'Sert Has Gone' - An Ethnographic Account of Khmu Prowess, Village Politics and National Development on a Ridgetop in Laos

'Sert Has Gone' - An Ethnographic Account of Khmu Prowess, Village Politics and National Development on a Ridgetop in Laos
Key terms: Development, Ethnography, Oral History, Village Politics, Khmu, Phongsali, Upland Laos

This thesis provides an intimate ethnographic accourt of a hitherto unstudied upland community’s engagement with Laos’ alter-native brand of socialist modernity. Rigorously grounded in long-term fieldwork conducted in an ethnic Khmu and Akha village in Laos' northernmost province of Phongsali, the thesis' ten Chapters provide thickly-grounded analysis of the impact of war, socialist revolution, nation-building, market-Leninist development and Chinese (hydro)power on upland cosmology, spirit healing, village politics and interethnic relations. In particular, this thesis focuses on the role of local (hi)story-telling in villagers' efforts to act in and on a rapidly changing world through occult/ritual means that defy the Lao state’s official insistence on scientific materialism and exclusively physical causation. The recent encounter between ‘Sert’ – erstwhile spirit lord of Sanjing's mountain ridge – and a Chinese hydropower dam is posited as a critical juncture in this endeavour.

In its multifaceted sum, 'Sert Has Gone' showcases the prowess, resilience and creativity of an ostensibly subaltern community’s long-standing – and very much ongoing – effort to build a culturally-specific sense of globalized modernity. It is both about history itself and about the role that local stories of the past – or ‘(hi)stories’, as I call them – play in Laos' future-oriented present.

As a contribution to (Southeast) Asian Studies, 'Sert Has gone' offers novel ethnographic insights into the impact of external/global forces on upland societies, as well as to issues of aspirations, intergenerational change, ethnic relations, social memory, nation-building, Sino-Lao entanglements and the history of Phongsali. As a contribution to Anthropology, this thesis offers ethnographic sustenance to the discipline's burgeoning interest in 'more-than-human lifeworlds', Southeast Asian 'animism', the role of history in ‘future-making', as well as to medical anthropology's long-standing concern with culturally-diverse approaches to health and well-being.


Paul-David Lutz

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

University of Sydney, School of Social and Political Sciences, Anthropology


Social Sciences