Here is a cautionary tale from Laos about someone who named their cat after a government official. Fancy that! Naming your cat after a Politburo member! That’s almost as odd as hosting a lavish birthday party for your dog! (I received the story second hand and have made some edits in the interests of anonymity.)

It isn’t every day that a Lao government official threatens to have me killed, jailed or exiled.

The good news is, that it seems the third of these three will suffice — at least for the time being The bad news is, that I dare not set foot inside the Lao P.D.R. again — putting an abrupt end to my humanitarian work [in Laos]. I will have to formally request that an embassy representative accompany me from the border/bridge, as it will be necessary for me to briefly return to Vientiane (to collect the very little money I have from the Lao banks), and then (thereafter) I shall never see the country again.

I shall briefly describe the sequence of events that I learned of today, entirely relying upon my employer’s description of them […] as I have no other source of information.

This week, the local provincial government convened a series of meetings, at the largest of which the entire Lao-government staff co-operating with […] the charity that had been employing me at the time were compelled to read out formal apologies to the Communist Party for their failure to report me (or indeed even to reprimand me) for my free thinking.

The offense was: I named a cat after my favourite Lao government official (Bouasone). No, that was not a typo: I named a cat.

In countries such as England and Canada, it is not (in fact) insulting to name your cat (or any cat) after someone you like (or possibly even admire). My own boss named one of his dogs after his (deceased) father (although I have now learned this is regarded as denigrating in Laos) — and I can remember growing up around children who named all manner of pets after political figures, royalty, etc., at their whim. And, indeed, if one loves a pet, in Western cultures generally, it is considered something of flattery to name a pet (like naming a child) after such a public figure.

I must note in passing: Bouasone genuinely was my favourite in the Politbureau. I recall his taking a stand on forest preservation contrary to the party line, back when I worked in […] Vientiane. We always had some good quotes from him. And, of course, all of the government officials I was actually living with (and working with) thought it was a perfectly charming idea: not one of them said it was a bad idea to name the cats as such.

So far as I know, I have not, in fact, committed any crime or wrongdoing (see Article 31 of the Lao constitution: my freedom of speech is absolute, apparently) — but they, as government officials, are subject to Party discipline above and beyond the mere letter of the law. And they should have indeed prevented me from this crime of free thinking –which reflects, at most, an unawareness of a cultural peculiarity on my part — but, perhaps, reveals the subversive tendencies of all of the officials who surrounded me and participated in this thought crime, for their own unfathomable reasons.

At the end of the decisive meeting, it was declared that I shall never work in […] province again — and, in fact, my employer was forbidden from hiring a replacement for the same posting. I saw a hint of the chill that their “investigation” had sent through those who knew me when I tried to check into a familiar hotel […]: “no, you can’t stay here”. They were afraid. Someone had spoken to them about me. That is as much of a hint as I need; however, human nature is more ugly still.

The root of the problem is one government official who took umbridge when hearing of the cat’s name. She […] is both married to a yet more powerful government official and, reportedly, has a sister in parliament. In case you think that Lao people (or Lao culture) is universal in its attitude toward the naming of cats, let me assure you it is not: the other officials, including the one fellow who sat laughing while she launched into a tirade against me, did not at all find offense in the matter, and, as soon as [she] was offended, I explained and reflected that in the English-language to give a name to a pet (or, for that matter, to name a boat) was not seen as denigrating to the person referred to.

My attempts at diplomacy with her over the ensuing hours evidently did not yield any results. She did not say directly “I will have you killed”, but rather what she said was that if she told her husband and other government connections about this cat-name, they COULD have me killed, or COULD send me to jail, or COULD have me thrown out of the country.

So far, only one of these three has transpired; but we’ll see if they manage the other two in the days and weeks ahead. She insisted that this could be done to anybody in Laos, and that Lao people “disappear” frequently for such minor offenses; it was hard to say if she was boasting or lamenting the latter fact. She insisted at length that just to name a cat after a government official was indeed sufficient grounds to end up murdered or as a political prisoner –and (perhpas more pathetically) she then argued that this was true of all countries everywhere, and that I should therefore know better as it was the same in Canada or in Europe. I won’t bother to relate the course that the conversation took from there, but a reasonably polite debate ensued, in which I did about 5% of the talking, and she filled the other 95% with ranting.

The greatest injustice is this: there was no punishment for the cat! The cat, at least was complicit in this affiar, and bears the same name still. Any reasonable person would require that the cat share my exile; yet no arrangement has been made for the feline to either apologise to the Communist Party, nor for it to share a slow boat to Cambodia with me.

I intend to continue doing humanitarian work in Asia — but, evidently, Laos is now off the map for me. This is an unexpected, dramatic and (frankly) hilarious ending to more than two years of work in the People’s Democratic Republic.

And, if these ironies were not enough, when my boss said in defense of my character that I was a Pali scholar, he was told, “Then he should understand the low status of animals”. Of course, in the Pali texts (as in ancient Indian religion generally) the status of animals is exponentially higher than in the Lao cosmologies of our fallen times. Cows, elephants and monkeys have retained a shed of the sacred in modern India; famously, there are a few Hindu orders that still worship even the rat.

Alas, as I have now learned, all animals are regarded as vermin in modern Laos.