially in more remote areas where resettlement programmes were started without properly assessing alternative livelihoods. Recent tendencies towards large concessions for mining and commercial agriculture raise even more questions. The upland ethnic minorities of Houaphan now face not only increasing integration into the Lao nation state, but also inclusion in a transnational market economy, since the province shares a long border with prospering and resource-hungry Vietnam.

As we have seen, governmental and transnational aspects of socialist modernity in Laos trigger manifold developments within upland sociocultural configurations. If society is considered the sum of various social interactions (Simmel 1989), a historically contingent, sociocultural configuration, then external influences and forces--colonialism, state institutions, international development discourses--must not be ignored. The specific configurations of upland Laos reveal their dynamics in the interplay between lowland and upland, between state and local communities, between transnational actors and the various intermediaries. Society comprises these relations within an unstable configuration characterized by varying degrees of social differentiation and contested power relations. The people of Houaphan face social and cultural transformations bringing new opportunities and risks, including a struggle for recognition and self-determination as members of local communities within the nation state, situated somewhere between the village and the globalized world.

I have presented here a spatially and temporally bounded snapshot of a Lao upland scenario which represents some of the specificities and challenges of contemporary Laos. At present, Laos is entering a new dimension of upland-lowland interaction in the context of globalization where nation building efforts must contend with neocolonial expansions of neigbouring countries. Any future-oriented integration into a global economic system finds its counterbalance in the return to history and cultural heritage.


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(1.) Faced with the problem of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos (see Khamvongsa and Russell 2009), American visitors--but also other Westerners --feel shocked and ashamed. The dangerous legacy of the American "secret war" links the foreign traveller to the challenges of local lifeworlds and raises awareness of global inequalities. Some of my Western interlocutors were surprised about the lack of resentment and the optimistic attitude among the locals.

(2.) Another source of embarrassment is the question of the fate of the last Lao king, Sisavang Vatthana, who died in a re-education camp in Houaphan (see Evans 2009). Usually the question is answered with "He died in prison of old age"; further inquiries are ignored with a smile.

(3.) A small stupa in front of Souphanouvong's cave commemorates his son's death from the hand of a CIA henchman. Yet other accounts of this incident hint at internal quarrels within the Pathet Lao--a variant that is even more embarrassing for the "correct" revolutionary memory.

(4.) People in Laos usually get such prestigious jobs not only because of their education but also thanks to political connections. Thus, in Viengxay political capital was turned into economic capital for a small number of skilled and well-connected Hmong. One can only speculate if their traditionally marginal position in Lao society equipped the Hmong with the necessary flexible disposition to take the niches and opportunities of the new market and tourism economy. At least in the domain of tourism and considering associations with an authentic "hilltribe" culture, the Hmong might enjoy more symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1984, p. 291) than the "Lao Lum", capital that might be exploited economically as well.

(5.) In the words of a peasant from Sam Tai with whom I discussed the issue of too short fallow periods: "Bangthua khao bo ngam" ("Sometimes the rice doesn't look good").

(6.) For a project description see: < 41096&seqNo=01&typeCd=2&projType=GRNT>.

Oliver Tappe is Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute Halle.

DOI: 10.1355/sj26-2b
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Title Annotation:Special Focus; Lao People's Democratic Republic
Author:Tappe, Oliver
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9LAOS
Date:Oct 1, 2011
Previous Article:Introduction.
Next Article:The genesis and demarcation of the religious field: monasteries, state schools, and the secular sphere in Lao Buddhism (1893-1975).

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