LAOSLOCATION, SIZE, AND EXTENT
FLORA AND FAUNA
ENERGY AND POWER
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Lao People's Democratic Republic
Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao
CAPITAL: Vientiane (Viangchan)
FLAG: The national flag, officially adopted in 1975, is the former flag of the Pathet Lao, consisting of three horizontal stripes of red, dark blue, and red, with a white disk, representing the full moon, at the center.
ANTHEM: Pheng Sat Lao (Hymn of the Lao People).
MONETARY UNIT: The new kip (k) is a paper currency of 100 at (cents). There are notes of 10, 20, 50, 200, and 500 new kip. k1 = $0.00009 (or $1 = k10,751) as of 2005.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES: The metric system is the legal standard, but older local units also are used.
HOLIDAYS: Anniversary of the Founding of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2 December. To maintain production, the government generally reschedules on weekends such traditional festivals as the Lao New Year (April); Boun Bang-fai (Rocket Festival), the celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha (May); Boun Khao Watsa, the beginning of a period of fasting and meditation lasting through the rainy season (July); Boun Ok Watsa (Water Holiday), a celebration of the end of the period of fasting and meditation (October); and That Luang, a pagoda pilgrimage holiday (November).
TIME: 7 pm = noon GMT.
Laos is a landlocked country on the Indochina Peninsula near the eastern extremity of mainland Southeast Asia. Laos occupies an area of 236,800 sq km (91,429 sq mi), extending 1,162 km (722 mi) sse–nnw and 478 km (297 mi) ene–wsw. Comparatively, the area occupied by Laos is slightly larger than the state of Utah. It is bordered on the n by China, on the e and se by Vietnam, on the s by Cambodia, on the w by Thailand, and on the nw by Myanmar, with a total boundary length of 5,083 km (3,158 mi).
The capital of Laos, Vientiane, is located along the country's southwestern boundary.
The terrain is rugged and mountainous, especially in the north and in the Annam Range, along the border with Vietnam. the mountains reach heights of more than 2,700 m (8,860 ft), with Pou Bia, the highest point in Laos, rising to 2,817 m (9,242 ft) in the north-central part of the country. Only three passes cross the mountains to link Laos with Vietnam. The Tran Ninh Plateau, in the northeast, rises to between 1,020–1,370 m (3,350–4,500 ft), and the fertile Bolovens Plateau, in the south, reaches a height of about 1,070 m (3,500 ft). Broad alluvial plains, where much of the rice crop is grown, are found only in the south and west along the Mekong River and its tributaries. Of these, the Vientiane plain is the most extensive.
Except for a relatively small area east of the main divide, Laos is drained by the Mekong and its tributaries. the Mekong flows in a broad valley along the border with Thailand and through Laos for 1,805 km (1,122 mi). In its low-water phase, it is almost dry, but it rises more than 6 m (20 ft) during the monsoon period. the river is wide, but except for a navigable stretch between Vientiane and Savannakhét, rapids are numerous. Below Savannakhét and at the extreme south there are large rapids and waterfalls. Floods are common in the rainy season.
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate with three main seasons. the rainy season is from May through October, when rainfall averages 127–229 cm (50–90 in). November through February is a cool, dry season. March through April is a hot, dry season, during which temperatures can be as high as 40°c (104°f). Humidity is high throughout the year, even during the season of drought. Average daily temperatures in Vientiane range from 14–28°c (57–82°f) in January, the coolest month, and from 23–34°c (73–93°f) in April, the hottest.
About 54% of Laos is covered by forest. The forests of southernmost Laos are an extension of the Kampuchean type of vegetation, while the highland forests of the north, consisting of prairies interspersed with thickets, resemble central Vietnam. Bamboo, lianas, rattan, and palms are found throughout Laos.
Roaming the forests are panthers and a dwindling number of tigers, elephants, and leopards. The elephant, until 1975 depicted on the national flag as the traditional symbol of Lao royalty, has been used throughout history as a beast of burden. A local breed of water buffalo also is universally used as a draft animal. Reptiles include cobras, geckos, kraits, and Siamese crocodiles. there are many varieties of birds, fish, and insects. As of 2002, there were at least 172 species of mammals, 212 species of birds, and over 8,200 species of plants throughout the country.
Soil erosion, deforestation, and flood control are the principal environmental concerns in Laos. The government seeks to control erosion by discouraging the traditional slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by many mountain tribes, and by resettling the tribes in permanent villages. Reforestation projects have been promoted by the government as a means of increasing lumber exports and of restoring valuable hardwoods to logged-out forest areas. Each person was required to plant five trees in the course of the 1981–85 economic plan. In 1986, the government prohibited the cutting of 15 different varieties of trees. At that time, forests were reportedly being consumed at a rate of 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) per year. Between 1983 and 1993, Laos suffered a further decline of 11.3% in its forest and woodland area. From 1990–2000, the rate of deforestation was about 0.4% per year. In 2003, about 3% of the total land area was protected.
Laos has about 190 cu km of renewable water resources with 82% used in farming activity and 10% used for industrial purposes. Only 66% of city dwellers and 38% of rural citizens have access to safe drinking water. The nation's water supply has begun to decrease due to a combination of factors, among them the loss of forest land, uncontrolled agricultural practices, flooding, and drought. Pollution from fires, dust, and cars is also becoming a national problem.
According to a 2006 report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), threatened species included 30 types of mammals, 21 species of birds, 11 types of reptiles, 4 species of amphibians, 6 species of fish, and 19 species of plants. Endangered species in Laos included the douc langur, three species of gibbon (pileated, crowned, and capped), tiger, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Javan rhinoceros, Thailand brow-antlered deer, kouprey, and Siamese crocodile. the Vietnam warty pig has become extinct.
The population of Laos in 2005 was estimated by the United Nations (UN) at 5,924,000, which placed it at number 102 in population among the 193 nations of the world. In 2005, approximately 4% of the population was over 65 years of age, with another 40% of the population under 15 years of age. There were 100 males for every 100 females in the country. According to the UN, the annual population rate of change for 2005–10 was expected to be 2.3%, a rate the government viewed as too high. the projected population for the year 2025 was 8,712,000. The population density was 25 per sq km (65 per sq mi), but the population is unevenly spread, with the greatest concentration in the Mekong Valley.
More than 70% of the population is rural, living in some 9,000 villages. The UN estimated that 19% of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 4.50%. The capital city, Vientiane (Viangchan), had a population of 716,000 in that year. Other large towns, all on or near the Mekong and its tributaries, are Savannakhét, Pakxé, Luangphrabang (the former royal capital), Muang Xaignabouri, and Ban Houayxay.
There has been only limited population movement into Laos in modern times. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, under pressure of combat operations, Black Tai tribesmen moved southward into the Mekong River valley. Between 1975–90, over 360,000 Laotians fled to Thailand and China. The majority resettled and were given new lives in Western nations. To date, more than 27,000 Laotians have repatriated. In 1996, some 6,000 Laotian refugees remained in Thailand, and several hundred remained on collective farms in China. As of 1999, about 1,100 of the small number of refugees still remaining in Ban Napho camp in Thailand were determined not to have valid refugee claims. the two governments agreed that they should return to Laos, with assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the mid-1990s, as Laos opened up to international investment and development, Vietnamese workers began migrating to Laos—although in relatively small numbers—primarily to work in the construction industry. In 2003 Thailand arrested 19,115 Laotian unauthorized workers, and 6,098 Laotians as illegal foreigners. However, in 2004 Thailand registered 173,000 Laotians as migrant workers.
In 2004 Laotians sought refuge, 7,864 in France and 6,214 in the United States. In that same year 569 applied for asylum in Thailand and 101 in the United States. The net migration rate for 2005 was an estimated zero migrants per 1,000 population. the government views the immigration level as satisfactory, but the emigration level as too high.
About 68% of all Laotians are Lao-Loum, or lowland Lao, a people related to the people of Thailand; thought to have migrated to Laos from southwestern China in the 8th century, the LaoLoum are concentrated in the lowlands along the Mekong. On the hillsides live the Lao-Theung, or slope dwellers, a diverse group dominated by the Lao-Tai (with various subgroups, including the Black Tai), who are ethnically related to the Lao-Loum. they account for 22% of the population. At higher altitudes are the LaoSoung, or mountain dwellers, a diverse group of ethnic minorities of mainly Malayo-Polynesian or proto-Malay backgrounds. they constitute 9% of the population.
Important among the Lao-Soung, and more prosperous than most Lao because of the opium poppies they grow, are the Hmong (Meo), a people of Tibeto-Burman origin who supported the American presence until 1975 and, because of their continuing insurgency, became the targets of harassment by government and Vietnamese troops. Other important upland tribes, all with customs and religions considerably different from those of the lowland Lao, are the Ho, Kha, Kho, and Yao (Mien). Ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese account for 1% of the population.
Lao, the official language and the language of the ethnic Lao, is closely related to the language of Thailand. It is monosyllabic and tonal and contains words borrowed from Sanskrit, Pali, and Farsi. Pali, a Sanskritic language, is used among the Buddhist priesthood.
Other groups speak the Tibeto–Burman, Non-Khmer, or Miao–Yao languages. French, formerly the principal language of government and higher education, has been largely replaced by Lao. English and various ethnic languages are also spoken.
Theravada Buddhism is practiced by most of the Lao-Loum, whose daily life is shaped by its rituals and precepts. Buddhist temples, found in every village, town, and city, serve as intellectual as well as religious centers. Vientiane and Luangprabang have been called cities of thousands of temples. More than 70 pagodas were built in Vientiane alone in the 16th century, including the famous Wat Phra Keo and That Luang. Despite the major role that Buddhism, its temples, and its priests have played in Laotian life, the average lowland Lao regulates a large part of daily activities in accordance with animistic concepts. Certain spirits (phi ) are believed to have great power over human destiny and to be present throughout the material world, as well as within nonmaterial realms. Thus, each of the four universal elements (earth, sky, fire, and water) has its special phi; every road, stream, village, house, and person has a particular phi; forests and jungles are inhabited by phi. Evil phi can cause disease and must be propitiated by sacrifices.
The Lao-Theung and the Lao-Soung, including the upland tribes, are almost exclusively animists, although influenced by Buddhism to some extent. About 2% of the population are Christians, with about 60,000 Protestants and 40,000 Roman Catholics. Most Protestants are members of the Lao Evangelical Church or Seventh-Day Adventists, which are the only two officially recognized Protestant groups. Other minority religions include the Bahaism, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Though religious activity was discouraged by the state from 1976 to 1979, freedom of religion has been legally guaranteed since the constitution of 1991. However, the government reserves the right to serve as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities, which the government loosely defines as those practices which serve to promote national interests. Religious affairs are overseen by the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), an organization of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.
Lack of adequate transportation facilities continued to be a major deterrent to economic progress. Of the approximately 14,000 km (8,700 mi) of roads, only about 3,360 km (2,088 mi) were paved in 2002. Many are impassable in the rainy season. Only a single major road connects the northern and southern regions. Most of the roads were damaged by US bombing in the Vietnam war, but the main links with Vietnam (notably Highway 9, from Savannakhét to the Vietnamese port of Da Nang, and Highways 7 and 13, from Vientiane and Savannakhét to the Vietnamese port of Vinh and Ho Chi Minh City, respectively) were rebuilt with Vietnamese aid. Under the 1981–85 economic plan, 844 km (524 mi) of roads were built or improved. There are no railroads in Laos, although in 1994, the government entered into an agreement with a Thai company to build a railroad from Nong Khai in Thailand to Vientiane. In 2006, French president Jacques Chirac reported that his government would support Thai efforts to build this planned railway, which, as of that year, had not been constructed.
In 2004 there were an estimated 44 airports; only 9 of had paved runways as of 2005. Vientiane has the only international airport. Major cities in Laos are connected by air services operated by state-run Lao Aviation, founded with Soviet aid in 1976. In 1995, the government signed an agreement with China's Yunnan Airlines forming a joint venture projected to increase Yunnan's holdings of Lao Aviation to 60% while the former pays off the latter's debt. In 2003, about 219,000 passengers were carried on scheduled domestic and international airline flights.
Landlocked, Laos' only water-transport link with the outside world is via the Mekong River, which forms a large part of the border with Thailand and flows through Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea. As of 2003, the Mekong is navigable for small transport craft and, with its tributaries in Laos, forms a 4,587-km (2,850-mi) inland waterway system, although rapids make necessary the transshipment of cargo. However, another 2,897 km (1,802 mi) are navigable by small craft that draw under 0.5 m. To lessen dependence on Thailand, Laos in 1977 signed an agreement with Vietnam whereby the Vietnamese port of Da Nang would replace Bangkok as the chief outlet for Laos. In 2005, Laos had one merchant vessel of 1,000 GRT or more, a cargo ship, at 2,370 GRT.
Although archaeological evidence indicates that settlers along the Mekong had learned agriculture, metallurgy, and pottery making by 3000 bc, little is known about the early history of the land that today bears the name of Laos. The lowland Lao are believed to be the descendants of Thai tribes that were pushed southward in the 8th century. According to tradition, the kingdom called Lan Xang ("a million elephants") was established in 756 by King Thao Khoun Lo. In 1353, it was reunified by Fa-Ngoum, who had been raised at the court of Angkor in Kampuchea and returned with a force of Khmer troops. He is also credited with the introduction of Hinayana Buddhism into Laos. Lan Xang waged intermittent wars with the Khmers, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai and developed an effective administrative system, an elaborate military organization, and an active commerce with neighboring countries. In 1707, internal dissensions brought about a split of Lan Xang into two kingdoms, Luangphrabang in the north (present-day upper Laos) and Vientiane in the south (lower Laos). Strong neighboring states took advantage of this split to invade the region. Vientiane was overrun and annexed by Siam (Thailand) in 1828, while Luangphrabang became a vassal of both the Chinese and the Vietnamese. In 1893, France, which had already established a protectorate over what is now central and northern Vietnam, extended its control to both Vientiane and Luangphrabang, and Laos was ruled by France as part of Indochina. Although French control over Luangphrabang took the nominal form of a protectorate, the French colonial administration directly ruled the rest of Laos, legal justification being ultimately provided in the Lao-French convention of 1917.
During World War II, Laos was occupied by Japan. After the Japanese proclaimed on 10 March 1945 that "the colonial status of Indochina has ended," the king of Luangphrabang, Sisavang Vong, was compelled to issue a declaration of independence. the nationalist Free Lao (Lao Issarak) movement deposed the monarch soon after, but French forces reoccupied Laos, and on 27 August 1946, France concluded an agreement establishing him as king of Laos and reimposing French domination over the country. In May 1947, the king established a constitution providing for a democratic government. On 19 July 1949, Laos nominally became an independent sovereign state within the French Union. Additional conventions transferring full sovereignty to Laos were signed on 6 February 1950 and on 22 October 1953. All special economic ties with France and the other Indochinese states were abolished by the Paris pacts of 29 December 1954. In the meantime, Vietnamese Communist (Viet-Minh) forces had invaded Laos in the spring of 1953. A Laotian Communist movement, the Pathet Lao (Lao State), created on 13 August 1950 and led by Prince Souphanouvong, collaborated with the Viet-Minh during its Laotian offensive. Under the Geneva cease-fire of 21 July 1954, all Viet-Minh and most French troops were to withdraw, and the Pathet Lao was to pull back to two northern provinces, pending reunification talks with the national government under the leadership of Souvanna Phouma (Souphanouvong's half-brother). The negotiations were completed on 2 November 1957, and the Pathet Lao transformed itself into a legal political party called the National Political Front (Neo Lao Hak Xat). However, a political swing to the right that led to the ouster of Souvanna Phouma as prime minister, coupled with the refusal of the Pathet Lao forces to integrate into the Royal Lao Army, led to a renewal of fighting in May 1959.
A bloodless right-wing coup in January 1960 was answered in August by a coup led by paratroops, under the command of Capt. Kong Le; in the ensuing turmoil, Souvanna Phouma returned to power. After a three-day artillery battle that destroyed much of Vientiane, right-wing military elements under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan and Prince Boun Oum occupied the capital on 11 December. A new right-wing government under Prince Boun Oum was established, but further military reverses, despite a heavy influx of US aid and advisers, caused the government to ask for a cease-fire in May 1961. An international conference assembled in Geneva to guarantee the cease-fire. All three Laotian political factions agreed on 11 June 1962 to accept a coalition government, with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister. On 23 July, the powers assembled at Geneva signed an agreement on the independence and neutrality of Laos, which provided for the evacuation of all foreign forces by 7 October. The United States announced full compliance, under supervision of the International Control Commission (ICC), set up in 1954. Communist forces were not withdrawn. Fighting resumed in the spring of 1963, and Laos was steadily drawn into the role of a main theater in the escalating Vietnam War. the Laotian segment of the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail emerged as a vital route for troops and supplies moving south from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), also known as North Vietnam, and was the target for heavy and persistent US bombing raids. While the Vientiane government was heavily bolstered by US military and economic support, the Pathet Lao received key support from the DRV, which was reported to have 20,000 troops stationed in Laos by 1974. Efforts to negotiate a settlement in Laos resumed with US backing in 1971, but a settlement was not concluded until February 1973, a month after a Vietnam peace agreement was signed in Paris. On 5 April 1974, a new coalition government was set up, with equal representation for Pathet Lao and non-Communist elements. Souvanna Phouma, 73 years old and in failing health, stayed on as prime minister, while Prince Souphanouvong was brought closer to the center of political authority as head of the newly created Joint National Political Council.
The Pathet Lao had by this time asserted its control over three-fourths of the national territory. Following the fall of the US backed regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia in April 1975, the Laotian Communists embarked on a campaign to achieve complete military and political supremacy in Laos. On 23 August, Vientiane was declared "liberated" by the Pathet Lao, whose effective control of Laos was thereby secured. On 2 December 1975, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established, with Prince Souphanouvong as president and Kaysone Phomvihan as prime minister. King Savang Vatthana abdicated his throne, ending the monarchy that had survived in Laos for 622 years. Elections for a new National Assembly were called for April 1976; however, voting was put off indefinitely, amid reports of civil unrest and sabotage. A Supreme People's Council was convened, meanwhile, with Prince Souphanouvong as chairman, and was charged with the task of drafting a new constitution.
During the late 1970s, the Communists moved to consolidate their control and socialize the economy. Private trade was banned, factories were nationalized, and forcible collectivization of agriculture was initiated. "Reeducation" camps for an estimated 40,000 former royalists and military leaders were established in remote areas; as of 1986, the government maintained that almost all the inmates had been released, but Amnesty International claimed that about 5,000 remained. A 25-year friendship treaty with Vietnam, signed in July 1977, led to closer relations with that country (already signaled by the continued presence in Laos of Vietnamese troops) and with the former USSR, and also to the subsequent dismissal from Laos of all Chinese technicians and advisers. China, for its part, began to give support and training to several small antigovernment guerrilla groups. With the economy in 1979 near collapse, in part because of severe drought in 1977 and flooding in 1978, the Laotian government slowed the process of socialization and announced a return to private enterprise and a readiness to accept aid from the non-Communist world. Throughout the 1980s armed opposition to the government persisted, particularly from the Hmong hill tribe rebels. At the Fourth Party Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), in December 1986, a "new economic management mechanism" (NEM) was set up, aiming at granting increased autonomy in the management of formerly state-run enterprises to the private sector.
In 1988 the Lao national legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), adopted new election laws and the first elections since the formation of the LPDR in 1975 were held. Local and provincial elections were held in 1988, and on 27 March 1989 national elections took place for an enlarged Supreme People's Assembly. In March 1991 the Fifth Party Congress of the LPRP changed Kaysone Phomvihan's title from prime minister to president, elected a new 11-member politburo, pledged to continue economic reforms in line with free-market principles while denying the need for political pluralism, and changed the national motto by substituting the words "democracy and prosperity" for "socialism." the newly elected SPA drafted a constitution adopted on 14 August 1991. The constitution provided for a national assembly functioning on principles of "democratic centralism," established the LPRP as the political system's "leading organ," created a presidency with executive powers, and mandated a market-oriented economy with rights of private ownership.
President Kaysone Phomvihan, longtime LPRP leader, died on 21 November 1992. A special session of parliament on 24 November 1992 elected hard-line Communist Nouhak Phoumsavan as the next president. Gen. Khamtai Suphandon, who had been prime minister since 15 August 1991, remained in that post. National Assembly elections were held in December 1992. One day before these elections, three former officials who called for a multiparty democracy and had been detained in 1990 were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. The National Assembly convened in February 1993 and approved government reorganization designed to improve public administration. On 9 January 1995, longtime leader Prince Souphanouvong died, unofficially marking an end to Laos' long dalliance with hard-line Marxism. Although the NEM had initiated an opening up to international investment and improved relations with the rest of the world, there remained elements of the old guard in positions of power. With the death of Souphanouvong, the only old-time hard-line Marxist still in power as of 1996 was the country's president, Nouhak Phoumsavan. Khamtai Siphandon, prime minister and party chief, was more powerful than Nouhak and is largely credited with exerting a moderating influence on the hard-liner. Nonetheless, there remains a strongly conservative mindset among the politboro members that still pulls the government back from economic flexibility or any hint of political liberalization.
Laos has actively improved its already "special relations" with Vietnam and Cambodia, while always seeking to improve relations with Thailand, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the United States. Periodic meetings are held to promote the cooperative development of the Mekong River region by Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Laos and the People's Republic of China restored full diplomatic relations in 1989 and are now full fledged trading partners. Mutual suspicions, characterizing the relationship between Laos and Thailand, improved with agreements to withdraw troops and resolve border disputes, and agreements between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to repatriate or resettle nearly 60,000 Lao refugees in Thailand. Laos has cooperated with the United States in recovering the remains of US soldiers missing in action in Laos since the Vietnam War and in efforts to suppress drug-trafficking. the US Department of State objects to Laos' restrictions on free speech, freedom of assembly and religious freedom. US Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth commented in March 2000 that Laos was unlikely to gain Most Favored Nation trading status unless it accounted for the fate of two naturalized US citizens, Hmong activists who disappeared in Laos during 1999. The debate over whether to grant Laos normal trade relations status was ongoing as of early 2003.
On 26 February 1998, Khamtai Siphandon was elected president, and he was reelected in March 2001. Beginning in 2000, Vientiane was hit by a series of bomb blasts, attributed to antigovernment groups based abroad. Bombings targeted crowded markets and buses in the city during 2003. Triggered by Thailand's closing of refugee camps on its side of the Laos-Thai border, tens of thousands of exiles were forced to return home. Most were expected to be jailed or executed for their antigovernment activities, but instead, the government encouraged their peaceful settlement among the lowland population. Certain right-wing guerrilla factions among the Hmong, long fighting the Pathet Lao, subsequently reacted violently to the government's pacification efforts to integrate moderate Hmong villagers. On 6 February 2003 near Vang Vieng, a bus and two Western bicyclers were attacked by gunmen, who killed 12 people. Militant Hmong were blamed for the attack. The government launched a major military crackdown on Hmong insurgents during 2004. Hmong was accused of causing hundreds of civilians' deaths in rebel-held areas.
On 24 February 2002, parliamentary elections were held, but all but one of the 166 candidates were from the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The LPRP won 108 of 109 seats in the National Assembly. Laos hosted the annual ministerial summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November 2004. Under heavy security, the ASEAN ministers met in Vientiane for two days and a significant free trade agreement was signed by ASEAN and China.
Under the constitution of 1947 (as subsequently amended), Laos was a parliamentary democracy with a king as the nominal chief executive. The monarch was assisted by a prime minister (or president of the Council of Ministers), who was the executive and legislative leader in fact. The prime minister and cabinet were responsible to the national assembly, the main repository of legislative authority, whose 59 members were elected every five years by universal adult suffrage. With the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in December 1975, governmental authority passed to a national congress made up of 264 delegates elected by newly appointed local authorities. The congress in turn appointed a 45-member Supreme People's Council to draw up a new constitution. Pending the completion of this task effective power rested with Kaysone Phomvihan, a longtime Pathet Lao leader who headed the government as chairman of the Council of Ministers and was also secretary-general of the Lao People's Revolutionary (Communist) Party.
Prince Souphanouvong, the head of state and president of the Supreme People's Council since 1975, left office in October 1986 because of poor health. He was replaced first by Phoumi Vongvichit, a former vice chairman of the Council of Ministers, and later by Sisomphon Lovansay, a former vice president of the Supreme People's Council. The Lao national legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), adopted new election laws in 1988, and the first national elections under the new government took place in March 1989 (local elections were held in 1988). Kaysone Phomvihan was elected president and Khamtai Siphandon was named prime minister. The newly elected SPA set out to draft a constitution, which was finished in mid-1990, and adopted on 14 August 1991 by the SPA. Khamtai Siphandon was elected president in 1998, and reelected in 2001. The executive branch consists of the president, prime minister and two deputy prime ministers, and the Council of Ministers (cabinet) who are appointed by the president with the approval of the National Assembly. the legislative branch is the 109-member National Assembly which is elected by universal suffrage for a period of five years. The judicial branch is the Supreme People's Court Leaders. The constitution calls for a strong legislature elected by secret ballot, but most political power continues to rest with the party-dominated council of ministers, who are much aligned with the military. Laos held celebrations of the 30th year of Communist rule on 23 August 2005. the next national elections were scheduled for 2007.
Elections to the National Assembly were first held in 1947. In the elections of 4 May 1958, the Pathet Lao's newly organized National Political Front (Neo Lao Hak Xat) won 9 of the 21 seats in contention; 4 were won by the Santiphab faction, a neutralist group allied with them, and 8 were obtained by the Nationalist and Independent parties. After the elections, the Nationalists and Independents combined to establish a new political party, the Rally of the Lao People (Lao Luam Lao), which held 36 of the 59 Assembly seats. The remaining 23 seats were divided among the National Political Front (9), the Santiphab grouping (7), the Democrats (3), the National Union (2), and unaffiliated deputies (2). the leaders of the Rally, upon formation of that party, announced its purpose to be the defense of Laos against "an extremist ideology contrary to the customs and traditions of the Lao country" and the establishment of true unity and independence of the nation against "subversion from within and without." The Front then and later called for a reduction in the size of the armed forces and of US military aid. In December 1959, because of emergency conditions, election of new Assembly deputies was postponed until April 1960. When the balloting was finally held, the opposition Committee for the Defense of the National Interests won a landslide victory. The Committee leader, Phoumi Nosavan, then formed a new political party, the Social Democrats (Paxa Sangkhom).
In August 1960, a coup led by Kong Le brought down the government. After a period of struggle, Souvanna Phouma, who had earlier established the Neutralist Party (Lao Pen Kang) in order to build a broader popular following, became prime minister on 11 June 1962. In his 19-man cabinet, 4 posts were held by rightwing politicians, 11 by Neutralists, and 4 others by Pathet Lao adherents. The National Assembly came to the end of its five-year term in 1965. Political instability prevented the holding of national elections, and a provisional assembly was convened to amend the constitution so as to provide a means for maintaining the legislature. The result was a general election held on 18 July, with the franchise limited to civil servants, teachers, merchants, and village headmen. The new National Assembly was convened on 16 August, with the Neutralists retaining 13 seats, the Social Democrats 11, the Rally 8, and various independents 27. the endorsement gained in the limited polling of 1965 was not sufficient to sustain Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma for long, and new voting—the first real and effective election in a decade—took place on 1 January 1967. About 60% of 800,000 eligible voters went to the polls in 1967, despite the Pathet Lao charge that the balloting was illegal. Souvanna Phouma's United Front took 32 of 59 seats in the National Assembly voting.
In the last years of the constitutional monarchy, the gulf between the Pathet Lao and the enclave of rightists and neutralists that held governmental power widened appreciably. the pressures of war—both the civil strife within Laos and the larger conflict pressed by the external forces of the United States and the DRV—had thwarted the effectiveness of normal political processes. General elections held on 2 January 1972 were confined to government-controlled areas, with representatives for the Pathet Lao provinces elected by refugees from those regions. Despite the narrow range of political choices available to voters, only 20 of the 60 National Assembly deputies were reelected, reflecting a growing uneasiness both with the war and with the increasing evidence of corrupt practices among government officials. Despite rightwing pressures from within the National Assembly, Souvanna Phouma—whose neutralist policy was favored by both the United States and the DRV—retained the position of prime minister. the withdrawal of US military support for the Thieu regime in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was followed, in April 1974, by the creation of a new coalition in Vientiane that gave equal political footing to the Pathet Lao. The National Assembly, which had become little more than a forum for disputes among rightwing factions, was dissolved by King Savang Vatthana on 13 April 1975, an act that signaled the end of domestic political opposition to the inexorable progress of the Pathet Lao.
The formation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in December 1975 effectively established the Communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) (Phak Pasason Pativat Lao), the political incarnation of the Pathet Lao movement, as the sole political force in Laos. Kaysone Phomvihan, general secretary of the LPRP, was named head of government, and Prince Souphanouvong head of state. The LPRP plays the leading role in the Lao Front for National Reconstruction, which sought to promote socialism and national solidarity. the Third Party Congress of the PPPL, and the first since the party assumed control, was held in Vientiane in April 1982. The congress, whose 228 delegates represented a party membership of 35,000, elected an enlarged Central Committee with 49 full and 6 alternate members. the Central Committee reelected Kaysone as general secretary. the Fourth Party Congress, held in Vientiane in December 1986, established the "new economic management mechanism."
In 1988 the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) adopted new elections laws and elections were held the next year—the first since 1975. In 1991, the Fifth Party Congress changed Prime Minister Phomvihan's title to president, a post he held until his death one year later. Elevated to the post of prime minister was Khamtai Suphandon, a generally pro-free market antidemocratic pragmatist of the Singaporean variety. Suphandon had for a time studied Marxism in Hanoi, but in his position as prime minister was considered essentially a transitional figure between the old guard and a new generation of leaders. After Phomvihan's death in 1992, a special session of the SPA elected an old-guard communist, Nouhak Phoumsavan, to the presidency.
Elections for the SPA were again held in 1992 but they were marred by the sentencing of three pro-democracy activists to 14 years in prison on the day before balloting. By 1996, Laos' leadership was made up primarily of party functionaries, regardless of the makeup of the SPA. Prime Minister Suphandon held considerable power as did Deputy Prime Minister Khamphoui Keoboualapha, who also served as the administrator of the State Committee for Planning and Cooperation (CPC), considered by many analysts to be a government within a government.
A 1998 election retrenched the hard-liners, as "technocrats" vanished from the preapproved slate, replaced with old style LPRP functionaries. This was viewed as a reaction to the social tensions (such as crime and corruption) arising with economic openness, as well as an attempt to reestablish centralized control over provincial matters.
The Seventh Party Congress, which took place in March 2001, reelected all eight surviving members of the nine-member politburo. The decision was a clear sign that the party had opted for continuity rather than change.
Several governments-in-exile have been set up by former ministers of pre-1975 regimes, and overseas Hmongs and other dissidents have formed opposition organizations. A young pretender to the throne, Prince Soulivong Savang, has rallied support in exile. Some Hmong groups and others have continued a low-level insurgency in rural Laos. Underground antigovernment sentiment may be on the rise among the urban intellectuals.
As of late 2005, parties other than the LPRP continued to be proscribed. A glimpse of popular discontent emerged with reports of an October 1999 demonstration in Vientiane, led by students and professors calling for democracy and human rights. the protest was quickly suppressed, and Khamtai's government disavowed all knowledge of its occurrence.
Laos consists of 16 provinces (khoueng), one special zone, Xaisomboun, and the municipality of Vientiane. The provinces are subdivided into districts (muong ), townships (tasseng ), and villages (ban ). The president appoints provincial governors and mayors of municipalities. The prime minister appoints deputy provincial governors and deputy mayors and district chiefs. Since 1975, local administration has been restructured, with elected people's committees in the villages functioning as basic units. Both suffrage and candidacy are open to citizens 18 and over. Village heads administer at the village level. Lack of control over local party members in the rural areas appears to be a source of worry for the politburo, with its implications of corruption and even potential unrest.
The 1991 constitution provides for freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, although, in practice, organized political speech and activities are severely restricted. The reality of religious freedom is equally illusory, with imprisonment of Christian activists in recent years. The constitution contains provisions designed to guarantee the independence of judges and prosecutors, but in practice the courts appear to be subject to influence of other government agencies. Provincial courts are at the next level as appellate courts. There is also a central Supreme Court in Vientiane. In 1993 the government began publishing an official gazette in which all laws and regulations are disseminated. A bar association was formed in 1996 to strengthen the legal profession and individual rights to counsel. Rising crime rates place a burden on Laos's under funded and understaffed legal system. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called attention to deaths in custody, torture, and substandard conditions in the Laotian prison system.
In 2005 the number of active personnel in the armed forces of Laos totaled 29,100. Of that total, the Army accounted for 25,600, while the Air Force had 3,500 personnel. The Army's roster of equipment included 25 main battle tanks, 10 light tanks, 50 armored personnel carriers, and 82 artillery pieces (all towed). the Air Force had 22 combat capable aircraft, all of which were MiG-21 fighters. Although Laos did not have a formal navy, the Army did have an estimated 600-man marine section that operated 4 amphibious landing craft and 52 patrol/coastal boats. Laotian paramilitary forces consisted of a village home guard known as the Militia Self-Defense Forces, which numbered more than 100,000 members. The defense budget in 2003 (the latest year for which data was available) totaled $37.8 million.
Laos, a UN member since 14 December 1955, belongs to ESCAP and several nonregional specialized agencies, such as FAO, UNESCO, UNIDO, ILO, WHO, IMF, and the World Bank. the nation participates in the Asian Development Bank, the Colombo Plan, and G-77. It has observer status with the WTO. In 1997, Laos joined ASEAN and AFTA.
Since 1961, Laos has been a member of the Nonaligned Movement. Laos's main diplomatic, economic, and military allies have been Vietnam and the former USSR. In 1977, Laos signed a 20year treaty of cooperation with Vietnam. In 2003, Laos and Thailand signed a cooperation agreement that addresses issues of labor and counternarcotics. In environmental cooperation, Laos is part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Kyoto Protocol, the Montréal Protocol, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea, Climate Change, and Desertification. Laos is also a member of the Mekong River Commission with Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
One of the world's poorest and least-developed nations, Laos is overwhelmingly agricultural, with 85% of the population still engaged in subsistence farming. Because industrialization is minimal, Laos imports nearly all the manufactured products it requires. Distribution of imports is limited almost entirely to Vientiane and a few other towns, and even there, consumption has been low. the hostilities of the 1960s and 1970s badly disrupted the economy, forcing the country to depend on imports from Thailand to supplement its daily rice requirements.
With the curtailment of hostilities in 1975, the development of a unified political structure offered an immediate advantage. the government began in late 1975 to pursue in earnest a variety of projects to repair and improve the infrastructure and make use of the country's ample mineral, lumber, and hydroelectric resources. During 1978–80, the government gave priority to postwar reconstruction, collectivization of agriculture, and improvements in rice production. In 1994 a liberalized Foreign Investment Law was promulgated as the government sought greater economic integration regionally and internationally.
By 1997, Laos had made modest improvements. In international investment, it had opened up its economy considerably. In April 1997, the government signed a trade and cooperation agreement with the EC. In July 1997, Laos became a full member of ASEAN and AFTA. In 1998 the government applied for membership in the WTO. More than $5 billion in foreign investment had been made by more than 500 investors, mainly from other ASEAN countries. The government had also made considerable progress in the construction of a modern road network linking Laos to China and Vietnam. The country also announced plans for a second bridge into Thailand and the construction of its first railroad, linking Vientiane with Nong Khai in Thailand.
However, the Asian financial crisis dealt the economy a series of blows from which it has not yet recovered. Laos's economy was particularly dependent on Thailand, source of 42% of its foreign investment as well as 45% of imports and 37% of export purchases, which was severely affected by the financial crisis. From June 1997 to June 1999, the Laotian currency, the kip, lost 87% of its value. Growth, which averaged 7% for the six years 1992 to 1997, dropped to 4.8% in 1998, the lowest since 1991. Foreign investment dropped from $179 million in 1996 to $45.3 million in 1998. Growth increased in 1999, to 7.3%, propelled by growth of over 8% in both industry and agriculture, and continued at moderated rates of 5.7% and 6.4% in 2000 and 2001. However, high inflation rates and low declining foreign investments have persisted. Inflation in 2000 was 25% and though it eased to 10% with lower growth in 2001, it was back to double digits, 12% in 2002 and a projected 15% in 2003. Foreign direct investment dropped to $23.9 million in 2001. By late 2002, the kip had fallen to more than 10,000 to one dollar from its level of 1,171 to one dollar in June 1997. In February 2003, the administration of US president George W. Bush submitted legislation supporting the granting of normal trade relations (NTR) to Laos.
In 2004, the GDP growth rate was 5.1%, up from 5.8% in 2003; in 2005, the economy expanded at an estimated 7.2%. the inflation rate fluctuated, and at 10.5% in 2004, it did pose some problems to the economy. Despite encouraging growth rates, Laos remained a mainly subsistence agriculture economy, with a poor infrastructure and dependent on foreign aid. In late 2004, Laos gained Normal Trade Relations with the United States, which allows local producers to export at lower tariffs.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that in 2005 Laos's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $11.9 billion. The CIA defines GDP as the value of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a given year and computed on the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than value as measured on the basis of the rate of exchange based on current dollars. The per capita GDP was estimated at $1,900. the annual growth rate of GDP was estimated at 7.2%. the average inflation rate in 2005 was 9.4%. It was estimated that agriculture accounted for 48.6% of GDP, industry 25.9%, and services 25.5%.
According to the World Bank, in 2003 remittances from citizens working abroad totaled $1 million. Foreign aid receipts amounted to $299 million or about $53 per capita and accounted for approximately 14.3% of the gross national income (GNI).
The World Bank reports that in 2003 household consumption in Laos totaled $1.58 billion or about $28 per capita based on a GDP of $2.1 billion, measured in current dollars rather than PPP. Household consumption includes expenditures of individuals, households, and nongovernmental organizations on goods and services, excluding purchases of dwellings.
It was estimated that in 2002 about 40% of the population had incomes below the poverty line.
The estimated labor force was 2.8 million in 2002. In the absence of additional data, it was estimated that 85% were subsistence farmers, with most of the remainder in the public sector as of 1997. In that year the unemployment rate was approximately 5.7%.
Labor is organized into a single Federation of Lao Trade Unions (FLTU) which is controlled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), the authoritarian governmental body. In 2002, the vast majority of the 78,000 members of the FLTU were in the public sector. There is no right to organize, strike, or bargain collectively. Labor disputes have so far been infrequent and the desperate economic situation means that workers have little bargaining power.
Children under the age of 15 are forbidden by law from working, but many children work for their families in farms or in shops due to extreme economic hardship. The daily minimum wage was $0.53 in 2002. The labor code limits the workweek to 48 hours with at least one day of rest.
In 2003, Laos's sown-field area was estimated at 1,031,000 hectares (2,548,000 acres), or 4.5% of the country's total area. Agriculture accounts for 51% of production and as much as 77% of employment. The main crop is rice, almost entirely of the glutinous variety. Except in northern Laos, where some farmers grow dry rice in forest clearings or on hillsides, most Lao are wet-rice farmers. The total area of rice plantings in 2004 was estimated at 770,000 hectares (1,903,000 acres), up from 554,000 hectares (1,369,000 acres) in 1996. Yields, which are relatively low, could be raised substantially through wider use of irrigation and fertilizers. Production, which averaged 609,000 tons annually during 1961–65, rose to 2,529,000 tons in 2004. Less important crops include corn (favored by some upland tribes and stressed by the government as a means of increasing livestock production), manioc, peanuts, and soybeans. The main commercial crops, emphasized by the government as part of its export drive, are coffee, cotton, and tobacco. Also grown are cardamom, tea, ramie, hemp, sugar, bananas, and pineapples. In 2004, the trade deficit for agricultural products was $99.8 million. The mountain peoples have been known to grow large quantities of opium poppies, sold to dealers in the plains. In 2004, the UN estimated that 22,800 households in 846 villages were engaged in opium production, which was estimated at 846 tons that year.
Cattle raising is important, especially in the southern plains and in the valleys of the Noy, Banghiang, and Don rivers. Much of the livestock population was killed in the final stages of the civil war that ended in 1975. As of 2005, livestock included an estimated 1,300,000 head of cattle, 1,130,000 buffalo, 1,750,000 hogs, and 21,000,000 chickens. Livestock products in 2005 included 28,000 tons of pork, 22,500 tons of beef and veal, 16,000 tons of poultry, and 12,800 tons of eggs.
Edible fish, found in the Mekong and other rivers, constitutes the main source of protein in the Laotian diet. The prize catch is the pa beuk, weighing 205 kg (450 lb) or more. Despite the abundance of fish and their important contribution to the Laotian subsistence economy, there has been no systematic commercial fishery development. The total catch in 2003 was 94,700 tons, with aquaculture accounting for 69%.
Timber is a major resource and one of Laos's most valuable exports. About 54% of the total area is forested, and about half of the forested area is commercially exploitable. The principal timberproducing areas are around Champasak, Savannakhét, Khammouan, and Vientiane. Muang Paklay, in western Laos, is noted for its teak. Exploitation is easiest in areas near the Mekong River, which facilitates transportation. Elephants and oxen are used in most forestry operations. Aside from timber, firewood, and charcoal, forestry products include benzoin and benzoin bark, bamboo, copra, kapok, palm oil, rattan, various resins, and sticklac. Production of roundwood totaled an estimated 6.3 million cu m (223 million cu ft) in 2004; over 80% of the annual output is burned as fuel. Sawn wood output in 2004 was about 182,000 cu m (6.4 million cu ft); wood-based panels, 13,000 cu m (459,000 cu ft).
Laos' mining sector is dominated by tin, gypsum, gold, and limestone. However, mining is the country's smallest, sector, contributing only 0.3% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2004. Although much of the country remained unprospected, the nature of the terrain has led to ardent speculation about the nation's mineral resources. Other mineral resources thought to possibly exist in Laos were magnesium, antimony, bismuth, copper, lead, manganese, potash, iron ore, silica sand, and tungsten. Also produced in 2004 were barite, cement, gemstones, rock salt, silver, bituminous coal, and zinc. Copper, gemstones, gold, iron ore, lead, potash, tin, and zinc were earmarked for further exploration. Undiscovered resources of iron ore, potash, and rock salt were believed to be substantial.
Tin mine output in 2004 was estimated at 340 metric tons, down from 360 metric tons in 2003. Gypsum production, by the State Gypsum Mining Operation from the Dong Hene Mine, in Savannakhét Province, was estimated at 102,000 metric tons for 2004, up from 101,727 metric tons in 2003. The mine's proven ore reserves were estimated to be 18 million tons. Although gold production ceased in 1998–2002, it was resumed in 2003, of which 5,368 kg was produced in 2003, with an estimated 4,000 kg produced in 2004. Important iron deposits, with reserves of 68% ore estimated at 11 billion tons, have been discovered on the Plain of Jars near Xiangkhoang. A substantial deposit of low-grade anthracite coal has been found at Saravan. Output of gemstones in 2004 was estimated at 800,000 carats, down from 2,302,973 carats in 2003. Tungsten and copper deposits and gold-bearing alluvials produced a limited income for the local population but have not been exploited by modern industrial methods.
In 2002, Laos had an electrical generating capacity of 0.639 million kW. Production of electricity in 2002 totaled 3.562 billion kWh, of which almost 98% was hydropower and the remainder from conventional thermal sources. Consumption of electricity in 2002 was 3.013 billion kWh. The nation has an estimated hydroelectric potential of 12,500,000 kW, most of which is undeveloped. The largest power project is the Nam Ngum Dam, located on the Mekong 72 km (45 mi) from Vientiane. Construction began in 1969, with the first stage completed in 1971 and the second stage in 1978. Annual output at Nam Ngum is around 900 million kWh, with about 90% of the electricity produced being supplied to Thailand. An additional 3,000 kW of capacity comes from several smaller hydroelectric facilities. About 17,000 kW is provided by diesel-powered generators throughout Laos.
Laos has no known deposits of oil or natural gas, or refining capacity. In 2002, refined oil imports and demand averaged 2,850 barrels per day, each. There were no imports of natural gas in 2002. However, there was limited coal production for that year, totaling 298,000 short tons, of bituminous coal, with consumption equaling output.
Industrial development is rudimentary. There are some small mining operations, charcoal ovens, a cement plant, a few brick works, carpenter shops, a tobacco factory, rice mills, some furniture factories, and more than two dozen sawmills. Industrialization plans center on cotton spinning, garment manufacturing, hydroelectric power projects, brewing, coffee and tea processing, and plywood milling. New resource developments, including the Nam Ngum hydroelectric project and the Vientiane sylvite field, have aided industrial growth. Handicrafts account for an important part of the income of many Laotians. Some villages or areas specialize in certain types of products: silk fabrics, baskets, lacquerware, and gold and silver jewelry and ornaments. Bricks, pottery, iron products, and distilled beverages are made in individual villages. Manufacturing is largely confined to the processing of agricultural—food and natural fibers—and forestry products.
From 1998 to 2001, industry grew at an average annual rate of 8.7%. The growth is in large part attributable to governments ponsored construction projects, particularly hydroelectric power projects. By 2002, hydroelectric power had taken the place of garments as the country's leading industrial export, and its leading source of foreign exchange. Most manufactures, however, continued to be imported; exports regularly only amount to 60% of imports. At the end of 2002 the main industrial project under consideration was the construction of the $1.3 billion hydroelectric dam on the Nam Theum River, the power from which would be exported to Thailand. The project was far from realization, lacking both a purchase agreement with the state agency in Thailand, and the World Bank guarantee for the investors.
Industry accounted for 25.9% of economic output in 2005, and was seconded by services with a 25.5% share. Agriculture continued to be the main economic sector, with a 48.6% share in the GDP, and with an 80% share in the labor force. the industrial production growth rate was 13% in 2005, almost double the GDP growth rate—an indicator that industry is, now, one of the country's main economic engines.
Like many developing nations, Laos depends primarily on external expertise in science and technology. Sisavangvong University, founded in 1958 at Vientiane, has faculties of agriculture, forestry, and irrigation, and of medicine, a technical college, and a polytechnic. Regional technical colleges are located in Luang Pradang, Savannakét, and Champasak. In 1987–97, science and engineering students accounted for 20% of college and university enrollments.
Before the Pathet Lao came to power, there was a growing market in Laos for capital and consumer goods. Vientiane was the wholesale distributing point for much of the country. In late 1975, private trade was banned and many small traders and businessmen—including Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, Thai, and Vietnamese—fled the country. The new government subsequently made it clear that the trend toward consumerism would be reversed in favor of a production-oriented society. The Pathet Lao entered directly into the distribution and sale of essential commodities, such as rice and sugar, and prices were brought under control. In 1979, however, the ban on private trade was lifted, and consumer items, which had all but disappeared from circulation, were once again available.
In the countryside, barter replaces money as the principal method of exchange. Markets are held at regular intervals, generally one day a week, at central villages or smaller towns. Once or twice a year, lowland farmers barter cloth and handicraft products with the mountain peoples for cereals, deer and rhinoceros horns, and ivory. Certain items recognized as media of exchange include tea, opium, tobacco, salt, silver, and gold. As of 1999, subsistence farming accounted for about 51% of the GDP, employing about 85% of the nation's workforce.
The New Economic Mechanism (NEM), a set of economic reforms instituted in 1986 across all sectors of the economy, has begun to demonstrate results in establishing a market-based economy. The government freed the market price of rice and other food staples in 1986, increasing agricultural output despite severe climatic conditions. Later reforms—floating the national currency, the kip, and freeing interest rates—stimulated a market-based economy and controlled inflation. Major land reforms in 1988 included the freedom to sell products at market-determined prices. Growth from these stimuli is demonstrated by the doubling of private shops in Vientiane and abundant fairly-priced goods in the markets. In a 1989 agreement with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the government initiated reforms toward privatization and monetary reforms.
The usual hours of business are from 8 am to 4 pm, Monday through Friday. Some factories and private companies extend the workday to 5 pm and factories are permitted to maintain a six day workweek if desired. Banking hours are 8 to 10:30 am and 2 to 3:30 pm, Monday through Friday.
The political reorganization of 1975 brought changes in Laos's foreign trade pattern, because regional alignments were shifting and because the aid needed to finance the nation's imports was no longer available from the United States. In the 1980s, much of the nation's trade was subsidized by the former USSR. The export of
|Italy-San Marino-Holy See||9.2||…||9.2|
|(…) data not available or not significant.|
electricity, the sale of overflight rights to foreign airlines, wood products, green coffee, and tin are sources of foreign earnings. In 1991 Laos's largest export earner, logging, was banned pending steps to prevent further destruction of the forests. there are 11 million hectares of mature forests in Laos, and about 4.4 million are considered commercially exploitable. The ban on log exports was modified to allow the export of already cut logs and logs from stipulated cutting areas. Foreign aid grants exceeded export earnings in 1991. That year, export revenue decreased by 22% from 1990 because of a reduction of timber exports and a decline (caused by drought) in the production of electricity for export. At the same time the cost of imports increased by 62%, owing to the newly adopted free trade measures, which ended restrictions on imported goods.
In 2005, exports reached $379 million (FOB—Free on Board), while imports grew to $541 million (FOB). In 2004, principal exports included garments, electricity, timber and wood products, and coffee; the bulk of them went to the Thailand (19.3%), Vietnam (13.4%), France (8%), Germany (5.3%), and the United Kingdom (5%). Imports included consumption goods, construction and electrical equipment, materials for garment industry, machinery and equipment, and mainly came from Thailand (60.5%), China (10.3%), Vietnam (7.1%), and Singapore (4%).
Laos has experienced severe trade deficits since independence. From 1963 through mid-1975, substantial deficit financing was provided through the Foreign Exchange Operations Fund (FEOF), an agency backed largely by the United States but also receiving funds from Japan, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In June 1975, the flight of gold and hard currencies from the country forced the government to ban exports of gold and silver bullion. A devaluation of the kip had the effect of further inflating its price, with the black market exchange rate soaring. In the 1980s, financing
|Balance on goods||-216.8|
|Balance on services||134.5|
|Balance on income||-33.8|
|Direct investment abroad||…|
|Direct investment in Lao Democratic People's Republic||23.9|
|Portfolio investment assets||…|
|Portfolio investment liabilities||…|
|Other investment assets||25.2|
|Other investment liabilities||86.6|
|Net Errors and Omissions||-57.2|
|Reserves and Related Items||3.9|
|(…) data not available or not significant.|
came mainly from the former USSR, with smaller amounts from multilateral agencies. Since the collapse of communism in Europe, Laos has lost this vital means of support. Even with its recent attraction of international investment ($5 billion from 1988–94), it still relies heavily on aid. Primary sources are Scandinavia, the United States, and Japan. In 1995, the IMF announced a $17 million loan to the country, its second in a series of structural adjustment loans. Laos received a total of $290 million in economic aid in 1998. Total external debt stood at $2.53 billion in 1999. In 2001, the IMF approved a $40.2 million three-year arrangement with Laos, to reduce poverty and support the government's economic reform program. The Lao government is attempting to diversify its trading and investment partners, particularly among other Asian nations.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that in 2001 Laos had exports of goods totaling $311 million and imports totaling $528 million. The services credit totaled $166 million and debit $32 million. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that in 2000 the purchasing power parity of Laos's exports was $325 million while imports totaled $540 million resulting in a trade deficit of $215 million.
Exports of goods and services totaled $361million in 2004, up from $359 million in 2003. Imports grew from $482 million in 2003, to $506 million in 2004. The resource balance was consequently negative, and on a downward path—from -$123 million in 2003 to -$145 million in 2004. A different trend was registered for the current account balance, which improved from -$93 million in 2003, to -$45 million in 2004. Foreign exchange reserves (excluding gold) grew to $223 million in 2004, covering more than five months of imports.
The central bank, the Bank of the Laotian People's Democratic Republic, regulates a rapidly expanding sector comprising 13 national and foreign-owned banks under the terms of the Commercial Bank and Financial Institutions Act of January 1992. Most of the wholly foreign-owned banks are Thai (such as the Thai Military Bank and Siam Commercial) and many of the joint-venture banks are backed by Thai financiers (such as the Joint Development Bank). The central bank continued to receive technical assistance from multilateral lending agencies, and was gradually strengthening the prudential framework. The banks were believed to be more efficient. The largest commercial bank, established in 1953, is the Bank of Indochina.
The large-scale flight of foreign currency that accompanied the Pathet Lao's ascendancy to power led the new government to shut down Vientiane's banks in September 1975. officials subsequently announced the expropriation of most private accounts, claiming they were the property of former rightists and "traitors."
Banking reforms of the 1988–89 period opened Laos to foreign banks. Banks in Laos include: Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur Lao, Joint Development Bank, Nakhonelouang Bank, and the Vientiane Commercial Bank.
All banks now provide basic business services and offer a range of deposit and credit facilities. Interest rates are increasingly responsive to market conditions but tend to remain close to rates set by the central bank. Public confidence in the banking system as measured by the level of domestic capital mobilization is still low. Until 1988 the wholly state-controlled system serviced the needs of the command economy, offering uncompetitive rates of interest to savers or producers in need of regular credit. Most families continued to save by investing in gold and jewelry. the system suffered severe liquidity problems in 1990–91 when the "privatization" of former state-owned enterprises was at its peak: old debts were not repaid and new capital arriving as a result of the opening of the economy to foreign investors was coming in too slowly. Laos was badly hit in 1997 by the Asian financial crisis, leading to further liquidity problems in 1998. The International Monetary Fund reports that in 2001, currency and demand deposits—an aggregate commonly known as M1—were equal to $41.5 million. In that same year, M2—an aggregate equal to M1 plus savings deposits, small time deposits, and money market mutual funds—was $286.4 million. The discount rate, the interest rate at which the central bank lends to financial institutions in the short term, was 35%.
There is no stock exchange.
There are no private insurance firms.
The civil war rendered normal budgetary procedures impossible, the budget being covered largely by US aid and monetary inflation. Deficit financing continued in the 1970s and 1980s, covered mostly by foreign aid from communist nations. With the collapse of this support, however, Laos has increasingly looked to foreign investment capital and Western lending agencies for financial support. Beginning in 1994, the IMF initiated an annual program of loans to assist the country with a structural adjustment program. It lent Laos $17 million in 1995. Still, 31% of the 1995 budget was international aid.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that in 2005 Laos's central government took in revenues of approximately $319.3 million and had expenditures of $434.6 million. Revenues minus expenditures totaled approximately -$115.3 million. Total external debt was $2.49 billion.
In 1977, the government introduced a progressive agricultural tax on production. The tax revenues were to be used to develop forestry and mining without the need for outside aid, but the tax had the unwanted side effect of discouraging production by some of the largest landowners and slowing the achievement of self-sufficiency in food. The 1992–93 budget included a new profits tax and a law requiring foreign firms engaged in construction projects to pay taxes. The agricultural tax was replaced by a land tax, and consumption taxes were raised on fuel oil, liquor, beer, and tobacco. The 1989 economic reforms included a new flat tax rate of 20% on profits for foreign-owned companies. The top personal income tax rate is 40% with the marginal rate for the average tax payer 10%. The top corporate tax rate is 35%.
Import duties are determined on a specific and ad valorem basis and range from 2–40%, mostly not exceeding 25%. Compensatory duties are imposed on imports of commodities in competition with local goods. A general internal tax is collected on the CIFplus-duties value of most imports. Certain commodities—including automobiles, radios, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and sugar—are subject to special excise taxes of up to 104%. A duty-free unloading zone for Laotian imports is located in the Vietnamese port of Da Nang.
Before 1975, Laotian foreign economic relations were conducted under the FEOF and the US Commodity Import Program, under which dollar exchange was provided; Laos in turn allocated dollars to local importers, who then made kip payments to the government for the purchase of foreign goods. There was little direct foreign investment, however. From 1975 until the mid-1980s, all foreign capital has come in the form of development assistance.
Reforms, as part of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) initiated in 1986, included the introduction of a the Laos Foreign Investment Code and Decree in 1989, which established the Foreign Investment Management Cabinet (FIMC). The FIMC oversees the Committee for Investment and Foreign Cooperation (CIFC) with power to authorize and approve investment. All investment proposals, no matter how small, must be submitted to the CIFC of the FIMC, which passes it for screening by the relevant line ministries. The Code and Decree focus on three types of transactions: contractual business, joint ventures, and wholly foreign-owned enterprises. Investment is now allowed in the areas of agriculture, forestry, industry, communications, transport, service, and tourism, for projects using the indigenous raw materials and natural resources of Laos. The Decree details the permitted sectors of foreign investment and outlines restrictions and prohibitions. For instance, environmentally damaging investment, investors with overwhelming debt, long-term projects making great use of imported materials, and enterprises that would compete with local entrepreneurs are prohibited and/or discouraged. Hindrances to foreign investment are poor legal and physical infrastructure and a lack of skilled labor and capital. Additional disadvantages in the landlocked country are high transportation costs and limited domestic and foreign markets. In 1994 a new foreign investment law streamlined regulations and tax structures and included a flat corporate tax rate of 20%. The contractual business mode of foreign investment was eliminated. Although the law stipulated that the preapproval process for new investment was to take only 60 days, delays in fact have been a year or more.
Since 1986, foreign investment in Laos has totaled an estimated $5.7 billion, about 75% in hydroelectric power projects. the Asian financial crisis, precipitated by Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in June 1997, dealt foreign investment flows a blow from which it had not recovered. FDI fell from $170 million in 1996 to $45.3 million in 1998. In 1999, the Thai company that had been granted the concession to build Laos's first railroad in May 1997, backed out of the deal declaring it economically nonviable. A small uptick in FDI to $51.5 million in 1999 was followed by sharp declines in $33.9 million in 2000 and a negligible $23.9 million in 2001 in the face of the continuing depreciation of the currency. the depreciation feeds into a vicious cycle, because with the government's need to conserve its hard currency reserves, it has become increasingly difficult for foreign investors to convert their kip income into foreign exchange. The government in 2002 was rationing foreign exchange, with priorities given to fuel, food, and medicines.
Thailand has been Laos's biggest foreign investor, accounting for about 42% of total FDI. In 2001, Laos and Thailand signed an agreement for the construction of a second bridge across the Me Kong, a project abandoned by a Japanese company in 1998 after the concession had been granted in 1996. Two Thai companies are also shareholders in the proposed $1.2 billion 650 MW Nam Theum River hydroelectric power project. The other partners are the Laotian government and the French company, Electicite de France, the largest shareholder. China's Yunnan Province contracted to develop sylvite deposits in the Vientiane Basin. Twelve sylvite-bearing zones have been identified, with an estimated total of 10 billion tons.
The National Plan and Foreign Aid Council was established in June 1956 to prepare a general plan for the development of Laos and to set up a series of five-year plans. In view of its limited capital resources, the government sought increased private foreign investment, continued US governmental economic assistance, and help from international monetary bodies and the Colombo Plan organization. An economic plan drafted by the Laotian government in 1962 was never fully implemented, however, owing to internal instability. Little of the infrastructure for public works, industry, and mining that was abandoned in 1961 has been resumed. Although a major goal of the 1969–74 economic and social development plan, completion of the Nam Ngum Dam, was fulfilled, a host of other targets had to be abandoned because of disruption stemming from the war. US aid to Laos began in 1955 and continued until the United States' pullout in 1975. During this period, the Laotian economy became almost totally dependent on US aid, which amounted to over $900 million in nonmilitary loans and grants and $1.6 billion in military assistance.
Following the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975, efforts were made to restructure the Laotian economy along socialist lines. the source of most foreign assistance shifted to China between 1975 and 1979. By 1979, however, with the economy reduced to a virtual standstill because of poor harvests, rapid inflation, and the absence of private incentives, the government abandoned central planning for a mixed model of a centrally coordinated amalgam of state-run enterprises, cooperatives, and private ventures.
Laos's first five-year plan (1981–85) after the removal of the Pathet Lao government envisioned increases of 65–68% in the gross social product, 23–24% in agricultural production, and 100–120% in industrial production, as well as completion of repairs on major highways and waterways. During this period the source of aid again shifted, this time to the USSR, Vietnam, and their allies. Aid from Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) countries totaled $90 million in 1985. Among non-Communist nations, Japan, Australia, Sweden, and the Netherlands have also furnished assistance. In 1985, the US ban on aid was lifted, largely because of Laotian cooperation in accounting for US military personnel missing in action in Laos during the Vietnam War. Aid from international agencies totaled $183.1 million between 1946 and 1986.
The targets for the first five-year plan were largely not met, as per capita income fell to $100 and inflation rose to 30% in 1985. Failure was ascribed to an overly rigid central planning approach and in August 1986, as a major part of the second five-year plan (1986–90), the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) was introduced. The New Economic Mechanism (NEM) approved in 1986 (based on chin tanakan may "new thinking") introduced free enterprise initiatives including decentralized decision making, deregulation of pricing and financial systems, and promotion of domestic and international trade and foreign investment. Reforms have been introduced in phases. In 1988 land use reforms and market determined prices were introduced. In 1989 the tax system was modified, the Foreign Investment Code and Decree was implemented, the banking system was restructured, and the privatization of state economic enterprises commenced. Creation of a national taxation system and a customs administration are aimed at increasing government revenue. The Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources, the Economic Planning Unit, which monitors existing and new businesses, and the Economic Development Board (EDB), which assists in the establishment of new industries, facilitate foreign investment in most sectors of the economy. Incentives offered to encourage the development of industrial and commercial enterprises include allowing 100% foreign ownership, emphasized exportation of food products, strengthening of economic management, rehabilitation of routes to seaports and rural feeder roads, reform of general education and training, and development of small- and medium-scale projects.
The third five-year plan (1991–95) continued previous policies of infrastructure improvement, export growth, and import substitution. Four sectors were considered priority areas for future income for Laos: mining and energy; agriculture and forestry; tourism; and service, as a way-station and service center between China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Laos has untapped mineral resources and proven reserves of gold, gemstones and iron ore. Pulp and paper tree plantations would be substituted for the export of timber and agricultural products to serve the Thai market. Based on Thailand's experience, the government recognizes that mass tourism involves environmental degradation, yet the opening of the Mittaphap (Friendship) Bridge over the Mekong between Laos and Thailand (1994) seemed to open an opportunity for both trade and tourism. A second bridge was approved in 1996 but the Japanese company holding the concession backed out in 1998. In 2002 the second bridge project was revived with an agreement with a Thai company. In 1993 three western oil companies, Enterprise Oil and Monument Oil, both from the United Kingdom, and Hunt Oil of Dallas, engaged in exploration for oil and gas in Laos. These projects, handicapped by inadequate geological maps, unexploded ordnance, tough terrain, encounters with the remnants of the anticommunist insurgency movement, tropical and dietary illness, and the potential expense of drilling and pipeline construction for transport to the Vietnamese coast, had not produced any substantial discoveries. However, two major hydroelectric projects, the Nam Thuen Dam on a tributary of the Mekong in Khammouan province, and the Xeset dam in southern Laos were completed, and produce electricity sold to Thailand.
At the sixth party congress, held in March 1996, Laotian officials debated the country's slow pace of opening up to the international investment community. By that year, the country had allowed more than 500 foreign investors, in a variety of sectors, to either establish or buy (in whole or in part) Laotian businesses. the majority of $5 billion (75%) was invested in hydroelectric power. In February 1997, Laos joined ASEAN, though some raised questions about its ability to afford even to attend all the organization's 200 or so annual meetings. Balance of payments problems had emerged almost as soon as the economy opened up to foreign trade and investments, with imports regularly running about 40% above exports. By 1997, Laos had entered into two standby arrangements with the IMF, a one year arrangement under the Structural Adjustment Facility (SAF), and a three year arrangement under the Extended Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAP). The credit line for the ESAP arrangement amounted to about $49 million and ran until 7 May 1997. The next month Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule precipitating the Asian financial crisis that was to have devastating effects of Laos's economic development ambitions. From June 1997 to June 2002 the kip depreciated from 1,171 to more than 10,000 to one US dollar. Direct foreign investment (DFI) dropped from $179 million in 1997 to $23.9 million in 2001. In the first six months of 2002, investment flows from ASEAN countries, formally the source of the nearly 60% of FDI, fell to zero. A possibility of some relief from the downward spiral of inflation and dwindling investment was in the likelihood that Laos would be voted normal trade relations (NTR) status in 2003 by the US Congress in line with legislation submitted by the administration of US president George W. Bush in 2003. NTR would reduce US tariffs on Laotian imports from an average of over 40% to about 3%, and allow for the implementation of bilateral trade and investment agreement with the United States. In turn, this would open the way for the World Bank to issue guarantees for foreign investment projects in Laos.
The healthy growth rates from 2004 and 2005 were expected to remain stable throughout 2006 and 2007. The main growth engine continued to be the industrial sector, and mining and construction in particular. Agriculture remained vulnerable to finicky weather conditions, but the government has committed itself to offer help to farmers. Tourism is a sector with strong potential but its immediate future was negatively influenced by security concerns and a still weak infrastructure.
By almost any measure, Laos is one of the world's most impoverished nations. Food intake does not meet basic requirements; there are virtually no sanitary facilities; and contamination of drinking water is widespread. Almost no families own cars, and bicycles and radios are considered luxuries. In general, the lowland Lao have the highest living standards, with lower standards prevailing among the upland tribes. The majority of the population engages in subsistence farming, and the country is heavily reliant on foreign aid. the first social insurance system was implemented in 2001. There is a special program for public employees. Employees in enterprises with ten or more employees are covered by work injury insurance.
Although the constitution establishes equal rights for women, they have traditionally been subservient to men and have generally been discouraged from obtaining an education. However, the government claims that it has encouraged women to assume a larger role in national life, and girls are increasingly attending school. It has been reported that in urban areas, working women have higher incomes than their male counterparts. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is not widespread. The Family Code provides women with equal inheritance and marriage rights. Trafficking in women and girls for the sex trade persisted, but in 2004 legislation was passed to provide protection from these activities.
Minority highland tribes have limited ability to influence government decisions. The highland Hmong tribe, furthermore, reports instances of discrimination and harassment. The Law on Nationality grants greater citizenship rights to the Chinese and Vietnamese minorities.
Political dissent is not tolerated, and detention without due process is not uncommon. Prison conditions are harsh, and the government suppresses the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and restricts freedom of religion.
The use of Western medicine has improved health generally and reduced the incidence of malaria and smallpox specifically, but high infant mortality and a variety of health problems remained. Most urban areas, including Vientiane, lack pure water and sanitary disposal systems. In 2000, 90% of the population had access to safe drinking water and 46% had adequate sanitation. In parts of Laos, malaria—the most serious health threat—is known to affect the majority of children. In 1995, there were 1,365 new cases of cholera. Other health problems are acute upper respiratory infections (including pneumonia and influenza), diarrhea and dysentery, parasites, yaws, skin ailments, various childhood diseases, hepatitis, venereal disease, and tuberculosis. Common diseases have been malaria, measles, and leprosy. In 1999, there were 171 reported cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 inhabitants. In the mid1990s, a UNICEF survey found iodine deficiencies and goiter to be common problems in rural areas of Laos. Programs to increase iodine levels via salt intake were being instituted. An estimated 25% of school-age children were reported to have goiter. Children up to one year of age were vaccinated against tuberculosis, 69%; diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus, 48%; polio, 57%; and measles, 73%. Vaccination rates were 56% for DPT and 71% for measles. The prevalence of underweight children was 44%, greater than the average of developing countries in South East Asia.
As of 2004, there were an estimated 59 physicians, 103 nurses, and 5 dentists per 100,000 people. Health care expenditure was estimated at 2.5% of GDP. Average life expectancy in 2005 was estimated at 55.08 years and infant mortality was estimated at 85.22 per 1,000 live births. The total fertility rate has remained nearly constant over the last years. The fertility rate in 2000 was five children per woman during her childbearing years. the overall mortality rate in 2002 was estimated at 12.7 per 1,000 people; the maternal mortality rate in 1998 was 650 per 100,000 live births.
The HIV/AIDS prevalence was 0.10 per 100 adults in 2003. As of 2004, there were approximately 1,700 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. There were an estimated 200 deaths from AIDS in 2003.
The typical house is rectangular, built entirely of wooden planks and bamboo, with a thatched roof, and is raised off the ground on wooden pilings 1–2 m (3–6 ft) high. There is a critical housing shortage in the towns, and many dwellings are substandard. As of 2000, 90% of the population had access to improved water sources and 46% had access to improved sanitation.
Education in Laos is compulsory for five years of primary education. This is followed by three years of lower secondary and three years of upper secondary studies. At this stage, students may choose to continue to a three-year technical school or higher technical college. The academic year runs from September to July.
In 2001, about 7% of children between the ages of three and five were enrolled in some type of preschool program. Primary school enrollment in 2003 was estimated at about 85% of age-eligible students. The same year, secondary school enrollment was about 35% of age-eligible students. It is estimated that about 74% of all students complete their primary education. the student-to-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 31:1 in 2003.
There are three universities in the country: the National University of Laos, Souphanouvong University, and Champasack University. There were also regional technical colleges and several teacher training colleges. In 2003, about 5% of the tertiary age population were enrolled in some type of higher education program. The adult literacy rate for 2004 was estimated at about 68.7%, with 77% for men and 60.9% for women.
As of 2003, public expenditure on education was estimated at 2.8% of GDP, or 11% of total government expenditures.
The National Library (Vientiane), with volumes in French, Lao, and English, is the nation's largest library. In addition, a Buddhist institute owns a number of classical manuscripts. Many excellent traditional works of art and architecture may be seen in Vientiane and Luangphrabang. Of particular interest in the latter city is the former royal palace and the Prabang (Golden Buddha), which was brought to Laos from Cambodia in the days of Fa-Ngoum. Also in Vientiane is the Museum of Religious Art. the Luang Prabang National Museum opened in 1976.
Beginning in 1992 telephone owners were able to direct dial internationally, and private facsimile machines were permitted. In 2003, there were an estimated 12 mainline telephones for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were approximately 20 mobile phones in use for every 1,000 people.
All communications, including the radio network, are operated by the government. Regular radio broadcasts were begun from Vientiane in 1968 and are now carried by Lao National Radio. Most broadcasts are in Lao, but government news broadcasts are also in English, French, and other languages. Domestic television service from Lao National TV began in 1983; in addition, programs are available by satellite from the former USSR, and it is possible to pick up Thai broadcasts. As of 1999 there were 9 AM and 4 FM radio stations, and 4 television stations. In 2003, there were an estimated 148 radios and 52 television sets for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were 3.5 personal computers for every 1,000 people.
The press is government-controlled. The sole news agency is the Laos News Agency; the only foreign news bureaus are those of the former USSR and Vietnam. As of 2002, there were two daily newspapers, Vientiane Mai (New Vientiane ), with a circulation of 2,500; and Khao San Pathet Lao (Laos Newsletter, published in French and English as well as Lao), with a circulation of 1,200. Pasason (the People ) is a monthly publication with a 2002 circulation of 28,000. the Vientiane Times, published in English is available twice a week.
Although there are constitutional provisions for freedom of speech and the press, the government is said to exert broad control over the exercise of these rights. All domestically produced newspapers, radio, and television are controlled by the Ministry of Information, which reacts harshly to expressions of political dissent.
The National Chamber of Commerce and Industry is located in Vientiane. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party and its allied social and political groups in the Lao Front for National Reconstruction have dominated Laotian life. The cooperative movement has been intensively developed. There is also a Lao Unified Buddhists' Association. The Mekong River Commission serves an important role in working toward sustainable development in the region. The Lao Medical Association promotes research and education on health issues and works to establish common policies and standards in healthcare. There are several sports associations promoting amateur competition in such pastimes as tennis, badminton, tae kwon do, and track and field. The Red Cross is active.
The main tourist destinations are the capital, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang. Facilities are limited in other parts of the country. Vientiane is popular for its Buddhist pagodas, French colonial architecture, and landmarks. The city of Luang Prabang is located at the junction of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers in the North. Great views of temples and the land are seen from Mount Phousi in the center of the city.
In 2003, there were 636,361 visitors who arrived in Laos. Of these visitors, almost 60% came from Thailand. there were 12,289 hotel rooms with 18,877 beds that same year. Valid passports and visas are required for entry into Laos. Visas can be obtained upon arrival at most border crossings. If purchased upon arrival, the visa is valid for up to 15 days. Visas purchased through a Lao embassy are valid for up to 30 days.
In 2005, the US Department of State estimated the daily cost of staying in Laos at $130.
One of the most cherished figures in Laotian history is Fa-Ngoum, who unified Lan Xang in the 14th century. Another dynastic personage still revered is the monarch Sethathirat, in whose reign (1534–71) the famous That Luang shrine was built. Chao Anou (r.1805–28) is remembered for having fought a war to recover Laotian independence from the Siamese (Thais) and for having restored Vientiane to a glory it had not known since the 16th century. Important 20th-century figures include Souvanna Phouma (1901–84), former prime minister; Prince Souphanouvong (1902–95), a half-brother of Souvanna Phouma, leader of the Pathet Lao and president of Laos from 1975 to 1986; and Kaysone Phomvihan (1920–1992), former chairman of the Council of Ministers.
Laos has no territories or colonies.
Castle, Timothy N. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955–1975. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Chan, Sucheng. Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
Evans, Grant. A Short History of Laos: The Land In Between. London, Eng.: Orion, 2003.
Hamilton-Merritt, Jane. Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Kremmer, Christopher. Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Leibo, Steven A. East and Southeast Asia, 2005. 38thed. Harpers Ferry, W.Va.: Stryker-Post Publications, 2005.
Mansfield, Stephen. Lao Hill Tribes: Traditions and Patterns of Existence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Pyle, Richard. Lost over Laos: A True Story of Tragedy, Mystery, and Friendship. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003.
Stuart-Fox, Martin. Historical Dictionary of Laos. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001.
Zasloff, Joseph J., and Leonard Unger (eds.). Laos: Beyond the Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Thomson Gale
Lao People's Democratic Republic
Luang Prabang, Paksé
This chapter was adapted from the Department of State Post Report dated April 1994. Supplemental material has been added to increase coverage of minor cities, facts have been updated, and some material has been condensed. Readers are encouraged to visit the Department of State's web site at http://travel.state.gov/ for the most recent information available on travel to this country.
Although LAOS has been known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic only since December 1975, recent archaeological discoveries in Southeast Asia have provoked increased interest and reassessment of the nation and its place in Asian history. The ancient culture that flourished along the upper Mekong River had made basic advances in agriculture, pottery, metallurgy, and the polishing of stone tools made by 3,000 B.C. These people also spread their culture north into China and south-eastward into Indonesia, the Philippines, and even to Australia. The numerically dominant Lao people began entering present-day Laos before A.D. 1,000 from southern China. This migration accelerated after the Mongol destruction of their kingdom of Yunnan in 1253.
Today, Laos is a nation of pronounced ethnic, linguistic, and geographical diversity. Because it is strategically located, it receives an abundance of interest and a large amount of assistance from other nations. One of the world's poorest countries, Laos faces daunting tasks in every field of economic development.
Vientiane is the political, administrative, and commercial center of Laos. The capital of Laos, it is the largest city in the country, with a population of 534,000 (2000 est.). The name is a French version of the Lao Vieng Chan, or "City of Sandal-wood." It was once the ancient capital of the rich and powerful kingdom of Muong Lan Xang Hom Khao, the "Land of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol."
Vientiane is a provincial town in appearance and atmosphere. It is situated on the left bank of the Mekong River, at the edge of a large plain which extends some 40 miles north of the city. To the north and east, the foothills visible from Vientiane are the rugged uplands of the Annamite cordillera, which cover most of the country.
Short power failures occur almost daily because the lines are old and poorly maintained. Voltage fluctuates at times and sensitive electronic equipment is subject to damage. Voltage regulators are not available locally. Minor repairs to stereo equipment and small appliances can be done. More complicated repairs must be done in Bangkok.
The local markets offer a large variety of fruit, vegetables, rice, eggs, poultry, pork, fresh fish, and beef. Fruits and vegetables vary with the season; adequate quantities of good quality are available year round. Chicken and pork are fine; beef is tasty but tough. Because local selection is limited, some Westerners shop in Bangkok to supplement their food supply.
Dress in Vientiane is generally casual because of the tropical climate. Cottons or cotton blends are worn year round; nylon and other pure synthetics are uncomfortable during the hot season. From November to February, when the temperature averages 60°F, spring or fall clothing is appropriate.
The climate and an active social life define wardrobe requirements. Clothing wears out quickly because of more changes during the day and frequent laundering. Tailors and dressmakers of limited capability are available, and clothing needs can be made to order in Vientiane or Bangkok. A variety of materials can be purchased locally.
Raincoats, umbrellas, and rubber boots are needed for the rainy season. Special attire should be brought from home for active sports. Sweaters and jackets are useful in cool weather.
American men in Laos find that suits (including safari styles) are needed only for official functions, and these should be lightweight and washable. Men wear short-sleeved shirts and washable slacks for business, leisure, and most social functions. For the rare occasion when formal attire may be needed, a tuxedo or white dinner jacket and black slacks will suffice at any time of the year.
Women's wardrobes should include washable dresses of cotton blends, or lightweight knits, for office work or for social events. Cottons are most suitable for casual wear, but any cool, washable fabric that does not cling will be comfortable. Shorts are useful at home and for sports, but are not worn on the street. Pantsuits are acceptable in offices and, in appropriate styles and fabrics, may be worn for all but formal occasions. Lightweight wools and synthetics are suitable in the brief cool season.
During the cooler months, the usual dress for parties is a long-sleeved blouse and long skirt, long dress, or pantsuit. Hats and gloves are not worn.
Supplies & Services
Laundry is done in the home. No bona fide dry cleaning exists in Vientiane; Americans living in the city take their better clothing to first-class Bangkok hotels for cleaning, which is very expensive.
A few beauty shops in Vientiane offer haircuts, permanents, and manicures. Hair coloring can be applied, but it is recommended that coloring kits be brought to the country with you. Even Bangkok beauty shops have limited hair coloring supplies. Several barbershops are located in the downtown area, and their services are reasonably priced; often, however, resident Americans have their hair cut during trips to Bangkok.
Shoes can be repaired locally, usually with satisfactory results.
Several men's tailor shops make suits, slacks, and shirts to order, with acceptable results. Prices are reasonable, but material must be supplied by the customer. Most American women in Vientiane use dressmaker services in Vientiane and Bangkok; prices and results vary. In general, custom-made clothes are reasonable, but not up to the highest U.S. standards.
Currently, no formally organized English-or French-language Protestant or Jewish religious services are held in the country. Protestant clergymen occasionally visit Vientiane to conduct services; the city has three small Lao Protestant churches. Mass is celebrated daily in Lao, French, and English at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Vientiane.
Domestics are readily available in Vientiane. The hot climate, lack of centralized shipping facilities, and the language barrier make it necessary to hire domestic help.
The number of employees employed depends on preference and life-style (also on the size of living quarters). Most Americans living in Laos find that a combination maid/cook adequately satisfies requirements for shopping, food preparation, entertaining, house cleaning, and laundry. Most residences have quarters for at least one domestic; however, few if any live in. They use the quarters during the day for eating, bathing, and rest periods. Salaries are negotiated between employer and employee, but are quite reasonable by American standards.
The majority of domestics have little command of English, and misunderstandings are frequent. Patience is required.
Prospective domestics should have physical examinations before starting work and periodically thereafter. Exams can be taken at one of the local hospitals for a small fee. Be sure your employees seek medical attention when needed. Many of the employees in Vientiane have been employed in American households for some time and are well versed in health and food requirements. Nevertheless, their activities should be routinely monitored to ensure compliance.
The Vientiane International School is registered with the Lao Ministry of Education and is a member of the International School System. The school curriculum and schedule are patterned on the U.S. system, but with an international flavor. Children from all nationalities are represented, with the Americans and Australians predominating. Instruction is in English; French and Lao are also taught. Classes are from grades pre-K through eight.
The principal and all teaching staff are accredited.
There is also a French school which goes to grade twelve.
Facilities exist for golf, tennis, squash, volleyball, swimming, and badminton.
Bicycling is a popular and pleasurable pastime, particularly during cooler weather. Vientiane is flat and easy to get around in by bicycle. Bicycle rallies are occasionally organized and are very popular.
Of particular interest to visitors are the That Luang Monument and the Sisaket and Phra Keo Temples. The National Museum provides interesting insights into recent Lao history. On weekends, many Lao and foreigners make picnic excursions to the Nam Ngum dam or to one of several waterfalls within a few hours of town.
Laos has many natural and historical attractions that can be visited with tours sponsored by local travel agencies. Among the most important tourist destinations are Luang Prabang, the old royal capital, with its many beautiful temples; Xieng Khouang, site of the Plain of Jars; Pakse, famous for its handwoven silks and cottons and for the beautiful Khmer ruins at Wat Phu; Saravane, known for the Bolevans Plateau and its natural surroundings; and Savannakhet, a gateway to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Vientiane is served by Lao Aviation, Thai Airways, Air Vietnam, and Aeroflot. Less than two hours away by air, Bangkok is readily accessible for shopping, sight-seeing and vacationing.
Bangkok is a major air stop for connections to other cities in Southeast Asia, and to world capitals. From there, direct flights are available to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Yangon (Myanmar), Singapore, Manila (Philippines), Hong Kong, Australia, and Europe. Thailand has many popular resorts: the beaches of Phuket and Koh Samui are world famous; and Chiang Mai, Sukothai, and Lopburi are famous for historical monuments.
Pattaya is a popular beach resort two hours' drive south of Bangkok on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Accommodations are available at hotels or private cottages. Boats can be rented for trips to the islands off the coast. Beach resorts are located at Bang Saen on the east coast, and at Hua Hin on the western shore, where there is a good golf course.
No definite restrictions are placed on photography in Laos with the exception of the Wattay Airport and on military installations, where no photos are allowed. Courtesy and discretion should be exercised at all times in photographing people, particularly uniformed security guards or policemen and in taking pictures of any government building or installation. Children welcome having their photograph taken and often follow Westerners around when they observe them taking pictures.
American films are shown weekly at the American Embassy compound, while French films and duplicate bridge nights are organized by the Alliance Francaise. The American and Australian Embassies maintain small libraries. A wide selection of books, including best-sellers, is available in Bangkok.
A limited number of restaurants in Vientiane serve Western, Chinese, French, Vietnamese, and other cuisines.
A few discos have opened and are frequented by both Lao and Westerners.
Many of the Lao festivals, known as bouns, celebrate seasonal changes and important dates in the life of Buddha. The Lao New Year, known as Pi Mai, lasts for three days and is celebrated in April. It is the most festive and widely celebrated holiday. The annual long boat races on the Mekong River between Vientiane and Nong Khai, Thailand are well worth seeing. Permission is required, but Americans have been invited to attend in recent years with few problems.
The baci ceremony is one of prayers and good wishes. It is uniquely Lao, and is celebrated elsewhere only in northeast Thailand. It can be performed on various occasions, such as Lao New Year, a wedding, farewell, welcome, or the birth of a child. The baci ceremony follows a precise pattern, and is conducted by an elderly man (mohpohn ) who is highly respected for his wisdom and ceremonial skill. Shoes are removed and the participants sit on the floor during the ceremony. Of brief duration, usually less than an half hour, it is normally followed by a traditional Lao meal and dancing. It has no Buddhist significance, but derives from native animist beliefs pre-dating the arrival of Buddhism centuries ago. Photography is permitted at a baci.
Entertainment in Vientiane depends largely on individual tastes, initiative, and ingenuity. Home entertaining among foreign residents is extensive; dinners, cocktail parties, and barbecues are the usual forms of social activity. The Western community in the capital is small, and people socialize regularly with members of the diplomatic and private communities. It should be noted, however, that home entertainment by the Lao is rare.
The port city of LUANG PRABANG lies on the Mekong River, 130 miles northwest of Vientiane. For over two centuries, beginning in 1353, this was the capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom. The city acquired the name Luang Prabang about 1563, and became the capital of a new kingdom in 1707. Over 20 Buddhist pagodas stand in what had long been the nation's religious center—the Phu Si pagoda allegedly enshrines Buddha's footprint. Luang Prabang is a small, backward community where goldsmithing, lacquering, and silversmithing has flourished. The population is over 46,000.
PAKSÉ (also spelled Pakxe) is a distribution center for the southern panhandle of Laos, located at the convergence of the Xédôn and Mekong rivers. Industry here includes sawmills, brick and tile manufacture, and an ice plant. Electricity arrived in the district only in 1970, when the Selabam Dam was completed. Irrigation of the region was another benefit from the dam. Paksé, until 1966 Laos' main port of entry, has road connections to the Thailand and Cambodia borders. The population of Paksé is over 50,000.
Geography and Climate
The Lao People's Democratic Republic, a landlocked nation, shares a common frontier with five countries: Burma to the northwest; China to the north; Vietnam to the east; Cambodia to the south; and Thailand to the west.
The total land area covers about 91,425 square miles, and is approximately the size of Oregon. Close to six percent of the country's surface, particularly in the north and east, is covered with dense jungle or rugged mountains; mountainous topography is characteristic of all of Laos outside of the Mekong River Basin. Some mountains rise over 7,000 feet; the highest point in the country is 9,249 feet above sea level. Except in limited areas, soil is poor; most of the forested area is not exploitable.
Vientiane, the capital, is also the largest city. Other population centers are, like Vientiane, on or near the banks of the Mekong River.
They are: Luang Prabang, the former royal capital, and the towns of Ban Houei Sai; Savannakhet; Paksé; Sayaboury; and Thakhek.
The Mekong River, with its headwaters in Tibet, flows more than 2,600 miles to its mouth in southern Vietnam. One of the world's great rivers, it forms the country's western boundary for the greater part of its length and is the cradle of Lao culture. The only significant population center in Laos far removed from the Mekong is Vieng Say in Sam Neua Province; it is a new town, established by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party during its struggle with the former Royal Government of Laos. The Lao government has been encouraging the establishment of other new towns and villages in the country's interior.
Laos has a monsoon climate with three overlapping seasons. The rainy season extends for five months, from June through September. In October, the rains start to taper off and the cool season begins in November, and lasts through February. March, April, and May are hot and humid. In April, the hottest month, temperatures in Vientiane normally range between 72°F and 93°F, and in January, the coolest month, between 57°F and 83 ° F. However, temperature extremes of 103°F (April) and 39°F (January) have been recorded. Vientiane's climate is more varied, drier and cooler than that found in Singapore; Jakarta; Indonesia; or Bangkok, Thailand.
Dust, during the dry period, and mud in the wet season, are common but tolerable obstacles. It is not unusual for the Mekong River to overflow its banks in late August and early September. With the construction of dikes, however, the incidence of flooding in Vientiane has decreased.
Tropical flowers flourish in the Laos climate, as well as a wide and fascinating variety of insects and reptiles. The most common pests are mosquitoes, ants, and termites.
Laos has the smallest population of any Southeast Asian country except Brunei. The population, composed of many ethnic groups, is estimated at 5.6 million (2001 est.). This sparse population is spread out unevenly; the greatest concentration is in the Mekong Valley, especially in the Vientiane Plain and the Savannakhet Basin. Eighty-five percent of the population lives in the countryside. Laos has an extraordinary ethnic diversity. About 68% of the population is composed of ethnic Lao (known as Lao Loum ), a people of Thai stock who are believed to have migrated originally from southwestern China during the 13th century, in the wake of the onslaught of Kublai Khan's forces. The Lao Loum dominate the country politically, culturally, and economically.
The rest of the Lao population is divided into a welter of ethnic groups, some sizable, some tiny. These groups include mountain tribes of Thai stock found in northern Laos, the Hmong (Meo) tribes-men of Tibet-Burman origin, and a number of other mountain tribes of Malayo-Polynesian background who inhabit the hills of central and southern Laos. Although no one is quite sure of the exact number of tribes or ethnic groups, the government estimates 68 different groups.
Vietnamese and Chinese represent less than one percent of the population (most left the country after 1975). There are also small groups of Thai, Cambodians, Indians, and Pakistanis. The ethnic Lao and the population of northeast Thailand share the same language, and historically have had a close social and commercial relationship. Many people in Laos have relatives in northeast Thailand and, in numerous cases, a claim to Thai citizenship. There is also a small European community in Vientiane, most of whom are from the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) and Eastern Europe. However, there are increasing numbers of Australians, Swedes, Japanese, French, and North Americans working for UN agencies. Improved relations with the West and a growth in foreign investment should contribute to an increase in the number of Westerners living in Laos.
Laos was first united in 1353 by Fa Ngum, a Lao prince. He brought the scattered Lao princedoms together to form the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants). The Lan Xang covered much of present-day Thailand as well as Laos. Fa Ngum also established Buddhism as the state religion. Dynastic struggles and conflicts with neighboring kingdoms precipitated a decline of power that began in the 16th century and by the 18th century the Siamese and Vietnamese kingdoms were competing for control of Laos.
For much of the 19th century, the country was under Thai suzerainty and was split into three parts: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak. In 1893, France established a protectorate over Laos, but in the process, a large area of what had been Lan Xang, on the west bank of the Mekong River, became part of Thailand. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.
Under pressure from Japanese occupation forces during World War II, King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang declared his independence from France and in September 1945 a new Kingdom of Laos was formed along with the principalities of Vientiane and Champassak. French troops reoccupied the area but in August 1946 recognized Lao autonomy. In 1949, France formally recognized the independence of Laos within the French Union and Laos remained under French rule until 1953 when the country was granted full independence.
From 1945 to 1975, Laos was involved in the bloody conflict that raged throughout Indochina. In 1972, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) was proclaimed by Lao Communists. A cease-fire was signed in February 1973 and a coalition was set up in April 1974. The Pathet Lao, sparked by communist victories in Indochina in 1975, steadily assumed complete control.
On December 2, 1975, a group led by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party abolished the Kingdom of Laos and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Laos is a communist country. Power is monopolized by the Marxist-Leninist Lao People's Revolutionary Party, the only legally recognized party in the country. The party is small in number, estimated at about 40,000 members and compared to other Communist parties, highly secretive. Party and state are intermingled in Laos; members of the party politburo hold the important government positions.
In 1991, the National Assembly adopted the first constitution to be effective in the country since 1975. The new constitution describes the governing authorities of the country, which include the National Assembly, which is elected by the Lao citizenry; the President of the Republic, who is elected and subject to removal by the National Assembly; and the executive government, headed by the Prime Minister, who is appointed and subject to removal by the President with National Assembly approval.
Since the 1970s, Laos has maintained a close relationship with Vietnam, Cambodia, and the former Soviet bloc countries; while at the same time remaining hostile to the West. However, beginning in the late 1980s, Laos has sought to improve its relations with other countries; economic issues have been the impetus for this dramatic change in policy.
The flag of the Lao People's Democratic Republic is blue, with two horizontal red stripes at the top and bottom; a large white circle is centered.
Arts, Science, Education
Probably the best known form of Lao art is the architecture, ornamentation, and sculpture of the Buddhist pagodas, called wats in Lao. Often, an incident from Buddha's life is portrayed. Bas-relief sculpture in wood, finished in gold leaf against a red background, decorate the door panels, archways, and gable ends of the structures.
The architecture of Lao homes reflects the country's pastoral and agrarian traditions. Houses raised on stilts permit livestock to shelter beneath them, and the height allows the occupants to catch the evening breezes and to avoid floods in the rainy season.
Handwoven fabrics and fine embroidery appear in both modern and traditional dress. Appliqué, handloomed fabric, and embroidery characterize the dress of the ethnic minorities.
Lao authorities are attempting to encourage traditional musical forms. These include both the lamvong, or circle dance, and other dances performed by fine arts groups at festivals and ceremonies.
The Lao Government has reorganized the country's educational system. Schooling is compulsory for five years. Primary school begins for children aged six years, followed by three years of secondary school, with an additional three years of high school.
In the past, most secondary education was in French. The government has emphasized that instruction at all levels will be in Lao. Laos has teacher-training institutes and medical schools.
The predominant religion of Laos is Theravada Buddhism. To the Lao, Buddhism is not only a religion—it is a way of life. The mountain tribes-men are principally animists, but some of them have adopted Buddhism, while at the same time retaining many of their old beliefs. The two forms of worship coexist easily. It is not unusual to see spirit shrines alongside Buddhist temples.
Lao, the national language, belongs to the Thai linguistic family. It is a difficult tongue, and has six tones. Diverse dialects are spoken in different regions of the country. Like most languages of Southeast Asia, Lao has adopted many words of Indian origin into its vocabulary. About 80 minority languages are spoken in Laos, primarily by tribal groups living outside the Mekong Valley. French, formerly the language of government and higher education, is slowly losing its importance. However, many government officials still speak French. Increasingly, English is gaining favor as a common language; Russian is also spoken by a number of Lao.
Commerce and Industry
Over 80% of the population earns its income from agriculture, mostly subsistence farming. Rice, corn, coffee, cotton, and tobacco are grown here. Barter is the principal method of exchange in the countryside; the money economy is limited mainly to cities and towns and along major transportation routes. In most areas, poor transportation facilities and other factors limit production levels to meeting the country's own needs, although the economy produces a small surplus of some agricultural, forest, and mineral commodities for export.
The industrial base is quite limited. Industrial plants include a small foundry; saw mills; rice mills; plywood, furniture, match, and cigarette factories; and other small-scale local enterprises. Cottage industries range from the weaving of silk and cotton textiles to shoe making, clothing, and metal-work. Handicraft production includes pottery, jewelry, silver working, and basketry.
Laos imports most of its manufactured products. Government approval is needed to use foreign exchange for imports, but an active free market exists. With the introduction of the New Economic Management Mechanism in 1985, major economic reforms have been enacted: government regulations have been relaxed, free market prices are allowed, farmers may own land, state firms now exercise greater control in authority but have lost their subsidies and pricing advantages, and trade restrictions have been lifted. Consumer goods, mostly from Thailand, are now available in the more populated areas of the country. As a land-locked country, Laos has been primarily dependent on the cooperation of Thailand to facilitate the transshipment of imported and exported goods. The Lao Government is now trying to develop, with Vietnamese assistance, alternate transit routes to Vietnamese seaports.
Major exports include timber and forestry products, tin, coffee, and hydroelectric power which is sold to Thailand. Foreign investment in Laos remains low, although the government actively encourages it and has increased ties to the West.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world due to its over-dependence on agriculture and its lack of a skilled labor force. Both of these factors present significant problems for the future.
Laos has relied heavily on foreign assistance from the former Soviet bloc nations, which has decreased in recent years. Improved relations with the West is now a priority in order to offset the loss of aid from those countries. Projects financed by Western foreign aid include: expansion of hydroelectric power generation facilities; building of roads, bridges, and port facilities; and the improvement of communications. Most Western assistance has been concentrated on infrastructure and agricultural development projects.
A number of business concerns, mostly Thai but including some from the U.S., Japan, and Europe, have invested in manufacturing, mineral extraction, and service industries. As the government refines its economic reforms and improves banking and communication procedures, foreign investment will increase.
The Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry can be reached at P.O. Box 1163, Vientiane, Laos.
Vientiane is served by five international airlines: Thai Airways, Air Vietnam, Lao Aviation, and Aeroflot (C.I.S.), and China Southern. Bangkok is the nearest city served by an American carrier, and many people make onward connections from there.
Foreigners may enter and leave the country by air at Vientiane's Wattay Airport, by ferry at Thadeau's ferry crossing, or at Thanaleng shipping port.
Laos is landlocked, mountainous, and sparsely populated—factors which have hindered the development of its transportation system. The country has no railroads, and roads are mostly unpaved and poorly maintained. Public transportation in Vientiane is poor and unreliable. Taxis are available, but meters and fixed rates do not exist. Taxis fares generally depend on the passenger's ability to bargain, and on the distance traveled. Drivers speak little or no English. They pick up as many passengers as the vehicle will hold, although it is possible to engage a taxi privately for a higher fare. Many taxis are old and poorly maintained, and drivers may be reckless.
Several bus routes in the city, and for intracity travel, are available. Samlors (tricycle rickshaws) can be engaged for rides within the city limits. Recently motorcycle driven rickshaws (tuk-tuks ), imported from Thailand, have appeared on the streets of Vientiane. Samlor or tuktuk fares are bargained.
Traffic is light and undisciplined. Ill-trained drivers operate poorly maintained vehicles on crowded, potholed streets. While in theory traffic moves on the right, pedestrians and bicycles use all parts of the streets, so most cars do the same. Animals roam the street as well, including cows, goats, all fowl, as well as cats and dogs. Cyclists pay little or no heed to cars and bicycles are rarely equipped with functioning lights or reflectors. Driving is particularly dangerous at dusk and at night.
Defensive driving is necessary. Helmets should be worn when riding motorcycles, and gloves and sturdy shoes are strongly recommended.
Seasons of rain and dust cause roads to deteriorate rapidly, consequently placing stress on cars. Vientiane has limited facilities for maintenance and body work. Spare parts for foreign-made cars can generally be obtained from Bangkok, but parts for American-manufactured vehicles are normally ordered from the U.S. Permission is usually granted to drive cars to Bangkok or Udorndhani (Thailand) for repairs.
The Lao Government requires proof-of-ownership documents before it will register a vehicle. There is no registration fee for those on the diplomatic list, but other foreigners are required to purchase tax stickers, license plates, and registration cards. The cost of the tax sticker varies with the size and make of the car. Unleaded fuel is not available.
All persons operating motor vehicles in Laos must have valid Lao licenses. U.S. or international permits must be surrendered at the time of application, but will be returned upon departure from the country. The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane suggests that all Americans coming to Laos obtain international permits so that they will not have to give up their U.S. licenses.
Overseas telephone service is available on a 24-hour basis through the local Posts, Telephone, and Telegraph (PTT) facility, but is not reliable. Calls to the U.S. are frequently inaudible, if one is able to get through at all. The PTT telegraph facility is slow and expensive. A three-minute call to the U.S. costs about $15. Calls must be "booked" in advance and there may be a two to three hour wait for your call to be completed.
International mail service is not considered completely dependable. Registered mail service is not available. Transit time to and from the U.S. is approximately two weeks.
Several radio stations broadcast on medium wave (AM) in Vientiane. The most important of these is the Lao National Radio. Most broadcasts are in Lao, but government news is given in English, French, and other languages.
Television is available in Vientiane via satellite from the former Soviet Union. Two TV channels can be received from Thailand. None broadcast in English.
Shortwave programs are received from Voice of America (VOA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS); other foreign broadcasts can be picked up on shortwave receivers.
Two daily Lao-language papers are published in the capital—Vientiane Mai and Pasason. Khao San Pathet Lao, the official government news agency, prints daily bulletins in English and French.
Arrangements may be made for personal subscriptions to newspapers and periodicals. English-language books are not available for purchase locally, but can be bought in Bangkok.
Medical and dental facilities and the availability of medicines in Vientiane are extremely limited. It is imperative that all possible medical and dental care be completed before entering Laos. The official U.S. community has consultation access to the regional medical officer in Bangkok, who visits Laos on occasion. Bring or arrange to have sent any special medications required; also bring a supply of non-prescription health aids, such as aspirin, cold and allergy medications, antiseptic solutions, and Band-aids.
Community health services, including basic programs such as sanitary waste disposal, are inadequate by U.S. standards. Most houses occupied by Americans use septic tanks. The long rainy season and high water table cause frequent malfunction of these and other waste-disposal systems. Neither the municipal water supply in Vientiane nor water from wells is potable without filtration and boiling.
Raw fruits or vegetables which are peeled before they are eaten require only simple cleaning. Fruits eaten whole should be washed and soaked in a germicidal solution. Locally bought leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and watercress, cannot be made completely safe for raw consumption. Eating in a few local restaurants is relatively safe if one is careful to select well-cooked foods and bottled beverages.
Tuberculosis, hepatitis, rabies, and many tropical parasitic diseases are endemic here. Malaria and other mosquito-borne viral diseases do not currently constitute a hazard, but dengue fever occurs sporadically.
Immunizations for visitors to Laos are a source of medical controversy. Some doctors advocate immunization for a wide variety of diseases. It is recommended that visitors consult with their physicians. Consider shots against the following: hepatitis-B, encephalitis, and possibly typhoid. No cholera inoculations are necessary and unless you travel outside the city of Vientiane anti-malaria medicines are not needed. Children should have the normal variety of immunizations, including the three-shot rabies preventives series and a tetanus booster. With added awareness, and with prompt attention to small problems before they become serious, health difficulties can be prevented or significantly minimized during a stay in Laos.
Jan. 1… New Year's Day
Jan. … Bun Pha Wet*
Jan. 20… Army Day
Feb. … Magha Puja*
Feb. … Tet*
Mar. … Boun Khoun Khao (Harvest Festival)*
Apr. … Boun Pimai (Laotian New Year)*
Apr. … Pi Mai (Lunar New Year)*
May … Visakha Bu-saa (Buddha's Birthday)*
May … Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Fesitval)*
May 1… Labor Day
June 1 … Children's Day
June/July… Khao Phansaa (Buddhist Lent)*
July 19… Independence Day
Aug. … Haw Khao Padap Din (Remembrance of the Dead)*
Sept… Boun Ok Phansaa (Buddhist Lent ends)*
Oct. … Bun Nam (Water Festival)*
Nov. … That Luang Festival (Full Moon Festival)*
Dec. 2… Lao National Day
NOTES FOR TRAVELERS
Passage, Customs & Duties
Flights connect Vientiane to Bangkok, Yangon, Hanoi, and Moscow. Bangkok is the nearest city served by a U.S. airline. Almost all travelers must arrive in Vientiane by air.
A passport and visa are required. Visas are issued upon arrival in Laos to foreign tourists and business persons with two passport size photographs and $30 at Wattay Airport, Vientiane; Friendship Bridge, Vientiane; and Luang Prabang Airport. Visas on Arrival are not available at the Chong Mek border crossing. Foreign tourists are generally admitted to Laos for 15 days with a Visa on Arrival or for 30 days with a visa issued at a Lao embassy. The Department of Immigration in Vientiane will only extend tourist visas for one day. It is sometimes possible to get an extension for an additional 15 days by submitting an application through a tour agency. Foreigners who overstay in Laos risk arrest, and they will be fined $5 for each day upon departure.
Foreign tourists planning on entering Laos at any international checkpoint where Visas on Arrival are not available must obtain a visa in advance. In the United States, visas and further information about Lao entry requirements can be obtained directly from the Embassy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2222 S St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, tel. 202-332-6416, fax 202-332-4923, Internet home page: http://www.laoembassy.com.
U.S. citizens should not attempt to enter Laos without valid travel documents or outside official ports of entry. Unscrupulous travel agents have sold U.S.-citizen travelers false Lao visas which have resulted in those travelers being denied entry into Laos. Persons attempting to enter Laos outside official ports of entry risk arrest or more serious consequences.
Immigration offices at some of the less used border-crossing points are not well marked. Travelers should make sure that they complete immigration and customs formalities when they enter Laos. Travelers who enter Laos without completing these formalities may be subject to fine, detention, imprisonment, and/or deportation.
Customs officials may inspect baggage by nondiplomatic visitors upon either arrival or departure or both, but it is usually just a cursory inspection.
According to the Lao Tourist Police, all foreign tourists are required to use the services of a licensed Lao tour company--unassisted tourism is not permitted. However, this regulation does not appear to be strictly enforced.
Foreign tourists have been informed by the Lao Tourist Police that any group of more than five foreign tourists must be accompanied by a licensed Lao tour guide. Violation of this regulation can result in detention, deportation, and fines of $200 to $2000.
Ministry of Trade and Tourism regulations prohibit any person who is not a licensed Lao tour guide from performing the functions of a tour guide--including explaining Lao culture and custom to foreign tourists. Lao and Thai nationals accompanying American friends to Lao tourist sites have been detained and fined by Lao Tourist Police who suspected that they were acting as unauthorized tour guides.
Lao citizens who wish to have a foreign citizen--including a family member--stay in their home must obtain prior approval from the village chief. The foreigner may be held responsible if the Lao host has not secured prior permission for the visit. American citizens are strongly advised to ensure that such permission has been sought and granted before accepting offers to stay in Lao homes.
Lao authorities require that hotels and guesthouses furnish information about the identities and activities of their foreign guests. Lao who interact with foreigners may be compelled to report on those interactions to the Lao Government. Persons traveling outside of the main tourist areas may be required to register with local authorities and may be questioned by security personnel.
Lao security personnel may place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, telephone conversations, fax transmissions, and e-mail communications may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched.
U.S. citizens living in or visiting Laos are encouraged to register at the U.S. Embassy where they may obtain updated information on travel and security within the country. The U.S. Embassy is located at Thanon Bartholonie (near Tat Dam), in Vientiane; from the United States, mail can be addressed to U.S. Embassy Vientiane, Box V, APO AP 96546; telephone (856-21) 212-581, 212-582, 212-585; duty officer's emergency cellular telephone (856-20) 502-016; Consular Section fax number (856-21) 251-624; Embassy-wide fax number (856-21) 512-584; Internet home page: http://usembassy.state.gov/ laos/.
Pets brought into Laos must be accompanied by certificates of good health and have had anti-rabies vaccinations. Upon arrival, contact with local animals should be kept to a minimum. Veterinary services are poor, with few vaccines or medications available. Proof that an animal was imported must be shown before officials will allow it to leave the country. It is recommended that pets be carried on board the plane as carry-on baggage, if possible.
Currency, Banking, and Weights and Measures
The time in Laos is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) plus seven.
The official Lao currency is the kip. The kip is neither a recognized international monetary unit, nor is it exchangeable outside Laos. Its use within Laos is also limited, since most transactions in which foreigners participate are in dollars or in Thai baht, both of which are freely exchangeable throughout Laos. Kip is usually used for small purchases at the market.
There are no automatic teller machines in Laos. Credit cards are accepted only at some major hotels and tourist-oriented businesses. Credit card cash advances can be obtained at some banks in Vientiane. Although it is illegal to do so, the U.S. dollar and Thai baht are both widely used for larger transactions. U.S. dollars are required by the Lao Government for the payment of some taxes and fees, including visa fees and the airport departure tax.
Weights and measures in Laos are based on the metric system, except for gold and silver, which are measured in baht (15 grams) or taels (30 to 35 grams).
The Lao Government prohibits sexual contact between foreign citizens and Lao nationals except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao Family Law. Any foreigner who enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national may be interrogated, detained, arrested, or jailed. Lao police have confiscated passports and imposed fines of up to $5000 on foreigners who enter into disapproved sexual relationships. The Lao party to the relationship may also be jailed without trial. Foreigners are not permitted to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to their hotel rooms; police may raid hotel rooms without notice or consent.
Foreign citizens intending to marry a Lao national are required by Lao law to obtain prior permission from the Lao government. The formal application process can take as long as a year. American citizens may obtain information about these requirements from the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. The Lao Government will not issue a marriage certificate unless the correct procedures are followed. Any attempt to circumvent Lao regulations governing the marriage of Lao citizens to foreigners may result in arrest, imprisonment, a fine of $500-$5000, and deportation. Foreigners who cohabit with or enter into a close relationship with Lao nationals may be accused by Lao authorities of entering an illegal marriage and be subject to the same penalties.
Foreign citizens who wish to become engaged to a Lao national are required to obtain prior permission of the chief of the village where the Lao national resides. Failure to obtain prior permission can result in a fine of $500-$5000. Lao police frequently impose large fines on foreign citizens a few days after they hold an engagement ceremony with a Lao citizen based on the suspicion that the couple probably subsequently had sexual relations out of wedlock.
Religious proselytizing or distributing religious material is strictly prohibited. Foreigners caught distributing religious material may be arrested or deported. The Government of Laos restricts the import of religious texts and artifacts. While Lao law allows freedom of religion, the government registers and controls all associations, including religious groups. Meetings, even in private homes, must be registered and those held outside established locations may be broken up and the participants arrested.
Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest--including bridges, airfields, military installations, government buildings or government vehicles, may result in problems with authorities, including detention or arrest and confiscation of the camera. Tourists should be cautious when traveling near military bases and strictly observe signs delineating the military base areas. Military personnel have detained and questioned foreigners who innocently passed by unmarked military facilities.
The following titles are provided as a general indication of the material published on this country:
Adams, Nina S. Laos: War and Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
Brown, Macalister, and Joseph H. Zasloff. Apprentice Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Laos, 1930-1985. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.
Coedes, George. The Making of Southeast Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Dommen, Arthur J. Conflict in Laos. New York: Praeger, 1971.
——. Laos, Key to Indochina. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1985.
Doolittle, Jerome. The Bombing Officer. New York: Dutton, 1969.
Fall, Bernard B. Anatomy of a Crisis. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
Gunn, Geoffrey C. Political Struggles in Laos (1930-1954). Bangkok: Editions Duang Kamol, 1988.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Larteguy, Jean. The Bronze Drums. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.
Osborne, Milton. Southeast Asia: An Introduction History. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin, 1990.
Pratt, John Clark. Laotian Fragments. New York: Avon, 1974.
Stanton, Shelby L. The Rise and Fall of an American Army. New York: Dell, 1985.
Stuart-Fox, Martin. Laos: Politics, Economics, and Society. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1986.
Yost, Charles W. The Conduct and Misconduct of Foreign Affairs: Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Random House, 1972.
COPYRIGHT 2002 The Gale Group
Lao People's Democratic Republic
Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao
CAPITAL: Vientiane (Viangchan).
Lao kip (K). There are no coins, and there are notes of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 2,000, and 5,000 kip. With considerable inflation over the last several decades, kip notes under 500 are rarely seen or used now. The Thai baht and U.S. dollar are also commonly used, especially in larger transactions, though official policy calls for the exclusive use of the kip.
Wood products, garments and textiles, electricity, coffee, tin.
Machinery and equipment, vehicles, fuel.
GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT:
US$7 billion (purchasing power parity, 1999 est.).
BALANCE OF TRADE:
Exports: US$271 million (1999 est.). Imports: US$497 million (1999 est.).
LOCATION AND SIZE.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, is a land-locked nation bordered on the north by China, the east by Vietnam, the west by Burma (Myanmar), and the south by Thailand and Cambodia. The Mekong River forms much of the boundary between Laos and Thailand. The country's total land boundaries are 5,083 kilometers (3,159 miles). Its geographic area is 236,800 square kilometers (91,428 square miles), making it just slightly larger than the state of Minnesota. Its capital, Vientiane, the largest city in central Laos, is located on the Mekong River. The other 3 major cities are Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakxé.
The Lao PDR differs from many other Asian countries in that it has an extremely low population density of only 23.2 persons per square kilometer (60 per square mile). Its population density is almost the same as the state of Minnesota. In July of 2000 its population was estimated as 5,497,459. This compares with a population of 3,586,083 in 1985; 2,886,000 in 1976; and 1,789,000 in 1953. The current population growth rate is a relatively high 2.5 percent. If this rate were to continue, the country's population would double to over 10 million by the year 2028. The major cause of this high population growth is the high fertility rate of Lao women. The Lao women on average currently have 5.21 children.
Thus, it is not uncommon to find families of 4 to 10 children, even in urban areas.
The ethnically diverse Lao PDR population is comprised of 3 major ethnic groups: Lao Lum, lowland; Lao Theung, upland; and Lao Sung, highland. Among prominent highland groups are the Hmong and Yao. Ethnic minorities comprise 47.5 percent of the total population, according to the 1995 census, which distinguished 47 main ethnic groups and 149 sub-groups. Thus, the Lao PDR is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Asia.
With the country's low population density and the need to import labor (often Vietnamese guest workers ), the government has been reluctant to adopt a strict birth control or family planning policy. Instead the policy has been the more moderate one of birth spacing (delaying natural pregnancies so that women have fewer children than the biological maximum).
With such high fertility, the Lao PDR has a very young population. Roughly 54.2 percent of the population is under the age of 20. With poor health conditions, particularly in rural areas and related high mortality rates, only 2.2 percent of the population is over 70 years of age.
OVERVIEW OF ECONOMY
Laos is one of the world's poorest countries, and thus its primary policy goal is to strengthen its economy and develop its own means to earn foreign exchange. Much of its population is involved in a subsistence economy, in which families produce by themselves what is needed for daily basic living. Laos' major economic disadvantage has been that it is a landlocked nation with weak infrastructure . Nearly 80 percent of the country is mountainous and/or forested with only 21 percent of the land cultivable and less than 4 percent actually cultivated. Laos perhaps has the highest ratio of forest cover to land area in all of Asia: 47 percent of the country is forested.
Laos' long history dates back to the founding of its first kingdom in 1353. It was then known as Lan Xang (the land of a million elephants). It reached its period of greatest glory and influence during the years 1633-90. Later succession struggles led Lan Xang to break into 3 smaller kingdoms. These weakened kingdoms then came initially under the Siamese orbit and later French colonialism. Under French colonialism, Laos suffered neglect.
After achieving complete independence from the French in 1953, the royalist Lao regime was gradually drawn into the vortex of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The economy became war-torn, suffering from extreme dependence on foreign aid. Extensive U.S. bombing of northern, northeastern, and eastern Laos from 1965 to 1973 seriously disrupted the rural economy. The U.S. dropped 33 percent more bombs on Laos than on Nazi Germany.
On 2 December 1975, the Lao People's Democratic Republic was established, representing the culmination of a long extended revolutionary war. This event brought peace and independence to the country. The economy was transformed into a Soviet-style state planned economy and received economic and technical assistance from other communist nations. The attempt to collectivize agriculture was rather quickly abandoned, however. In 1986, a new policy termed the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) was introduced to transform the economic system from a state-planned one to that of free market forces and prices. The major goal of this reform was to provide greater incentives to increase economic performance and productivity. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Lao PDR opened its doors to active economic involvement with the West, both in terms of international aid and investment. The Lao PDR became a favorite of diverse donors, and foreign aid currently represents some 20 percent of the GDP. From 1991 to 1997, the Lao PDR enjoyed considerable macroeconomic success under the NEM system, with annual economic growth averaging 6.5 percent
During the 1990s, the Lao economy became increasingly interconnected with the Thai economy. Laos imports many basic modern consumer products from Thailand. On weekends, it is common to find many Lao families from Vientiane visiting Thailand via the Friendship Bridge, shopping for basic household items such as various packaged foods.
Initially, it appeared that the Lao economy (with no stock market and a currency not traded internationally) would be immune to the Asian economic crisis of 1997 which shook so many Asian economies. In a somewhat delayed effect, the Lao currency went into a free fall far greater than that of any other Asian country. Given Lao's dependence on imports, this had a serious, adverse effect on nearly all Lao, except a small number of elite individuals connected to the dollarized economy. The Asian economic crisis also adversely affected the Lao economy by reducing foreign direct investment from other Asian countries and reducing the demand for Lao electricity exports, a major source of foreign exchange.
Since it received foreign aid earlier from the Eastern block countries and in the past decade from multilateral agencies (primarily the World Bank and Asian Development Bank) and other countries, the country does have a debt burden. Total external debt in 1997 was estimated to be US$2.32 billion, and debt payments represented 4 percent of government expenditures in 1995-98. Many Lao loans are granted at highly concessional terms, meaning that the interest rates are quite low over a long payment period and thus are almost like grants.
The major challenge facing the Lao PDR currently is to restore the sound macroeconomic performance of the early and mid-1990s and develop its own sources of foreign exchange earnings. Hydroelectric power development on the tributaries of the Mekong, the development of light industries such as garments and textiles, marketing of natural resources such as gypsum, tin, and wood products, and tourism development are the primary economic sectors being promoted.
POLITICS, GOVERNMENT, AND TAXATION
The Lao PDR remains a 1-party state with complete dominance by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The president since 1998 has been Khamtain Siphandon and the prime minister has been Sisavat Keobounphan. The National Assembly, last elected in 1997, has 99 members. Basic economic policies are determined in major Party Congresses which are held every 5 years. The LPRP is strongly supportive of the current mixed policy of having a privatized economy with a reduced role for state-owned enterprises but with a 1-party political system.
As part of the reform policies introduced in 1986, the government has attempted to reduce the size of the public sector , including the military. They have done this, however, in humanistic ways by avoiding the direct firing of people. International donors and agencies have been concerned that such reforms have slowed in the late 1990s.
The government's ability to tax is limited. Tax revenue is only 10 percent of the GDP, and major capital outlays are financed by external assistance, according to Bourdet. Major sources of revenues are business taxes, import/export taxes, and various fees (such as visa fees and fly-over fees). For smaller businesses, flat fixed taxes are used, which discourages tax evasion. In 1995-98, tax on foreign trade represented 27.1 percent of government tax revenues. The income tax represents only 6.3 percent of all revenues.
The government plays an active role in evaluating and assessing potential international investments coming into the country. The government, with the strong support of the Lao Women's Union, has been active in preventing the development of a commercial sex industry. At this point, there is absolutely no standardized fast food industry in the country, such as KFC or McDonald's. Interestingly, in terms of the cola wars, Laos is a Pepsi country. Coke must be imported from Singapore or Thailand.
INFRASTRUCTURE, POWER, AND COMMUNICATIONS
Overall, the Lao PDR has a weak physical infrastructure. As yet, there is no train system. Travel to remote provinces requires a plane. During the rainy season, roads to remote areas may be impassable. At other times, inexpensive bus transportation is available for ordinary people to travel through the country.
The country is served by a network of 21,534 kilometers (13,381 miles) of roads, of which 16.5 percent are paved. As part of the 1996-2000 National Plan, major work has been undertaken to improve the country's limited road infrastructure. A key project is the reconstruction of Highway 13 which links China in the north and Pakxé in the south.
The Lao PDR is receiving considerable international assistance to develop its infrastructure. The Japanese, for example, provided assistance in building a new international airport in Vientiane, and the Thais assisted with a new airport in Luang Prabang. The country's weak road infrastructure adversely affects the development of its rich natural resources, such as minerals and wood products
In April 1994, the Friendship Bridge, the first ever across the lower parts of the Mekong River, was completed with a US$40 million grant from Australia. Upon completion of the bridge, the Lao government issued a regulation not allowing private cars to use the bridge. The government feared a wave of private cars from Thailand
|Country||Newspapers||Radios||TV Sets a||Cable subscribers a||Mobile Phones a||Fax Machines a||Personal Computers a||Internet Hosts b||Internet Users b|
|aData are from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report 1999 and are per 1,000 people.|
|bData are from the Internet Software Consortium (http://www.isc.org) and are per 10,000 people.|
|SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.|
which would cause accidents, congestion, and pollution. Thus, the bridge is used mainly commercially by trucks and buses and has helped landlocked Laos connect economically with its neighbors in the region. A second new bridge over the Mekong, the Lao-Nippon Bridge, was completed in the south near Pakxé in August 2000 and was financed primarily by the Japanese. A third bridge across the Mekong at Savannakhet is scheduled for completion in 2003. This bridge connected to Route 9 will connect both central Laos and northeast Thailand to the Vietnamese port of Da Nang. These bridges, as well as better road infrastructure, will improve Lao links with major ports in Thailand and Vietnam.
With its many mountains and tributaries of the Mekong River, the Lao PDR has excellent hydroelectric power potential. The country's total hydropower potential is estimated to be 25,000 megawatts (MW). Laos has even been referred to as the potential battery of Southeast Asia. Currently the country has 10 major electric power plants with a total capacity of 1329.5 MW. In 1998, the nation consumed just over one-third of the 1.34 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity generated. The Lao PDR plans to construct a total of 12 dams on the Mekong's tributaries over the next decade. The decision has caused considerable controversy in the international environmental community. Major concerns include effects on displaced rural populations in Laos itself, the fish populations of the Mekong and its tributaries, and unintended effects on downstream communities in Cambodia and Vietnam, which are highly dependent on the natural flows of the Mekong River.
Only those of higher socioeconomic status have telephones in their homes, though cell phones are increasingly popular among those of higher socioeconomic status. The country has only a total of 18,139 conventional phone lines, of which 71.8 percent are in the capital. Phone cards are also now available. It is the goal of Lao Télécommunications to have 49,000 telephone lines installed by 2001. Televisions are widely used wherever there is access to electricity. About 72 percent of urban households and 22 percent of rural households have televisions. Much of the Lao population lives in the lowlands in close proximity to Thailand. Thus, they have access to popular Thai TV programming with related advertisements for a variety of popular Thai consumer goods . Shinawatra (a Thai telecommunications conglomerate) has been active in assisting the Lao PDR develop its telecommunications infrastructure.
Though Laos has not officially joined the World Wide Web (there is not yet a .lao suffix), some Lao people, especially in urban areas, are using the Internet. There are now a number of private cyber shops in Vientiane offering public Internet service.
Like many undeveloped countries, Laos generates a majority of its GDP from the agricultural sector. Agriculture accounted for 51 percent of the GDP in 1999 and employs about 80 percent of the total workforce of 2,220,000. In most areas of the country, 90 percent of the people work in agriculture. Industry accounted for 22 percent of the GDP but employed only 3.3 percent of the people (though this figure was 20 percent in the capital). The services sector accounts for 27 percent of the GDP and roughly 10.3 percent of the workforce.
Traditionally, Laos has been a subsistence agricultural economy. That remains true today, though other economic sectors are growing in the Lao PDR. While the Lao PDR has no intention to develop heavy industry, it is developing its light industry, particularly the production of garments and textiles. The Lao PDR has excellent capability in producing attractive traditional textiles and handicrafts. Lao silk and cotton textiles are becoming known for their quality around the world.
The Lao PDR is also developing an important service sector, which has 2 new components: banking and tourism. There are now many newly established foreign banks located in the Vientiane area, most of which were established in the 1990s. Among 6 such Thai banks are the Bangkok Bank and Siam Commercial Bank. The 1999-2000 year was called the "Visit Laos Year" to promote tourism. In the late 1990s travel to Laos was dramatically liberalized with visas available on arrival. The tourist infrastructure was also improved substantially. Tourism has expanded dramatically in the 1990s from only 14,400 visitors in 1990 to 500,200 in 1998. In 1997 tourism contributed US$73.3 million to the economy, representing 23 percent of export earnings. The designation of Luang Prabang, perhaps the best preserved traditional Southeast Asian city, as a world heritage site was definitely a positive development for Lao tourism. Other important tourist attractions in Laos are the Wat Phu ancient Khmer ruins in southern Laos, the Khon waterfalls in the same region, and the Plain of Jars in Xiengkuang Province. The latter area was heavily bombed during the U.S. War in Vietnam. In fact, as of 2001 Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world.
The Lao PDR is primarily an agricultural economy, with this sector contributing 51 percent of the GDP. Approximately 1,880,000 individuals are involved in agricultural work. Recently the Lao PDR conducted a major agricultural census which provides an excellent overview of the basic nature of Laos' agricultural system. The results of this survey indicate that 79.7 percent of the total population is engaged in farming. The average land holding is 1.62 hectares with 27 percent of households having 2 hectares or more and 36 percent having less than 1 hectare. An impressive 97 percent of farmers own their own land. About 93 percent of the area devoted to rice production is for the production of sticky rice, a subsistence crop used primarily for home consumption. Tree farming is another important part of Lao agricultural life. About 23 percent of such farms have mango trees, 17 percent coconut trees, 17 percent banana trees, 11 percent jackfruit trees, and 11 percent tamarind trees. Also 8 percent of farmers are engaged in aquaculture, and 71 percent do other fishing. Roughly 31 percent of farmers have cattle, 48 percent water buffaloes, 49 percent pigs (73 percent in the case of Hmong people), and 73 percent chickens.
Only 6 percent of farmers sell their total output, while 35 percent sell some of their farm output. This means that the majority of farmers (59 percent) are engaged solely in subsistence agriculture. The basic staple of such farmers is the production of sticky rice for local consumption. Unlike its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, the Lao PDR is not a rice exporting country. Their goal is simply to attain self-sufficiency in rice production, which is possible in good weather years. The production of sticky rice may be supplemented by vegetable gardens; animal raising (goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs); and mango, coconut, or banana trees. Some maize is also grown. In the tropical forests of Laos, there are also many edible wild plants and foods that are gathered, primarily by women. Hunting and fishing also supplement the subsistence diet and provide valuable protein. Lao greatly enjoy fishing.
In terms of tons of agricultural production, the top 5 crops in Laos in order of importance are rice, vegetables and beans, sugarcane, starchy roots, and tobacco. Since 1990, among these 5 leading crops, production of vegetables and beans has grown the fastest in percentage terms, followed by sugarcane. In the decade since 1990 rice production has increased 47.9 percent. Among agricultural products often produced as cash crops are mung-beans, soybeans, peanuts, tobacco, cotton, sugarcane, coffee, and tea.
Given its subsistence nature, Lao agriculture has not played a major role in the country's foreign trade. The major export products from Laos' agricultural sector are timber, lumber, plywood, and coffee. The major agricultural imports are sugar, condensed milk, and long-grain rice.
Numerous city dwellers have rural roots and the Lao love gardening. Thus, some urban dwellers supplement limited cash incomes by having gardens, small fish ponds, or raising animals. They also may engage in fishing in the Mekong River, hunting, and the gathering wild foods. Some urban dwellers in the capital of Vientiane cultivate gardens along the Mekong River during the dry season.
FORESTRY AND LOGGING.
The Lao PDR has extensive tropical forests containing many valuable hardwoods such as teak. With a total ban on logging in Thailand, there is considerable demand for Lao wood products from other Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. Malaysia has projects for teak cultivation in southern Laos. The Lao military is involved in timber exploitation. In 1991, timber and furniture exports totaled 39.2 percent of all exports, while in 1996 such exports dropped to 28 percent. In 1998, export of all types of wood products brought in US$115.4 million to the Lao economy.
Deforestation and the need for sustainable forestry are major environmental issues facing the Lao PDR and its agricultural/rural sector. The Lao are very conscious that much of Thailand's northeast was deforested as the result of expanded rice field acreage. Also, upland agricultural production can result in serious deforestation. The reduction of upland rice production and the expansion of irrigated rice lands to allow more crops on a given piece of land should help preserve Lao forests by reducing the need to expand acreage at the expense of forests.
A major recent policy is an ambitious irrigation project. Given the spread of the contagion of the Asian economic crisis to Laos, organizations such as the IMF strongly urged restrictive monetary and fiscal policies . The Lao PDR ignored the policy dictates of the IMF and instead they moved boldly ahead with a major rural irrigation infrastructure project. For doing this they were severely criticized by the international financial community, and no doubt this expansionary program contributed to both inflation and the devaluation of the Lao kip. In continuing their agricultural irrigation program, the Lao government was both demonstrating its economic sovereignty and also clearly putting the interests of the Lao agricultural sector ahead of those in urban communities which are most severely affected by inflation.
The French scholar Catherine Aubertin argues that Lao agricultural policy favors the lowland Lao over the upland Lao because of its resettlement schemes to decrease slash and burn agriculture in mountainous areas. The Lao government feels such policies are essential for forest conservation.
The Lao PDR has relatively little industry. This sector employed only 3.3 percent of the workforce in 1995. There is no heavy industry and much of the country's industry is comprised of smaller companies. In 1999, there were only 108 establishments in the whole country with more than 100 employees. However, there were 19,797 establishments with fewer than 9 employees. These small establishments are involved primarily in the production of textiles and handicrafts. Laos is well known for the high quality of its aesthetically attractive textiles. Even though industry plays a small role in the Lao economy, its importance has increased significantly. In 1987, industry represented only 11 percent of the GDP of the Lao PDR, while in 1999, it represented 22 percent, doubling since the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism policy.
The following are the principal products manufactured in the Lao PDR: oxygen-acetylene, battery acid, industrial alcohol, detergent powder, soap, shoes made of animal skin, leather, medical drugs, fans, vaccines, plastic goods, timber, lumber, plywood, flood lumber, rattan furniture, books, fabrics, clothing, bricks, blocks, cement, tiles, chalk, lime, electric poles, agricultural tools, tin plates, nails, electric wire, and barbed wire. For the economy, the most significant of these are clothing/fabrics and rattan furniture. Manufacturing represented 16.5 percent of the GDP in 1999, up from 13.9 percent in 1995. Except for fabrics and clothing, most of these manufactured products are for local consumption. Laos' manufacturing export potential is currently limited by its status as a "non-market economy" restricting its access to U.S. and other developed country markets. Admission to the WTO and completion of a trade agreement with the United States are essential to enable Laos to have more secure access for its exports.
ELECTRICITY AND WATER.
Electric power generation is one of Lao's most significant industries. In 1998, the country produced 1.34 billion kWh of electric power. About 43 million cubic meters of water were produced and distributed, primarily in the 4 major urban areas for household and industrial use. Electricity and water production represented 2.3 percent of the GDP in 1999. As of the mid-1990s, only 1 percent of the country's vast electric potential had been exploited.
The Lao PDR has an abundant supply of minerals. Gypsum, for example, is exported to Vietnam. Tin, coal, lignite, and limestone are also mined. In the Vanvieng area, there is a major cement works, established with the assistance of the Chinese. Mining and quarrying, however, represented only .051 percent of the GDP in 1999, and minerals are not yet a significant export. The major problem in exploiting Lao mineral resources is their inaccessibility.
In recent years there have been a number of new construction projects mainly in the capital of Vientiane. International funding has assisted many of these projects. Among notable recent projects have been the Lao-Nippon Bridge, the new International Airport, the Lao Plaza Hotel, and the National Cultural Hall (with funding provided by the PRC). Construction in 1999 represented 2.6 percent of the GDP.
Services represented 27 percent of the Lao economy in 1999 and employed roughly 10 percent of the work-force. The largest component (37.2 percent) of the service sector is wholesale and retail trade. Perhaps the largest entities in this arena are Honda and Shell. Honda retails a wide variety of products, particularly motorcy- cles. With Laos' rapid economic development in the 1990s, many Lao in urban areas have up-graded from bicycles to motorcycles or scooters, or among elites from motorcycles to private cars or SUVs. Toyota, Pepsi Cola, and Bier Lao are also active retailers. In urban areas there are a large number of formal retail shops as well as a large informal economy . Those in the formal retail sector market a wide range of consumer goods. A large number of small family-owned stores sell a variety of low cost products for basic everyday needs. Those selling goods in the large informal economy are often selling agricultural products.
The next largest component of the service sector is represented by transportation, communications, and postal services (23 percent), followed by ownership and rental of dwellings (12.1 percent). The latter grew significantly in the 1990s with the presence of a growing expatriate community associated with diverse development aid activities who are in need of modern housing.
The public service still represents an important element of the service sector (11.6 percent), though the government, with assistance from organizations such as the World Bank has sought to reduce the size of the public sector. For the most part, the Lao government has used non-draconian methods to reduce the size of this sector. Considerable success has been achieved in reducing the size of the military, for example. The next most important component of the service sector is represented by hotels and restaurants (7.6 percent), reflective of the growing importance of tourism in the Lao economy.
In the Lao service economy, tourism has been a major growth area. Between 1991 and 1995, tourism grew approximately 60-fold, and from 1995 to 2000 it has more than doubled. On a per capita basis, Laos has even more tourists than Thailand. The major tourist attractions of the country are its rich culture and many Buddhist temples; Luang Prabang, the former royal capital in the north and a world cultural heritage site; the majestic Mekong River which flows through the country; and shopping for Lao textiles and handicrafts in Vientiane. Laos is also noted for its genuinely friendly people who warmly welcome tourists. By April 1999, tourism was the country's highest revenue earner, contributing US$79.9 million to the Lao economy. Despite such economic contributions, tourism employs at most only 3 percent of the non-farm workforce. Tourist facilities have improved significantly in recent years. There are now large numbers of hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants in major cities. Both Vientiane and Luang Prabang now offer some up-scale tourist facilities.
In the early 1990s banking reforms were introduced which diversified Laos' banking system. These reforms led to the National Bank being separated from 7 state-owned commercial banks such as the Lao Foreign Trade Bank (BCEL) and 5 regional banks. The reforms also opened the sector to international banks from Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In 1999, 6 of the 8 state-run commercial banks were merged into just 2 entities. Thus, the Bank of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (the national bank) now monitors a total of 14 banks consisting of 4 government banks, 3 joint banks (for example, the Lao-Viet Bank), and 7 foreign banks (6 Thai and 1 Malaysian). This network of local and international banks provides standard banking and financial services for both the average citizen and the commercial community. This banking component represents 5 percent of Laos' service sector. A major current issue facing the industry relates to questions about the solvency of the banking system as a result of the Asian regional economic crisis.
In the 1990s there were considerable diversification of Lao exports. Laos' largest export earner is timber and furniture (28 percent of exports), followed by garments (19.9 percent), raw logs (10.6 percent), electricity (9.2 percent), manufactured products (8.6 percent), coffee (7.7 percent), agricultural products (5.5 percent), gold re-ex-port (4.7 percent), and motorcycle assembly (3.9 percent). With respect to garment exports, Nike, for example, is now sourcing some apparel production in Laos. Imports are comprised primarily of consumer goods (44.6 percent), capital goods (40.2 percent), and industrial inputs (11.9 percent).
Approximately 52 percent of Laos' imports are from neighboring Thailand, while only 22 percent of its exports go to Thailand, reflecting a strong negative trade balance with that country. In contrast, 42.7 percent of Laos' exports go to Vietnam, while only 3.9 percent of its imports are from that country. Thus, Laos has an extremely favorable trade balance with Vietnam. Other leading export destinations for Laos are in order of importance (after Vietnam and Thailand): France (6.3 percent), Germany (5.1 percent), and the U.K. (4.7 percent). Since the Lao PDR does not have most favored nation
|Trade (expressed in billions of US$):Laos|
|SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook.|
status with the United States, it is difficult to export to the U.S. market. Major sources of imports (after Thailand and Vietnam) are Japan (1.6 percent) and Hong Kong (1.5 percent).
Prior to the communist revolution, Laos had a severe trade imbalance with exports being only a tiny fraction of imports. While Laos still imports much more than it exports, the ratio of exports to imports has steadily improved. In 1975, the first year of the current communist regime, Lao exports were only adequate to cover 12 percent of imports. In 1999, exports of US$271 million were sufficient to cover 55 percent of imports, which stood at US$497 million. Also, the total of exports plus imports divided by the GDP has also steadily increased, reflecting the internationalization of the Lao economy. By 1998 this ratio had reached 72 percent. To decrease its dependence on international aid and to alleviate poverty, the Lao government seeks to expand its exports. That is the primary rationale for its long-term plan to build more dams to produce electricity exports, an area in which Laos has a clear comparative advantage. Laos also has a comparative advantage in the export of textiles such as clothing and garments.
Laos' current trade deficit is financed by 2 primary sources: international aid, primarily provided by Japan, Australia, and Sweden; and growing financial remittances from Lao living overseas. The State Planning Committee in a December 1999 report indicated that the latter was the single most important source of income in the Vientiane Valley. Given the recent economic crisis, the government has also turned to both China and Vietnam for important economic assistance.
Since the establishment of the Lao PDR in 1975, the country has experienced periods of both currency stability and instability with related fluctuations in inflation. As part of the New Economic Mechanism introduced in 1986, the policy was to have a single exchange rate determined by market forces. During the early and mid-1990s the Lao PDR achieved impressive macroeconomic stability. However, contagion from the Asian economic crisis, especially in neighboring Thailand, eventually affected the Lao PDR dramatically in 1998 and 1999. The Lao currency at one point was worth only one-tenth of its previous value. It has since improved to be worth about one-seventh of its previous value. This led to 87.4 percent inflation in 1998 and 134 percent inflation in 1999.
In the year 2000 the currency stabilized and inflation fell to 33 percent. Monetary policy is implemented by the Bank of the Lao PDR, but it is certainly directly influenced by economic policies of the Party and Government.
|Exchange rates: Laos|
|new kips (K) per US$1|
|SOURCE : CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].|
POVERTY AND WEALTH
Though Laos is an extremely poor country with 46.1 percent living below the material poverty line in 1993, the country does not have the gross economic inequalities typical of many developing countries. Rural farmers generally have their own land and are engaged in subsistence agriculture which provides for certain basic needs. Major problems for the rural poor are access to quality health care and education.
There are also serious regional income disparities primarily between urban centers and remote rural areas, often mountainous areas with a large proportion of ethnic nationalities. An average person in the richest province, Vientiane, has approximately 2 and a half times more income than the average individual in the poorest province, Huaphanh. The incidence of poverty in rural areas (53 percent) is double that of urban areas (24 percent). The areas most economically disadvantaged tend to be those more remote areas inhabited by diverse ethnic communities.
Because of the country's low population density and its former socialist economic system, unemployment has not been a serious problem in the Lao PDR. The visible urban unemployment rate in Laos was 3.5 percent overall in 1994. The large informal sector also provides opportunities for those who cannot find meaningful em-
|GDP per Capita (US$)|
|SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.|
|Distribution of Income or Consumption by Percentage Share: Laos|
|Survey year: 1992|
|Note: This information refers to expenditure shares by percentiles of the population and is ranked by per capita expenditure.|
|SOURCE: 2000 World Development Indicators [CD-ROM].|
ployment in the formal sector. The Lao PDR has a progressive labor law, which is extremely specific related to working age, minimum wage, and overtime payments, for example. This labor law primarily covers those employees working in the modern formal sector. Women and children are active in the labor force, particularly in the agricultural sector and informal economy. Those able to attain higher levels of education can gain access to work in the public sector, the modern private sector , or with various international agencies and organizations present in the Lao PDR. Those with superior English language skills are particularly advantaged in the modern, urban labor market.
COUNTRY HISTORY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
1353-73. Reign of Fa Ngum, king of Lan Xang (the land of a million elephants), marks the beginning of recorded Lao history.
1633-90. The height of the Lan Xang kingdom occurs.
18TH CENTURY. Lan Xang breaks into 3 independent kingdoms.
19TH CENTURY. Lao kingdoms fall under the Siamese orbit, and many Lao people are repopulated to Siam as slave labor.
1890. French colonial rule in Laos begins.
1953. On 22 October, Laos achieves its independence from France.
1975. Declaration of the Lao People's Democratic Republic occurs on 2 December.
1981. First 5 Year Plan begins.
1986. New Economic Mechanism approved at Fourth Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) Congress paves the way for major economic reforms.
1994. Completion of Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River connects Laos and Thailand.
1997. Lao PDR becomes the eighth member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
1998-99. Asian economic crisis contagion spreads to the Lao PDR, leading to free fall of the Lao kip and triple digit inflation.
2000. The Lao-Nippon Bridge across the Mekong River is completed.
2000-01. Macroeconomic stability is restored.
With its low population density and favorable natural resources/people ratio, the Lao PDR has a potentially bright economic future. Assuming recovery from the Asian economic crisis, there should be growing demand in the long term for Laos' valuable energy exports, which will enable the country to become more economically self-sufficient and less dependent on international aid. There are many in the West who would like Laos to adopt a multi-party system similar to that in liberal democracies. Given the problems of money politics and instability in such systems, however, the Lao PDR is more oriented toward a single party political system to ensure stability and avoid policy gridlock often associated with unstable multiple party systems. Given the past economic performance of areas such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia, the Lao are confident that their current political system is compatible with dynamic economic growth and reaching its goal to liberate the country from underdevelopment and mass poverty by the year 2020.
Laos has no territories or colonies.
Anderson, Kym. Lao Economic Reform & WTO Accession: Implications for Agriculture and Rural Development. Adelaide: Center for International Economic Studies, 1999.
Annual Report 1999. Vientiane: Bank of the Lao PDR, 1999.
Aubertin, Catherine. "Institutionalizing Duality: Lowlands and Uplands in the Lao PDR." IIAS Newsletter. Vol. 24, February 2001.
Basic Statistics of the Lao P.D.R. 1975-2000. Vientiane: StatePlanning Committee, National Statistics Center, 2000.
Bounthavy, Sisouphanthong, and Christian Taillard. Atlas of Laos: Spatial Structures of the Economic and Social Development of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2000.
Bourdet, Yves. The Economics of Transition in Laos: From Socialism to ASEAN Integration. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2000.
Chazée, Laurent. The Peoples of Laos: Rural and Ethnic Diversities. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1999.
Economist Intelligence Unit. Country Profile: Laos. London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2001.
Freeman, Nick. "Laos: Economy." Far East and Australasia 2001. 32nd ed. London: Europa Publications, 2001.
Fry, Gerald W. "The Future of the Lao PDR: Relations withThailand and Alternative Paths to Internationalization." New Laos, New Challenges, edited by Jacqueline Butler-Diaz. Tempe, AZ: Program for Southeast Asian Studies Monograph Series, Arizona State University, 1998.
Fry, Gerald W., and Manynooch Nitnoi Faming. "Laos." The Southeast Asia Handbook, edited by Patrick Heenan and Monique Lamontagne. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001.
Hopkins, Susanna. "The Economy." Laos: A Country Study, edited by Andrea Matlas Savada. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1995.
"Laos." Asia 2001 Yearbook. Hong Kong: Far Eastern EconomicReview, 2000.
Murphy, Dervla. One Foot in Laos. London: John Murray, 1999.
National Human Development Report 1998. Vientiane: StatePlanning Committee, National Statistics Center, UNDP, 1998.
Osborne, Milton. The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000.
Pham, Chi Do, editor. Economic Development in Lao P.D.R.: Horizon 2000. Vientiane: IMF and Bank of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, 1994.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook 2000. <http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html>. Accessed August 2001.
—Gerald W. Fry
COPYRIGHT 2002 The Gale Group Inc.
Laos (lä´ōs), officially Lao People's Democratic Republic, republic (2005 est. pop. 6,217,000), 91,428 sq mi (236,800 sq km), SE Asia. A landlocked nation, Laos is bordered by China on the north, by Vietnam on the east, by Cambodia on the south, and by Thailand and Myanmar on the west. The capital and largest city is Vientiane.
Land and People
The Mekong River, most of which flows in a broad valley, forms much of the boundaries with Myanmar and Thailand. For two stretches, however—one greater than 300 mi (480 km)—the Mekong flows entirely through the territory of Laos. Except for the Mekong lowlands and three major plateaus, the terrain of Laos is rugged, mountainous, and heavily forested; jagged crests in the north tower over 9,000 ft (2,740 m). In addition to the capital, important cities include Savannaket, Pakse, and Luang Phabang (the former royal capital).
Laos is one of the nations of Southeast Asia least touched by modern civilization. There are no railroads; roads and trails are limited; and use of the country's main communications artery, the Mekong River, is impeded by many falls and rapids. More than half the people live along the Mekong and its tributaries, and most are subsistence farmers. The urban areas are more prosperous, with a slowly growing middle class.
About two thirds of the population are Lao Loum, a people ethnically related to the Thai, who live along the Mekong River valley. The Lao Theung or Mountain Mon Khmer (about 22% of the population) generally reside in upland valleys. Highland groups include the Hmong (Meo), Yao (Mien), Black Thai, Dao, and several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples. There are also important minorities of Vietnamese and Chinese. A majority of Laotians are Theravada Buddhists; although the mountain peoples are generally animists, some have adopted Buddhism. Lao is the official language; French and English are also spoken.
Laos is one of Asia's poorest nations. Agriculture employs most of the Laotian workforce and accounts for about half of its gross domestic product. Rice is by far the chief crop; sweet potatoes, vegetables, corn, and peanuts are also grown. Commercial crops include coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, and tea. Illegal opium and cannabis were long produced in the northwest, part of the "Golden Triangle" (which also includes neighboring portions of Thailand and Myanmar), but production there was largely eradicated by 2005. Water buffalo, pigs, cattle, and poultry are raised, and fish from the rivers supplement the diet. Forests cover over half of the country; tropical hardwoods are cut and lac is extracted; much timber is exported illegally to Vietnam. Copper, gold, tin, and gypsum are mined; other mineral resources include gemstones. Manufacturing is limited; textiles and garments are the most important products. Tourism has become increasingly significant in the 21st cent, providing service jobs for Laotians.
Laos has significant hydroelectric potential and, despite a relative lack of development, electricity is a prime export, mainly to Thailand. The other principal exports are textiles and garments, timber and wood products, coffee, and tin. Since machinery and equipment, vehicles, fuel, and most consumer goods have to be imported, there is a continuing foreign trade deficit. Leading trade partners are Thailand, Vietnam, and China. In an attempt to expand the nation's economy, a foreign investment law was passed in 1989; the statute was further liberalized in 1994, and since the start of the 21st cent. the government has sought increasingly to develop the private sector.
Laos is governed under the constitution of 1991. The president, who is the head of state, is elected by the legislature for a five-year term. The government is headed by the premier, who is appointed by the president. The unicameral legislature consists of the 115-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected for five-year terms. The only permitted political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary party (the Lao Communist party). Administratively, the country is divided into fifteen provinces and one municipality (the capital).
Early History to Independence
The Laotians are descendants of Thai tribes that were pushed southward from Yunnan, China, in the 13th cent. and gradually infiltrated the territory of the Khmer Empire. In the mid-14th cent. a powerful kingdom called Lan Xang was founded in Laos by Fa Ngoun (1353–73), who is also credited with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism and much of Khmer civilization into Laos. Lan Xang waged intermittent wars with the Khmer, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai, and by the 17th cent. it held sway over sections of Yunnan, China, of S Myanmar, of the Vietnamese and Cambodian plateaus, and large stretches of N Thailand. In 1707, however, internal dissensions brought about a split of Lan Xang into two kingdoms: Luang Phabang in upper (northern) Laos and Vientiane in lower (southern) Laos. During the next century the two states, constantly quarreling, were overrun by the armies of neighboring countries.
In the early 19th cent. Siam was dominant over the two Laotian kingdoms, although Siamese claims were disputed by Annam. After French explorations in the late 19th cent. Siam was forced (1893) to recognize a French protectorate over Laos, which was incorporated into the union of Indochina. During World War II, Laos was gradually occupied by the Japanese, who in 1945 persuaded the king of Luang Phabang to declare the country's independence.
In 1946 the French reestablished dominion over Laos, recognizing the king as constitutional monarch of the entire country. The French granted an increasing measure of self-government, and in 1949 Laos became a semiautonomous state within the French Union. In 1951, a Communist Laotian nationalist movement, the Pathet Lao, was formed by Prince Souphanouvong in North Vietnam. In 1953, Pathet Lao guerrillas accompanied a Viet Minh invasion of Laos from Vietnam and established a government at Samneua in N Laos. That year Laos attained full sovereignty; admission into the United Nations came in 1955.
A New Nation's Struggles
The new country faced immediate civil war as Pathet Lao forces, supported by the Viet Minh, made incursions into central Laos, soon occupying sizable portions of the country. Agreements reached at the Geneva Conference of 1954 provided for the withdrawal of foreign troops and the establishment of the Pathet Lao in two northern provinces. In 1957 an agreement was reached between the royal forces and the Pathet Lao, but in 1959 the coalition government collapsed and hostilities were renewed.
A succession of coups resulted (1960) in a three-way struggle for power among neutralist, rightist, and Communist forces. The Communist Pathet Lao rebels remained under the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong in the northern provinces. The right-wing government of Boun Oum, installed in Vientiane, was recognized by the United States and other Western countries and controlled the bulk of the royal Laotian army. The Soviet Union and its allies continued to recognize the deposed neutralist government of Souvanna Phouma, who had fled to neighboring Cambodia.
In May, 1961, with Pathet Lao and neutralist forces in control of about half the country, a cease-fire was arranged. A 14-nation conference convened in Geneva, producing (1962) another agreement providing for the neutrality of Laos under a unified government. A provisional coalition government, with all factions represented, was accordingly established under the premiership of Souvanna Phouma. Attempts to integrate the three military forces failed, however, and the Pathet Lao began moving against neutralist troops.
Open warfare resumed in 1963, and the Pathet Lao, bolstered by supplies and troops from North Vietnam, solidified control over most of N and E Laos. Disgruntled right-wing military leaders staged a coup in 1964 and attempted to force the resignation of Souvanna Phouma; the United States and the Soviet Union emphasized their support of the premier, however, and he remained in office with a right-wing neutralist government.
The Vietnam War and Communist Rule
Pathet Lao guerrilla activity decreased after the start (1965) of U.S. bombings of North Vietnamese military bases and communications routes. The bombings also included attacks on what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a North Vietnamese supply route through E Laos. Communist pressure increased during 1969, and early in 1970 the Pathet Lao launched several major offensives. Early in 1971, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laotian territory in an unsuccessful attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. The attack drove the North Vietnamese deeper into Laos, and Laos became another battleground of the Vietnam War, with heavy U.S. aerial bombardments.
During this period, the United States extended enormous military and economic aid to the Laotian government, armed Hmong tribes (who also fought in Vietnam), and financed the use of Thai mercenary troops, whose numbers peaked to over 21,000 in 1972. The Pathet Lao, supported by North Vietnamese troops, scored major gains, consolidating their control over more than two thirds of Laotian territory (but over only one third of the population). Heavy fighting persisted until Feb., 1973, when a cease-fire was finally declared. A final agreement between the government and the Pathet Lao, concluded in Sept., 1973, provided for the formation of a coalition government under the premiership of Souvanna Phouma (inaugurated in Apr., 1974), the stationing of an equal number of government and Pathet Lao troops in the two capitals, and the withdrawal of all foreign troops and advisers.
After Communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Pathet Lao took control of the country in 1975, abolished the monarchy, and made Laos a republic. Souphanouvong became president, and Kaysone Phomvihane, head of the Communist party, became premier. Huge numbers of Laotians (many Hmong) fled to Thailand and many eventually sought refuge in the United States. (Small Hmong forces, however, continued to fight against the Communists into the 21st cent.) Laos became increasingly dependent on Vietnam for military and economic assistance, and the two countries signed a 25-year treaty of friendship in 1977.
In the early 1990s Laos abandoned economic communism for capitalism, but the party retained tight political control, and political dissent was harshly suppressed. Meanwhile, the nation pursued improved relations with such former enemies as China, Thailand, and the United States. Kaysone became president in 1991. He died the following year and was succeeded as president by Nouhak Phoumsavan. Khamtay Siphandone, a former military leader of the Pathet Lao, became party leader and, when Nouhak retired in 1998, assumed the job of president as well. Laos was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. Khamtay retired as party leader in Mar., 2006; he was succeeded in the post by Vice President (and Lt. Gen.) Choummaly Sayasone, who also succeeded Khamtay as president in June, 2006. Vice President Bounnhang Vorachith succeeded Choummaly in 2016; he was elected party leader in January and president in April.
See M. S. Viravong, History of Laos (tr. 1959, repr. 1964); H. Toye, Laos: Buffer State or Battleground (1968); P. F. Langer and J. J. Zasloff, North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao (1970); M. Gdański, Notes of a Witness: Laos and the Second Indochinese War (1973); P. Ratnam, Laos and the Super Powers (1980); A. J. Dommen, Laos (1985); N. B. Hannah, The Key to Failure: Laos and the Vietnam War (1988).
Copyright The Columbia University Press
Official name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
Area: 236,800 square kilometers (91,400 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount Bia (2,820 meters/9,252 feet)
Lowest point on land: Mekong River (70 meters/230 feet)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 7 p.m. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 1,162 kilometers (722 miles) from south-southeast to north-northwest; 478 kilometers (297 miles) from east-northeast to west-southwest
Land boundaries: 5,083 kilometers (3,151 miles) total boundary length; Myanmar (Burma) 235 kilometers (146 miles); Cambodia 541 kilometers (335 miles); China 423 kilometers (262 miles); Thailand 1,754 kilometers (1087 miles); Vietnam 2,130 kilometers (1321 miles)
Territorial sea limits: None
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Laos, the only landlocked Southeast Asian country, lies at the heart of the Indochina h2ninsula. With an area of 236,800 square kilometers (91,400 square miles), it is slightly larger than the state of Utah and contains sixteen provinces.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Laos has no territories or dependencies.
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate with three seasons: a cool, dry season in November through February; a hot, dry season in March and April; and a rainy season in May through October. Temperatures average 28°C (82°F), ranging from highs of 40°C (104°F) along the Mekong in March and April to lows of 5°C (41°F) in the mountains in January. Humidity averages 70 to 80 percent. Annual rainfall in Laos averages 175 centimeters (69 inches). Most of this rain occurs during the southwest monsoon between May and October. Rainfall can be anywhere from 127 to 229 centimeters (50 to 90 inches) during this period.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Laos consists of a northern region centered on the Mekong River valley, with a narrower panhandle extending off to the southeast. Less than three-fifths of the national territory is contained in the northern section of the country, and over two-fifths is in the country's southern panhandle. Away from the Mekong, the high mountains of the Annamese Cordillera extend across the country.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Laos is a landlocked nation. The closest sea is the Gulf of Tonkin of the Pacific Ocean.
6 INLAND LAKES
Laos boasts few lakes. The largest by far is Ngum Reservoir.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
The Mekong River and its tributaries drain almost all of Laos. Only a few small rivers in the east flow into Vietnam and from there to the Pacific Ocean. The Mekong flows through Laos for 1,805 kilometers (1,122 miles) and is the center of its economic life. The north is the only part of the country where the river is entirely within Laos's borders. The Mekong's tributaries in the north include the Tha and the Ou Rivers, as well as the Ngum River. In the south the main tributaries are the Kading, Bangfai, Banghiang, and Dôn Rivers. Another large tributary, the Kong, flows south from Laos into Cambodia before joining the Mekong.
The Khone waterfall, one of the largest waterfalls in southeast Asia, was a barrier to invaders who wanted to enter Laos by river.
There are no desert regions in Laos.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
The most extensive and fertile flatlands are found in the valleys and flood plains of the Mekong and its tributaries. Laos has several areas of karst limestone hill formations, including Vangvieng in the northwest and Nam Phoun, a National Biodiversity Area in the northeast.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
Northern and northeastern Laos, north of the Laotian panhandle and away from the Mekong River, is characterized by rugged mountain terrain. The main ranges run from northeast to southwest, and are sharp-crested and steep-sloped. Several ranges are around 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) in height, and many peaks are well over 1,829 meters (6,000 feet). The country's highest mountain, Mount Bia (Phou Bia), rising 2,820 meters (9,252 feet) above sea level, is situated here, near the beginning of the panhandle.
The chief topographic feature of the Laotian panhandle is the Annamese Cordillera, which runs along the entire eastern side of this region. The chain parallels the flow of the Mekong River. The mountains in its upper portion have deep valleys and rugged peaks over 1,524 meters (5,000 feet), including Mount Rao (2,234 meters/7,331 feet). South of the Cammon Plateau, the chain enters a region characterized by steep ridges and peaks and sinkholes, followed by the Bolovens Plateau. From this point to the southern end of Laos, the chain again becomes very rugged.
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Where the Mekong River enters Laos, it runs through steep limestone gorges north of the city of Louangphrabang. The Hin Boon River in central Laos cuts through narrow limestone canyons.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
The Plain of Jars (Thong Hai Hin) is located on the Xiangkhoang Plateau, in the northern part of the country, lying mostly between about 1,015 and 1,219 meters (3,330 and 4,000 feet) above sea level. The Phouane Plateau is another major plateau region in northern Laos. At the neck of the panhandle section, several plateaus, including the Cammon and Nakai plateaus, buttress the Annamese Cordillera. The fertile Bolovens Plateau in the south, rising to about 1,067 meters (3,500 feet), is almost completely encircled by a high escarpment.
DID YOU KNOW?
Many bomb craters from the United States' aerial bombardment of Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, during the Vietnam War, have filled with water, becoming ponds.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
The Nam Ngum hydropower dam created the Ngum reservoir, which covers an area of 250 square kilometers (96 square miles). About one-quarter of the Nakai Plateau is slated to be flooded by the Nam Theun II dam project.
14 FURTHER READING
Eliot, Joshua, and Jane Bickersteth. Footprint Laos Handbook. Bath, UK: Footprint Handbooks, 2000.
Savada, Andrea Matles, ed. Laos: A Country Study. Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1996.
Stuart-Fox, Martin. A History of Laos. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
"IRN's Mekong Campaign." International Rivers Network. http://www.irn.org/programs/mekong/ (accessed April 11, 2003).
Lao Embassy. Discovering Laos. http://www.laoembassy.com/discover/ (accessed April 11, 2003).
COPYRIGHT 2003 The Gale Group, Inc.
236,800sq km (91,428sq mi)
Lao 67%, Mon-Khmer 17%, Tai 8%
Buddhism 58%, traditional beliefs 34%, Christianity 2%, Islam 1%
Kip = 100 at
Land and climateMountains and high plateaus cover most of Laos. The highest point is Mount Bia, at 2817m (9242ft). Most people live on the plains bordering the River Mekong and its tributaries. The Mekong is one of Asia's longest rivers and forms much of Laos's nw and sw borders. The Annam Cordillera mountains form the e border with Vietnam. Laos has a tropical monsoon climate, with dry, sunny winters. Forests cover c.60% of the land.
History and PoliticsIn 1353, Fa Ngoun founded the kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants). Theravada Buddhism was adopted as the official religion. In 1707, it divided into the n kingdom of Luang Prabang and the s kingdom of Vientiane. Siam controlled both kingdoms in the early 19th century. In 1893, Siam submitted to French power, and Laos became part of French Indochina. In 1945, Japan occupied Laos. In 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, it became a semi-autonomous constitutional monarchy. In 1953 Laos achieved independence, but was plunged into civil war. The communist Patriotic Front (Pathet Lao) controlled most of n Laos, and royalist forces controlled Vientiane. For most of the next 22 years, sectarian conflict plagued Laos. The North Vietnamese use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos as a military supply line saw US bombardment of e Laos, and US military and financial support to the Laotian government against the Pathet Lao. By 1974, the Pathet Lao secured most of Laos. The success of the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War (1957–75) enabled the final victory of Pathet Lao. The King abdicated and a democratic republic proclaimed. Vietnam remained a powerful influence on Laos. In 1997, Laos joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The 1991 constitution confirmed the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) as the only legal political party. In 1998 Khamtai Siphandon, prime minister from 1991 to 1998, became president. He was re-elected in 2001.
EconomyLaos is one the world's poorest countries (2000 GDP per capita, US$1700). Agriculture employs c.76% of the workforce and accounts for 60% of GDP. Rice is the main crop; timber and coffee are also exported. Power stations along the Mekong produce hydroelectricity. The ‘Golden Triangle’, on the border with Cambodia and Burma, is the centre for the illegal production of opium. In 1997, Laos joined ASEAN.
© World Encyclopedia 2005, originally published by Oxford University Press 2005.
|Official Country Name:||Lao People's Democratic Republic|
|Region (Map name):||Southeast Asia|
|Language(s):||Lao, French, English,|
Laos, located in Southeast Asia northeast of Thailand and west of Vietnam, was settled between the fourth and eighth centuries and was known as the Lane Xang, or Million Elephants Kingdom. The French took control of the government in 1893—Europeans had been trading with Laos for more than 200 years—but the monarchy continued until Communists took control of the government and deposed the monarch in 1975. The state is headed by a President, who appoints a Prime Minister to preside over the unicameral, 99-seat National Assembly. The official language is Lao, but French is used in diplomacy and English and ethnic languages are also spoken. The approximate population is approximately 5.6 million, and the literacy rate is only 57 percent. Laos is a land-locked country with a primitive infrastructure. Its economy is dominated by fishing, forestry, and agriculture.
Because Laos is a Communist country, the government owns and supervises all media outlets, and it considers the role of the media to be furthering the national political agenda. Laos supports two daily newspapers, both of which are written in Lao. Pasason ("The People") is the national newspaper. Its approximate circulation is 10,000. The country's second daily, Vientiane Mai ("Vientiane Message"), predominantly serves the capital, Vientiane, and its circulation is approximately 5,000. Enjoying much smaller circulations are the Vientiane Times, a bi-weekly English-language newspaper, Vientiane Business-Social, a weekly English-language newspaper, and Le Rénovateur, a weekly newspaper published in French. Pasason Van Athit publishes every Sunday. The government also issues weekly and monthly publications sponsored by various government branches like the army and the Education Ministry.
There are 13 radio stations, 12 AM and one FM, for 730,000 radios. Two national television stations broadcast to 52,000 televisions. There is one Internet service provider.
"Country Profile." Worldinformation.com , 2002. Available from http://www.worldinformation.com.
"Laos." CIA World Fact Book. Directorate of Intelligence, 2001. Available from http://www.cia.gov.
"Mass Media News Organization," Lao News Agency, n.d. Available from http://asean.kplnet.net.
Jenny B. Davis
COPYRIGHT 2003 The Gale Group
Identification. The ethnic Lao in Laos account for 50 to 60 percent of the population, depending on how some subgroups are classified. The way people self-identify ethnically is often contextual. Related groups include the so-called tribal Tai, Black Tai, White Tai, and Red Tai. These groups are not Buddhists and are influenced by the neighboring Sino-Vietnamese culture. The country contained forty-three ethnic groups in 1995 according to the official classification, mostly in the countryside and mountains. The cities contain significant ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese populations.
Location and Geography. Laos is a landlocked Southeast Asian country surrounded by Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), and China. It has an area of about 91,400 square miles (236,800 square kilometer). A key physical feature is the Annamese Cordillera mountain range that runs from north to south, along the eastern border with Vietnam. There are other secondary ranges, and to the north of the capital, Vientiane, is the highest peak, Mount Bia. Out of these ranges all the main rivers flow from east to west into the Mekong River. In the north, the Mekong forms a short border with Burma and most of the border with Thailand. Along the rivers there are floodplains suitable for rice paddies. There are no extensive lowland plains. Upland soils are much less fertile, but there are two plains areas: the Plain of Jars, and the Boloven Plateau in Champassak Province. Most of the country is covered by monsoon forests with varied wildlife. A tropical monsoon climate is modified by the mountains. The wet season runs from May to October.
Vientiane was the capital of earlier Lao kingdoms. It was destroyed by the Siamese early in the nineteenth century, but the French reestablished Vientaine as the capital in 1893, when Laos became part of French Indochina. A royal capital existed in Luang Prabang until the fall of the monarchy in 1975. The two other main cities, Savannakhet and Pakse, are also on the Mekong.
Demography. In 1998, the population was 5,261,000. Urban dwellers made up 23 percent of the population. Close to 70 percent of the population is under 30 years old. Laos is one of the least densely populated countries in Asia.
Linguistic Affiliation. Lao is the language of government, education, and mass communications. Lao belongs to the Tai language family. There are variations in pronunciation and vocabulary from north to south. Most Lao understand and speak Thai. Lao has many borrowings from Pali and Sanskrit, particularly in its literary forms.
Among the minorities, there is the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Iu Mien) language group, mostly spoken in the north. Among the Hmong, Chinese characters are used in religious rituals. Many Hmong are fully literate in an orthography developed by missionaries, and there is a Hmong messianic script. Among the Iu-Mien (Yao), literate individuals use Chinese characters to write histories. Tibeto-Burman speakers, mainly in the north, also make use of Chinese characters for ritual purposes. Austronesian and Mon-Khmer speakers live in the north but are most heavily represented in the south. These groups have no indigenous tradition of literacy. Illiteracy is as high as 40 percent, primarily among older people and women. Because of the use of Lao as a lingua franca, most people have some knowledge of it, particularly for purposes of trading. Vietnamese and Chinese in urban areas have autonomous traditions of literacy, and have their own schools. The majority of them are also fluent in Lao.
Symbolism. The key national symbols are Buddhist, despite the fact that only around 60 percent of the population is Buddhist. Before the revolution in 1975, Buddhism and the monarchy were linked as key symbols. The Communist regime tried to substitute purely secular national symbols, and a calendar of mostly secular holidays was instituted. The flag of the first independence movement in 1945, the Lao Issara, replaced that of the Royal Lao Government (RLG). With the collapse of communism, the state has reverted to purely nationalist symbols; this "retraditionalizing" of the regime has meant a greater prominence for Buddhism. The national day of December 2 was celebrated after the revolution, but has been eclipsed by the celebration of the That Luang Festival. The That Luang stupa in Vientiane, built by the revered King Sethathirat, is one of the most sacred spaces and is recognized by all groups. Other national icons are also Buddhist, but some, such as the megalithic jars from the Plain of Jars, point to complex origins. Much of this iconography was pioneered by the RLG, including that associated with "hill tribes," who are typically presented in their "national dress." In general, national culture symbols are drawn fro Lao culture, suggesting that other ethnic groups are required to assimilate these symbols. This is a source of low-key contention in the country. The appropriation of "old regime" symbols has muted some of the conflict between refugee Lao and the LPDR (Lao People's Democratic Republic), but has led to debates over how much of the past to "revive."
Nowhere is this conflict clearer than in the declaration of the old royal capital as a national heritage city by UNESCO, thus making Luang Prabang a symbol of Lao culture and a tourist attraction. This dual use has led to debates about how much of the royal ("feudal") past should be revived. The communist government tried to promote a cult around the communist leader Kaysone Phomvihane after his death, and statues of him were erected all over the country.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation. The main parameters of the modern state were established by French colonialism between 1893 and 1954: The French delineated the borders and wrote the first national history of Laos. It was also the French who began restoring monuments and constructing a "national" literature. This work was continued by a small group of intellectuals under the RLG associated with the Literature Committee and by the Royal Academy. The LPDR has added little to this stock of national markers. A nationalist movement was encouraged by the French during World War II, and became an independence movement, the Lao Issara. This movement is a claimed by both Communists and anti-Communists. The current regime claims to be the true nationalist heir, but it came to power and survived only with the military assistance of the Vietnamese. This reliance tarnished its nationalist credentials after 1975, but declining reliance on Vietnam in the 1990s boosted those credentials.
National Identity. More people of Lao ethnic origin live in Thailand than in Laos. Laos was almost absorbed into Siam and that has tinged Lao national identity with fears of disappearance. The fact that most ethnic Lao in the Thai northeast do not identify themselves with the Lao nation-state is a source of confusion, blurring the cultural boundary between Laos and Thailand. Although Lao and Thai languages are very close, central Thai is the key cultural marker of the difference. However, many Lao consider Thai to be more developed than Lao. Lao identity may have been more clearly demarcated when it had a monarchy of its own. Now, many Lao follow the itineraries of Thai royalty as if to fill a cultural absence at home.
Ethnic Relations. An ethnic hierarchy exists, placing ethnic Lao at the apex. Many urban Chinese have assimilated into Lao culture, and even those who have not are considered to represent a major civilization. Vietnamese also have assimilated, and those who have not are situated just below the Chinese, though they are more disliked. A small Indian population lives in the urban areas, and dislike for them usually focuses on their dark skin, smell, and alleged deviousness. There is little intermarriage between them and Lao. The term "ethnic minorities" normally refers to the hill tribes. This initial bipolar categorization of ethnic Lao and minorities gives way to a threefold categorization of the population into Lao Lum (lowland, [ethnic,] Lao), Lao Theung (literally midland Lao), and Lao Soung (literally highland Lao). The government has attempted to come up with a comprehensive classification of the ethnic groups, which ranged in number from sixty-eight to forty-three in 1995. Ordinary Lao are likely to use the tripartite classification or even derogatory terms for those designated Lao Theung and Meo. Most disrespect is reserved for the Austronesian groups in the south, whose pipe-smoking women are singled out for comment. LPDR attempts at resettlement of minorities for political control, ecological preservation of forests, and delivery of social services have been poorly executed and have caused resentment. In the south, this has led to the breakup of matrilineal longhouses as groups are moved into standard housing. In the north, Hmong groups, have resisted these attempts at control, sometimes violently. In its early years the communist government highlighted its alleged respect for minority cultures, but today there is a greater emphasis on Lao culture.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
Laos is one of the least urbanized countries in Southeast Asia. Vientiane has around 500,000 people, many in rural districts. Savannakhet and Pakse are the next most important cities, while Luang Prabang is the most important historical city.
All these cities have a mixture of French colonial architecture, Buddhist architecture in temples, traditional Lao houses raised on stilts, American-style houses built in the 1950s and 1960s, and new large houses that imitate Thai styles. All these cities are built alongside rivers whose banks provide major recreational spaces.
Most Lao people live in rural villages clustered around a temple. Lao, Tai, and groups such as the Khmu live in houses raised off the ground on stilts. In Khmu villages, instead of a temple, there may be a communal house for meetings, usually used by men. Hmong, Iu Mien, and some other groups in the north build large sturdy houses on the ground. In the south, among the Ta Oi, there are still villages with matrilineally organized longhouses. The temple in most Lao villages remains the main center for social and recreational activities, usually associated with religious celebrations.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life. Sticky rice is the staple. Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, and some other groups favor nonsticky varieties that can be eaten with chopsticks or spoons rather than with fingers. Spoons and forks are used to manipulate the dishes that accompany the rice, while sticky rice may be dipped directly into condiments of chili paste and fish paste. Soup is a regular feature of meals. In the countryside, people eat chopped raw meat and foods gathered from the surrounding forests. Hygiene campaigns have caused a decline in the eating of raw foods in cities. Laab, finely chopped meat with spices, is a favorite dish that can be eaten raw or cooked. For most lowland Lao, fish dishes are a central part of the diet. Relatively little pork is eaten, and chicken, buffalo, or beef is more common. An important culinary change in the main cities since the revolution is a spread of dog eating, which previously was associated with Vietnamese and Sino-Viet groups. Dog meat is considered a "strong" male dish and is accompanied by strong liquor. Rice whisky often accompanies snack eating among males, and heavy drinking usually occurs on ceremonial occasions. At the New Year heavy female drinking also occurs. In the countryside and mountains, fermented rice "beer" is drunk from jars using bamboo straws. In the cities, beer consumption is widespread.
Influenced by the French, many Lao in cities and small market towns drink coffee and eat bread at breakfast, which strikes Thai visitors as exotic. In the cities there are French, Indian, and Chinese restaurants that cater mainly to foreigners. The dish ordinary Lao most commonly consume in roadside restaurants is feu, a soup-noodle dish imported from Vietnam.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Lao do not reserve special foods for the New Year or other occasions, and foods generally do not have special meanings. Khao poun, a fermented rice vermicelli, signifies life piling up over the years, while aab means luck. Celebrations involve more food and a greater variety of foods, with more sweets, desserts and alcohol. These are occasions for reinforcing village reciprocity and solidarity. End of harvest celebrations are similar.
Buddhists make offerings of food to monks from the local temple. Usually this is done when the monks file through the village or city early in the morning. Among some southern minority groups large buffalo sacrifices take place, but they have been discouraged by the government. Less spectacular sacrificing of buffaloes and other animals occurs among all the ethnic groups.
Basic Economy. Paddy rice and rice grown in swiddens (slash-and-burn agriculture) in hilly areas provides subsistence for the majority of the population. Maize is important for some upland groups. The rural population consumes most of the food it produces, but Laos is a net importer of food, primarily from Thailand. Market exchange for food occurs in occasional markets and small market towns for most rural people. These towns are also conduits for industrially produced commodities for households and farms. In more remote areas, industrially produced cloth and clothing gives way to home-produced clothes. Market gardening increases near large towns and cities.
Land Tenure and Property. Under the RLG, land that was not freehold was technically Crown Land. However, there was a commercial market for land in the towns and some freehold titles were granted to people in the countryside. After the revolution property was nationalized. Only after the economic reforms of the 1990s was private ownership recognized and a foreign-assisted land-titling program now grants ninety-nine year leases and allows for commercial transfer. Most land is subject to recognition of rights through use. In the upland Tai areas there is still a traditional system of mixed communal and family land ownership. Rights to swiddens are based on use. Customary rights are exercised over rivers, streams and ponds, and communal rights apply to some forests.
Commercial Activities. After the revolution, there was a massive contraction of commercial activity, especially in services. The liberalization of the 1990s led to the re-emergence of private banking and legal and commercial consultants and an expansion of private restaurants and retail outlets that sell handicrafts such as weaving.
Major Industries. Logging and timber have been the major industries and are run by the state and army-controlled companies. In the 1990s, there was a rapid expansion of foreign-owned garment-making factories. Hydroelectric power generation is another major industry.
Trade. The main items traded internationally are hydroelectricity sold to Thailand, timber, and garments. Imports include gasoline, vehicles, heavy industrial equipment, and most goods related to light manufacturing. The economy has a chronic trade deficit.
Division of Labor. Beyond gender, there is no marked or customary division of labor. Because Laos remains an overwhelmingly peasant society and because there is little manufacturing or industry in and around the cities, a modern, elaborate division of labor remains rudimentary. There are a small number of professionals, such as lawyers, operating in the capital, but most indigenous expertise is located in the state. Besides this, there is a significant foreign aid community that provides a body of professionals across the board. Historically, the Vietnamese have functioned as tradesmen and laborers in the cities, which they still do to some extent.
Classes and Castes. Since the abolition of the aristocracy in 1975, there have been no hereditary castelike groups. Many members of the aristocracy fled after the revolution, as did members of the state-based elite, such as army generals, and capitalists and commercial traders, many of whom were Chinese or Vietnamese. The new elite was composed of the upper echelons of the communist state apparatus. With liberalization, this access to power has allowed these groups to branch out into private enterprise. Foreign investment and foreign aid led to corruption in the upper echelons of the state, which then became pervasive throughout. A very small urban-based middle class has begun to form, but most people belong to the peasantry and are powerless and poor.
Symbols of Social Stratification. Before the revolution, some styles of dress and fabrics were reserved for the king and his court. Formal dress for all groups imitated courtly style and included the sampot for men and the sinh skirt for women. The sampot is a traditional form of dress not unlike the Indian dhoti in which the corner of cloth is drawn up between the legs and tucked in at the back, thus forming a kind of billowing short trousers. The sinh is a long traditional skirt that is usually made of silk and that features a wide and often elaborately woven section at the foot. Minorities, especially women, wore Lao dress or traditional dress. After the revolution egalitarian dress was emphasized. In the 1990s much of the older dress style came back as the new rich elite publicly flaunted their wealth, and elite men now wear business suits. In everyday life dress styles have diversified.
Courtly language was abolished after 1975, and egalitarian forms such as "comrade" became widespread. Deferential forms continued to be used with Buddhist monks and in the family. With the formation of the new elite and liberalization, these deferential forms have reemerged in public life.
Government. Until 1975, the RLG attempted to maintain a fragile liberal democracy, but it was undermined by the conditions of war. Since 1975 the country has been a communist one-party state. Until the proclamation of a constitution in 1991, the Communist Party ruled by decree. The constitution provides for a National Assembly that is elected for terms of five years. While seats are contested and contestants do not have to be members of the Communist Party, they must be approved by that party before running for office. No other parties are allowed. The country is administratively divided into sixteen provinces, and key positions in the provincial administration are held by party members. A judicial system was reestablished in the 1990s, partly because of the demands of foreign investors, but judicial decisions are not independent of the ruling party. A major instrument of government is the Lao Front for National Reconstruction, which controls all the major social and cultural organizations, such as the Buddhist Sangha, the Lao Womens' Union, the Trade Unions, and youth organizations.
Leadership and Political Officials. The key to political advancement is a membership in of the Lao Peoples' Revolutionary Party. In the early years of the regime, political criteria for membership were paramount, including "class background." As a new elite has consolidated itself, family politics and connections have come to play a prominent role in gaining access to the party and the privileges that flow from it. Members of the old grand families have gradually been able, through intermarriage with the emerging communist elite, to "cancel out" their class background for political purposes while trading on their possession of cultural and economic capital. This elite has gravitated toward deeply rooted symbolic practices of power, such as sponsoring temple rebuilding and the casting of Buddha images. With the growing economic power of these new elite families, more conventional entourages have gathered around "big men," who demand deference, which was frowned upon in the egalitarian aftermath of the revolution.
Social Problems and Control. After the revolution, socially undesirable people such as prostitutes were sent to "reeducation" camps and the army and party exerted social control. Movement was restricted, and visitors had to be reported to the village head. Permission had to be sought for celebrations such as marriages and housewarmings. After the 1990s, restrictions on domestic and international travel were eased. The liberalization that occurred in the 1990s has seen the opening of discos and bars in urban centers and the reemergence of prostitution, drug use, and petty crime. This is the product of an inadequate education system and a lack of economic opportunities for youth. To deal with this and "spiritual pollution," the authorities occasionally crack down on bars and insist that women wear traditional dress, men not grow their hair long, and less foreign music be played. In rural villages, disputes are handled as much as possible by village committees, usually made up of senior men. Intravillage disputes are handled by the district administration, with attempts to follow party guidelines and local customs. In general, the aim is to achieve a consensus.
Military Activity. The government that came to power in 1975 was largely oriented toward military activity, and military norms were dominant in its early years. However, the leadership of the Communist Party was primarily made up of professional politicians. In the 1990s, this changed as professional soldiers took key positions of power in the state and the party. The current government combines elements of an orthodox communist state and a military dictatorship. The rise of the military is partly a product of the waning of orthodox communism, but the military also has come to play an important economic role.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
Social welfare is orientated toward state and party officials, with the amount of benefit varying according to rank. Housing is one of the most important benefits. Health care was once important but has become increasingly privatized. Other welfare and change programs, such as child care, AIDS, and women's education programs, are financed and partly run by bilateral aid donors and international organizations.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
Nongovernment Organizations (NGOs) established by Lao nationals are not permitted. International NGOs have been allowed to operate since the early 1990s, but they have to be connected to a particular ministry or government organization so their activities can be monitored. Relations between some NGOs and the government have been strained, particularly over the issues of dam building and the relocation of minorities. Attempts to establish an informal NGO forum to discuss development issues have failed. Nevertheless, their presence has seen the emergence of discussions of politically related social and cultural issues, in which Lao employees participate.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender. Besides age, gender is the main way in which social roles and practices are organized. In Buddhism, men are the main religious leaders as monks, and while women can become nuns, it does not entail a sacred transformation. Women are the main everyday supporters of Buddhism. Shamanism among Lao is usually a prerogative of women. There are male shamans, but monks often traffic in magic and preempt their role. Among non-Lao groups, men play the main role as religious practitioners, usually practicing a form of shamanism. In rural areas there is no separation of tasks by gender, except for weaving, and, among the Hmong, sewing. There is a tendency for women to be concerned with household chores and 'lighter' work. Women have played a major role in petty trade, and recently in long-distance trade. Men predominate in public political positions, but this is slowly changing.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women were given full citizenship rights in 1957 when they received the right to vote, ten years after men attained that right. Since that time they have been formally equal in the eyes of the state. Socially and culturally, their status has been ambiguous. Among the Lao, women have considerable social and cultural status by virtue of the tendency toward matrilocality. This gathers together groups of related females and unrelated males and thus potentially strengthens female solidarity and influence. While men are considered culturally superior because of their ability to become monks this status is affected by social class. Men have status because they occupy key positions in the public realm. Women have relatively high standing in the private and civic realms. Among patrilineal groups such as the Hmong, women have less influence socially and culturally; among the matrilineal groups in the south, such as the Ta Oy, they have relatively high status. As these groups are resettled, however, that status rapidly collapses.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Marriage. Ethnic Lao partners have a considerable degree of freedom in choosing a spouse, although there is some preference for cousins. Parents may propose a potential spouse and must be consulted about potential marriage partners. A payment like a bride-price is made, and its value varies considerably. The marriage ceremony usually takes place in the bride's family home. At the center of the ritual is a spirit-calling ceremony. Groups were allowed before 1975, when they were outlawed, and reemerged unofficially in the 1990s. Divorce can be initiated by either party and is not uncommon. Among patrilineal groups, parents play a much more active role in choosing spouses for their children. Among the Hmong, there has been some practice of so-called marriage by capture. Residence in these cases is patrilocal. Polygyny is found among some highland groups.
Domestic Unit. A tendency toward matrilocality among ethnic Lao means that the main house at the center of a group of related women almost always contains a stem family. The oldest daughter and her husband move out after the marriage of the next daughter but try to live nearby or in the same compound. The main house usually is inherited by the youngest daughter, who is responsible for the care of aging parents. The proximity of nuclear households and their continued relationship with the main house creates the appearance of a modified extended family. However, these new units move eventually, separate from the original main house and become main houses. Among highland patrilineal groups, there are large houses containing extended families of related brothers, while in the southern highlands, there are extended families of related women. Men generally are recognized as the household head for religious and political purposes.
Inheritance. Aside from the inheritance of the main house by the youngest daughter among ethnic Lao, inheritance tends to be equal between sons and daughters. Residential practices determine what is inherited, with those moving away, most often sons, selling land to their sisters or leaving it in their care. The passing on of a house and productive land signals the passing of authority from one generation to another. Jewelry and woven cloth pass from mothers to daughters. Among patrilineal highlanders, houses and land, if they are held by residentially stable groups, are passed through sons, usually the eldest, while daughters are given a substantial dowry.
Kin Groups. Kinship among the Lao is reckoned bilaterally, and there is little genealogical consciousness beyond two generations except among the former aristocracy. Patrilineal clans and lineages can be found among the Hmong, Iu Mien, Khmu, and others; these clans are exogamous.
Infant Care. Little research has been done on infant care among all groups in Laos. Among ethnic Lao, babies are constantly in the care of the mother and are fed on demand. With babies and children, separation is avoided and crying is actively discouraged. Usually the whole family sleeps together until the children reach puberty. Even in modern homes where children may have a separate room, they all sleep together. Older children are responsible for the care of younger children.
Child Rearing and Education. Hierarchical inter-dependence is the central value instilled in children. Parents raise and support their children, and the children reciprocate as soon as they can. This creates strong family bonds. It is assumed that elders have the best interests of their children at heart; if they instruct a child to engage in a particular activity or marry, it is assumed that their motives are benign. A key rite of passage for Buddhist males is to enter the monastery, but no similar public event is available to women. Marriage and having children are their key rite of passage. In the past boys would receive their first education in the temples, but the temple has been eclipsed by government-run primary schools.
Higher Education. Esoteric Buddhist knowledge is highly valued, but an awareness of the importance of higher education is increasing. Children from Sino-Lao or Vietnamese-Lao backgrounds are reputed to be the best scholars. They have special schools in the main cities. Similar attitudes can be found among Sinicized highlanders, such as the Hmong. Most higher education is pursued abroad. A national university was established in the early 1970s, but it was dismantled by the revolution. Only in the mid-1990s was a national university reestablished. Restrictions on reading material and censorship by the government have discouraged the emergence of a culture of reading among adults.
Among all groups, but particularly among the ethnic Lao, a high value is placed on the avoidance of conflict and actions likely to cause emotional discomfort. Careful attention to one's place in the social hierarchy is important, with inattention or deliberate flouting of the hierarchy being a major cause of conflict. The greeting of superiors by clasping one's hands in a prayerful motion combined with a slight bow was discouraged after the revolution, but has made a come-back in social interaction. Hierarchical interaction also involves polite forms of speech and body movements. Public body contact, especially between men and women, is avoided.
Religious Beliefs. The ethnic Lao and some Tai groups are Theravada Buddhists. There are also beliefs usually labeled animistic and beliefs associated with shamanism that involve house spirits, village spirits, district spirits, city spirits, and spirits of the realm. At the higher levels these spirits overlap strongly with Buddhism and are embodied in stupas and temples. These beliefs in territorial spirits also are held by the non-Buddhist Tai. The majority of the population has various beliefs concerning sacred places and objects. Ancestor worship is strong among lineally organized groups. Christianity has made inroads among nonethnic Lao, with the Khmu, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Chinese most often being converts.
Religious Practitioners. Monks are the main religious practitioners among Lao, and most young men are expected to become a monk for a short period to prepare them for marriage. This practice is also crucial for the transfer of merit from son to mother and is the source of a special bond between them. After 1975, entry into the temples was discouraged, but the practice is flourishing again. Most men enter the temple for not more than a month. Young men who stay longer are from poor families and are there to receive an education; some, however, stay for life. Older men sometimes retreat into the temple, as do a few older women. The monks not only are in charge of Buddhist religious ceremonies but function as dream interpreters, traditional medical practitioners, and counselors. Other religious practitioners include spirit mediums and shamans, most of whom are women. Shamans and mediums also are found among all the minorities. A ubiquitous ritual is the sou khouan or baci, which is a spirit-calling ceremony used at rites of passage and other threshold occasions. Among the Lao the officiant is usually an ex-monk who has attained considerable esoteric knowledge of the ritual language of the ceremony. Among non-Lao these ceremonies draw less on such Indic referents.
Rituals and Holy Places. For ethnic Lao, the Buddhist lunar calendar marks the major annual rituals. At the full moon every month there is a festival (boun ), the most important of which are the Buddha's enlightenment in the sixth month (May), the beginning and end of lent (July and October), and New Year (15 April). Sacred stupas and temples have special festivals. The most important is the festival held at the That Luang stupa in Vientiane in November. Syncretistic festivals that combine Buddhism and non-Buddhist beliefs are the Rocket Festival (a fertility festival) and boat races. The New Year is a key festival for most minorities, but is determined according to their own calendars.
Death and the Afterlife. Among the Lao, cremation is practiced except for those who have anomalous deaths, such as women who die in childbirth. Although Buddhists desire the ending of the cycle of rebirths and the achievement of nirvana, the aim of most death rituals is to speed the soul of the deceased through the various hells and into rebirth through the transference of merit from the living to the dead. The remains normally are placed in a small stupa inside the temple fence. The remains are powerful magically, and offerings to them may channel that power into the fulfillment of one's wishes. This stops short of ancestor worship, which is found among the Chinese, Vietnamese, and non-Buddhist Tai. For them, burial rather than cremation is the norm and the ancestors are believed to be present and active in the affairs of their descendants; offerings are made to them on a regular basis.
Medicine and Health Care
Modern health care remains rudimentary, but since the French colonial period, biomedical ideas about disease have spread and modern medicines are used even in the most remote villages. Depending on a person's level of education and exposure, biomedical ideas compete with or combine with folk ideas. Those ideas include spirit loss and the balance and imbalance of humors that can be remedied by diet and by herbal medicines. For spirit loss, a baci, or a shamanistic ceremony may be performed. The indigenous medical tradition that draws on Indian knowledge is paralleled by Sinitic folk medical traditions in the towns.
Since 1975 the main secular celebrations have been associated with the party and state. The most important are National Day on 2 December, Freedom from the French Day on 12 October, Liberation Day on 23 August, Free Lao Day on 13 August, Children's Day on 1 June, Labor Day on 1 May, People's Party Day 22 March, Women's Day 8 March, Army Day on 20 January, and Pathet Lao Day on 6 January. The Lao New Year is a religious event, but is becoming secularized.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts. Since the revolution, the arts have been under state patronage and direction. In the 1990s, some writers began to publish stories in Thailand for money, but publication inside Laos requires state approval. The reading audience is very small, and it is hard for artists to find an audience. Traditional performers can make a living independently from state patronage.
Literature. Traditional literature draws on Indian epics such as the Ramayana but also includes indigenous forms such as Sinxay. There are no important modern novels, although a short story tradition developed under the RLG. Poetry has been a very important form. After 1975 the demand for socialist realist literature produced dreary propaganda, but in the 1990s less politically motivated literature and poems were published.
Graphic Arts. Graphic arts are almost totally dependent on traditional Buddhist themes, which are expressed in an architectural form as murals or carvings on temple doors and window shutters. There is no developed practice of the fine arts, and cartooning disappeared after 1975. The other main form of visual art is silk and cotton woven cloth with elaborate and subtle patterns and colors.
Performance Arts. Before 1975, performances of the Ramayana were patronized by the king, and there were some attempts at privately sponsored modern theater. After 1975, there were attempts to produce revolutionary theater. As the state tried to retraditionalize itself in the 1990s, it revived performances of the Ramayana. The actors and dancers are trained at the school for fine arts in Vientiane, and a similar school has been established in Luang Prabang. Puppetry and shadow plays have almost disappeared. Performances in which a male or female singer improvises or sings standard songs accompanied by an instrumental orchestra are still employed at important local celebrations. Popular songs leave politics aside and often deal with romantic love.
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
A College of Pedagogy and a Royal Institute of Law and Administration were established in the 1950s, and the Royal College of Medicine was established in 1969. Those institutions were brought together as the foundation faculties of Sisavangvong University in 1972, but the university closed in 1976. Higher education was reoriented toward the socialist bloc, and students went to study in Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and other Eastern Bloc countries. In some cases, institutes were established within ministries and charged with doing research, but few people participated and in the physical sciences there was a lack of modern equipment. In the mid-1980s, there was an attempt to establish a Committee for Social Sciences along Vietnamese lines, but it was dissolved in 1993 and the different institutes were relocated.
Some Lao began to study for higher degrees in Thailand, Australia, the United States, and France. A National University was established in 1996, but its facilities are poor and it is not research-oriented. Research in most fields is rudimentary, although significant joint research papers have been written on dengue fever and malaria by the Institute of Epidemiology in the Ministry of Health. In the social sciences nothing of significance has been produced since 1975.
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COPYRIGHT 2001 The Gale Group Inc.
Laos■ LAO … 115
■ KAMMU … 125
The people of Laos are called Laotians. There are officially 68 ethnic groups in Laos. Among the largest are the Kammu, believed to be the original inhabitants of Laos. About 6 percent of all Laotians are Lao-lum, or lowland Lao; they are related to the people of Thailand (see Volume 9). Other groups include the Lao-theung, or slope dwellers, who form about one-third of the population; and the Laosoung, or mountain dwellers, who constitute about one-tenth of the population.
COPYRIGHT 1999 The Gale Group,
© Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes 2007, originally
published by Oxford University Press 2007.