Despite differences, Nepal and Laos have so much in common, academics of the two countries should meet and compare notes
David N Gellner
Imagine a beautiful mountainous landlocked country squeezed between larger, richer, and more populous neighbours. The country is a tourist paradise, with gorgeous rivers for canoeing and rafting, exquisite countryside for trekking, and, in its few urban centres, ancient Indic temples.
The rivers have great potential for hydro power, only partially exploited. The valleys are sculpted with terraced rice paddies, cows and water buffalo graze on the post-harvest stalks. In winter the valleys fill with mist that is burned off as the day advances. In the hills, and mixed in with each other, the country has over 50 officially recognised ethnic groups and many languages.
During its chequered political history, the country rid itself of its monarchy, thanks to a powerful communist movement. For development it is heavily dependent on foreign ‘donors’. Perinatal maternal mortality is high and in remote areas people are among the poorest in the world, but health and education indicators are going in the right direction.
The country shares a long and effectively open border with its powerful southern neighbour. Many of its citizens work in the neighbour’s factories. Its national language is linguistically close to that of the southern neighbour, its script is similar. Most people speak the southern neighbour’s language. The tv, the films, the music, the magazines, and the literature of the southern neighbour are overwhelmingly dominant. There is a dark side to dependence on the neighbour in that many local girls end up in its brothels.
The country I am describing is not Nepal, but Laos. Its big ‘southern’ (actually southern and western) neighbour is Thailand. A Nepali in Laos would probably feel very much at home, but might wonder at the fact that there are so many cows and buffaloes and no one thinks to milk them. A Laotian in Nepal would wonder at the sight of Nepalis worshipping cows but never think to eat them.
The parallel between Nepal and Laos is not complete. Most strikingly, Laos’s population is only a quarter of Nepal’s in a similar-sized territory. There is far more forest and its cities are less crowded. There is 24-hour electricity (however, most villages remain unconnected to the grid as yet). Laos has borders with five countries (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam), not just a highly asymmetrical border/relationship with just two, as in Nepal’s case.
Laos’s political history is tied to Vietnam rather than Thailand. During the colonial period it was ruled by the French from Hanoi. Laos has a single-party communist regime which retains all ultimate power, despite recent economic liberalisation. Chinese investment in Laos is huge today: in dams, in roads, and in rubber plantations.
Despite these differences, the structural similarities between Laos and Nepal are such that surely it is time for the academics and intellectuals of the two countries to meet and examine them in detail in order to see what each could learn from the other.
Laos has many advantages that Nepal lacks: a relatively small population, a strong and stable (if authoritarian) government, and neighbours that are among the most economically dynamic countries in the world. Nepal, on the other hand, has freedom, including the freedom for political parties to compete and ethnic groups and trades unions to organise. It has a vibrant public sphere with many Nepali-language newspapers and radios.
Nepal has one huge advantage over Laos. Nepal may have suffered a ten-year civil war in which 17,000 died, but Laos has suffered far more and for far longer. In particular, as part of the Vietnam war the USA, in a secret operation, spent $17 million a day for nine years dropping bombs all over Laos in a misguided attempt to wipe out communism. That unexploded ordinance (UXO) is still scattered all over the country and kills or maims 100 Laotians a year. Small NGOs (including the Manchester-based Mines Advisory Group) are doing brilliant work painstakingly clearing the mines, one village at a time, but that work is a drop in the ocean.
Prithvi Narayan Shah famously compared Nepal to a yam between two boulders. For better or worse, Laos is a yam between five boulders – and perhaps, given the legacy of US bombing, that should be six boulders. Whatever USAID is contributing to this effort (said to be a mere $4,000 a day), it is not enough. The United States has never accepted responsibility for what it did, the Laotians are living with the consequences and will be for the foreseeable future.
David N Gellner is a professor at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford.