268th Meeting – Tuesday, November 8th 2005

Is “Taization” equivalent to assimilation?

Acculturation and perpetuation of ethnic boundaries in Northern Thailand and Laos

A talk by Olivier Evrard

Present: Nelly Rolhion, Bodil Blokker, Jean Peyle, Manus Brinkman, Carl Samuels, Keiko Samuels, Peter Hoare, Wiphaphorn Intharat, Jitlada Rattanapan, Richard Nelson-Jones, Guy Cardinal, Carina zur Strassen, Sebastien Tayac, Valery Zeitoun, Tony Kidd, Siripan Kidd, Hans Bänziger, Billy Doerner, Louis Gabaude, Dale & Judy Harcourt, Martin Momuda, Carl de Cleene, Jean-Claude Neveu, Mia Strickland, Max Woodfin, Mark Bleadon, Thomas Ohlson, Bernard Davis, Somkuan Piboonrat, Christel Perkins, Micah Morton, Paul Chambers, Jancy Abra, Rebecca Welden Sithiwong, Brad Teeters, Lawson Lebore, Mark & Dianne Barber-Riley, Casey McHugh, John Cadet, Darren Gordon, Mark Osborne, Sunita Winitkoonchu, Benjawan Sisot, Markus Steeb. An audience of 46

 About the speaker  

Olivier Evrard is an anthropologist at IRD (Institut de Recherché pour le Developpement, previously called Orstom) and is currently collaborating with the Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University. He has been doing research in highland villages in Laos since 1994, and more recently also in Thailand. He specialized on Mon-Khmer groups, especially Khmu and Lamet. His Ph.D. research, which he defended in 2001 at La Sorbonne University, focuses on inter-ethnic relationships between Khmu and Tay Lu villages of the Nam Tha
valley.

The full text of Olivier’s talk:

I am concerned here by the Taization of hill tribe people, and more precisely of the so-called Mon-Khmer speaking groups (Lawa and Lua in Thailand, Khmu or Lamet for instance in Laos) but most of the examples I give are taken from the Lao context, which is the one I know best.

I wrote Taization without an “h” precisely to distinguish the traditional influence of the Tai culture and populations (which can be Lao, Siamese, Yuan, Lü etc.) over the highland groups from the integration process implemented by the State (which I will then refer to in the case of Thailand by the word Thaization, with an “h”). These two phenomena can sometimes be related or interlinked together, but they do operate in quite distinct ideological contexts.

Thaization refers to the process by which the Thai State aims at assimilating the Hill Tribes into the national space (with, or sometimes without giving them citizenship, but this is another story). For Laos, we could similarly speak about Laoization. The objective here is a kind of domestication of ethnic identities. The latter are contrived into a purely “staged” form, especially for tourism purposes, and they must comply with the national regulations on territorial or educational matters.

On the other hand, Taization refers to a wider and older kind of interaction between the highland groups and the Tai populations: Siamese, Lao, Yuan, Lü, Tai-Dam, Tai-Daeng, Tai-Khao etc. This interaction creates the conditions for a political and symbolic pacification of the relations between the müang and its margins, but it does not always mean that the ethnic identities of the highlanders are simply erased on the long-term or simply staged in a contrived way.

Basically, my argument is the following: taization does not only refer to the integration of the hill tribes into the Tai social space, it also refers to a wide range of social processes through which ethnic differences can be softened, sustained or even increased. I will focus here on Khmu populations of Northern Laos, but most of the processes which I will describe can be applied also to other Mon-Khmer groups in Laos or in Thailand.

More than 500,000 people assert a Khmu identity in Laos today, which makes this group the biggest minority in the country with nearly 11% of the total population. Khmu people often represent overwhelming local majorities, especially in the Northwest part of the country, as shown in this figure. Some Khmu populations are also scattered in Vietnam, Thailand and even southern China, but their settlement there is more recent (maximum 2 centuries). Indeed, it is only in Northern Laos that the Khmu are considered as a truly autochthonous people and are said to have founded some political centers before the arrival of the Tai populations in this area.

Despite their demographical and historical significance for the social history of Laos, Khmu populations have remained understudied compared to the other highland ethnic groups, such as the Hmong or the Akha for instance. Work has been conducted on Khmu language and Khmu folklore, especially by the late Kristina Lindell at the University of Lünd in Sweden, but very few studies have been implemented directly on the field and no classical monographic work has been published on them yet. One could say that the political and security problems during the last decades can account for that. But such factors can also be mentioned for all the ethnic groups of this area. The true reason is that the Khmu are not attractive enough in the eyes of many scholars. As Kristina Lindell puts it: “It is difficult to conjecture why so little research has been undertaken on the Kammu. They are only mentioned in passing in most works dealing with that particular area. Part of the explanation for this may be that scholars of earlier times, who wanted to study something apart from the major national groups, concentrated on more glamorous and conspicuous peoples » (1977: 9).

Her sentence summarizes quite well the image given by most of the studies that have been undertaken in Laos, whether or not they focus specifically on the Khmu. This applies to a wide range of documents, from the early colonial times to the Marxist writings of the Vietnamese ethnographers at the beginning of the seventies. All these documents are insisting upon the economical, political and cultural subordination of the Khmu towards the Lao and all of them equally consider inescapable the fact that they were in the process of complete assimilation by the Lao.

As is often the case, it was missionaries working around Luang Prabang between 1955 and 1965 who wrote the first truly ethnographic accounts of the Khmu. Those works are of great interest for anthropological matters, but they are always written with a very pessimistic tone. For example, William Smalley spoke about the “cultural apathy”, the “social disintegration” among the Khmu, and even wrote that they had “little zest for life”. (Smalley 1965 : 13). First of all, it seems doubtful to consider apathy as a social phenomenon (Lindell, 1977: 9). Second, it is also worth noting that these comments made by William Smalley are partly contradictory with those made nearly one hundred years before by the French explorer Francis Garnier who noticed that the Khmu populations were treated as equals by the Lao and were considered as the guardian of the edges and as fierce warriors (Garnier, 1885). It is probably colonization which has contributed to impoverish the Khmu populations. Third, we must also notice that while the situation observed by William Smalley is quite similar to that described in the Northeast, near the Vietnamese border, it is completely different from what is observed in the Northwest part of the country, were Khmu villages are said to be traditionally more prosperous.

The lack of field research in different parts of the country probably explains why the Khmu are only considered as an under-class in the Tai society. It also explains why taization is viewed as a process of disintegration and assimilation of Mon-Khmer groups. Vietnamese Marxist ethnographers have put the stress on the first dimension and, on the basis of so-called “survivals” or “relics” of social organization or of rituals, they have tried to reconstruct a mythical original Khmu society. A similar perspective, though much more sophisticated, has been developed by Choltira about the Lua of Nan (Choltira, 1991). In the case of the Vietnamese authors writing about the Khmu, the stress is put on the miserable conditions of life of these populations. This then allows the writer to extol the great socio-economic achievements of the communist State, and focus on the inescapable disappearance of old customs:  « The old Khmu religion has served its time: the principles which sustained it no crystallized in any dogma, can no longer resist the momentum of modern requirements. This certainly does not exclude the persistence here and there of certain very much simplified cult forms which are still celebrated for conscience’s sake (…). There is no doubt however that even these residues are destined to disappear in the near future » (Dang Nghiem Van 1973: 133-134).

French anthropologists have also worked among the Mon-Khmer populations on the Lao-Vietnamese northern border. They have suggested that in the case of the Tai Dam, Black Tai, the lower clans were indeed some Mon-Khmer populations that had been first defeated and then integrated into the Tai system. The famous anthropologist Georges Condominas has summarized this process by saying that the taization, which he also called “the müang internal dynamic” finds its origin in “the conquered peoples’ hope of reaching a better status by copying their masters, was encouraged by the desire of the latter to achieve Taization of the native peoples (Condominas, 1990: 71)

These analyses, however, ignore several questions which one may, and indeed one should ask: if these populations have been living side by side with the Tai for nearly one thousand years, and if it is true that they are considered as an under-class and progressively assimilated, then why do they still exist? Why do we still find not only Khmu but also Lawa, Lua, Lamet and so on? What does make the ethnic boundaries reproduce themselves?

According to Grant Evans, who conducted some fieldwork among the Tai-Dam and Sing Moon populations of Samneua [Ksing Mool], in Northeast Laos at the end of the eighties, the answer lies precisely in the duality of the taization process. Despite the fact that the Sing Moon are heavily acculturated, they still assert their specific identity, especially in their funeral rituals, during which they recall their anteriority on the territory. Such a reproduction of ethnic boundaries appears to be not a residual phenomenon but indeed something conceived as necessary both by the Sing Moon and by their Tai neighbours. (Evans, 1991: 96).

Twenty years before Evans’s fieldwork, the French anthropologist Charles Archaimbault had worked on the main seasonal rituals in Laos, especially but not only New Year rituals in Luang Phrabang. He has clearly analysed the role played by the Mon-Khmer: they are taken as inferiors but at the same time considered as the only ones able to propitiate the local spirits; that is as the only ones able to give the Lao kingdom its real legitimacy over this territory which used once to be theirs (Archaimbault, 1973). Similar analyses have been conducted for the New Year rituals in Chiang Mai and Nan, and in many other areas where the same relations to the local spirits and the same interethnic structure was identified. Tai identities need the presence of the autochthonous populations to exist by themselves as Tai and to legitimate their control over their territory. In other words, the Tai needs the highlanders as markers for their own social space, at least from an ideological viewpoint.

I would like to extend Evans’s analysis about the duality of the Taization process by using my own data gathered in the Nam Tha valley, in Northwest Laos. I will not suggest that the Khmu have a dominant position in the local interethnic system. Rather, my aim is to go into further detail about some little known and ambivalent aspects of taization.

The Nam Tha valley was considered in the past as the western border of the Lan Xang, that is the old Lao kingdom. Rather than a real border in the modern sense, it was a buffer zone for several local powers: the Tai-Lü polities from the Sip Song Panna in the North (either Müang Sing or Müang La), the Tai-Yuan principality of Nan in the South, and the Lao principality of Luang Phrabang in the East. Each of these political powers was controlling very indirectly some of the highland populations of this area, the greater majority of which are Khmu.

Those political contrasts (which are also linked with economic ones) have contributed to the creation, among the Khmu populations, of cultural discontinuities, or kinds of subgroups named tmoy in Khmu language, which are distinguished by their costumes, their religious practises and their oral literature (Evrard, 2003). Such subgroups offer very interesting examples for understanding the ambivalent nature of the taization process. Khmu populations have borrowed - or not - some of the cultural attributes of the Tai populations with whom they were in contact. Those attributes have then been combined with other identity markers, such as forms of basketry or linguistic peculiarities, to produce some intra ethnic borders among a population who, however, claim to have the same ethnic identity. In other words, the Khmu appropriate the Tai influence by using their own concept, resources or categories. They not only “copy” the Tay as Georges Condominas says, they also make this outside influence meaningful for themselves.

A similar idea is developed in the linguistic field. We know now that four decades ago Mon-Khmer populations, who traditionally have a toneless language, started developing tones as a result of contact with the neighbouring tonal languages, especially Tai. Swedish and French linguists have worked on Mon-Khmer languages to precisely understand how these tones appeared. In the Khmu case, they have shown that the appearance of tones was linked to the fusion of voiceless and voiced first consonants. However, in the case of other populations, mechanisms are different: Mon-Khmer groups of Yunnan area for instance developed tones in their language by merging the long and short vowels, or by modifying the final consonants (Svantesson, 1989). What does this exactly mean? It means that if the Mon-Khmer populations have borrowed the idea of using tones from the Tai, they have used their own linguistic resources to concretely put it into practise. Taization is not a one-way process … such mechanisms account for the existence of two main dialect groups in Khmu language. The first one, called sometimes “archaic” because it has not yet developed tones, covered most of Northeast Laos while another one covers Northwest Laos and Thailand. In this second dialect, variations and differences among speakers can sometimes be greater than between the two main groups of dialects, which shows clearly that Taization can generate increased cultural differentiation. The Nam Tha River can be here again considered as a border area since the Khmu of the Western bank have already developed three tones while those of the East bank only have two.

Other fields of research can easily support the idea that taization does not simply erase the ethnic differences. Migrations and their social impact for instance, which are traditionally very important in the social life of the Khmu, are worth considering here.

Historically, most of the young Khmu migrants were going to work in eastern Burma and, after 1880, also in the teak plantations of northern Thailand. Indeed, the French colonial administration was quite worried by these migrations and tried to evaluate and to control them through an “agency” built in Chiang Khong at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1930, three to four hundred young Khmu men were still arriving each year in Chiang Mai and were staying there two to three years on average (Lebar 1965: 8). These migrations from the Nam Tha valley were also numerous in Lampang and Nan but, after the thirties, they concerned mainly the border areas of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong. Those young migrants usually returned to their villages after earning enough money to buy some prestige goods such as buffaloes or bronze drums. In the villages most concerned by these migrations, the hierarchy between individuals and lineages was usually more pregnant than in the others. Those of the men considered as “rich” were given specific titles such as pia during traditional ceremonies, and they were distinguishing themselves from the others by wearing tattoos, turbans or silver decorated clothes which symbolised their status. Thus, we can say that, by living in the lowlands for a while, they adopted some of the symbols of the wealth typical of the Tai society, and also some values linked with Buddhism. However, these elements were then subject to an appropriation and a reformulation within their own cultural framework. In other words, such symbols or ideological elements were still making sense from a social point of view, but following different modalities or criteria.

At this stage, some of you may argue that even if taization is not simply an acculturation and even if Mon-Khmer populations do keep some “creative autonomy” in the process, these few examples still demonstrate that the general dynamic is more or less one of a progressive encompassment into the political, economical and cultural Tai system. I have never attempted to challenge this general dynamic nor did I try to reverse it and suggest that Mon-Khmer populations were having a dominant position in the interethnic system. Rather, I am trying here to better explain the modalities of this process and to explain why, despite it, separate ethnic identities still exist. Moreover, we should not forget that what we can observe now is only one aspect of a cultural influence which was probably playing in both ways in the older times.

Among the Tai Yuan populations for instance, we find elements of a matrilineal descent system for some specific territorial spirits (Rhum, 1994). For Choltira, such a phenomenon is probably the result of the influence of the matrilineal oriented descent system of the first Mon-Khmer inhabitants of this area (Choltira, 1991). While the Lawa have a clearly patrilineal system today, the Lua of Nan have kept a matrilineal system of descent.

Another example can be found in the myth of Tao Chüang. This mythical hero, whose name is mentioned in the Tai chronicles as the founder of such cities as Chiang Saen and Chiang Mai, is also very important in the Khmu mythology. The French linguist Michel Ferlus showed that the Lao versions of such myths were incorporating traditional Khmu mythical elements and were transforming them to fit within the Lao ideological framework (Ferlus, 1979). A systematic comparison of Khmu and Tai oral literature remain to be done but it would most surely show that the latter owe quite a lot to the former and that the emergence and the reproduction of separate ethnicities has taken place in a long history of exchanges and close contacts.

I would like to draw on my own experience in the Nam Tha valley to show how the taization process can both perpetuate the ethnic boundaries and favour the assimilation of some small fractions of the highlanders into the Tai society.

The Nam Tha valley has for a long time been inhabited only by Khmu and Lamet, who traditionally build on the main mountains, above 1000 meters. Relations between these highland villages and Lao people first took place on the basis of economic specialization. Lao boatmen were coming from Luang Phrabang at the end of the rainy season to barter the rice grown by the Khmu, or some forest products against iron bars, tissues or salt. The Nam Tha valley then became the granary of Luang Phrabang. Some small trading posts developed and progressively scattered upriver because the competition between the Lao paddlers encouraged them to go always further upriver in the valley. At first, such localities were usually multiethnic: Lao paddlers married Khmu or Lamet wives and the latter brought with them some relatives to settle near the river. When the locality had stabilized and matured, more Lao migrants arrived to join the first settlers. A Buddhist temple was then constructed and the multiethnic origin of the locality was then completely forgotten. Such processes are still going on today in the most Upper part of the valley, where one can observe quite recent villages founded by Lao boatmen married with Khmu women and followed by several houses from each ethnic group (the Khmu usually being more numerous). The political context in which these recent villages are created today differs significantly from previous periods but the interethnic organization remains basically the same as it was many centuries ago. The Lao usually specialized in trade while the Khmu practise slash-and-burn agriculture in the hills around. This is the logical extension, at the village level, of a kind of ethnic specialization that has been operating at the regional level for a very long time.

When living in different villages, as it is the case for most of them, highlanders provide the lowlanders with rice and natural products while the latter barter hand made object such as tissues, that they make by using the cotton given by the highlanders. Such bartering usually occurs directly inside the villages, between two houses whose members know each other well. Such specialisations have contributed to perpetuate the ethnic boundaries for each group is associated with a specific range of economic activities and is dependent upon the other for its own livelihood. The relations then created between households can go beyond the economic sphere and take the value of a kin relation.

When two families barter together, their members say that they are phi nong in Lao language, or tai haem in Khmu language. Sometimes, to mark the specific value of this relationship, some villagers can use the word phi nong kon klork. It is said that such a relationship must be periodically confirmed by the participation in the rituals done by the other family, and by eating together the blood of an animal killed for this special event: this can happen for instance when an new house is built, for a marriage or for funerals. This cross involvement of both sides in their own rituals does not at all erase the ethnic boundaries, quite the reverse. It allows these differences to be staged.  For instance, a Tai man invited to a Khmu ritual may conduct a small ceremony to recall the soul of his Khmu counterpart by reciting some mantra that he has learned at the temple. In this case, this small ceremony will be entirely disconnected from the whole Khmu animist ritual which usually involves the slaughter of a buffalo or at least of a pig. Then, Khmu men can take part to Tai rituals by themselves bringing and slaughtering some animals, or by bringing rice beer in big jars while the Tay villagers usually drink only rice whisky.

Conversely, such relationships can also favour the assimilation of some fragments of Khmu populations in Lao villages. In the Nam Tha valley, because most of the Tai villagers cannot make their living solely through the boat trade they also have to farm. Since there is a shortage of land available for wet rice agriculture, most of them practise slash and burn agriculture, just as the Khmu do. But, once again, since their village territories are usually smaller than those of their neighbours, and since this kind agriculture requires quite long fallow periods to be efficient, these Tai people must regularly borrow some of their Khmu neighbours’ land. This can happen either through a collective agreement between two villages or through an informal agreement between two families known well to each other. Then, one can observe for some years Tai families living side by side in the fields with Khmu people, sharing pieces of the same land. If he has enough Khmu friends or phi nong, a Tai man can then secure his access to land and even provide some land for other people in his own village.

This kind of agreement cannot, however, solve all the problems. With demographic increase, and also with degradation of the soil in the lower part of the valley, land pressure increases and Tai villagers have to go further and further to find new land for cultivation. Some years, the people can then live quite far from each other during most of the rainy season. When such a situation coincides with conflicts of interest among several working groups, the village splits and some of its members settle near their fields, usually upriver. Before they do so, the migrants must be sure that they will be able to get enough land in the following years in order to maintain a long fallow system. The negotiations which are undertaken with the neighbouring Khmu villages at that time can then prompt some Khmu families to decide to go down and to settle with the Tai families. Such criss-crossed migrations are quite difficult to demonstrate for the oldest villages, but, as I said previously, they can be observed in the most recent ones, for the current ideological context favours the official recognition of multiethnicity as a positive aspect of the new “socialist” society in Laos.

Indeed, a very important question concerns the influence of the New State on such traditional dynamics of Taization. In other words, is Thaization, or Laoization in the case of Laos, replacing taization, and if yes how does this take place? I will here focus only on the Lao case.

During the fifties and the sixties, communist troops succeeded in gaining control of most of the mountainous areas of Northern Laos. In Khmu areas, it appears that their recruitment was especially fruitful in the areas where the interethnic relationships were already conflicting. On the other hand, in the areas where some Khmu leaders had been given titles of nobility by the Tai princes and where the social organisation was more stratified, most of the men sided with the Royal Lao troops. We can then already say that part of the geopolitics of the war in Laos has been influenced by the local characteristics of the taization process.  

After the war, many Khmu men who had fought with the communist troops were rewarded with high administrative and political positions. In Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Bokeo, and even Luang Phrabang, it is not unusual to see Khmu men in the position of province or district governor; cao kwaeng or cao müang. (But this is also true for other minority groups as well). Some of their relatives were given rice fields in the lowlands or cattle. However, most of the Khmu still suffer from poverty and a lack of access to basic public services. In other words, they still have a marginal position in the Lao society. This is because the general dynamic of the taization process has not been fundamentally altered; it is only operating in a different ideological context.

In Laos, the State intends to develop a “national” culture which is heavily influenced, in its content, by the traditional Lao culture. A “good culture” supposes that the villagers accept to live more or less in the same way as the Lao, which means first to be resettled in the lowlands, second to stop slash and burn agriculture, and third to adopt Buddhism. The promotion of Buddhism among the minority groups can appear surprising in the Lao context since the State still claims communism to be the main ideology in the country. In fact, as for other aspects of cultural and economic life, the Lao officials have distinguished between those aspects of Buddhism which they considered as compatible with Marxist-Leninist ideology, and those which are not. This has given birth to a kind of “official” Buddhism  which has been used as a tool for the Laoization of the ethnic minorities; for their integration into the national culture (see Stuart-Fox, 1996).

The promotion of this “official” Buddhism mostly takes the form of collective exorcism ceremonies during which, under the supervision of local monks and officials, the villagers reject all their spirits and throw them out in to the forest. We cannot speak here really about a conversion to Buddhism but rather of a use of religion for political ends, in order especially to secularize the social life and to erase religious practises which prevent the people getting access to the “modern” life. However, in the same process, one can also still observe more traditional behaviour. Some high-ranking local families adopt symbols or markers of the Buddhist culture without being really converted to Buddhism. For instance, in 1996 I observed that the Head of Nalae district, in the Nam Tha valley, who was born in a Khmu village, used to add the prefix thit at the beginning of his name. This title is usually given to men who have stayed some time in a Buddhist temple as monks, which was definitely not so in his case. His intention was not to hide his original ethnic identity but to show a more respectable status. This is a very old practice as the first French explorers in this area had already noted at the end of the 19th century that some Khmu leaders were giving money to some pagodas of the lowlands, and some of them were even building temples in their own villages. This did not mean however that the villagers were converted to Buddhism and the pagoda usually had no monks living inside. In addition to the voluntary propagation of Buddhism among the ethnic minorities promoted by the new Lao State, there are also some older forms of taization which are still active. These two kinds of dynamics can sometimes be observed in the same village, as shown by the example of one Khmu village of Oudomxay province.

In 1976, four different Khmu villages merged and settled downhill near the road linking Oudomxay and Müang La. They then created a new village now named Samikhisay, literally “the victory of friendship”. These four villages were originally part of one same old locality, named Ban Lan, whose populations had progressively decreased and which had eventually disappeared. Villagers of Ban Samikhisay say that they have been Buddhist for a very long time and, on that subject, they tell the following myth.

Once upon a time, while they were fishing in the river, Lao villagers found a statue of the Buddha in the water. They tried to pull it up on the bank of the river but they did not succeed. They asked help to other Lao villages but they still were unable to get the statue. Finally, they called the villagers of a small Khmu village, Ban Lan, where there were only seven families, one of them being leaded by a widow. Those Khmu villagers made a rope using black rice straw and the widow weaved a tissue to carry the Buddha statue. They dived in the river and were finally able to get the Buddha statue outside of the river. The pagoda of Müang La was built at that time to receive the statue of the Buddha (Pha chao Sing Kham) which had been taken from the water by these Khmu villagers and you can still see it inside the main building.

There are several versions of this myth, usually longer than this one. All of them have more or less the same structure and contents with references to typical Khmu mythical themes, such as the magical properties of black rice, or the presence of an old widow as a leader. In another version, it is said that the families of Ban Lan belonged to three different clans, which is a clear allusion to the social organisation and the matrimonial rules (for more details, see Lindell and al., 1979). Another very interesting aspect of this myth is the symbolic geography which it is setting up. The Müang La temple where the Buddha statue is now kept has been built on a small hill known as Buffalo Mountain, at the confluence of a small stream, Huey Lae, and the main river, Nam Phak. The old village of Ban Lan used to be at the source of this small stream, near another hill also called Buffalo Mountain. If the myth officially tells us how the Khmu villagers became Buddhist, it is also a way of recalling their anteriority on the territory and of presenting an attractive image of their own ethnic identity.

Since its creation, Ban Samikhisay has been subject to a heavy religious acculturation on the part of the Lao State. From 1977 to 2000, several collective ceremonies have been organised, with the help of the monks of the Müang La pagoda, to throw the spirits out into the forest. Interestingly, a very esteemed villager who was at the same time a traditional Khmu spirit specialist and a political leader has initiated such ceremonies. All of his four sons now have high-ranking positions in the province.

This does not mean, however, that the villagers have really converted to Buddhism in both content and form. There is no temple in the village and few villagers go to the pagoda of Müang La except during the New Year ceremonies. Since 1975, even though the Buddhist ideology has mostly spread against the traditional religious system, it has not fundamentally changed the religious practises of the villagers. The so-called Buddhist identity of Samikhisay villagers appears as a very localized phenomenon in which the myth of origin, by mixing some fragments of Buddhist legends with typical elements of Khmu myths, plays the role of an active cognitive element which orients the collective representation of ethnic identity. Such an example, which can be found elsewhere in the country in different interethnic contexts, shows how the ethnic identities have historically been included in the Tai social space without loosing their own specificity. In this case the statue of the Buddha is playing a pivotal role through which a group of animist villages are included into the religious topography of the main neighbouring pagoda.

During this talk, I have tried to show that the idea of taization should not be considered only as the influence of the Tai over the highland groups, or as the complete assimilation of the latter. We also have to acknowledge a process of appropriation of this influence by the highland ethnic groups following their own values or principles. In other words, we have to give them back some of their autonomy in these processes, instead of considering that they are going to disappear in the near future. What Grant Evans calls the duality of the taization process is indeed a form of inclusiveness: distinct identities are kept and reproduced but at the same time they get ordered into a hierarchy inside the same whole social and ideological space. That is why taization is an ambivalent phenomenon, which does not necessarily erase the ethnic differences but can also contribute to transform and to sustain them through the creation of new markers, stories or categories which then provide the basis for the evolution of the interethnic relationships.

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SMALLEY William

[1965] "Ethnographic notes on the Khamu" Reproduced by U.S. AID Mission to Laos. Manuscript original "The Khamu : Final report to National Research Council, Bangkok, 27 avril 1965", 25 p.

STUART-FOX Martin

[1996] Buddhist kingdom, Marxist state: the making of modern Laos, Bangkok, White Lotus, 295 p.

SVANTESSON Jan Olaf

[1989] "Tonogenetic mechanisms in Northern Mon-Khmer", Phonetica (46): 60-79.

 
After an informed question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where, over drinks and snacks, members of the audience engaged Olivier in more informal conversation.