The death of Grant Evans at the age of 66 is a notable loss for Australian scholarship on Southeast Asia and a sad event for his many friends. As one of a few academic specialists on Lao society and history anywhere in the world, his death at such an early age leaves a gap that will not be easily filled. And the fact that he will no longer be present to welcome visitors to Vientiane robs us of a host who was always generous in sharing knowledge and wise advice as well as a drink and a meal in his house beside the Mekong River.
I was privileged to know Grant for more than twenty years, but I knew of his writing long before we met. In a frank interview published in 2009, Grant was typically forthcoming in charting his scholarly and political experience, which led him from being, in his own words, on the 'New Left' to being an observer for whom empirical observation and research were the essentials of his work. Describing the genesis of his 1984 book, Red Brotherhood at War, written with Kelvin Rowley, he noted that he and Rowley had 'the theory but the one thing we did not have was, of course, the experience of being here (in Indochina). Because to experience full-on communism is a kind of shock actually.'
The need to sift fact from ideology was to be one of Grant's continuing concerns, whether in his book on the controversial 'Yellow Rain' allegations of the 1980s, which he wrote about in The Yellow Rainmakers (1983), to the book that made his academic reputation, Lao Peasants Under Socialism (1990). His firm conclusion in this latter publication was that there was no point in collectivisation, the policy pursued by the Lao communist government, because 'Without all kinds of accompanying changes, collectivisation just leads back to a sort of feudalism...Why should you even get together? And the answer is there is no point, because peasant agriculture is just about as efficient as it can be.'
My own connection with Grant came as the result of being asked to act as the general editor of a series of short histories of the countries of Southeast Asia. Finding someone to write a short history of Laos posed a problem, but it seemed to me that Grant, despite being trained in anthropology and sociology, could do the job, as indeed he did. His Short History of Laos: The Land In Between, published in 2002, is a definitive reason for concluding that the writing of history does not always have to be left to historians. What is more, Grant ensured that this readable and remarkably comprehensive book would later be published in Lao, an effort in which he was assisted by his long-term publisher in Thailand, Khun Trasvin Jittidecharak, the dynamic head of Silkworm Books.
Following the publication of his short history and the important The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975, Grant embarked on what at first glance seemed like a doomed, or at very least controversial, project, a book on Lao royalty. This at a time when the government was doing all it could to diminish the importance of the country's monarchy. The result, published in 2008, again by Silkworm Books, The Last Century of Lao Royalty: A Documentary History, is both a treasure trove of information and a wonderful collection of images garnered by Grant over many years to document a once vital part of Lao history. And it can be purchased in Laos.
After many years of teaching at the University of Hong Kong as Professor of Anthropology, Grant chose to move to Laos permanently and to live in Vientiane, where he was formally associated with the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient as a senior research fellow. He leaves a wife and young daughter.