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Projectland: Life in a Lao Socialist Model Village

Projectland is political ethnography of contemporary Laos. More than forty years after the establishment of the Lao PDR, and more than seven decades since socialist ideologues first “liberated” parts of upland Laos, the chapters examine the outcomes of the socialist revolution through the lens of the day-to-day lives lived in a model village in contemporary Laos.

Kandon is remarkable by any account. The villagers are ethnic Kantu (Katu), an ethnicity associated by early ethnographers above all with human sacrifice. They repelled French control. As the war went on, the revolutionary forces of Sekong were headquartered in Kandon territories. In 1996, Kandon village resettled to a plateau area. “New Kandon” is Sekong Province’s first certified “Culture Village,” the nation’s first “Open Defecation Free Village and Model Health Village,” and the President of Laos personally granted the village a Flag and Labour Medal honouring their achievements in patriotism and development.

Even if socialism has declined as an economic model, this book argues, it is has not disappeared. Socialism is ascendant in contemporary Lao political culture and the politics of culture.

Holly High, Projectland

This book investigates the village’s success as a means of understanding the ongoing significance of socialism in contemporary Laos. Even if socialism has declined as an economic model, this book argues, it has not disappeared. Socialism is ascendant in contemporary Lao political culture and the politics of culture. For instance, by influencing what counts as success, socialist thought informs the forward-looking idioms through which people imagine their own agency and their own lives as projects.

This book also presents the stories that are cast into shadows by the usual stories of how New Kandon is a success in the idiom of Lao socialism. It tells the story of a small group of villagers who left to re-establish the old village in the mountains, effectively defying central policy preferences but in their words obeying the powerful presence that animates the land there. It also relates the experiences of some women who, bound by steep brideprices to often-violent marriages, have tasted little of the socialist project of equality, unity and independence. These people spoke to me of the limits on their lives, which they often glossed as “necessities”. In a context where the state has defined the legitimate forms of success and agency, “necessity” emerged as a means of framing one’s life as non-conforming while also non-agentive.


I spent most of my research time in New Kandon. I lived with host families there for the bulk of that time, except for the time when I lived there with my own family to Kandon (two kids + husband) — that time we rented our own house in the village.

Today, New Kandon is located on the eastern edge of the Bolaven Plateau in Thateng District, Sekong Province. About nine hundred people established this village in 1996 as part of the government-sponsored resettlement of the entire population of the village.

Projectland, Chapter 1

Once I had established contacts in New Kandon, I was eventually invited to Old Kandon. Old Kandon is still very important to many people in New Kandon: many were born there, and have people they love buried there as well as relatives living in the village that was re-established there in 2001. My visit there in 2012 was one of the most exhilarating periods of my fieldwork.

Old Kandon contrasts with New Kandon in many ways. It is high, and named for the mountain streams that spring there. The water is channelled into the village through bamboo pipes. The village itself is presided over by a grant fig tree, pictured here. The village grounds are swept clear and look out over view of valleys, mountains, and (often) fog.

It is a landscape of steep slopes, forest, upland fields, and waterfalls.

Projectland, Chapter 1

While Old Kandon and New Kandon contrast in many ways, people in both villages still often told me that “really, there is only one Kandon.” One of the things the two villages had in common was a foundational myth. Listening to this myth, and trying to obey the anthropological dictum to collect as many versions as possible of the same myth, led me to realise that storytelling — even about this widely-known myth — could be tightly controlled in the Kandons.

In my earliest days in the village, I thought that collecting various versions of the “Grandmother Mek and Grandfather dog” myth would be an easy enough way to get to know people. I thought it would be uncontroversial, as the carvings are a central feature of the ceremonial hall and versions of the myth had already appeared in various publications.

With the flood, the sky and the earth swapped places, the moon and the stars swapped, and so on. Before the flood, some rats had been plucked, as one does when preparing to grill. That is why these days some people have hair and others are bald, men have beards and women don’t. With the flood, everything changed places.

Projectland, Chapter 1

It was in this way that I first connected with some important women in the village, but also learnt that not everyone was equally placed to speak with me on this or any other topic. Apparently the stories told mattered in Kandon, more than even I (a professional story-collector of sorts) had anticipated. As my fieldwork went on, I was able to listen to the stories of women in Kandon, and these form the backbone of the second half of the book.

On my first visit to New Kandon (accompanied by a Lao friend from my Champassak field site, and staff from the Sekong Museum), Wiphat gave us a warm welcome and showed us around .

e took us on a swift tour of the village. His first stop was the ceremonial hall. Inside front and center were carvings of Grandmother Mek and Grandfather Dog, the ancestral couple. Around them were carvings of figures playing traditional instruments, carrying rocket launchers, and, in one case, wearing a suit and tie. This last image, Wiphat explained, was of the government. There were also carvings of toucans, monkeys, turtledoves, pangolins, and lively images of a dog catching a lizard. The solemn faces carved at the bottom of the supporting columns, bearing the heavy weight of the roof, were the ancestors

Projectland, Chapter 1

Based on this tour, I decided to seek research permission to for long-term ethnographic research in Kandon. By the time I returned in 2011, the village chief had forgotten our first meeting, indicating (I think) how often he gave these sorts of tours to outsiders.

In the introduction to Projectland, I explain that I first came to Kandon because of a display at the Sekong Museum. These photos give some indication of what the Museum looked like then, in 2009, before the Museum officially opened (my visit also coincided with Typhoon Ketsana, thus the life jackets).

Jumbled remnants from the war, handicrafts, herbal medicines, old tools, coffee beans, musical instruments, and arrows lay on wooden tables. Masses of photographs were pinned on colorful noticeboards.

Projectland, Chapter 1

It was through this visit, and particularly seeing the photo display, that I came to hear of Kandon village, a ‘Culture Village.’ And this, in turn, led to my first ‘tour’ of the village.

Conventional sources on the Kantu are thin: the French never truly controlled Kantu territory and colonial accounts of the so-called “Katu” often lapsed into rumours about human sacrifice and never-ending warfare (“Katu” was an exonym speculated to mean “savage,” Le Pichon 1939). This chapter focuses on the imaginary space made available for so-called-savages in the communist revolution: that of heroism and a crucial role in the revolution. This is evidenced by “History of Sekong Province 1945-2010,” an official history penned by a committee of civil servants and soldiers, as well as by the chronicle kept in New Kandon. The chapter also discusses “shadow histories” — the stories people told me that did not fit easily into such official narratives of success.

There was a struggle going on in Kandon, then, over the telling of history. People cared what I heard, and it was the subject of some forthright manipulation. Was resettlement a success or a tragic failure? Were the deaths caused by resettlement itself? Or ghosts? Or kinuh?

Projectland, Chapter 2

New Kandon was the first village certified as a Culture Village in Sekong Province. This chapter examines the definition of “culture” in Lao bureaucratic language. To be cultured is to be informed (owning a TV is among the criteria), progressive and active in the community. Antonyms are “backwards” and “superstitious”: these are targeted for “eradication.” In this chapter, I examine New Kandon’s successful attainment of this and other accolades in terms of Lao “politics of recognition.”

Wiphat rummaged in the wardrobe where he kept cloth and heirlooms. Joining us on the front porch, he wrapped a cloth around his head, saying it was “from my father’s time, not mine.” He wrapped around his chest a blanket woven for him by his favorite wife, and around his waist a loincloth she had beaded for him.

Projectland, Chapter 3

One of New Kandon’s most striking wins is its certification as Laos’ first “Open Defecation Free and Model Healthy Village.” The village attained this certification in 2009 after going through a process known as CLTS (Community-Led Total Sanitation). CLTS, first initiated in Bangladesh and now sponsored by the World Bank and practiced in more than 60 countries, is a method of using community pressure to ensure that everyone has access to a toilet and uses it. New Kandon has been a model village in teaching bureaucrats and village leaders how to pursue CLTS. The notion of a model itself indicates something of what counts as success in Lao politics: conforming to a standardised ideal. I track this commitment to a unilinear path as it ramified through this CLTS and ODF. Finally, I end up in the toilets of New Kandon, where another version of success can be found, off-stage.

The child growth charts used in Laos—which See referred—reproduce exactly the standards developed by the World Health Organization. These are not charts based on Lao statistics, or an idea of the kind of growth that might be expected from the children or grandchildren of populations who were displaced by war or who lived through one of the greatest bombing campaigns ever witnessed.

Projectland, Chapter 4

Buffalo sacrifice in undergoing a renaissance in New Kandon. Following local usage, I use the term “eat buffalo” to refer to the ritual slaughter and consumption of buffalo. In Chapter 5, I ask what it is about buffalo in particular that place them so centrally in village and household ritual life.

The image Khamphat gave me was of a dark world where eat buffalo events make sense because the choice is either eat or be eaten. The kimoc are supposed to be the ones who “care for us.” But kimoc regularly caused deadly illness among their descendants.

Projectland, Chapter 5

The entire population of New Kandon took an oath against witchcraft, sorcery, and theft in 2013. Witches and sorcerers need to be physically close to their victims, so it was neighbours and co-residents who were under suspicion. The oath was intended to restore unity within the village by ensuring that anyone practicing such dark arts would be killed. The oath was sealed with a ritual slaughter and consumption of a white buffalo.

Clause 1: Bad medicines and sorcery used for murder. Clause 2: Witchcraft used for murder. Clause 3: Giving payments to murder others by such means. … The water drunk here will curse whoever commits these acts.

Projectland, Chapter 5

Women in New Kandon showed me finely woven blankets and beaded loincloths, some of them heirlooms made never to be sold, many of bordered with motifs of American bomber aircraft and slogans praising Marx and Lenin. They told me how their weavings had made life in the mountains possible: this village had relied on weaving for trade in the past. With the increasing availability of mass-produced cloth, this livelihood was undermined. Today many women continue to weave, many avidly, many for sale, even with margins so low that at times it seems uncertain if any profit can be made. When I attempted to learn to weave, I was told laments from women who understand their lives, and weaving itself, as suffering. They told me of binds that kept them from acting out of free choice, despite the promotion of “choice” in recent socialist cultural and economic policies.

Her laments pulled again and again at the same threads, looking for a break where there was none. It was all bindings with no way out.

Projectland, Chapter 6

People in Kandon often end up marrying people they had referred to before marriage as their “siblings” (effectively, matrilateral cross cousin marriage). Usually, marriage is the result of illnesses. The watchful ancestor ghosts never forget a debt and are sensitive to any transgressions. They perceive even a person’s secret or unacknowledged desires and act on these by causing illness among their loved ones. When a marriage takes place, a woman’s husband and her brother are required to help one another. This generates the kind of debts and desires (and thus illnesses) that make a marriage between the woman’s son and her brother’s daughter more likely in the next generation. This chapter describes this particular form of marriage through a focus on the successive marriages and divorces in one household. It illustrates again the difficult position held by many women in Kandon.

Phut’s relative was sick, and the diviner said it was because of this outstanding debt. Wanali’s parents were poor, so to settle the debt they gave her in marriage. She was fifteen. They thought the repayment marriage would make Phut’s relative recover, but that woman died ten days after the wedding. Wanali’s life was already altered forever.

Projectland, Chapter 7

In 2012, I took a trek to Old Kandon. Men from New Kandon, as well as some Kaleum locals, came with me. As the days wore on, an interpretation developed that I was carrying a substance that was protecting me from the dangers we all faced: poisoners, sorcerers, witches, or physical attack. One by one, in private moments, my companions asked me: Would I give them some?

Anthropology has a disciplinary commandment: to see things “from the Native’s point of view” (Malinowski [1922] 2002: 19). What my hike taught me was that this method works as much by its failure as success.

Projectland, chapter 8

This concluding chapter reflects on projects: one’s life as a project, revolution as a project, and statefcraft as a project, the project of anthropology and psychoanalytic projection. I understand these as encasing different kinds of temporalities that can seem at odds (the Eternal Return as opposed to Progress) but which can also come together in a single person or outlook.

In socialist sentiment, the Golden Age is reinstalled not as a lost past but is imagined in a future.

Projectland, Chapter 9

Praise for Projectland

Projectland: Life in a Lao Socialist Model Village

Where to buy Projectland

Order a copy through University of Hawai’i Press or order the ebook through Booktopia.