Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Countering Lao Nazism

In 2017, one of the issues the Lao community will be facing in the United States is a question of the relationship of our youth and young adults to Nazism and white supremacy/white nationalism. While this isn't an intuitive question for the Lao, it is one that will be better to head off at the pass sooner, rather than later.

In May, 2017, the trial will begin in Canada for Lindsay Kanittha Souvannarath and Randall Steven Shepherd who are accused of plotting mass murder at the Halifax Shopping Centre. The pair are charged with conspiracy to commit arson, conspiracy to commit murder, uttering threats and other charges. Their lawyers are trying to get an earlier court date, however.

How a Lao American girl falls in with white supremacists is a troubling question that calls for serious inquiry rather than dismissal of her journey as that of a lost and wayward youth who just needed more parental guidance and family support. 

Is Lindsay Kanittha Souvannarath a true Nazi, or was it more an expression of nihilism mixed with depression and other mental health challenges? Could she be reformed, recover and reintegrate into society? If we can't solve this, what does that say of our methods and approaches as a refugee community?

While the Lao have valued harmony, compassion, and peace, we also have a tradition of respecting karma and a sense that the universe doles out punishments and rewards that are largely out of our hands. So there's any number of ways this could go.

As a writer, I approach the case with interest because I understand how many Lao, as victims of war or the children of refugees, can turn to dark thoughts, grappling with disturbing imagery and a fascination with the macabre and the horrific. Media reports suggested she referred to herself as the "Nightmare Nazi" in her role-playing game circle when she was 16. Over the next 7 years, she continued to build upon that persona, and fell in with a man who was clearly serious about committing mass murder in Canada that would rival Columbine, intending to commit suicide afterwards with his compatriots.

Of course, this all seems a little ironic considering that Laos was considered the least anti-Semitic country in the world in 2014

Compare that to neighboring Thailand which has flirted dangerously with Nazism, especially in the early 2010s. Take the 2012 case where a Thai Catholic school thought that a Nazi-themed "Fancy Dress Sport Day" could go over well. The excuse was the students and staff had a poor understanding of history, but should we take it casually, or be proactive, going forward? In neighboring Cambodia in early 2016, they had a row over the repurposing of Nazi propaganda in a local community news outlet.

Presently Nazi chic is trendy across many parts of Asia, but what if it goes beyond fashion appreciation?

In an ideal scenario, I feel I would deeply prefer it if the Lao community both in the US and abroad were able to say we had a comprehensive conversation on the allure of Nazism and an understanding of why we would reject it as a culture, seeing it incompatible with our standards and values.

Beyond the obvious need to reject models of White Supremacy as counter to the majority of ethnic Lao interests, an effective anti-Laozism program needs to stave off those elements which would-be despots could exploit based on Lao history, especially efforts to associate itself with the former realm of Lan Xang.

Classic Nazism in Germany was obsessed with irredentism that felt entitled to "lost" territories from previous ages when they felt they were at the height of their power and influence. It also embraced a theory of national racial purity, prizing an Aryan ideal. For Laos, with over 160 identified ethnic groups, for any one group to assert itself as being racially, socially, politically and economically superior and to act upon it would certainly have grave consequences.

Historically, the Lao have largely encouraged and embraced an inclusive, collaborative model for building society. It is one of our strongest values, even under various governing models we have attempted over the last few centuries. This was the practical and profitable approach for almost everyone involved. I would think we should not lose sight of this approach.

The Nazis of Germany rejected a notion international class struggle, but did suggest a class struggle between nations, framing themselves as a proletariat nation vs. plutocrat nations, and worked to identify itself with lower and working-class Germans. This is certainly an element of Nazi theory that might appeal to some Lao, even as the applied policies were in fact far from this ideal.

Nazi gender theory believed women had only three roles: "Kinder, K├╝che, Kirche," or Children, Cooking and Church. Needless to say, this would be a very dramatic setback for Lao around the world, even as we do struggle with these persistent attitudes in the traditional culture. The Nazis of Germany had a very strong stance against the GLBT community that believed they should be exterminated. Considering how much of Lao American culture has become possible because of Lao GLBT, this is an area where many of us need to be quite vocal.

The Nazis went to great efforts to use a mock-form of Christianity stripped of the elements that would oppose the implementation of their policies. What would the Lao Nazi equivalent be? Possibly an expression of state or community-sanctioned Buddhism that never challenged disparity or violation of the 5 precepts or other Buddhist tenets, certainly. This is a question that needs further elaboration in the future. To see how dangerous this scenario could get, we can look at nearby Myanmar where an anti-Muslim Buddhist monk has been riling up the community, recently declaring that Donald Trump was very similar to him.

German Nazis were both anti-communist and anti-capitalist, which put them in a seeming philosophical bind, but they were definitely pro-totalitarian.  For the Lao culture, we are barely 40+ years into living in functioning democracies. We are familiar with knowing what it's been like to live under colonial rule as well as under monarchies and as a vassal state. I think it would be fair to say that many of us in the United States are at various points on the political continuum because of what we've experienced compared to what we want. 

I would strongly encourage greater conversations on what it would mean for Lao to be fully engaged in the various democracies and societies they're a part of. In the end, I think more needs to be done to help Lao in diaspora engage with topics like this if we are to have a full rejection of Nazi principles or a version adapted to suit a Lao totalitarian's needs. 

What are approaches you would suggest that could help to prevent the rise of Lao Nazism over the decades ahead? 

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