2017 Holland Prize Recipient: Kearrin Sims

Gambling on the Future: Casino Enclaves, Development, and Poverty Alleviation in Laos

Kearrin Sims
James Cook University, Cairns, Australia

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Pacific Affairs is pleased to announce that the fifteenth William L. Holland Prize for the best article published in Volume 90 (2017) of Pacific Affairs  has been awarded to Kearrin Sims for his article published in Volume 90, No. 4 (December 2017).

What happens on the ground when states use casinos to anchor large-scale “development” plans? And what are the transnational and conceptual implications of these outcomes? The article addresses these questions though a compelling combination of rich empirical research, clear writing, and deft use of theoretical and comparative literature to explore the multifaceted drives and outcomes surrounding two casinos in northern Laos. Sims shows how “particularities of place” – proximity to China, Vientiane’s aspirations to consolidate control over border regions and the ethnic minority communities living there, and the local yet transnational imbrications of histories, mobilities, and economies of the Golden Triangle region – engendered these projects. The casinos in turn have propagated “logics of expulsion” that privilege elite interests while severely exacerbating impoverishment, displacement, and marginalization for local communities. In doing so, the article shows the importance of site-based, intensive fieldwork in informing and amplifying more generalized critiques of top-down development.

Kearrin Sims is a lecturer in Development Studies at James Cook University, Cairns, Australia. Email: kearrin.sims@jcu.edu.au


  1. Can you tell us about some of the intellectual and personal reasons you became interested in the subject?

This paper is the product of a long personal and intellectual engagement with three themes.

First, is an interest in the relationship between (so-called) development projects and new forms of marginalization, disadvantage and exclusion. I often describe myself as a critical development scholar, and much of my thinking has been informed by the post-development turn. In regards to what I have witnessed in Laos, I have found the work of James Ferguson, Jonathan Rigg, and Saskia Sassen to be particularly insightful.

Second is an interest in processes of social and economic change within mainland Southeast Asia, and particularly Laos. Research at the casino sites forms part of a broader research focus on how new forms of transnational connectivity within mainland Southeast Asia are reconfiguring people’s lives and livelihoods. Laos is classified by the United Nations as a Least Developed Country (LDC), and a leading development aspiration of the Government of Laos is to graduate from LDC status. One of the central means through which the government is trying to do this is through the establishment of new urban landscapes and transnational infrastructures which, it hopes, will enable the country to shift from being ‘landlocked’ to ‘land-linked’. This grand vision is reconfiguring people’s lives all over the country in fascinating ways. The casino sites are intriguing spaces for examining both  how borderlands are changing in the wake of new forms transnational connectivity, and how national territories are being reconfigured through state zoning technologies of ‘exception’.

Finally is an interest in the geopolitics of international development and the rise of South-South cooperation – particularly Chinese development cooperation. Laos is a fascinating site to explore China’s growing presence across the global south for a number of reasons, some of which are discussed in this paper. In examining the increasingly polycentric nature of the global development landscape I have learnt from the work of Emma Mawdsley. In regards more specifically to China’s growing presence in Laos, the work of Danielle Tan has been helpful.

  1. What is the central argument of your article in a nutshell?

The central argument of my paper is that the casinos of northern Laos privilege elite interests over the needs of, mostly impoverished, local residents. The casino sites have been repeatedly framed by investors and the Government of Laos as valuable contributors to local and national development. Yet, as I have attempted to demonstrate through extensive empirical research, the manifold consequences of these sites includes many new forms of marginalization and disadvantage. While I do not deny the somewhat exceptional potential of casinos to stimulate economic growth and drive infrastructure investments, I argue that in the case of northern Laos such acute concentration of state and private-sector wealth has proceeded through processes of expulsion that have brought harm to many. These sites are new manifestations of an old problem – the privileging of state-building modernization programs, national economic growth and elite wealth accumulation over poor and vulnerable groups.

  1. Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the process of on-the-ground research?

The greatest challenges during the research process were in respect to accessibility. This took two forms. First, Laos can be a challenging place to conduct on-the-ground research. Many issues are considered politically ‘sensitive’ and the government has used a range of mechanisms to profligate a pervasive culture of fear that constrains free speech. This research would not have been possible without facilitation by local research brokers. Second, both of the casino sites are located approximately 1-hour from their respective provincial capitals of Luang Namtha and Houay Xai. There when times when accessing these sites on my limited research budget proved logistically challenging. On some visits to the casino I would have much more success in collecting data than others. Something that surprised me on my first visit to the Kings Romans casino was two receptionists examining the Lao Kip note that I presented in a manner which suggested they had never seen Lao currency.

  1. What might be some of the implications of your argument and research for studies of decentralization (and/or other subjects) beyond Laos to other parts of Asia and the world?

It is my hope that this paper will contribute to more critical readings of development across Asia and the world. To paraphrase the writings of Michael Goldman, while we are repeatedly told that the project of development uplifts the poor and restores the environment, it has too often been my experience that investments which are labelled as good for ‘development’ enrich elites while further impoverishing the vulnerable. This is not a new line of argument, but it is one that demands reasserting. The particular forms of disadvantage described in the paper are tied to place-specific circumstances. Yet they are also representative of broader logics of expulsion which, as Saskia Sassen has detailed, we can see taking place across both the global north and south.

I also hope that this paper will contribute to more critical readings of Chinese development cooperation. As I explore in the article, the casino sites are tied to Chinese tourism, investment and development cooperation in a number of ways. As China continues to increase its development cooperation across the global south it is bringing both new challenges and new opportunities for development. The implications of China’s growing presence across the global south must be studied carefully, in both place-specific and more generalist ways. In examining China’s growing presence in Laos, I have often found it difficult to identify and explain the disparate ways in which ‘China’ is localized within different contexts. Accordingly, it is my hope that this article offers a more nuanced reading of ‘Chinese’ development state and non-state flows than has sometimes been presented elsewhere.

  1. What did you find most challenging, rewarding, or interesting about the review process?

This paper is the product of multiple drafts. An early version of the paper was first presented at a 2015 International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) workshop on Southeast Asian Casino Spaces, which was held at the Centre for Khmer Studies, Siem Reap. Feedback on this presentation from a number of attendees helped refine the intellectual framing, and I owe thanks to IIAS and those in attendance at this workshop. I am also grateful for feedback provided during the editorial process by Juan Zhang, the guest editor of the Special Issue in which my paper featured. Finally, I must offer thanks to the Pacific Affairs editorial team, who offered feedback on the framing of the Special Issue that I also found useful.

This paper emerged out of an interest in the local-scale implications of  growing Chinese economic and political interests within Laos. Through the review processes described above, I came to have a much greater appreciation of casino economies across Southeast Asia and the fascinating social, cultural and economic dynamics that surround these establishments.

2017 Shortlist

The Politics of Pacific Ocean Conservation: Lessons from the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve

Justin Alger
The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Peter Dauvergne
The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

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Concrete Memories and Sensory Pasts: Everyday Heritage and the Politics of Nationhood

Kelvin E.Y. Low
National University of Singapore, Singapore

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The State of Fun? Exclusive Casino Urbanism and Its Biopolitical Borders in Singapore

Juan Zhang
The University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia

Brenda S.A. Yeoh
National University of Singapore, Kent Ridge, Singapore

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