Internal resettlement in Laos: a response

[This is a response to the New Mandala post by Holly High published on 3 December 2007.]

Considering internal resettlement and international aid agencies in Laos: a response to Holly High’s critique of Ian Baird and Bruce Shoemaker’s research

While we appreciate that Holly High has taken note of our research regarding internal resettlement and international aid agencies in Laos, we are disturbed by the way in which we believe she has misrepresented and distorted our findings in order to try to validate her own perspectives.

We actually are in accordance with many of the points she made in her critique. For example, we agree that those resettled often exhibit “a kind of wary hopefulness”, as she puts it. We also agree that the situation in Laos is complex and that resettlement is not a black and white issue. In our recent journal article we write, “Donors may be justified in assisting resettled communities in a limited number of cases, but we believe that such assistance should be well thought out and based on a relatively full understanding of the situation and its implications” (Baird and Shoemaker 2007: 886). We also agree that questions related to identities, including ethnic identities, are complicated, and that it is not easy to apply the terms “indigenous”, “ethnic” and “minority” in Laos. Baird has written, in the chapter on Laos in the Indigenous World 2005, that, “officially all ethnic groups have equal status and therefore the concept of “indigenous peoples” is not generally applied in Laos…Although people in Laos are generally represented as belonging to clearly differentiated and fundamental ethnic groups, often based on ethnolinguistic characteristics, the ethnic makeup of the country is actually far more complex, with identities often taking multiple and fluid forms. The ethnic makeup of the country remain quite confusing, even for Lao nationals.” (2005: 352). Nothing we write in our study contradicts that premise. We used the term ‘indigenous ethnic minority’ to reflect the fact that we were referring to ethnic minority groups that are not recent immigrants to Laos, such as some Vietnamese, Chinese, or Indians, or ethnic Lao lowlanders. While we agree that the term is somewhat problematic, we concluded that there were not any preferable options available.

Our main objection is the way in which High has misrepresented our research, seemingly in order to be able to characterize our views as more rigid or strident than they actually are. This has apparently been done in order to be able to present her own views as more balanced and reasonable.

Near the beginning of her critique, High writes, “They…praised those in the development industry who attempted to reduce resettlement by “anchor(ing)” people in place”, citing our use of the term “anchor” in our original report (Baird and Shoemaker 2005: 35). She then repeatedly uses the term “anchor” to mischaracterize and marginalize our views, implying that we essentially want to force people to stay where they are, ‘anchored in the uplands’, regardless of whether or not they want to move. The reality is that we do not espouse such a view (a point also recognized by Keith Barney in his response to High), and it does not take much investigation of our work to recognize that this is the case. We do use the word “anchor” in our initial report, but only include the word in quotes within a case study that explains the strategies of some NGOs to provide alternative in-situ opportunities for those slated for resettlement. A simple reading of this case study makes it clear that we were quoting those from the NGO we had interviewed and that ‘anchor’ was their word, not ours.

In this particular case, the ethnic Hmong people with whom the NGO was working had clearly expressed that they did not want to be resettled. The use of the term ‘anchor’ had nothing to do with an attempt to keep people in an upland location against their wishes. It was, rather, a strategy devised by the NGO and the local people to provide infrastructure (such as schools or drinking water systems) to upland communities so that it would be more difficult for the government to justify their resettlement to lowland areas in the name of development. The key point is that the people in this case did not want to move. The NGO’s effort was based on respecting and responding to those sentiments; not on some romanticized view of Hmong people as solely belonging in the uplands. We recognize that many Hmong people have willingly moved to the lowlands but, in many other cases, they have also resisting moving. Each individual situation requires a different, contextual and nuanced approach, as we have recognized: “Certainly local conditions in different parts of Laos will require different approaches” (2007: 886).

High also writes, near the end of her critique, that, “These issues confound any attempt to define resettlement as “involuntary” or “voluntary”, and to this extent I agree with Baird and Shoemaker’s analysis. Yet, contrary to their conclusion that we must therefore collapse the distinction between the two, so that all resettlement is classed as “involuntary”…”. This is an unfair distortion of our main point regarding voluntary and involuntary resettlement. In reality, at no point do we propose collapsing ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ into ‘involuntary.’ We do question the usefulness of using either term in the Lao context. We argue that it is often convenient for both the Lao government and representatives of international aid agencies to discursively frame internal resettlement as ‘voluntary’, in order to justify centralized plans to resettle people. We urge people to be suspicious of the use of the term ‘voluntary resettlement’ in the Lao context, and suggest that much of the resettlement that is labeled ‘voluntary’ is actually coerced and manipulated. Critically, in many cases of resettlement that are subsequently represented as having been voluntary, it is the case that “the villagers did not initiate the process” (Baird and Shoemaker 2007: 882).

It is easy to find resettled people in Laos who will insist that they have no desire to return to their original places of residence. We have observed that there is frequently a rift within communities facing resettlement, especially between the younger generation and the older generation, with the latter being much more inclined to stay in the mountains than younger people. We recognize that some people are likely to be happy with having been resettled. We emphasize in our writings that Laos is a diverse place with diverse situations and that strict generalizing is not appropriate. That said, it appears that High underestimates the impacts of the political circumstances in Laos on the responses of people resettled as part of government programs and takes statements from villagers at face value without considering the undercutting power structures involved. We do believe that Foucault’s view of power is important for understanding what is happening in Laos.

Over the last five years Baird has spent a substantial amount of time interacting with ethnic Brao people in southern Laos, and it is worth pointing out some of his observations here. When he first visited many Brao villages, most people told him that they were happy to be resettled by the government. However, as he got to know them better, most of those who originally repeated the government policy and justifications for resettlement to him when they first met came to admit that, in fact, they were much more critical than they acknowledged during those first meetings. The presence of government officials during village discussions can substantially influence local responses. This is often, sometimes exclusively, the context under which outside observers interact with villagers in Laos. It was often later on, when Baird had the chance to talk in the local language without government officials listening in, that people became much more forthcoming.

Another important dynamic is that even those people who did not want to be resettled still hope that things will be better for them and their children in the future and they tend to take practical approaches to trying to improve their lives in their new conditions. Once they have been moved and told that returning is not an option, their tendencies are often to try to make the best of things. This should not be a surprise, or indicate that people are happy about being resettled. Many initially express hope after being resettled, even after resisting it for years. But it is important to consider the changing views of people over a longer period of time.

High also downplays or ignores one of the most important reasons we cite for people deciding to move or reporting that they do not want to return to their original location. Various government policies-including logging or plantation concessions and restrictions on swidden agriculture and opium cultivation-have made it difficult or impossible for people to maintain their livelihoods in upland areas. It is not enough to just ask someone whether or not people want to return to the uplands, a thorough understanding of the policy-induced reasons for their original resettlement is needed. In relation to this, we disagree with High’s main concluding point that resettlement is only a symptom rather than a cause of poverty in Laos. We base our view not only on our own findings, but also on the research of several others, most notably Jim Chamberlain who has extensively documented and described the phenomenon of ‘new poverty’ in Laos.

High writes that, “While Baird and Shoemaker provide a valuable analysis of the development workers of Laos, their understanding of Lao settlers is less thorough.” We fail to see what qualifies High to make this judgment or come to the conclusion that our “understanding of Lao settlers is less thorough” than hers. We have been studying and interacting with people in upland and lowland parts of Laos, including resettled people, for many years. We have conducted substantial fieldwork in many areas of Laos since the early 1990s. In contrast, it appears that one of the two main fieldwork sites upon which High draws on to critique our work is an island in southern Laos inhabited by ethnic Lao. Keith Barney has pointed out, in his response to High, that her main example is not really relevant to what we are writing about. As he puts it, “It’s is a bit like comparing mangoes and papayas.” For High to base a substantial portion of her critique of our work on upland areas on her experience on a Mekong River island is a stretch, to say the least. We are writing about non-ethnic Lao highlanders being resettled, not ethnic Lao people in the lowlands being resettled in the lowlands.

It is true that the focus of our two cited papers was on the involvement and response of international aid agencies to these issues. Given that a substantial amount of research on the impacts of resettlement already existed and given the considerable potential influence outside aid agencies can have in Laos, this was a specific strategic decision on our part. We also were faced with the space restrictions inherent in a journal article. But this does not mean that our analysis was not grounded in an in-depth understanding of the local situation.

In conclusion, there are two things about High’s critique that are particularly disturbing to us. First, we do not believe that our views are as different from High’s as she has portrayed them to be. We would probably find much to agree on if we had the chance to interact in a more positive and productive manner. We welcome critiques of our work, but those critiques should be based on fair representations of our actual ideas, not simplistic attempts to pluck out-of-context words from our papers so as to make a case against our position. We urge others to read our work carefully rather than relying on High’s distorted depiction. Secondly, we worry that many of High’s misrepresentations have the potential to help justify the views of those who advocate and fund centralized planned internal resettlement in Laos, without the adequate participation of local people. We fear that rural infrastructure oriented aid agencies in Laos are looking for any justification, no matter how flimsy, to continue their business as usual approach to funding resettlement-oriented development work in Laos. High’s work has the potential to strengthen their position.

We do not expect people to always live where they are and in ways that they have in the past. In fact, there are many major changes taking place in the highlands of Laos, and a nuanced understanding of what is happening is important. We continue to believe that, “aid agencies should be proactive in more fully informing themselves of the complex issues surrounding internal resettlement in Laos” (Baird and Shoemaker 2007: 886) and that many of those subjected to centralized state plans to resettle them, often with aid agency support, are indeed ‘victims’. High’s review has not been convincing enough to suggest to us that we should change our position in this regard in any significant way.

There are many things that are worthy of debating regarding internal resettlement issues in Laos, and we are happy to engage in those debates. We simply ask that our views not be distorted so as to create another debate in which we are positioned on one side of an issue, in a way that does not reflect our actual views.

Finally, we would like to end this response on a positive note, by mentioning that we very much appreciate Holly High’s recent article about village formation processes in southern Laos (published in SOJOURN), and we also enjoyed reading her short article about “black” skin “white” skin. We look forward to reading her future works.