Review of the Third International Conference on Lao Studies

July 14-16, 2010

By Kearrin Sims

28 August 2010

The Third International Conference on Lao Studies was hosted in 2010 by the Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region at Khon Kaen University, Thailand, and the Centre for Lao Studies in San Francisco. The event was held from July 14-16 at the Charoen Thani Princess Hotel in Khon Kaen, Thailand, and was attended by over two hundred participants. The hotel did a fantastic job of organizing the event and deserves to be commended for its efforts. There were 134 presentations at the conference including two plenary sessions and one keynote speech about Lao history by the University of Hamburg’s Professor Volker Grabowsky. Almost half of the presenters were from Thai universities, and approximately 29 presenters were from Lao institutions. The remainder of the presenters came from more than twelve other countries, including the US, Australia, France, Japan, India, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Singapore and Canada. Presentations by Lao speakers were representative of the diversity of topics discussed at the conference, and included analysis of the Lao textile industries, Lao myths and stories, poetry, regionalism and changing sexual practices, linguistics, nationalism, religion, ethnic minorities, and development. Most presenters had 15 minutes to present, followed by question time. Famous Lao scholar Grant Evans also made a brief speech about the future of Lao studies at the conference evening reception.

The number of presenters was an increase from the Second International Conference on Lao Studies and presentations were divided amongst five rooms according to key themes. The prevailing themes of the conference were linguistics, health, development (in particular land tenure and land concessions), gender, art, culture and music. The Center for Lao Studies 2009 publication Contemporary Lao Studies: Research on Development, Language and Culture, and Traditional Medicine, which was produced as a result of the First International Conference on Lao Studies, shows that predominant themes of research in the field of Lao studies have undergone little change over the past five years. In addition to the academic presentations, the conference included various cultural demonstrations, including Lao music and dancing, Lao textiles and a selection of films concerned with Lao lifestyles, development and culture. A large collection of books on Laos and Southeast Asia were available for purchase at a discount rate. Particularly enjoyable was a modeling show of the different forms of dress worn by Laos’ ethnic groups. Writing a review for a conference of this scale is a difficult task, and cannot seek to provide a comprehensive analysis on each of the 134 presentations that took place. Instead, this review will give attention to the presentations that showed the greatest relevance to contemporary development concerns in Laos and the effects that shifting regional development priorities are having on understandings of development within Laos. In addition, this review seeks to consider what areas of current research on the Lao PDR would benefit from greater analysis.

Development was a popular theme of discussion at the conference and there were many presentations focusing on different development concerns within Laos and it’s neighboring countries. Perhaps two good examples to begin with are Dr. Joanne Millar’s paper on livestock and rural upland livelihoods and Jo Durham’s examination of the effects of unexploded ordnance clearance on rural communities. Both papers provided a very practical analysis on the effects of development activities that are currently being undertaken in Laos and would have undoubtedly been of use to development practitioners already working in the country. In particular, Jo Durham’s paper raised some very important questions about the value of using cost-benefit analysis to assess the effectiveness of unexploded ordnance clearance in subsistence farming areas. A method of assessment that is gaining increasing popularity within the unexploded ordnance field, Ms. Durham outlined many non-economic benefits of clearance (such as ongoing subsistence living, stress release and reduction of injuries) that cost-benefit analysis fails to adequately account for. Another presentation that provided an assessment of existing development practices in Laos but that also spoke to broader issues about how development discourse is framed was the University of Wisconsin’s Christine Elliot. In her paper Lao University Students’ Multilingual Literacy Practices – A Preliminary Account, Ms Elliot considered the successes and failures of the strategies to expand the teaching of the English language in Laos; providing a telling example of how the prevailing development discourse is embedded in understandings of development as increased global integration. How development discourse seeks to increase global and regional integration in Laos is a question that is becoming ever more important as an expanding China continues to seek influence over the Southeast Asian region and, thankfully, there were several papers at the conference which considered regional influences in Laos.

One paper that provided an interesting historical perspective of external sovereign influences in Laos was the National University of Singapore’s Ms. Kathryn Sweet. In her presentation on the history of the modern health system in Laos, Ms. Sweet explored how changing foreign influences have resulted in “differing political, cultural and technical approaches to the delivery of health care”. Being a small, sparsely populated, land-locked country, the history of external forces seeking influence over Laos’ administration predates the French-colonial era and includes Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and (more recently) American, Australian and European influences. While texts concerning foreign influences in Laos are relatively prevalent, in order to maintain relevance with contemporary society they require continual renewal. Ms. Sweet’s paper provides an interesting contribution to this area of study. An example of recent efforts to assert influence over Laos was provided by the Australian National Universities Simon Creak, who used the sporting event of the SEA games to explore tensions between nationalism and increasing regional integration in Southeast Asia. Miles Kenney-Lazar also considered the SEA games, exploring how aid allocations by countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and China resulted in various concessions by the Lao government to these countries, including over 10 000 hectares of land to Vietnamese companies. Land concessions and land tenure were common development themes throughout the conference and were also explored by Oliver Schoenweger in his paper Impacts of Land Concessions on Livelihood in Northern Lao PDR, which looked at the issue of land concessions and the loss of rural Lao farmers land to foreign companies. Similarly, Dr. Saykham Voladet assessed the rubber industry in Laos, it’s relationship to Chinese and Vietnamese rubber industries, and what challenges rubber investments present for sustainable land use.

Other valuable contributions to the study of Lao regionalism include Dr. Natacha Collomb’s paper on the increasing socio-cultural gap between rural children and their elders as a result of globalization, commercialization of the Lao economy, and China’s economic growth. Assistant Professor John Walsh and Nittana Southiseng from Shinawatra International University considered the challenges that Chinese entrepreneurs are facing in Laos. Looking at the effects of increasing regional economic integration on Laos’ ethnic minority groups, Assistant Professor Watcharee Srikham from Ubon Ratchathani University explored how southern Lao minorities are being displaced from their lands and being forced to undergo livelihood changes from subsistence farming to wage labour. Similarly, Andrea Schophl’s paper on the Khmu people of Vieng Phouka looks at the effect of development and modernity on ethnic groups, considering the ways in which ethnic communities combine traditional and modern lifestyles in order to maintain cultural identity. Miss Benyapa Pragobsang considered the negative effects of modernity and globalization on health and human security in the Thai-Lao borderlands. Recently completing a noteworthy book that analysed processes of globalization in Laos, Humbolt Universities Dr. Boike Rehbein’s conference paper focused on how globalization and regionalism have, primarily over the past 20 years, transformed people’s desires around what constitutes a ‘good life’ in Laos. Dr. Rehbein’s paper drew attention to social differentiation between different communities in Laos and how different conceptions of a ‘good life’ exist between these groups. Comparing these differing understandings on what constitutes a good life with human development theory and the writings of Amartya Sen, Rebein’s paper showed how successful implementation of a human development approach to development in Laos will require a complex understanding of people’s different life aspirations and understandings of what ‘development’ is required.

The conference’s final plenary session, titled, Mekong Actual Outcomes: Methodology, Transparency and Efficacy of Social and Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) was perhaps the ‘showcase’ of the event and bought together a range of inter-related issues concerned with the environmental effects of development initiatives in Laos and elsewhere. The session’s first paper, by Dr. Robert B. Albritton discussed perhaps the most crucial regional development problematic in the Mekong region, that is, effective, just, and equitable use of the Mekong River. In his paper Conflict resolution in the Mekong Basin: The Politics of Water in Riparian Nations, Dr. Albritton considers how China’s growth is undermining existing regional agreements between Southeast Asian countries. Specifically, the paper focuses on how China’s unilateralism has resulted in a considerable dam-building scheme within China’s borders that appears to have given little consideration to the concerns of other Mekong river countries. In explaining how the emergence of China and its control over the upper reaches of the Mekong basin has made institutions such as the Mekong Committee largely ineffective, the paper shows both the need for, and the difficulties involved in, Southeast Asian countries including and accommodating China in regional decision-making processes. While Dr. Albritton’s paper shows that common understandings around fishery declines amongst lower Mekong basin populations as being the result of China’s hydro-electric schemes may be unfounded, the fact remains that China appears to be showing little interest in the concerns raised by these countries about such issues. A very similar point is made by Dr. Alan Potkin in his paper on the Lancang-Jiang cascade, where he explains that while current public anger against Chinese dams as causal factors in the 2010 Mekong region drought may be misinformed, the future effects of the filling of Chinese reservoirs remains a concerning issue.

Stepping away from the usual arguments around the social and economic outcomes of Laos’ hydropower projects, Henning Mejer’s paper assessed the environmental and ecological effects of hydropower schemes. Mejer’s paper made the argument that the ecological effects of hydropower dams can, to an extent, be predicted and better managed in order to reduce negative environmental impacts. Describing the least ecologically destructive hydro-electric projects as ‘super-reservoirs’, Mejers provides some guidelines for how future hydropower dams in Laos can make the successful transition from a healthy terrestrial system to a healthy aquatic system. Also focusing on development projects within Laos, Steven Schipani’s paper considered the outcomes of community based tourism in Laos and suggested how certain factors in the way tourism is practiced may have resulted in the evident mixed feelings about the outcomes of tourism activities within the communities of different ethnic groups. According to Schipani, successful ‘eco-tourism’ outcomes are more likely when physical infrastructure development is supported by social investments in capacity building, education and training. Although focusing specifically on tourism, Schipani’s findings are somewhat representative of development at large in Laos, where infrastructure developments such as roads or hydroelectric dams will achieve greater development successes when accompanied by adequate social and cultural considerations. Schipani’s paper was one of only a few papers at the conference to consider the relationship between development and tourism in Laos. Given the substanital contribution of the tourism industry to the Lao economy and the expected increasing number of tourists to be entering Laos in coming years, tourism is one area that requires more research.

While the amount of attention at the conference that was given to development and regionalism in Laos was impressive, there are imbalances in the sub-fields in which this research focuses on. Development practice in Laos would benefit from a greater research focus on inequality between ethnic groups and to what extent such inequalities are the result of prejudice, geography, or other factors. With more than 49 different ethnic groups in Laos a complex understanding of what different social and cultural values and norms and understandings of development and its desired outcomes exist between these groups is of upmost importance to human rights and human development. Likewise, more research is needed into the multiculturalism of Lao society and the social, economic and cultural effects of increasing Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai populations within Laos. While this research would have an immediate effect on development practice in Laos it would also speak to broader issues concerning development theory as a discourse and how it creates and reinforces understandings around certain ethnic groups being more or less developed and more or less ‘civilized’. Understanding how development discourse frames populations and indeed whole countries as developed or underdeveloped becomes increasingly important when considering Laos’ regional position and it’s status within the global community. Despite an increasingly complex and diverse filed of development studies, prevailing development discourses continue to portray development as a process of modernization and greater global/regional integration. However, changes in the power dynamics of the Southeast Asian region, affected most notably by China’s emerging influence, is likely to result in changes in how development is understood. This is an area that requires greater research. As the plenary session of the conference indicated, more research is also needed into what effects economic growth and so-called processes of modernity are having on the preservation of the natural environment, cultural diversity and social values. The widespread practice of community resettlement as a result of development projects is a particularly pressing concern in Laos.

The next Lao conference will be held in 2013 and will be hosted by the University of Wisconsin. Although the University of Wisconsin is likely to do an outstanding job of hosting the conference, it seems unlikely that having the conference in the US will provide the same opportunities for Lao or Thai scholars to present their research. In the interests of promoting indigenous Lao research it is hoped that there will be opportunity for the fifth conference on Lao studies to be held in Laos. As a final assessment of the success of the Third International Conference on Lao studies it is worth mentioning that the conference would have benefitted from employing translators to translate Lao/Thai presentations into English and English presentations into Thai/Lao to accommodate for conference attendees who do not speak either of these languages. Overall however, the Center for Lao Studies, Khon Khaen University and the 134 presenters at the conference deserve to be commended for contributing to what was on the whole an academically engaging and highly enjoyable event.