The Geography of Security: Coercion, Comparative Advantage and Population Management Work in Contemporary Laos

Michael Dwyer

KRSEA-Dwyer-Laos-lands

In early 1988, Laos’s Council of Ministers issued an instruction to the nation’s ministries, state committees, mass organizations, provinces and municipalities. Titled “stepping up population management work,” the document articulated a vision of the Lao countryside that emphasized the tight connections between economic development and national security. Population management work, it explained, entailed “grasping population statistics, recording birth and death statistics, issuing identification cards, organizing population relocation, arranging domicile patterns, and finding and create new occupations for multi-ethnic citizens who own no land on which to earn their living.” And its “fundamental principle,” the instruction noted, was “to allow Laos’s multi-ethnic citizens to enjoy legitimate equal rights in all spheres of life and to further enhance their right to collective mastership and a sense of creativeness in fulfilling their two strategic tasks: defending the country and building socialism.” 1

In his lectures on the modern arts of government, Foucault’s description bore a family resemblance to at least some of the population management techniques listed above, as well as to their larger logic of rule. Both sought to know the population through statistics of demography, geography and livelihood that would translate into administrative capacity and governance through political-economic measures. And for both, “population” referred not merely to a group of people, but to a collective who would act in accordance with the needs of the larger collective – people who would, in the words of Jeremy Bentham, “do as they ought.” 2 The population, Foucault argued, was best understood as the opposite of the unruly mob – “the people” – who, demanding that their rights and interests be met even if doing so proved to be socially inconvenient, refused to be members of the population and, in so doing, “disrupt[ed] the system” as a whole. Membership in the population allowed a degree of self-interest, but with hard limits: it also required sacrifice for the national good. 3

Two decades on, the Council’s didactics on population management work are less of a historical anachronism than they might at first glance seem. The late 1980s were a transformative period in the history of Lao PDR, which sat, on the one hand, on the cusp of a post-Cold War period that would usher in sweeping changes to the economy under a heading of liberalization and foreign investment (the so-called New Economic Mechanism), and on the other, a postwar decade-plus that had lingered far beyond the end of the Second Indochina War. In late 1988, as Thailand’s prime minister was calling for region-wide cooperation in “turning battlefields into marketplaces,” 4 Lao Party leaders were doubling down on the need for “heightened vigilance … on the new battlefield where no gunfire can be heard,” reminding their cadres of “the enemies’ [efforts, past and present] … to cause mutual suspicion, antagonism and distrust between the lower and higher echelons, triggering internal conflicts so as to start riots and uprisings as they did in other countries.” 5 The instruction on population management work, issued just a few months earlier, had been similarly explicit in its invocation of clandestine foreign intervention. Population management work, it argued, was “an enormous and all-encompassing task” that required “a correct attitude; a high sense of responsibility; sufficient capabilities in executing political, social, economic, national defense, and public security work; respect[ing] the democratic rights of the population; and possess[ing] skillful, subtle, and careful methods of avoiding deception by the enemies.”

While this security talk may sound anachronistic, its essential logic remains current. In this essay, I suggest two ways in which this earlier era of explicit state theorizing on matters of development and defense might inform our own efforts to critically analyze land and resource governance in contemporary Laos. Both involve taking the security discourse seriously while also maintaining a critical distance from its efforts to deflect (external) and preclude (internal) criticism by keeping the bad old days of foreign interventionism clearly within view. First, I think that we should read contemporary population management work in upland Laos as a form of what Aihwa Ong has called graduated sovereignty: political work done by less-than-powerful states to adapt their territories and populations to the constraints and opportunities of the global economy. 6 In Laos’s case, coercion is intended as a makeshift substitute for regulatory pushback, a way to manage the tensions between rural communities and the various actors that seek to enroll both them and their lands into development and conservation schemes. And second, I want to suggest that while there is certainly a moral critique to be made of this coercion-as-sovereignty tactic, there is also a historical over-determination that requires us to look beyond the Lao state to include foreign public actors, both governments and multilateral actors, whose decisions profoundly influence Laos’s room to maneuver in today’s global economy. While I believe that this analysis has relevance to issues of land and forest management across a range of sectors, for purposes of brevity I limit the discussion here to a single case.

Managed Enclosure and Political Incapacitation in Northwestern Laos

The violence of war and control of the means of coercion weigh decisively today in the organization of postcolonial societies. Where it happens, war provokes a rearrangement of the ways territory and people are administered, [and … can] in fact incapacitate whole sections of the population politically.

– Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony 7

In the late 2000s, Laos emerged rapidly on the front lines of the boom in transnational land deals that has, in retrospect, been widely called the global land rush. 8 As a mix of both scholarship and journalism from Southeast Asia showed, despite the spike in worldwide attention that was generated in late 2008 and 2009, various types of enclosure for transnational agribusiness had been taking place for much of the 2000s, as a combination of cheap credit, speculative demand, and aggressive outward investment by emerging economies articulated with growing frustration by “land-rich” countries with Western development assistance. 9 Chinese investment in new rubber plantations in northwestern Laos fit this niche; while most of it was private, it traveled under the banner of bilateral development cooperation, and was boosted by Chinese government policies geared toward incentivizing outbound investment, including generous subsidies to agribusiness that could be framed in the rhetoric of replacing opium with licit cash crops like rubber. 10

At a “meso” scale, new rubber plantation investment followed the growth in accessibility and connectivity between southern Yunnan and northwestern Laos. Chinese companies had some success in the borderlands of Sing District and the provincial capital of Luang Namtha, but because many farmers in this area already had ties to China, 11 much of their newfound access to lands – as well as to Lao villagers, either in the form of contract farmers or laborers – came in the hinterland that was opened up surrounding the “Northern Economic Corridor,” a road expansion connecting northern Thailand to Yunnan through western Luang Namtha and Bokeo provinces that was built between 2003 and 2007. While resonating with regional and national goals to link the countries of the “Greater Mekong Subregion” and create new economic zones like the “Golden Quadrangle” of southern Yunnan, northern Laos, northern Thailand and Myanmar’s eastern Shan state, the investment boom also raised tensions between Lao officials who favored investment in the form of contract farming and Chinese companies that wanted more direct control over the new plantations. 12 This question of contract farming- versus concession-based business models, in fact, stalled Sino–Lao rubber cooperation for much of the early 2000s.

The putative “solution” to the impasse came in the form of a compromise that, in order to work, depended on local authorities enclosing large amounts of land for Chinese rubber companies while also maintaining the appearance of contract farming as the default mode of bilateral rubber-based cooperation. Here a more micro-scaled geographic logic took over. Using techniques that evoked the above description of “population management work” above, district authorities carved out available land at the juncture between propertied and un-propertied farmers. Rubber, while often framed by Lao authorities as a logical replacement for opium because both involve highly-skilled resin tapping, sets a higher bar for poor farmers in that it is a perennial that, in this region, often requires almost a decade between planting and first harvest. It thus attracts farmers of the more entrepreneurial variety: those with some capital and labor to spare, who can afford the wait time between planting and tapping, and who can weather the ups and downs of global rubber prices. The lands of the poorer villages thus proved attractive to an alternate, concession-like plantation scheme in which land was said to still technically belong to the villages, but was allocated to Chinese companies for the purposes of developing company-owned plantations using local Lao labor (Fig. 1).

KRSEA-Chinese-rubber-plantation-on-village-land
Figure 1. Chinese rubber plantation on village land, Vieng Phou Kha District (author photo 2018)

In Vieng Phou Kha district, where I worked, this scheme also relied on a variant on the political incapacitation described by Achille Mbembe in the epigraph quote above. Residents were not only poor, but had been resettled from areas that were historically associated with antigovernment insurgency during the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and even ‘90s – an area out on the district’s western edge in the region of a secret American base established in 1962. Following their resettlement, the resulting village cluster had been the repeated target of various development schemes, including both official aid projects and informally negotiated land sales to local elites. The district governor, in fact, was said to have been trying to oppose the ongoing erosion of these villages’ land base by directing the Chinese company which provincial authorities had assigned to the district to target these villages for the development of its own plantation lands. This project was the latest round of development “cooperation” that was anything but, and that was better understood as a one-sided imposition on a segment of the population that was essentially being treated as a ward of the state. A key outcome of this process has been the creation of “available” land in the newly accessible hinterland of the Northern Economic Corridor. 13

Conclusion

Despite creating land availability, the livelihood creation dimension of this managed enclosure scheme has largely failed. It is now more the exception than the rule for residents of villages with managed enclosures to work with the company, either as independent contract farmers or as rubber tappers on the company’s own plantations, which sit adjacent to their own swidden fields (see Fig. 1, background). What is clear, however, is that this state of affairs is in no small part the product of wider political and economic processes that have located Laos within circuits of transnational investment, trade and development cooperation that make coercive approaches to local land use seem, if not highly efficient, then at least a mechanism that is within the bounds of possibility. Coercion underlies Aihwa Ong’s concept of graduated sovereignty in both its territorial and population-facing modes. As Laos’s aspirations to join the global community of rubber producing nations have yielded as many challenges as opportunities, it is likely that coercion, rather than available land per se, has been seen by decision-makers as the country’s chief comparative advantage. How this will ultimately play out remains to be seen.

Michael Dwyer
Michael Dwyer is Instructor, Department of Geography, at the University of Colorado, Boulder

REFERENCES

Alton, C., Blum, D., & Sannanikone, S. (2005). Para rubber in northern Laos: The case of Luangnamtha. Vientiane: German Technical Cooperation (GTZ).
Baird, I. G. (2014). The Global Land Grab Meta-Narrative, Asian Money Laundering and Elite Capture: Reconsidering the Cambodian Context. Geopolitics, 19(2), 431–453.
Borras, S. M., Franco, J. C., Gomez, S., Kay, C., & Spoor, M. (2012). Land grabbing in Latin America and the Caribbean. Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(3–4), 845–872.
Diana, A. (2009). Roses and Rifles: Experiments of governing on the China-Laos frontier. The Australian National University.
Dwyer, M. B. (2013). Building the Politics Machine: Tools for “Resolving” the Global Land Grab. Development and Change, 44(2), 309–333.
Dwyer, M. B. (2014). Micro-Geopolitics: Capitalising Security in Laos’s Golden Quadrangle. Geopolitics, 19(2), 377–405.
Dwyer, M., & Vongvisouk, T. (2017). The long land grab: market-assisted enclosure on the China-Lao rubber frontier. Territory, Politics, Governance, 0(0), 1–19.
Foucault, M. (2009). Security, Territory, and Population. lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Picador USA.
Hirsch, P. (2001). Globalisation, regionalization and local voices: The Asian Development Bank and re-scaled politics of environment in the Mekong Region. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 22: 237-251.
Innes-Brown, M., & Valencia, M. J. (1993). Thailand’s resource diplomacy in Indochina and Myanmar. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 14, 332–351.
Kenney-Lazar, M. (2012). Plantation rubber, land grabbing and social-property transformation in southern Laos. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(3–4), 1017–1037.
Kramer, Tom, & Woods, Kevin. (2012). Financing Dispossession – China’s Opium Substitution Programme in Northern Burma (Drugs & Democracy Program). Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.
Li, T. M. (2011). Centering labor in the land grab debate. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(2), 281–298.
Lu, J. N. (2017). Tapping into rubber: China’s opium replacement program and rubber production in Laos. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 0(0), 1–22.
Mbembe, A. (2001). On the postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McCartan, B. (2007). China rubber demand stretches Laos. Asia Times Online. 19 December.
Ong, A. (2000). Graduated Sovereignty in South-East Asia. Theory, Culture & Society, 17(4), 55–75.
Scott, D. (1995). Colonial Governmentality. Social Text, (43), 191–220.
Shi, W. (2008). Rubber boom in Luang Namtha: A transnational perspective. Vientiane: German Technical Cooperation (GTZ).
Sturgeon, J. C., Menzies, N. K., Fujita Lagerqvist, Y., Thomas, D., Ekasingh, B., Lebel, L., … Thongmanivong, S. (2013). Enclosing Ethnic Minorities and Forests in the Golden Economic Quadrangle. Development and Change, 44(1), 53–79.
Symon, A. (2007). Regional race for Laos’s riches. Asia Times Online. 30 August.
White, B., Jr., S. M. B., Hall, R., Scoones, I., & Wolford, W. (2012). The new enclosures: critical perspectives on corporate land deals. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(3–4), 619–647.
Wolford, W., Borras, S. M., Hall, R., Scoones, I., & White, B. (2013). Governing Global Land Deals: The Role of the State in the Rush for Land. Development and Change, 44(2), 189–210.

Notes:

  1.  “Instruction on stepping up population management work, issued by the Lao PDR’s Council of Ministers and signed by Nouhak Phoumsavan, vice chairman of the council,” 1 Feb. 1988; translated by the United States’ Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archives, Vietnam Veterans Association Project – Laos; box 30, folder 4; accessed 11 Mar. 2009.
  2. Foucault, M. (2009). Security, Territory, and Population. lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Picador USA; Bentham (“do as they ought”), quoted pp. 202-203 in Scott, D. (1995). Colonial Governmentality. Social Text, (43), 191–220.
  3. Foucault (op. cit.), pp. 43-44.
  4.  Innes-Brown, M., & Valencia, M. J. (1993). Thailand’s resource diplomacy in Indochina and Myanmar. Contemporary Southeast Asia14, 332–351; Hirsch, P. (2001). Globalisation, regionalization and local voices: The Asian Development Bank and re-scaled politics of environment in the Mekong Region. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 22: 237-251.
  5. Lao radio, 7 Sept. 1988, “Heighten vigilance against enemies’ new schemes”; translation by FBIS. Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archives, Vietnam Veterans Association Project – Laos; box 30, folder 4; accessed 11 Mar. 2009.
  6.  Ong, A. (2000). Graduated Sovereignty in South-East Asia. Theory, Culture & Society17(4), 55–75.
  7. Mbembe, A. (2001). On the postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 88
  8. See, among others, Borras, S. M., Franco, J. C., Gomez, S., Kay, C., & Spoor, M. (2012). Land grabbing in Latin America and the Caribbean. Journal of Peasant Studies39(3–4), 845–872; Li, T. M. (2011). Centering labor in the land grab debate. The Journal of Peasant Studies38(2), 281–298; White, B., Jr., S. M. B., Hall, R., Scoones, I., & Wolford, W. (2012). The new enclosures: critical perspectives on corporate land deals. The Journal of Peasant Studies39(3–4), 619–647; and Wolford, W., Borras, S. M., Hall, R., Scoones, I., & White, B. (2013). Governing Global Land Deals: The Role of the State in the Rush for Land. Development and Change44(2), 189–210. 15See, among others, Borras, S. M., Franco, J. C., Gomez, S., Kay, C., & Spoor, M. (2012). Land grabbing in Latin America and the Caribbean. Journal of Peasant Studies39(3–4), 845–872; Li, T. M. (2011). Centering labor in the land grab debate. The Journal of Peasant Studies38(2), 281–298; White, B., Jr., S. M. B., Hall, R., Scoones, I., & Wolford, W. (2012). The new enclosures: critical perspectives on corporate land deals. The Journal of Peasant Studies39(3–4), 619–647; and Wolford, W., Borras, S. M., Hall, R., Scoones, I., & White, B. (2013). Governing Global Land Deals: The Role of the State in the Rush for Land. Development and Change44(2), 189–210.
  9. See, among others, Baird, I. G. (2014). The Global Land Grab Meta-Narrative, Asian Money Laundering and Elite Capture: Reconsidering the Cambodian Context. Geopolitics19(2), 431–453; Dwyer, M. B. (2013). Building the Politics Machine: Tools for “Resolving” the Global Land Grab. Development and Change44(2), 309–333; Kenney-Lazar, M. (2012). Plantation rubber, land grabbing and social-property transformation in southern Laos. The Journal of Peasant Studies39(3–4), 1017–1037; McCartan, B. (2007). China rubber demand stretches Laos. Asia Times Online. 19 December; Symon, A. (2007). Regional race for Laos’s riches. Asia Times Online. 30 August.
  10. Shi, W. (2008). Rubber boom in Luang Namtha: A transnational perspective. Vientiane: German Technical Cooperation (GTZ); Dwyer, M. B. (2014). Micro-Geopolitics: Capitalising Security in Laos’s Golden Quadrangle. Geopolitics19(2), 377–405; Kramer, Tom, & Woods, Kevin. (2012). Financing Dispossession – China’s Opium Substitution Programme in Northern Burma (Drugs & Democracy Program). Amsterdam: Transnational Institute; Lu, J. N. (2017). Tapping into rubber: China’s opium replacement program and rubber production in Laos. The Journal of Peasant Studies0(0), 1–22.
  11. Shi (op. cit.); Diana, A. (2009). Roses and Rifles: Experiments of governing on the China-Laos frontier. The Australian National University; Sturgeon, J. C., Menzies, N. K., Fujita Lagerqvist, Y., Thomas, D., Ekasingh, B., Lebel, L., … Thongmanivong, S. (2013). Enclosing Ethnic Minorities and Forests in the Golden Economic Quadrangle. Development and Change44(1), 53–79.
  12. Alton, C., Blum, D., & Sannanikone, S. (2005). Para rubber in northern Laos: The case of Luangnamtha. Vientiane: German Technical Cooperation (GTZ); Shi (op. cit.); Dwyer, M., & Vongvisouk, T. (2017). The long land grab: market-assisted enclosure on the China-Lao rubber frontier. Territory, Politics, Governance0(0), 1–19.
  13. See Dwyer (2013 op. cit. and 2014 op. cit.) for more detail.

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