Heritage and the Making of Political Legitimacy in Laos: The Past and Present of the Lao Nation

Adrian Perkasa

Heritage and the Making of Political Legitimacy in Laos is a study on how culture and/or heritage are made by the state and experienced by the people in Laos, especially after the 1975 revolution. However, the author uses the term “heritage” interchangeably with the concept of culture in many parts of this book; she explores not only well-known cultural heritage sites, such as Luang Prabang, but also many forms of cultural intimacy, especially among ethnic minorities and young people in Laos. By employing cultural intimacy as a way of thinking, Wilcox analyzes people's engagements with the national rhetoric in their daily lives.

According to Michael Herzfeld, the scholar who first coined this term, cultural intimacy is that zone of collusion in which ordinary people break social norms with a guilty but shared sense of pleasure.[i] The readers of this book will find this phenomenon in many places, situations, and events in Laos. For instance, Wilcox puts Luang Prabang and the former royal palace, including a statue of the former king, as the best example to discuss the state's cultural intimacy and political legitimacy. The current Laos government is the Lao People's Democratic Republic. They have ruled Laos since ousting the Royal Lao Government in 1975. Thus, how do they promote their former enemy's heritage from the past? Is this gesture degrading their legitimacy in the present?

Those questions are extant from the beginning to the end of this book. Wilcox's study has five chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. By explaining her background and long association with Laos, Wilcox has the privilege to re-examine those questions over many years. She also scrutinizes several conceptual issues in the introduction. Interestingly, the author is fascinated not only with past and present issues, but also with the future political legitimacy of the Laos government. She eloquently puts China's existence as a challenge and opportunity for the government and the people of Laos.

In the second chapter, Wilcox presents the Lao National Museum – a building complex that used to be a royal palace – to comprehend the relation between the idea of heritage and legitimacy in Laos. According to her, this museum is "an excellent illustration of the past being concurrently visible and invisible or to put this in other words: having the past appear and disappear simultaneously" (p. 60). This strategy means that the government only uses several past narratives while omitting others, especially contradictory ones. And this is congruent with UNESCO's designation of heritage, especially in Luang Prabang, which only recognizes the aesthetic and historical values of monuments and buildings. The author argues that the national museum and Luang Prabang are beyond that and encompass both living and ethnic heritage as well.

The next chapter looks at the Hmong ethnic minority, especially the post-1975 generation. Wilcox argues in previous chapters that official discourse about Luang Prabang's past is carefully regulated, with a particular emphasis on uncontentious parts of history that emphasize stories of majesty and splendor. For this reason, Buddhism and its teachings are given lots of attention. Buddhism is presented as a critical component of national culture, with ethnic minorities limited to merely adding flavor. Following this logic, the Hmong are trapped between being distinct enough to sustain this narrative and being unique enough to be included in the official project of Laos' multi-ethnic peoples. However, the future of the Hmong peoples is not only determined by their interaction with the Lao government, but also by the rise of China.

In the subsequent chapter, the author examines China's expanding influence and the growing number of Chinese in Laos, arguing that managing this connection may be the most challenging problem for Lao authorities and the most likely source of a potential legitimacy crisis. Compared with the previous difficulties, such as regulating the past or dealing with ethnic minorities, the rise of China, especially with the Belt and Road Initiative projects, will be central to the future of Laos. Wilcox also points out the benefit of employing cultural intimacy to observe the situation of China and Chinese influences in Laos. The intrusion of China is seen as a threat to the notion of Laoness, including the Hmong's sense of belonging to the nation. 

The paradoxical situation of cultural intimacy appears again in the last chapter. Wilcox returns to the national museum, particularly to King Sisavang Vong's statue. This king was the ruler of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang and later expanded to all regions of Laos in the decolonization period. In the first chapter, the author briefly mentions how many people, especially women, pay offerings at the statue of King Sisavang Vong. Moreover, in this section, she likens this statue's survival through a turbulent period to the post-1975 Laos state, which still exists as a one-party socialist state.

Overall, the book is well worth reading not just for academics or students interested in Laos, but also for general readers interested in exploring the complexities of heritage and political processes in Southeast Asia.


[i] https://www.routledge.com/Cultural-Intimacy-Social-Poetics-and-the-Real-Life-of-States-Societies/Herzfeld/p/book/9781138125759