Laos: Lao Diaspora And The Draw Of The Homeland


Thongrith Phoumirath

The Government of the PDR Lao officially declared the Year 1999 as the 'Visit Laos Year'. More than it cares to admit, by this declaration the Lao Government is aiming at members of the Lao diasporas throughout the world. They know that the attraction of the homeland remains strong especially among the first generation of Lao in diaspora.

More than 400,000 Lao people have fled their homeland since 1976 as a direct result of the end of the Vietnam War. Some 10,000 Lao people have chosen Australia as their new home, with Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane being the main centres of settlement. More than twenty years have gone by since the painful years of exile. Many things internal and external to Lao diasporas have changed. Economically, members of Lao diasporic communities have grown financially comfortable and secure. Politically, the earlier gung-ho cry of liberating the homeland from foreign invaders by force has been replaced by more reasoned and rational debate on cooperation and peaceful dialogue with the current regime in Vientiane. Within Laos itself, the regime has undergone a lot of changes. The omnipresent internet, globalisation of the economy and the opening up of the country (not least by joining ASEAN) has meant easier contact between Lao in diaspora and home.

There have been many examples of Lao people 'going home' to do business. But unfortunately, many of these ventures fail. There are, I think, two main reasons for these failures. The first is that, the two Lao develop different business cultures: diasporic Lao want to 'do it by the book', whereas in Laos the old system of 'greasing the palm' is even more prevalent than pre-1975. The second is that some misconceptions persist in the relationship between the two Laos. The diasporic Lao people still perceive the Vientiane Lao as being 'poor and in need of assistance'; while the latter accuse the diasporic Lao of 'having it easy abroad and now wanting to reclaim their opportunity'.

But outside of business ventures, a two-way traffic of Lao to visit family and friends has been increasing in volume. Numbers of diasporic Lao going home to find new partners are increasing, as are numbers of Lao making use of easier entry regulations for religious purposes. These include young adult males entering the monkhood, or some people taking ashes of loved ones to bury in their family's temple, and even some people sending their offspring home to get away from drug problems abroad.

The pull of the homeland remains strong within the Lao diasporas. And the Lao Government in Vientiane realises this. However, it remains to be seen if the Lao Government would go down the track of opening up the country as far as making it easier for diasporic Lao to go back and live out their life in retirement in Laos.

WATCHPOINT: The ailing Lao economy will need to attract the assests of the diasporic Lao in the interests of survival.


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