This volume of eighteen essays is an opportunity to deepen our understanding about the landlocked and sparsely populated Laos—a country with a fascinating cultural and political history, too often overshadowed by its larger neighbors.
On page one of the introduction we learn that this book is a festschrift—a term causing this reviewer to consult a digital dictionary. A festschrift is a collection of writings in the honor of (but not necessarily about) a scholar, in the case Emeritus Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, who has been publishing academic articles and books about Laos for decades.
Stuart-Fox, an Australian, got his start writing in in the 1960s as a journalist for UPI (United Press International). He covered the Vietnam War, first from Laos and then in Vietnam. Two of the photojournalists who worked with him in the 60s provide essays and photos for this book, one is Steve Northup and the other Tim Page, perhaps familiar to readers as the young photographer in Michael Herr’s classic Dispatches who gets badly injured by shrapnel from a landmine.
After a brief biographical sketch of Stuart-Fox in the first chapter, Lao scholar Souneth Phothisane’s essay gets us underway with the prehistory of Laos and an account of writing the history of the country for the people of Lao. What is evident is the difficulty of writing and publishing such a history because it has to be in accordance with the requirements of the Party—Laos being a one party state since the takeover of the communists in 1975.
Volume One has not been published because discussions have continued between the Historical Research Institute and the Ministry of Information and Culture over the correct understanding of the ancient period, and how to present it.
By the 1890s, the three once powerful Lao kingdoms of Lan Xang had long since fallen under the suzerainty of Siam. The French, already established in Indochina, struck a deal with the kingdom of Siam to establish the protectorate of Laos east of the Mekong river. The French used a good dose of gunboat diplomacy to do this and the agreement cut off a large number of ethnic Lao living in what is today northern Thailand. In one of four chapters dealing with French Laos, Geoffrey Gunn explains how the French tried to create a national identity of Laos for their own ends until they left the country in 1953.
Instead of staying out of the parliamentary process like communist movements elsewhere, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party were involved in initial coalition governments and they took power without military action—or better to say further military action, as Laos had hardly been spared death and destruction having gone through a civil war between the Royal Lao Army and the communist Pathet Lao, US bombings and North and South Vietnamese military incursions. Editor Delsey Gordon describes the surprising path to power of the communists in Lao:
The Lao revolutionary takeover in 1975 is unique in the history of Marxist-Leninist revolutions. When it proclaimed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) on 2 December 1975, the little-known Lao People’s Revolutionary Party achieved in a small Asian country what Lenin had explored as being possible, but improbable: a practically peaceful seizure of total power.
Despite being a peaceful transition, a large number of people emigrated from Laos after the communists took control. A final chapter in the chronological section of the book looks at government attempts at conciliation with member of the diaspora.
Engaging Asia then delves into a range of topics concerning the wide interests of Stuart-Fox and the work of scholars he has taught. There is something for everyone here, although some chapters, especially those on the meaning of the Pali word jhāna in its Buddhist context and the theory of cultural evolution are a challenge for the layperson.
An essay on the Tai people of Yunnan fleshes out earlier references to Theravada Buddhism and ethnic minorities in the region. Also the conditions of Tonkinese (North Vietnamese) laborers on rubber plantations in Cambodia is relevant in the wider context of the machinations of French Indochina. The details of an embassy from Banten, Java to the court of Charles II of England in the 17th century takes us rather far away from Laos. However, this chapter is saved by the fantastic anecdote of pepper imported from Banten being stored in the basement of the famous London madhouse, Bethlem.
Stuart-Fox himself provides a concise afterword in which the threads of this varied and intellectually stimulating collection are tied together. The reader is left wanting to know more about Laos—undoubtedly an achievement of one of the aims of this book.
Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.