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The road to nowhere?

Poverty and policy in the south of Laos

Holly High

Anthropological understandings of development have often discussed development projects in terms of an extension of the state. Using the example of a participatory poverty reduction project in Laos, this article outlines how development schemes also have the potential to define areas of exception from state services. This project was understood by project officers as an example of a successful “participatory” project. Lao recipients, however, interpreted it in terms of the non-provision of state services, and thus as further evidence of governmental corruption and deceit. These residents—far from resisting the notion of development, or the extension of the state—emphasized largesse and provisioning as the hallmarks of a successful project and a legitimate state. Their forms of “everyday resistance” to the project focused on narratives demanding more incorporation with the state.

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On Photography, History, and Affect

Re-Narrating the Political Life of a Laotian Subject

Panivong Norindr

This essay considers the role of personal, affective history in shaping historiography, and more precisely, a post-colonial history of Laos. Relying on a variety of sources, official and family photographs, US diplomatic documents, telegrams and personal notes, and against the backdrop of multiple losses, this article problematizes the questions of biography and the complex links between the personal and the "historical" by narrating my father's professional trajectory over three decades as a civil servant and career diplomat. Pheng Norindr represented Laos at the 1962 Geneva Conference and became the Laotian envoy to the United Stated during the Vietnam War. His entanglement with French colonialism and Cold War politics offers a point of entry into a Laotian historiography that is critical of a monolithic Western history of Laos.

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Jos D. M. Platenkamp

This article presents an analysis of the canoe racing ritual conducted in the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers bordering the town of Luang Prabang in North Laos as part of an annual ritual cycle. It focuses upon the ways in which the socio-political order, articulated in the ritual, is valorized in reference to a model of cosmological sovereignty that is manifested in offerings brought to aquatic spirit manifestations of a primordial King and his Queen-Consorts. It identifies the present-day changes in the ritual that have been implemented by the socialist Lao state as part of an endeavor to replace the principle of monarchic sovereignty with the authority of the state and to supplant the socio-cosmological understanding of society with a corporate model of bureaucracy and market economy variables.

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"Spirits Follow the Words”

Stories as Spirit Traces among the Khmu of Northern Laos

Rosalie Stolz

A general conundrum for the Khmu of northern Laos is the persistent unknowability of spirits. The locals gauge the potency of spirits by keeping track of spirit stories. Spirit narratives can be conceived of as transient traces of intangible spirit phenomena, as will be exemplified by the story of a young man’s spirit affliction. Sharing and silencing spirit stories are a means of determining the strength of spirits, as well as an efficacious way to evoke them. Using works that embark from the fragmentary and experiential character of animist cosmologies, it will be shown that approaching spirit stories as traces of spirits will be a suitable way to address the perspectives of those who navigate a world that is not inhabited by humans alone.

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Commercializing Hospitality

A New Concept for Residents of Viengxay, Laos

Wantanee Suntikul

Recently, small numbers of independent tourists and small groups have begun to visit the remote and poor region of Viengxay in northern Laos. This article is based on focus-group interviews and on-site observation in thirteen villages in Viengxay, intended to explore the perceptions and expectations of locals regarding their roles as hosts in this emerging tourism context. It discusses the ways in which locals are developing attitudes and practices of hospitality towards tourists. These practices are emerging under the influence of factors such as native cultural traditions, individual and communal expectations and attitudes towards tourism, as well as historical factors arising from the area's history of war and political isolation. Although locals intuitively treat tourists according to their society's 'traditional' treatment of guests, this treatment is also modified to reflect an appreciation that tourists are a specific type of guest for which the rules of hospitality may need to be reinterpreted. Locals' perceptions of tourists and behaviour in their relations with tourists are evolving as a result of growing contact between locals and tourists and the concomitantly changing expectations from and understanding of the tourism industry. This article articulates common themes for conceptualising the ways in which hospitality practices in the Viengxay villages are emerging from interaction and conflict of these various aspects.

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Variants of Frontier Mimesis

Colonial Encounter and Intercultural Interaction in the Lao-Vietnamese Uplands

Oliver Tappe

At the turn of the twentieth century, the French colonial administration adopted various strategies and tactics to ‘pacify’ and control the culturally heterogeneous regions dividing the lowland realms of the Lao and Vietnamese courts, while upland powerbrokers aimed to forge strategic alliances with the new colonial power. This article takes the concept of mimesis as a means to explore the interplay of alterity and identity. With reference to the work of Michael Taussig, along with other theories of imitation, I will discuss processes of mutual appropriation and differentiation within the precarious relationship between colonizers and colonized. Mimesis here provides an alternative reading of upland Southeast Asian history beyond the binaries of dominance and resistance prevalent in James C. Scott’s recent work on the anarchist history of zomia.

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Emotional Latitudes

The Ambiguities of Colonial and Post-Colonial Sentiment

Matt Matsuda and Alice Bullard

A collection of essays dedicated to the history of sentiment and emotions in the constitution of imperial and colonial projects. Subjects range from eighteenth-century marriage and military careers, to ethnically mixed couples during the Great War, to contemporary "arranged marriage" television programs in Madagascar. The collection also traces constructions of nineteenth and twentieth-century female slavery in Morocco, and meditations on family rooted and professional contexts in Laos and New Caledonia, complicating links between personal experience and historiographic knowledge. A closing essay draws together many of the themes with a detailed reading of key texts in colonial and postcolonial psychiatry.

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Imitations of Buddhist Statecraft

The Patronage of Lao Buddhism and the Reconstruction of Relic Shrines and Temples in Colonial French Indochina

Patrice Ladwig

From 1893 onward, French colonialism sponsored and restructured Lao and Khmer Buddhism in order to create an ‘Indochinese Buddhism’. Over a span of several decades, the French promoted monastic education, reconstructed the major temples in Vientiane, and renovated the That Luang, the most important Buddhist relic shrine of Laos. This article explores the motivations and strategies for this endeavor, specifically focusing on French efforts to ‘re-materialize’ Lao Buddhism’s religious architecture. I argue that the renovation of these monuments as symbols and centers of power under the auspices of the École française d’Extrême-Orient was based on mimetic processes that should be understood as a form of ceremonial governmentality and colonial politics of affect, whose goal was to win the ‘sympathies’ of the colonized.

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Questions from the Field

Anthropological Self-reflexivity through the Eyes of Study Participants

Sangmi Lee

Although there is nothing new about how anthropologists can be the observed instead of simply being the observer and that they can also be interviewed while interviewing, no one has studied the kinds of questions they receive from the people that they study and interact with in the field. Questions that research participants ask the anthropologists during fieldwork provide a critical way to reflect upon historical and persistent issues related to field-work, such as positionality, self-reflexivity and methodology. Based on fourteen months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork among two Hmong communities in Laos and the United States, this article examines some of the questions I received from the people in my study and suggests that anthropologists need to pay more critical attention to these questions as a source of self-reflexivity and positionality in the process of ethnographic writing.

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John Walsh

One of the principal means by which state management of rapid economic development has been attempted in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has been the creation and maintenance of special economic zones (SEZs). The purpose of SEZs is to encourage domestic and international investment in specific areas to promote mainly export-oriented manufacturing. They have been created in large numbers in Thailand, Vietnam and the Yunnan Province of China, and they are being built across Cambodia, Laos and now Myanmar. Negative effects, such as pollution and the forcible clearances of people, are balanced by the provision of new jobs and better income-generating opportunities for people and their families. SEZs in the GMS are being increasingly drawn together by the large-scale creation of the Asian Highway Network, in addition to investment by domestic governments and by capital from Chinese corporations and the state. The creation of these linkages will have additional changes on the economic geography of the region and on the distribution of the factors leading to uneven development. This article seeks to identify the social and human implications of the spread of SEZs across the GMS. It seeks to draw together conclusions that lead to recommendations for public policy that will reduce the risks that people will face as a result.