Changing Laos

Ronald Bruce St John

The communist march to power in Laos was more deliberate and less violent than what occurred in neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam. King Savangvatthana was pressured to sign a decree in mid-April 1975 dissolving the National Assembly; however, the Pathet Lao did not declare Vientiane ‘completely liberated’ until August of that year. And it was only in early December 1975 that the monarchy was abolished and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) formed. With the conclusion of the Second Indochina War, the Lao government implemented a program of economic reform, announcing it intended to build an independent, national economy that would progress, step by step, toward socialism.

Twenty years later, the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) reached the end of the beginning in terms of economic reform. To ensure long-term social stability and sustainable economic growth, it was increasingly clear the Lao PDR needed to consolidate and build on reforms in place. Fixated on the appropriate mix of political and economic reforms, the Lao elite overcompensated for the former, compromising the latter. As they struggled to get back on course, they were in danger of dismantling and destroying the achievements of more than a decade. Mistaken policy choices, compounded and aggravated by the Asian financial crisis in 1997–98, put the entire reform process at risk.

Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State, edited by Vanina Bouté and Vatthana Pholsena, two leading specialists of the country, picks up the story from here. As the editors note in their introduction, ‘the era of socialist experimentation in the economy and society had passed its peak by the late 1980s, and slowly but surely, the door to economic liberalization opened in the following decade’ (p. 1). Day-to-day life became less monitored and constrained, but the economic opening did not initiate a democratic transition. The LPRP maintained its monopoly on political power.

The 15 contributions to this book are divided into four sections, and each section is introduced by an overview article. Unfortunately, the large number of contributions prohibits a detailed review of each article or any discussion of the backgrounds of the authors. In the opening article in the first section, ‘State Formation and Political Legitimation’, Martin Rathie explores the history and evolution of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. His contribution makes observations crucial to our understanding of the political leadership in contemporary Laos. As Rathie points out, the LPRP leadership in the 1990s shifted from an emphasis on patriotic camaraderie to one grounded in cronyism and nepotism. Consequently, political power in the new millennium passed into the hands of what he refers to as ‘Party princelings’ (p. 49) in a political system in which advancement largely depended on background and connections as opposed to skill or merit. At the same time, the actual status of party members generally remained opaque, a characteristic dating back to the founding of the predecessor Lao People’s Party (LPP) in 1955. The remaining four contributions in this first section cover a potpourri of subjects from political imagery to Buddhist activism during the Cold War to socialist education and mobilization in East Germany, Laos, and Vietnam before and after 1975. Interesting in themselves, these chapters provide essential background to our understanding of the post-socialist state.

The second section, entitled ‘Natural Resource Governance and Agrarian Change’, examines the related phenomena of agrarian change and migration. In the overview article, Olivier Évrard and Ian Baird explore the transformation of lowland and upland agriculture in recent decades. In the lowlands, wet rice production moved from collectivization in the late 1970s to subsidence-oriented and family-based agriculture in the 1980s and early 1990s to more intensive cultivation at the turn of the century. In the uplands, the government implemented policies aimed at shifting or eradicating swidden cultivation, often called ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture, in favor of more intensive, cash-crop agriculture. Collectively, the changes in these areas resulted in a significant rearrangement of rural space as a combination of foreign and local elite capital gained an increasingly influential role in rural Laos. In companion pieces, Michael Dwyer examines the complex interrelationship of state-directed village resettlement, state-led resource development, and foreign agribusiness investment, and Bouté details the development of new urban centers and the associated migratory flows from rural to urban areas.

Laos includes a multiplicity of ethnic groups, and the three contributions in the third section of the book focus on the efforts of these groups to engage with modernity. In the overview article, Grégoire Schlemmer provides a welcome politicohistorical perspective on the 49 official ethnic groups in Laos. After 1975, the Lao PDR oscillated between a policy of integration within the dominant ethnic group, the (ethnic) Lao, which could lead to assimilation, and autonomy which often meant excluding ethnic groups with limited access to state services and economic development. As with any multi-ethnic state, the government in doing so had ‘to deal with the difficulty of reconciling the inclusion of ethnic particularities and promotion of disadvantaged groups as mentioned in the constitution, versus the desire to forge a sense of national identity and to give priority to state interests and internal security’ (p. 276). The remaining two chapters in this section add detail to our understanding of the socio-economic practices of individual ethnic communities.

The fourth and final section of the book returns to the issue of migration with chapters on internal migration as well an undocumented migration to Thailand. In the overview chapter, Sverre Molland rightly concludes ‘that migration lies at the heart of central debates regarding agency, human rights abuses, social engineering, and the nature of the Lao state itself’ (p. 345). Supporting this argument, Kabmanivanh Phouxay discusses the patterns and consequences of undocumented migration from Laos to Thailand. In the final contribution to this section, Annabel Vallard analyses a specific kind of migration, the movement of rural migrants – primarily women – to urban areas to work in the commercial textile industry.

Given the paucity of research and writing on contemporary Laos, Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State is a welcome addition to the literature. Authored by established as well as emerging scholars of the country, all of the articles therein are grounded in solid research and accessible to the scholar and general reader alike. For these reasons, they should enjoy a wide audience.