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