Laos: The King Is Dead, Long Live The King

2003

Holly Dunstan

On 20 December 2002, a new king of Laos was born, as a 3.5 tonne bronze statue of the founder of the ancient Lane Xang empire - King Fa Ngum - was erected and consecrated in Vientiane. But the statue is much more than a bronze image: through the manipulation of ritual and symbol, the LPDR (Lao People’s Democratic Republic) regime is imbuing the statue with the spiritual, physical and symbolic presence of a new king of Laos.

The last king to officiate in Laos, King Savang Vatthana, was sent to ‘re-education camp’ in 1977, where he and his family perished. The details of their deaths have never been released, and an ongoing silence has since cloaked the question of a Lao royalty.

While the ruling Lao Revolutionary Party is purportedly anti-elite and expressly anti-monarchy (this was especially so in the late 1970s and early 80s), commentators such as Grant Evans, have suggested that Lao society and its brand of Buddhism are inherently hierarchical, pointing ultimately to a zenith - to a king. The lack of a king in contemporary Laos stands as a symbol of division and upheaval, threatening attempts to create a sense of Lao unity and nationalism. As the LPDR has all but abandoned any pretence of socialism, their image as protectors of a 'Lao culture' has become increasingly important in legitimising the LPDR regime. But this 'culture' demands a king. The enforced absence of a king, then, is a disjuncture at the heart of Lao nationalism and LPDR legitimacy.

The new statue stands with its right arm raised, index fingers extended. It is based on a painting held in the National Museum, where Fa Ngum is depicted presenting a speech to his new empire. Dr Souneth Phothisane, Director of the National Museum, states that at this moment Fa Ngum was announcing that his Lane Xang 'would be in peace, independence, unity, democracy and prosperity'. He told the people in the country to 'foster solidarity, national harmony and trust in one administration' (Vientiane Times, 3-4 Dec. 2002, page 20).

If that phrase 'peace, independence, unity, democracy and prosperity' is familiar, it is because it has been the LPDR national motto adopted since 1975. It is significant that the three aspects noted - solidarity, harmony and one administration – are the three items held very dear by the leaders of this one-party state. And so the new king speaks, and his words are the words of the ruling party.

Physically, the statue embodies multiple symbols of power. In addition to the pose described above, of a statesman addressing his nation, the statue carries a sword and wears a crown, symbolizing in turn military might and regal right. Its facial features are formed to resemble that of a Buddha image, indicating a divine authority. The statue, then, combines the powers of administrative authority, military strength, royal reverence and religious sanctity.

It has been also imbued with the actual spirit of Fa Ngum. On the day of its consecration, four monks prayed to each cardinal direction to evict any evil spirits and invite the soul of Fa Ngum to stay with the statue and protect the country. Chanting continued as the statue was lowered onto the pedestal, inviting the soul to reside along with the statue on its base. The site is expected to become a place of religious worship for the soul of Fa Ngum. Thus, the new King Fa Ngum is all that a living king could not be – pure symbol, without the political threat.

Whether this cult of Fa Ngum, re-written to the tune of the LPDR, can fill the void left by the deaths of the Luang Prabang royalty remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the need for the symbolic power and legitimacy of royalty have been recognised by the LPDR regime, and it has responded.

WATCHPOINT: Reputedly the first of ten planned statues, is this a mark of the socialist LDPR asserting itself vis-a-vis Thailand (with its strong monarchical tradition)? Will this move also have the unintended result of keeping alive flickering hopes for a return of the remnants of the Lao monarchy from overseas at some time in the future?

 

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