The Third International Conference on Lao Studies kicks off tomorrow (Wednesday) at Khon Kaen University in (that’s right) Thailand. This is the latest undertaking of the Center for Lao Studies (CLS), formed after the First International Conference on Lao Studies, held at Northern Illinois University in 2005. Last year the CLS (with Southeast Asia Publications at NIU) published Contemporary Lao Studies, an edited volume of essays selected from the first conference. Earlier this year, it launched the Journal of Lao Studies.

The CLS and its activities recall efforts to promote Lao studies in colonial and royalist Laos, which led respectively to the Bulletin des “Amis du Laos” (1937-1940) and the Bulletin des Amis du Royaume Lao (1970-73?). Both of these – especially the former – involved non-Lao as well as Lao scholars. As a product of the post-revolutionary era, however, the CLS occupies an even more ambiguous relationship to the place, people and culture it seeks to study. Founded by Lao-Americans and located in the United States, the centre is testimony to the transnationality of the Lao population, and, implicitly, to the desire of Lao-Americans to challenge the privileged position in Lao Studies held by Lao scholars working in Laos. (This also raises perennial questions about what is “Lao”, which I don’t want to get into here.)

In any case, its background makes the CLS unavoidably political. But rather than representing a return to the us-versus-them mentality of an earlier post-revolutionary period, the CLS appears to offer a bridge between scholars outside and inside Laos. The first conference at NUI invited and paid for scholars to attend from Laos; Contemporary Lao Studies includes the work of a range of authors – Lao and non-Lao – from both Laos and overseas; and this year’s conference is in Khon Kaen, a short trip from Vientiane in Lao-speaking Isan.

There will remain limits to this bridge, of course, as long as Lao scholars (from Laos) can only attend “their” conference thanks to the generosity of others. More than that, the true test of knowledge triumphing over politics will be the holding of the conference at the National University of Laos, with no restrictions (imposed by others or self) on presentation topics. This seems unlikely for now, but the CLS and its initiatives seem to be a step in the right direction.

If anyone attending this week’s conference would like to provide reports or anecdotes of any nature, please feel free to comment on this post or email me ([email protected]).