National historiography often takes the form of a single story propagated by those in power, thereby muting alternative experiences of ordinary citizens of these celebrated events. In Laos, the country’s National Day coincided with an international dance festival, showing different ways of recounting histories. In this blogpost Roy Huijsmans suggests that in the creative realm and performing arts we may find articulations of the subjugated narratives of the collective memory of the nation.
When visiting the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) late November 2019 for the Fang Maekhong International Dance Festival I found myself also witnessing the preparations for the celebration of the 44th Lao National Day. Government buildings were being adorned with freshly purchased national flags, always flanked by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party flag in bright red and sporting the familiar hammer and sickle in yellow. There were the inevitable banners, too, carrying slogans celebrating the nation and the progress made under the leadership of the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.
In Lao historiography, the establishment of the Lao PDR is presented as the logical endpoint of a long struggle by the Lao peoples against imperial forces – first French colonial rule, then Lao Royalist Governments backed by the United States of America as part of its broader stakes in the Second Indochinese War. Around each national day (2 December), the various Lao newspapers and television stations contribute their bit to the reproduction of the national narrative, with specials about revolutionary heroes, heroic battles, and by detailing the development progress made under revolutionary rule. The same narrative is presented in school text books, musea, and in public speeches by officials.
All this is not particular to the Lao PDR. National historiography often takes the form of a single story told from the vantage point of the victors. Thereby it silences the many different experiences that were generated by these very same historical events (Evans 1998). For example, the narrative of a united revolutionary struggle against foreign powers and influence hides the many internal conflicts and civil war that were also part of the making of the Lao PDR.
A key element missing from the Lao narrative is the fate of the about 10 per cent of the then population that left the country throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. They left because they found themselves on the wrong side of history or simply escaped the impoverishment and repressive political climate characterising the infant years of the Lao PDR.
Virtually everyone in the today’s Lao PDR knows someone who has fled the country. Stories of flight, refuge, and increasingly also about return are told, yet often in private. These are the stories of uncles and aunts now living in France, the USA, or Australia. These stories have found no place in school textbooks or in any of the official commemorations around the Lao national day. Yet these stories matter because these, too, are a part of the collective memory of the nation.
The arts: subtle propositions going beyond the national narrative
Artistic initiatives are turning the tide to make the voices of migrants and refugees heard, however. Parallel to the preparations for the Lao National Day celebration, Vientiane also witnessed the 10th edition of the Fang Mae Khong International Dance Festival. The French-Lao dancer Thô Anothaï was part of the impressive line-up comprising Lao national and international dancers. In his contemporary dance titled Mekong, Thô enacted his personal experience of fleeing Laos at a young age. Through his dance, by means of movements rooted in hip-hop and contemporary dance, he represented memories of his flight, such as a boats man paddling him across the Mekong River in the deep of the night.
As Thô took the stage, the first lines of a Lao traditional song were played. Soon the music gave way to soundbites of women’s voices in French, Lao, and the Vietnamese language that graphically described moments in the experience of flight and refuge. The song accentuated Thô’s personal account as a Lao story; the women’s voices referenced the broader context of the aftermath of the Second Indochinese War in which we must understand Thô’s experience. Through his performance Thô invited the audience to accompany him in his journey across the Mekong River, recalling his childhood experience of flight expressed through the serene and stunning beauty of his dance.
The themes of flight, refuge and identity are also central to Nith Lacroix’s 2007 documentary film titled Pierre & Pierrot. The film focuses on twin brothers of a French father and a Lao mother who were separated at a young age in their flight across the Mekong River into Thailand.
Thô Anothaï and Nith Lacroix’s artistic work are first and foremost works of art. Yet, by staging their work for audiences in the Lao PDR, the art may become more than just that. For more inclusive celebrations of national events, it is important to recognise the suffering and pain that is also part of the collective memory of the nation.
Evans, G. (1998). The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos since 1975. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
This article is part of a series on Creative Development. Read more articles of this series here.
About the author:
Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.