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Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000

Portrait of Laos, Asia's 'forgotten country'

LAOS: Culture and Society, edited by Grant Evans. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2000, 313 pp., $24.95

The colorful volumes of anthropology produced in the past by gifted amateurs, lady travelers of independent means, colonial officers and the like, have been replaced by the works of highly trained professionals, calibrators of infinitesimal change among the ethnic peoples they study. Contemporary writers and anthropologists seem to share a common need to classify Laos, to assign it an unassailable cultural identity. In the absence of an obvious role for the country, they have needed to invent one. The results have been wondrous and mixed.

Laos has been variously described as a strategic wedge, something like a Corinthian structure holding apart and preventing the tumbling of Vietnam and Myanmar, while at the same time supporting the weight of China, or at least a small part of it. Others have waxed effusive about a "forgotten country" or the region's "last lotus land." With its rich natural resources, Lilliputian population and historical preference for neutrality, landlocked Laos has even been described as the emergent "Switzerland of Southeast Asia."

Whether Laos is a crossroads, a keystone, the latest paradise for cash-strapped backpackers, the "back garden of Indochina" (as the French were fond of characterizing the country) or merely the impoverished panhandle of the lower Mekong basin, it is endowed with a staggering macrame of ethnic peoples. The extraordinary range of cultural and social plurality found within its porous borders is only just becoming apparent, even to anthropologists.

While there is almost a surfeit of studies on Lao minorities like the Hmong, many of whom settled in the United States and other countries after the communist takeover of 1975, far less primary-source research and fieldwork has been undertaken in Laos itself. That is more reason to praise "Laos: Culture and Society," a new collection of reports from the front line by anthropologists and linguists with a passionate commitment to their respective fields of inquiry.

Lao studies today are dominated by two figures: the Vietnam war correspondent, political theorist and historian Martin Stuart-Fox, and his erstwhile colleague and occasional sparring partner Grant Evans, reader in anthropology at the University of Hong Kong. It is the latter of these two deans of Lao studies, contributing two essays and an introduction himself, who oversees this collection.

Contributors Randi Jerndal and Jonathan Rigg explore the roles of geography, history and space (the preservation or loss of it), in the attempt to create a nation-state from the mishmash of tribes, family clans, kingdoms, fiefdoms, redrawn borders, captured and liberated zones that constitute the bewilderingly legacy of Lao geopolitics. Soren Ivarsson attempts to shed light on the ambivalent roots of Lao nationalism, from the irredentist movement to unite peoples of the region -- perceived to issue from a common gene-pool -- into a loose pan-Tai nationalist ideology, to the Lao struggle for independence after World War II.

Andrew Walker, in an original piece of research, mingles with groups of long-distance women traders in the northwest of Laos who make frequent, increasingly lucrative border crossings into Thailand and China, transporting stocks of washing powder, beer and rubber thongs down the Mekong River to ports where they are loaded onto trucks bound for the market towns of Luang Prabang, Udomxai and elsewhere.

In examining the "traveling identities" of these women, the sexual and social freedoms of the road, the enhanced family standing that goes with their relatively high incomes, and other aspects of their itinerant lifestyle, Walker makes no attempt to conceal his admiration for this new breed of female entrepreneur, whose "distinctive appearance -- makeup, nail polish, gold jewelry, hair pieces, fake leather handbags and baseball caps -- gives the rustic and muddy Lao trading system an unmistakable feminine character."

Si-Ambhaivan Sisombat Souvvanavong takes us into the lives of Lao exiles living in France, the transnational Lao culture that has emerged in recent years, and the dilemmas that face those contemplating repatriation to a country avowedly more interested in commerce than Marxism, but nonetheless still firmly ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Souvvanavong focuses on the Lao elite, representatives of the 200 or so families and their offspring, descended from or associated through high appointments or prestigious service with the former royal family. Though these people are cushioned to some extent by their refugee status and the academic, business and diplomatic connections they already had in France, Souvvanavong charts the changing, downwardly mobile fortunes of family heads, former dignitaries obliged in the early days of exile to accept jobs as factory workers and office cleaners.

Among the other contributions are Evans' inquiry into ethnic change in the northern highlands, and a work on Lao ethnography and political image-making from the perspective of Vietnamese ethnographers; a work on the Tai Lue minority by Lao researcher Khamphang Thipmuntali; an inquiry into the relationship between women's power and the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism; and Swedish anthropologist Ing-Britt Trankell's look at the convergence of ritual and social memory in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang.

Trankell, unraveling the city's rituals layer by arcane layer, describes how its ceremonies and symbolism-loaded festivals, many deeply associated with royalty, have been reworked by the communists to reconcile reform and tradition, satisfying both the demand for royal pageants and the ominous imperative of loyalty to the state.

Anthropologists and others who think cultures are only interesting when they are in decline or in the throes of radical change will find much to ruminate on in this companionable and testing volume.

Stephen Mansfield has written several books on Laos. The most recent, "Lao Hill Tribes: Traditions and Patterns of Existence," was published in July by Oxford University Press.

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