Recalling Defeats: Notes on Contemporary Interpretations of the Sri Khottabong Legend on the Mekong Riverbanks in Laos and Thailand

Abstracts

Compared to its Thai neighbour, Laos has long been—and still is—perceived as the metaphorical little brother in the long-standing rivalry between the two countries the majority of whose populations share many cultural and linguistic features. Since Lao kingdoms had been made vassals of the Siamese kingdom in the eighteenth century, colonised by the French, suffered civil war and American bombings, and—as some say—annexed by Vietnam (another regional “big brother”) in the mid-1970s, the last centuries of its history have shown Laos as the recurring vanquished within its diplomatic and symbolic relationship with Thailand. This relative position is all the more vigorously embodied today since for many Laotian people, and especially border-landers, Thailand constitutes the most local representation (i.e. the most geographically and culturally reachable and desirable) of global capitalist modernity. Somehow, the contemporary symbolic asymmetry between these two brother-states appears as the culmination of a causal chain of past defeats. Although the Laotian master national narrative emphasises the fight of the Laotian people to free themselves from the various invaders—the causal chain remains, but the emphasis is on the consistency of the resistance rather than the repetition of defeat—a 15-month PhD field research on the Thai-Lao borderland shows that other local narratives can make sense of those repeated defeats.
Beyond the confrontation of national master narratives, this article aims to question how Thai and Lao border-landers interpret these historical events and the contemporary relative condition of Laos compared to Thailand through the analysis of different versions and interpretations of the Sri Khottabong legend. Featuring a powerful hero coming from the right bank of the Mekong river (today in Thai territory) to save the city of Vientiane from destructive hordes of elephants and who finally curses the Lao kingdom after its king’s betrayal of him, this story is regularly mentioned by Isan (inhabitants of the north-eastern Thai region) and Lao border rural dwellers to explain the inequality of development between the two countries or why Laos has suffered so much from the “Vietnam” war.
Drawing on the work of Charles Archaimbault, a French ethnographer, the article shows how the contemporary interpretations of the Sri Khottabong legend by borderland people are part of a larger cycle of reinterpretations and rewritings of the narrative in which this story is repeatedly invoked to embody other major Lao defeats and link historical events with classical Buddha legends through karmic causation.
This dialogue between the contemporary interpretation, the different versions reported by Archaimbault, and his own interpretation of the legendary cycle, shows how the contemporary situation is not only perceived as the consequence of a causal chain of defeats but also that defeat is regularly used to recursively invoke—through the legend—a structural position that places the Lao bank as the land of the vanquished.

« (Se) rappeler les défaites : notes à propos des interprétations contemporaines de la légende de Sri Khottabong sur les rives du Mékong (Laos, Thaïlande) »

Comparé à son voisin thaï, le Laos a longtemps été perçu – et l’est encore – comme le frère cadet métaphorique dans la rivalité de longue date entre deux pays dont les populations partagent, dans leur majorité, nombre de caractéristiques culturelles et linguistiques. Les royaumes lao ont été vassalisés par le Siam au xviiie siècle, colonisés par la France, ils ont souffert de la guerre civile et des bombardements américains, puis – comme certains l’affirment – ont été annexés par le Vietnam (un autre « grand frère » régional) au milieu des années 1970. Les derniers siècles de son histoire ont ainsi concouru à faire du Laos le vaincu récurrent de sa relation diplomatique et symbolique avec la Thaïlande. Cette position relative est d’autant plus vigoureusement incarnée aujourd’hui que pour nombre de Laotiens (en particulier les frontaliers), la Thaïlande constitue la meilleure représentation locale (la plus proche et la plus désirable du point de vue géographique et culturel) de la modernité capitaliste.
D’une certaine manière, l’asymétrie symbolique contemporaine entre ces deux États frères apparaît comme l’aboutissement d’un enchaînement causal de défaites passées. Bien que le récit national laotien souligne le combat du peuple pour se libérer de ses différents envahisseurs – l’enchaînement causal demeure, mais l’accent est porté sur la constance de la résistance plutôt que sur la répétition de la défaite –, une recherche de terrain de quinze mois à la frontière thaïe-lao montre que les récits vernaculaires fournissent une interprétation différente de ces défaites répétées.
Au-delà de la confrontation des récits nationaux, ce texte interroge la manière dont les frontaliers thaïlandais et laotiens interprètent ces événements historiques et la condition contemporaine du Laos comparé à la Thaïlande qui en résulte, au travers des différentes versions et interprétations de la légende de Sri Khottabong. Mettant en scène un puissant héros de la rive droite du Mékong (aujourd’hui en territoire thaïlandais) venu sauver la ville de Vientiane de hordes destructrices d’éléphants et qui en vint finalement à maudir le royaume lao après la trahison de son roi, cette histoire est régulièrement mentionnée par les frontaliers isan (habitants du Nord-Est thaïlandais) et lao pour expliquer l’inégalité de développement entre les deux États ou les raisons pour lesquelles le Laos a tant souffert de la guerre du « Vietnam ».
S’appuyant sur les travaux de l’ethnographe français Charles Archaimbault, cet article montre comment les interprétations actuelles de la légende de Sri Khottabong par les frontaliers s’insèrent dans un cycle plus large de réinterprétations et de réécritures du récit où la légende est invoquée de manière répétitive pour désigner d’autres défaites lao majeures, et qui associent événements historiques et légendes bouddhiques classiques en faisant appel à la causalité karmique.
Ce dialogue entre l’interprétation contemporaine, les différentes versions rapportées par Archaimbault et sa propre interprétation du cycle légendaire, montre que la situation présente n’est pas seulement perçue comme la conséquence d’un enchaînement causal de défaites, mais plutôt que la défaite elle-même est régulièrement utilisée pour invoquer – au travers de la légende – une position structurelle qui identifie la rive laotienne comme vaincue.

Index

Mots-clés

Laos, Thaïlande, Archaimbault (Charles), guerre du Vietnam, mythe

Keywords

Laos, Thailand, Archaimbault (Charles), Vietnam war, myth

Outline

Text

Buffer state and cross-roads state—these evocative pictures are regularly used to depict the minor position of Laos within Southeast Asia from the late eighteenth to the twenty-first century, caught as it is between the differing interests of several major—albeit of varying magnitude—regional, colonial and post-colonial powers. The descriptor buffer state emphasises the difficulties successive Laotian authorities have faced in conducting internal politics due to foreign ambitions (Pholsena & Banomyong, 2004), and several political episodes in the last three centuries have contributed to building this image: the Siamese expansion in the eighteenth century from the West and then the Vietnamese one from the East, the territorial struggle between France and Great Britain, the French colonial presence until the mid-twentieth century, the Japanese invasion during World War II, and the not-so-secret Cold War battlefield with the Soviet Union and Vietnam on one side and Thailand and the United States on the other. The opening of Laos’ borders, its progressive regional integration through the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, today, its place within massive infrastructure programmes such as the Greater Mekong Subregion (under the supervision of the Asian Development Bank) and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) together change the picture of Laos from a regional enclave to a cross-roads state. But again, this recent designation reflects how much this new position relies on the influence of Laos’ immediate neighbours, in particular the growing influence of China on many aspects of Laotian society (Chiang & Cheng, 2015; Lyttleton, 2016; Mottet & Lasserre, 2020; Laungaramsri, 2019; Tan, 2011).

Thus, this particular position of Laos among the Southeast Asian peninsula nations is further reflected in the ambiguous relationship—often depicted through the image of a metaphorical relationship between kin (phinong in the Lao and Thai language, meaning included in a kinship relationship structured by seniority)—Laos has long maintained with Thailand, and earlier with Siam. Thailand represents one of Laos’ closest neighbours, located across the Mekong river from it, and the majority populations in the two countries share many linguistic and cultural commonalities. Within this relation and compared to its Thai neighbour, Laos has long been (and still is) perceived as the little brother in a relationship that is marked by long-standing rivalry. Indeed, the repetitive afflictions undergone by Laos from the outside cast it in perfect contrast to the Thai master national narrative which stresses the particularity of it being the only territory in the region to not have been colonised1. The last few centuries have shown Laos to be the repeatedly vanquished in its diplomatic and symbolic relationship with Thailand. This is all the more evident today because for many Laotian people (and especially border-landers), Thailand constitutes the most local representation (i.e. the most geographically and culturally reachable) of global capitalist modernity. Somehow, the contemporary symbolic asymmetry between these two phinong states—where Thailand is the elder (phi) and Laos the younger member (nong)—appears as the culmination of a causal chain of past defeats.

Of course, official Lao national imagery seldom emphasises this idea, and the post-Vietnam war narrative of the governing party, the Pathet Lao, underlines the capacity of the different communities of Laos, all through its history, to fight back—including against Siam—and struggle for its liberation. The causal chain remains, but the emphasis is on the strength and consistency of Laos’ resistance rather than its repeated defeats. But beyond national narratives, there are other ways to make sense of the contemporary condition of Laos, and local interpretations of its recent history by north-eastern Thais and Laotian border-landers shed a different light on it. In this paper, I will specifically focus on one of them which incorporates the most traumatic sequences of Laos’ recent history, the “Vietnam War”, sometimes locally called the “American War” (songkham America), and its aftermath into a larger cycle of past defeats considered the recurring consequences of an original malevolent act. This primary event is told through the legend of Sri Khottabong, a story of a distant hero who cursed the Vientiane kingdom after its monarch betrayed him.

Drawing on the seminal work of Charles Archaimbault (1980), a French ethnographer who collected many versions of this legend in the 1950s, and on a 15-month ethnography I conducted at the border of Northeast Thailand and the Vientiane Plains in Laos between 2013 and 2016, this paper will show how current evocations of the Sri Khottabong legend by borderland people are part of a larger cycle of reinterpretations and rewriting of the narrative, in which the story is repeatedly invoked to embody other major Lao defeats and link historical events with the classical hagiography of the Buddha through karmic causation. To do so, I will first present how the Sri Khottabong narrative emerges as one interpretation, out of many, of the consequences of the Vietnam war among villagers who have experienced the conflict from separate sides of the Mekong river border. As part of a research study devoted to the contemporary transformations of border relationships between the border-dwellers of Isan (Northeast Thailand) and Laos since the American war, these narratives were first naturally mentioned during interviews by former military participants in the conflict or simple civilians who experienced its consequences at the border. These narratives were part of a larger corpus of formal interviews, genealogical surveys and informal discussions about individual and family trajectories during the war and its aftermath, and were not the subject of a dedicated systematic inventory. From a dozen identified evocations of this narrative, four are explicitly analysed in the text which clearly shows the stakes in the current evocation of this story and what it says about the contemporary perception of Laos’ position today. The purpose here is less to list the semantic or internal structural variations of the narrative per se than the meanings of its appearances.

These renewed interpretations of the legend will enable the opening up of a dialogue with Charles Archaimbault’s detailed collection of the story and his ambition to understand the consistency underlying the different rewritings he sought to find through the explanation of karmic causation. The French ethnographer’s argument relies mainly on this core Buddhist principle—related to the individual becoming and which explains the destiny of each human being through the moral balance of their past acts—to understand the hero’s treatment through the various reinterpretations and rewritings of the legend. His reading focuses on the fate and becoming of the main character through his many literary lives.

The collected evocations of the story among Lao and Isan villagers allow us to reread his work and propose an alternative analysis of the Sri Khottabong legend, which doesn’t seek the missing explanation that links the different versions between them, but rather the logic that underlies the recalling of that story. Here too, karmic causation is regarded as a major driving force, but its explanatory virtue comes from its capacity to link by metonymy, historical events and the current condition of Laos to the original malevolent action of a king of Vientiane. However, these re-readings of the legend not only invite us to conceive the karmic teleology contained in it on a larger scale—that of a nation—but also to underline how these contemporary evocations make it possible to neutralise, to depoliticise, a contemporary asymmetry between the two shores. Through these evocations, the relative underdevelopment of the Lao bank of the Mekong river is not interpreted as just the result of past defeat, but, rather, that defeat itself is regularly used to recursively invoke—through the legend—a structural position that places the Lao bank as the vanquished. Here, “the truth of the myth” doesn’t consist of internal “logical relations which are devoid of content” (Lévi-Strauss, 1969 p. 240), and the structure I want to describe here has little to do with the logical relations which organise the internal elements of the myth or the different versions of the myth, but, rather, with the economy of border relations that motivate their enunciations. As such “the study of formalized and coded narratives gives us access…to an understanding of contemporary problems’ (Bensa & Rivierre, 1988, p. 289, my translation).

Post-War Stories: Enduring the Curse

…hai charoen to chang phap hu to ngu laep lin…”. I was on the right bank of the Mekong river when I first heard this sentence in a rural north-eastern Thai village located not far from the province capital of Nong Khai, where one of the main camps that hosted Lao and Hmong refugees was settled between 1975 and 1982 in the aftermath of the “American War”, at the same time as the Pathet Lao forces were assuming power on the opposite bank, which led to the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). It is particularly worth noting here that this village—I will call it Ban Hat Sai—is located on the edge of the Northeast region, locally called the Isan region, which has a long history of dissidence to the central power, and where the last few centuries of settlement have been punctuated by migrations, sometimes forced, of Lao from the other side. For this reason, most Isan people speak a variant of standard Thai particularly close to Lao and are still sometimes referred to (and occasionally refer to themselves) as Lao. This point is quite important here as many border-landers are aware of sharing a common history before the border itself was marked, and also because Isan local interpretation of history—but also of contemporary politics—can differ quite greatly from national narratives2.

It was during the first weeks of my investigation in Bat Hat Sai that I came to meet Pho Tu Lian3 and his wife, Yai Nan. Given my interest in the local consequences and interpretations of the Laotian war on the Thai side, several villagers had advised me to meet Pho Tu Lian. He was designated as the best interlocutor as he was enlisted, when he was 21, in the Thai army, first to work on the US military base located less than a hundred kilometres away in Udon Thani, and then to participate for a year and a half in the Thai operations in Laos, in the secret CIA-operated airbase of Long Tien4. I met him and his wife in their house, and after nearly an hour spent talking of his career path and of the horror of battles in Laos, he began to tell me how many Lao were coming to Nong Khai and how crossing the border had become highly dangerous when, earlier, it used to be easy to get to both sides of the river. Then he and his wife told me that Laos, previously an attractive place for land and work, began to decline to the point that Pho Tu Lian interpreted the Pathet Lao victory as the colonisation of Laos by the Vietnamese5: “diao ni lao phasom, bo men lao thae sum thae ma taek ni boet laeo pai pathet thi song thi sam laeo (now the Lao are mixed, they are not true Lao any more. The true ones scattered. They left for a secondary country, for a third country)”. That’s when Pho Tu Lian eventually asserted that Laos is cursed and mentioned the name of Sri Khottabong before Yai Nan began to recall the last episodes of the legend. After asking her husband whether—like she thought—Sri Khottabong was Thai, she hesitated, and started to recount the story of Lord Sri Khottabong’s wife. The wife’s father, the king of Vientiane, asked her if there was a way to kill her husband. Yai Nan didn’t explain the king’s motives for this crime. Sri Khottabong was a phu mi bun (a man with merit), a phu mi wiset6 (a man with magical powers), reputedly invincible, no weapons could harm him, no fire could burn him, but his wife revealed to her father that Sri Khottabong had indeed one vulnerable spot: his anus. A few days later, the king of Vientiane invited Lord Sri Khottabong to his palace and made him use the latrine pit he had had specifically designed for him. And as soon as the lord sat, a stake pierced him from his bottom. Writhing in agony, the lord cursed the king of Vientiane and all his kingdom, proclaiming that it would never flourish, or only fleetingly “like the elephant folding its ears or the snake sticking out its tongue (hai charoen to chang phap hu to ngu laep lin)”. Yai Nan could only remember the very last part of the legend, but enough to relate the current situation of post-war Laos to the legend and identify the main character of the legend as being Thai.

Another unsolicited evocation of the curse appeared to me a month later. I was interviewing a woman in her sixties, sitting with her on the immaculate tile floor outside her wood-and-concrete house, and talking about the local consequences of the war in the village. She told me that one day, the villagers had to take cover behind the main road for fear of stray bullets from the other shore, but she talked longer about the refugees in the Nong Khai camp and the trade that many Thai villagers did with them. As a kind of short conclusion regarding the war and the actual differences in living conditions between the two shores, she mumbled the exact same sentence, “hai charoen to chang phap hu to ngu laep lin”. Then she too started to relate what she remembered from the legend. She also identified Sri Khottabong as a Thai protagonist but could recollect more of the story. The king of Vientiane was actually desperate as the kingdom was being devastated by a gigantic herd of elephants, which his army couldn’t combat. So he announced that whoever could repel the pachyderms would receive his daughter in marriage. Lord Sri Khottabong, already known for his powers, was asked for help and he killed the elephants and married the king’s daughter, Nang Khiao Khom. Scared of being overthrown by such a powerful king, the king of Vientiane asked his daughter if there was a way to get rid of Sri Khottabong. We already know how the story ends.

In both of these Thai evocations of the story, the Sri Khottabong legend ended up being the ultimate narrative that could make sense of the post-war conditions on the left shore, as a kind of fate inherited from a distant and indeterminate past. But what about the Lao people? Do they know the story? Does it fit with their actual representations of the consequences of their history? As I was carrying out my investigation on the Thai shore, I met an elderly man, a member of one of the founding families of the village, and asked him if he knew anything about the legend. We stood at the corner of a street, near the central temple of the village. Across the street, a man I had never met before was working on a roof, carefully observed by the owner of the house. The old man tried to recall the story and delivered a fragmented version, quite similar to Yai Nan’s tale, but where it differed from Yai Nan’s version was that he added that Sri Khottabong’s wife, Nang Khiao Khom, had multiple lovers. The worker who was listening to our conversation came down from the roof to discuss the old man’s interpretation and asserted that it was not Nang Khiao Khom who was unfaithful, but Sri Khottabong himself. At that point, I understood that the man was a Lao worker from a village on the opposite shore, Ban Na Daeng. Like many Lao border-dwellers, he is often employed by Thai villagers for construction work or as farm workers7. The Thai employer, too, joined in the conversation, and the three men discussed where the moral balance tilted between Nang Khiao Khom and her husband, and whether Sri Khottabong could be accused of immorality as his abilities indicated a high degree of merit. The Lao worker did not deny Sri Khottabong’s supernatural skills, and thus his phu mi bun status, but he did highlight his infidelity, thus giving him a share of responsibility in his final fate.

In this short improvised debate, the king of Vientiane wasn’t mentioned, but all three implicitly recognised the current significance of the curse. As such, one can hardly speak of nationalistic versions of the legend in which the distant lord takes full responsibility for his death, for he is never described as a malevolent man who arbitrarily doomed the Lao kingdom, rather the opposite. The only disagreements are about the sincerity of the love between the husband and wife. This reading of the story was further developed by Mae Tu Mue, a formerly very active cross-border tradeswoman who lived in Ban Na Daeng, on the Lao shore. She too recalled a fragmented version, and never mentioned the lord’s special skills, the elephants and the king’s proposition, but rather focused on Nang Khiao Khom. Mae Tu Mue introduced her as unfaithful, with ambiguous intentions and ambivalent desires. “phoen mi song chai (she has two hearts)”, she told me. The emphasis is then put on the personality of the woman, her disloyalty, but also her lack of desire towards the hero, to explain the constrained nature of the wedding related in the previous versions. In this way, Sri Khottabong’s death is interpreted as a way of escaping an unwanted marriage. The girl’s reluctance to marry justifies in part, but not totally, the murder of Sri Khottabong, whose heroic quality is not apparent here. The tragic tone of the story focuses this time on the personality of Nang Khiao Khom and less on the king of Vientiane’s political plot. The latter is not mentioned once in this partial story, but Sri Khottabong and Nang Khiao Khom are clearly identified as being, respectively, from Thailand and Laos. The words that compose the curse are well identified with the use of the two animal images as well as their consequences. Mae Tu Mue clearly stated that her country, “mueang hao”, did not develop well because of the curse. She also said that she first heard this story when she was in elementary school in the same way that she learnt about Chao Fa Ngum, a non-fictional king well known for establishing the kingdom of Lan Xang and introducing Theravada Buddhism to the country in the fourteenth century.

This analogy between Sri Khottabong and Chao Fa Ngum, whom Laotian historiography considers to be the founding ruler of Laos, is worth noting in so far as, in several respects, the recalling of that story seems to blur the line between legend and history. As I have already mentioned, the story appears to be a founding cause of the present, but furthermore, the interviewed people seem to hesitate when choosing the most suitable words to identify the nature of the narrative, as did Yai Nan, who described it as being “a story—a tale, history (pen nithan, pen pavatsat)”. The detailed collection undertaken by Charles Archaimbault also testifies to the ability of the legend to cross and blur the boundaries between different categories of narratives. From Buddhist hagiography to historical chronicles and the founding myths of emblematic places, the different rewritings of the legend reveal the extent to which this story turns out to be a vivid and malleable repertoire, one that historical events and their recollection can seize.

A Defeated Hero: The Search for Karmic Causation

In his Contribution à l’étude d’un cycle de légendes lau (Contribution to the Study of a Lau Legendary Cycle) (1980), Charles Archaimbault meticulously scrutinises numerous sources in which the story of Sri Khottabong appears, including the ones he collected himself in the 1950s. He reminds us that the hero is one of the main characters of the That Phanom (Urangkathat) foundation myth, an important stupa reliquary in the mid-Mekong basin region, located in Nakhon Phanom province near the Laotian border. In the hagiographic tradition Archaimbault presents, Sri Khottabong is the place of a kingdom and not really the name of a monarch. As the author explains, duplication or confusion between places and people, or between different people, are common in the different versions. In this story, Gautama, the Buddha’s last reincarnation, predicts that one day, the king of Sri Khottabong will be the one who enshrines the relic—one of Buddha’s chest bones—in the That Phanom, and crowns Buri, a peasant who will spread Buddhism throughout the region, as king. In this narrative, everything ends well, even if it is mentioned that the king of Sri Khottabong had, in one of his previous lives, sold chicks and iguana eggs, a crime he paid for through several unfortunate lives before being reincarnated as a monarch. Buri, the peasant who is to become king of Chanthaburi (Vientiane), is described as a pious man rewarded by the king of the Nagas—a mythical ophidian figure of the Buddhist pantheon, and also one of the main entities of the spirit cult among Thai populations—for his devotion. The ophidian king grants Buri a palace and a queen, and the king of Sri Khottabong helps in making him king. As Charles Archaimbault explains, this story underlines Buddhist orthodoxy, the devotional infatuation of both characters, and Vientiane’s foundation, whereas the other chronicles and stories he gathered himself highlight the characters’ powers and ambiguities. Archaimbault tries to figure out the relations between the pious king and the hero who perished in a latrine pit, and the demeritorious act that justified such a fate. In some narratives, the karmic causation is found by relating the legend of Sri Khottabong with the ones that focus on a king holding a magic staff.

These versions recount the story of a puny young peasant assigned to build ramparts to protect the Mattabong mueang (a Tai word used to qualify premodern city-states or kingdoms8) against invasions. One day, due to his poor physical condition, his comrades ask him to prepare the meal while they go to cut trees. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have anything to stir the rice with and has to use a stick from a nearby tree. But as he stirs the rice, it gets blacker and blacker, as black as coal. Fearing his fellow workers’ reaction, he decides to eat all the rice, and starts to feel better than ever. Soon he realises he has become stronger than thousands of men. When the king learns of his strength, he asks him to become a protector of the mueang. Many years later, after the king made him viceroy and is himself dead, the powerful man becomes king. But his astrologers inform him that in a few decades, a phu mi bun (a man with merit) will come into his city and oust him from the throne. So the man orders the murder of all the monks, all the saints renowned for their powers. Then he is told that the phu mi bun to come is in his mother’s womb, so he kills every pregnant woman as well as all the children. But a young disabled child survives, protected by monks. After many years, astrologers announce the imminent arrival of the phu mi bun. The young man who has spent all his life in a temple wants to travel to the capital to attend the event but cannot because he can barely walk. But the king-god Indra, disguised as an old man, helps him and gives him a magic horse, food which heals his body and makes him invincible, and clothes that turn out to be regalia. The young man heads toward the palace. In the capital, the king takes fright and throws the magic stick with which he had stirred the rice and founds a new kingdom where it falls on the other side of the Mekong, presumably on the site of the present-day city of Thakhek, while the young man who turns out to be a phu mi bun takes his place on the throne of his former kingdom.

After this first episode, the story goes on with the king of Vientiane, the elephant herd, his request for help from the king-with-the-stick, the hero’s agony, and the curse. But in some versions, Sri Khottabong is the king with the stick, in others, it is his father. According to Archaimbault, popular tradition used duplication and confusion to explain the hero’s death in the latrine pit. In the story I just summarised, Sri Khottabong’s death is an immediate fallout of the murders that he or his father committed against their people. On the other hand, hagiographic reading passes over the hero’s crime and death in order to make the story fit with the idea of a saint monarch. On the other side of the river, Lao chronicle writers and historians must deal with versions featuring the same king on different timelines.

For instance, Archaimbault tells us how the hero appears during the same period as Fa Ngum, the famous founder of the Lan Xang kingdom mentioned above. In this version, the murder was carried out through the intermediary of Sri Khottabong’s brother, Nanthasen. The future ruler of Laos, Fa Ngum, is said to have put Nanthasen to death in the fourteenth century when he reconquered the kingdom from which his grandfather Suvannakhamphong had cast him out. Other versions recount how the king of Vientiane’s demeritorious act led to Burmese and Siamese invasions.

Five centuries after Fa Ngum, Sri Khottabong appears again as one of the main characters of the Chao Anouvong rebellion, a particularly decisive historical event in the respective national narratives of the Thai and Laotian states, which partly crystallises their rivalry. Chao Anouvong was king of the Vientiane kingdom at the very beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1826, he led a rebellion against Siam to take back the Khorat plateau (today, the Thai Isan region), but the Siamese managed to organise a quick counterstrike that led to the complete destruction of Vientiane and to the other Lao kingdoms being made vassal states. This episode was a historical turning point because from then on, the Khorat plateau remained under Siamese and then Thai control and reinforced the transfer of part of the Lao population to the region. The story of Chao Anouvong holds a modest place in nineteenth-century chronicles which referred to it primarily only as a vassal’s rebellion against Bangkok, and not as a Lao invasion of Thailand. But it subsequently became the favoured narrative of the Lao-Thai opposition as the political forces in the two territories began to craft a distinct national history for themselves. Chao Anouvong is an ambiguous figure in the history of Laos as the failure of his rebellion reinforced the Siamese domination in the region. Simultaneously, in the late Pathet Lao’s rehabilitation of past kings, Chao Anouvong became one of the main symbols of Laos’ struggle against Siamese invaders (Stuart-Fox, 2003). But in one of the story versions gathered by Archaimbault, the leader of the rebellion becomes a famous Vientiane king who betrayed the powerful lord, Sri Khottabong. This story begins in the same way as many of the versions mentioned above, with the elephant herd and the Vientiane king’s (here Chao Anouvong) request to Sri Khottabong to help get rid of them. However, even after the hero’s intervention, there remains a white elephant—one of the kingdom’s symbols—who apologises for not knowing that the city hosted the Emerald Buddha—a renowned Buddha statue, also one of the palladiums of Laos in the story—and announces that he will submit to it. Chao Anouvong gives his last daughter to Sri Khottabong and sends his three sons away to learn magical sciences. He promises his kingdom to the one who will acquire supreme knowledge. But his eldest son is slow to come back, and the king believes him dead. Devastated by grief, he seeks a way to get his daughter back. Then comes Chao Anouvong’s plot against Sri Khottabong. The latter curses the kingdom and its king after having dreamt that the three Lao palladiums (the white elephant, the Emerald Buddha and a drum) had left Vientiane. But soon after, the eldest son, Lao Kham, comes back alive from his initiation with a hermit. Many years later, Lao Kham wants to test his magical skills by attacking Bangkok despite his father’s repeated warnings. Despite Lao Kham’s abilities, the Thai king tricks him into sending ten thousand men to sack Vientiane while he pretends to pledge allegiance to Chao Anouvong’s son. As a symbol of the Vientiane kingdom’s decline, the three palladiums are brought to Bangkok by the Thai army, thus fulfilling Sri Khottabong’s prophetic dream.

Actually, the Emerald Buddha, a genuine famous jadeite Buddha statue, was brought back to Bangkok in the eighteenth century during a previous capture of Vientiane by the one who would become the founder of the Thai Chakri dynasty. It has since become the palladium of the Siamese and then Thai kingdom. So, it has little to do with Chao Anouvong’s rebellion. The mention of the Thai appropriation of the Emerald Buddha in a story that recounts the Chao Anouvong rebellion testifies to the importance of this historical sequence, that of the Lao attempt to reconquer the Khorat plateau by the king of Vientiane (or his son) within the historiography of the time. It crystallises the rivalry between the Thai and Lao states and confirms—through highly symbolic images—the domination of the former over the latter. Moreover, Archaimbault emphasises the extent to which this version of the story of Sri Khottabong is imbued with the memory of events that took place at the very beginning of the twentieth century and which I have already mentioned, those of the phu mi bun revolt. Indeed, just as these revolts prophesied the creation of an independent Lao kingdom on the Khorat plateau and the advent of Maitreya, the only Bodhisattva of Theravada Buddhism and universal monarch, accompanied by the wheel monarch and the striped tongue lord, so the rest of this version tells us of the exile of the three grandsons of Chao Anouvong, each one of them being one incarnation of these three prophetic characters, and their predestination to refound the Lao kingdom.

These last story versions collected by Archaimbault show the extent to which the legend of Lord Sri Khottabong—although it is not specified in all of them that he came from what is now the Thai shore—provided sufficiently malleable material for its plot to be invoked to account for various significant events in Lao history, especially its defeats. This ability of the story to break into history as well as the present even led King Sisavang Vong, the penultimate monarch of the Lao kingdom, to ban some versions of the Urangkhathat, including the murder of Lord Sri Khottabong by the king of Vientiane.

Archaimbault thoroughly explores the different versions of the legend to trace the manipulations of the narrative and the duplications of its protagonists and to determine the karmic causation that links the hero to his tragic end. But the latest versions of the legend mentioned above and its contemporary recall by Lao and Thai border-landers shed new light on it and testify to its capacity to constitute a narrative framework to account for the Lao condition of being vanquished.

Defeat as a Condition, Vanquished as a Position

In many ways, the legend’s irruption within the recollection of the American war events or in the observation of the contemporary Laotian condition by Isan and Lao border-dwellers extends the explorations carried out by Charles Archaimbault, and thus the history of the narrative’s reappropriations. But some patterns seem exclusive to the versions collected among the border-landers. The most noticeable of these relates, without a doubt, to the words used to formulate the curse which is the best identified element of the legend. Archaimbault makes a point of translating the various formulations of the curse, but none of the recorded versions mentions the comparison with the ears of an elephant and the tongue of a snake, even though this analogy seems to be the most evocative and recordable pattern of the narrative in the version I encountered. In the version collected by the French ethnographer, the defeated hero insists on placing the curse that Vientiane and its king would be annihilated, that the kingdom would fall into decay (“like a banana tree after it has borne fruit”) or, at least, that his kingdom’s glory would overshadow that of Vientiane. Nothing seems mentioned about fugitive periods of progress followed by declines. Another recurring theme among the border-dwellers, and which is little developed in the versions transcribed by Archaimbault, is that of the nature of the relationship between Nang Khiao Khom and Lord Sri Khottabong. In none of the versions contained in Contribution à l’étude d’un cycle de légendes lau is hatred or disgust towards one’s husband a motivation to betray him, and there is never any mention of the extra-marital affairs of either partner, or whether they were happy in their marriage. Love affairs are simply not a subject for the hagiographies, chronicles and monks’ recounted stories collected by Archaimbault.

In any case, these exclusive patterns indicate that the source on which the border-landers’ stories are based is the same, and it is likely that it is the work of the north-eastern Thai mo lam9 music bands, as some of the interviewees pointed out to me, and as the emphasis on the love relationship—a recurring motive of this repertoire—seems to indicate. As Charles F. Keyes puts it, legends (nithan) in Northeast Thailand (and Laos) “ha[ve] been perpetuated in past through the media of folk opera which is known as mǭ lam mū’ (Keyes, 1974), and that seems to be the case with the Sri Khottabong story, whose narrative has been adapted to fit the register of these travelling performers. Moreover, it explains why people on both shores of the Mekong river share the same version.

But even if the source is the same, it is still surprising that the protagonists of both sides share the same interpretation of the legend and that some recollections of the consequences of the war lead to its invocation. This is all the more troubling because in Laos, the political consequences of the war are not necessarily interpreted as a defeat. As in national historiography, it is most often interpreted as the result of a long liberation struggle against, first, French colonial rule and, second, the American forces. But if Lao border-dwellers do not interpret these political events strictly as defeat, they link the Lao condition during the war and its aftermath, especially in comparison with Thailand, as an echo of Sri Khottabong’s words and incorporate this condition within the cycle of historical defeats that they caused.

Of course, karmic causation—the moral weight of past deeds on subsequent lives—is fundamental to understanding this narrative, and Archaimbault looked for it in the various reworkings of the legend, as it could explain the hero’s end. The extended cycle presented here underlines that karmic causation is also entangled in the interpretations of Lao history, and that the king of Vientiane’s malevolent actions constitute—through a metonymic process—the founding event that bound Laos to a repetitive cycle of defeats. This is the explanatory virtue of the legend that allows us to make sense of the repeated afflictions endured by the country.

But if we focus less on the reasons for the contemporary invocation of the legend and more on how this invocation fits into an existing cycle of interpretations, the defeat appears less as the sole consequence of a root cause. It is rather that defeat recursively invokes the narrative to recall a certain order of things. Collectively shared, at least on both sides of the border, the Sri Khottabong legend works as a kind of “mythico-history”, as described by Liisa Malkki. As in the Hutu history, the narrative and its rewriting represent “not only a description of the past, nor even merely an evaluation of the past, but a subversive recasting and reinterpretation of it in fundamentally moral terms” (Malkki, 1995, p. 54). And what makes it mythical in the anthropological sense is “the fact that it [is] concerned with order in a fundamental cosmological sense. …It [is] concerned with the ordering and reordering of social and political categories, with the defining of self in distinction to other” (Malkki, 1995, p. 55). In this mythico-history, the Laotian left bank appears as the structural vanquished of a bilateral and ambiguous relationship with Thailand. And even if national narratives challenge this reading of history, the shared use of the legend to account for the present post-war conditions in Laos and their incorporation into a larger cycle of past historical defeats show that this order of things is hardly contested on both sides of the border. In this configuration, the narrative of defeat does not constitute a discourse that identifies its underpinnings in an attempt to overcome it, it is not part of a political strategy (Beckwith, 2014), nor is it fuelled by a shared desire to recover from the setback (Hashimoto, 2015). In the Thai-Lao case, the narrative does not aim to give an account of the political and geopolitical conditions that lead to the defeat. It is quite the opposite. By linking Lao current relative conditions to historical defeats through the legend, it is neutralised, transforming the defeat into an inherited condition rather than the result of a sequence of events.

Conclusion

Unexpectedly, the legend of a distant lord endowed with magical powers has entered the contemporary narratives of Thai and Lao border-dwellers about the Vietnam war in the region and its consequences, and with it, a whole list of past Lao defeats that the story had attached to itself. Updated by travelling mo lam groups from Northeast Thailand, it turns out to be one of the narrative frameworks that could make sense of the post-war condition of Laos for the border-landers. Through the words of the prophetic curse formulated by the hero on his death, Isan and Lao villagers link the contemporary condition of Laos to the betrayal perpetrated by the king of Vientiane in founding times through karmic causation. The malevolent act of the founding king weighed heavily on the lives of the various Lao kingdoms and now on that of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

But the legend is not simply a folktale allowing narrating in a highly symbolic way the different afflictions Laos has suffered. The dialogue that I set up between the contemporary uses of the legend and the versions collected by a French ethnologist in the 1950s shows that this story constitutes a particularly vivid repertoire that makes it possible to give an account, at various moments in Laotian history, of different defeats. Through this, the status of this story becomes more and more uncertain, oscillating between folk tale, Buddhist hagiography and historical chronicles, and adapting itself to different historical settings, making it particularly difficult to account for the logic that presided over its various rewritings and reworkings.

In the light of its various transformations, the contemporary account of this legend, and the fact that it is shared on both sides of the river, leads to the fact that the recursive invocation of the legend sets up defeat as a condition of the left bank. And, at the same time as these invocations neutralise the military or political conditions of defeat, they institute a certain world order in which Laos occupies the position of the vanquished, especially within the framework of its relationship with Thailand, with which it shares at different levels, as does a whole part of its population, a symbolic kin relationship.

My aim here is not to essentialise the relationship between the two states nor between the two populations, and the position of each, but to give an account, through the analysis of a cycle of legend and its contemporary reinterpretations, of a local way of explaining the prevailing post-war conditions. On other occasions, I have come across other narratives staging the heroism of Laotian fighters or political figures during the war, or, on the contrary, narratives coming from former Lao refugees in third countries who give an account of what they formally perceive as a defeat in political terms. But what seems to be important to emphasise in the interpretations I have mentioned here is precisely that they do not attempt to propose a counter-history but deal with the defeat in a very particular and highly symbolic way. Finally, these interpretations echo the weight of the Thai shore on Laotian border life and the asymmetry of the borderland as it is experienced daily.

1 In this regard, Shane Strate highlights the paradox that emerges from the coexistence of two seemingly contradictory Thai national narratives: that

2 This historical demographic composition of the Isan region is far from the only reason why it stands out in the Thai political landscape. For a long

3 Names of people and local places have been changed.

4 Referred to as Lima Site 98, Long Tien (Long Tieng, Long Cheng) became one of the most important US military facilities on foreign soil in 1966

5 He used the derogatory label of kaeo to designate the Vietnamese population.

6 The two expressions refer to different concepts but are often closely related in practice. Acquiring a lot of merit through Buddhist devotion (

7 Isan rice farmers are often short of manpower due to the increasingly permanent settlement of younger people in the big cities. In parallel with the

8 The mueang can refer to a city, a city-state, a kingdom or a country and qualifies as a pole whose power is diffused from its centre, and whose

9 Mo lam refers simultaneously to a pentatonic musical form the main feature of which is its psalmody, and the singer himself who is traditionally

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Notes

1 In this regard, Shane Strate highlights the paradox that emerges from the coexistence of two seemingly contradictory Thai national narratives: that of never having been colonised and the humiliation of the loss of land following the agreements with France (Strate, 2015). Concerning the particular position of Thailand regarding colonial nations, Michael Herzfeld uses the idea of “cryptocolonialism” to refer to the ambiguous conditions under which independence was maintained, which in this case reflects a strong material and symbolic dependence on European colonial powers (Herzfeld, 2010).

2 This historical demographic composition of the Isan region is far from the only reason why it stands out in the Thai political landscape. For a long time, it remained an outlying region before the Thai government, supported by the United States, feared a communist breakthrough at the border and decided to implement development policies in the region. The last few decades have shown these populations to be willing to take full part in the Thai political game, especially against the Bangkok elites.

3 Names of people and local places have been changed.

4 Referred to as Lima Site 98, Long Tien (Long Tieng, Long Cheng) became one of the most important US military facilities on foreign soil in 1966, even though it did not appear on any map. It was at first the headquarters of General Vang Pao, the Hmong leader of the US-supported guerrilla movement in Laos.

5 He used the derogatory label of kaeo to designate the Vietnamese population.

6 The two expressions refer to different concepts but are often closely related in practice. Acquiring a lot of merit through Buddhist devotion (including in past lives), which is the main feature of a phu mi bun, often leads to obtaining uncommon skills. As Patrice Ladwig explained, the reverse is also true, magical abilities are often a sign of high merit (Ladwig, 2014). Leaders from the Isan and Lao millennial movements which tried to rebel against French colonial powers and central Siam authority at the turn of the nineteenth century were designated as phu mi bun (Murdoch, 1974). In this regard, one of the Sri Khottabong versions collected by Archaimbault is particularly marked by these events.

7 Isan rice farmers are often short of manpower due to the increasingly permanent settlement of younger people in the big cities. In parallel with the increasing mechanisation of agricultural tasks, they used to hire Lao border workers for the most labour-intensive tasks, particularly for transplanting rice (Rungmanee, 2014). Many Lao border-dwellers from Ban Na Daeng used to be regularly employed by Ban Hat Sai’s families, and each group has known each other for quite some time. However, the reverse is never true and this one-sidedness of border labour movements is indicative of the asymmetry between the two shores (Le Saint, 2019).

8 The mueang can refer to a city, a city-state, a kingdom or a country and qualifies as a pole whose power is diffused from its centre, and whose boundaries are defined much more through the allegiance of people rather than in territorial terms.

9 Mo lam refers simultaneously to a pentatonic musical form the main feature of which is its psalmody, and the singer himself who is traditionally accompanied by a khaen player, a typical mouth organ from Northeast Thailand and Laos.

References

Electronic reference

Brett Le Saint, « Recalling Defeats: Notes on Contemporary Interpretations of the Sri Khottabong Legend on the Mekong Riverbanks in Laos and Thailand », Condition humaine / Conditions politiques [Online], 4 | 2022, Online since 25 juillet 2022, connection on 27 novembre 2022. URL : http://revues.mshparisnord.fr/chcp/index.php?id=876

Author

Brett Le Saint

Brett Le Saint, who holds a PhD in Ethnology, is a temporary teaching and research assistant at Picardie Jules Verne University and the “Habiter le monde” research unit. His research focuses on border dynamics in Southeast Asia (Laos, Thailand). Through an ethnographic study carried out on the Mekong riverbanks (and through a previous survey in France), his work questions the porosity of the Lao-Thai border, the contemporary conditions of the cross-border relationship as well as the memory of the “Vietnam War” migrations in the region. More broadly, his work deals with the everyday drivers of ethnicity, distinction and social belonging.

Brett Le Saint est docteur en ethnologie et enseignant-chercheur (ATER) à l’Université de Picardie Jules Verne, au sein de l’unité de recherche « Habiter le monde ». Ses recherches portent sur les dynamiques frontalières en Asie du Sud-Est (Laos, Thaïlande). Au travers d’une étude ethnographique menée sur les rives du Mékong (et d’une précédente enquête, en France), son travail questionne la porosité de la frontière lao-thaïe, les formes contemporaines de la relation transfrontalière ainsi que la mémoire des migrations relatives à la « guerre du Vietnam » dans la région. Plus largement, ses recherches s’intéressent aux ressorts quotidiens de l’ethnicité, de la distinction et de l’appartenance sociale.