Supporting education in Laos is our focus. Due to this, it is crucial to take a careful look at the history of education in Laos, which is quite diverse. Therefore, this new post series in four parts focuses on the development of education in Laos. Part I focuses on the period between the inauguration of a formalized school system by the French colonial rulers, which started in 1893, until the Lao independence in 1954.
Part II surveys the period of 20 years of civil war in Laos, from 1954 until 1975, especially the differences in the education systems of the two hostile parties, the Royal government of Laos and the Pathet Lao. Part III deals with the current Lao education system since the Communist coup in 1975. With regards to the ASEAN Economic Community, established in 2016, Part IV sums up the future challenges and goals for the present-day Lao school system.
Due to its culture, Laos does not have a long-standing tradition of formalized education in public schools, compared to European countries. As a Buddhist country in Southeast Asia, following the oldest branch of Theravada Buddhism, through the centuries education took place in the monasteries and temples. The deep religious faith within the Lao society has preserved this system all the way through: During the French colonial rule from 1893 until 1954, the long-lasting war up until 1975 and since the Communist coup in 1975. Temples still offer free education for children who choose to become a monk or a nun. Especially in rural areas, where public schools suffer from a lack of teaching materials, teachers and also even school buildings, attending education in temples opens up a huge opportunity for both the children as well as their parents. The history of a countrywide public education system, however, goes back to the inauguration of a formalized schooling system that the French colonists began in 1893.
The French colonial rulers incorporated Laos in 1893 as a protectorate into the Indochinese Union, together with Tonking, Annam, Cochinchina (which is now Viet Nam), and Cambodia. From this time on, the French began to implement the educational system of France in Laos. Despite the economy and infrastructure, the education system in Laos remained at a low level, due to its low strategic value as a colony for France. An example can serve to illustrate this low significance: In a country 2/3 the size of Germany, even in the 1940s not more than 600 French people lived there. Only ten kilometres of railroad tracks were laid by the French during that time, which illustrates the low economic interests, especially compared to other colonies. And so, human resources, which only come after economic exploitation within the colonial system, also remained low.
Furthermore, education in public schools was mostly irrelevant to the needs and lifestyles of the majority of Lao society during that time, as it did not have a middle class to support this system, as in Europe. Public schools were mostly established in the few urban areas and some in district centers. Consequently, as late as 1953 more than 90% of the population worked in subsistence agriculture (and many still do), where formal education was unknown. The French attempts in education during the 60 years of their colonial rule led to the existence of a small urban elite, primarily out of the royal Lao family and other bourgeois households. Many students were the children of Vietnamese immigrants to Laos, which was supported by the French so that they could recruit them as civil servants for lower-administrative functions. With the Communist coup in 1975 nearly all of them together with their families fled the country to seek asylum in Australia, France, the USA, or Thailand, which is why an urban elite was almost fully absent from this time on.
The education system during that time only consisted of primary and secondary schooling. The Collège Auguste Pavie in Vientiane opened up in 1924 as the first secondary school in Laos with four classes and 120 students and until 1954 remained the only secondary school throughout the whole country. As a mirror of education in France, students in Laos learned French history, culture and of course, the language – which was irrelevant to the needs and lifestyles of most of the population.
The following wonderful film made in Northern Siam and Laos in the mid 1920s gives a good impression of what these lifestyles looked like at that time.
Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (USA: 1927. R: Cooper, Meria C./Schoedsack, Ernst B.)
Further studies after secondary school graduation were not possible in Laos. Some Lao citizens attended colleges or universities in Pnohm Penh, Saigon, Hanoi, and a few also in France.
Within the Indochinese Union, French was the common language of civil servants and the first foreign language in schools. In Laos it was taught from the second grade on. A small Lao elite, recruited from not more than 200 families throughout the country mainly around Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Pakse and the few other urban areas, was distinguished by its use of the French language and the assimilation of the French culture from the majority of the Lao population – the Grande Nation with its specific culture was far away from the beliefs, lifestyles, interests, and the environment in Laos.
This minimal influence also explains the low number of pupils within this first formal education system. Even in 1963, according to a governmental report, more than 75% of the total Lao population never attended a formal school. French overall influence remained minimal, due to the low number of schools throughout the country, the low number of French colonists, and Laos’ ethnic diversity. French did not replace the native languages as it did in many of the African colonies. This is why French does not play an important role in contemporary Laos; besides the signs on a few governmental buildings it is not common in everyday life.
However, between 1893 and 1954 the elitist French education system paved the way for the set-up of a broader formalized education throughout the whole country, starting in the mid-1950s up until today. If we look back at the beginnings of formal education, especially the challenges, we can see some parallels to the present situation. Ethnic diversity and the marginalized rural areas are still the major challenges for the Lao education system, as for almost half the population the Lao language is not the mother tongue, and as many remote villages still lack access to education.
Part II of this series will trace the end of the colonial rule with the Lao declaration of independence in 1954 and survey the different educational models run by the hostile parties during the war, the Royal Lao government on the one side and the Communist Pathet Lao on the other.
To be continued!
Text & photos by J. Zeck
Postiglione, Gerard A., Jason Tan (2007). Going to school in East Asia. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Stuart-Fox, Martin (2008³). Historical Dictionary of Laos. Lanham: Scarecrow Press
Hays, Jeffrey (2008). Education in Laos. In: http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Laos/sub5_3d/entry-2981.html (last accessed 04/29/2016)
Halpern, Joel M., Marilyn Clarke Tinsam (1966). Education and Nation-Building in Laos. In: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=anthro_faculty_pubs (last accessed 04/29/2016)
Vientiane High School (2002). Vientiane High School. In: http://www.fedu.uec.ac.jp/~thavisak/f_ourschool.htm (last accessed 04/29/2016)