July 2, 2016 1:00 pm JST

Young Laotians break out of the communist mold

PREETI JHA, Contributing writer

Freerunners practise flips along the Mekong river in Vientiane. (Photo by Preeti Jha)

VIENTIANE -- With a nimble leap the boys scale railings and somersault into the air. As they navigate the contours of their city, the first freerunners of Laos hope the urban sport will catapult the once-isolated communist nation onto the world stage.

Vientiane, the country's capital, is their springboard. It is the heart of a very small but expanding middle class in one of Southeast Asia's poorest nations, where creativity buds within the parameters of authoritarian rule.

Pongphone Lamanggoun, better known as T-Bom, started the country's first free-running group three years ago, after discovering the sport on YouTube. He is part of an increasingly connected generation hungry to engage with ideas beyond their borders.

"I wanted to start something new. And for people to learn about Laos," said the 25-year-old, sporting a baseball cap, goatee and chin-length hair, as he fist bumped other freerunners massing at a popular downtown cafe.

It is a manifestation of the globalized youth culture common in Asia's wealthier capitals, but one that is also now emerging in much-smaller Vientiane.

Laos is home to the fastest rate of urban spatial expansion in East Asia, according to the World Bank, and ranks among the fastest-growing economies worldwide. A new young demographic can reveal a "different image" of the country, said T-Bom, who works as a video editor for Laos' first digital-focused marketing agency.

Last year he was part of a group who competed in an international freerunning contest in Bangkok. It was the first time Laos participated in a sport that has mushroomed worldwide since evolving as a more expressive form of parkour, the art of jumping through urban obstacles which began in the Paris suburbs in the late 1980s.

Such displays are unlikely to disturb the rulers of the former French colony, despite their lingering suspicion of Western cultural influences. But creativity in Laos is still practiced with deep caution under a single-party regime that cracks down on the slightest perception of subversion.

Self-expression

For Khongphon Xaysongkham, freerunning is about self-expression. "Everybody doesn't see things the same way," said the privately-educated 18-year-old in between practising flips along the wide sandy bank of the Mekong River overlooking northern Thailand.

Hip-hop is his other outlet in a society that encourages conformity. "I'm working on my first album," said Khongphon, speaking in English, unlike the other state-schooled freerunners. But he prefers to write in Lao, to reach a wider domestic audience. "It's about society. I write about what I see."

While the Laos economy has been growing faster than that of neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam, efforts at reducing poverty have lagged behind. Three-quarters of its nearly 7 million population live in the countryside on low incomes and without access to basic services. And Laos sits among the bottom 30 countries in civil society group Transparency International's corruption perceptions index.

Khongphon is careful not to offer any personal opinions in his songs. "I don't say what's wrong or what's right."

Freedom of expression has long been suppressed in Laos and in late May, the government in a stark statement warned social media users in particular against what it called "derogating" the country. Three recently detained nationals were paraded on state television for posting anti-government content on Facebook.

Even as the space for free thinkers shrinks, new ideas are cropping up across Vientiane and creative professionals are testing official boundaries.

In an affluent neighborhood north of the city center two members of Lao New Wave Cinema Productions edit a corporate video, a commission that helps fund their feature-length films.

The collective, which launched in 2010 and operates from one of the founder's family homes, has helped to revive the Laos movie scene, which suffered from decades of neglect under communist rule. But it must navigate the country's draconian censorship rules to get films on screen.

"We start to filter ideas in our heads. It's not healthy. You have to worry," said bespectacled filmmaker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy, 37, who, like the majority of the group, studied film overseas. There is no film school in Laos and only a clutch of cinemas.

Culture of censorship

Their first film, "At the Horizon," which addressed the gap between the rich and the poor in Laos, quickly fell foul of the censors.

"In our film the voiceless stayed voiceless. But the government weren't happy. They said the bad guys have to end up in jail," said Vannaphone Sitthirath, the collective's only woman, also 37. She explains how they compromised with "two different endings" -- a Laos version of the film tweaked to keep the "government happy," and an international one that stayed true to their script.

Another plot line was axed for showing a Chinese migrant in a criminal role. Beijing exerts increasing influence on Laos as it invests in everything from mining and hydropower to Special Economic Zones running on Chinese time. "Anything to do with China is very sensitive," Xaisongkham says.

The group try their best to navigate the political landscape but acknowledge their pushback is minimal. "We were raised not to question," said Xaisongkham, who is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Independence and self-respect."

Both he and Vannaphone grew up under communist rule and an education system which, designed to reflect the ruling party line, stifled critical thinking.

"There was a nascent intelligentsia and cultural scene in Laos before the 1975 revolution, and greater freedom of cultural expression," said Simon Creak, a lecturer in Southeast Asian history at Australia's University of Melbourne.

"This was later eliminated by the new leaders, who banned non-Party cultural activities and ended the Western foreign aid that had underwritten the pre-1975 economy, including cultural production."

Laos began opening up to the world in the 1990s after the introduction of market-based reforms, a move that led to a proliferation of new forms of homegrown culture, from magazines to music. Three years ago it was admitted into the World Trade Organization.

Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for IHS Global Insight, thinks the resource-rich nation is on track to become an upper middle-income country by 2030, forecasting strong annual growth of around 7% over the next five years.

"Hydropower remains the key growth engine. But industries such as construction, retail, tourism, restaurants and business services have grown rapidly around this, helping to boost the growth of the urban middle class."

Across Vientiane new eateries, bars and coffee shops are cropping up to cater to the small but growing cohort of customers.

Riding the wave are foreign-educated Laotians returning home with the advantage of new skills and capital.

Ariya Khamvongsa, also known as Pop, moved back to Vientiane in 2012 after a decade studying and working in Sydney. It would have been easy for him to follow in his father's footsteps and take up a government job, but the 32-year-old "wanted the freedom to express himself" as an entrepreneur.

He set up Naked Espresso, a boutique cafe selling a high-quality brew, to bring Laos coffee "up to date." In the second of his three branches, mostly foreign customers sip lattes twice the cost of a street-side coffee. They comprise the mainstay of business, explains Pop, but the number of Laotian customers has doubled.

"They now make up around 40% of the total. The culture is changing," he said.

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