Pham Van Dung
Due date at FIC: 29 April 2013
Topic: Is the liberal discourse of ethnic minority rights applicable in countries other
than the Western Liberal Democracies?
1. The liberal discourse of ethnic minority rights
Kymlicka, a leading author of multiculturalism, mentions five factors which embed
preconditions for the Western model of liberal multiculturalism, and asks questions as to
whether this model applies well in societies other than Western democracies. The first factor
is demography. Indigenous minorities, as the fastest-growing segment in the West, are no
longer threatened by disappearance (Kymlicka, 2005, p. 31). Besides an increased number of
immigrants offers a trend of nondominant groups in a democratic society (ibid, p. 32). The
second factor is rights-consciousness, which resulted from the human rights revolution and
struggles for human equality (ibid, p. 32). The third factor is democracy. Kymlicka asserts
that the consolidation of democracy restricts the elites‟ capability to suppress political
movements of the ethnic minority. It opens opportunities for a wide and multiple range of
people to have a say and participate in the decision-making process (ibid, p. 33). The fourth
factor is desecuritization. Western states are no longer fearful of collaboration between
national minorities and neighboring enemies (ibid, p. 34). The relationship between state and
minority groups becomes democratic politics instead of safety issues (ibid, p. 35). The fifth
factor is liberal-democratic consensus. In the Western democracies, individual freedom and
human rights are accredited and respected by states, sub-state self-governance (if any), and
their members (ibid, p. 35).
For a relevant analysis and conceivable conclusion, I will apply Kymlicka‟s mentioned
aspects to analyse the case of the Lao Peoples‟ Democratic Republic and suggest possible
applications of the Western model to related minority rights.
2. Brief introduction of Laos
The first inhabitants of Laos may be the ascendants of Lao Theung, or Kha, who have been
living in mountainsides (Bowman, 2000, p. 452). Since the first century, the lowland group of
„Tai‟ or Lao Loum, under pressure from the Chinese empire, migrated southwest from
southern Kwangsi of China (Evans, 2002, p. 2). They conquered the indigenous groups, and
called them kha, i.e. „slave‟. The conquered peoples were made subordinated and assimilated
into the culture of the Tai (ibid, p. 3). The Lao Loum have since been dominating the country
of the recent Lao territory for most of the time.
During the mid-fourteenth century, a descendant of the chiefdom of northern Lao and Khmer
royal line, Fa Ngum established the Lane Xang Kingdom and located central power in Luang
Prabang (Mason, 2005, p. 187). The Isan in north-east Thailand today used to belong to Lane
Xang and was influenced by Laotian in terms of language and culture. Pre-modern Lao
experienced such ethnic groups as Hmong (Meo) and Yao (Iu Mien) among others migrated
into Laos from China (Evans, 2002, p. 136). The monarchs of the lowland Lao (Tai speakers)
paid slight attention to peripheral highland minorities before the French colonization in the
1890s. Then the French rule applied strict control over national territory. Subsequently,
minorities were taken into account, and they were subjected to a new national formation
(Michaud, 2009, p. 29).
After French colonial time and a domestic war, the monarchy was overthrown and the Lao
People‟s Democratic Republic was established under the communist rule in 1975 (ibid, p.
288). Today Laos is a developing country in Southeast Asia. Survey results released in 1995
showed that almost three-quarters of households were in poverty, with nearly half being very
poor (Mason, 2005, p. 288-9).
3. Factors affecting ethnic minority rights in Laos
A relatively larger increase of minority groups and a changing identification of ethnic
minorities in Laos makes it different from the West. Also, an invalid number of ethnic
peoples reflects a disregard on the attitude of the contemporary government towards the
minority self-naming and self-determination. Under the French administration 5 censuses
were conducted from 1911 to 1942, in which 9 ethnic groups (7 groups in the 1942 Census)
were listed (Pholsena, 2002, p. 176). In the 1950s, the Royal Lao Government defined three
main ethnic groups based on their living locations: “Lao Lum” (valley Lao), “Lao Theung”
(Lao of the mountain slopes), and “Lao Sung” (Lao of the mountaintops) (Pholsena, 2002, p.
180; Pholsena, 2006, p. 154). Under the communist regime, the 2005 Census recognized 49
ethnic groups, of which almost 55% were Lao, 11% Khmu and 8% Hmong and the rest were
small groups (Tagwerker, 2009, p. 15). However, the official national listings were far from
the ethnic peoples‟ self-naming and scientific application because of the political reasons for
security, control and revenue system (Michaud, 2009, p. 36). Marxist–Leninist influence
(Pholsena, 2002, pp. 182-3) and „Kaysone‟s Theory of Nationhood‟ (ibid, pp. 190-3) made a
Census practice (ibid, pp. 185-9) and its generated number of identified ethnic groups in Laos
and elsewhere remain uncertain (ibid, p. 185). This top-down identification “greatly hampers
the applicability of a liberal model of minority rights” (Pholsena, 2005, p. 91).
Contrary to increasing numbers of immigrants in Western countries, Laos has experienced
emigration, especially ethnic minority emigrants. Emigration in modern Lao is marked by the
fleeing of the Vietnamese and a Lao-isation of the cities in 1940s. Together with
revolutionaries, numerous upland Tai and various minorities settled in towns and made
changes to the urban composition after 1975 (Evans, 2002, p. 177). The communist harsh
policies and worsened economic conditions caused an exodus of approximately 10% of the
Lao population (Tagwerker, 2009, p. 19). The evacuation of merchants and the middle class
and the execution of the old elite simplified Lao‟s social arrangement (Evans, 2002, p. 202).
Ethnic minority peoples in Laos and in many Asian countries as well face harsh conditions
for their equal opportunity to participate in the national politics though the idea of human
equality is apparent, at least officially nowadays (Kymlicka, 2005, p. 32). Despite the formal
recognition of the “multiethnic Lao culture”, it is doubtful of the stereotypical representation
introduced by the majority culture, which judges “good” ethnic Lao people in terms of
savoir-vive (the way to behave in a society) and savoir-etre (how to define oneself)
(Pholsena, 2006, p. 61). Reality is different from the official rhetoric of „politics of ethnicity‟
due to the fact which is that the top dominating leaders in Laos come from lowland or the Lao
majority (Evans, 2002, p. 212). In Lao political culture, the phu nyai, or the „big man‟, and
his unstable supporters have existed for a long time (Evans, 2002, p. 105). Since the party
leader Kaysone‟s death in 1992, the polity has kept „the Kaysone cult‟ and the totalitarian
domain (Evans, 2002, p. 206-8), while opposition political parties or substantial
representative bodies of ethnic minorities are not accepted (Mason, 2005, p. 289).
To cope with new threats, in the 1990s the governmental cultural agencies worked on
xenophobic statements for the defence and protection of „traditional and beautiful Lao
culture‟ (Evans, 2002, p. 205). The promotion of Lao–Tai identity has been forcefully made
to be the national cultural norm over multiple ethnicities in Laos. The government imposed
the national language on the basis of Lao scripts while ignoring that of the non-Lao
minorities (Michaud, 2009, p. 33). Therefore, in this context, expression and promotion of the
values of the groups other than the majority Lao would be discouraged, or at least
For the sake of the current rulers, the state-centric view represents a distortion of earlier
periods (Scott, 2010, p. 32), while disregarding an important role and an inherent allotment of
the minorities (Evans, 2002, p. 134). Recent school texbook and publications amplify the
“Ai-Lao ancestors” with the myth of a several thousand-year-old kingdom and civilization
(Pholsena, 2006, p. 81). On the other hand, education officials blame the impossibility of
teaching in minority languages and dialects on the weakness of minorities (Tagwerker, 2009,
p. 36). This ethnic view endorses the legitimacy of the existing social order by
overemphasizing the dominant group with their „technologies of power‟ and a presumed
natural order (Pholsena, 2002 p. 175; Pholsena, 2006, p. 95).
In contrast to the democratic principles, totalitarian states enforce illegalization of all civil
society entities, i.e. political foundations, research and publication institutes who appeal for
any autonomy from the state (Evans, 2002, p. 179). A story of “Heroic Village” (Pholsena,
2006, pp. 121-138) illustrates a factual misrepresentation and a poor participation given to
ethnic minorities under the post-war revolutionary government. Without proper
representation, ethnic minority people would hardly voice up and participate in decision
Governments often impose resettlement as a strategy to uproot minority groups and to gain
more control over them while consensus is ignored. Michaud (2009) challenges the notion of
indigenous peoples in Southeast Asian Massif that it is not utterly appropriate because several
highland groups are recently migrants to their current settlement (p. 37). Moreover, for the
sake of economic growth and national security, about one million people, or one-fifth of the
total Lao population had been relocated by the year 2000 (ibid, p. 41). Ill-managed dam
building, military logging and mandatory resettlement often cause problems to highland
ethnic groups, and those cases are revealed and objected to by international NGOs (Evans,
2002, p. 216). Government officials do not acknowldege and encourage local traditional land
tenure and customary land rights which affect the practical management of the soil (Michaud,
2009, p. 43). Shortage of consent, poor preparation and lack of proper support often cause the
lives of the resettled minorities to worsen, and even to become impoverished (Evans, 2002, p.
3. 4. Desecuritization
While relatively more developed and stable ethnic policies exist in the Western countries, the
Lao communist government failed to introduce explicit and helpful national policies for the
mid- and upland ethnic minorities and let them be exposed to additional pressures and
dangers (Michaud, 2009, p. 29). Endogenous clan enmities and problematic relationships
between ethnic groups made highland politics more complicated and insecure (Evans, 2002,
p. 138). In this situation, the rulers cannot be sure about an attainable trust and loyalty from
Resentment may lead the relations between the state and minorities to become a security
concern rather than democratic politics. The communist military crusade against the Hmong
became worse at times and even cruelty was commited in „ethnic cleansing‟. In an ethnic
resistance, many people were killed and mistreated in 1978 (Evans, 2002, p. 187). There was
further conflict beyond the land disputes and resettlement problems between the Hmong and
the Lao in early 2003 (ibid, p. 222). Therefore there is still silent resentment and sporadic
combats against the government still occur. Less noticeable but relatively major minorities
such as the Khamu are discreetly keeping their discontent as well (Evans, 2002, p. 213).
3.5. Liberal-democratic consensus
In contrast to the Western society, Laos, as well as several countries in Asia entail the idea of
„civilizing the margins‟ which originated from the linkage between precolonial hierarchies
and post colonial dogmas. The government places the civilized groups at the center to
practice paternalistic control over disadvantaged minorities and exclude efforts of the
marginal people‟s self-government (He & Kymlicka, p. 8-9). Southeast Asian examples
provided by Miller (2011) reveals that mono-ethnic character and nation-building projects are
promoted at the expense of minority marginalization (p. 755-7). The characteristic traits of a
minority culture should be preserved according to proclaimed policy, however, a mainstream
concept of „mass culture‟ has practically pervaded in Laos (Tagwerker, 2009, p. 21).
Freedom of religion remains a questionable issue in Laos. Buddhism has been rooted in Laos
for a long time and has gained great influence in the society. The recovery of Buddhism may
broaden the gap between the dominant Tai-Lao and the ethnic minorities who are mostly non7
Buddhist (Pholsena, 2005, p. 97). The party officials assert that traditional animist rituals are
“backward practices” and have negative impact on the national and multiethnic solidarity,
productivity and life (Pholsena, 2006, p. 71-2). This formal attitude obviously obstructs
people‟s choices of belief, values and identity.
Similar to many countries outside the Western democracies, Laos is distinct in terms of her
different history and socio-political context in comparison to that of the West. The western
preconditions for a liberal application of ethnic rights have not been obtainable in Laos.
However, improvements and changes are possible as long as Laos integrates more and more
profoundly into the interdependent world and is challenged by the universal values of cultural
diversity and minority rights.
To redress shortcomings of ethnic recognition in Laos, Michaud (2009) calls for a genuine
ethnic subdivision and suitable ethnonyms so as to meet the demand for ethnic concensus (p.
43). Miller (2011a) from his analysis of the „East West citizenship dichotomies‟ (p. 803) and
differentiation of the civic from the ethnic citizenship (pp. 803-7), suggests a constructive and
fair application of civic solidarity and nation building to accommodate ethnic minority rights
(ibid, p. 809).
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