Southeast Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - Mimetic Vision is a Double-Edged Sword: Touby Lyfoung, Vang Pao, and the Lao-hmong Quest for Equality

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Truman, Mezzanine Level

The role Touby Lyfoung played in changing the political status of the Hmong remains one of the most remarkable transformative political elements in modern Lao history. By 1947, Touby and his brothers were able to affect Lao politics by helping to author a constitution that granted citizenship not only to the Hmong but to to all ethnic groups residing in Laos. The Lyfoung brothers, in essence, participated in the construction of a Lao nation-state. In return, they harnessed the power to be leaders vis-à-vis their Hmong clientele, affecting Hmong identity and the larger perceptions of what it means to be a Hmong.


This paper examines Touby’s political rise and his subsequent eclipse by Vang Pao in the1960s. It argues that Touby’s political ascension can largely be attributed to his mimetic entanglements—his ability to co-opt and exploit the political mechanisms of the lowland Lao muang and French colonial administrative systems. By mastering the languages and skills of these systems Touby was able to affect the rights of his people in pioneering ways. Mimesis, however, proved not to be the exclusive preserve of Touby who was too excellent of a role model for his protégé, Vang Pao. When Touby recommended Vang Pao to the army, he paved the way for Vang Pao to obtain the skills and prestige that led ultimately to his own eclipsing. Mimetic entanglements, therefore, come with opportunities but are also strewn with hidden challenges. Touby Lyfoung, as a power broker between the Hmong and the nation-state, straddled both sides of this double-edged sword.

Mai Na M. Lee

University of Minnesota, Minnesota

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