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Book Review - Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State. Edited by Vanina Bouté and Vatthana Pholsena. Singapore: NUS Press, 2017. Softcover: 457pp.

Over the past decade academic research on Laos has grown significantly. This growth in the field of Lao studies is well synthesised in Bouté and Pholsena’s 2017 edited volume Changing Lives in LaosIncorporating the work of an impressive catalogue of scholars, the 15-chapter book is thematically grouped under four research themes of: State formation and political legitimation; Natural resource governance and agrarian change; Ethnic minorities engagement with modernity, andMobility and migration. Each of these prominent themes are well addressed and, while different chapters will naturally appeal to different readers, the book successfully presents an encompassing analysis of contemporary processes of social, political and cultural change. 

In Section 1 the cumulative contribution of the five chapters is a nuanced understanding of Lao state formation, consolidation and change. Consideration is given to shifting interpersonal relationships and patron-client networks within the Lao politburo, the role of iconography in advancing historical narratives which seek to align Lan Xang kings with national liberation struggle, and the political complexities surrounding political revolution and the state’s relationship with the Buddhist Sangha. What each of these chapters emphasise, and as Pholsena explicitly argues in Chapter 5, is that understanding political change requires moving beyond ‘normative political language’ to give consideration to a broad range of processes including the socialization of individuals and the complex forces that internalize the ‘norms and values’ of state institutions (2017: 130). 

Section 2 begins with what are, arguably, the two best written chapters in the book. In Chapter 7 Évrard and Baird review the literature on how agriculture has been transformed across previous decades, particularly from 1975 onwards. With a strong focus on the development and poverty implications of agrarian change, the authors show that farming and land use changes during the past 40 years have ‘resulted in [a] considerable reorganization of space’ through elite land capture through foreign direct investment, contract farming, and other forms of capitalist enclosure (2017: 189). In Chapter 8, Dwyer furthers this examination of agribusiness and agrarian change in his effort to ‘illustrate how the legacies of geopolitical conflict continue to shape state-community relations’, including the ‘ever-contingent politics of enclosure, dispossession, and displacement’ (2017: 202). While acknowledging the deleterious effects of much recent agrarian change on rural livelihoods, Dwyer is careful to emphasise that what he describes as ‘the concrete politics of displacement’ are inevitably complex, place-dependent, and ‘only starting to be adequately examined’ (2017: 201). This is a valuable insight that is of pertinence to the study of land contestations across the Global South. 

In Section 3, three chapters on new forms of ethnic minority social interactions respectively explore; how ethnic identities are produced through complex social entanglements; how religious practices of ethnic identities have shifted alongside changing socio-economic and political contexts, and; the affective relationships and ‘non-material dimensions of material exchanges’ (323) that occur within the North-western borderlands rubber economies (2017: 323). Through new empirical data and comprehensive ethnographic research, each of the three chapters serve to collectively illustrate Schlemmer’s, Chapter 10, affirmation that, ‘if ethnicity can be precisely defined at a theoretical level, the reality is much more complex’ (261). 

Finally, in Section 4, three chapters by Molland, Phouxay and Vallard each present different ways of approaching and understanding contemporary patterns of migration and mobility in Laos. From transnational human trafficking and refugee flows, to domestic rural-urban migration, labour migration, ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ migration, and the commodity chains of Lao textile industries, Chapters 13 – 15 raise important questions around the relationships between mobility, migration, agency, human rights, development, and governance. In the context of a ‘landlocked’ country that is ‘commonly depicted in static, sedentary ways’, the three chapters successfully bring attention to the ‘important mobile characteristics’ of the Lao state which, as Molland rightfully asserts are yet to be sufficiently explored (2017: 346, 347) 

To explore the above four themes in sufficient detail, it is necessary that Changing Lives in Laos omits a range of other socio-economic and political transformations. And while the volume’s complex and multifaceted analysis of political power, agrarian change, ethnic minorities, and migration is one of its key strengths, it is also inevitable that such targeting of key themes will disappoint some readers. So, what then, is missing in this volume? In my opinion, the two most significant omissions from the volume are: (1) a more detailed analysis of processes of urban change, and; (2) closer consideration of shifting geopolitical entanglements, including foreign aid and investment flows.  

To begin with the former, a lack of detailed analysis on urban transformations is not limited only to this volume. Rather, this ‘gap’ can be seen across the growing body of literature on Laos. Bouté and Pholsena do emphasise urban change in their introduction, and Chapter 9 explores processes of rural-urban migration in the formation of new urban centres. However, Chapter 9 is also telling situated under the section heading ‘Natural Resource Governance and Agrarian Change’ and, in my opinion, presents the shallowest conceptual analysis of all chapters. Given that Laos now has the world’s 20th fastest urban population growth rate, the study of its urban landscapes is long overdue (World Bank 2017). 

Regarding geopolitics, Changing Lives in Laos would have benefitted from at least one chapter attending to the country’s aid and investment partnerships. As Bouté and Pholsena note in their introduction, much of Laos’ significant socio-economic transformations in recent years have been driven by growing foreign investment from neighbouring China, Thailand, and Vietnam. China has become the country’s largest provider of both foreign aid and investment, and this has brought profound social, cultural and political changes that are not extensively explored in this book. This is not to dismiss the importance of any of the chapters contained within the book. Nor is it to critique the editors chosen section themes. Rather, I simply point to two further themes of relevance to society, politics, and culture in Laos that, if better explored, may have attracted a wider readership.  

Changing Lives in Laos is a valuable book that provides an accessible compliment to some of the denser academic literature on Laos. For readers that are new to the study of Laos, the book offers a useful summary of key contemporary processes of social, cultural and political change. For those well-versed in Lao studies, it offers new empirical data and a much-needed update to similar edited volumes by Evans (1999) and Stuart-Fox (1982).  

 

KEARRIN SIMS is a lecturer in Development Studies at James Cook University. Postal address: College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Building A2, Cairns Campus, 1/14-88 McGregor Rd, Smithfield, QLD, Australia, 4878. 

Email: [email protected] 

 

 

References 

Evans, G., 1999, Laos: Culture and Society, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Silkworm Books. 

Stuart-Fox, M., 1982, Contemporary Laos: Studies in the Politics and Society of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, New York, St. Martin’s Press. 

The World Bank, 2017, Urban Population Growth Rate, (online) https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.GROW?year_high_desc=false, accessed 18 September 2017. 

Book Title
Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State

Editors
Vanina Bouté & Vatthana Pholsena

Year of Published
2017