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Laos Table of Contents



In mid-1994 Laotian society was in a period of transition. Although firmly based in self-sufficient village agricultural patterns, it was beginning to experience social and economic change stimulated by government policies and slowly growing communication with urban centers and neighboring modernizing countries. However, most Laotians had little experience outside their district of residence and were able to live simply and relatively comfortably on the food and other products they produced or gathered themselves. Limited but expanding trade provided basic consumer goods that made life more comfortable or save labor. Trade also provided a stimulus to produce somewhat more than the family needed for its immediate consumption. Nevertheless, villages in mountainous regions were less advantaged and less connected to the market network and to government influence than those on the plains and river valleys, and some were chronically unable to produce enough food to meet their needs.

As the market economy expands and rural farmers find opportunities for cash crop production, village labor exchange relationships and other forms of cooperation are likely to begin to break down. These changes have already begun in the villages on the Vientiane plain, although in outlying provinces traditional cooperation networks remain more firmly in place. Not surprisingly, social and economic stratification increases in villages more closely linked to urban areas or markets, where some families are quicker to exploit economic or educational opportunities. Landownership remains relatively equal, but unclaimed good quality land for paddy rice production is extremely difficult to locate, thus removing one factor that served to minimize stratification in the past. At the end of the twentieth century, competition for lowland farms and increased pressure and restrictions on upland swidden farming may combine to change the character of rural landownership and farming. Genuinely landless families are likely to increase in number, and urban populations also will likely continue to expand at a moderate rate, depending on the continued establishment of manufacturing enterprises in provincial centers.

Substantial changes occurred in the education and health systems after 1975, but both sectors are severely underfunded and fail to meet the expectations of government policy makers. Education is more likely to improve, and, as schools improve, expand their curriculum, and become more widespread, rural youth will gradually acquire the outlook and skills needed for work and life in an increasingly open and market-oriented society. Whether improved education also brings political inquiry and change remains to be seen.

Past performance of the state health sector does not generate much optimism regarding future developments. In the early 1990s, economic growth and stratification were already creating a demand for health care that remained unmet by the government sector, and since the late 1980s, significant numbers of people have traveled to Thailand for treatment of serious illnesses. Private health providers may increase, in much the same way as private pharmacies have opened to meet the demand for medications that cannot be obtained through the state health system.

Religious traditions that were initially threatened by the communist government have made a resurgence, and economic prosperity in lowland Lao areas has stimulated increased donations to and support of the Buddhist wat in many villages. As of mid-1994, most ethnic minorities maintained animist traditions as well, but were criticized formally and informally by officials for being superstitious.

At least through the 1990s, the traditional elements of Laotian society will very likely continue, and society will maintain its predominantly rural character. Self-sufficiency is not widely at risk, although there are certain ethnic groups and regions of the country experiencing inadequate food production and continued lack of access to productive resources. Ethnic diversity will certainly continue to be a factor in government development policy as well as intervillage relationships but is unlikely to be a source of serious conflict.

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There have been few contemporary works on Laotian society, and only one researcher, anthropologist Grant Evans, has been able to carry out formal ethnographic or sociological studies in Laos since 1975. Most recent books and articles have focused on economic and political affairs. For information about society, it is necessary to search for certain less accessible reports prepared for development projects, as well as older sources. For some of the better sources, knowledge of French is necessary. The best books as of the early 1990s were Evans's Lao Peasants Under Socialism, Australian political scientist Martin Stuart-Fox's Laos: Politics, Economics, Society, and French social geographer Christian Taillard's Le Laos: stratégies d'un Étattampon . The UNICEF report, Children and Women in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is not easily available but provides an excellent up-to-date overview of the economic, health, education, and agricultural sectors, as well as the socioeconomic status of women and children.

A number of monographs or journal articles on post-1975 Laos are noteworthy. These include Evans's Agrarian Change in Communist Laos; an article entitled "'Rich Peasants' and Cooperatives in Socialist Laos," and another article entitled "Reform or Revolution in Heaven? Funerals among Upland Tai." Carol Ireson's study, "Women's Forest Work in Laos," outlines women's roles regarding gathering of wild foods and other resources in rural areas. Three short studies produced for the Swedish development aid mission also provide useful details of contemporary village life in rural areas: Agneta Håkangård's "Road 13: A SocioEconomic Study of Villagers, Transport and Use of Road 13 S, Lao P.D.R.;" Jan Ovesen's "Anthropological Reconnaissance in Central Laos: A Survey of Local Communities in a Hydropower Project Area;" and Ing-Britt Trankell's "On the Road in Laos: An Anthropological Study of Road Construction and Rural Communities." Martin StuartFox and Rod Bucknell's "Politicization of the Buddhist Sangha in Laos" analyzes the religious changes occurring through the early 1980s.

Several works based on research during the RLG period remain valuable. Jacques Lemoine's Un village Hmong vert du Haut Laos is the only comprehensive source on the Hmong in Laos, as is Karl Gustav Izikowitz's dated, but still fundamentally useful account of the Lamet, Lamet: Hill Peasants in French Indochina.

Several publications on the Kammu produced with the collaboration of Kristina Lindell, Damrong Tayanin, and their coworkers provide detailed descriptions of Kammu life in Laos prior to the revolution. See particularly Lindell, et al., The Kammu Year: Its Lore and Music; Damrong and Lindell's, Hunting and Fishing in a Kammu Village; and Damrong's "Environment and Nature Change in Northern Laos."

Articles by Christian Taillard and Georges Condominas provide an understanding of the social dynamics of lowland Lao village life unavailable elsewhere, particularly Taillard's "Le village Lao de la région de Vientiane: Un pouvoir local face au pouvoir étatique" and "Le dualisme urbain-rural au Laos et la récuperation de l'idéologie traditionnelle" and Condominas's "Phiban Cults in Rural Laos." Martin John Philip Barber's "Migrants and Modernization: A Study of Change in Lao Society" also contains valuable information on village social structure in the Vientiane area. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of July 1994

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Laos Table of Contents