Spirits, Development and Chinese (Hydro)power: Ethnographic (Hi)stories from Upland Laos

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In the extreme north of Laos, in Phongsali Province, lies a tiny village home to around 24 households. Until recently it was a monoethnic Khmu village. The Khmu have had a historically ambivalent relationship to the national majority in contemporary Laos. It’s also home to the Akha, another ethnic group that have been described as state evaders seeking to avoid lowland politics and who migrated to northern Laos in recent decades. This small hamlet is a window into Laos’ march into a particular type of post-colonial modernity, where massive infrastructure projects, interethnic tensions, spirit beliefs and animistic practices coexist and collide.

Dr Paul-David Lutz joined Dr Natali Pearson on SSEAC Stories to share the stories of this hamlet, and reflect on the importance of “animist” beliefs and practices in shaping a culturally-specific sense of modernity in the uplands of far-north Laos.

About Dr Paul-David Lutz:

Dr Paul-David Lutz recently received his PhD from the University of Sydney’s Department of Anthropology. He is a SSEAC Writing Fellow, and an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences. Prior to his PhD, Paul-David Lutz worked for several years as a rural development advisor in Laos and Vietnam. His thesis “Sert Has Gone” gives a ‘once-removed’ ethnographic history of the ethnic Khmu and Akha village of ‘Sanjing’ in Phongsali, northernmost Laos. His research brings development studies into conversation with both history’s interest in locally-specific ways of relating to the past, and anthropology’s burgeoning focus on ‘future-making’ and ‘more-than-human lifeworlds.’

For more information or to browse additional resources, visit the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s website: www.sydney.edu.au/sseac.

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