Haunted Landscapes and Ambiguous Memories: Interactions with the Past in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Convenors: Dr Oliver Tappe, Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle and Dr Vatthana Pholsena, Research Fellow, Institut d’Asie Orientale, Lyon.
[Panel EUROSEAS Aug. 2010]
Historical experiences of war and revolution have left visible traces in the landscapes of mainland Southeast Asia. In particular, war-ridden landscapes of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are sites of contested and ambiguous memory. While the two Indochina Wars entailed scars both on peoples and places, experiments of orthodox socialism such as forced collectivization contributed to the character of the region as a topographic and demographic palimpsest. Lao, Vietnamese and Cambodian landscapes represent different historical layers and bear inscriptions of competing ideologies. From prisons and battlefields to re-education camps and resettled villages: 20th century history confronts people with manifold lieux de mémoire telling about sorrow and violence. The past lingers on in the physical, often ruined environment as well as in precarious objects such as unexploded ordnance.
Studies in the anthropology of landscape have discussed how people shape landscapes and landscapes shape people in an interactive cultural process. The transformative power of human activity on the physical environment is related to the power of the landscape generating affects on people. Landscapes can be considered as representations of cultural memory and mark the nexus of past, present and future. Both as meaning producing spatial forms and contested discursive sites of memory, landscapes influence imaginings of past experiences and visions of the future. Radical alterations of the physical environment – be it by large-scale bombing or the flooding of a hydropower dam site – thus affect traditional livelihoods as well as individual mental states. The understanding of everyday social life is inseparable from its cultural and physical surroundings.
In our panel we would like to examine how people interact with sites of traumatic or violent memory. Vietnamese landscapes contaminated by Agent Orange, the haunted killing fields of Cambodia and the Lao highlands scattered with cluster bombs are prominent examples of memorial landscapes as inhabited and constantly re-envisioned. The following questions shall be addressed: How do these landscapes affect the population and shape discourses of identity and memory? What are the people’s coping strategies in order to carry on living in brutally transformed and ruined landscapes that are also sites of haunting, traumatic memories? How do official historiographies try to occupy and define landscapes of memory? How do memories of suffering and displacement correlate with tendencies of making sites of memory available for tourist consumption?
We invite scholars to tackle and discuss these questions at the intersection between history and anthropology. By looking at how people and ‘violent’ landscapes interact, this panel attempts at giving new insights with regard to Southeast Asian memory discourses.
Panel proposal by:
- Dr. Oliver Tappe, Research fellow, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Germany) firstname.lastname@example.org
- Dr. Vatthana Pholsena, Research fellow, Institut d’Asie Orientale, Lyon (France) email@example.com
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Sacrifice, Heroism and the construction of a revolutionary lieu de mémoire – The case of Vieng Xay, Lao PDR.
Vieng Xay, today a sleepy town of a few thousand inhabitants, represents one of the most dramatic episodes in Lao history. Between 1964 and 1973, the Lao highlands suffered constant air bombing by the Americans. Alongside the Plain of Jars and the Ho-Chi-Minh-Trail – discussed by Vatthana Pholsena and Elaine Russell – Houaphan province in Northeast Laos was the main target of the bombing campaign since it harbored the headquarters of the Lao communist movement. Supported by the North Vietnamese, the Pathet Lao fought a fierce civil war against the Lao royalists backed by the US. When the bombings escalated, the leadership moved into the caves of the karst mountains around Vieng Xay. Thousands of civilians followed this example and a proper cave city with more than 20,000 inhabitants emerged. The revolutionaries built commando centers, warehouses, schools, hospitals and factories inside the caves. Yet, the people’s everyday life meant constant struggle for survival.
Today, the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party highlights the legacy of the years in the caves as example of bravery, sacrifice and solidarity between Party and the so-called ‘Lao multi-ethnic people’. Vieng Xay emblematizes the liberation struggle of the valiant Lao people against foreign aggressors. Therefore, it plays a key role within the narratives of official revolutionary historiography and museum exhibitions. In recent years, Vieng Xay was promoted as a tourism destination, now attracting many visitors from the lowland Lao cities and from abroad. On the one hand, the hardships of the war years are now presented to younger Lao generations; on the other hand, foreign visitors get aware of a less known chapter of cold war history. Unlike most Lao history books, the official cave tour also illustrates the small fates of the population that suffered from the war. Yet, the relation between heroism and trauma remains ambivalent. Vieng Xay represents regional pride and the commitment to revolutionary solidarity as well as individual suffering and traumatic memories. Official commemorative politics imply the transformation of suffering into sacrifice and heroism – the utilization of memory for ideological purposes. Besides, some aspects of the region’s history such as the reeducation camps are still suppressed as they would disturb the nicely arranged narrative of the righteous revolutionary struggle. This paper shall discuss the politics of memorial landscapes as media of shaping, reproducing, and controlling collective memory.
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Transformed landscapes in south-eastern Laos: From the ruins of war to large-scale ‘development’
This presentation focuses on a rural area in south-eastern Laos located on the Lao-Vietnamese border: Sepon district in Savannakhet Province. This area is predominantly inhabited by Mon-Khmer peoples, who are classified into two groups in Sepon (the Makong or Mangkong and the Tri) but known as one group in Vietnam (the Vân Kiêu or Bru-Vân Kiêu). However, there is also a significant minority of Tai-speaking Phuthai. The district of Sepon (formerly spelled Tchepone) is located in the east of Savannakhet Province on the 17th parallel that divided Vietnam into a communist zone in the north and a non-communist zone in the south as a result of the Geneva Agreements signed on July 21, 1954. Consequently, Sepon constituted a strategic centre and logistics base area for the North Vietnamese Army, and was one of the most important nodes on the transportation network widely known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Today, however, the landscape of (borderless) war – i.e. trails, craters, bare mountain slopes – is progressively giving way to a landscape of (national) development – asphalt roads, large-scale commercial plantations, hydropower projects. Traces of the past are receding in Sepon, though historical layers of ruins – remnants of war and reminders of the immediate postwar period – remain very much stamped onto the everyday landscape. In this paper, I interrogate the effects of this altering landscape on people’s war memories, and more
broadly, on their dealings with the past and negotiation with the present.
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Laos – Living with Unexploded Ordnance (UXO): Past Memories and Present Day Realities
Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell, Legacies of War
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history. U.S. Vietnam War-era bombings from 1964-1973 left nearly half of Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Today, close to 78 million unexploded cluster bombs litter forests, rice fields, villages, school grounds, roads and other populated areas. Over 34,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO since the bombing ceased, and each year there are 300 new casualties. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos. Nearly 40 years on, only a fraction of these munitions have been destroyed. UXO has shaped the lives of generations, challenging their spirit, ingenuity, and cultural beliefs. For those who lived through the war and aftermath, memories are still sharp and painful, while younger generations focus on the future and ways of coping with the current reality.
The presence of UXO in the day to day lives of the Lao people has caused terrible human losses and a heavy economic burden for a country struggling with extreme poverty. From contamination of half the arable land to strains on a grossly inadequate health care system, the impacts of UXO are far reaching. The constant and unpredictable threat takes a psychological toll. Children, particularly boys, are the most vulnerable, making up 60 percent of the casualties. Cultural beliefs and biases toward people with disabilities are challenged by the rising number of UXO injuries, which often result in lost limbs. When husbands are killed or injured, women assume non-traditional roles as the primary worker in the fields or by taking jobs, such as working for the all-woman UXO clearance team. Despite the risks, people have adapted and found creative uses for scrap metal, bomb casings, and defused cluster munitions. But the desperate need for income, has also led people to collect scrap metal for sale, which in turn has caused more UXO casualties.
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Urban and rural lands in Cambodia: dealing with the scars of the past, building a memory for tomorrow.
The years of conflicts as well as the Khmer Rouge revolution and regime have strongly left their marks on the Cambodian land. I would like (i) to present the main transformations undergone by Khmer territories, and notably to underline the radical differences between rural and urban areas, and (ii) to highlight the way the actors manage to live with a kind of reasonable pragmatism in these spaces, which of course constantly remind of the sorrowful past, but should not inhibit current and future life. Besides, I would like to examine how the memory of Khmer Rouge times has been crystallized around specific places, both at national and local levels.
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Breathing new life into remnants of war in Southeast Asia
This paper offers an ethnographic insight into the survival strategies of local communities living in a post-conflict environment that remains affected by explosive remnants of war. Despite the heavy bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh trail from 1964 to 1975, which destroyed the physical landscapes of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam, local populations living in former zones of heavy conflicts have developed practical ways to cope with the daily stress of environmental hazards. This paper examines the ways in which ethnic minority villages located in Northeast Cambodia has adjusted its daily livelihood by physically and psychologically coping with the multiple devastations caused by the wars.Whether in the form of live bombs, scrap metal, human remains, individual or collective memories, the material that is processed through collection, recollection, re-cycling and refashioning is key to a powerful therapeutic process that deals with an environment, which is emotionally and physically charged with a violent past. This paper seeks to discuss the extent of local resilience especially when it is confronted with the environmental damages caused by the extensive deployment of technological warfare by external powers. By drawing on the material culture of post-conflict ethnic minority communities, it argues that the life cycle of war-generated objects is illustrative of how the desolated landscapes of battlefields and memories can be ingenuously transformed so as to bear new meanings, take over new functions and embark into a new life.
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The legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam
Source : Global Studies / Göteborg Universitet