- Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Laos: Perspective for Today’s World by Stephanie Phetsamay Stobbe
Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Laos offers an ethnographically rich portrayal of Lao cultural ceremonies and rituals that stresses the importance of grassroots practices to conflict resolution. Authored by Stephanie Phetsamay Stobbe, a former Lao refugee and now an academic at Menno Simons College in Canada, the book includes insightful and descriptive personal vignettes of Lao cultural practices. It is unfortunate, however, that poor academic rigour and notable methodological flaws weaken the book.
The central aim of Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Laos is to consider how grassroots level conflict resolution processes promote justice and maintain relationships in contexts where formal legal systems are underdeveloped. Stobbe argues that an appreciation of cultural value systems is key to conflict resolution — particularly when conflict arises between different cultural groups — and that “Western” practices of “mediator neutrality and professional third parties in dispute resolution” have often been incorrectly assumed as superior to other models (p. 4). Indeed, with respect to Laos, she argues that “grassroots systems are far more capable of providing justice than the professional systems espoused by Western developed countries” (p. 7).
For scholars of Laos, the most valuable chapters are undoubtedly Chapters 2, 3 and 4, in which Stobbe provides a detailed analysis of cultural ceremonies and conflict resolution practices such as op-lom, which are aimed at maintaining social harmony and restoring “face” or “one’s respect and status in a communal relationship” (p. 35). Through a thorough examination of what the author describes as the Lao Conflict Resolution Spectrum, these three chapters convincingly argue the importance of personal relationships in Lao conflict resolution practices, and that the avoidance of public confrontation has led many Laotians to consider formal legal trials as unconducive “to rebuilding positive relationships” (p. 57).
For those interested in conflict resolution more broadly, Stobbe’s claim that dispute resolution processes of formal, rule-of-law-type legal systems are impractical and incapable of providing social justice for much of the world’s population is perhaps her most important intellectual contribution. Significantly, while the majority of Stobbe’s analysis is on traditional or indigenous grassroots practices, she [End Page 324] is also careful to address the question of whether grassroots and professional systems can coexist. Through a comparative analysis of Laos’ conflict resolution practices with New Zealand and Canada — where parallel traditional and legal conflict resolution systems have been implemented with some success — Stobbe convincingly demonstrates that culturally-sensitive, informal, grassroots practices for conflict resolution and community well-being are of value to many post-colonial societies.
Where Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Laos may frustrate some readers, however, is the author’s limited engagement with the growing body of academic literature on Laos (Chapter 2, for instance, cites just six sources) and her consequent shallow analysis of the complex debates that surround many issues discussed in the book, such as ethnic identities, heritage preservation, socioeconomic development and the historicizing of nationalist narratives. Many statistical sources cited are outdated and there are numerous cases where the author’s choice of reference material is problematic. To provide just a few examples, on p. 1, Stobbe offers a statistic on unexploded ordnance contamination that is fifteen years out of date. Similarly, on p. 22, Stobbe gives Laos’ United Nations Development Programme’s human development index ranking from 2009 and income statistics from 2006, despite this information being updated annually and easily accessible. More concerning is that the manuscript draws heavily on a 1995 “Country Study” for the Federal Research Division of the US Library of Congress (cited in five of nine chapters), sponsored by the US Department of the Army. Aside from the obvious (undiscussed) concerns regarding both the age and institutional affiliations of this text, Stobbe incorrectly cites the author of the text as “Savada” when in fact this work is an edited volume. Lastly, while Stobbe’s descriptions of Laos as “a place of serene calm and beauty” (p. 2), where the people are “caring...