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

Post-war Laos : The Politics of Culture, Hist9788776940058ory and Identity

By (author) Vatthana Pholsena More than a quarter of century after the end of the war in 1975, the Lao leadership is still in search for a compelling nationalist narration. Its politics of culture and representation appear to be caught between the rhetoric of preservation and the desire for modernity. Meanwhile, originating from the periphery where ethnic minorities had hitherto been symbolically, politically and administratively confined, the participation of some of their members in the Indochina Wars (1945-75) exposed these individuals to socialization and politicization processes. This rigorously researched and cogently argued book is a fine-grained analysis of substantial ethnographic material, showing the politics of identity, the geographies of memory and the power of narratives of some members of ethnic minority groups who fought during the Vietnam War in the Lao People’s Liberation Army and/or were educated within the revolutionary administration. No study has ever been conducted on the latter’s views on the national(ist) project of the late socialist era. Their own perceptions of their membership of the nation have been overlooked. “Post-war Laos” is a set to be a landmark study, and an original contribution that refines established theories of nationalism, such as Anderson’s “imagined community”, by addressing a common weakness: namely, their tendency to deny agency to individuals, who in fact interpret their relationship to, and place within, the nation in a variety of ways that may change according to time and circumstance.

Link to original text from BookDepository.com

My Thoughts

As with many books based on PhD research, it can be rather heavy going, depending on how much historical, contextual and methodological content you are interested in.  So after a quick skim through, I ended up really enjoying the final chapter entitled 7: From Inclusion to Re-marginalization – the crux of the original contribution of the author’s study and experiences in Laos.  The chapter explores the “idea of fluidity and plurality of identities within the context of ideological, cultural and economic change in today’s Lao society” (p180) after previously demonstrating the workings of political mechanisms used by Lao authorities to attempt to “forge an orderly and bounded representation of the country’s culturally and linguistically diverse population with the support of state-controlled ethnographic research and the census” (p181).

Focussing on ‘identities’ and drawing from ideas of some of my favourite theorists (Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall), notions of essentialisms and ‘dislocation or de-centring of the subject’ (Hall, 1994, p.275), conflations of ethnicity, national identity and citizenship, and conflicting senses of ‘belonging’, the author’s stories are thought-provoking and demonstrative of the complexities that have evolved through multiple changes brought on by migration, colonialism, boundary and border shifting, nationalisms, politics…

My reading interest however, is to get a broad understanding of some of this complex history, and what is meant by the ‘diversity’ within the Lao population and its ordained’ethnic minorities‘.  My own home of Melbourne, Australia, has long prided itself on its “multiculturally diverse population” but it is a version of multiculturalism that is generally left unquestioned.  I ask my students how they understand diversity in terms of culture and all too often it comes down to racial characteristics signifying ‘difference‘, a conflation between culture and ethnicity (and religious beliefs) and language (English) deficits of those designated ‘other’.   I recognise my own views come from just such a place – and that my own role in, and perspective on ‘diversity’ was only really informed when I went elsewhere and was designated ‘other’, and began to recognise the many ‘differences’ that exist between members of every designated ‘group’.

Truth is, I went to Laos and saw many Lao people.  I saw men/women, rich/poor, monks/laypeople, and some tourist outsiders.  I went from Cambodia, through Vietnam, Laos, Burma.  But ethnic or cultural diversity?  I have no idea!  Hence, a big learning curve for me.

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