Laos: The Messenger

A Travelfish long read by Saqib Rahim
First published on 31st January, 2021 |931 reads.

Anan Bouapha looks to the camera, folding his hands on his desk. He is modest, upright, a model Lao citizen. A small communist flag sits to his left. It’s November 2020, the 65th anniversary of Laos’ diplomatic relations with the UK. In clean, measured Vientiane tones he congratulates the nation.

“As our country’s slogan says: ‘Together we walk forward!’,” he says.

In any other country it would be a dime-a-dozen piece of YouTube content. Laos is different. In Bouapha’s performance one sees the small, perfectionist craftings borne of a decade of experience. It is not by accident Bouapha has become Laos’ most prominent advocate for people of diverse sexual and gender identities—the most public face of a community that has long suffered from discrimination.

“Because I know how to do it with peace,” Anan Bouapha. Photo: Australian Embassy, Laos.
“Because I know how to do it with peace,” Anan Bouapha. Photo: Australian Embassy, Laos

Ten years ago, Bouapha was a twenty-something revelling in the Vientiane night scene, meeting new and exciting people, exploring his sexual identity. He was out to his parents as gay but unsure of his place in the world.

Over the next decade, Bouapha found it. He founded the country’s first LGBTIQ (see note) advocacy movement, Proud To Be Us Laos. He became the booked-every-day-and-weekends-too maestro behind a manic calendar of sexuality- and gender-awareness events. Perhaps most remarkably, he also built a network of alliances within the Lao government—in effect, a license to operate. Now he takes photos with ambassadors. He studies at foreign universities. He’s on Lao TV a lot.

Yet there’s a loneliness in Bouapha. He hears whispering criticisms, even from his own community.

“A lot of people misunderstand my approach,” he told me. “They think that I’m more about myself. Oh, it’s him again. He appears on TV again. It’s all about him. And I want to say, it’s not about me. Because I know how to do it with peace. A lot of people, they like conflict and confrontation. That’s not the way that you solve the problem.”

He still thinks this is how Laos’ LGBTIQ community gets ahead: by working within the Lao system, not against it. By doing it the Lao way, not the falang way or anyone else’s.

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About the author

Saqib Rahim is a writer in Laos. He writes about the environment, renewable energy, Lao culture and sometimes poetry. His awkward efforts at speaking Lao continue. Follow him on Twitter @SaqibSansU and see his other work at https://saqibrahim.journoportfolio.com/.


Reader comments

Alanba69

Posted on: 2021-02-01 07:03:28

Another thoroughly enjoyable read...

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