Besides using mobile phones to make personal and business contacts, and receive information about trade issues, Lao long-distance traders also learn about what is happening in the world from listening to wide-range (short-wave) radio broadcasts. Besides the Thai radio programs, which I mentioned earlier, Lao traders often listen to Thai pop and Look Toong (country songs), local marketing promotions of Chiang Khong shops, and sometimes news. Many times I found that the traders often turned to the Voice of America (VOA) and Free Asia Channel aired in their own language but transmitted from the United States. From listening to the news presented by the West, the Lao traders claim that they receive information different from what their government provides. One night after dinner, for example, the traders and I listened to a radio program discussing the negative impacts of dam construction and its relationship to centralized policies in China. The traders and their crews listened with interest.
This kind of information is, of course, rarely brought up by their own government stations. Another time, we listened to news about the conflict in the three southernmost Muslim provinces of Thailand. After the news, we had a discussion on the issue of religious practices and freedom of belief. One trader voiced his belief that the Lao government should allow the freedom of religion like in Thailand while another trader sitting nearby disagreed and reasoned that that would cause conflict like what Thailand has been facing. It was in the back of the boat that “political” issues like damming the river and religious conflict are brought up for discussion. And, ironically, it was in the middle of the dark cold night surrounded by deep jungle with no surveillance by state authorities, and not in the public space, that the free expression of ideas about the country and the world is possible.
In conversations among the long-distance traders themselves, the traders often spoke about how things are different in Thailand compared with Laos. A focus of discussion is the implementation of state policies and official behaviour. For example, the traders sometimes discuss the role of the police in Thailand and their approach to checking trucks that use highways. These checks on weight and cargo help, in the traders’ view, to maintain good road conditions. They say that Lao police should apply such regulation since most of the roads in Laos are worn away by unregulated trucking.
The traders’ exposure to cross border activities have opened their eyes to other societies and enabled them to make comparisions. At times, the Lao traders see good things abroad and feel that the Lao government and people should learn about and apply it to their country. It is a ‘mild resistance’ in traders’ perception that emerges from their expeditions. In the long run, this might lead them to criticize the authoritatarian character of state regulation and governance.
With global technological improvements and the imperfect liberalization of information, these Lao traders listen to Lao language radio programs aired from the other side of the world. In remote sections of the Mekong where the boats are docked ashore for the night, I felt so far away from people in Luang Prabang or Chiang Khong. At the same time, while listening to the VOA, Washington D.C. seemed to know better what was going on in Laos and Thailand and, literally, Washington seemed to be right there beside us. While the flowing riverscape of the Mekong may limit the traders connection to mobile telephone networks – and hence compromise connections with friends and family members during their trips – travel along the river can provide them with opportunities to gain different types of information while sharing opinions liberally among themselves.
For the full series of New Mandala posts on Mekong River traders, go to Golden Boat update 1, update 2, update 3, update 4, update 5, update 6 and update 7.