18 August 1998

Martin Stuart-Fox went to Laos in 1963 as a biologist. He left eighteen months later as a war correspondent with an interest in the country and its people that would change his life.

Almost four decades later Dr Stuart-Fox has written widely on the history and politics of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is head of the University's History Department and is recognised as an expert on Lao history, politics and society.

His most recent publication, The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang: Rise and Decline, marks the culmination of 20 years spent writing books to "fill the gap" in English language scholarship on Laos.

After graduating in zoology from the University, Dr Stuart-Fox worked as a marine biologist in New Guinea and a teacher in Hong Kong before travelling around south-east Asia in the early 60s, stopping in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

He had been working for the Vientiane USAID mission for only a couple of months when the South Vietnamese dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated.

"The United Press International correspondent in Vientiane was immediately sent to Saigon to cover the story but the evening before he left, he said to me, ?If anything happens in Laos, send a cable to New York and string for me while I'm away'," Dr Stuart-Fox recalled.

"He never came back. So I found myself the UPI first stringer correspondent in Vientiane."

When Australian troops were sent to Vietnam in 1965, UPI sent him to Saigon, where he covered the Vietnam War until the end of 1966.

"I'd been there long enough and I'd seen a few friends get killed," he said.

Dr Stuart-Fox rejoined UPI in France before the student revolution of 1968 and later worked in Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh.

He returned to Australia in 1972, working as a newsreader for the ABC and as North Queensland correspondent for The Australian before returning to the University to study history, philosophy and religion.

In 1975 the communist revolutionary movement, the Pathet Lao, seized power in Laos, soon after the North Vietnamese took South Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge took Cambodia.

"My wife's parents had a business in Laos when the Pathet Lao came to power, so we were a bit worried about what was going on," Dr Stuart-Fox said.

"I thought I should find out more about these people, because no one else was writing anything about Laos - it was a complete blank.

"Laos is the least-known country in south-east Asia and very little was known about the Pathet Lao movement. In 1980 I went to Laos to see what was happening.

"By this time my parents-in-law had left but I was still interested. As an academic, I had to deal with the department in the foreign ministry that dealt with journalists because for this secretive regime, academic equalled journalist equalled spy.

"They were very reluctant to give me any information, and were most uncomfortable about my presence."

After that trip, Dr Stuart-Fox edited his first book, Contemporary Laos, which he described as "the first book to come out anywhere, in any language, on the new Lao regime".

He wrote several books over the next few years, including: Buddhist Kingdom, Marxist State: the making of Modern Laos; Laos: Politics, Economics and Society; and A History of Modern Laos, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang: Rise and Decline, is the first English-language history of the great Lao kingdom that flourished between the 14th and 18th centuries.

"This has been pioneering work," Dr Stuart-Fox said.

"I've written five books, edited one, and written about 50 articles in journals all over the world. Now there's a whole new generation of scholars coming up and writing on Laos.

"The gap, I think, is more or less filled."

Dr Stuart-Fox now has a contract to write the history of relations between China and south-east Asia and plans to rework his PhD thesis on The Evolutionary Theory of History for publication.

For more information, contact Dr Martin Stuart-Fox (telephone 07 3365 6800, facsimile 07 3365 6266 or email m.stuartfox@mailbox.uq.edu.au).