Into the Meo Country 4

I was lodged in the minor palace of the Conseiller de la Republique, the senior French official in Northern Laos, a Monsieur Leveau. The Conseiller was a man whose shyness and slight reserve of manner failed to mask a quite extraordinary hospitality. He never, for instance, issued a formal invitation to a meal, preferring with an air of casual assumption to say something like: ‘Of course, you’ll be dining at home tonight.’ Mon¬sieur Leveau was married to a Laotian wife, to whom I was not presented, and the huge official building always seemed strangely empty. We dined facing each other across a darkly gleaming wasteland of ambassadorial table. Sometimes a Laotian servant stole into the room carrying dishes; trailing behind him the distant sounds of a domestic interior. These were immediately sealed off by the closing of the door, leaving us to the vault¬like silences of the huge room. As we sat there the light bulbs gave out in various parts of the room and were swiftly replaced. In Luang Prabang the electric current was switched on at the same time as the water was turned off – at seven-thirty. But the result was no more than a feeble striving of the filament, and the lamp in my bedroom produced a light considerably less than that of one candle. Monsieur Leveau partly got over this difficulty by enormously over-running lamps intended for a much lower voltage, but they did not last long.
After dinner, when the Conseiller relaxed for an hour, he could sometimes be persuaded to talk about some of his problems. These were the chronic worries of the Issarak and the Viet-Minh. To the west of Luang Prabang the frontier with Burma started, and Burmese irregulars crossed it from time to time. Chinese opium smugglers conducted a regular trade with the Meos, and turned pirate when business was bad. But now that the communists had taken over in Yunnan there were some signs of this traffic slackening. And then the Meos themselves. They were passing like a blight through the mountains. Leveau’s ambition was to change their agricultural habits. If they could be persuaded to come down to 1000 feet he could give them irrigated rice-fields to cultivate, and had offered to provide the buffaloes to do the work.
I brought up the question of the Khas. The Khas are the aboriginals of Laos and are, in fact, Moi tribes under another name. Several hundred years ago they were conquered and enslaved by the Laotian nation, and now Khas were to be seen hanging about the market places of Laotian towns and villages, utterly broken and degenerate; as helpless as the pathetic remnants of once powerful Indian tribes in North America. I asked if it was true that Laotians still possessed Kha slaves. Leveau smiled in his tolerant and sceptical Laotian way and said that it all depended what you meant by slavery. The slavery of the old West Indian plantation kind was unknown in the Far East. For superstitious if for no other reasons, the peoples of Indo-China always trod very gently when it came to oppres¬sion of others. The spirits of their ancestors had to be reckoned with, and they themselves if pushed too far might be forced to revenge themselves by the efficient, occult methods strangers were always imagined to possess. He cited the well-known fact of a collective bad- conscience on the part of the Vietnamese, who conduct special sacrifices and offer symbolical rent to the spirits of the unknown aboriginal possessors of the land they now occupy. Leveau believed that slavery did occasionally exist, but that it took more the form of a racial aristocracy maintaining a subject people in a condition of moral inferiority. The fact that a labourer happened to receive no money for his services hardly entered into the question, since we were not dealing with a money society and no one in Laos worked for more than his keep.
Leveau mentioned, as I had already heard, that there is evidence that the Khas before they were overrun possessed great artistic ability. He showed me as a proof a large bronze drum he possessed. This was identical with one in possession of the Musee de L’Homme which is described as being used by the Karens of Burma in the ritual conjuration of rain. A similar one illustrated in Maurice Collis’s book The First Holy One, is represented as a Chinese War Drum of the Han Dynasty. The drum, which was cast by the are perdue method, is decorated with an almost chaotic richness of design sometimes found in Chinese metal mirrors. It depicts in the greatest detail the activities of a primitive people, living by hunting, fishing and rice-growing. There are processions led by dancers with castanets and accompanied by musicians playing the Kène. Their long-houses are depicted as are crescent-shaped boats full of warriors in feathered head-dresses, carrying bows, javelins and axes. Birds and animals are shown in profusion, and the species are recognis¬able. According to the information of Monsieur Victor Goloubew of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, these drums were found in large quantities in a burial ground in Tonkin and date from the period of Chinese domination, about two thousand years ago. The same authority affirms that the art in question is related to that of the Dyaks, and of the Bataks of Sumatra, while the technique of the workmanship is Chinese. This suggests that these people together with the Moi’s, the Khas and the Karens may all once have been united in a homogeneous bronze-age culture – strongly influenced by the Chinese – which was probably at a far higher level than their present ones.

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