Little Laos awaits its big moment

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[Simon Creak, a PhD Candidate at The Australian National University, has examined the issues at stake in next month's SEA Games in Laos for Asia Times Online. Supposedly a massive achievement for the small country, the games have been scaled back and are dependent on enormous foreign funding. What to make of the paradox? Read on and leave your comments.]

Long after the misadventures of the United States in Indochina, landlocked Laos evokes golden temples, golden smiles and, in the business world, golden mining prospects. But it is a different type of gold that will occupy the nation when the region’s Southeast Asian (SEA) Games are for the first time staged in the country, from 9-18 December. What’s in it for little Laos?

The SEA Games may not register much outside the region, but this year celebrating their golden jubilee, they are a big deal for the 11 countries involved. These are Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The previous games, in Thailand in 2007, featured more that 5,000 athletes and almost 2,000 officials across 43 different sports.

Laos, a tiny country of just six million people, is understandably excited at hosting the 25th games for the first time in the event’s 50-year history. Local news reports in the state-controlled media refer proudly to the “honor” of playing host, while organizers boast the event will “put Laos on the map”, attract tourists and draw foreign investment.

Just as important, the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) sees the games as a boost to the regime’s prestige at home. This is not just a sports event, but probably the country’s biggest state extravaganza since formally gaining independence from France in July 1949.

Underlining the party-state’s involvement, the president of the organizing committee is Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad.

Despite the difference in scale, there are parallels to the Summer Olympic Games held in China last year. Just as Beijing leveraged the event to proclaim China’s emergence as a global power, the games in Vientiane represent a regional coming-out for the Lao one-party state, a symbolic culmination of the over three decade-long “revolutionary struggle” for independence and development under the LPRP.

Undertaking the complex task of the hosting a major international event, in that thinking, demonstrates the country’s modern credentials.

Perennially the “smaller brother” to its regional rivals, hosting the event constitutes nothing less than a symbolic coming of age for Laos. A government spokesman told the Bangkok Post, “The SEA Games in Laos is a magnificent example of what sports can do … and Laos has joined the giants in this respect.”

Here the issue is less about showcasing the nation to attract tourism and investment, than demonstrating the munificence of the ruling party-state.

More unexpected, perhaps, is the widespread transnational support for the games among the Lao diaspora, formed from the mass exodus of refugees after the party’s 1975 rise to power when it overthrew the royalist government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate.

Fans discuss the games in a Facebook group and websites, some set up even before the official games site. Many contributors plan to travel to Laos for the event, one enthusing, “I have built my whole year around this.” Identified online by the flag of the pre-1975 royal regime, such posts suggest the Lao national pride of hosting the event may be linking Lao communities usually separated by distance and politics.

Yet, many questions also surround the event. Due to a lack of infrastructure, the Lao version of the games will consist of only 25 sports, little more than half the number held in Thailand. The omission of standard sports such as basketball, gymnastics and track cycling has outraged some competing nations, particularly Malaysia and the Philippines, while the addition of novelties such as finswimming – a speed competition in which swimmers don a large, dolphin-like fin – has aroused chuckles of dismay.

It matters little that these countries are aggrieved at the loss of medal opportunities, nor that all SEA Games’ hosts nominate their own, often quirky events. Press coverage has focused not on Laos’ unprecedented national achievement, but on the games’ loss of “glamour” and reduced “priority” for these countries. The poverty and lack of development of Laos – one of the region’s poorest nations – has attracted particular attention, the exact opposite of what the Lao government is trying to promote.

Most symbolically, perhaps, Laos is able to host the games only through massive assistance from its larger, richer allies in the region. The Chinese Development Bank has provided financing for the US$100 million main stadium complex, which is being built by Chinese contractors on the outskirts of the capital, Vientiane.

A Vietnamese company has built the $19 million athletes’ village and Thai funds have been used to refurbish the existing National Stadium. Dozens of smaller financial agreements with countries like Japan and South Korea will provide everything from training to tracksuits.

Strategic patronage

There are good reasons for these countries to contribute their patronage. First is the simple commercial benefit. In return for building the stadium, Chinese developers were reportedly granted 1,640 hectares of prime land near the That Luang stupa, the national symbol, on which to develop a “Chinatown” complex in Vientiane. The Vietnamese company that funded the athletes’ village is opening a wood-processing factory and hotel in Laos.

Second is regional influence. Thailand, Vietnam and China have long competed for influence in Laos. While socialist Vietnam has held political sway since the 1975 revolution, China has aggressively expanded its economic presence and soft power in the region, and some in the government, notably the Chinese-educated Somsavat, have increasingly turned to the regional giant. Thailand, meanwhile, considers Laos a natural part of its sphere for cultural and historical reasons, a perception boosted by the flow of goods, people and information across the Mekong River that separates the two countries.

Third is regional friendship and cooperation. For half a century, the SEA Games and their predecessor, the Southeast Asian Peninsula Games, have been the region’s major cultural expression of regionalism, providing opportunity for friendly cooperation and rivalry without the risk of political fallout.

But despite all the pluses, the huge foreign assistance required to host the event has raised stubborn questions about Laos’ national autonomy. For every article invoking the “spirit of ASEAN”, others scoff at Laos’ inability to fund and organize their own event. (The 11 participants at the SEA Games comprise the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus East Timor.)

The New York Times recently summed up the feeling in the headline “Laos stumbles on Path to Sporting Glory”. Reinforced in the region’s own press, such views emphasize Laos’ dependence on foreign aid, undermining the games’ perceived benefits at home and abroad.

This ambivalence is also evident in the country. Opposition to the Chinatown deal, which saw the original development plan significantly scaled back, was framed in xenophobic nationalist terms, with residents questioning how the government could give up land to foreigners in the heart of the capital. With the deal pared back, questions linger as to how the Chinese will be compensated, raising the specter of massive government debt at a time the financial downturn has already applied added pressure on the games.

Meanwhile, web-board contributors ask how the new facilities can be “Lao” when they are adorned with banners in Chinese or Korean. Others wonder why developers have imported their own workers from China, rather than employing local Lao labor. Others still ponder why Laos cannot even produce its own merchandise for the games.

Such criticisms point to the central paradox of the SEA Games: how can they be a national achievement when the nation is so dependent on others to host them? Ultimately, factors which seem to mitigate the positive impact of the games need to be viewed in historical perspective.

The Lao nation and nationalism have always emerged from the intersection of national, regional and international ideologies and interests. In pre-colonial times, minor Lao kingdoms paid tribute to one or more overlords, allowing them to retain a substantial degree of autonomy in the process. Likewise, the peculiarity of French colonialism was that, rather than destroying Lao identities, it actually created the modern idea of Laos as a political and cultural entity.

The post-colonial Royal Lao Government was the heir of this national identity, which further solidified despite, or perhaps because of, Cold War rivalries, the Vietnam War and a budget largely underwritten by US assistance. After the US withdrawal and the communist revolution of 1975, the new regime looked to the socialist bloc, especially Vietnam and the Soviet Union, to plug the financial gap.

The enduring theme in this history has been the inability of Laos to pay its own way; its engagement with and dependence on foreign powers. The country’s current strategy of market-based development underwritten by foreign investment, foreign aid and ASEAN integration continues the trend.

Far from being undermined, the party-state represents itself as the all-powerful and benevolent conductor of these forces. This explains why state-run newspapers are filled constantly with photographs of “handover ceremonies”, and never more so than in the lead-up to the games. In this worldview, hosting the games demonstrates not the government’s lack of independence, but its consummate skill in harnessing aid from the region.

The general population might not be completely convinced, but this does not matter in the wider view. The 2009 SEA Games’ limited size and dependence on foreign help merely accords with the self-image of Laos as a small country with limited resources.

Last year, for instance, the country sent a tiny team of four athletes to the Beijing Olympics, thanks to funding from the International Olympic Committee. While there was certainly some criticism on the Internet, more comments focused on the positive. “Four is better than nothing,” said one, while another suggested plaintively, “When we are poor, we have to accept that we are poor.”

This may not be how the government sees its hosting of a scaled-back games, but, together with positioning itself as a benevolent conductor of foreign assistance, such views help to explain how the event is being seen as a success inside the country when those outside see mainly dependence and poverty. Laos’ little SEA Games are a big deal for the poor country, foreign-funded or not.

[Simon Creak is a PhD candidate at the College of Asia-Pacific, Australian National University, with a specialization in the history of Laos. He can be contacted at simon.creak@anu.edu.au.]