On Saturday, 24 March 2012, a military convoy brought the remains of fourteen prominent and less known Lao revolutionary leaders to the newly constructed National Cemetery – namely Kaysone Phomvihane, Souphanouvong, Nouhak Phoumsavanh, Phoumy Vongvichit, Phoun Sipaseuth, Sisomphone Lovanxay, Saly Vongkhamxao, Maychantan Sengmany, Oudom Khatthiya, Somlath Chanthamath, Osakan Thammatheva, Khambou Sounixay, Sompheth Thipmala, and Vaenthong Luangvilay. The construction of this cemetery, comprising a huge 52 hectares, took four years and cost an estimated 150 billion Kip (almost 19 million US$).
The urns with the ashes of the revolutionary ancestors were taken from their original resting places in stupas on private or temple grounds. In the case of the ‘Red Prince’, Souphanouvong, for example, a stupa next to the That Luang contained his remains since his death in 1995. The reburials required the ritual assistance of 120 Buddhist monks to safeguard the transfer of the leader’s relics to their new homes. In comparison to Vietnam, this practice seems to be rather unusual in Laos and might even be considered dangerous in Lao Buddhist cosmology, not least because of the disturbances for the spirits (phi) of the deceased, which make the presence of the monks even more crucial. The above Vientiane Times video illustrates the importance of Buddhist ritual for this event, including basi ceremonies and public sermons (maybe NM readers spot other interesting details).
The above video gives some snapshots of the ceremonies and illustrates the heterogeneous elements of contemporary revolutionary commemoration in the Lao PDR: Buddhist sermons and almsgiving ceremonies for the well-being of the ancestors, private basi ceremonies, military guards capped and gowned, Buddhist stupas (and urns!) with the socialist star on top, the Lao Youth Union lining the route of military trucks carrying the urns and large portraits of the revolutionary leaders, local residents offering flowers and incense, a solemn speech by president Choummaly Sayasone to the revolutionary families on this “meaningful day”, etc.
A lot of questions concerning the peculiarities of Lao commemorative practices remain. One can only speculate about the decision to concentrate the revolutionary remains in one place. As the Vientiane Times (16 March 2012) points out: “The interment at the national cemetery will see the remains of all the first generation of revolutionary leaders located in a single place, so they can be properly preserved and honoured by future generations.” Obviously, the care for the revolutionary ancestors is not family duty anymore but rather the responsibility of the state. Even if apparently made public, the remains of the dead are taken away from religious settings such as stupas on temple grounds and relocated to a rather anonymous site for collective commemoration resembling Vietnamese cemeteries for war martyrs.
The Lao National Cemetery appears to embody different dimensions of commemorative practice: Nationalist cult of death, old-school socialist public mass ceremonies, and traditional Buddhist practices concerning the delicate handling of relics. While the Buddhist ceremonies which can be seen on the video suggest – again – that the LPRP increasingly turns to Buddhism as component of state ceremonies, the new National Cemetery means a backslide towards socialist concrete purism as well – almost an antithesis to the cheerful atmosphere of the 2009 SEA Games which marked a new quality of the regime’s self-staging (see Creak (2011) on SEA Games).