Laos: Minority Disparities

1999

Nick Enfield

In mid-October the Lao National Assembly closed its fourth ordinary session, resolving decisions on "important matters relating to the tasks of national defence and development in line with the party policy of renovation" (as reported in the English-language twice-weekly Vientiane Times, 15-18 October). But while official progress is made, there remain significant and growing disparities in Lao society, involving, among other things, various sizeable minorities.

While the National Assembly is officially described as "a representative of the people of all ethnic groups", the future is as uncertain as ever for the many ethnic minorities of Laos, who make up about half the population, a very large proportion. Most minority people in rural Laos live in relatively difficult and dangerous conditions, naturally a matter of concern to the government. The Southern Province of Sekong, for example, is populated almost entirely by Austro-asiatic minorities of many different identities, often living in extreme isolation, days' walk from district and market centres. Accordingly, an intensive UNDP development project is starting up in Sekong, with specific focus on social development for these minority people. However, while there are obvious socio-economic (not to mention political) benefits of integration of minority people into the greater Lao society, little is built into the mechanisms of this process to regulate the loss of cultural variety and of cultural identities. And this great variety is a tragically ill-understood aspect of the richness of Lao society. The process of cultural assimilation of minorities into the dominant culture is already familiar, and now far advanced, in neighbouring states such as China, Vietnam, and Thailand. It is inevitable that the current practices of the Lao government will push the minorities of Laos down the same path, making it in minority groups' interests not only to embrace economic development, but to adapt/conform to majority lowland Lao social, cultural, and linguistic practices.

The language situation in rural Laos is representative of the problem. Since languages are emblematic of peoples, their fate represents the fate of communities and cultures. There are literally dozens of separate languages spoken in Laos, but many of them are now in serious danger of disappearing forever. Little work is being done on promoting or supporting the maintenance of minority languages, while the national language is being - for obvious practical and political reasons - fervently promoted. For example, a nation wide (foreign-aided) Lao language education project has just begun, aimed at minority girls, a least educated sector of Lao society, among whom the official language Lao is not spoken at all.

Minority groups in Northern Laos in particular are increasingly becoming the target of tourist curiosity, sometimes to their immediate economic advantage. The sale of handicrafts can be a good source of cash, but, without monitoring, the current trend shows potential to result in socially damaging situations, such as already seen in China, Vietnam, and Thailand. In some cases, minorities have found themselves in side-show conditions, with accompanying breakdown of traditional social and economic systems, and consequent problems such as drug/alcohol-dependence and vagrancy. There are already signs of such social breakdown among minorities in Northern tourist centres such as Luang Prabang and Muang Sing. More directly damaging to local people's lifestyles is drug tourism (heroin, opium, cannabis) that is beginning to gain momentum in certain parts of Northern Laos, where some foreign tourists use the country as a playground with deadly local consequences. Lao authorities have many good reasons to curb such activities, but it is apparently hard for opportunistic local authorities to resist the immediate financial benefits of turning a blind eye, without regard to the greater and longer-term social consequences.

Meanwhile, back in the city, a different kind of minority is emerging, namely the privileged urban elite, who are fast becoming very much richer as the local economy grows. Despite the ruling one-party state's foundation on principles of class struggle, today's class gap is widening fast, and is now as wide as it ever was, i.e. in the much maligned days prior to the 1975 revolution. The social disparity between the elite and the common people has the potential to soon become as ugly as has been seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia. One local observer has commented that this is exacerbated by an unfortunate lack of public/social conscience displayed by these growing rich.

WATCHPOINT: Ignoring the examples of similar problems elsewhere will not help minorities in Laos.

 

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