Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Ritual before an Epok performance © Lao Heritage Department

Intangible Heritage Inventory-Making Efforts in Laos

Laos is aware that culture is the foundation for a nation’s survival. At the same time, culture is considered a driving force and end target for social development. A Lao proverb says, ‘culture proves nationality, and behavior proves social standing (of someone), so to lose culture means to lose the nation (population)’. Based on this consciousness and belief, the Lao government generally considers cultural affairs as the basis for formulating policies and strategies to preserve, promote, and develop national culture. A recent and noticeable achievement by the Ministry of Information and Culture can be seen in the organization’s growing success in promoting and expanding ‘the cultural family model’ and ‘the cultural village model’ within communities nationwide.

The program’s main objectives are

  • to bring prosperity to the nation, to raise living standards for all;
  • to provide communities with favorable conditions of safety, justice, and harmony;
  • to preserve time-honored traditions; and
  • to nurture the national identity.

Parallel objectives of the program are

  • to raise the nation from its status as an underdeveloped country,
  • to alleviate poverty,
  • to contribute to the establishment of the ASEAN socio-cultural pillar, and
  • to participate to Asian cultural development by preserving the spirit and identity of Asia.

Besides safeguarding tangible cultural heritage, which the country is a bearer of two world heritage nominations, the government has paid considerably attention to ICH matters. Even though specific legislation regarding ICH does not yet exist, the national heritage law adopted by the National Assembly in 2005 clearly indicates that national cultural heritage includes two types: tangible and intangible heritage items. Article 9 mentions that

intangible cultural heritage consists of immaterial products that constitute valuable cultural assets such as: folklore, knowledge, popular wisdom, beliefs, positive customs, and traditions that reflect the life style and the social behavior of the peoples, languages, scripts, numbers, myths, legends, folk tales, proverbs, poetry, music, traditional dance, songs, melodies, lyrics, traditional medicine, and other forms of knowledge that have been passed down from generations.

Although Laos became a State Party to the 2003 Convention in 2009, to date there has yet to be a specialized institution to take on the responsibility of being the national focal point for ICH. In 2007, an ICH section was established under the Department of Heritage to coordinate with concerned parties in public and private sectors. It is a starting point for a nationwide ICH mechanism. As a pioneer in this field, the Lao Department of Heritage is closely cooperating with the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, ICHCAP, and UNESCO-ASPAC Bangkok.

To implement the ICH Convention smoothly, a national consultation body called the National Committee for Safeguarding of ICH was appointed by the government in 2012. This committee consists of representatives from concerned departments within the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism and other public institutions. In June 2012, with the support of UNESCO Bangkok, the National Capacity Building Workshop on the Implementation of the 2003 Convention was held in Vientiane. Thanks to the ICHCAP-supported pilot project, establishing an ICH Safeguarding System in Lao PDR, that started in 2012, a team from the ICH section carried out a field trip to meet local communities and authorities in the provinces of Vientiane and Luang Prabang to identify and carry out the documentation within these territories.

The ICH inventory is still in the initial stages of development. Although Laos has diverse and rich ICH elements throughout the country to be identified and documented, constraints in the specialized human capacity, the first step of this program is focusing on two domains: performing arts and traditional craftsmanship.

Domain of Performing Arts

Two distinct communities in the northern provinces of Laos are bearers of traditional folk song and puppetry. The first element in this domain is Khab Ngum. It is a very widely popular folk song among the Tai Phuan people who originated in Xieng Khuang Province and now live mostly in the Vientiane region and along the Nam Ngum Valley. Khab Ngum is considered a representative living element of Vientiane Province.

The second element is the puppetry or Epok, which is connected with a royal ceremonial event. The only community still practicing this element is in Xiengthong Village, Luang Prabang.

Domain of Traditional Craftsmanship

The first element under this domain targets basket weaving. Weaving with bamboo and rattan materials is among the oldest handicraft skills of the Lao people. For ten days, the ICH team worked with the communities of Nayang and Phon villages, Phon Hong District, Vientiane Province.

The inventory of these elements is planned to be completed in the second half of 2013.