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Vol. 8, No. 2, NAKATSUJI Susumu


Contents>> Vol. 8, No. 2

Land Use and Land Cover Changes during the Second Indochina War and Their Long-Term Impact on a Hilly Area in Laos

Nakatsuji Susumu*

* 中辻󠄀 享,Faculty of Letters, Konan University, 8–9–1 Okamoto, Higashinada-ku, Kobe,
Hyogo 658–8501, Japan
e-mail: nakatuji[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.8.2_203

Armed conflicts create drastic socioeconomic shocks that lead to land use and land cover changes in ways that are not yet well understood. Several studies have used satellite imagery to detect such changes during periods of conflict. However, there has been an insufficient examination of older conflicts before the 1970s. By examining older conflicts, we can examine the effects of conflict on land use and land cover over a long time span. This study reveals land use and land cover changes during the Second Indochina War (1960–75) and the war’s immediate and long-term effects on land use and land cover by combining an analysis of aerial and satellite photographs with fieldwork. This study concludes that the war created an abnormal situation in which a large number of people from a different ethnic group came to live amongst the original inhabitants of the research site. This led to a unique farming landscape and vast areas of forest destruction. The study also reveals that forest destruction during the war was a significant milestone in the history of the vegetation of the research site, and the vegetative landscape has still not recovered to its prewar condition. These findings, as well as the results of previous research, suggest that we need to be more conscious of the effects of war on forest degradation in Laos.

Keywords: land use, shifting cultivation, Khmu, Hmong, Second Indochina War, Laos, aerial photographs, Corona satellite photographs

I Introduction

Armed conflicts create drastic socioeconomic shocks that lead to land use and land cover changes in ways that are not yet well understood. Research on conflict, land use, and land cover change is still scarce. Most research on the subject has used satellite images taken before, during, and after recent conflicts (after the 1980s) to examine and reveal the changes to land use and land cover on a regional or national scale. According to these studies, armed conflict has an extensive impact on land use and often leads to major changes in vegetation cover. In many cases conflict has been the direct or indirect cause of forest destruction. During conflicts forests are often intentionally destroyed; for example, during the Vietnam War there was widespread defoliation of the forest due to herbicidal chemical agents used in the conflict (Nakamura 2007). In some countries, militaries and guerrillas promote the production of illicit crops or the expansion of cattle ranching in their territory to increase revenue, which in the case of Colombia accounts for the majority of the country’s deforestation (Álvarez 2003; Sánchez-Cuervo and Aide 2013). In the tumultuous period during and immediately after conflicts, there can be an increase in the exploitation of forest resources because weakened governments and communities often lack the stability or power necessary to effectively manage or prevent exploitation (Álvarez 2003; Stevens et al. 2011). Conversely, armed conflicts can also reduce land use pressure, and this can promote vegetation recovery. For example, in some cases guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia sought to preserve forested areas because they required these areas for shelter against air raids, water resources (Álvarez 2003), or corridors to transport weapons and drugs (Sánchez-Cuervo and Aide 2013).

In addition, large-scale population mobility is often cited as a cause of land use and land cover change during conflicts. When people flee the battlefield or are forcibly displaced by the government or military, this generates a change in land use in the battle zone and in the areas where displaced people settle. It has both positive and negative impacts on the environment. In the depopulated areas around the battlefields, vegetation recovery might take place on abandoned agricultural land and homesteads (FAO 2005, 119; Suthakar and Bui 2008; Gorsevski et al. 2013; Sánchez-Cuervo and Aide 2013). In the areas where displaced populations settle, there might be an increase in land use activities such as agriculture, which frequently applies pressure on the local environment, causing a reduction in forest or forest degradation (FAO 2005, 119; Stevens et al. 2011; Gorsevski et al. 2013; Sánchez-Cuervo and Aide 2013; Baumann et al. 2015). Displaced populations can generate land use and land cover changes far from the actual combat zone and in areas that otherwise might not have been affected by the conflict (Baumann et al. 2015).

Although previous studies produced valuable revelations, they had two main shortcomings. First, they did not examine conflicts before the 1970s. This shortcoming was in part due to the research methods used. As the method to reveal land use and land cover change relies mostly on an analysis and comparison of satellite imagery, research could not be conducted for the time before the 1970s, when this technology became available. However, we can research land use before the 1970s with aerial photographs and US reconnaissance satellite photographs (such as the Corona satellite photographs). One of the advantages of examining older conflicts is that we can confirm the effects of conflict on land use and land cover over a long time span, an advantage previous research failed to make use of (ibid.).

Second, most previous studies did not conduct field research at their research site and did not interview the inhabitants. This was partially due to safety reasons: most of the research sites are still conflict zones, even after the signing of peace agreements. Without interviewing local inhabitants, however, we cannot understand the causes, processes, and results of land use and land cover change, because their decisions and actions are important factors (Gorsevski et al. 2013). Examining older conflicts again has an advantage in this regard because conflicts reduce over time, and people become more willing to talk about wartime events.

This study examines the effects of the Second Indochina War (1960–75)1) on land use and land cover in a hilly area of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR),2) by interpreting aerial and satellite photographs and interviewing inhabitants of the research site who lived there during the war. The Second Indochina War is a significant event in the modern history of Laos. It was a conflict between the Royal Lao Government, backed by the United States, and the Communist Pathet Lao, backed by North Vietnam. At the end of the war, similar to the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Communists succeeded with their revolution. The Pathet Lao forced the King to abdicate, and on December 2, 1975 they proclaimed the new nation as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

The war devastated the country, leaving at least 200,000 people dead and twice as many injured from both sides. A large percentage of the population fled the battlefields, and more than half the villages in the country relocated during the war (Goudineau 1997, 10). A quarter of the population, approximately 750,000 people, became internal refugees; and 10 percent of the population, approximately 300,000 people who had supported the Royal Lao Government, fled the country at the end of the war to avoid persecution by the new government. From 1964 to 1973 the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs on the Pathet Lao zone, or more than two tons for every inhabitant. Many of these remain in Laos as unexploded ordinance and to this day continue to cause injuries and deaths (Stuart-Fox 1997; 2010; Sutton et al. 2010).

Ethnic groups living in the hills suffered the most from this war. Their livelihoods depend on the production of upland rice in the hills of the northern and eastern parts of the country. For these groups neither “revolution” nor “freedom,” the battle cries of both sides of the war, was appealing. Nonetheless, they were heavily involved in the war because their land was a main part of the battlefield. They were forced to provide food and other essential supplies when military forces from either side entered their villages. Many of their villages were ordered to relocate by forces from both sides.3) When they became caught up in the battles on the ground or bombed from the air if they were not killed first, they were forced to flee deeper into the hills or to refugee camps designated by the Royal Lao Government (Stuart-Fox 1997, 135–167; 2010, 207–254).

The Hmong were the worst afflicted group in this war. Some were forced to fight against the Pathet Lao as members of the “Secret Army,” which was organized following the advice and funding of the CIA. Many Hmong inhabitants near the Plain of Jars in Xiang Khuang Province (Fig. 1, later), one of the bloodiest battlefields, were involved in the war, and it has been estimated that 10 percent of the Hmong people died during the war. Following the establishment of the socialist state in 1975 and the failed revolt in 1976–78,4) thousands of Hmong fled the country to become refugees. There were approximately 120,000 Hmong refugees, which was more than one-third of the Hmong population in Laos in the early 1970s (Stuart-Fox 1997, 135–177; 2010, 207–268).

As can be expected from the great population mobility described above, this violent war caused great land use changes in the country. Some researchers have argued that the war devastated the forests of Laos. Examining their research, it turns out that the causes of the war-related forest destruction in Laos were similar to the causes discovered for the other countries mentioned above. G. Lacombe et al. (2010) argue that the aerial bombardment of large areas of southern Laos directly destroyed the forest, which led to a sharp increase in runoff into the lower Mekong basin from the early 1970s, when the bombing climaxed. The war also indirectly destroyed the forest. Fujita Yayoi et al. (2007) conclude that throughout the 1960s and 1970s the war prevented the government from developing any consistent or coherent forest management policies, turning the forest into an open-access resource. The forest of their research was destroyed by commercial logging interests during and after the war. They also point out that the war disrupted the customary resource management systems of local communities, which enabled migrants to clear vast tracts of forest for shifting cultivation. The collapse of customary resource management systems and the exploitation of forest resources in the absence of any long-term strategies by villagers and external invaders were also visible immediately after the war, as Thatheva Saphangthong and Kono Yasuyuki (2009) have demonstrated.

Massive population movements also contributed to land use and land cover changes in wartime Laos. Previous research has shown the increased land pressure and subsequent forest decline and degradation in the areas where displaced people settled. For example, Jean-Christophe Castella et al. (2013, 68) note the forest degradation in the remote areas of their research site after villagers fleeing the bombings and armed conflicts relocated their settlements to new areas deep inside the forest and cleared large tracts of forest vegetation for collective farming. Sithong Thongmanivong et al. (2005) and Fujita et al. (2007) examine the deforestation from the expansion of shifting cultivation, which was caused by a population increase (the population more than doubled) in the 1960s from an influx of migrants escaping wartime disruption and bombings. Mats Sandewall et al. (1998, 48-49) also report that in their research site most of the increases in shifting cultivation area and decreases in forestland occurred during the 1960s and 1970s rather than later. This forest loss is related to the intensive population movements during the war. Grant Evans (1995, 39–40, 80) argues that from the mid-1960s refugee mobility was the main cause of the increase in land pressure on the Vientiane Plain.5) According to the older farmers he interviewed, since that time areas of forest that were inhabited by deer and monkeys have been destroyed. In contrast, Lacombe et al. (2010) argue that the wartime exodus should have regenerated the vegetation on the abandoned agricultural land.

These studies confirm that the effects of the war were significant, and it is essential to consider this to understand livelihoods, land use, and forest in Laos today (Fujita et al. 2007; see also Baird and Le Billon 2012). However, so far wartime land use and land cover changes have either been briefly analyzed, or analyzed with insufficient evidence. This is partially because only one or two aerial photographs or satellite images that were taken before the 1970s are used, and war-related land use and land cover changes are not visualized or quantified. This study aims to reveal the land use and land cover changes by using as many relevant photographs as possible, including aerial photographs and satellite images taken since the 1980s to examine the effects of the war over a long time span. As a result, the time span of the research is approximately 70 years, from 1945 to 2011.

To investigate the causes, processes, and effects of land use and land cover changes detected from an interpretation of the photographs, this study incorporates detailed field research, including interviews with inhabitants.

II Research Site and Method

(1) Research Site

The research site of this study is the territory of Village A (encompassing an area of about 20 km2),6) which is located 17 km to the south of Luang Prabang town, the largest town in northern Laos, and is part of Xiengngeun District, Luang Prabang Province (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). The main settlement area of the village is located 835 m above sea level, 400–500 m higher than the neighboring lowland villages. The population in 2014 was 222 people within 46 households, almost all of whom belonged to the Khmu ethnic group.


Fig. 1 The Location of the Research Site


Fig. 2 Research Site

Sources: Photointerpretation by the author, DSM data from National Geographic Department, Laos.
(For color version of this figure, see the online version of this article.)


The Khmu are one of the main hill peoples of northern Laos. Their livelihood consists mainly of rice production by the shifting cultivation system; this is true also for the inhabitants of Village A. The significance of upland rice in their agriculture was revealed in land use research by the author in 2005: of the 99 ha of upland fields in the village, 82 ha were planted with rice mainly for subsistence,7) 14 ha were planted with maize for animal feed, and 3 ha were cultivated with Job’s tears for sale.8) Paddies located along the stream near the village settlement (Fig. 3, later) covered only 3 ha and were managed by only seven households (Nakatsuji 2010). According to villagers, the predominance of upland rice and relatively low significance of other cash crops in their farming system did not change throughout the research period (1945–2011).

These crops have been planted in different topographies and soil types. According to the villagers, maize, chili, and peanut are well suited to the reddish soil on a karst hill9) to the west of the village, which constitutes the highest area (Fig. 2, Fig. 3). This was confirmed by land use maps produced during the author’s previous research, which demonstrated that the maize fields in 2005 and 2009 were distributed mainly on the slopes of the hill (ibid.; Nakatsuji 2013a). On the other hand, rice is suited to, and thus planted in, the blackish soil on the gentle slopes of the hills around the village settlement.

Each household has several plots of lands that it customarily has a right to use.10) This land use right was officially admitted by the Land Use Planning and Land Allocation program implemented by the government of Xiengngeun District in 2004.11) There are large areas of land that are not yet allocated to anyone due to the remoteness of them. These are actually communal lands of the village, in which villagers can forage, let cattle roam, get timber for building, and even make fields if they are not reluctant to walk a long distance to farm. The upper land of the karst hill studied in detail below is also in this kind of area.

(2) Method

(a) Interpretation of Aerial Photographs and Satellite Images

Table 1 illustrates the aerial photographs and satellite images used in this study and previous research. To reveal changes in land use and land cover during wartime and their long-term effects, this study gathered as many old photographs of the research site as possible. For photographs and images before the 1970s (which were indispensable for analyzing changes in land use and land cover during wartime), this study uses images taken in four different years, whereas previous research used images taken in two or fewer years.


Table 1 Aerial Photographs and Satellite Images Used in This Paper and Previous Research


In total, this study uses photographs and images from eight different years over a time span of nearly 70 years. The aerial photographs of 1945 and 1959 were obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States, and the images from 1982, 1998, and 2013 were obtained from the National Geographic Department of Laos. These were not hard-copy prints but digital formatted scans to realize a higher resolution.

Three Corona satellite photographs from 1967 and seven KH-9 satellite photographs from December 1975 were obtained from the United States Geological Survey. Although their resolution was lower than the aerial photographs, they provided valuable data on land use and land cover in the 1960s and 1970s that was not available from the aerial images.

For the analysis of more recent land use and vegetation, this study used both high-resolution satellite images taken by WorldView-2 in 2011 and aerial photographs from 2013.

These photographs and images were orthorectified using the 2013 photographs as references,12) and the land use—including settlements, paddies, and upland fields—was digitized to reveal the distribution and area of each type at each point in time. When detecting the types of land use, cross-checks were possible because there were usually other overlapping photographs available for the same point in time. For 1945, in addition to the usual vertical photographs, oblique photographs were available; these were also useful in detecting and verifying the different types of land use.

As a result, the settlements and fields of the research site were digitized for seven points in time: 1945, 1959, 1967, 1975, 1982, 1998, and 2011.13) Fig. 3 (later) and Table 2 (later) show land use in 2005, data for which was gathered by the author’s GPS survey conducted in that year (Nakatsuji 2010).

In addition to changes in land use, changes in vegetation were also assessed—mainly on a 2.24 km2 area of the upper part of the karst hill to the west of the settlement of Village A (Fig. 2). Vegetation and land use for each point in time were classified into four categories: forest, bush, grass, and field. The first three categories were classified in accordance with the Modified UNESCO Classification (MUC) (The GLOBE Program 2000). Forest in this research corresponds to “trees” in the MUC system, in which more than 40 percent of the site is covered by a canopy of trees that are at least 5 meters tall. It includes both primary forest and old fallows in the research site. Bush corresponds to “shrubland” in the MUC, in which more than 40 percent of the ground is covered by clumped woody plants 0.5 to 5 meters tall. In the research site, it usually refers to two- to six-year fallows consisting mainly of trees. Grass corresponds to “herbaceous vegetation” in the MUC, in which ground coverage of herbaceous vegetation is greater than 60 percent. It usually refers to one- to three-year fallows in the research site. Some places retain grass or bush for longer periods, for burning or animal grazing or because the soil becomes exhausted from continuous cultivation on the same land. The upper land on the karst hill is also a place where vegetation recovery has been delayed due to such reasons.

From 2012, during exploration in and around the research site, the author observed and recorded the types of vegetation in several areas. By examining how the vegetation of these places looked in the satellite images of 2011 and the aerial photographs of 2013, the author improved his ability to accurately detect vegetation types from aerial and satellite images. In the Corona and KH-9 satellite photographs, however, it was difficult to differentiate between forests and bush due to their low resolution (Fig. 5, later).

(b) Field Survey

The field data used in this study was collected mainly in February and September 2015 and February 2016, although some data was collected from earlier research as the author began research in Village A in 2005. Interviews were conducted with inhabitants in and around the research site to obtain information on its historical development and changes in demography, livelihoods, and land use. As for the abandoned villages of the research site, most of them were visited and information on them—such as demography, periods of existence, and reasons for abandonment—was collected by interviewing older people who remembered them.

For demographic data, the number of households in the villages was determined for each year that the aerial photographs and satellite images were taken. For Khmu villages, the numbers of households in 1961, 1963, and 1975 were determined and then those in 1959 and 1967 were estimated from the results. This is because important events occurred at the research site in these years14) and thus interviewees could easily recall these years. The numbers of households in the Hmong villages in 1967 and 1975 were determined from an interview with an elderly Hmong man who had resided in Village J during that period (see footnote 33).

For the number of households in 1982, the study used the number of houses noted on the 1:100,000 topographical map as it was produced in 1983 by the National Geographic Department in Laos using aerial photographs from 1982. The numbers of households for the years after 1998 were acquired from population statistics developed by the government office of Xiengngeun District.

Data on the population for the years after 1998 was also acquired from the statistics. The population for the years before 1982 was calculated by multiplying the number of households by the number of persons per household. For Khmu households, the average number of persons per household in 1998 (6.8) was used to estimate the population in the previous years. For Hmong households, eight persons per household was assumed to estimate the figures in 1967 and 1975.15)

III Results

(1) Changes in Population and Land Use

Fig. 3 shows bird’s-eye views of the settlements, upland fields, and paddies in each year, while Table 2 illustrates the relationship between the number of households and the area of the fields for each year. With these measurements, alongside the local interviews, the history of the demographic and land use changes of the research site can reasonably be divided into three periods: prewar (1945–59), wartime (1960–75), and postwar (1976–present).


Fig. 3 Changes in Land Use in the Research Site (1945–2011)

Sources: Photointerpretation by the author, DSM data from National Geographic Department, Laos.
Notes: 1) Fields in 2005 were surveyed by the author with GPS in that year.
2) The location of Village J was not identified by photointerpretation but by exploration with a native guide.
3) Village L consisted of two settlements located close to each other.
(For color version of this figure, see the online version of this article.)


Table 2 Villages, Households, and Fields at Each Point in Time


(a) Prewar Period (1945–59)

During this period there were three Khmu villages at the research site: Village A, Village B, and Village C. Village A and Village B are older villages, and no one was certain about the dates of their establishment. These villages existed in both 1945 and 1959, although Village A had moved 800 m to the west in the interim period.

Village C was built at the beginning of the 1940s by migrants from a village 10 km to the southwest. Due to a disease outbreak in 1956, the village then relocated 1 km to the southeast, outside of the research site (Village E in Fig. 2).

The number of households in 1959 was estimated by interviewees and verified by aerial photographs: 17 in Village A and 5 in Village B. The number of households in 1945 is unknown, although it was estimated that there were approximately 30 households in the three villages at that time.

(b) Wartime (1960–75)

The circumstances of the research site changed dramatically in 1961. By order of the Royal Lao Army, Village A and Village B were relocated to Village D, which is 10–11 km to the north of the two villages. This occurred immediately after a surprise attack by the Royal Lao Army on Village F (Fig. 2), where two Pathet Lao soldiers were living.16) The relocation was to prevent villagers supporting Pathet Lao soldiers who might still enter the research site.17) After the attack, a Royal Lao Army base was built near the northeastern border of the research site.18) These actions could be interpreted as an effort to destroy the influence of the Pathet Lao in this region.

In 1963 both villages returned from Village D to the research site, but because both of the original settlements had been burned by the Royal Lao Army, new ones were built. From the old site, Village A and Village B were rebuilt 300 m to the east and 1.4 km to the east, respectively. Simultaneously, seven households from Village E, which had also relocated to Village D in 1961, left and migrated to the research site. Two of these joined the new Village A, and the other five built Village G, 1.8 km to the east of the new Village A site. As a result, there were about 30 Khmu households in the three villages in 1963.

At the beginning of the 1960s, there was also a massive inflow of settlers and more than 100 Hmong households migrated to the research site around 1962–63. They came from villages 20–50 km to the southeast of Village A, after fleeing a severe assault by the Pathet Lao army. At first they attempted to settle in Village H,19) a Hmong village to the north of the research site (Fig. 2), but the village did not have enough space for the number of migrants. Therefore, they built their own village, Village I, 2 km to the south, at the foot of the karst hill (Fig. 2, Fig. 3).20) In addition, around 1964–65 five Hmong households migrated from a village 20 km south to build Village J21) on the karst hill (Fig. 2, Fig. 3). According to a former inhabitant of Village J, there were 100 households in 1967 in Village I and 20 in Village J. Together with the Khmu households, this brought the total number of households within the research site in 1967 to 150.

This population increase was reflected in the size of upland fields: in 1967 the latter suddenly increased to 221 ha, which historically was by far the largest size of the fields (Fig. 3, Fig. 4). Characteristic of the land use in 1967 was the distribution of upland fields, and this was the only year that the upper area of the karst hill in the west of the research site was extensively cultivated. In the other years studied, unlike the lower slopes at the foot of the hill, this area was rarely cultivated. The reason for this will be discussed in the next section.


Fig. 4 The Corona Satellite Photograph of 1967

Corona satellite photograph obtained from USGS.


Another change that occurred in the mid-1960s was the creation of paddies, which was started by the Khmu in Village A. Creation of rice paddies was popular at the time among villages on the floodplain of the Khan River (Fig. 2), and this inspired the residents of Village A to create paddies along the streams of the highlands (Fig. 3). This may have been done also because of the population increase during this period and the subsequent land scarcity.22)

Between 1968 and 1972, the region around the research site was occasionally bombed. The targets were the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese forces that hid in the forests and campaigned in the region for their revolution. Consequently, by order of the Royal Lao Government, the residents of Village A were again forced to relocate in 1971, to Village K in the lowlands along the Khan River (Fig. 2).23) This was partially to evacuate the villagers from the battlefield and partially to eliminate any possible connection with the Pathet Lao. However, the villagers remained in Village K for only one year, returning to the research site in 1972.24)

By the mid-1970s, after the ceasefire agreement was signed in 1973 and after the Pathet Lao seized power in 1975, most of the Hmong had left the research site. Many of them went to Thailand, while others returned to their home villages where they had lived before the war. Village I could not be discerned from the KH-9 satellite images of December 1975. Only the Hmong villages of Village L25) and Village M could be discerned in that image, and each of these villages contained only about 10 households (Fig. 3). These villages were built by the former residents of Village I and Village J, existed for a few years, and by 1977 were abandoned.26)

(c) Postwar Period (1976–Present)

After December 1975 the research site was gradually integrated into the structure of the new socialist regime. The new government, like the former leaders, promoted village consolidation through the relocation of small villages to larger ones in order to govern rural areas more easily and effectively. Around 1976, eight Khmu households from Village B moved to Village A by order of the new government. There were four Hmong households still living in Village J after the other Hmong households had left the research site. These households were registered as residents of Village A in 1978 and moved to this settlement in 1982.27) As a result, after 1982 there was only one village left at the research site.28)

After the formation of the new regime, in the late 1970s there was resistance to the new government across the country. In 1977 the former Hmong members of the Royal Lao Army, the Chao Fa, revolted against the new regime in the highlands to the west of the research site.29) During this battle some residents of Village A took refuge for one month in the lowland Village K30) (Fig. 2). The government ruthlessly suppressed the revolt in 1978, and since then there has been no conflict in this region.

During peacetime the number of households in Village A continued to rise in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching 67 in 1998, when the area of upland fields was 132 ha. This was the second-highest rate in both demography and land use.

However, many households left Village A between 2000 and 2004 to live in lowland villages such as Village K, and in 2005 the number of households in Village A dropped by 50 percent to 34. This was caused partially by conflict and division within the village and partially by the villagers’ desire for infrastructure, such as electricity, available in the lowlands (Nakatsuji 2010). Notwithstanding this major decline, the population has since recovered: in 2011 there were 42 households, and in 2014 there were 46.31)

Village A relocated only once during the postwar period. The village moved 600 m to the west in 2005, partially due to many successive deaths in the old village (which villagers associated with an evil spirit living close by) and partially because of the government order to move to the current location.32)

(2) Land Use of the Hmong

As mentioned above, land use in 1967 was quite characteristic in terms of coverage and distribution. This year had the largest area of upland fields, and unlike other years, the upper land on the karst hill in the west of the research site was largely cultivated. This is considered representative of the Hmong’s land use because 80 percent of the households in 1967 were Hmong whereas the Khmu accounted for most or all of the households living in the research site in the other years (Table 2).

Based on the statements of an elderly Hmong man who had previously lived in Village J, their characteristic land use can be analyzed in detail.33) According to this man, the most important crops when he lived in Village J were rice, opium poppy, and maize, and fields of each were planted in different places. Among the three crops rice was the staple food, and he cultivated 2 ha of it every year for his household, which had more than 10 members at that time. It was cultivated on the slopes of the hills between Village A and Village I or at the foot of the karst hill.

On the other hand, opium and maize were planted on the upper land of the karst hill, as these crops, unlike rice, suited the reddish soil found on the hill. Furthermore, the topography was suitable for opium cultivation as there were depressions or valleys in the upper area of the hill where fog often accumulated. Opium was then a high-priced cash crop and was usually cultivated in two fields of about 0.2 ha each. The interviewee carried his opium harvest on his back to sell at a local market in Luang Prabang town.34)

Maize was planted on the ridges and upper slopes of the hill, which were unsuitable for opium. The main variety planted was for pigs’ feed, sali khaw in the Lao language, although varieties for human consumption were also planted. The area of cultivation was as large as 2–3 ha, as this villager needed a large quantity of feed for his pigs, which, not counting the piglets, usually numbered 50–60. He sold 10–20 pigs per year to his neighbors, and together with opium they were a good source of income. Every household in Village I and Village J engaged in this kind of pig rearing and maize cultivation at the time.

This information demonstrated that the fields on the upper land of the karst hill in 1967 were planted mainly with opium and maize, and they contributed to the size of the agricultural area. As mentioned above, the Khmu in Village A also knew that the reddish soil on the ridges and slopes of the karst hill suited maize rather than rice and so they planted maize on the lower slopes of the hill. However, their cultivation of maize was never as extensive as the Hmong’s, and they rarely planted it on the ridges or upper slopes. This is because they did not invest in pig rearing and did not plant feed crop on the upper land of the hill as it was more than 100 m higher in altitude than Village A and reaching it required a steep climb. Their cultivation of opium poppy was also minimal, even before the complete ban on its cultivation in the mid-1990s. This explains why the upper land of the karst hill was rarely used other than in 1967.

As previous research has already pointed out (Kunstadter and Chapman 1978; Cooper 2008), opium, maize, and rice are indispensable to the Hmong economy, and the Hmong prefer the reddish soil on the high-level karst hills for cultivating the former two crops. This study has been able to demonstrate the difference in land use between the two ethnic groups by comparing land use maps at various points in time.

(3) Changes in Vegetation

This sub-section is an investigation of how the changes in land use affected vegetation over short and long time spans. By reviewing the above-mentioned land on the karst hill, the effects of land use by the Hmong can be understood. Fig. 5 illustrates the vegetation and land use of the 2.24 km2 area of the upper land of the hill (Fig. 2) at seven different points in time between 1945 and 2011, while Table 3 indicates the percentages of vegetation and land use at each point. This data suggests the following points.


Fig. 5 Changes in Vegetation and Land Use on the Karst Hill in the Research Site (1945–2011)

Source: Photointerpretation by the author.
(For color version of this figure, see the online version of this article.)


Table 3 Changes in Ratio of Each Vegetation and Land Use on the Karst Hill in Village A(%)


First, we can deduce that Hmong land use in the 1960s caused deforestation on a much greater scale than at any other point in time. Although the land was never left completely idle, it was rarely used in both 1945 and 1959, and this created a high rate of above 70 percent forest vegetation. However, by 1967 a significant amount of the land that had been covered by forest in 1959 was being used as fields or had turned into grass vegetation. Between these years, the rate of arboreal vegetation (forest and bush) declined by 30 percent. Older men in Village A confirmed the deforestation in the 1960s. According to them, the majority of forests on the hill were cleared for the first time by Hmong migrants. They added that the old forests within the research site had reduced during this time because of this pioneering land use.35)

The forest-destructive and resource-exploitative nature of Hmong’s land use has often been cited in previous research. Hmong were engaged in pioneer shifting cultivation, preferring to clear primeval forests that had never been cut down. They continuously cultivated opium, depleting nutrients in the soil, which led to fallow land covered with Imperata cylindrica that delayed forest regeneration; and they relocated their village every 6–15 years to clear old forests, leaving very little forest behind them (Keen 1978; Kunstadter and Chapman 1978; Cooper 2008). In this study, these characteristics of land use appeared more extensively because more than 100 Hmong households from several villages gathered to live in one area due to the war.36)

Second, there was a high predominance of grassland (more than 30 percent) between the 1970s and 1990s and bush (more than 25 percent) between the 1980s and first decade of the twenty-first century. The first reason for this was the resource-exploitative land use of the Hmong. As mentioned above, their continuous cultivation of opium and maize led to fallow lands covered with Imperata cylindrica that delayed forest regeneration (Keen 1978; Kunstadter and Chapman 1978; Cooper 2008). The slow forest recovery was discussed by the inhabitants of Village A. Regenerated trees on the karst hill remained thin even decades after the last cultivation of opium and maize by the Hmong.37)

The demand for grass to make thatch was another reason why the grassland south of the hill was extended and maintained between the 1970s and 1990s. According to a man in Village A, in the 1960s most of the southern part of the hill had been cultivated with opium and maize for four or five successive years. After that, following two or three years of fallow period, Imperata cylindrica covered most of the area. As this type of grass is a good material for thatching houses, barns, and huts, residents of Village A have maintained the grassland ever since and designated it as communal land, so all residents have the right to gather grass. In April every year, the grassland is burned to maintain the grass vegetation and promote the growth of young leaves.

Another reason for the high levels of grassland was continued opium cultivation. In 1982 small fields of opium and maize were formed in the south of the hill (Fig. 5), and four Hmong households still lived in the research site at this time. They continued to cultivate opium and taught the cultivation methods to some of the Khmu households. The expansion of grass vegetation in the late 1970s and early 1980s is partially attributed to this continued opium cultivation.38)

Third, the grasslands have gradually reduced since the 1990s, and by 2011 the forest had increased to cover more than half the area once again. Overall, this vegetation recovery was a result of the lower demand for land use on the hill, which was partially because no residents had cultivated opium on the land since the mid-1990s when a complete opium ban was enforced.39) It was also partially due to a reduction in demand for Imperata cylindrica after the increase in tile and zinc roofing.40)

Nevertheless, the vegetation has never recovered to the levels of the 1940s and 1950s, before the Hmong’s arrival in the area. Their arrival was a turning point in the vegetation history of the research site. In 1959, 75 percent of fields on the upper land of the hill that they farmed in 1967 were covered in forest vegetation. The vegetation has not fully recovered to its former state. In 2011 only 31 percent of the fields of 1967 had returned to forest vegetation, and the remainder was grass or bush vegetation.

IV Discussion

In this section, the characteristics of land use during wartime are compared to both pre- and postwar periods. After that, the immediate and long-term effects of changes in land use and land cover during wartime are discussed.

First, during wartime the settlements of the research site were built, moved, or abandoned far more frequently and dynamically than during other periods. This drastically changed the population and land use of the research site. Typical examples of the settlement dynamics were the relocation of the two Khmu villages to a lowland village between 1961 and 1963 and the inflow and outflow of more than 100 Hmong households in the 1960s and 1970s. The inflow of Hmong changed the land use both quantitatively and qualitatively, due to their large population size and their cultural differences from the original Khmu residents on the site.

The characteristics of the settlement dynamics of this period are closely correlated to the war. In the case of the two examples above, the former was a forced relocation by the government of the time to prevent residents from supporting and assisting the enemy, and the latter was the inflow of people fleeing battles and then leaving when the war ended.41)

In contrast, although settlements relocated in the prewar period, this was not as frequent and was only within a short distance, often less than a few kilometers. Moreover, prewar inflows to and outflows from the research site did not affect land use as much, as they involved a smaller population of the same ethnic group (Khmu).

During the postwar period villages of the research site merged into the single Khmu village, whose population increased steadily until the early years of the twenty-first century, when it halved due to the migration of many households to the lowlands. However, this population change was not as large as the changes during wartime.

Second, the population movement during wartime seriously damaged the forest vegetation of the research site. The forest had decreased by half, while the grassland and bush had greatly increased on the upper land of the hill studied. This was because Hmong migrants cleared the forest on land that had rarely been used before and cultivated opium and maize for many successive years.

As mentioned in the introduction, this type of forest destruction from the wartime exodus has been noted in several studies on Laos. Migrants used areas that were seldom used, and this reclamation of unused land was often accompanied by a vast amount of forest loss or degradation. By using the method of combining photointerpretation and interviews, this study has confirmed this with detailed data.

Third, this study has demonstrated that the changes in land use during wartime affected land use and land cover long after the war ended. Hmong’s land use during wartime influenced land use and land cover after their exodus from the research site. Because their cultivation method depended on the repeated use of the same land, soil was easily exhausted or eroded, especially in the karst environment.42) This is the first reason why the forest on the karst hill in the present study was slow to recover after the war. The second reason is that Hmong’s land use influenced the land use of the remaining Khmu even after most of the former had fled the research site. Their land use resulted in the creation of extensive grassland, part of which has been inherited and maintained by the Khmu because it is a good source of thatching material. Hmong also contributed to the postwar grassland expansion by teaching the opium cultivation method to some Khmu households. The vast destruction of forests during wartime was a turning point in the history of the vegetation of the research site, and even though the war ended more than 40 years ago the forests have never recovered to prewar conditions.

Many researchers associate forest decline or degradation in Laos with developments since the 1980s, and especially since the economic liberalization that began in the late 1980s. These developments include unsustainable wood extraction (Sithong et al. 2005; Singh 2009; 2012, 103–108), expansion of cash crop cultivation (Nakatsuji 2004; Thoumthone et al. 2016), industrial tree plantations (Cohen 2009), and infrastructure development such as mining and hydropower. However, as this study has demonstrated, there is substantial evidence that the forest decline or degradation began during the war. This study has also demonstrated that the war indirectly caused extensive clearing of old forest and changed vegetative landscapes until long after the war had ended. This suggests that there is a need to evaluate the forest-cover changes during wartime if we are to understand the ways in which forestland has been lost or degraded in Laos.

V Conclusion

This study revealed land use changes over 70 years at a research site in northern Laos by combining an analysis of aerial and satellite photographs with fieldwork. Specifically, it revealed changes in land use during the Second Indochina War and the immediate and long-term effects of these changes. The research demonstrated that the war created an abnormal situation in which a large number of people from a different ethnic group came to live amongst the original inhabitants of the research site. This led to a unique farming landscape and vast areas of forest destruction during the war. The research also demonstrated that the wartime forest destruction was a significant milestone in the history of the vegetation of the research site, and the vegetative landscape has still not recovered. These findings, as well as those of previous research, suggest that we need to be more conscious of the effects of the war when we analyze forest degradation in Laos.

Similar research is necessary for other regions in Laos to understand further war-related land use and land cover changes, and their long-term effects. Research is necessary to analyze the land use and land cover changes in the destinations and origins of wartime migrants. As discussed in the introduction, several studies from other countries have revealed vegetation recovery in areas where people fled during wartime. This phenomenon probably occurred during and after the war in Laos. Lacombe et al. (2010), using longitudinal hydrological data in a catchment of the Mekong River in northern Laos, argue that during the war the forests should have regenerated on the abandoned cultivated lands in the areas where the wartime migrants were originally based. For a full understanding of wartime forest cover changes in Laos, detailed research on the land that wartime migrants left behind is necessary.

Accepted: December 11, 2018


I appreciate the long-term assistance by the staff of the Faculty of Social Sciences, National University of Laos, especially Dr. Khammany Soulideth and Mr. Oudone Vongsommy. I also thank Dr. Kobayashi Shigeru, Professor Emeritus at Osaka University, for advising me to search aerial photographs at the National Archives and Records Administration and Dr. Narumi Kunitada, Professor at Konan University, for assisting me in searching them. I am grateful to the referees for their constructive comments that helped improve this paper considerably. This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Numbers JP24240115, JP25580178, JP16K01227, JP16H01963.


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1) This name is used as it is more inclusive than “the Vietnam War,” since the war spilled over into Laos and Cambodia (Stuart-Fox 2001, 274–275).

2) This has been the official title of the Lao state since December 2, 1975. Hereinafter, this study uses the general name of the country, “Laos,” except when referring to the state or government.

3) The Royal Lao Government frequently relocated villages it suspected of being supportive of the Communists, into government-controlled areas (Baird and Le Billon 2012, 295).

4) This revolt was fought by the Chao Fa, fighters who were recruited from the former Hmong members of the CIA’s Secret Army. To suppress this revolt, the military of the new regime and its Vietnamese allies used artillery and air strikes, killing thousands of Hmong people (Stuart-Fox 1997, 176–177; 2010, 267–268).

5) Thirty-five thousand people relocated to Vientiane Province in 1971 alone (Evans 1995, 39).

6) Between 1994 and 1998, the boundary of Village A was demarcated by the Land Use Planning and Land Allocation program for the first time (Nakatsuji 2013b). Before that, there were no clear boundaries for most of the villages in the research site mentioned in this study.

7) Some households grew rice also for sale. According to the author’s research in 2005, of the 34 households in the village, 13 sold rice to people both inside and outside the village (Nakatsuji 2010).

8) Nakatsuji Susumu (2004) describes Job’s tears cultivation in the region around Village A; Ochiai Yukino (2002) discusses the reasons why this minor crop has been cultivated in a large area of northern Laos.

9) This hill is located on the south side of Phou Phaxang Noy massif mentioned in Kiernan (2009, 71–72). See also the approximate extent of limestone in Laos mapped in Kiernan (2012, 226).

10) Prior to 1975, the King of Laos was considered the ultimate owner of all the land. When the Lao PDR was founded, landownership was transferred from the King to the people, represented by the state (Ducourtieux et al. 2005, 502). Therefore, it is more appropriate to state that villagers have land use rights on lands than that they own lands.

11) According to the author’s previous research (Nakatsuji 2013b), the number of allocated plots in the Land Allocation program was usually limited to four in the lowland villages along the Khan River (Fig. 2). In contrast, no limitation was imposed on the number of allocated plots in Village A due to the large area and small population of the village. Villagers were allocated as many plots of land as they wished to have, if they could afford to pay tax for them.

12) The 2013 aerial photographs were already orthorectified by the National Geographic Department, which stated that the pixel size was 50 cm and the locational accuracy of the pixels was 1–2 m on flat areas (Lao PDR, National Geographic Department 2014). Due to this high accuracy, they were used as reference images to orthorectify older aerial and satellite photographs for this research.

13) From the aerial photographs of 1945, 1959, and 1982, only the detection of upland fields in the previous years (1944, 1958, and 1981) was possible because these photographs were all taken in February, when field preparation for the current year was not complete (Table 1).

14) In 1961 and 1963 villagers in Village A and Village B moved from and returned to the research site, respectively (this is discussed below). In 1975 the Communist revolution succeeded and the new state was created. For 1961, the number of households recalled by the interviewees was verified by aerial photographs taken in 1959, which had such a high resolution that the number of houses in each village could be counted.

15) This supposition was based on Keen (1978, 221), in which he guessed eight persons per household may well be the right figure for the Hmong in Thailand overall.

16) In this battle, six civilian residents of Village F died while the two soldiers survived. All the survivors subsequently abandoned the village and fled to villages to the north.

17) According to the older villagers, residents of Village A supported the Pathet Lao Army and most of them were on its side during the war.

18) The base existed for five years. In 1964 another base was built 700 m to the southeast of Village A (at that time) to defend the region against the Pathet Lao.

19) According to a Hmong man who had lived in Village J, Village H was abandoned in 1974 and, like the Hmong migrants, most of the residents went to Thailand.

20) It is unknown whether they selected the resettlement location by themselves or were advised by the government or the military. We can only surmise that their resettlement might have been related to the efforts of the Royal Lao Government to strengthen its control over the region around the research site. This supposition is based on the fact that these Hmong sympathized with the government. As mentioned below, when the new Communist government was formed in 1975, many of them crossed the Mekong River into Thailand while others even participated in a revolt against the new regime during 1977 and 1978. It is possible that they were “strategically” resettled (Fujita et al. 2007, 82) under the direction of the Royal Lao Government to strengthen its control over the region.

21) This village was not identified by photointerpretation but by exploration with a native guide. The author identified traces of house floors, leveled by digging, at the location shown in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3. These traces are typical of abandoned Hmong villages, as Hmong traditionally build houses directly on the ground, while other groups, such as the Khmu, build houses with raised floors.

22) An elderly man in Village A stated that 100 households could earn a living through shifting cultivation on the land of Village A (the research site). However, in the mid–1960s the number of households in the site greatly exceeded 100. Thus, paddy creation could be interpreted as a strategy by the villagers to solve the problem of land scarcity through an intensification of agriculture. According to the author’s 2005 survey, the harvest from paddies in Village A was 2.7 tons per hectare, while that from upland rice fields was 1.2 tons per hectare (Nakatsuji 2010).

23) From 1969 to 1972, the area between Xiengngeun and Muang Nan, which includes the lowlands along the Khan River, was designated as a refugee relocation site. A 60 km roadway connecting Xiengngeun with Muang Nan was constructed, along which 3,700 internal refugees from across northern Laos settled in 18 villages and received aid including food, clothing, building materials, and other essentials (Embassy of the USA 1972). It appears that due to their relocation to this area, the residents of Village A were also treated as internal refugees and received aid.

24) Around this time, by order of the Royal Lao Government, all of the five households in Village G moved to Village A. According to the older men in Village A today, the government promoted village consolidation because it felt that the villagers were more likely to support and assist the Pathet Lao if their villages remained small and dispersed.

25) This village had two settlements, but one chief governed both of them.

26) Despite supposed land pressure and forest degradation resulting from the Hmong’s migration, no conflict between the original Khmu and the Hmong migrants was mentioned in the interviews. According to the elderly men in Village A, several Khmu people were hired as wage laborers in the Hmong opium fields. Some Khmu even had friendly relations with the Hmong, and they held feasts together on special occasions. The generosity of the Hmong was often discussed: they gave rice, vegetables, or even small pigs as gifts if requested by their Khmu friends.

27) The Hmong households left Village A; the last household left in 1992.

28) Similar incidents of village consolidation in Nan District, the neighboring district of Xiengngeun District, were depicted also by Sandewall et al. (1998, 33), in which the authors stated that the government urged those who were living in scattered small hamlets to move into any solid villages based on their own preference.

29) According to older men in Village A, residents in Village L and Village M also became members of Chao Fa and fought in the revolt. This revolt is discussed in Stuart-Fox (1997, 176–177; 2010, 267–268), and Sandewall et al. (1998, 34).

30) Only the elderly, young, infirm, and injured took refuge during this time, according to an elderly man in Village A.

31) In 2005 the area of upland fields per household had one of the highest rates (Table 2). This was because 18 former residents of Village A continued their shifting cultivation of rice on the land of Village A after relocating to Village K (Nakatsuji 2010). By doing this, they increased the area of upland fields (the numerator) without increasing the number of households living in the research site (the denominator). In 2011, 17 residents from Village K cultivated upland fields of rice on the land of Village A.

32) The government ordered the relocation of Village A under a policy to merge Village A with the neighboring Village N (Fig. 2). The new location had enough space for all the residents of both villages to build homes. However, this policy was not realized because residents of Village N refused to move.

33) This man was born in 1949 and in 1967 fled from the battle around his home village and migrated to Village J. In 1978 he was registered as a resident of Village A, and he lived there until 1992. When interviewed in 2016, he lived in a village close to Village A and was one of the few former Hmong residents still living in the neighborhood.

34) According to Paul Cohen (2017, 580), “opium production in the uplands of Laos increased significantly during the 1950s and 1960s due to protection and distribution by the Royal Lao Government and the growth in the 1960s of the heroin market among United States troops in Vietnam” (see also Stuart-Fox 2001, 88–89). The growing of opium was legal in the 1960s. In 1971 the government banned opium consumption in response to US pressure, “but it could do little about production, which was mainly in areas beyond its jurisdiction” (ibid.; see also Cohen 2017, 580).

35) In addition to the pioneering agriculture of the Hmong, the need to construct more than 100 new houses must have been a major cause of forest destruction in the 1960s. Traditional Hmong houses use a lot of trees to make pillars, beams, and, for wealthier houses, walls (Cooper 2008, 33).

36) Usually villages of the Hmong do not have such a large number of households. According to research in western Tak in Thailand (Keen 1978, 210), there were 25 Hmong villages in Tak in 1963, the population was 10,000, and so there was an average population of 400 people per village. Keen analyzed a village of this size (400 population) and established that there were 28 households, made up of an average of 14 people per household.

37) This slow vegetation recovery might be attributed to soil erosion, decrease in soil productivity, and water deficiency caused by unreasonably intensive land use in a karst environment. As Peng Jian et al. (2012, 832) explain, the “karst eco-environmental system is fragile and usually featured by low environmental capacity, high sensitivity to external interruption, and poor self-recovery capability.” In southwest China, irrational, intensive land use in a karst environment has caused a high-profile environmental problem called “karst rocky desertification.” In Guizhou Province alone, 35,000 km2 was ravaged by this kind of desertification that is characterized by rapid soil loss, widely exposed bedrocks, decreasing land productivity, and fast expansion of a desert-like landscape (Wang et al. 2004). According to Wang S. J. et al. (ibid., 120), ecological restoration of secondary forest on karst rocky desertified land takes 30–35 years, even if human activities such as livestock grazing and fuel gathering are eliminated from the site. On the environment and land use similar to the research site, Kevin Kiernan (1987; 2010, 514–515) demonstrated severe soil loss from karst in an opium poppy field in northern Thailand. He also argued that aerial bombardment and devegetation during the war in Cambodia between 1965 and 1978 had triggered severe, widespread, and long-lasting damage on the karst environment in the south of the country (Kiernan 2010). It is likely that similar land degradation could have occurred from intensive land use on the karst hill in the research site. This needs careful scrutiny.

38) As mentioned above, the Khmu do not prefer to plant rice and maize on the upper land of the karst hill. However, a few households planted these crops occasionally and contributed to the predominance of grass and bush vegetation. Fig. 3 illustrates the fields to the north of the hill in 2011. These were upland rice fields of two Khmu households.

39) The first legal measures to outlaw opium production in the Lao PDR were carried out in 1996, and after that the government swiftly and strictly implemented the opium eradication policy with the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2005 the total area planted with opium (1,800 ha) was only 7 percent of the 1998 figure (Cohen 2017, 581–582; Ducourtieux et al. 2017, 603–604).

40) Cattle grazing, which started in parts of the karst hill in 2005, was a factor in the changes in vegetation and land use. For example, because cattle like the young leaves of Imperata cylindrica, this grass declined, whereas Chromolaena odorata became more abundant on grazing land. This vegetation change allowed some villagers to cultivate the land because Chromolaena odorata grassland is much easier to turn into agricultural fields than Imperata cylindrica grassland.

41) Sandewall et al. (1998, 30–32) also reveal many incidents of war-related relocation of people and settlements during 1964–73 in the upper Nam Nan water catchment area, which is only 20 km from the research site.

42) See footnote 37.


Vol. 2, No. 1, Nathan BADENOCH, TOMITA Shinsuke

Contents>> Vol. 2, No. 1

Mountain People in the Muang: Creation and Governance of a Tai Polity in Northern Laos

Nathan Badenoch* and Tomita Shinsuke**

*Hakubi Center for Advanced Research, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

Corresponding author’s e-mail: baideanach[at]

**富田晋介, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

This paper traces the history of Luang Namtha, an intermontane valley basin in northern Laos, based on the narratives of non-Tai ethnic groups that collectively constitute a majority in the region. The narratives demonstrate the possibility of alternative histories of muang polities, which are a core part of our understanding of Tai social and political organization. These narratives describe a central role for mountain people in the muang, including the formation, population, and development of what appears to be a Tai polity. This analysis suggests the need to open up our understanding of “traditional” Tai political spaces to accommodate an expanded historical agency for upland groups conventionally circumscribed within their own upland setting. This paper argues that the first step towards a more nuanced understanding of muang is recognizing them as cosmopolitan areas in which many sources of power, innovation, and transformation intersect.

Keywords: Laos, muang, ethnic minorities, local history, Lanten

I Layers of Locality: Digging for Historical Narratives

The Lanten, Sida, and Bit people living in the foothills surrounding the town of Luang Namtha in northern Laos tell of how the valley was empty when their forefathers migrated to the area at the end of the nineteenth century. Some even assert that they were the ones who established the current valley settlement and have played a central role in its governance. These claims go against our assumptions about the expected historical development of a small urban center in northern Laos. Indeed, as the plane clears the mountains and descends into the valley, one sees a town surrounded by wet rice fields that cover an area of 100 square kilometers and two Buddhist stupas on the hills overlooking the city. The village next to the airport has an old Buddhist temple, and the irrigation system extends across the valley bottom. In town, the people speak Lao and several other related Tai languages. Any student of mainland Southeast Asia would assume that they are entering the world of a typical Tai1) muang—the hierarchically organized but decentralized socio-political structures that are believed to be the backbone of cultural continuity2) running throughout the concept of Laos in history (Stuart-Fox 2002).

Towards “Indigenous Histories” in Northwestern Laos

There is no official written history of Luang Namtha. However, “official narratives” found in statements of local government offices and officers, emphasize the muang characteristics of Luang Namtha. Muang is an ambiguous term referring to the political and social organization of the Tai, but has a wide range of meaning in terms of geographic, social, and political scope (Liew-Herres et al. 2012). The conventional understanding of the history of the Luang Namtha basin encapsulates many of the assumptions that exist regarding the muang—that it was founded in the sixteenth century by a group of Tai-speaking Buddhists who set up a small polity attached to a more powerful Tai muang, supporting themselves economically by wet rice cultivation and providing a socio-­political center for other latecomer ethnic groups that live on the fringe of the Tai world. Government offices often reiterate such a view on the regional social history. For example, the Lao National Tourism Authority has the following history of the Namtha valley on its website:3)

In 1890, the Tai-Yuan returned to the Nam Tha Valley under the aegis of Chao Luangsitthisan to re-establish Muang Houa Tha. Vat Luang Korn, one of Luang Namtha’s largest, was constructed shortly thereafter in 1892. However, the newly resettled Muang Houa Tha was to enjoy its independence for only two years. In 1894, following a meeting between the French, British and Siamese colonists, it was agreed that Muang Houa Tha would be administered by the French and the Mekong from the northern reaches of Muang Sing to Chiang Saen would serve as the border between French Indochina and British-ruled Burma. Not long after this divide took place the first group of Tai-Dam arrived from Sip Song Chou Tai in north western Viet Nam and established Tong Jai Village on the east bank of the Nam Tha River. At about the same time the Tai-Dam arrived, migrations of Tai-Neua, Tai-Kao, Akha, Lanten, Yao and Lahu originating in Sipsong Panna, Burma and northwest Viet Nam began to migrate to the area’s fertile valleys and the forested mountains surrounding them.

The arrival of non-Tai people is peripheral to the establishment of the Muang. It is this disconnect between the conventional discourse and the oral traditions of the non-Tai people that suggests the need to unravel the history of the muang and question some of the basic assumptions that underpin it.

Grabowsky’s (2003) articulation of an “indigenous” history of northwestern Laos has helped move us away from the simplicity of dominant historical discourses of nation-state formation. Grabowsky has worked to peel away the Western colonial narrative to free up a different level of historical storytelling. In his analysis of the Chiang Khaeng Chronicle, the local records of a Tai Lue principality on the northern reaches of the Mekong, not far from Luang Namtha, Grabowsky brings the dilemmas and decisions of the Tai Lue rulers of the muang to the forefront, giving agency to the local political players in the theatre of struggle between the French and British in the late nineteenth century. In doing so, he demonstrates that these local figures “were by no means exclusively ignorant victims” of the negotiations dominated by the colonial powers, but rather they “tried hard to manipulate the contradictions between the two main European colonial powers to secure the very survival of that state” (ibid., 62). His exploration of the Tai Lue leaders’ strategies is an attempt to understand what the process of bringing an area under the colonial blanket meant for the life of the local population, giving voice to an important alternative narrative of the colonial experience.

Working with the same Chiang Khaeng Chronicles, Grabowsky and Renoo (2008) uncover a wealth of information about the Tai Lue, their socio-economic situation and their political strategies. There is valuable detail about the relations between the Tai Lue and the other groups living on the outskirts of the muang. The power structure of the Chiang Khaeng polity was determined by symbiotic relations between the politically dominant Tai Lue, who settled in the valley of the Mekong and its tributaries, and the autochthonous hill tribes that provided valuable forest products, precious metals, and agricultural labor. Importantly the Chronicle mentions that the Tai Lue were often a minority in the region they ruled. For example, the composition of the Tai Lue leader Chao Fa Dek Noi’s young followers—five Tai and seven Kha (non-Tai autochthonous people, usually referring to speakers of Mon-Khmer languages)—illustrates demographic balance of the ­Chiang Khaeng polity (Grabowsky 2003).

The Chiang Khaeng Chronicles are written by the Tai Lue, the local Tai elite of the muang, and Grabowsky correctly recognizes this fact without hesitation. While he undertakes to highlight the impacts of policy on people in the marginal areas of the would-be colony, there is still a large sector of society that remains voiceless. Our knowledge of these other ethnic groups comes primarily though the observations and interpretations of outsiders, Tai and Western, who bring their own frameworks, biases, and objectives to the writing of history. The Tai Lue understandably write history to make it their own, and that places non-Tai peoples in a certain position within the Tai political and social imagination. While this analysis is of high value, it still leaves us wondering what the marginal majority of non-Tai groups in the muang experienced in this process and how they acted on other contemporary social forces.

Further Layers of Autochthonous Historical Narrative

It is well established in the historical records of the Tai Lue and other Tai groups in the area that relations between Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, Kengtung, and Chiang Hung ­during the period of the sixteenth–twentieth centuries were dynamic, dramatic, and often tumultuous. Trade routes crisscrossed the area of northern Laos while armies struggled to secure political power over local people. The Namtha river provided access from the Sipsong Panna territories to the Mekong and down to Luang Prabang, but river travel was difficult on account of rapids and seasonal fluctuation in water levels. Another more convenient overland trading route from Chiang Khong to Chiang Hung passed through Muang Luang Phukha, as Luang Namtha was previously known, and Viang Phukha, over the mountains and down to the Mekong. Lue and Shan (Tai) muang established on the northern reaches of the Mekong were key intermediary actors in the local politics and trade between the larger Tai muang of the region. Not far to the north-east of Muang Luang Phukha is a chain of salt fields which provided an important economic commodity traded widely across the region until the 1980s. Discussing these historical dynamics in detail, Walker has made a major contribution by dispelling the myth of isolation in this area of the upper Mekong (1999).

Évrard (2006) has described the historical and social background of northwestern Laos from the perspective of the Khmu. The Khmu of the right bank of the Namtha were integrated into the trade routes that passed through their territory, while the Khmu of the left bank were more isolated from this traffic. The river was also a border among the Khmu, with the right bank Khmu associated with the kingdom of Nan, and the left bank with Luang Prabang. One group of Khmu, known as Khmu Yuan, were concentrated around the muang of Vieng Phukha, and as the ethnonym suggests, have a close historical relationship with the Yuan (Nyuan) (ibid.). This area prospered in the seventeenth century and was an area of Tai political influence, as attested by the Buddhist structures that date from this period. The Khmu-Nyuan relationship in this period may have been of the classic muang model, with the Tai wielding power from the narrow valley area, but incorporating the Khmu in their upland landscapes through ceremonial and economic relationships (Grabowsky 2003). The local Khmu-Nyuan relationship was further reinforced by the Muang Vieng Phukha’s relationship with the principality of Nan, a larger center of Nyuan political power.

The Tai records also note that the majority of the population in the area was Mon-Khmer. People speaking Khmuic and Palaungic languages inhabited the mountainous regions, but they came into increasingly intense contact with Tai cultures as the Tai muang expanded. Linguistic evidence from Khmu suggests that Mon-Khmer groups began borrowing from Tai languages at an early time, a phenomenon that indicates high levels of bilingualism among mountain people (Downer 1989–90) across the mountainous areas. The implications of this cultural contact are evident in the Khmu, Rmeet, Samtao, and Bit languages still spoken in the area, which contain a high level of Tai lexical material. It is difficult to put a date on the start of this interaction, but it is likely that the linguistic contact became significant with the founding of small Tai muang in what are now the northern areas of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. A somewhat more recent develop­ment is the evolution of tones in Samtao and several varieties of Khmu, which were originally not tonal but developed tones partially as a result of contact with local Tai languages that have tones. This deep cultural influence requires the presence of social networks that were much denser than those implied by simply symbolic roles in ritual or occasional trading relations.

Évrard states that the ritual formalization of the relations between Tai and Mon-Khmer groups determines the “structure interethnique” that provides the basic framework for considering the muang and its relations with the margins (Évrard 2006, 77). Indeed, it is this ceremonial relationship—the precarious balance of appropriation and integration, denial and recognition—that has captured the analytic attention of many scholars of the region. However, Évrard shows in his own study that the micro-­dynamics, such as the practical details of livelihoods, soldiering and river trade, of the Tai Lue-Khmu relationship require a rethinking of the assumptions about dependence and dominance that are implied in models based on structure. Furthermore, insights on the cultural processes associated with the appearance of villages that are mixed Tai-Khmu—or even Tai villages that became Khmu call for a finer resolution of analysis. Particularly interesting is his assertion that when looking at this level of interaction, the ethnic group often loses its usefulness as an analytical tool, because here the subgroupings4) within society play a more important part in determining the outcome of power struggles and development dilemmas.

Re-examining the Formation and Transformation of a Muang

Condominas (1990) made the important observation that the structure of the muang has typically been the overwhelming concern for scholars interested in the history of Tai people and their neighbors. Reflecting on his own fieldwork on the interethnic and interclass relationships between the Tai Dam, Laha, and Khang in a muang of north­western Vietnam, he expresses frustration with the standard approaches.

Though this picture conveys, it seems to us, the structure of a muong [muang] in the modern period, it cannot convey the internal dynamics that move this society. In this region, as elsewhere, ethnographic descriptions give an impression of a static society which, paradoxically, reinforce the same picture given by accounts of conquests that historians provide. The interpretations of these two types of data, although throwing light on each other, allow only a vague suggestion of the internal dynamics of a present-day muong. (ibid., 69)

Okada (2012) has further challenged the scholarship on muang in northern Vietnam, drawing on texts written in Han Nom and old Tai scripts dating from before the colonial period. He uncovers detail about muang in Thai Bac, described as having two centers of power—one Tai Dam (Black Tai) and one Tai Khao (White Tai)—that interacted with each other. The governance of the muang was based on several sources of authority. Rather than a center-periphery model for the muang, he proposes a more dynamic and networked system of relations among many different peoples. Furthermore, the area is high in “cultural hybridity,” given the multiple ethnic groups living in close proximity. He concludes that ecological conditions, influxes of immigrants, and linkages to the regional economy were critical in creating the structures that were subsequently identified by scholars such as Condominas in the colonial and post-colonial periods. In other words, the muang political structure was embedded in the local geography and ecology and situated within a particular historical context, and was not the product of any one ethnic group. Moreover, the “Tai Dam” model was shown to be a mix of Tai Dam and Tai Khao, while the basic decentralized structure contradicts the notion of concentrated power. However, the reliance on written records means that the non-Tai people fade out of sight quickly, and we are left wondering again how relations with and among autochthonous peoples were created and recreated over time, and what their role may have been in matters of the muang.

The heritage of ethnolinguistic diversity characterizing Luang Namtha, in which the Tai speakers have always been a decisive minority, begs the question of how a Tai-style muang was formed amid such situations of extreme diversity. What we know from the Tai and other records suggests that this ethnic complexity was probably the norm in the region. The data presented here illustrate how uplanders created niches within the development and governance of the Luang Namtha muang, shaping the political, economic, and cultural landscapes that overlay the area today. The need for recognition of uplanders’ agency in history has been mentioned with increasing frequency (for example, Journal of Global History 2010), but local narratives demonstrating the historical dynamism of this agency are still critical for unloading the baggage of state-written history. The oral traditions discussed here tie together the founding and expansion of the muang with the recent socio-economic development of Luang Namtha. Remembering themselves as founders of the muang, the non-Tai people see continuity in their political and economic engagement with the local center of governance within a local society that is dominated by Tai narratives.

Luang Namtha Demographics: Dynamic Complexity

Now a growing urban center of some 45,000 people, the expansion of Luang Namtha’s economy is driven by ever increasing levels of trade and investment. The city, which is the provincial capital of Luang Namtha province within the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic, lies less than an hour’s drive from the Chinese border, along the national road R3, which was upgraded in 2004 as part of the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Sub-region Program to increase transport links among the countries in the region. Across the border is Sipsong Panna, China’s rubber production area. Rapid growth in demand for latex in China has drawn Luang Namtha and Lao national agricultural policy solidly into transboundary product chains, transforming the landscapes and livelihood strategies of the local people. Despite the widespread conversion of forest fallow to rubber trees, visitors to Luang Namtha, numbering almost 250,000 in 2009 (Lao PDR, Government of Laos 2009), enjoy trekking in the Nam Ha National Protected Area and visiting villages of the many local ethnic minority groups.

The town of Luang Namtha shows great ethnolinguistic diversity, and the population of the town itself reflects the influx of diverse people since the early 1900s. Of the total provincial population of approximately 145,000 people (2005), nearly 45,000 live in Luang Namtha town. Luang Namtha provincial census data from 2005 is broken down by ethnicity in Table 1.

Table 1 Population of Luang Namtha Province by Ethnicity

At the provincial level, the population breaks down into roughly 30 percent each for Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, and Tai-Kadai. Hmong-Mien and other small groups constitute the last 10 percent, while ethnic Lao account for only 3 percent of the population. These figures roughly reflect the ethnolinguistic situation documented by Izikowitz ([1951] 2001) in the 1930s, and by Halpern in the 1950s (quoted in Pholsena 2010).

The data and analysis presented here draw on narratives given by non-Tai people around the town of Luang Namtha. The data comes from extended interviews with and narratives given by local people in the Lao, Mun, Sida, Bit, Khmu, Hmong, Pana, and Chinese languages. Table 2 summarizes the main ethnic groups involved in the paper.

Table 2 Ethnic Groups Appearing in the Paper

The events discussed in the following section are summarized in Table 3. First, we discuss the settling and opening of the muang, focusing on the role of a local leader of the Lanten ethnic group. Next we explore description of the governance of the muang after its founding, with an eye to uncovering some sense of the economic and political interactions between the muang peoples. This is followed by a look at the role of the muang and its people in the establishment of the current political order, including border demarcation and the Communist revolution. Finally, the analysis is brought into the current socio-economic development context. The presentation of this data is concluded with discussion of how identities are being redefined based on this alternative historical narrative, even as it is colored by the current Lao national political discourse. We make reference to analysis of local written Tai historical texts and other Western documents for the purpose of triangulation and contextualization.

Table 3 Historical Events in Luang Namtha

II Settling the Muang: Dang Yon Hak and the Arrival of the Lanten

When our ancestors arrived here, there was no one living in the valley basin.
Common narrative of Lanten, Sida, and Bit elders of Luang Namtha

We often conceive of “minority” groups in mainland Southeast Asia as a substratum (autochthonous) or an overlay (late immigrants). The Lanten, Sida, and Bit communities living in Luang Namtha5) claim that they arrived in the area in the late 1800s. There are no specific dates, but genealogies given by village elders confirm this general timeframe. What is clear from all of them is that their ancestors migrated from different directions in search of safe and productive land. Fig. 1 shows key villages in the Namtha valley. Namdii, founded in the 1960s by the Lanten but originally the location of a Bit settlement, is a village in which Lanten and Sida currently live together. This village is where the majority of this paper’s narrators live. Ban Sida has a larger Sida population, and is the last of many moves the Sida have made since arriving in the area in the late 1800s. Elders in this village have provided supplementary information as well. Thong Om is the site of the original Lanten settlement discussed here.

Fig. 1 Northern Laos

Since at least the early 1800s,6) a group of Lanten7) had been living in the Sipsong Panna area of the Sino-Lao border, farming and hunting. The Lanten currently live in Laos, Vietnam, and China, and speak a Hmong-Mien language called Mun, which is closely related to the better-known Mien (Yao) language. Also, like the Mien, the Lanten have been practicing Daoism since perhaps the eleventh century (Pourret 2002). Their rituals are performed with the assistance of books written in Chinese characters. Chinese literacy remains an important, but increasingly threatened, aspect of Lanten culture, linked not only to rituals but to traditional singing and other forms of cultural knowledge as well. The spoken Mun language has also been heavily influenced by generations of contact with Chinese. Nevertheless, the Lanten are known in contemporary Luang Namtha as one of the most culturally conservative groups, preserving their homespun cotton and indigo-dyed clothing, patrilineal clan-based society, and written language. The exonym “Lanten” comes from the Chinese word for indigo (landian 蓝靛), and this product has been so important to them that it has been suggested that they are called Lanten not only because they wear the indigo-dyed clothes, but also because they had a monopoly on the indigo market long ago in China (Takemura 1981).

One day this group of Lanten followed their game over the mountains into the area between Muang Sing and Muang Luang Phukha. Pleased with the environmental setting and encouraged by the low population density in the region, they moved into the Namtha valley, which they found to be empty. The Lanten took up residence as a large village along the eastern bank of the Namtha river and began to clear the vegetation for swidden farming and livestock. The thick forest was home to many animals and hunting continued to be an important element of their livelihoods. The Lanten leader, Dang Yon Hak 鄧玄斈, oversaw the establishment of several Lanten villages in the lowland area, but the main settlement was at a village called Thong Om, located just south of the present-day airport. At around the same time, a small group of Sida8) people arrived and started a settlement across the river, farming swidden fields and raising livestock. The Sida and the Lanten “built a road between their villages” and traded rice and cloth. It is interesting to note that the motivation for the migration is rather different between the Lanten and Sida. The Lanten insist that they were not persecuted in Chinese lands and were not fleeing from war; rather, they made conscious decisions based on consideration of their economic needs and potential for self-governance in daily matters. The Sida, on the other hand, tell that they were suffering an unbearable tax burden, which they paid in non-timber forest products such as lac, edible insects, and other special herbs and spices.9)

At around the same time, another group of Lanten was leaving the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers just outside Luang Prabang. This group also tells a story of entering into Lao territory, in this case from Lai Chau in Vietnam, during one of their hunting trips. Fleeing from turmoil and disease in the Sipsong Chu Tai, they made their way down into the Mekong basin by way of southwestern flowing tributaries. But life near the Lao royal capital was not agreeable, largely because of the shortage of land for swidden cultivation. The group then moved northwards to Muang Ay, in the current-day Namo district of Oudomxay province. The Li clan was the dominant force in this Lanten community and oversaw the establishment of a more permanent settlement in their new home. The Lanten settlement fell within the political influence of a small Tai muang centered around Muang Ay, but which also included a large Khmu population, several villages of Bit and Mien, and a small population of Tibeto-Burman groups. Lanten textile production, important in trade among local groups, had made them an important factor in the local economy.

The leader of the Li clan asserted himself as a figure of power among these upland groups, providing an interface between the non-Tai upland people and the Tai rulers in the muang. With the death of the Li leader, his two sons—Li Yon Siu 李玄照 and Li Yon Sang 李玄璋—traveled to Luang Prabang with an entourage to consult with the Lao king and the French authorities on how to handle the succession of the hua na khet (Lao: subdistrict chief) position. It was decided that Yon Siu, the elder brother, would assume the position of upland leader. In recognition of his local economic and political influence, he received the title of saen luang (Lao: leader of 100,000) and returned to Muang Ay as “the administrator of the mountain people.”10)

The Namo Lanten also built relations with the Bit, who had arrived recently as refugees from the Cheuang Wars of the 1880s.11) The Bit were spinners of high-quality thread from the Lanten cotton but apparently did not grow their own cotton. The Lanten recall how as many as 10 Bit households could be “attached” to a Lanten family, providing dedicated spinning services. Most Bit families had members who spoke Mun (Lanten), and many of the influential Lanten were conversant in Bit. The Luang Namtha Bit also recall their relationship with the Lanten, and confirm the importance of cotton in the exchange between the two groups. They also confirm widespread bilingualism. Bit oral narrative remembers their weak position in relationships with other larger, more powerful groups. For the Mon-Khmer groups of northern Laos, this would usually be assumed to refer to their position of subjugation to the local Tai rulers, but in this case there is some more recent evidence for some form of indentureship with the Lanten. In any case, it seems clear that the Lanten had established a position in the administration of the Ban Ay-Ban Khouang muang and carved out a niche for themselves in the local economy.

When Yon Siu died, the order maintained by the Lanten in the Muang Ay mountains was significantly weakened. By this time, Dang Yon Hak, the Lanten leader in Luang Namtha, had also established relations with the French in Luang Prabang and received the title saen luang. He made frequent trips to pay tribute and collect budgetary resources for administering the Luang Namtha area, passing through Muang Ay. Seeing that the Muang Ay Lanten had fallen into some disarray, he invited the Li clan to lead the Lanten to Luang Namtha and join them in the valley region. With the low population density and lack of manpower, Dang Yon Hak needed the Muang Ay Li clan to help him develop the basin. The prospect of having an influential leader in the form of Dang Yon Hak, in addition to the abundance of land, led the Li clan to accept the invitation and migrate to the Luang Namtha basin. Now there were several Lanten villages along the river, and the cultivation of upland rice, cotton, and other upland crops, along with raising cattle and buffalo, became the mainstay of the basin economy.

The Lanten oral history discussed here has also been written down in a traditional song format. Fig. 2 is one page from a song composed in 2011 by a Lanten elder, describing the arrival of his people in Luang Namtha. The Mun title of the song is Thek Tjek Iu Mun 泰聀遙人, but the author also gave it a Lao title meaning “Short History of the Lanten in Luang Namtha.” As a member of the Li clan, the writer focuses on the position of Yon Siu and Yon Sang, and the Li clan’s decision to join Yon Hak in Namtha. His emphasis is Yon Hak’s role in bringing the Lanten together to assert themselves in Luang Namtha, an event of importance remembered by elders from both the local Li and Dang clans.

Fig. 2 Excerpt from Short History of the Lanten in Luang Namtha, written in Sino-Mun (泰聀遙人 Thek Tjek Iu Mun)

III Opening the Muang: Return of the Tai Refugees

The most powerful event in the Lanten accounts of their history in Luang Namtha concerns the role of Dang Yon Hak in transforming the Namtha basin from pa to muang. As introduced above, the Namtha basin was covered in dense forest when the Lanten and other groups arrived. Although traces of previous settlement were readily observable, establishing the new settlements required a portfolio of upland livelihood technologies including rice production in swidden fields, diversified cropping of food and fiber crops, hunting and gathering, and large livestock husbandry. Using these time-tested methods, the Lanten and Sida transposed their mountain livelihood systems onto the lowland ecology. Fig. 3 shows the current Luang Namtha basin, showing the location of the main research villages, and the original Lanten settlement of Thong Om.

Fig. 3 Luang Namtha Valley

Source: MekongGIS

The uplanders who viewed this valley were long-time shifting cultivators, and describe the Namtha valley in terms that in Tai cultural frameworks signify pa or wild forest areas, as opposed to civilized, muang valley areas. The lowland areas on both sides of the Namtha river were covered in forest. Large trees known in Lao as kok hai (a type of Ficus) were numerous in the landscape, making it an inhospitable setting. The physical labor needed to clear large areas of land was not available, given the size of the migrant groups, and it was widely believed that kok hai are inhabited by wild ­spirits. The presence of kok hai trees holds special importance for the spiritual aspect of the human-nature relationships that were formed there. In the Sida telling of their arrival, the kok hai plays a central role (Sida elder, male, age 62):

In the times of our ancestors, there was no heaven and no earth. There was one kok hai tree that grew up to the heavens, so high that it blocked out the sun. In the shadow of this tree, crops could not be grown and people could not make their lives. So they tried to cut the tree down. We hired 30 and 300 Akha12) to come chop the tree. We chopped and chopped, but each morning we woke to find the tree had grown back. On the tree was a large vine. We decided to cut the vine. When we had chopped through the vine, the tree fell over, killing the Akha and forming a depression. The two leaders Ca Lo and Ca Sa made the pond into a fishing area, and we had plenty to eat. We stayed at the pond and it became our home.

In this story, there is clearly an intertwining of an older creation myth common across the region, and a more recent founding of the muang. It is interesting that there is no mention of agriculture but rather fishing. The identity of Ca Lo and Ca Sa is not clear. At first, we were told that these brothers were the original Sida descendants from their first ancestor, the mythical mother Go Gue. In subsequent tellings, it became clear that they were probably Tai but are still considered to be the ancestors of the local Sida. Interestingly, the Rmeet, a Mon-Khmer group living further to the south, have a similar but more detailed myth.13) In the Rmeet telling, the falling tree kills the two brothers but lands in Thailand, which explains how the original wealth of the Rmeet was lost to the Thai (Sprenger 2006). The Sida telling is more focused on the first step of transforming the inhospitable Luang Namtha area to a settlement with direct forward links to their current lives. It also indirectly recognizes the same assertion as the Lanten story: that the mountain people were the first people to open the valley.

Faced with the practical obstacles of developing the Namtha valley plain, Dang Yon Hak took advantage of his political connections. Yon Hak paid tribute to both Luang Prabang and Nan, a logical strategy for a leader aspiring to establish his own power locally. The trip to Luang Prabang to pay taxes and collect an administration budget was relatively easy and likely facilitated by the Li clan, who had closer relations and more local experience given their previous residence near the Lao royal capital. Yon Hak also made trips to the principality of Nan, which was under the suzerainty of Bangkok. One year, returning from a large tribute mission to the Siamese king in Bangkok with a sizable administration budget, Yon Hak stopped in Nan.14) Here he encountered a community of Nyuan who claimed to have come from Muang Luang Phukha and were willing to return to the Namtha valley with him. Arriving finally in Namtha with 10 Nyuan households, they were allowed to live near their old wet-rice fields and told to rebuild their paddy fields.

The Mun phrase used for this event bu mun in dou dai taai an wa gjang, “we Lanten brought the Tai here and put them in the village” is centered around the idea of inserting outsiders into the muang. This is reminiscent of the well-known Tai phrase referring to the practice of moving people to strengthen a polity—kep phak sai sa, kep kha sai muang, “collect vegetables and put them in the basket, collect Kha and put them in the muang15)—but with a complete reversal of roles. Moreover, the Lanten elders often use the Lao phrase phattana baan muang (“develop the polity”), a live expression in the socio-­political discourse of the modern Lao state, to describe Yon Hak’s intent to use the Nyuan to open the valley up to more intensive cultivation. This is in contrast with the Lanten description of their own role, saang baan saang muang (Lao: build-village-build-muang, “establish the polity”).

The resettlement of the Nyuan was followed in 1895 by a wave of Tai Dam refugees fleeing social upheaval in Dien Bien Phu. With the valley plain gradually returning to agriculture, the abundance of land and other resources made the Namtha basin attractive to these new arrivals. Soon the Lanten found themselves competing for resources with the Tai. In particular, Lanten livestock and Tai wet rice cultivation proved to be a difficult mix, with cattle damaging crops and expanding fields encroaching on forests where cattle were grazed. Furthermore, Lanten dry agriculture was carried out in areas that were most easily returned to wet rice cultivation, and they made way for the Tai so that the valley could be developed. No doubt other social and political pressures figured into their decision as well.

IV Governing the Muang: Cultural Resources and Economic Interdependence

Scholarly concern with the governance of Tai muang, particularly with regards to the relationships between Tai and non-Tai peoples, tends to focus on structures involved in defining the hierarchy of unbalanced power relations. Insights into the modalities of interaction are harder to come by, but illustrate a multitude of relationships.

Literacy, Bilingualism, and the Creation of a Political Niche

Li Lao Da’s song stresses the fraternal relations established between the two Lanten clans. Without the joining of the Dang and Li groups, it would have been impossible to assert any sort of authority in the Namtha area. But Dang Yon Hak continued to play the role of founder, tax collector, and payer of tribute. The Lanten use a number of different terms to describe the position of Yon Hak, focusing on the broad geographic scope of his authority and his high position within the political hierarchy. The two commonly used Lao terms emphasize that he was a regional leader, ostensibly exerting some kind of authority over a large and diverse number of people:

hua na khet (Lao), “subdistrict chief”

chao khwaeng (Lao), “provincial governor”

Not surprisingly, both Lao terms have direct semantic links to the modern Lao administrative system. The hua na khet position was also part of the French administrative structure, although it is used more informally in local oral histories. It should be noted that these Lao terms are frequently used even when the narrative is in Mun.

There is another set of Sino-Mun terms that related to Chinese administrative concepts:

gwen tjou 県主 (Mun), “chief of district”

ai tjou ai gwan 做主做官 (Mun), “to be lord, to be the administrator”

ai lu ai gwan 做大做官 (Mun), “to be boss, to be the administrator”

These terms highlight the Chinese influence on Lanten ideas of authority and administration, most directly from their own experience as a peripheral group to the areas of Han power. The spiritual world of Daoist deities is a highly structured, complex system of hierarchical political relations. In their rituals, the Lanten are continuously dealing with the bureaucracy and power politics of the other world.

Another common phrase incorporates Tai and Chinese terminology into a Mun construction:

ai taao ai tjou (Mun), “to be the tao,16) to be the master/owner”

These demonstrate the Lanten capacity to integrate different conceptions of power into their own discourse of political organization. The use of Lao terms shows the Lanten effort to describe their participation in a Tai administrative context. Thus Lanten oral history describes the rare situation of a non-Tai ruler, himself a migrant from the mountains, manipulating his political allegiances to increase his own local power by moving people into his muang. With a hostile natural environment, shaky demographics, and the wrong agricultural technology, Yon Hak had no other choice but to control his land by controlling the movement of people.

But Yon Hak was not in control of the stronger demographic force, the migration of the Tai Dam. The large Lanten villages had to move to the foothills on the fringe of the plains. After Yon Hak’s death, it is said that his son Dang Wan Nyan took over the position of leadership, but this was not passed on to the next generation. The Dang clan’s hold on local matters started to waver, as traditional Chinese education weakened and the Li clan began to assert itself. From this point the Lanten describe themselves as assuming a second layer of administration within a political structure headed by a Tai leader. Despite the loss of executive authority, the Lanten retained administrative power within the local governance system.

Governing the muang required communication with a diverse local population, the vast majority of which was illiterate. The orders and notifications of the chao muang could easily be written down by the Lanten in Chinese and carried to upland villages, where they could be read directly in Chinese to the Tibeto-Burman and other Hmong-Mien groups (all of whom used Chinese as a common language), or translated on the spot into Lue or Khmu for the Mon-Khmer speakers. In Namtha, the Lanten leaders had a cohort of assistants, comprised of thin theng 先生 and thung thou nyan 送書人. The former would write out messages, the ­latter would deliver, read, or translate the messages. Details of these individuals survive in the collective memory and household records; we were told of Li Kyam Nyui, one of Yon Hak’s well-known thin theng, separated by five generations and recorded in the family genealogy book of the Li clan elder who composed the song presented above.

Having maintained close relations with the Nyuan, however, the Li clan descendants continued to play the role of public relations officer for the Nyuan chao muang, providing an interface between the ruler and the ruled. In a typical muang situation, a lowland broker (Lao: laam) would have provided the economic and administrative (tax collecting) linkage between the uplands and lowlands (Walker 1999). The laam role was usually played by a Lao, often an individual of economic and political power, and oriented towards to transactions with Khmu communities (Yokoyama 2010). Other uplanders, such as Hmong, were oriented to trading with the Haw caravans, and were thus often outside of the laam system (Halpern 1964). The Lanten do not use the word laam to describe their role in the muang; they focus on their role in facilitating communication and representing the chao muang though literacy. Lanten control of written communications indicates that they occupied a position of some power in the local political structure; their position was founded on a combination of their own linguistic and administrative skills, and their ability to maintain relations in both the upland and the lowland worlds.

But in daily life, relationships in the uplands largely depended upon oral communication. Contemporary narratives give some sense of the patterns of multilingualism that may have existed at around the turn of the nineteenth century. The Lanten, Sida, and Bit all give prominence to proficiency in many languages as a characteristic of a successful and influential leader. They themselves have typically been multilingual communities through past generations. Generally speaking, Haw (Yunnanese Chinese) and Lue were the lingua franca. Uplanders tended to use Haw with each other, while they would use Lue with lowlanders. The cultural and linguistic influence of Haw on both Hmong-Mien and Tibeto-Burman languages is evident in the current lexicons and ritual practices of those groups. But multilingualism among upland groups was also common.17)

For example, the Lanten have typically been proficient in Mien, and the Lamet and Bit have spoken Khmu. As mentioned above, relations between the Lanten and Bit were conducted not only in Lue, which would be the standard lingua franca, but in their own languages as well. Artifacts of these patterns are still visible in Namtha today, although the patterns are undergoing change.

The telling of the Dang and Li clans establishing power over the newly settled areas in northern Laos harkens back to the ancient days of their relations with the Chinese emperor in the thirteenth century. The Lanten were provided with documents by the emperor giving them permission to migrate through the mountains as they pleased, conducting their upland agriculture. The mythic origins of this special privilege originate with the Lanten descent from Pang Hu 盤古, the first ancestor, a dog, who asked them to establish and maintain stability in the mountain areas.18) During those times, the Chinese emperor was eager to settle farmers in the mountains to quell the social unrest and banditry that was prevalent, and provided official documentation authorizing the ­Iu-Ngin (referring to the historical ancestors of the Mien, Lanten, and other related groups) to carry on their economic activities.

The documents that were held by the Iu-Ngin were called Shan Guan Bo 山關薄 and authorized them to conduct shifting cultivation.19) These papers also freed them from tax and corvee requirements. These documents are known to exist among the Mien, and one copy of the Lu Cheng Tu Shan Guan Zhuan 路程圖山關伝 (A Record of Mountain Passes on the Route Map) was recently found at the house of a Lanten ritual performer in neighboring Namo district (Tomita and Badenoch 2011). Pourret (2002) describes how the Iu-Ngin’s relationship with the emperor condemned them to a life of mobility, but at the same time recognizes the utility of the documents in helping the Iu-Ngin retain their freedom and preserve their identity. Importantly, since these were official documents issued by the Chinese court, other administrations were likely to recognize their authority. Lemoine (1982, 12) has stated that by maintaining this mythic history, “the Yao [Mien] (and related groups) gave themselves, as it were, a bargaining counter in negotiations with the Chinese Empire.” In fact, Lemoine suggests that the “history” that is written down in these documents may be the result of a negotiated solution to a spate of Iu-Ngin rebellions.

If there is some foundation in the assertion that written language was one of the mechanisms of control used by lowland polities on upland people (Scott 2009), the Iu-Ngin are seen to have appropriated this technology of control in order to legitimize their residence in mountain areas, their shifting cultivation-based livelihoods, and their migrations. Furthermore, the possession of written language helped them to assert political power over other upland groups and make alliances with literate lowland groups. While the historical veracity of these stories is debatable, the salient point here is that the Lanten see themselves as playing a historical role mandated by the highest imperial authority. In case of Luang Namtha, there is no suggestion that Dang Yon Hak was ­ruling on behalf of a Chinese political force. However, the concept of ruling the mountains is clearly extended from the old mythical texts into the present, and they are very clear about the literacy.

The Lanten speak of very close relations with the Mien and Haw in this period, and Chinese literacy was a special aspect of this relationship. While many upland groups had people who could speak Chinese, proficiency in the written language was limited mostly to the Mien and Lanten. Economically, the Mien are reported to be the richest, as they were large producers of opium. Mien leaders have also been known to assert control over a wide area composed of many ethnic groups (Kandre 1967). The Haw controlled the trade networks, securing access to markets and important goods. Having established themselves as pioneers in the region, the Lanten maintained their position as a bridge into the muang administration, positioning themselves between the Tai, Kha, and Chinese worlds. Thus the commercial and cultural bonds between the Lanten, Mien, and Haw could have been a powerful force challenging the authority of the Nyuan.

Livelihoods, the Regional Economy, and Power Relations

The Nyuan quickly found themselves to be just one of three Tai groups vying for power in Luang Namtha. As late as 1936, Izikowitz ([1951] 2001) describes Luang Namtha as consisting of three villages, one each of Nyuan, Tai Dam, and Tai Lue. The Sida tell of the Nyuan migrants’ struggle to assert themselves. The narrator, a 62-year-old Sida elder from Ban Namdii, uses the pejorative ethnonym “Kalom” to refer to the Nyuan, and the term “Venyu,” which is how the Sida refer to themselves in their own language.

After we built the road to the Lanten, we met the Kalom [Nyuan]. The Kalom had just arrived in Luang Namtha and they had no food. When we saw the Kalom, they said “You, Venyu [Sida]! Do you have any rice?” We responded, “Yes, we have rice, we have more rice than we can eat.” And the Venyu said to the Kalom, “Do you have any cloth?” The Kalom responded, “We have plenty of cloth, we have more cloth than we can use for our clothes.” We said, “In that case, bring cloth and we will trade with you for our rice.” After that, we built a road between the Venyu and the Kalom. After that, a Kalom couple brought a bolt of cloth to the Venyu village and they traded for our rice. They tried to carry the rice back, but they got so much that they couldn’t carry it all. And we got the cloth we needed. The couple went back and told the Kalom villagers about it, and after that the Kalom population began to expand.

This narrative stresses the poverty, vulnerability, and lack of good judgement the Sida saw in the Nyuan. The Nyuan shortage of rice is not surprising, given the description of the overgrown valley that they found when they arrived. The Sida and Lanten were skilled swidden farmers and had no problems with food security. To this day, the Sida are known for their high rice yields. In the Sida telling of this exchange, the Nyuan population was dependent on the Sida to meet their food needs, at least in the early period after their arrival. The exchange of rice and cloth creates a mutually beneficial relationship, even as the Sida story asserts some sort of authority through their superior survival skills. But his story continues in a different direction.

Then one day, a Venyu man was boiling maize to make feed for his pigs. A Kalom man came to the village to trade and saw the maize being boiled for pig feed. The Kalom man, he grabbed the maize and started eating it. “Don’t eat that stuff, it will make you sick!” the Venyu man said. “Son, I will cook some proper food with rice for you,” he said. The Kalom man responded, “Never mind, I’m happy to eat this maize, it won’t kill me!” And he kept eating. But the Venyu man boiled rice anyway and made the Kalom man eat this good food. After finishing, the Kalom man returned to his village, but got sick and died. After that, the Kalom did not trust us Venyu anymore. They will not let us sleep in their houses any more.

Despite the Sidas’ assistance with surplus rice, the Nyuan still lacked rice and came to the Sida for help. But the Nyuan would not listen to the Sida, and a tragedy opens a rift between the two. The story is again told in the terms of economic well-being, but the fate of the maize-eating Nyuan man hints at the larger difficulties the Nyuan were facing, with the Sida being blamed for the Nyuan’s mistake.

The Muang in Local Geopolitics

These oral histories clash sharply with the Nyuans’ own representation of their return to Luang Namtha in the late eighteenth century.20) According to records written in the tham script kept at Nyuan temples, the Nyuan had fled Doi Tung in the current Thai province of Chiang Rai in 1587 to escape pressure from the Burmese. At the time, the Burmese king placed onerous tax and corvee requirements on the Lanna muang (Sarassawadee 2005). The Nyuan probably reached the Namtha valley in the early 1600s, and set up a modest muang under the direction of Panya Luang Kaansulin. The Nyuan would have established close relations with the local Khmu population who were the main demographic force in the region.

However, in 1733 they fled to the principality of Nan, caught again in the geopolitical turmoil of the region. After an absence of 158 years, they claim to have returned to Namtha in 1891, a group of 500 led by Chao Luang Kommachang Sitthisane. In their party were also two samanen, Chua Channha and Chua Nanta. They repaired the that overlooking the valley, which had been originally completed in 1628, and the wat at Ban Khone. In 1893 Laos was formally incorporated into French Indochina. The Franco-British project to maintain a buffer zone in the unpopulated areas of Muang Luang had failed (Grabowsky 2003). The Nyuan claim that they took over the rulership of Luang Namtha, which they kept only until 1918, at which time a Lao administrator was dispatched from Luang Prabang to rule on behalf of the French. When Lefèvre-Pontalis traveled through the region in 1894, the town of Muang Luang Phukha was reportedly under the control of Chao Sitthisane. He describes how Chao Sitthisane had established good relations with the Tai Lue of Muang Sing, in order to strengthen his position against the Lue of Sipsong Panna, who had tried to gain territory by moving the border marker southwards in 1893.

Reading other accounts of the region at this time, it seems that Sitthisane had ­difficulty with the mountain people to the north and south. The Khmu leaders in Vieng Phukha, to the south of Muang Luang Phukha, had taken advantage of the long absence of Tai rulers to strengthen their position, and resisted yielding control of land to the Nyuan (Lefèvre-Pontalis [1902] 2000). In the foothills north of Muang Luang Phukha, the Lanten and Mien were also successful in remaining outside of the direct control of the Nyuan. Lefèvre-Pontalis mentions meeting with three of their leaders, welcoming them and other migrants from their group to settle in the area, but requiring that they submit to French rule. Chao Sitthisane had complained that the Mien and Lanten maintained relations with the Tai Lue of Sipsong Panna, which made them suspicious, especially given the Tai Lue border marker power play in 1893.

The French were at this time in search of a local elite, a critical layer of local society that had to be won over in order to establish legitimacy for the colonial project. In particular, there was a perceived need to unify the diverse people of the muang. Lefèvre-Pontalis was sympathetic to Chao Sitthisane’s desire to request the ruler of Nan to release more Nyuan refugees and allow them to come to Muang Luang Phukha. But this did not come to pass, even as Tai Dam continued to arrive from the Lao-Vietnam border area. Although there were several candidates for a local leader they could support, the French were faced with the reality that there was no solid political structure that could be easily appropriated (Walker 2008). One such candidate for a local elite ally mentioned in an 1898 Report on Vieng Phukha (referenced in Walker 2008) was an “intelligent and active chief” who had been appointed by the Siamese some time before the treaty of 1893. Based on the documentation, one would assume that this refers to Sitthisane. As pres­ented above, the Lanten narrative raises the possibility that this chief was Dang Yon Hak.

These interweaving, yet contradictory, narratives pose interesting questions. What sort of muang was evolving in the early twentieth century and who were the main individuals driving it? Lanten and Sida claim to have been the first settlers, catalyzing the resettlement of Nyuan. Perhaps, embracing dreams of restoring the glory of a past muang, the Nyuan struggled to assert themselves. In the meantime, they were displaced demographically by Tai Dam refugees, and their hopes of building a power base were eclipsed by the political reality of becoming a French colony.

V Protecting the Muang: Border Demarcation and Securing the Salt

The Lanten direct political influence declined with the death of Dang Yon Hak, although they adjusted and kept a role in the governance of the muang. However protecting Namtha from the Chinese is an important theme in the Lanten telling of their role in the muang. The most enthusiastically told story of Lanten efforts to secure Lao territory from the designs of the Chinese concerns a border demarcation. From the colonial historical record, we know that in 1893 the Tai Lue of Sipsong Panna moved a border marker into the territory of Muang Luang Phukha in order to gain control of the salt fields at Boten (Walker 2008). The Chinese were generally believed to be behind this bold move on the part of the Lue, but in the Lanten telling, it was the Chinese (Qing dynasty officials) who were directly responsible for the affront on Lao (French colonial) territory (Lanten elder, male, age 58, Ban Namdii).

In those days, the Chinese moved the border down, just above the old Sida village. The people were not happy with this. So the Chinese came to negotiate again, and there was a large feast. But the French and Chinese could not agree on the border. The Chinese would not move the border back. The salt fields of Boten were on the Chinese side of the border. So Dang Yon Hak negotiated and agreed with the Chinese like this. The Chinese would return to their territory, and the next day both sides would send a delegation. Each would lead a pig and wherever the two delegations met, that would be the site of the border. The pigs would be prepared, and it would be decided. The next morning, the Lao side woke up late and were worried that they would arrive late and the Chinese would get control of the salt. So the Lao side carried their pig on their backs, and ran up the hill. Once they passed the Boten salt fields, they sat down and waited for the Chinese to arrive. That is how we kept the border on the other side of the salt.

This story relates how the Lanten outsmarted Chinese officials, but touches on the amusing possibility that the Lao side almost missed the opportunity to secure their salt because of a late start. The story also tells of the importance of the Boten salt fields for the Lao. We first heard this story from the Sida, who claimed that they were the ones who carried the pig up the hill. The Lanten storytellers assert that they were the ones in the lead, because Dang Yon Hak was the figure of authority and the Sida were a small group without any influential leaders in the muang.

In a later episode, the Lanten save Lao territory from the Chinese yet again. After the defeat of the Qing forces by the Republicans in 1911, defeated Qing soldiers flooded into Lao territory and the security situation deteriorated quickly. There was much theft of food and livestock, as the French had withdrawn to Namo district in Oudomxay province, leaving a political vacuum. Again, in the 1940s, the Lanten helped repel marauding Guomintang soldiers, as described by a Lanten ex-soldier (male, 66 years old):

The Haw of Chiang Kai-shek’s army were numerous. The people were suffering but there was nothing to be done. Finally we decided to go get help from the French garrison in Namo district. Three hundred French soldiers came back with us, but when they got to Dong Ving, the French did not see any Chinese soldiers and got very upset with us. They said that if they didn’t see the Chinese soldiers the next day, they would eat Lanten liver for dinner. They continued down into the Namtha valley and arrived at Ban Pasak on the Namtha river. The Chinese soldiers were camped on the other side of the river. The French crossed the river and chased the Chinese back to Muang Sing and over the border back into China. Because of this, the French stayed in Namtha, and there were no more security problems.

These episodes portray a central role for the Lanten in key defenses of Lao territory. In the first story, the Lanten were able to renegotiate another chance for a beneficial outcome to the border demarcation with Chinese officials because of their intimate knowledge of Chinese culture and skills in the Chinese language. In the second story, because of their previous position within the French administration, the Lanten were able to convince the French to return to Namtha and restore stability to the region. These stories also highlight some ambiguity in the Lanten relationship with the Chinese. They are proud of their association with the Chinese culture of literacy, but at the same time they make reference to an ever-present threat not only to their own existence, but also to the well-being of their area of residence. It is worth noting that in both, the Chinese are made out to be the enemy, when in fact both the Tai Lue and Chinese contributed to the social disturbances. This is likely a manifestation of the present national discourse of borders and nations working retrospectively on the historical memory of the Lanten. Repelling a Chinese enemy allows them to retain the protection of Lao territory as the theme, while at the same time increasing the import of the actual defense by enlarging the size of the enemy.

VI Liberating the Muang: Minorities and the Communist Victory

Together with the Khmu, the Lanten brought the revolution to Luang Namtha.”

Lanten ex-soldier describing the mountain peoples’ contribution to the Liberation effort.

The town of Luang Namtha was “liberated” in 1962, an important victory in the Communist struggle against the Royalists. Fighting over the rural and mountainous areas continued until 1986.

Lanten elders tell of their satisfaction when the French returned after World War II, as the familiar regime reestablished stability to their lives. However, they were well aware that the French had returned on different terms. The Lanten were sympathetic to the pro-independence Lao Issara message that the French would not be able to maintain their presence for much longer, and that it was better in the long run for the Lanten to participate in the establishment of a new Lao regime. A sizable number of Lanten joined the Communist Ay Nong21) forces. Many of the Lanten soldiers were young men who just had a sense that something was changing and felt that they should be a part of it. In 1964, a Lanten unit was set up in Namtha, composed of approximately 80 people, but was broken up and integrated into other units in 1968. For those who remained in the village, it was a period of hardship, as described by a Lanten ex-soldier (male, age 61, Ban Namdii).

In 1960, the Lanten of the Namdii area fled to the forest because the fighting was getting bad. ­Villages and rice barns were burnt, mostly by Yao [Mien] soldiers who fought for the French. We dug tubers in the forest to eat. Their leaders were Chao La and Chao Mai, and they were very strong. The Yao were stronger than the Lanten because their leaders had good relations with the KMT [Kuomintang]. They collected opium from all households and then made big sales to the KMT. We Lanten only produced opium for our own use, and we never knew how to sell it. Before, we traded our cloth for Yao paper. My father, Tan Lao San, went over to Namo to get weapons to fight the Yao. In 1962, we came out of the forest because Namtha was liberated. But there were still attacks by Yao who hadn’t fled. The Yao burned our houses. My grandfather’s official regalia were all burned. The shoes were beautiful and shiny, but they were burned. After two or three big battles, the Vietnamese soldiers finally swept out the remaining Yao.

The Lanten relationship with the Mien was for most intents and purposes destroyed by the war period. However, when the Lanten ex-soldiers speak of their time in the war, they frequently mention their close relationship with the Khmu. The main Ay Nong base in Namtha was in Vieng Phukha district, an area to the south of Luang Namtha town that is mainly Khmu. Li Lao Da recalled how Lanten soldiers, many of whom had grown up near Khmu villages and understood basic Khmu, quickly becoming proficient in the language. They tell of long periods of time in which they were alone with the Khmu, receiving little support and having very little contact with Lao soldiers.

The last of the Lanten thin theng were important in the new regime’s post-liberation political work of establishing control over the rural areas. Three of these individuals traveled around the northern part of the Namtha valley conducting public relations for the Ay Nong. The immediate objective of these efforts was to “raise awareness,” and their tasks consisted of taking messages from the Ay Nong, written in Chinese, and reading them in mountain villages, in the same manner as they had done previously for the Nyuan chao muang. In the village, the thin theng would assess who could speak and read Lao well enough to understand the message and establish a point of contact for on-going propaganda activities. The Lanten seem to have been particularly well equipped for this role, again because of their fluency and literacy in Chinese. Moreover, each spoke Lue and could read basic Lao. All could communicate in Mien and Khmu, as well. But the Lanten did not have a monopoly on the mountain propaganda work. One man of Sida-Pana parentage was another active propagandist, speaking Haw, Sida, Pana, Lue, and Khmu. Without these multilingual message-bearers, the Ay Nong were limited in their access to mountain communities. Such a combination of linguistic capacity and ethnic minority identity seem to have been key factors in convincing upland people to support the Ay Nong forces.

The role of ethnic minorities in the Communist struggle has been debated. There is some sentiment that the minority groups were crucial to the liberation of the country at the local levels (Pholsena 2006). In this interpretation, the Lao avoided much of the actual fighting and took orders from an elite that was either Vietnamese or heavily influenced by the Vietnamese. Evans (2003) has argued that the role of the minorities has been overestimated, and that the Lao were much more engaged on the ground than is commonly believed. It is interesting that the Lanten account of the liberation of Luang Namtha places the Lanten in close quarters with the Khmu, who formed the vast majority of field revolutionaries. The Lanten are proud of their role in the liberation of Namtha, and by stressing their close collaboration with the Khmu revolutionaries, are able to distance themselves from those who did not side with the Ay Nong, particularly the Mien.

VII Developing the Muang: Rice, Rubber, and the Road to China

After the Tai Dam villages that had sided with the Satu (“enemy,” Royalist forces) fled to Bokeo in 1968, a number of Lanten and Sida farmers moved into the plains to cultivate wet rice in the abandoned fields. The new government was keen to increase rice production as quickly as possible, and they encouraged the Lanten and Sida. Technical assistance was provided by the few remaining Tai Dam households. Over the next five years, more farmers from the hill villages joined. In this way, the Lanten took up the task of feeding the newly liberated muang, producing irrigated rice and participating in caravans to deliver food and supplies to the soldiers still fighting to the south of Namtha until the Tai Dam began to return in 1974. Despite their revolutionary contributions, the Lanten had no choice but to retreat to the foothills again, where they applied the newly learned technology to open paddy fields along the streams running through the village.

Luang Namtha now leads northern Laos in rubber planting (Lao PDR, Government of Laos 2011). A rubber boom has swept much of the country, and rubber is now a national economic development priority for the government. A Hmong village on the edge of Namtha town has established itself as a leader in rubber planting (Chantavong et al. 2009). The Lanten, Bit, and many Sida have also decided to make the shift to rubber production as their main livelihood activity. Namdii village was the first to make the investment among the Lanten. Their first requests for assistance from the local government were denied, but they soon established a relationship with Lanten in China and gained access to the information, technology, and planting materials they needed. What is interesting about the start-up of the Lanten rubber operations is that it was catalyzed by the participation of several village leaders in a joint Mien-Lanten cultural festival in China, not influence for their Hmong neighbors. The Namdii elders traveled to China to take part in a traditional singing event and became acquainted with Lanten of the same clan. The Chinese Lanten were workers on rubber estates and were invited by the Namdii village headman to travel to Laos to help them start planting. Not only did the Lanten obtain critical information and technology from China, but their kin in Yunnan came to invest in their operations as well.

The Bit have also begun planting rubber in their fallow fields along the road to the Chinese border. The roadside areas were first planted by provincial officials who had their own contacts with buyers in China, but the Bit were able to make contacts with Chinese technicians who were stationed next to their village during the building of a rubber processing factory. Four individuals from the Bit village were trained at the ­factory, and one enterprising man struck up a friendship with a Chinese foreman who had a range of small business operations in Luang Namtha. After doing small jobs for the Chinese man, he formed his own informal contracting operation and began to supply technical support to rubber planting operations in Muang Sing. From there he expanded to providing technical support to the establishment of other cash crops such as bananas and sugar cane, both of which are extremely popular in the northern areas of Luang Namtha province. All of these activities are geared towards the Chinese market, and he even takes his crews to do jobs in China.

These are just two cases of local development initiatives by upland people who live on the edge of Namtha town. Although the scale of their operations is small, they are shouldering much of the risk of investing in the cross-border market linkages that drive the Namtha economic boom, dealing with an uncertain market, difficult price negotiations, and unfamiliar techniques. It is still too early to say what the outcomes will be, but first indications are that rubber is generating income for local people, thus contributing to the most important development objective of the country. There are no statistics summarizing rubber by ethnicity, but our surveys along the main transport artery R3 show that rubber has become the dominant element of livelihoods in many ethnic minority villages. Cross-border economic activity at this small scale has been a major factor in the local economies of northern Laos, and is often driven by ethnicity, clan, and other kin relations.

VIII Redefining Muang Identities: Ethnonyms, Solidarity, and Social Hierarchies

All ethnic groups are officially placed on an equal footing in the 1991 Constitution that defines Laos as a multi-ethnic nation. In this scheme, the Lao themselves are included as an ethnic group, and reference to the ethnic diversity of the country is made through the term bandaa phao (all ethnic groups). The central ideology of this thinking is solidarity among all groups, and there is no concept of “minority” or “indigenous” groups in the country. A three-way system of ethnic classification—Lao Lum (lowland Lao), Lao Theung (hill Lao), and Lao Sung (highland Lao)—which had existed since French colonial times was abandoned and replaced with a more nuanced classification based on ethno­linguistic characteristics in 1985. Lao Sung and Lao Theung are now considered to be politically inappropriate, with the official policy being to call ethnic groups by specific names, prefixed with the term phao. This is, however, not an easy solution because groups are known by many different names. It is interesting to note that in everyday conversation in Luang Namtha, Lao Sung has come to mean Hmong, while Lao Theung refers to Khmu. One can consider this as coming full circle to something resembling the old, now unacceptable terms Kha (Khmu) and Meo (Hmong), only with less social stigma attached. In Luang Namtha, the revision of ethnonyms has been an interesting under­taking reflecting the positions of different groups in the historical social landscape.

The Lanten, previously Lao Sung, are now known by the names Lanten and Lao Huay. The former is from a Chinese word meaning “indigo,” a reference to their traditional dyeing. In everyday conversation, Lao Huay is commonly heard. This name was given to the Lanten after the Communist victory in Luang Namtha, as recognition of their preference for living along the streams at the edge of the town. When using their own language, the Lanten call themselves Mun (person) in the spoken language, or Iu-Ngin in the literary language. All of these names are heard in the village, but the use of Lanten at the 2012 Lunar New Year’s celebration, an official event at which provincial officials were present, suggests a preference for this name when dealing with others.

The Bit were originally known in Laos as Khabit or Khabet, which contains the unacceptable Kha element. After the liberation of Luang Namtha, the Bit were also given a new name, Lao Bit, which tried to bring them more comfortably into the Lao polity. Currently, Lao Bit is the common official self-reference, although Khabet is heard regularly in the village. In their own language, the Bit call themselves Psiing, Psiing Bit, or even Psiing Khabet. Psiing means “person” in the Bit language. In interactions with other ethnic groups, the Bit prefer to be known as Lao Bit, as it emphasizes their identity as separate from Khmu. This is because the Bit were officially grouped with the Khmu as Lao Theung until 1985.

But the most interesting ethnonym dynamics in Namtha are demonstrated by the Nyuan. Despite being a Tai-speaking group that “should” be at the top of the muang social hierarchy, they are in the process of asserting a new name for themselves. The Nyuan have typically referred to themselves as Nyuan, Tai Nyuan, or Khon Muang (people of the muang). In official policy, they have always been known as Nyuan or Yuan (Lao PDR, Institute of Ethnicity and Religion 2009). In their own historical documents one finds Yuan, and this is also the name used by Europeans visiting the region at the turn of the nineteenth century. However, the Nyuan are known as Kalom among the non-Tai groups, as well as among the Tai Lue, Tai Dam, and Tai Daeng. To the Nyuan this name is ­disparaging, although the etymology of the word is not clear, and they now prefer Lao Nyuan. The addition of “Lao” in front of a local ­ethnonym legitimizes a specific ethnic identity within the larger social landscape of the Lao nation. It is somewhat remarkable that the Tai group that is supposed to have founded the settlement would need to make a specific assertion of their Lao-ness, much in the same way that non-Tai groups have done in recent years.

The renaming project is part of a larger effort of the Nyuan aimed at overcoming the stigma of having sided with the Royalists during the struggle years. In 1968, after the final “sweeping” of resistance forces from the Namtha area, there were only five Nyuan households remaining. The rest had fled to the Thai border at Bokeo. In 1976, a proportion of the Nyuan were sent back to Namtha town, returning as part of the defeated enemy. While the official policy was to reintegrate them back into local society, the post-liberation years were filled with a significant amount of distrust for all of those who had escaped to Bokeo. In 2007, the Nyuan submitted a codification of their social institutions to the province for approval. The document is called “Establishment of the Traditions of the Lao Nyuan.” In the Lao title, the ethnonym is phao Lao Nyuan. It includes the word phao, which is used before ethnonyms in official references. The document spells out Nyuan practices on marriage and management of other social relations in the community including specifications on sanctions for individuals who do not conform. These traditional aspects of Nyuan culture are, of course, written to be in line with Lao law, demonstrating the legitimacy of their traditions and their contribution to the cultural fabric of the nation state. There is a 10-person Committee for the Management and Promotion of Lao Nyuan Culture, responsible for implementing the document in the Nyuan community. Thus the Nyuan have re-named themselves, placing themselves within the official system and distancing themselves from an old exonym associated with unacceptable local history.22)

The statements of ethnic and political affiliation seen in the shifting landscape of ethnonyms highlights the complexity of intergroup relations in Luang Namtha. Table 4 summarizes the contestation of ethnonyms in Luang Namtha.

Table 4 Contested Ethnonyms

Pholsena has argued against the “the apparent immutability of these two oppositional figures, the Majority and the ethnic minorities” (Pholsena 2006, 219). The four groups discussed in this paper employ differing identification strategies. The Nyuan and the Bit have taken up the “Lao” identifier to emphasize their commitment to being good Lao citizens, perhaps in an effort to discard the political baggage of having been on the wrong side of the revolutionary struggle. The Sida and the Lanten, both of whom remember themselves as founders of Luang Namtha, have not taken a Lao prefix before their ethnonym. Although the contestation of ethnonyms is clearly done in the immediate context of post-1975 nationalism, the longer history of interethnic relations in the early days of the muang have clear bearing on the directions of these efforts of expression.

IX Discussion: Re-exploring the Wide World beyond Structure

These local narratives leave us with questions about how to interpret the Lanten assertion of power and its place within the historical development of the muang of Luang Namtha. Did Dang Yon Hak’s efforts to assert Lanten authority result in a muang that was fundamentally different from others? It is the modern-day muang and its link to the muang of the past that concerns us here. Stuart-Fox (2002, 11) has stated: “the discontinuity of central political structures was overcome by the continuity of political culture based firmly at the village level, anchored in the socio-religious Lao worldview.” He goes on to remind us that the major polity building (and rebuilding) efforts of the Lao kings was to align the muang with the Lao mandala. Our look at the formation and transformation of Luang Namtha highlights some difficulties in generalizing a muang model, both in terms of the centrality of the Lao cultural element and the continuity that is needed to support it. Table 5 below considers some of the differences between the “classic” muang, the early (first) muang, and the later (second) muang. This summary table shows that there are significant differences between the first and second muang.

Table 5 Comparison of Muang Dynamics

Discussion of the classic muang places central importance on a political contract between the Tai and the Kha, where myth and ritual create and confirm a kin relation between the exploiter and the exploited (Aijmer 1979). In the muang created in the late nineteenth century, there is little available evidence of rituals or ceremonies to provide the basic frame of reference that would normally legitimize the Tai group’s rule and subjugate the peripheral groups in an unbalanced power structure. The lack of data on ceremonial and ritual displays of the “traditional” power relations—for Aijmer, “the ideal model”—has allowed us to look at some of the more mundane areas of muang formation. The display of cohesion has always been critical in the maintenance of muang even as conflict played out (Condominas 1990). Likewise, the cultural continuity of Lao muang is taken to be a sign of the possibility of “Lao” history (Stuart-Fox 2002). In reality, the strategies of different groups, none of which had an overwhelming demographic majority, compelling moral mandate, or coercive political authority, played out against the backdrop of the French colonial project. The striking continuity one observes here is not of a Lao (Tai) cultural core encoded in the muang, but rather of a cosmopolitan space of cultural contention.

One of the most important outcomes of these re-examinations is the understanding of ethnic relations over history. The muang framework is vulnerable because it is depend­ent on a certain type of relationships within a social space. For example, it has been claimed that “the traditional Lao muang also integrated the non-Tai populace without significantly affecting their own traditional community-structure,” and that the Lao chao “paid much attention to peaceful ‘ethnic management’” (Raendchen 2004, 417). At the same time, it is widely believed that the establishment of muang required violent appropriation of land and eviction of autochthonous people (Archaimbault 1964). Clearly, these need to be reconciled based on a broader base of ethnography that examines the details of interethnic relations (see Kojima and Badenoch, this issue).

The stories that make up the Lanten and Sida narratives share the common theme of niche creation. Both groups, understanding their own history of migration and adaptation, recognize the necessity of defining and redefining their role in broader society, rather than falling into a predetermined hierarchy. For the Lanten, they are privileged by their literacy, which they use not only to assert themselves over other uplanders but more importantly, as an interface between the many groups of the muang—an advantage that the Nyuan do not possess. For the Lanten, literacy has brought not only access to the world of Chinese culture, it also means bureaucratic capacity within the muang and the potential to turn that into influence and maybe even authority. As for the Sida, they describe their high rice yields as a way to position themselves in the local economy, and therefore make themselves indispensable to the more powerful groups around them. The fact that one of their main clients is the lowland, wet-rice producing Nyuan strengthens their feeling of integration during those times. These niches, however, are not solely defined in terms of subjugation by the Tai; in fact, in many of them, the relationship with the Tai is only peripheral to larger cultural, economic, and political streams.

We have also observed that the significance of the multilingual nature of these social landscapes is common to all upland groups in this area. Scott (2009) has suggested that Zomians find literacy to be a liability, and while there is no doubt that written language can be used as a method of control by the state, it does not have a monopoly on the strategic use of written language. The orality factor, especially the seemingly cacophonous diversity of languages, may seem to be a convenient Zomian escape route. While the use of many languages may give uplanders an upper hand in keeping the lowlanders confused, the descriptions of multilingualism in the history of the region point to strategies for enhancing uplanders’ position to engage with the state. It would be more useful to consider the complex network of linguistic relations in the uplands as a form of social capital used in engaging strategically with states and markets. More specifically, our story has shown how this social capital is actively managed and used to influence the local political situation.

Thus, the objective of this presentation of local narratives about peoples’ position in the muang is not so much an effort to recreate the history of Luang Namtha. Whether or not Dang Yon Hak actually brought the Nyuan back from Nan after a trip to Bangkok is perhaps not the main concern, as interesting as that possibility may be. Rather, following narratives that commemorate highland leaders throughout the history of fringe areas may help to highlight the complex nature of power relations (Jonsson 2010). As Jonsson has shown in the case of the Mien, these upland leaders may have received formal titles, but they do not appear in chronicles or other historical records. Giving voice to these leaders’ lives uncovers alternative perspectives on “chiefly control and lowland connections” (2002, 74). Most interesting is the accounts of how local leaders and normal people related to each other within the muang.

The muang history elaborated here also shows how upland people influenced the larger political directions that are assumed to be the domain of Tai, Lao, or Chinese. Once we shift our analysis to the marginalized storytellers, it becomes clear that there is indeed no convincing hegemony of the majority; neither can the minority be represented solely as “the other” (Pholsena 2006). While modern, nationalist motifs figure prominently in local narratives, the alternative versions show that the “imagined community” may not be as stable or clear as it is often made out to be. In presenting such an alternative local history, we do not suggest that Luang Namtha is an upland polity constructed in a lowland area. Neither do we conclude that the Lanten created a Tai look-alike polity. Rather, we underscore the complex interactions and exchanges between different groups, multiple centers of power and political influence, and the possibility that the muang should be understood as more of a regional phenomenon than a purely Tai social construct.

X Conclusion

In painting an alternative view on a local history, we have tried to peel back layers of mainstream discourse to transform the “anonymity” that hides marginal actors (Forsyth and Michaud 2011) in history, picking up on the claim of an upland group in northern Laos that they laid the foundations for the establishment of a Tai muang. In exploring the different memories of how the muang was established and developed, we challenge the common assumptions about political organization in the Tai hinterlands and add nuance to the complex and poorly understood relations between ethnic groups in these areas. In our examination of the Luang Namtha case, we are faced with a narrative in which the “marginal” people played a central role in establishing a local polity. At the same time, the original Tai founders are consistently portrayed in a passive and vulnerable role. The political ambiguity of the muang social space is presented in ways that give new voice to actors whose agency is frequently denied, ignored, played down, or appropriated by conventional historical perspectives. Moreover, we find efforts to cast history in a different light, one that is strongly influenced by the political ideology of the modern Lao nation state, but one that, in its own way, seeks to reclaim the right to authorship of history, in order to redefine the multiethnic social landscape of a rapidly developing economic center. We believe that this type of study demonstrates the importance of following local articulations of history, in an attempt to challenge our assumptions about historical relations. Key to this is moving beyond social structures to focus on the interactions between ethnic groups, looking to social phenomena such as multilingualism as a window on local strategies. In doing this we follow efforts to “carve out spaces from which to speak that keep sliding away from centers of elite power” (Sears 1993, 18)

We propose that the value-added content of this study is in the rethinking of a ­history, rather than its rewriting (Reynolds 2006). Having explored the possibility of a muang founded by uplanders, the control of Tai by uplanders, the absence of Buddhist cosmology and rituals to define and confirm power relations, and the efficiency of local economic initiative over state policy, we create for ourselves a space to consider how a history might be rewritten. For example, writing about the Tai people of Nan Province in Thailand, Davis tempers the common understanding of the assimilation of Mon-Khmer people into the Tai muangs, remarking that “acculturation has not been a one-way process” (1984, 35). But such a “seditious history,” to use Reynold’s term, is one that not only challenges the assumptions encoded in the “documentation of specificity,” as is the task of historians, but one that gives thought to “where this body of knowledge has come from, what holds it together, and how it might be liberated for wider use” (ibid., 29).

This paper has taken up Stuart-Fox’s call for alternative historiographies drawing on traditions of minority groups (2002), which he suggested should be written and integrated into a more diverse and nuanced Lao historiography. With pressures mounting on minority languages, oral traditions, ritual songs, and other potential sources of “alternative” history, this must be given the highest priority. Only then will a history emerge that is commensurate with the rich human diversity that defines Laos, and further enhance our understanding of the region and its immense complexity.

Accepted: November 6, 2012


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1) We use the term “Tai” in referring to a large group of peoples speaking related Tai-Kadai languages and sharing certain cultural heritage such as a muang model of political organization. In the Lao case, this refers to Lao, Lue, Phuan, Tai Dam, and other related groups. In the Luang Namtha story, the key Tai groups are Nyuan, Lue, and Tai Dam. The point of using this term is to characterize them as lowlanders, in contrast to the other people we refer to as uplanders.

2) Writers such as Archaimbault (1964) and Aijmer (1979) have contributed to the idea that the hierarchical relations represented by the muang are a factor of proto-Tai culture.

3), accessed March 2, 2012.

4) This is an analysis of the tmooy subgroupings in Khmu society. See also Évrard (2011) for a compelling analysis of these social dynamics in the contemporary context.

5) The information presented here was gathered from Lanten, Sida, and Bit elders living in villages around the town of Luang Namtha.

6) It is generally believed that the uplanders inhabiting the region are relatively recent arrivals. Dates are often put at around 1890 or thereafter, but conservative estimates based on oral genealogies date the arrival of the Sida and Lanten in the region to the 1860s.

7) We have chosen to use the ethnonym “Lanten” over other options because that is how they are known in the literature. We refer to their language as Mun, which is what they themselves call their language.

8) The Sida speak a Tibeto-Burman language belonging to the Southern-Loloish branch of Lolo-­Burmese.

9) We are preparing a separate analysis of Sida oral history that traces their departure from China and subsequent journey through Phongsaly to Luang Namtha.

10) In Sino-Mun, 得種官名管山人.

11) Proschan (1998) provides useful information about the Cheuang Wars but does not mention the Bit specifically. The Bit themselves tell of fleeing the Phongsaly-Vietnam border area during this time, and their narrative puts them in Namo directly after that. It is likely that a group of Bit continued on from Namo to Namtha, as a British traveler has them well established in the upper area of the Namtha river watershed in 1891 (Anonymous 1982).

12) It is possible that the narrator has confused Akha with “Kha,” as might be suggested by the Rmeet story referred to below. However, in other stories told in conjunction with this, the Sida recognize the large population of Akha in the area. There is also a tendency to sanitize ethnonyms in present day storytelling, so as to avoid offending the national discourse of “harmony among all ethnic groups.”

13) There are many examples of cross-ethnic transfer in oral traditions in Luang Namtha.

14) The Nan chronicle (Wyatt 1994) mentions a tributary mission from Nan to Bangkok in 1856, which included a “local chief” from Muang Luang Phukha. This date does not match the documented timing of the Nyuan return. It is also significantly earlier than the supposed arrival of the Lanten. The mission included local chiefs from a number of areas, and perhaps Yon Hak or a similar figure was part of it. If it was indeed Yon Hak, this reference greatly reinforces the Lanten clans to a significant role in the governance of Muang Luang Phukha.

15) This phrase is used particularly in reference to King Kawila’s attempts to reestablish Chiang Mai’s political control over northern Thailand after Burmese rule in the eighteenth century.

16) Tao is a Tai term referring to an elite class of leaders in a muang.

17) It should perhaps not be assumed that Haw influence is an upland-lowland phenomenon. In terms of worldviews and belief systems, this may be the case, but the Haw themselves have been referred to as upland Chinese and it is likely that a significant portion of these interactions may have happened in the mountains. As Daniels (2009) shows, generations of a Haw family surnamed Fu in Phongsaly province were issued with titles from the monarchy in Luang Prabang during the nineteenth century, and from the French colonial regime thereafter, which gave them authority to administrate and collect taxes from various Tibeto-Burman speaking upland peoples. The Fu family, and indeed other upland Haw too, were traders who maintained close relationships (including intermarriage) with, and exerted cultural and linguistic influence on, other highland ethnic groups.

18) The earliest date for the King Ping Charter, in which this descent is codified, is 1261. This is believed to be the original version that was copied and distributed widely in Thailand, Laos, and Yunnan.

19) In contemporary Lao society, documentation in support of uplanders’ livelihoods consists of land allocation papers, which are designed to limit cultivation in the name of eradicating shifting cultivation.

20) This information was gathered in interviews with Nyuan elders in Ban Luang, Luang Namtha province.

21) In the post-1975 historical discourse, the Communist forces are known as Ay Nong (the brothers) and the Royalists as Satu (the enemy). This narrative is by the Lanten who were on the Ay Nong side.

22) The Tai Dam have produced a similar document and organizational structure.


Vol. 2, No. 1 of Southeast Asian Studies

Published in April, 2013


Note from Editorial Committee pdficon_large

Upland Peoples in the Making of History in Northern Continental Southeast Asia

Guest Editor: Christian DANIELS

Introduction ・・・ Christian DANIELS pdficon_large
Mountain People in the Muang: Creation and Governance of a Tai Polity in Northern Laos ・・・ Nathan BADENOCH, TOMITA Shinsuke pdficon_large
Becoming Stateless: Historical Experience and Its Reflection on the Concept of State among the Lahu in Yunnan and Mainland Southeast Asian Massif ・・・ KATAOKA Tatsuki pdficon_large
From Tea to Temples and Texts: Transformation of the Interfaces of Upland-Lowland Interaction on the China-Myanmar Border ・・・ KOJIMA Takahiro, Nathan BADENOCH pdficon_large
Blocking the Path of Feral Pigs with Rotten Bamboo: The Role of Upland Peoples in the Crisis of a Tay Polity in Southwest Yunnan, 1792 to 1836 ・・・ Christian DANIELS pdficon_large
Why Periodic Markets Are Held: Considering Products, People, and Place in the Yunnan-Vietnam Border Area ・・・ NISHITANI Masaru, Nathan BADENOCH pdficon_large
Book Reviews
Jean Michaud and Tim Forsyth, eds. Moving Mountains: Ethnicity and Livelihoods in Highland China, Vietnam, and Laos. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011, xvi+235p. ・・・ James CHAMBERLAIN pdficon_large
John Clifford Holt. Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009, 368p. ・・・ TSUMURA Fumihiko pdficon_large
Andrew Walker, ed. Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and State in Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009, 261p. ・・・ BABA Yuji pdficon_large
Bertil Lintner and Michael Black. Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2009, xii+180p. ・・・ Ronalad
Thein Swe and Paul Chambers. Cashing in across the Golden Triangle: Thailand’s Northern Border Trade with China, Laos, and Myanmar. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2011, xx+192p. ・・・ Chris BAKER pdficon_large