Schools, Ritual Economies, and the Expanding State:The Changing Roles of Lao Buddhist Monks as “Traditional Intellectuals”

  • Patrice Ladwig


In 2004, I walked into the office of UNICEF in Vientiane to interview a Lao member of staff. I was interested in a program set up by UNICEF with the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization, in which monks were engaged in prevention work by disseminating information about HIV in remote villages. The project was supposed to combine “traditional” methods of teaching on compassion and Buddhist precepts with new forms of information distribution. In this project, monks were praised as ideal disseminators due to their elevated status, knowledge, and authority in moral matters (Mettathamma, 2003; Ladwig, 2008, p. 475f). After a friendly and long conversation, my counterpart—himself a devout Buddhist in his late fifties—and I came to the million-dollar question of the development of the business at hand: the efficiency of the program and its overall impact. He gave me a critical look, and after a short moment of hesitation answered:

I think Buddhist monks in Laos have lost their leading position in society. There were so many fields in which they were involved in the past. What has remained of this? The development of modern Lao society has overtaken them and the ideas of most monks’ haven’t changed very much although society has. There are many reasons for this, like, for example, Laos’ isolation in the past, the missing possibilities for monks to study new topics and so forth.


Colonial Rule Traditional Intellectual Moral Economy French Colonial Intellectual Elite 
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© John Whalen-Bridge and Pattana Kitiarsa 2013

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  • Patrice Ladwig

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