Sun, Mar 04, 2001 - Page 18 News List

Shangri-la in peril

Laos' hill tribes have survived a rocky introduction to the modern world, first by being bombed by the US and then falling afoul of the nation's communist leadership. `Lao Hill Tribes,' by Stephen Mansfield, shows that these people's hardships are not over

By Bradley Winterton  /  SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR

Formerly remote, peaceful, and entirely rural, Laos is said to have become, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the most heavily bombed country on the planet.

Today, unexploded ordnance still constitute a terrible source of death and mutilation in many parts of the country. If the new Bush administration is looking for a cause that will win it unanimous international applause, it might be to clear this impoverished land of the US' dreadful legacy, perhaps under the slogan "We put 'em there, we should take 'em away."

In his classic travel book A Dragon Apparent, Norman Lewis wrote that 50 years ago, Vientiane or Luang Prabang were the dream postings of French colonial administrators. The land-locked, hilly country, with its diminutive towns and devout Buddhists, was a sleepy, indulgent Shangri-la where nothing important, or worrying, ever seemed to happen.

The battle against the French, fought by nationalists fired by communist ideology, changed all that. And when the Americans took over from the French in the battle against communism in Indochina, Laos was tragically drawn into the conflict. As William Shawcross chillingly documented in his book Sideshow, Cambodia and Laos were bombed, secretly at first, in an attempt to rupture the supply lines of Vietnam's communist Viet Cong.

Laos remains an out-of-the-way destination. Its communist government appears to be of two minds about the desirability of tourism, and generally only groups are admitted. Yet the religious center of Luang Prabang is one of the jewels of the region, and some of the hill tribes have, as Stephen Mansfield asserts in this excellent little book titled Lao Hill Tribes, still never set eyes on a tourist.

A true count of the country's many minority groups is apparently close to impossible. With regard to language alone, the country is thought to contain roughly 600 different dialects. Certain tribes nevertheless dominate.

One of the biggest is the Hmong. A people of Chinese origin and still numerous in China's Yunnan Province, the Hmong used to be known as the Lao warrior class. Their fidelity led them to ally strongly with the former royal dynasty, and as a result they suffered badly when the former guerrillas, the Pathet Lao, came to power in 1975. Some 80,000 Hmong now live in the US, part of the 750,000 Lao -- about one sixth of the population -- displaced by the conflicts of a generation ago.

Several of the tribes appear to have originated in China, and to have been driven south by more powerful groups. The Mien, for example, still venerate a Chinese dog deity. And the Hmong themselves have myths that tell of their origin in a distant land of long winter nights, and permanent ice and snow, suggesting to anthropologists a Mongolian provenance.

For the rest, the hill people of Laos appear as colorful as most threatened minorities worldwide. They still trade using silver, and old coins are a prominent feature of many hill tribe costumes.

In some tribes the women practice serial monogamy -- any number of husbands, but never two at once and it's the wife who makes the move when she feels like a change. Children born to Mien single mothers enhance their value when they marry, perhaps on the grounds that they bring potential workers into the new family, and with no strings attached.

Then there are the Kaw, whose women can wear a form of miniskirt without there being any hint of immodesty. Most tribes are virtually vegetarian, sacrificing any animals they have to spirits. Some are wary of nocturnal journeys along river banks in case water spirits trick them into taking a dive in the mistaken belief that they're actually fish.

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