A hundred years of royalty
The monarchy of Laos was unpretentious and embedded in the nation's culture until 1975
By Kathryn Sweet
Published in the Bankgok Post on 16/03/2009
In the international backwater of the contemporary Lao PDR, it is surprising to learn that in 1961 the King of Laos featured on the cover of Time magazine. However, Lao royalty dropped completely from view after 1975, when the Pathet Lao took power and the king abdicated. Members of Lao royalty fled the country, others melted into civilian life, some participated in the new regime, and a few, including the king and queen, were incarcerated in labour camps where they died of illness and neglect. These days most young Lao would be unlikely to recognise a photograph of the last Lao king, Sisavang Vatthana, and know little about the history of Lao royalty. However, some people are curious.
The young King Sisavang Vong.
Grant Evans' new book, The Last Century of Lao Royalty, brings Lao royalty back into view. It is a beautiful book, large, long (430 pages) and crammed with a myriad of rare black and white photographs collected over the years from diverse sources, including from the Thai royal family. The series of colour photographs of Prince Phetsarath, one of the most well-known, respected and popular of Lao royals, visiting the Lao countryside in the late 1950s are particularly noteworthy for their rarity, quality and candid depiction of the prince in an informal rural setting.
The Last Century of Lao Royalty provides well-researched information on over 100 years of Lao royalty, which ends not with the death of King Sisavang Vatthana in a Lao labour camp in the early 1980s, but continues by tracing the current activities of the king's descendants now living in Laos and overseas.
Evans documents the many branches of Lao royalty throughout the 20th century, focusing on the royals of Luang Prabang but also dealing with the leading families of Champassak and Xieng Khouang. He presents a number of simplified genealogical family trees, tracing the complicated lines of descent resulting from men having several wives and what he terms "the density of relations among the royal families".
Unlike the royal families of many countries, the Lao royals were not rich, and the rituals and ceremonies they presided over were not distanced from the customs of the largely subsistence farmers of Laos. Evans notes the "relative unpretentiousness of Lao royalty, its simplicity and its embeddedness in Lao culture."
The book explores the roles of the main palace and the front palace, the educations of various princes and princesses in Laos and abroad, the unclear progression from absolute to constitutional monarchy, the contribution of royal family members to the modernisation of Lao government administration and to the cultural and religious life of the Lao people. Evans presents excerpts from original texts and interviews, supplemented with his own interviews with surviving members of the royal family, to shed light on royal rituals and occasions, as well as the day-to-day lives of those who lived inside the royal palace. At times this technique becomes confusing, and it is not clear whether the text belongs to Evans himself or to one of the many contemporary observers that he quotes at length.
Crown Prince Savang Vatthana and his party on a visit to Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom.
Evans resists the temptation to dwell on the roles of various Lao princes in 20th century politics, for example conservative Crown Prince Savang Vatthana, communist Prince Souphanouvong, neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma and rightist Prince Boun Oum na Champassak. Instead, he devotes his attention to the roles of the two kings, Sisavang Vong (featured on the front cover) and his son Sisavang Vatthana, and Prince Phetsarath from the front palace (featured on the back cover).
We are also treated to snippets of information about a wide range of issues concerning the royal family. For example, we learn from Prince Phetsarath's own account that he was instrumental in establishing one of the first Chinese restaurants for Asian students in Paris in 1910. From a tomboy princess, we learn that she secretly climbed trees and played football, in addition to attending school and learning the traditional arts of embroidery and weaving from her female relatives in the palace. And from an artistic prince, that he also learned embroidery and weaving, despite it being an activity traditionally reserved for women.
Founding member of the ‘Lao pen Lao’ in 1945, Tham Sayasitsena would later rise to the rank of colonel in the Royal Lao Army. Here in happier times he participates in a local ceremony with King Sisavang Vatthana.
Princess Ouanna Rangsy, a trained nurse and niece of the king, reveals that she chose to give birth in a Vientiane hospital in the 1960s because she "wished to demonstrate that modern hospitals were important to Laos". The vast majority of women were delivering their babies at home, as they still do.
A series of family anecdotes touch on the problem of foreign intermarriage, despite the bicultural experience of many members of the royal family, who studied abroad in Vietnam and France. Prince Souvanna Phouma's wife, Aline Allard, a Eurasian from Xieng Khouang, was not received by the royal court for almost 20 years, despite being the wife of the prime minister. Other brothers also married foreign women. Older brother Prince Phetsarath brought a Thai wife, Nang Aphimphone, back to Laos after his many years of exile in Thailand. However, following his death, a messy inheritance dispute ensued with the prince's Lao widow contesting the legitimacy of his relationship with the nang thai in the Lao courts. And younger brother Prince Souphanouvong's Vietnamese wife was accused by many of unduly influencing him to be pro-Vietnamese and, by implication, not pro-Lao.
Princess Khamphui is entertained by the ladies of Dinan.
Soberingly, Evans reproduces Prince Phetsarath's comments from 1957 on the corruption that plagued foreign aid to Laos, and his strong preference for aid to be delivered not through government channels. This is out-of-step with current donor approaches of delivering foreign aid increasingly through national government systems. A few years later, the King expressed similar concerns about corruption to members of the Lao cabinet. "He expressed his disappointment that practically everyone in Laos, including many ministers, was working for himself and involved in corruption. He said that if Lao leaders would not forget themselves and work for the country, Laos would be wiped off the map."
A small criticism is the inconsistency in some of the book's transliteration. Former prime minister and former president of Lao PDR, Khamtay Siphandone is erroneously referred to as "Khamthay" Siphandone, and Vat Sisaket is also referred to as Vat "Sisakhet". These errors may be the result of proof-readers who were not familiar with the Lao spellings and pronunciation of various names and places. Also, the visit of Crown Prince Savang Vatthana to Nakhon Pathom in 1955 is incorrectly referred to as Nakhon Phanom, despite photographs of the chedi indicating otherwise. For ease of historical reference, it would have been helpful to date each photograph, or where dates were unknown, to give estimated dates, to help guide readers through the large amount of photographic evidence.
On balance, the wealth of narrative and photographic information presented in the book is impressive, and will satisfy those with a good grounding in Lao history and a curiosity to know more about the specifics of court life and the individual lives of members of the royal family. However, while it provides many interesting social and cultural insights, it risks overwhelming those not well-versed in Lao history. The Last Century of Lao Royalty is a comprehensive but not exhaustive documentation of a bygone era.