Fred Branfman

Publication Date



Introduction and edited by James A. Hafner and Joel M. Halpern


Fred Branfman has a long and unique perspective on the people and events which have overtaken Laos. His residence in the country has spanned some of the most turbulent and enigmatic years this small land-locked nation in mainland Southeast Asia has probably ever experienced. Since he first lived in Xa Phang Meuk between late 1967 and mid 1969 a long period of political instability and conflict has ended, at least temporarily. In the summer of 1975, just months after the fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos became the last of these three former colonial states of French Indochina to enter a new period of political rule under Communist governments. For at least a quarter-century leading up to this transition, Laos had undergone frequent political and military conflicts involving factions within the country, from within the region, and major world powers. During this period both the lowland and upland Laotian populations had been regularly buffeted by warfare, disruption of traditional life-styles. dislocation from their homes, and by a growing influx of Western values and influences. The confrontation of these forces and traditional Lao culture was probably nowhere more evident nor traumatic than in the Vientiane plain.

The Village of the Deep Pond and its people are in many ways representative of traditional Lao society and the effects which change have had on these communities. Ban Xa Phang Meuk also represents the most recent if not the last general community study to have been conducted in Laos prior to the recent political changes in that country. Earlier studies of community life on the Vientiane plain done in the 1950's and early 1960's by Ayabe (1959), Kaufman (1956,1961) and Condominas (1959,1961,1962) bear testimony to the stability of the community even as signs of change were beginning to be observed. Ayabe's(1959) work is particularly useful in that it focused on the village of Pha Khao, a few kilometers from Xa Phang Meuk but some ten years earlier than Branfman's study. The wider survey of villages within the Vientiane plain made by Kaufman also provides another basis for comparison and measurement of the process of change. Of particular note in the Village of the Deep Pond is the effect which 'westernization' and 'modernization' have wrought on community social organization, economy, and values. Whether the wishes of the villagers of Xa Phang Meuk for a more responsive government, a more egalitarian society, and more equitable distribution of wealth will be realized is unclear at this point. And yet, it may well be that the villagers’ desire for progress will result from changes effected in this new chapter in their lives.

The material which follows is based on an extensive and selective condensation and editing of a longer manuscript prepared by Fred Branfman. An effort has been made to retain as much of the author's informal style and grasp of the nuances of village attitudes and behavior as possible. The main focus in this brief monograph is on the economic structure and activities of the village and its residents and their links to the nearby administrative and market center of Vientiane. While the Village of the Deep Pond is not a pioneering nor highly empirical study it does provide an important reference point needed to gain some grasp of the processes of change and modernization as they have been expressed in Laos. And, it may in the future serve as a yardstick against which changes produced under the latest government can be measured.