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The subtle challenges in grasping a culture like our own: Laos

With the Asean Economic Community (AEC) becoming operational next year, it is imperative for Thais to develop a better and deeper understanding of their neighbours.

Three AEC members have cultures similar to Thailand, namely Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Of these, the Thai and Lao cultures and languages are the most similar, which ironically poses special challenges.

There are numerous examples of countries that are similar culturally but are different at the same time, such as the US and Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan and Korea, Germany and Austria, and Australia and New Zealand.

With respect to the US-Canada relationship, there are many rather amazing parallels with the Thai-Lao situation. Often when Thais arrive for the first time in Laos, it is common for them to say they feel like they are in Thailand, say for example, in a major regional city like Khon Kaen.

They think this is a compliment, but instead the Lao frequently feel hurt because there is no recognition that Laos has anything special or distinctive. The same thing often happens when Americans visit Canada, and like the Lao, the Canadians feel hurt by such remarks.

I recently visited Toronto for the first time, and the experience inspired this article and its central theme: "Thailand is to Laos as the United States is to Canada".

A number of years ago I took a group of Thai students on a two-month study program in Laos with students from Cambodia, Japan, the US and Vietnam.

At first the Thai students were rather sceptical about the idea of spending two months in Laos. Numerous Thais have visited Laos for a day and don't even stay the night.

My students echoed a common theme about Laos among Thais, namely, Laos "mai mii arai" (Laos doesn't have anything.) Interestingly, towards the end of the program, the Thais were asking about the possibility of extending their stay. Obviously, there was much in Laos to learn and enjoy.

I have identified nine areas in which the Thai-Lao situation mirrors the Canadian-US situation:

1) The demographics are remarkably similar. The Thai population is 9.96 times larger than the Lao population and the US population is 9.15 times larger than the Canadian population. Also both Canada and Laos, in contrast to the US and Thailand, are sparsely populated with many natural resources. Laos has been referred to as the potential "battery of Southeast Asia".

2) Both Laos and Canada are members of the International Organisation of Francophone nations. French is an official language of Canada, and the French culture and language is still an influence in its former Southeast Asian colony.

French signage is commonly seen, while France's influence on the Lao language is especially noticeable with respect to technical terms in geography and mathematics. Even in common language, the Lao word for ice cream is "galaem", which is clearly derived from French.

These examples show how the Lao and Isaan languages, though very similar, are not as similar as many think.

3) During the Soviet era, many Lao studied languages such as Bulgarian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish, Spanish (related to study in Cuba), Russian, and Vietnamese in preparation for studying abroad. Some 45 per cent of the Lao population have a mother tongue other than Lao.

Moving into the AEC era, it is important for Thailand to expand and improve its teaching of other languages, not just English, but the important languages of Asian neighbours.

4) In terms of the media, the Lao love to watch Thai TV, and similarly the Canadians watch much US television. However, Thais never watch Lao TV, and Americans don't watch Canadian TV.

5) With respect to financial matters, the baht is readily accepted in Laos, and similarly Canada will accept US currency, but it is impossible to use the Lao kip in Thailand or Canadian currency in the US.

6) This also relates to economic issues. Thailand is one of the most unequal middle income countries, and the US is becoming one of the most unequal advanced capitalist countries.

The Gini coefficient is a good index of a nation's income inequality. Thailand's Gini is 46 per cent higher than that of Laos, and the US' Gini is 40 per cent higher than that of Canada.

7) Both Laos and Canada have seen a large influx of Chinese migrants. Only 55 per cent of people residing in Laos are ethnically Lao, and over 50 per cent of people living in Toronto were born outside Canada.

8) In terms of higher education, most universities in both Canada and Laos are public and tuition costs are reasonable, while both Thailand and the US have many private universities with higher costs.

9) Finally, in terms of the political economy, both Thailand and the US (unlike Laos and Canada) face policy gridlock. Both Thailand and the US need high-speed train systems but face all kinds of political obstacles in trying to implement such badly needed infrastructure. Laos has already signed an agreement with China to have a high-speed train service to China.

It is, thus, imperative that Thais and Americans make a greater effort to know more about their important neighbour to the north and lessen their feelings of superiority.

Many Thais like to think of the Loa as brothers and sisters. The problem with this concept is that it is inherently hierarchical with one side having to be the elder sibling.

Thus, as we move into the AEC era, the Thai and Lao should think of each other simply as friendly neighbours eager to learn more about each other's rich cultures, languages, and histories.

Gerald W Fry

Distinguished International Professor, Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota; gwf@umn.edu


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