Oliver Tappe
Former Staff

Oliver Tappe

Reconfigurations of the Past in an Ambiguous Present. Memory discourses, social change, and inter-ethnic relations in Houaphan, Lao PDR

Research Group EMSE
Ethnic Minorities and the State in Eurasia: Relations and Transformations
Oliver Tappe

The Project

Houaphan province – located in the mountainous northeast of Laos adjacent to Vietnam – is an ethnically heterogeneous region. Its population (250,000) consists of 22 ethnic groups from the four main language families in Laos (Tai-Kadai, Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien, and Tibeto-Burman). Their settlement in the hills and valleys of the region is an outcome of complex migration processes. While Mon-Khmer groups are regarded as the autochthonous inhabitants of present-day Laos, the Tai-speaking people migrated from South China into mainland Southeast Asia between the 7th and 11th century. Other groups such as the Hmong settled in the high mountain regions of Laos and Vietnam since the 19th century after having fled Chinese dominance. With the arrival of the French colonial power in the late 19th century, the highland population at the margins of the later nation-states of Laos and Vietnam experienced an increasing degree of external interference in local political and economic organisation. After Laos and Vietnam gained independence from France in 1954, politics of post-colonial and socialist nation-building further transformed the multi-ethnic social structures of the region. Following Leach (2004; cf. Sadan & Robinne 2007) and his seminal work on political systems of the Southeast Asian highlands and the fluctuating ethnic relations there, this project examines ethnic interactions in the heterogeneous Lao-Vietnamese border region by taking into account 120 years of state-minorities-relations in the highlands.
By linking anthropological and historical research approaches, this project tackles questions of ethnicity and inter-ethnic relations by focusing on the social and cultural shifts caused by the intrusion of modern state power into ethnically heterogeneous regions. Taking into account for example early colonial taxation schemes, recent land reform projects, changing property relations, and the evolvement of a capitalist agricultural economy, the consequences of state politics for multi-ethnic social structures shall be analysed. The projects considers ruptures and continuities of inter-ethnic relations in the Lao-Vietnamese border region in the context of colonialism (1893-1954), contested nation-building (1954-1975), orthodox socialism (1975-1986), and reformed socialism (since 1986). I will focus on two levels of inter-ethnic relations: first, the relations between lowland (Lao/Vietnamese) and highland (different ethnic groups), and second, the relation between the different ethnic groups themselves at the margins of the state. Traditional hierarchies, socialist ideas of multi-ethnic solidarity, and contemporary struggles for resources will be juxtaposed and analysed with regard to strategies of ethnic boundary‘-making and -unmaking’ (cf. Wimmer 2008).
Moreover, my research shall shed light on the multiple discourses of memory and identity in the region. Given the importance of support the Lao (and Vietnamese) communists received from the highland groups during the revolutionary struggle, these groups seek to make sense of the revolution and its aftermath as the reward for the struggle remains doubtful. Expectations of development, progress, and modernity to come have largely been left unfulfilled. Instead, the Lao state is currently shaping the social spaces in the highlands by promoting resettlement and the large-scale cultivation of industrial crops – thereby further altering traditional livelihoods and forms of village organisation. The latter is only the latest stage of a long series of disconcerting experiences among the highland populations in Houaphan province: from pre-colonial raids and colonial taxation to war, revolution, socialist collectivist experiments, forced resettlement, poverty, encounters with Western tourists, and poorly implemented land titling programs. It is evident, that an analysis of inter-ethnic relations must pay attention to the forces of the modern state and global modernity in general.

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