Long regarded as a peripheral state in mainland Southeast Asia, Laos has attracted far less scholarly attention than richer and more powerful neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam. This has meant, however, that in Lao studies there is a greater potential for individual scholars to make significant contributions to their field. One such scholar is Australia’s Martin Stuart-Fox, in honour of whom this festschrift has been produced with contributions from colleagues, former doctoral students and friends.
The volume is more than a hagiography, however. Its chapters on Laos all make significant contributions to Lao studies. These range from the writing of Lao prehistory in Laos, to early Lao–Thai relations, from French colonial archaeology to medical practices and gun-boat diplomacy, from the ‘invention’ of Laos as a modern state to its revolutionary transformation and present politics.
Though the main focus is on the history, politics and national identity of Laos, essays also point ‘beyond’ Laos, both geographically and metaphorically. In the first instance, the volume provides a welcome comparative perspective, from precolonial relations between Southeast Asian polities and European courts to colonial policies within French Indochina, to the structure of communist power in Vietnam.
Three concluding essays point beyond Laos in a metaphorical sense in directions indicated by Professor Stuart-Fox’s wider intellectual interests – to cultural legitimation and identity, to Buddhism and Buddhist meditation, and to how the principles of Darwinian evolution apply to historical change.
Engaging Asia is thus a volume that will stimulate and satisfy, while at the same time honouring a scholar whose unusual career took him from marine biologist to war correspondent to respected scholar of Southeast Asian politics and history.