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A question of history and being a people

Martin Stuart-Fox wrote the 1997 classic, “A History of Laos”. If you don’t have it, get it. You may not agree with all of the elements and positions he takes within it, but he has also painstakingly researched a great deal of it that it provides us a baseline to examine our journey as Lao. The bibliography alone is well worth the price, to give you an understanding of what’s out there, and what definitely needs to be translated in the future so that we all might have an opportunity to examine our collective history.

Among the important topics Stuart-Fox raises is:

“…Laos, among the countries of Southeast Asia, has the most poorly developed nationalist historiography to provide ideological support for construction of an inclusive national identity. This poses a considerable challenge for Lao historians, for arguably the fragile construct that is modern Laos requires firm support for a national identity from an inclusive and centralizing historiography. Such history must be written before it can be deconstructed in ways that beginning to be evident in, for example, Thai historiography.”  (Stuart-Fox, p. 3)

Stuart-Fox continues, “I see the historiography of Laos, therefore, as requiring at this stage a narrative that provides support for the existence of a nation state now internationally recognized as such. In this I believe I reflect the desires, beliefs and convictions of Lao people, not only in Laos but also among the refugee community outside the country. The history I have written is not, of course, for the people of Laos: That history can be written only by Lao historians.” (Stuart-Fox, p. 3)

Over the years, I’ve faced this often as a writer: How do we conceive of ourselves as a people. Do we tie ourselves to the ancient Kingdom of Lan Xang, or recognize that an entirely new state of Laos emerged in the 20th Century, one that was more similar to Western colonial visions of what a nation should be, rather than the mandalas, the networks, or federation of cities of old. Do we gain from all of us tying our heritage back to Lan Xang some 600 years ago, or, can we, now in a state of transnationalism, be a people who live in any number of nations, from Laos and Thailand, to Canada, the US, France, Australia, Japan, and so forth? I’m thinking a great deal of the Belgian experience, for example, and how they have made their journey as a nation.

As Stuart-Fox points out, to others outside our community, they would argue: What is Lao? “There is a hiatus of almost two centuries between the break-up of Lan Xang and the reconstruction of French Laos. Moreover, while successor kingdoms explicitly claimed the mantle of Lan Xang, for sixty-five years after 1828 the most convincing candidate making that claim ceased to exist. And when in 1893 a political entity called Laos was recreated, less than half the territory and a fraction of the population of the former kingdom of Lan Xang were included. In fact, therefore, what the French created as a province of Indochina and the Lao elevated to an independent nation state in 1945 was a new entity which could only partially claim to be the lineal successor of the earlier Lao mandala.” (Stuart-Fox, p. 18)

It’s an interesting question: “…for a meuang to become the nucleus of a Lao mandala, it had to be a Lao meuang. That meant it had to be culturally Lao, as defined by ideas (worldview, comprising both Buddhist and earlier mythical beliefs), behaviour (for example, performance of such ritual ceremonies as the basi sukhuan), and material way of life (centered on the cultivation and consumption of glutinous rice).” (Stuart-Fox, p. 19)

Obviously, it’s not just these issues alone, but they definitely are considered key signs of Laoness that one might see displayed in a shirt like “Got sticky rice?” for example. Or eating tam mak hung, however you spell it.

I think Stuart-Fox particularly nails it on the head when he suggests that we need to reconcile class and race/culture histories, particularly those who may have alternate versions from that which is typically presented as the official histories. Stuart-Fox writes:

“The future challenge for Lao historiography…is to come to terms with its own alternative historical traditions, for the Lao chronicles present a picture from the perspective of the lowland Lao elite that marginalises not only Lao thoeng and Lao Sung, but also Lao Lum minorities, both lowland (Tai-Leu, Tai-Yuan) and upland (Tai-Dam, Tai Daeng). In time, alternative historiographies drawing on alternative historical, mostly oral, traditions of minority groups will need to be written and incorporated into a more diverse and nuanced Lao historiography. But that lies in the future.” (Stuart-Fox, p. 18)

Nearly 15 years later, are we prepared to do that? If we are to have a future as a people, we also need a past we can share. It is said that if we don’t a future together, none of us has a future. And so, for all of us to have a future, we also need to bring all of our visions of what we understood as our past to the table. This means helping one another, from the Tai Dam, the Mien, the Khmu, Hmong, and others forward, as well as our own community, to document and record our oral, visual and written histories, and not just the perspectives of the privileged elite or those whose families are ‘pure’ Lao, for example.


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