UW Professor says perceptions of Hmong contribute to problems in Laos
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL (April 10, 2010) – There are no laws barring the migration of Hmong from the north to the south of Laos, however, political leaders view the discriminatory act as fact and do nothing to discourage locals from enforcing the unwritten restrictions.
That was one point of many from a presentation of Ian G. Baird, Ph.D., a Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who spoke at the International Conference on Hmong Studies earlier this month at Concordia University – St. Paul.
Dr. Baird in his presentation, “The Hmong Come to Southern Laos: Local Responses and the Creation of Racialized Boundaries”, told of the centuries long Hmong migration from China in the north to Laos and Thailand in the south. The more recent migration has had Hmong groups emerging in the Mon-Khmer language-speaking areas of Champasak and Attapeu Provinces of far southern Laos where the Hmong have not lived in large numbers.
Alarmed by this migration, Baird said that local Lao authorities have acted outside of the laws to prevent Hmong from settling in any southern areas. He said that individual Hmong, marrying a Lao and setting up a home, or the many Hmong women who travel in temporarily to sell herbal medicines and other goods, have not found any difficulties for the most part.
It is large groups settling in one place that are alarming Lao. He said that the Hmong have stereotypical reputations as “forest destroyers” or “bandits”, that are perpetuated and that it perhaps incites cyclical violence toward Lao and toward Hmong based on these stereotypical perceptions.
The problem persists in part, he added, because the national government does not act to assess and act to calm tensions between the groups, but rather goes along with unspoken laws. He said the Hmong that serve in the government got there by being agreeable to the status quo and are not acting to improve this situation either.
“It appears that Hmong movements into particular types of spaces in southern Laos have been accepted, while their arrivals into others have not,” states Baird. “In particular, it appears that negative stereotypes about the Hmong being aligned with anti-government resistance groups – as unfair as many of them may be – have influenced the responses of people in southern Laos to the arrival of the Hmong.”
Baird said that the movement of the Hmong from the north to the south, and the initial reactions of others to them, are important for understanding the ways Hmong people are geographically positioning themselves, and how others are attempting to geographically situate them.
Dr. Baird joined the UW Department of Geography last February as professor specializing in the highland groups of mainland Southeast Asia. He had been working in Laos after receiving his doctorate in geography from the University of British Columbia in 2008 but has more than 20 years experience in the area of Southeast Asian studies in non-governmental organizations working on social justice issues. He speaks English, Lao, Thai and Brao fluently, and has a working knowledge of Khmer.
According to UW Madison, the position is made possible from a grant that links Hmong Studies programs at UW-Madison with the University of Minnesota.
Baird has written many professional journal articles and is author of several forthcoming reports and books.