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Autumn 1999 cover

National Observer Home > No. 40 - Autumn 1999 > Book Review

A History of Laos

by Martin Stuart-Fox

Melbourne, CUP, 1997, pp. 253

This is the first English-language history of the forgotten part of Indo-China, Laos. The author, who is the head of the Department of History at the University of Queensland, has divided his work into four parts the early history of Laos, the period under French rule, the post-French period up to and including the Vietnam War, and the period since the fall of Vietnam and the ascendancy of the Pathet Lao.

The major point which emerges from the early history is that the Laos of today is but a shadow of the former Laos, so much so that Stuart-Fox, whose sympathies in the debate lie with the Lao, admits that "the Lao population of the Khorat plateau can make just as strong a claim that the Lan Xang is their historical heritage too". In the eighteenth century the Vietnamese and Siamese (Thai) intervened in the affairs of Lan Xang. 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," so that far more ethnic Lao now live in Thailand than in Laos. Thus, it is easy to understand the proprietal attitude of the Thais, and the Vietnamese, towards Laos.

The story of French rule of Laos is similar to the history of their administration of Indo-China generally - neglect. There was rebellion against the French, especially against the introduction of taxes, but it was easily countered.

French attitudes towards Laos differed between those resident in Hanoi or in Paris, who looked at Laos through an Indo-China prism, and those who lived in Laos, many of whom "developed a warm affection for the country and its people". The fact that few French lived in Laos (by 1910 only some 200 Frenchmen administered the entire country) did not mean that the Lao advanced any faster than their neighbours: "French failure to provide adequate training for Lao officials reflected the inadequacy of education in general." Upper and middle level clerks were mostly Vietnamese, with Lao employed at the lower level as translators, junior clerks, cleaners and coolies. The increase in population between 1921 and 1936 was largely due to the French policy of encouraging "Chinese and Vietnamese traders and artisans to settle into the urban centres, where they quickly outnumbered the Lao themselves".

As was their practice, the French cultivated the educated elite who were sufficiently small to be moulded into loyal Francophiles, but who did not have mass support. The author points out that this tactic led to inevitable conflict in policy. On the one hand the French had to portray themselves as protectors of a French Laos which they were assisting to modernise, but on the other the economic exploitation of Indo-China required the subordination of Lao interests.

The French approach reinforced the Lao political dynamic. Politics revolved around a few ruling families, each of which was content to preserve and protect its feifdom. All ignored or treated with contempt the minorities, the Lao Thoeng and the Lao Sung. Consequently a sense of national identity and consciousness did not develop. It is not surprising that in the post-French period the Communists, who had to appeal to the minorities for support, ultimately prevailed even though Marxism in Laos had very little ideological appeal, and suffered from its association with an organisation dominated by Vietnamese. (The Indo-Chinese Communist party decided to establish separate parties in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos only in February 1951 although assuring cadres that "the Vietnamese party reserves the right to supervise the activities of its brother parties in Cambodia and Laos." Even so, the Lao People's Party was not founded until 22 March 1955, eighteen months after full independence.

In discussing the post-Vietnam War era, Stuart-Fox highlights the longevity and cohesiveness of the Lao People's Party leadership. He also points out the dominance of the Lao Lum in the upper echelons despite the Party's dependence on the minorities for support. The chaos which resulted with the ultimate ascendancy of the Communists in December 1975 can be gleaned from a few paragraphs:

"[T]he Pathet Lao made things more difficult for themselves through a combination of ill-conceived policies and ingrained paranoia. Though woefully short of skilled administrators . . . the new regime moved in too authoritarian a way, too fast and on too many fronts at once. Its understandable desire to take immediate control of both the administration and the economy resulted not in national reconciliation, but in mistrust, paralysis and economic collapse. Ill-trained cadres were appointed to every ministry and office where . . . they presided over purges of personnel denounced as ideologically unacceptable . . .

As senior officials failed to return from what the Party had promised would be relatively short programmes for re-education, and others were arrested and sent to join them, a climate of fear and suspicion built up which not only brought work in most ministries almost completely to a standstill, but also convinced many who would otherwise have stayed to serve their country to flee to Thailand instead .

Farmers responded to the taxes and marketing controls by withholding produce. Even subsidised food in state shops was in short supply and available only to party members and government officials. By mid-year the collapsing economy and rising popular dissatisfaction led the government to relax some of its more arbitrary restrictions . . . It was not always easy, however, to convince regional and local cadres to adopt less draconian controls."

Despite dispassionate observations such as this (cynics would say the critical test is not whether these observations were made at the end of the 1990s, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s), it may be that the author's identification with the Lao causes an unconscious bias. While in the above description, for example, the author does not make any moral comment about the restriction of food supplies to the new elite, he does deal in detail with the impact of the United States intervention in Laos during the Vietnam War:

"If United States intervention in Laos failed to undermine the integrity of Suvanna [the Prime Minister], it had a corrosive effect on Lao political culture. United States direction of the war meant that Lao politicians were no longer in a position to decide those matters of greatest national concern. In their place was left only the politics of personal gain, for wealth or status . . .

In the late 1960s, corruption permeated all levels of Lao society. The war brought with it a misleading air of prosperity to the Mekong towns: misleading because it depended almost entirely on United States military spending, a substantial proportion of which found its way into private pockets . . .

United States aid, it is legitimate to conclude, was used not primarily for economic development, but for economic, cultural and political domination. It was the means by which such domination was achieved that was damaging. The Americans, like the French before them, found the Lao to be charming, courteous and sensitive, and many an American fell under the Lao spell. But this did not prevent them from treating the Lao much as the French had done, as incompetent, lazy and childlike. So just as the swollen United States embassy usurped political power, so did the parallel organisation established by USAID usurp administrative powers."

The accuracy of these observations is not doubted. However, while Stuart-Fox says that "[both] sides were reduced to the status of instruments of more powerful nations whose own interests took precedence", there is not the same incisive analysis of the impact of the Vietnamese control of the Pathet Lao or a social commentary on the Pathet Lao regime.

Nevertheless, Stuart-Fox deserves commendation for his work. Laos is one of the forgotten parts of our region about which too little is known. This book is a useful contribution to filling that vacuum.

F.J. Brown

National Observer No. 40 - Autumn 1999