Emslie Horniman Award – Phill Wilcox

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Award Holder: Phill Wilcox
University: Goldsmiths, University of London
Title of Research: King Vatthana’s Ghost: Revolution, Heritage and Legitimacy in Laos

Luang Prabang is an ancient city located in the north of Laos. It is the former royal capital of Laos and remains an important centre for Buddhism as it has been throughout much of its history. Luang Prabang was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995 largely in view of its architecture, which is considered to be a successful blend of traditional and colonial styles as well as being a town that has been well-preserved. Of particular significance are the city’s numerous temples and the former royal palace, which is now the National Museum. This was the home of the Lao royal family until their deposition by the communists in 1975. The Lao King, Queen and Crown Prince died subsequently in a re-education camp.

This project aims to investigate how narratives of the country’s pre-revolutionary heritage contribute to narratives of political legitimacy in contemporary Laos and how this process is negotiated, performed and received. It was researched through twelve months ethno-graphic fieldwork in Luang Prabang between July 2015 and July 2016.


The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) celebrated its fortieth birthday in De-cember 2015. It may seem unusual for Laos to retain socialism – even nominally – in a world that has largely abandoned such ideologies in the last few decades but in Laos, socialism remains an objective that is desired, at least in official discourse. In the case of  Laos, it has been argued convincingly that in the early 1990s, the Lao government em-barked on a campaign to reinvent and legitimise itself. This meant appropriating a number of the symbols and rituals associated with the regime that they had ousted and in turn, portraying themselves as the legitimate guardians of contemporary Lao culture and socie-ty (Evans 1998). Today, the political landscape officially retains socialism as a nominal commitment but features capitalist economic enterprise.  

This approach is particularly interesting when considered in the context of Luang Pra-bang, where the home of the ousted royal family is one of the most iconic landmarks and sits centrally within the zone that UNESCO recognised as being of exceptional cultural value. Today the National Museum is open for visitors and allows visitors an insight into the lives of the former Lao monarchy until 1975 but there is no information available at all about what happened to the Lao royal family after this date. Unlike the museums in other parts of the country which often feature inflammatory signage about the country’s pre-revolutionary past, the process of heritage management in Luang Prabang does not allow this to occur. Instead what transpires is an interesting mix of portraying Luang Prabang as the centre of Lao culture, and a place whose past has produced a beautiful city with a fascinating cultural and ethnic heritage but above all, a past that does not conflict with contemporary political narratives of socialism. Simultaneously, it is a place where silence is employed officially as a method for dealing with the more contentious aspects of Lao history. During my fieldwork in Laos I witnessed several different official approaches to dealing with questions about what had actually happened to the Lao royal family which featured silence, evasion, ignorance or a combination of these factors.

Given that so much time has passed since Evans’ arguments about the reinvention of and by the Lao government were first made, I believe it is worth asking how relevant they remain today and what this means for contemporary ideas of legitimacy in Laos. Literature on heritage and memory generally reflects that heritage is not neutral and subject to com-peting agendas and I was curious to investigate exactly how this works in Laos.  This is particularly relevant in the light of the growing influence of China in the region. I also be-lieve that it is very easy to see political transition as a linear process which produces  some form of democracy at its terminus. In my opinion, the example of Laos is an im-portant example in demonstrating that this process is considerably more complicated than that.

Herzfeld (2005 (1997)) argues that the public and private narratives of a nation may well not match and that it is well known to the authorities that in private, citizens may well hold a range of dissenting views. Overall though, the private face of the nation becomes the engine room for the nation’s public face. I believe this model is particularly appropriate in a political context such as Laos particularly as what happens in private has huge poten-tial to shape public discourse. At the same time I held and still hold certain reservations about the model being over-reliant on a single public and more importantly a single pri-vate culture. My work on Laos set out to consider firstly how the nation’s private spaces might contribute to the nation’s front face, how they shaped and moreover, what this model would look like were it to be considered through a plural rather than singular lens.


I went to Luang Prabang in mid 2015 and rented a room inside the UNESCO heritage zone. I acquired two jobs within the first month. One was working for the local ethnology museum. I worked there as a librarian, archivist and teacher. This is one of the only pri-vate museums in Laos and gave me an excellent insight into how heritage, especially ethnic and cultural heritage and diversity is presented. The other was tutoring several groups of ethnic minority young people, most of whom had migrated to Luang Prabang in pursuit of what they perceived to be greater educational or employment opportunities. Many were Hmong or Khmu and maintained close relationships with family and extended family in neighbouring provinces. Through them, I was able to visit many of their families and learned a large amount of valuable information about how Luang Prabang is per-ceived as a place of opportunity. I also learned much about the history of those ethnic groups and how that intersects with narratives of Laos as a “multi-ethnic people” and consider myself very privileged to have been given this access into the lives. Overall, and in addition to participant observation and through considerable investment of time, I was able to build very strong relationships with around sixteen people who in turn granted me a series of in depth interviews. Had I known in advance of my fieldwork that I was going to spend so much time with Hmong speakers I would have tried to learn at least a little. Fortunately where I was not able to communicate directly in Lao or in English, it was not difficult to find friends who generously gave up their time to translate. Since then, I have begun learning Hmong in the hope of doing further research in this area.

I was able to attend a series of official events and to document the celebrations for twenty years of Luang Prabang as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and forty years of the found-ing of the Lao PDR.  In the case of the former, I was allowed to attend and participate in rehearsals for the street parade. I undertook detailed analysis of official public narratives in print and television media and in the course of my fieldwork, I amassed around five thousand relevant images. In the context of Laos, I learned very early both in this period of fieldwork and during an earlier pilot study that it would take considerable time to build up the necessary relationships of trust before I was able to access contentious subjects and therefore I needed to allow sufficient time for interviews lasting several sessions over a period of many months.  

Throughout my fieldwork I was affiliated nominally to the Ecole Francaise d’extreme-orient, who generously provided me with a workspace in Vientiane.  


As my fieldwork progressed, I amassed a very large amount of data on how heritage is perceived and performed in Luang Prabang and how Luang Prabang is viewed as the centre of Lao culture. I learned that one central official narrative exists and that that is at-tested to in public culture. I also learned that there is a considerable amount of unspoken history behind the official narratives and further that a diverse range of views and opin-ions exist in private, which inform the the shaping of that public discourse in a variety of ways.  This is supportive of Evans (1998) arguments still being relevant today in Laos. Heritage and the strategies in which it is employed is an intensely political process gen-erally, but particularly so in Laos. In Luang Prabang, this means utilising it in service of dominant ideologies while being selective about what is presented and how, and mar-ginalising dissenting or alternative views but accepting at the same time that they may ex-ist in private. This explains why the recent past remains an extremely contentious and sensitive issue given that its presentation is such a live issue for political legitimacy. Lu-ang Prabang is in a very singular place in Laos to consider how, where and when these issues intersect.

Existing studies on Laos recognise that Laos generally is a very under-researched coun-try. Given the considerable difficulties of doing research in the Lao political context, this is unsurprising. Although several studies have emerged in more recent years about legiti-macy in Laos, no-one has yet published a comprehensive study on how the Lao govern-ment’s agenda might be influenced from the bottom-up and how the authorities might permit this process for their own ends. Nor has anyone considered how this process works in Luang Prabang itself. My study indicates that a certain amount of nostalgia for the past is an integral part of the fabric of Luang Prabang life, but allowed within certain parameters only concerning which past, and whose past. I would argue strongly that my study is therefore unique in this respect.

I remain of the view that Herzfeld’s (2005 (1997)) model is applicable to Laos. That said, I find its current predication on a single public and private culture concerning. This is be-cause it is demonstrable in Laos that multiple private cultures exist in Laos, and that these share space and may even compete with each other. While I think the argument about the private sphere of social life influencing the public one and vice versa is a compelling one and indeed is demonstrated well in the case of Laos, I believe I can demonstrate through my work that the model is at present too essentialised and can be extended to reflect the nuances and plural nature of social life. In addition, although there is a grow-ing body on how socialist and post-socialist societies have changed and are changing, I believe my study on Laos adds further weight to the viewpoint that democracy is not nec-essarily the inevitable endpoint of political transition. It is important to state that I am not arguing that is a good thing, but I am saying that considerations of how socialism contin-ues to function at least nominally in a society such as Laos is a relevant factor in consid-ering ideas of political transition.

I would like to make one further observation here, which underpinned much of what I learned during my fieldwork. This is that whileI did not set out to research Chinese influ-ence in Laos per se, but in relation to thinking about how Laos has changed and indeed will change, my research demonstrates just how significant this is for discourses of herit-age and legitimacy in Laos.  My research suggests that the legitimacy drive of which Ev-ans wrote in 1998 was – broadly – a successful venture. However, I believe that there is now a far larger issue, namely that of how the relationship with China develops and how it is managed and seen to be managed. In my view, it is how the Lao government manag-es this process that will determined their own legitimacy in the future.  

In the course of my fieldwork, I applied for and received grants for my next year of study from the Richard Stapley Trust and Funds for Women Graduates. I consider the Emslie Horniman Scholarship process to have assisted me greatly in being able to apply for fur-ther funding.  I would like to finish by saying a very sincere thank you to all at the Royal Anthropological Institute for supporting this work, and especially to Raymond Apthorpe for being such an excellent and supportive mentor.


Evans, G. (1998). The politics of ritual and remembrance: Laos since 1975. Chiang Mai, Thailand, Silkworm Books.
Herzfeld, M. (2005 (1997)). Cultural intimacy: social poetics in the nation-state. New York, Routledge.