CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Against the current drama of the Iraqi issue, other national and regional developments seem to fade out of focus. One such “minor event” that is heading toward oblivion concerns the tiny landlocked country of Laos. At the beginning of the year, unexpected news from there made regional waves, raising more questions than answers: The Vientiane regime had surprised observers by officially unveiling a large statue of legendary King Fa Ngum. Why had a powerful chieftain of the 14th century been suddenly resurrected and rehabilitated by an administration that was otherwise divorced from royal ideology and institutions? And why choose a symbol of Buddhism?
According to a Thai academic, this move by the authorities was aimed at preserving Laos’ identity “before it further fades into the Thai orbit of cultural supremacy.”
In the opinion of a knowledgeable analyst of Indochina, the authorities “had to yield a little for the sake of preserving their essential influence.” In other words, they took a small step in the direction of popular beliefs at the expense of a less-rigid party line.
Beyond the possible interpretations of the move, one is reminded of the deep links between the Laotian people, their old monarchs and their basic Buddhist faith. For centuries, this triptych constituted the essence of the nation. Buddhist literature, popular literature, art, popular theater, popular songs and festivals — everything was connected to royal symbols and to Buddhist teachings. Old rites that related to the creation of the world, especially in the historic city of Luang Prabang and in various sacred caves, had to be consecrated by the presence of the king.
These traditions extended to larger territories including the area of Chieng Tung — the Shan state of Burma. In one ceremony, the reigning prince had to symbolically relinquish power to the local chieftain for one day. Such rites — and there are many more — demonstrated the old, extremely tight links among the people, their faith and their monarch. This harmonious blend constituted the core of the national culture. How much of it has already disappeared? How much is still preserved, deep in the Laotian psyche?
There is never-ending discourse over this, not just in connection with Laos but with other countries where alien doctrines have antagonized and displaced centuries-old traditions and beliefs.
In neighboring Cambodia, an interesting scholarly compilation — “Strange Events in the Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos, 1635-1644” — just appeared in Bangkok, thanks to White Lotus Press. It presents striking material in light of the genocidal interlude of the Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s and similar past events. Carool Kersten, a Dutch Islamist and a South East Asian scholar, managed to locate, translate and annotate a nearly forgotten Dutch text from 1669.
Although the exact authorship is unclear, the contents of the text, originally commissioned by Haarlam book printer Pieter Casteleyn in 1669, provide fascinating glimpses of life, religion, dynastic conflicts and the Dutch East India Company’s drive into these remote regions. Instances of cruelty and torture mentioned may be bring to mind the unbelievable brutalities of recent times.
I would like to ponder for a moment one of compiler Kersten’s conclusions in his work: “Seventeenth-century Cambodian politics show ominous signs that the ingredients for Cambodia’s tribulations in more recent times were already present: infighting among domestic political factions, foreign interventions, problems with resident foreign communities, the emergence of a maverick leader subscribing to a doctrine that was alien to the Khmer cultural heritage.”
That leader was Prince Sattha, who, upon reaching the throne in 1642, was converted to Islam and assumed the new name of Ibrahim! Of course, one cannot equate Islam with the madness of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, but the process by which an alien creed made inroads into Khmer culture at the time seems strange, since an identical effort by Persian settlers to convert King Narai in neighboring Siam (former name for Thailand) failed miserably a few years later. As for “foreign interventions,’ the book mentions influences from Java, Malaya (Malay Peninsula) and Annam (central Vietnam).
Of special interest in connection with Japan are the frequent references to Japanese mercenaries, merchants etc. in Cambodia during Japan’s “sakoku” (isolationist) period.
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