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Kingdom Come?

By Shawn W. Crispin and Bertil Lintner/LUANG PRABANG, VIENTIANE and CHIANG MAI

IT LASTED FOR JUST A MOMENT before ending in a hail of gunfire. But on July 3, for the first time in nearly 25 years, the royal flag flew once again in Laos.

It isn't clear why the unidentified insurgents decided to hoist the banner at the Chong Mek border post in southern Laos, but the symbolism was unmistakable: an emphatic call for a return to the pre-revolutionary past--a time when Laos had a king.

Ever since the 1975 communist takeover, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party has violently worked to erase royal memories from the national consciousness. Royal language has been abolished, royal statues demolished. The last reigning monarch, King Savang Vattana, was sent to a labour camp, never to return. Obliterating royal symbols has been seen as necessary to consolidate the revolution.

Now, nearly 25 years later, that consolidation is coming undone as anonymous bombers target the capital, while a Hmong insurgency rages in the northern hills and signs of dissension within the governing party become ever more visible. But is the stage set for a popularly supported royal revival in Laos?

Prince Soulivong Savang, the exiled pretender to the throne, hopes so, although he denies any involvement in the July 3 incident. Nineteen years after he fled across the Mekong River on a bamboo raft to Thailand, the 36-year-old prince is leading an international campaign to restore democracy to Laos under a constitutional monarchy. "Lao people want to change the current government as soon as possible towards a genuine democratic government," he says in a rare interview by telephone from France. "After that, it is up to the Lao people to decide whether or not to restore the monarchy, to unify all Lao ethnic [groups] as all Lao kings did in the past. The monarchy is still a very strong symbol of Lao identity."

There's no doubt that outside Laos, Prince Soulivong's appeal is growing. He has managed to bridge the traditional antagonisms between lowland Laotians and Hmong exiles, bringing their cause for "reunifying the Lao people" under one umbrella. That unity is turning heads in Washington, where some of the United States' most powerful conservative politicians--such as Jesse Helms and John McCain--have listened to Soulivong's plea for the U.S. to mediate between his movement and the Lao leaders. Soulivong has also won audiences with the governments of France, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in the past year. "Once a dialogue has been established, we can discuss how democracy and freedom should be restored in Laos," he says, calling for United Nations-supervised elections.

But on the ground in Laos, there are still no signs of a political movement supporting Prince Soulivong's campaign. Instead, most Laotians associate royal reverence with the mystical, not with abstract concepts of democracy or freedom.

At the height of the revolution, in the name of modernization, the communists tried to rub out much of the Lao mystical belief system, particularly when it had royal antecedents. But in recent years that has changed. Keen to lure in big-spending tourists, the government has allowed the re-emergence of many of the traditional symbols and rites of Theravada Buddhism. But, because of the religion's inextricable link with royalty, this has also served to bring many traditionally royal-administered ceremonies and rites back into public view.

In particular--albeit quietly--mystical cults of royal remembrance are gaining in popularity. In Luang Prabang, the old royal capital, the cult surrounding the revered Prince Phetsarath has taken a more public form in recent years. To many, the late prince is the true father of modern Laos because he declared the country independent after the Japanese surrender of 1945, even above the objections of then-King Sisavang Vong. But reverence for Phetsarath is based on far more than his nationalist credentials. The prince is believed to have been magically invincible, or khon kong, half-deity, half-royal. While he lived, Phetsarath was often called on to use his magical powers to clean away evil spirits during village purification rituals. Today, 41 years after the prince's death, monks sell and bless amulets bearing his likeness in the dim corners of Buddhist temples.

Elders in Luang Prabang relate how Phetsarath often flew away and transformed himself into an animal during the country's struggle for independence against the French. Based on that spoken lore, many teenagers wear amulets as protection against malevolent spirits. "Phetsarath has saved my life many times," says 19-year-old Chon, explaining how he narrowly survived a rocky ride down the Mekong River. "I never travel without him," the amulet-wearing hotel worker adds.

For restaurant-owner Nittaya, Prince Phetsarath "brings us fortune." Asked why she makes offerings of incense to a portrait of the prince hanging on her restaurant's wall, she answers: "He keeps my family safe." No doubt the government watches such observances warily, but there has been no crackdown, yet.

Therein lies the difference between Soulivong's political campaign, and the mystical, magical manner in which royal reverence is expressed on the ground. Indeed, some Laotians even draw a line of distinction between political royals, and magical ones. "Prince Phetsarath was able to make Laos independent because he was magic," says Chai, a 69-year-old resident of Luang Prabang. "Everyone since then has been a politician."

Indeed, modern Lao royals have a less-than-godly history, often bending to whatever political pressures ensured their survival, and not necessarily for the greater good of Laotians. Because over half of Laos's 5 million citizens were born after the 1975 revolution, most have been drilled in the classroom about the royals' history of treachery. "Laos lagged behind every other country in the region under the rule of the royal family," says Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad. "Foreign countries invaded Laos and killed many people, and the royal family didn't seem to care. Why would the Lao people want to bring back the royal family?"

If they ever did, one reason might be the unswerving affection that neighbouring Buddhist Thailand demonstrates for its King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Indeed, when Bhumibol presided over the opening of the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 1994, thousands of Laotians gathered in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Thai king. "Every night Laotians see images of the benevolent Thai monarch on TV," says a Vientiane-based aid worker. "They have to be thinking 'Why can't we have that?"

As the political situation continues to deteriorate inside Laos, Prince Soulivong hopes to capitalize on just such a sentiment. "After the victory of the communists in 1975, Laos became one of the poorest countries in the world--Lao people want to change," says Soulivong. But after twenty-five years of heavy-handed rule, including restrictions on freedom of association, prospects for the emergence of a homegrown political alternative to the ruling party still seem distant.

At present, so are Soulivong's prospects. Still, strange things could happen. Many Laotians have expressed curiosity about the potential magical qualities of Soulivong, inquiring about the length of his ears and the shape of his feet--important gauges of magical powers. Indeed, after 25 years of spiritless communist rule, it mightn't be hard for Prince Soulivong to capture the Lao imagination. Magically, Prince Soulivong might eventually have his day.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, August 17, 2001

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