An Inheritance Delayed

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 21, 2006 | Destinations: Laos / Vientiane

The American leadership during the Vietnam War was full of pithy expressions to describe the subordinate role played by Vietnam's immediate neighbors. The gratuitous ruination of Cambodia was a mere "sideshow"; and, according to A History of Laos by Martin Stuart-Fox, then Secretary of State Dean Rusk referred to Laos as "only the wart on the hog of Vietnam." Laos indeed had come a long way from being Domino Uno, whose fall would mean pallid Russkies taking the sun in Bangkok or Canberra.

Not that Laos had any reason to feel slighted; and in any case Rusk's folksy metaphor was somewhat off the mark. You don't drop 1.6 million tons of bombs on a wart if you are dropping roughly the same amount on the hog. Laos remained important because the Vietnamese had built portions of the Ho Chi Minh trail just inside its eastern border, and the Americans made its rubble bounce with minimal success. The wart turned Red, anyway, and remains so: Laos is one of the world's few officially Communist states, defying the view that the end of history arrived when Francis Fukuyama published a book saying so.

The history of Laos from the time of the French jaunt to the end of the Vietnam War (and beyond) does not make for very pleasant reading. Laos has alternately been called a wart, a buffer state, a hinterland, and - in Fox's words - a "fragile construct". It has been bullied not only by the colonial powers and the superpowers, but also by its ancient enemies Thailand and Vietnam (in Thai, lao is a synonym for "backward.") And Laos is landlocked, a fate too often linked with poverty and subservience.

America's traumatic "secret war" in Laos was followed by a positively gloomy series of economic and political reforms initiated by the victorious Communists, the Pathet Lao. Though the Soviet economic miracle would ultimately prove a mirage, its methods were no less faithfully repeated in the Soviet satellites. Fixed prices, forced collectivization, nationalization of industries - all were instituted and all were doomed to fail.

Like Mao and the Khmer Rouge, and unlike Karl Marx, the Pathet Lao believed that socialism could be formed from an agrarian economy without the intermediate period of capitalism. To their credit, however, some Lao leaders quickly saw the fatal optimism of this view. In 1979, Kaison Phomvihan, who would later become President of the Lao PDR, admitted that "it is inappropriate, indeed stupid, for any party to implement a policy of forbidding the people to exchange goods or carry out trading.... such a policy will only meet with bankruptcy."

For many former colonies, socialism offered a bulwark against foreign domination, but it also precluded more salutary foreign influences. Like other Communist countries, Laos did receive substantial Soviet aid; but the day of reckoning came with perestroika and the revelation that the Soviet Union had "met with bankruptcy." Now a member of ASEAN, Laos is trying to determine how to benefit from regional trade without again becoming a mere hinterland, this time to Thailand, which increasingly views Laos as Lebensraum. (Thailand's population density is about five times that of its northern neighbor.) Indeed, Fox suggests that the seemingly innocent change of Siam's name to Thailand in 1937 carried an "implicit", irredentist "claim to include all Tai-speaking peoples" to be found in Burma as well as Laos.

The relationship between Laos and Vietnam has been no less problematic. During the colonial period, the French staffed their administration with Vietnamese because they were considered more diligent than the happy-go-lucky Lao. Vietnamese formed a majority of the population in the major cities, much as the Chinese dominated Bangkok. So Vietnam had a stake in Laos well before the advent of Ho Chi Minh and his plans for a Greater Indochina - a stake, moreover, created with French encouragement. Fox quotes the explorer Jules Harmand's chilling "Final Solution" for Laos. The Vietnamese, he says, "will rapidly supplant the debris of decrepit races which inhabit it. By ourselves, we cannot attempt any enterprise in this country, so rich but so unproductive due to the fault of its actual possessors. It is necessary first that the Laotians be eliminated, not by violent means, but by the natural effect of competition and the supremacy of the most fit."

Despite this sinister laboratory experiment and the use of Laotian forced labor, the French were unable to make the colony a profitable venture. As late as the 1930's, 90% of the lowland Lao were subsistence farmers who "produced little that was valuable by way of trade." The French did dabble in opium, but their "interest in Laos was always in relation to somewhere else" - especially China, the Europeans' holy grail.

But colonization is always a mixed blessing. The French did restore That Luang, Vientiane's premier temple, as well as Wat Phra Kaeo; they introduced Laos to modern improvements and supervised the building of its roads; and they protected Laos against a rapidly modernizing and recently acquisitive Siam. As in many colonies, the seeds of future civil war in Laos were sown by two opposing views of the colonial powers. The royalty sided with the French and later with the Americans, while the peasants (insofar as they cared at all) sided with the Pathet Lao.

But Laos suffered from a lack of nationalistic sentiment. While Fox claims that there is continuity between the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang and the present Lao PDR, the kingdom had been so depleted by Siamese depredations that the remnant had little unity and less self-esteem. War and revolution only made matters worse, as Laos fled American bombs and homegrown repression for Thailand, which had flourished under its wartime alliance with the United States. Laos lost 10% of its population, including fully one-third of the Hmong.

In part, nationalism was difficult to concoct because Laos, like much of Southeast Asia, had used a different system of governance: the mandala system "based on tributary relations with subsidiary centres." Boundaries and allegiances were vague and inconstant, while language and ethnicity could divide as well as unite.

The mandala system could not withstand the onslaught of the Western nation-state and the fierce nationalism it imbued. Laotian attempts at "national reconciliation" were subverted, most notably and callously by the United States, which rejected any coalition government that would include the Pathet Lao, who were believed to be mere lackeys of the Vietnamese. Though this was an overstatement, Vietnam scarcely hid its contempt for Lao neutrality. As of 1955 Laos was "the only country in the world...where the armed forces on both sides of a civil conflict were entirely financed by foreign powers."

And not only the armed forces. A tidal wave of American money fundamentally distorted the Laotian economy, primarily in the cities. The proper distribution of this money required an American administration that, as Fox writes, "could only be described as neo-colonial." And in the colonial spirit, it did little to improve the country's real economy; its main purpose was to secure American domination. Further, American funds helped created a culture of dependence and widespread corruption, all but guaranteeing turmoil once the war was over. Referring to American air drops of rice to previously self-sufficient villagers, Fox writes of "children who believed that rice came from the sky." Morals also suffered, and some of the so-called repression that followed Communist victory was merely an attempt to erase the brothels and bars and drugs that are the usual accompaniment to a prolonged American military presence. During the war, Vientiane "boasted the world's largest opium den."

Laos does remain one of the world's largest producers of opium, and this has helped create a new foreign invasion - by backpackers. Although Laos does officially encourage tourism, its slogan of "Visit Laos" is rather modest - not to say ambivalent - when compared to "Amazing Thailand". And as of last year, Laos charged a rather exorbitant $30 visa fee upon entry.

But then, if there is one theme uniting Fox's fine history, it is that Laos has always preferred to be left alone, to tend its rice fields and sing its lovely songs, while the outside world makes its morose way toward oblivion. A peaceful and independent Laos is one piece of real estate that the meek can genuinely claim to have inherited.

- The End -

Review of Martin Stuart-Fox's A History of Laos, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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