The Lao flag ceremony

After having worked here for more than two months now, it was high time to find out what actually happens during the weekly flag ceremonies at the schools we work for. As we are not familiar with the concept of “respecting our flag” from Germany, it was necessary to observe the procedure for ourselves: 

It is 8.00 a.m. on a Monday morning. All pupils are lined up in a U-shape on the school yard facing the main school building. The different classes stand closely together but are separated into girls and boys. The bell rings. Everybody attentively watches and listens to Mr Bounleud, one of the teachers at the secondary school, who speaks to the pupils through a microphone.
A few minutes later the bell rings again. On command everybody turns to the middle facing one another. A girl comes to the front and reads out a text. Then two pupils, a girl and a boy, hiss the flag while the rest sings the national anthem of Laos (as we are told later by Mr Khamsing). Grand applause follows.
It is 8.24 a.m. now. The director’s deputy takes over the microphone and speaks to the pupils in a very commanding way. His speech is followed by three girls shyly reading out a printed text in front of the whole school. At 8.35 a.m. the pupils are given the signal to leave, starting with the right wing, then the back row and finally the left wing. Now they have 15 minutes left before their regular lessons start.

 

Aspects of the political and historical background of Laos

Still, many questions remained due to the linguistic and cultural barriers and our lack of background knowledge. While trying to think of someone who would be able to answer all our questions, we quickly realized that Mr Khamsing would be the ideal interview partner.

Mr Khamsing is the school manager of Ban Phang Heng Primary and Ban Phang Heng Secondary School and also the Lao General Manager of the Angels for Children foundation. He is responsible for the cooperation between the local government and AfC. He went to Phang Heng Primary School himself and experienced the flag ceremony as a child. Although the procedure has not changed since, the political background became a completely different one in December 1975 (cf. Johannes Zeck’s earlier post “Education in Laos – Part I”).

Laos had been a monarchy since 1353. From 1893 the country was under French colonial rule and one of the protectorates of the Indochinese Union. This rule ended with the occupation of Laos by the Japanese during the Second World War in 1942. Japan’s capitulation in 1945 left behind a power vacuum, which the former  crown prince and a group of Lao intellectuals used to declare Laos’ independence (Roland Dusik 2016, 68ff.) However, the French remained determined to re-establish their rule, and by May 1946, large areas, including the cities Vientiane and Luang Prabang, had been reoccupied.

During the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the Indochinese Communist Party formed the “Pathet Lao” resistance organization. The Pathet Lao fought against the aggressive French Colonial forces with the aid of the Vietnamese independence organization, the Viet Minh. The war ended with the French defeat against the Viet Minh in the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” in May 1954 – and France withdrew its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina. Laos regained its independence as a constitutional monarchy (cf. Schultze 2003, 112ff.).

In 1955, the US Department of Defense created an office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the US containment policy (also known as Cold War) to prevent the spread of Communism. In the late 1950s the conflict between the communist Pathet Lao movement and the Royal Army supported by the U.S. escalated quickly and led to a Civil War which was to last 20 years.

In addition, Laos was drawn into a proxy war by the “Vietnam War” (“American War”), because the Hồ Chi Minh trailthe most important supply line of the Vietnamese forces in the south – runs through the Laotian jungle and rain forest on the southeastern part of the country.

Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos in order to interrupt both the transportation of crucial military supplies and infiltration of manpower. During 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years – Laos was made the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Certain parts of Laos suffered tremendously, making regular life impossible. A whole ex-wealthy peasantry in the North lost all their land and livestock and had to live in caves for nine years (schooling was only possible from 5 until 9 a.m. until daylight/bombs) during a war that was not even officially declared on Laos.1

The unexploded ordnance in the country (UXO) produces maimed victims to this day: Eyesight is lost, hands or legs are ripped off, lives are extinguished. Also art, jewelry, and cutlery are made out of molten bomb shells, offered to tourists on the local night markets (“now buy back your bombs”). There are two UXO Lao Visitor Centres in Vientiane and Luang Prabang (“COPE”).

In the early 1970s, the U.S. realized that their remaining chances of winning the war were shrinking and started their military withdrawal. In 1975, the Pathet Lao overthrew the royalist Lao government and forced the king to abdicate. The monarchy was abolished, and the Democratic Republic of Lao was established.

 

Flag and national anthem of Laos

These major political changes, from monarchy to socialist state, are also reflected in the current flag and the national anthem. Whilst during Mr Khamsing’s school time, i.e. before 1975, the flag of the Kingdom of Laos was hissed, it is now the flag of the Democratic Republic of Laos.

The colours of the new flag indicate the nation’s attitude towards their history, future, and nature. The red two stripes at the top and the bottom symbolize the blood that was shed during the Lao people’s fight against all forms of imperialism and for their freedom and independence. The blue stripe in the middle denotes the richness of the country’s nature – especially the Mekong river. It flows through the whole country and is the nation’s major source of life and prosperity. The white circle in the centre stands for Laos’ development towards modernity and its future that is supposed to shine bright like the moon.

The current national anthem “Pheng Xat Lao” (Lao: ເພງຊາດລາວ, lit. ”Hymn of the Lao People”) of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has the same melody as the one of the Kingdom of Laos until 1975, but the lyrics were changed. Listen to a recording on this blog of the international “Mekong Polifonia” choir during a concert for the 26th Anniversary of German Unity celebration in 2016, in which Team III also participated. Here is the English translation:

Anthem of the Kingdom of Laos
(1945 – 1975)

Anthem of Lao People’s Democratic Republic (1975- today)
Lao Nation for ever have been
Well-known all over Asia.
the Laotians establish relationship
United with love care staying together.
Love the people, love our country

Love the King, the Ancestors, the Old Citizens.
Join root join religion ever since the ancestors,
protect the soil the boundary.
Do not allow any nation to conquer, influence, threaten, take, occupy any thing
Anyone steps up enters to conquer, influence, threaten, occupy, fight to the last breath, stand strong against enemies
Help, promote, all blood, all races,
Empower, together take back everything once for all.
(edited)
Once our Laotian race in Asia highly honored stood
And at that time the folk of Laos were united in love
Today they love their race and rally round their chiefs
They guard the land and the religion of their ancestors
They will resist each foe who may oppress them or invade
And such invaders will be met with battle unto death
They’ll restore the fame of Laos and through ills united stand.
For all time, the Lao people
Have glorified their Fatherland,
United in heart,
Spirit and vigour as one.
Resolutely moving forwards,
Respecting and increasing the dignity of the Lao people
And proclaiming the right to be their own masters.
The Lao people of all origins are equal
And will no longer allow imperialists
And traitors to harm them.
The entire people will safeguard the independence
And the freedom of the Lao nation.
They are resolved to struggle for victory
In order to lead the nation to prosperity.

Like the flag, the anthem picks up on the traumatizing past of the country that is deeply marked by imperialism, colonialism, and the fight for independence. It emphasizes the necessity of solidarity towards the state and its people. To ensure a future of freedom and liberty, the people are encouraged to stand up bravely against any kind of threats coming from the outside.2

Through participating in the flag ceremony, the pupils are supposed to learn to respect and value the efforts and struggles of their grand-fathers and -mothers, who fought for their self-governance. Moreover, they are reminded of the paramount importance of sticking together in unity to ensure a better and safer future for the country.3

 

Uniforms – who wears what

As stated above, keeping the nation united is one of the main goals of the Lao government. Therefore, all schools in Laos conduct the flag ceremony in the same way every Monday morning and Friday afternoon. In addition, everyone wears uniforms: The teachers are dressed in certain colours on different days of the week whereas the pupils always wear white shirts and black trousers or sinhs.

As we watched the ceremony, we noticed that some pupils wore red neckties and others blue shirts instead of the white ones. Mr Khamsing explained to us that only the best and well-behaved pupils get to wear these: The red neckties are for children younger than 16, whereas the older pupils wear the blue shirts. He called them “pioneers”, as they are chosen by their teachers to be role models for the rest of the class. They are also lined up separately and stand the closest to the flag and the directors. The others stand within their classes, boys and girls separately. Looking from the director’s perspective, the grade four pupils form the right wing, grade one the back row and grade two and three the left wing.

 

The procedure as a whole

One teacher is chosen for each ceremony, and he or she is responsible for the coordination of the whole procedure. He or she makes sure that everybody – meaning 500 children at each primary and 700 at secondary school – is paying attention and standing still and then announces the hissing of the flag and the ensuing speech of the director. He also reports about how many pupils and teachers were absent in the past week.

The flag is then hissed by one girl and one boy from grade three or four. They were chosen for working and learning particularly well and practised the hissing in advance. While the anthem is sung everybody stands still and salutes.

Then it is the deputy head’s turn to speak. He or she reminds the children of their duties as pupils and of important behavioural rules such as arriving on time, regularly cleaning the classrooms, studying with great diligence, and always greeting the German teachers politely.

At the end of each month, after the exams, one or two pupils of each class receive prizes such as books, pencils, or flowers during the ceremony for their outstanding scores. Pupils who disobeyed an important rule three times in a row (e.g. not putting on the name badges handed out by the school or not tying up long hair) have to come to the front to present a written promise not to ever ignore that rule again. They are also supposed to practise speaking in front of a big crowd.

Finally, all children leave the school yard class by class. A new week with new goals can start.

On Friday afternoons the ceremony is held in a similar way – the only notable difference being that the flag is taken down again and the director reflects upon the past week. He reports about what worked well and what needs to be improved in the following week.

Conclusion

The weekly flag ceremony serves both the consolidation of the state and the appreciation and honouring of the country’s elders’ efforts in the past. It is supposed to ensure steady improvement and development in the present through regular reflections on the past week and by reminding the children of Lao norms and values.4

The best pupils are frequently set apart and rewarded to encourage the others to also become better students from day to day. This concept of steady memory-, identity-, and nation- building is something we have not really encountered in German schools. We, as Germans, learn rather the opposite, i.e. to develop a critical view of our nation’s past, and the subject of history is mostly dealt with in lessons and not in weekly assemblies.5
During our school time we learn to question and deal with historical and current political issues on the basis of our democratic values. We are also encouraged to develop individual identities whereas in Lao schools the focus lies on identification with the nation. For us, the flag ceremony is an unfamiliar but very interesting ritual, in which the children’s identification with their country as well as behavioral norms are steadily consolidated – two aspects that play but a minor role in German schools by comparison.

 

Text by P. Faix, M. Frahm & I. Martin
Photos & videos by P. Faix, T. Mayer & sources given below

 

Notes

1 As this U.S. air raid went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, these clandestine actions from 1963-1975 are often referred to in Laos as the “Secret War”.

2 Communist countries strive to keep imperialistic or neo-colonial infringements by capitalist countries at bay.

3 As we observed in Chang: A drama of wilderness, the first Lao documentary produced in the mid-1920s, tribal solidarity was always essential for survival. The silent film shows a farmer with his family and tribe in Nan Province in Northern Thailand and their daily struggle to save their homes and their lives from the dangers of the jungle, especially from a herd of wild elephants (“chang” in Thai). The utter importance of social cohesion is deeply marked within the people in Southeast Asia and is still a major priority to this day.

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (USA: 1927. R: Cooper, Meria C./Schoedsack, Ernst B.)

4 There are 48 or 49 different (known) ethnic groups in Laos. The “Lao” are the largest group and constitute a little under 50% of the population.

5 Our reflections on German history are dominated by the atrocious actions of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Not only did Germany start the war but it also committed genocide of millions of Jewish people and other minorities. This is the reason why patriotism is by far not as pronounced as in other nations to this day. Signs of patriotism during the football world cup seem acceptable.

 

References

Dusik, Roland (2016). Laos – Kambodscha. Ostfildern: DuMont Reiseverlag. (3rd ed)
Schultze, Michael (2003). Laos. Bielefeld: Reise Know-How Verlag. (5th ed)

Websites

Wikipedia. “Laos” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos (accessed Dec 10, 2018)
Wikipedia. “History of Laos” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Laos_since_1945 (accessed Dec 10, 2018)
Wikipedia. “French Protectorate of Laos https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Protectorate_of_Laos (accessed Dec 10, 2018)
Wikipedia. “History of Laos”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Laos (accessed Dec 10, 2018)
Wikipedia. “Flag of Laos” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Laos (accessed Dec 10, 2018)

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