Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Unsettled Post-Revolutionaries in the Online Public Sphere

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Unsettled Post-Revolutionaries in the Online Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Introduction: Into Cyberspace

"One day, we'll make it!", exclaims the website of a Lao students association in Australia below a picture of a cosmonaut with a Lao flag on his shoulder. (1) Laos has not made it into space, but it is making its very own cyberspace. Students abroad have opened a series of websites in Australia, East Asia, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere promoting Laos in new worldly ways. They stand alongside older, more politically charged websites in the diaspora and a growing number of official Lao Government websites. Online debates over how the government should "open the door" to the world and exiled communities abroad typically separate lao nai, (2) "Lao (living) inside" Laos and lao nok, "Lao (living) outside", a virtual extension of the political divisions of the recent past, which saw a Westernized urban elite flee abroad after the Communist revolution in 1975. Expressions such as "One day, we'll make it", however, reflect a contemporary, third stream of ideas about Laos that differs from the division between the bitter anti-communist rhetoric of the old exiled elite and the revolutionary propaganda of the new regime. In this new stream, people share dreams of a worldly Laos not confined to the narrow field of ideas that have come to define the revolutionary state.

The Lao Government has retained the Marxist-Leninist ideology that legitimated its seizure of power in 1975 whilst striving to integrate itself into the global market economy. Evans (1998, p. 1) describes Laos as economically and socially capitalist but with "political continuities remaining between the revolutionary and 'post-socialist' phases". By undertaking an analysis of expressions of "Lao-ness" on the internet, this article posits the possibility of a new political imagination emerging among young urbanites. The term "post-revolutionary" encapsulates this imagination by referring to moves away from the period of "revolutionary" struggle that led to regime change and continued in attempts to achieve social and cultural change throughout the 1980s. (3) I use it to refer to the complex cultural and social environment that has emerged since the decline of the Soviet world in the late 1980s and come to fruition in the new millennium in which urbanites participate in a new internationalism combining a desire for access to global capitalism with a tolerance of authoritarian rule. The post-revolutionary generation is that group of Lao that has grown up participating in the current transition to capitalism. This transition has resulted in the emergence of new public spaces that potentially overcome the divisions between the authoritarian Lao state and the democratic opposition outside of Laos.

Research for this article was undertaken from 2004 to 2006 and treated the internet as a field site for participant observation with a dynamic relationship to the offline social world. Hage (2005, p. 467) argues that multi-sited ethnography of diaspora networks is practically implausible and that instead we should take up the notion of a single "geographically non-contiguous" field site. The internet connects geographically diverse offline sites making it perhaps the only space where it is truly possible to conduct simultaneous multi-sited ethnography. This article combines interviews and observation undertaken in the offline world of the internet shop, the classroom and other places with ethnographic observations of online spaces in order to understand how the internet is socially constructed. The approximately fifty internet shops in downtown Vientiane are popular sites for online connectivity, but online sociality itself transcends these offline places, which is precisely why internet users seek to connect. The public sphere of internet participation in Laos is mediated by the offline world, but is ultimately constituted by the techno-culture of the computer interface. It is the online public sphere that is the subject of this article. …

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