Thursday, 5 September 2013

Book review: A Short History of Laos

A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between
Grant Evans, 2003

Click here to buy this book

Laos, the ‘land of a million elephants’, is a small, landlocked country bordered by China and Myanmar to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. Throughout its history this ‘backward’ country, seen as ‘passive’ and ‘sleepy’, has been dominated by the greater powers that neighbour it and those further afield that saw their colonial and imperialist interests here. During the Vietnam War Laos found itself in a key strategic position, taken advantage of both by the DRV, which ran its major north-south supply line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through the eastern reaches of Laos, but also by the Americans, who used the Lao highlands as a base for reconnaissance missions, often recruiting the support of montagnards and Thai missionaries for this.

The history of Laos is likely to be the least understood of any country in Southeast Asia, and Grant Evans, author of A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between is keen to look beyond popular stereotypes about Lao culture in order to relate impartially the unfortunate history this country has endured and to examine some of the lasting consequences of this:

“Visitors to Laos are usually charmed by the people’s grace and good humour, and are consequently prone to romanticise the country… but the idea of an ‘untouched’ Southeast Asian idyll has its flipside: Laos is one of the least developed countries in the world. Thus, successive Lao governments have been committed to ‘development’, and millions upon millions of aid dollars have flowed into the country- too often straight into the pockets of its leaders, and too often creating a psychology of dependency… Unfortunately, the ‘untouchedness’ so beloved by tourists is often a consequence of failed development plans and enforced communist isolation for almost two decades”. Certainly, Evans has done well to cast aside such romantic misconceptions (which, as somebody who has visited the beautiful Lao towns of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, I realise that it is easy to establish from first impressions), in order to give real insight into the problems the country faces.

A Short History of Laos, first published in 2002 by Allen & Unwin, is one of five works in the series A Short History of Asia, edited by the experienced Asia hand Milton Osborne, author of eight books on Asian topics. Other titles in the series cover Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and China and Southeast Asia. The collection was highly recommended by American travel writer Bill Bryson, who commented, “I cannot welcome this series warmly enough. It is sure to be a winner- and much needed”. The book’s author, Grant Evans, is an Australian anthropologist who has written widely on the subject of Laos and Southeast Asia in general. Other titles of his include Lao Peasants under Socialism (1990), Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos since 1975 (1998) and more recently, The Last Century of Lao Royalty: A Documentary History (2012). He currently works for the University of Hong Kong.

Personally, I found the opening chapter of A Short History of Laos, which covers the pre-colonial, dynastic period of Lao history, to be dry and unexciting; but persevering through I was rewarded to find that this is a great introduction to Lao history, written concisely and easy to follow. Evans traces Lao history from the pre-modern era, through the colonial period, the establishment of the LRG, civil war, the American war, the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) in 1975 and on to more contemporary issues such as the ascension of Laos into ASEAN, the dropping of the hammer and sickle as the national emblem and the continuing persecution of ethnic minority groups (many of whom were recruited by the CIA to fight the communist Pathet Lao in covert operations).

It was particularly interesting for me to learn of how Lao culture has developed in response to changing political circumstances- for example, that it was the French who encouraged the concept of a ‘nation’ to develop within the hearts and minds of a diverse and dispersed population, inadvertently leading to the birth of early Lao nationalism which was later to challenge French hegemony. Or, that it was the ill-considered channelling of US aid to the pockets of army and government officials of the Lao Royal Government (LRG) that introduced corruption to a largely Buddhist nation. Finally, Evans looks at some of the enduring consequences of the country's history on its society today- for example, in the field of education- and comments on how this continues to affect Laos' development.

The book is advertised as “an ideal introduction for tourists, business travellers and students”. As someone who is studying Indochina, this sentiment rang true for me as I found Evans' work very useful in providing a quick, insightful overview to the history of Laos. It is a balanced and interesting guide and I would certainly recommend it to anyone keen to learn more about the country. Of course, this edition (published 2003) is now ten years out of date, and I have often found it challenging to find reliable and up-to-date information about Lao issues that may provide some insight into more recent developments in the country. In particular, I would be interested to learn more about the current situation for the Hmong in Laos, an ethnic minority group that challenged Lao communism during the civil war and of which a large part fled en mass following the communist takeover. It is reported that Hmong insurgents continue to provide sporadic and small-scale resistance to the regime; but there seems to be little information available to provide further detail to substantiate these claims.

For more information about the recent history of Indochina, please refer to my book reviews of The Vietnam War: A Concise International History by Mark Atwood Lawrence and The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power andGenocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (Third Edition) by Ben Kiernan.

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