AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 489

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Session 489: Center for Lao Studies’ Ethnic Classification and Identification in the Diasporas

Organizer: Vinya Sysamouth, Center for Lao Studies, USA

Discussant: Carol J. Compton, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Ethnic classifications and self identifications by individuals and groups of people often changes when a portion of the population resettles in a new land. For some, there is a stronger enforcement of one’s own classification carried from the old land. While others are assigned new label or intentionally change it to benefit their community. In the case of the Lao migrants, the negotiation of their role and self identification depends more on the ethnic composition of their surrounding, and the political climate, their social and economic status in the new land. This panel consists of scholars from the Lao PDR, Thailand, and the United States. All of whom will cover different aspect of ethnic classification and identification. Our Lao scholar will present the history of ethnic classification in Laos, past and present. The Thai scholars will cover two interesting groups of Lao people living in Thailand, one being the Lao Song Dam prisoners of war in Central Thailand that were resettled about 200 years ago. The second presentation will cover the Lao migrant workers in Thailand and how they define their community within a Thai space. Finally, our American scholars will present the Lao American experience, first as refugees and then as citizens of the United States. Two presentations will cover the Lao oral history archive and the role that it plays in defining the Lao American community. Lastly, a presentation will cover Hmong refugees from Laos and the forging of Hmong American identity in the new land.

The classification and the naming of ethnic groups in the Lao P.D.R.
Sengfa Holanouphab, Independent Scholar, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

This paper describes the names of the groupings of the ethnic groups in Laos, which were classified before and after the national liberation: In the Lao chronicles known as the Nithan Khun Borom (The story of Khun Borom), containing the original myths of the Lao peoples, the ethnic groups were classified into two groups: Lao-Tai language group (Tai) and Mon-Khmer language group (Kha). By 1970, before the Lao national liberation, the ethnic groups were classified based on the settlement, language and political meaning, which grouped the 68 ethnic groups into three main categories: Lao Lum (Lowlanders), Lao Theung (Uplanders), Lao Soung (Hill tribes), which consisted of 12 ethnic groups, 26 ethnic groups, 20 ethnic groups respectively. In 1985 after the national liberation the ethnic groups in Laos were classified initially as 47 ethnic groups based on the ethnographic principles, but that was not adopted. Then on October 9-10th, 2007 a workshop on the ethnic group categories was held in Vientiane, and it was agreed that the names of the three main ethnic categories were to be abolished, and the groups were to be classified into 49 ethnic groups based on Linguistic - historical background, and on custom-tradition-culture criterion. However, on November 24th 2008, the 6th conference of the National Assembly adopted that the Lao P.D.R has 49 ethnic groups, which are now classified into 4 different language groups: Lao-Tai language group (8 ethnic groups), Mon-Khmer language group (32 ethnic groups), Chinese-Tibetan language group (7 ethnic groups) and Hmong-Mien language group (2 ethnic groups).

The language maintenance and shift of Lao Song Dam in the western region of Thailand
Somsonge Burusphat, Mahidol University, Thailand

Previous studies have shown that Lao Song Dam or Tai Dam ethnic group living in the western region of Thailand has the strongest language vitality and cultural preservation among all the Lao ethnic groups whose ancestors migrated from Lao PDR more than 200 years ago. Despite their strong language vitality, Lao Song Dam people have been assimilated into the Thai community. The Thai language has a heavy influence as a standard language in Lao Song Dam community. Though middle-aged and old-aged people still preserve their language, young generation speakers use Thai more than Lao Song Dam. The research questions of this paper are to what extent Lao Song Dam could preserve their language and what factors that cause the maintenance and shift of Lao Song Dam language and culture. The finding of the first question is obtained by a sociolinguistic study of lexical variation among Lao Song Dam speakers of three age groups: old generation (over 60), middle generation (35-55), and young generation (18-30). Lao Song Dam speakers residing in Nakornpathom province are selected as representatives of Lao Song Dam in the western region of Thailand. The second research question is carried out by using a qualitative method. A guided questionnaire is constructed for an in-depth interview with community leaders. The lexical analysis shows phonological and lexical variations due to the Thai language influence. The linguistic variation is further compared with Black Tai (Tai Dam) words compiled from Muong Lao, Muong Muoi, and Muong Theng in the northwest of Vietnam by Jay Fippinger (1970) to see how much Lao Song Dam is different from its ancestor language after two hundred years of separation. And the major factors that cause the maintenance and shift of Lao Song Dam language and culture are the attitudes of Lao Song Dam towards their own language and culture as well as the attitudes of Thai people towards this Lao ethnic group; the strong belief in ancestor worship and patriarchy; degrees of assimilation to the Thai community; the education of young generation speakers; and the support from the Thai government.

Constructing Community Across Border: A Study of Lao Migrants in Thailand
Maniemai Thongyou, Khon Kaen University, Thailand

This research article is based on my two field research on Lao work migrants in Thailand. In the first research I conducted a survey with 270 Lao workers in four provinces in Thailand and in the second research I conducted in-depth interviews with Lao workers and their family in a village in Lao PDR and also in Thailand. I argued that although Lao migrants lived and worked in Thailand, they felt that they belonged to their home community in Lao PDR socially, culturally and economically. The idea of community generates a sense of belonging across physical national border. This sense of belonging generates a boundary, which informs its Lao members that they are similar, and at the same time, different from Thais. Migrants’ transnational ties with their community of origin fortify their group boundary within Thailand and across national border. Thai state’s disintegration policy on undocumented cross-border migrants hinders the assimilation of Lao migrants with Thai society, which reinforces Lao migrants’ social ties across border with their home communities.

Lao Oral History Archive (LOHA)
Vinya Sysamouth, Center for Lao Studies, USA

The Center for Lao Studies (CLS) is currently launching a Lao Oral History Archive (LOHA), which will document the experiences of Lao refugees in the U.S. through audio and video digital media. CLS will also scan and archive photos and documents directly related to interviewees’ involvement or personal loss during the secret war in Laos, their experiences in the refugee camps, and transition in the U.S. Through this project we will also create an on-line public archive, featuring interviews, videos, and historical documents. LOHA has been designed by a team of prominent Lao scholars and Lao-Americans. These experts are intimately familiar with the history and contemporary realities of Lao refugee communities throughout the U.S. This paper will present ten stories from Lao American families and their life challenges who are currently living in United States, mainly in Minnesota and the San Francisco Bay Area. The presenter will also analyze trends and themes that emerged from the interviews.

Constructing a Digital Media Infrastructure for the Lao Oral History Archive
Steve Arounsack, California State University, Stanislaus, USA

The bombings in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s forced approximately 180,000 Lao from their homeland and onto the American landscape. Four decades later, the memories, reflections, and stories of the elder generation are in danger of being lost forever. The main objective of this project is to use digital media as an infrastructure to preserve, capture, and disseminate oral histories from Lao elders to the widest possible audience. To sample the multi-ethnic Lao community, we interviewed 10 elders from the greater San Francisco Bay Area and the Minneapolis region. Several major ethnic groups from Laos were represented, mainly the Lao Loum, Khmu, Iu Mien, Hmong, and Lao Lue. Participants with vastly different backgrounds were selected to capture the scope and breadth of Lao American history. This cross-section of the Lao community has endured long-term cultural transformations in the face of new varieties of urban living and in the loss of their previous roles in relation to society and the state. Interviews were recorded entirely in digital format and were edited down to clips that fit in one of four major themes: 1) Life in Laos, focusing on life during the Second Indochina War, 2) “Re-education Camps” between 1975 and the 1980s in Laos, 3) Living in Limbo, focusing on the refugee camp experience, and 4) Transition and Settlement, focusing on the short and long term aspects of displacement and acculturation. As a project informed by the humanities, a cross generational approach to interviews was used: younger interviewers asked questions of elders and the elders responded in storytelling prose. The clips then were uploaded to a customized website where they could be accessed via tagged subject headings. Researchers and general audiences alike lauded the utility of shorter indexed clips because queries tend to be more targeted, thus more time-efficient. In essence, this on-line searchable repository of Lao oral histories functioned much like a “YouTube” website. The digital media workflow provided a flexible, efficient, and cost-effective approach to archiving human stories.

Hmong American imagination and Laos: the politics of history, culture and identity
Chia Youyee Vang, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA

Most knowledge produced about Hmong refugees from Laos in the United States follow the victim narrative and focus on social, economic and cultural challenges within American society. Other common stories about Hmong focus on war in Southeast Asia, flight and refugee camp experiences. A few recent publications examine broader migration experiences, identity, and integration. Today Hmong American subjects are no longer merely vulnerable populations to be studied by outsiders. Instead, diasporic conditions have enabled Hmong Americans to play an active role in the construction of knowledge regarding Hmong history, culture and changing traditions. With changing relations between the United States and Laos as well as Laos’ role in Southeast Asia, what place does Laos have in Hmong American’s articulation of their identity, culture and history? Using oral history narratives conducted with Hmong Americans, this paper examines the myriad ways in which Lao history and culture continue to influence Hmong American identity. Furthermore, it explores the transnational ties and practices between those in the diaspora and Hmong ethnics in Laos.