Buddhist Statecraft and the Politics of Ethnicity in Laos: Buddhification and interethnic relations in historical and anthropological perspective

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

Patrice Ladwig

1. The project

The relations between ethnic minorities living in the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia and the dominant groups living in the valleys are shaped by a structural pattern in which Buddhism and its notions of statecraft play a crucial role. In the area that expands over the current nation states of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and as well as parts of the Chinese province Yunnan, Theravada Buddhism is perceived as a ‘civilisational’ force that brought with it a class of religious professionals, permanent and interconnected religious institutions, script, and most importantly concepts of kingship, statecraft, and legitimacy (Coedès 1968; Lingat 1989). Developing hesitantly from the 8th century onwards in various forms, Buddhism provided the basis for forming (taxable) political entities (mueang; mandala) beyond the village level incorporating the wet rice cultivating groups living in the valleys (Tambiah 1976). In contrast, the highlands were populated by numerous and highly diverse ‘animistic’ ethnic minorities, belonging to the Mon-Khmer, Tibeto-Burman, and Tai-Kadai linguistic families. Due to their form of agriculture (‘slash and burn’), they were highly mobile and occupied peripheral regions, mostly out of reach of the early Buddhist ‘states’ and ‘empires’ of mainland Southeast Asia (Scott 2009). This periphery outside and at the margins of the state was and still is perceived as mostly backward and non-civilized by lowlanders (Turton 2000). However, due to economic and cultural links, ethnic and religious identities have often taken multiple and fluid forms (Leach 1954; Robinne & Sadan 2007) with complex religious hybridity or conversion to Buddhism being a constant feature in the region. Moreover, localised concepts of Theravada Buddhist statecraft also provided mediation between high- and lowlands and established relations between them that were for example expressed in local mythologies and ritually enacted in state rituals. A complex interaction entailing domination, resistance, integration, and segregation following blurred lines of ethnic and religious affiliations are up to the current period salient features of the social spaces of the region (Condominas 1990).

This research project sets out to explore how the relationships between ethnic minorities in the highlands and the Buddhist groups living in the lowlands of the current Lao PDR have been mediated by Buddhism, its notions of statecraft, and its political technologies of power. From the perspective of the anthropology of the state it explores if and how this statecraft and its practices can be conceptualised as forms of a specific governmentality (Foucault 2007) and internal colonialism aiming at a Buddhification and civilising process of the margins of the state. The project also researches processes of acculturation and the strategies of resistance to this integration into larger state formations (Clastres 1989; Scott 2009). By employing a historical and social anthropological perspective, the present examines a period spanning from the pre-colonial era (19th century) to the current phase of reformed socialism, highlighting perspectives from hegemonic groups and, if historical data is available, minorities. This broad, comparative longue durée perspective for the earlier period is combined with a strong anthropological focus on the present in order to investigate to what extent modern Lao state socialism and its politics of ethnicity and religion are still imbued with older patterns of Buddhist statecraft and its ‘political theology’ (Schmitt 2005). Laos is a privileged field to study these relationships as about 40% of the population are composed of non-Buddhist ethnic minorities. For analysing the transformations and continuities of these ethnic-religious relationships, it is also crucial to look at the massive ruptures in this structural pattern that were brought about by the rise of modern statecraft and the nation state. For example, the intervention of the French colonial forces, the socialist revolution of 1975, and the politics of reformed socialism advanced since the 1990s have significantly altered ethnic relations and the position of Buddhism. Besides focusing on a specific region located in the present Lao PDR, a regional comparative approach will be advanced in order to supplement the data and widen the scope of the project. This takes into consideration that this pattern of ethnic-religious interaction is by no means limited to Laos, but is to be found across an interstate region defined by distinctive agro-ecological, cultural, and political characteristics across parts of mainland Southeast Asia (van Schendel 2002). The north of Thailand, for example, has a very similar ethnic and religious composition and the Thai government officially promoted Buddhification projects for minorities in the 1960s (Tambiah 1976; Keyes 1994).

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