Heritage and the Making of Political Legitimacy in Laos: The Past and Present of the Lao Nation.

AuthorFreeman, Nick J.

Heritage and the Making of Political Legitimacy in Laos: The Past and Present of the Lao Nation. By Phill Wilcox. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press, 2021. Hardcover: 190pp.

Books devoted to Laos are relatively rare, and this one, which aims to "take a fresh look at issues of legitimacy, heritage, and national identity for different members of the Lao population" (back cover) should be welcomed to the Lao canon. Largely based on empirical research conducted by Phill Wilcox in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, the book has some enlightening observations on the contradictions that pertain to Laos' sense of itself, and, as the title suggests, how the leadership seeks to portray its own political legitimacy. In essence, the book explores the gaps and overlaps that exist in Laos between what is officially declared and what tends to transpire; between what is said in public and thought (and felt) in private. For anyone interested in contemporary Laos, and how it got here, this book is definitely worth perusing.

Wilcox employs Michael Herzfeld's anthropological "cultural intimacy" model to illustrate how Laos' political system has become embedded in the country's contemporary culture and society, and how its citizens "live in and around the state" (p. 1). A key tenet of this model involves the beliefs that even when individuals "criticize the state or blame it for their misfortunes, they still recognize that the state has a fundamental right to exist" (p. 30). The author does a good job of discussing potential threats to the legitimacy of the Lao leadership posed by the increasing footprint of China, and the anxiety this is generating in society, even if mostly voiced in private. The ideological affinity that exists between the ruling parties in Vientiane and Beijing both ameliorates and complicates this issue. This is particularly so as the former has sought to burnish its nationalist credentials in recent years, as an additional source of political legitimacy in a country where few nowadays will remember its victory against the royalist regime in 1975.

The above notwithstanding, this reviewer struggled a little with a few aspects of this book. First, the author asserts that the leadership continues to project the notion that Laos is on its way to a socialist nirvana, and expresses this using increasingly dated "revolutionary nomenclature" (p. 30), yet in the economic realm it has opted to pursue a capitalist track...

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