During the work at my Phd thesis, dealing with questions of Lao national historiography and iconography, I wondered about recent tendencies of commemorative politics in the Lao PDR. Which historical protagonists are chosen as national heroes and how are they interpreted in official state discourse?
In 2002, anticipating the celebrations of the 650th anniversary of the Lao kingdom Lan Sang (established in 1353 by King Fa Ngum), the Ministry of Information and Culture published a small booklet titled Leader and Founder of the United Kingdom of Lan Sang, Phanya Fa Ngum Laenglatholani (Lao: phu nampha sathapana anachak lan sang ekaphap phanya fa ngum laenglatholani). The booklet deals with the history of this famous “hero-king” (Lao: vilakasat) and provides some information concerning his statue in Vientiane, finally unveiled on 5 January 2003. On this special day, a large procession re-enacted the return of Fa Ngum, riding a white elephant, from his exile at Angkor. Echoing the Vientiane Times (7-9 January 2003): “King Fa Ngoum reborn as Laos’ spiritual hero”.
This ceremony marks the beginning of a new phase of commemorative politics in the Lao PDR. The booklet refers to at least ten more planned memorial sites for important “Lao ancestors” (Lao: banphabulut lao) – a well-considered selection of kings and revolutionaries. These two categories might appear fundamentally different. Yet, they are both integrated into an encompassing framework of the century-long “struggle” (Lao: kantosu) for national liberation, the leitmotif of contemporary Lao historiography.
Among these heroic figures, from Fa Ngum and Chao Anuvong to Kayson Phomvihan, the “Red Prince” Suphanuvong (1909-1995) takes an intermediary position. He embodies both royal and revolutionary aspects which makes him a somewhat contradictory and problematic member of the official hero pantheon in the Lao PDR. Considered as “face” of the revolutionary movement during the war, especially among ethnic Lao and foreign observers, his power within the communist party was in fact limited. After 1975 it became evident that Kayson Phomvihan and Nuhak Phumsavan were the real strongmen of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Instead of using Suphanuvong as a symbolical substitute for the dethroned king, the prince faced increasing marginalisation. His aura of royalty raised suspicion within the LPRP. His office of State President was mainly representative. Furthermore, long-time party chairman and prime minister Kayson Phomvihan (1920-1992) became the focus of an state-sponsored “cult” (Grant Evans) after his death. He was praised as great revolutionary leader and maker of modern Laos.
It was not before 95th anniversary of Suphanuvong’s birth (2004) that the Lao newspapers started a similar hype around the “Prince and Patriot” (Vientiane Times, 14 July 2004) and published many stories from his life and work, reminding the reader to “continue the revolutionary work of President Suphanuvong” (Pasason, 13 July 2004). In 2005, even a museum was dedicated to the royal revolutionary, emphasising his role in the struggle against French and U.S. “imperialists” and his exemplary “high spirit of patriotism and sacrifice for the revolutionary cause” (Khaosan Pathet Lao, 1 December 2005). This museum is located near the Ministry of Defence and the Army Museum – two important icons of the LPRP’s military power base. Ironically, this site has been the place of the notorious Phonkheng prison where the Phui Sananikon government attempted to eliminate the political role of the Lao communists by arresting its representatives in Vientiane, such as Suphanuvong, Nuhak Phumsavan, Phumi Vongvichit etc. As a lieu de mémoire (Pierre Nora), this area represents the struggle and victory of the LPRP.
Consequently, Suphanuvong’s statue is dressed in a rather formal style, representing his role as LPRP official. For Luang Prabang, the Ministry of Information and Culture provides a similar statue. Remarkably, it will not be erected at the former royal palace but near the Kayson monument at Phou Vao Road. This indicates the more profane and revolution-centred character of Suphanuvong. Still in 2004, however, a photo exhibition of Suphanuvong’s life was opened at the so-called “Palace Museum of Luang Prabang” (Vientiane Times, 14 July 2004).
Now, which role does the “Red Prince” assume in the LPRP’s commemorative politics? A lot of questions arise when looking at the symbolic potential of this ambiguous figure. Being devalued after the revolution and reduced to his role prior to 1975 as one vilason (war hero) among many others, Suphanuvong is still an extremely popular “national ancestor” in present-day Laos. It is his combination of royal and revolutionary aspects that gives him public appeal. However, as an icon on amulets etc Suphanuvong is overshadowed by his half-brother Prince Phetsarat, popular leader of the independence movement in 1945, who is suspiciously missing in the official selection of Lao “ancestors”. This reflects discrepancies between popular sentiments and state-controlled discourses.
The LPRP considers Suphanuvong as its most important representative in Vientiane during the years of the struggle, and as “senior leader” (Lao: phunam avuso). Moreover, he embodies a connection between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, between the political and the cosmological centre. However, the LPRP seems to downplay his royal charisma. In my view, Suphanuvong is rather the Party’s envoy in Luang Prabang and might contribute to the self-image of the LPRP as protector of Lao cultural heritage. Although Buddhism and royalist reminiscences tend to be less an ideological threat than a cultural resource in contemporary Laos, Suphanuvong is far from being re-invented as a king-like figure.
The LPRP erects statues of kings and revolutionaries as a self-legitimating strategy (with presenting itself as the final link of a genealogy of Lao fighters for national independence and unity) but obviously does not want a new king – even if there might be still something lacking in Lao society from a cosmological point of view. Today, Party officials assume ritual tasks in Buddhist state rituals as if it was most self-evident.
This deserves further discussion. It remains to be seen if statues of Suphanuvong are going to be credited with having magical powers (Lao: saksit) like many statues of kings in Laos and Thailand. Could statues of Suphanuvong become objects of veneration by large parts of the population, due to its inherent charisma? How would the LPRP, trying to control and concert any public discourse, react towards such tendencies? Might Suphanuvong even outshine Kayson both in official nationalist discourse and commemorative practice in the long run?