- Vientiane: Transformations of a Lao Landscape
Askew, Logan and Long have undertaken one of the most important works on Lao history in many decades. This book is an attempt to look at Laos through a new perspective, the rise and fall of the city, Vientiane, its historical past, while explaining it through the discourse of urbanism and within a context of changing political landscapes. The authors admitted that Laos, as a nation, has frequently been unjustly perceived as a marginal political and cultural entity in the eyes of its neighbours and even among its own populace. The core argument of this book counters such a traditional view on Laos, with a special focus on its capital Vientiane, by presenting historical evidence unveiling the city's glorious past, its political significance and Laos's sustained culture which has provided a basis for the current regime to claim its legitimacy for what it has called "the defence of a national identity".
Delving into the theme "urbanism", the authors argued that the lack of population density and wider economic functions should not discount Vientiane as being a vibrant meuang among many in Southeast Asia (p. 6). One needs to pay a great attention to the spatial, temporal and social ordering of Vientiane, how it has been influenced by external forces, including today's globalization, and how it has influenced them in turn. Therefore, Vientiane must not only be considered as a historical urban settlement, but also a political, social and cultural landscape on which a community was built for living and power play. The authors traced the subject from its first existential beginning, describing the conditions of the city before and after it was turned into the capital of Lan Xang Kingdom. As the subtitle suggests, the analysis was concentrated on capturing the transformation of Vientiane from a dense forest into an opulent city that housed many temples and palaces. The significance of Vientiane was not limited within the city wall, but transcended beyond the Middle Mekong region where the Lao and their principalities were acknowledged as a major presence for centuries (p. 20).
The transformation from the centre of wealth and power into a city under rubble took place when the Siamese troops totally ransacked Vientiane, one of Siam's vessel states, in 1828 for fear of its disloyalty. The advent of French colonialism, the American occupation during the Cold War and the emergence of a communist regime in Laos deeply affected the destiny of Vientiane as the capital of the nation. The vulnerability of Vientiane has consistently been exploited by present-day leaders to spark Lao nationalism, to reject foreign influences, and ultimately to renew their legitimacy to govern.
What are the main takeaways of this book? First, although it has been widely accepted that [End Page 347] cities need to be studied separately from the country because they possess their own social and political orders, it would be a mistake to totally de-link Vientiane with the evolution of Laos as a nation. This is because Vientiane has always been a site of co-presence of multiple spaces, times and webs of relations, tying local sites, subjects and fragments into national networks of political, social and cultural change. Vientiane is therefore the face of Laos and the destiny of the nation. Vientiane's history has also lent itself as a part of the reconstruction of Lao-ness imbued in its pride as a long-established political entity, magnificent cultural heritage and all the distinctive qualities that might separate Laos from others.
Second, the traditional portrayal of Vientiane as a splendid, yet fragile and marginal, capital serves a political purpose. Today, the world media is being misled by such a traditional view of Vientiane as a sleepy capital of Laos, waiting for foreign funds and technical assistance to aid its collapsing historical architecture (p. 201). By projecting Vientiane in this passive way, political leaders have been very active in spurring a sense of competition among its neighbours, allowing them to fight for a sphere of influence over...