A Short History of Laos: The land in between by Grant Evans

A very a short history of laosinformative detailed and authoritative history (2002) of the complex background to modern day Laos – now the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – the ‘s’ is absent in the Lao language.  (Laos is the noun, Lao is an adjective).

Evans begins his book “Before Laos” – when much of South East Asia consisted of formations of traditional kingdoms who fought and often absorbed one another.  The ‘mandala’ systems …

model an idea of the cosmos that includes the human body and the state.  In relation to the state, the mandala represented a geopolitical idea used to discuss the the partial configuration and fluctuation of friendly and enemy state, from the point of view of a particular kingdom … The mandala states were focused on sacred centres ruled by a king who had direct access to divine power and used that power to create worldly order” (p6).  

Laos as we know it later emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a national entity, but prior history is certainly the precursor to contemporary ethnic diversity, and complexities of identity and belonging.

Mountains are destroyed, they have collapsed and are strewn about

The edge of the land is pulverized,

There is great turmoil in the villages, which are dark with smoke; the eart is on fire

A shadow covers the brilliance (of the moon) which disappears in the clouds

The universe is overturned and broken; the land is unbalanced; it quakes and trembles.

(cited from an annotated translation of Leup Pha Sun by Peter Koret, Evans 2002:51)

Evans organises his chapters as follows:

  1. Before Laos
  2. Le Laos Francais
  3. The Royal Lao Government
  4. War, and the destruction of the RLG
  5. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic
  6. Laos in the Modern World

A ‘colonial backwater’ of the French empire of Indochina during the 19th and early 20th century, “by 1954 French colonialism in Indochina had collapsed” (p.39).  Evans discusses colonialism and racism, “White settler societies, founded as they were on the denial of basic political rights to the indigenous population whose land they had usurped…” (p.59).  He also emphasises the lack of ‘Lao Nationalism’ as “even for the French, Laos was, at that time, more a cartographic reality than a social or historical one” (pg71),

World War two, Japanese activities in the region, Thai and Vietnamese neighbours’ own problems, various monarchies, elites, activist groups, created all number of tensions during the 20th century, leading up to the Vietnam war in which Laos gained the notoriety of having more bombs dropped    The Cold War, dependence on American aid, internal corruption and growth of military power, the 1960s growth of a “thoughtful and critical intelligentsia”  that would soon disappear with the communist victory of the 1970s are discussed in detail.

Some subtitles:  A new sensibility; Social change and cultural anxiety; Facing the dilemmas of development; Corruption and familism; Opium politics; The royal family; and the Final coalition give some indication of the key issues of the mid to late 20th century in Laos.

The harsh regime that came to power in late 1975 caused many Laos to flee their  country.  Hmong fought on for several years … the LPDR put in place all the usual trappings of a tightly controlled communist society … in the 1980s market style reforms began.  The 1990s saw considerable relaxation of state control of everyday life … The sate, however, kept tight control over the mass media and political activity, although by the late 1990s there were some signs that this control was slipping. (p.176)

Moving into Laos in the modern day (final chapter), Evans highlights the huge population growth in recent times, and the various ‘knowledges of the past’ that each of the new generations have.  He discusses the various ‘silences’ about the RLG (Royal Lao Government) period ‘almost as if it never existed’ (p.255) and stories that were told were ‘episodic and fragmented’.

Many young Lao are uncomfortably aware that they once had a king, but know little about him or about his demise.  School textbooks in many countries are notorious for their biased, nationalist representation of history, but the need in Laos to place the Communist Party at the centre of its history produces a further distortion. …  these multiple distortions of history produce strange ellipses and silences in the various narratives and discourses found within Laos today. (p.255)

This is admittedly an extreme summary of Evans’ contribution to an overview of Lao history.  The book details many of the political uprisings and complexities over a long history leading to the present day (ok, up to 2002).  I wanted to get a better idea of how this country has formed and asserted its own identity and note its quite different emphasis to that given by Vatthana Pholsena in her book Post war Laos-the Politics of Culture History .and Identity.  Clearly there are other perspectives on this history and I look forward to hearing (or not) those perspectives held by those I will be working and getting to know from within Laos itself.

All history, even recent history, is subject to interpretation.  Different historians offer varying perspectives on the past, sometimes due to different political persuasion or theoretical approaches.  The rule for historians in liberal democracies is that everything we know about the past is potentially open for discussion, and no facts should be suppressed.  Historians may differ about the relevant facts, or the weight given to them, but they agree on their open and free discussion.  (Evans, 2002: 256)


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Annabelle Leve

I'm a techno-novice, but determined to learn! I want to share my stories, and create a space of my own for this purpose. As life changes, I take myself with me.

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