Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Type of Government
A multiethnic Communist state in Southeast Asia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao) was founded as a modern nation state in 1945 but possessed a monarchy dating back six centuries. Communist governmental authority rests with members of a unicameral (one-chambered) National Assembly elected by popular vote and an elected president, who serves as chief executive. A prime minister, leader of the majority party in the National Assembly, serves as head of government and is assisted by a Council of Ministers appointed by the president. The country’s highest judicial authority is the People’s Supreme Court in the capital city of Vientiane.
Among the least developed and poorest of Asian nations, Laos found itself caught in the middle of decades of conflict in Southeast Asia during the twentieth century. A landlocked country, its historical, political, and cultural development have been heavily influenced by its neighbors. Laos is bordered on the east by Vietnam, on the south by Cambodia, and on the northwest by China and Myanmar; the vitally important Mekong River forms much of its western boundary with Thailand.
Laos is home to four distinct ethnic groups among the Lao, who make up the majority of Laos’s inhabitants. The Lao Lum, or valley Lao, live in the country’s lowlands and cities along the Mekong River. They account for two-thirds of the country’s population. The Lao-Tai, or tribal Lao, live throughout the country, especially in the isolated higher mountain elevations. They are divided into the Black Tai and Red Tai, demonstrated by the color of tribal dresses worn by women. The Lao-Theung live throughout Laos and into neighboring countries. They are thought to be descendants of original inhabitants whose presence in Laos dates back to prehistoric times. Also called the Mon-Khmer, their predominant religion is animism. The Lao-Soung, including the Hmong and Yao groups, probably migrated from southern China as recently as the late eighteenth century. Substantial groups of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese live in Laotian cities. Urban life is limited to the former royal capital at Louangphrabang and the present-day capital of Vientiane, along with four of five other major towns. The rest of the country is primarily rural and agricultural with isolated valley communities near rivers and roads to provide access to markets and trading. Significant numbers of the rural tribal Lao subsist on hunting, gathering, and shifting agricultural cultivation.
Buddhism is practiced by 65 percent of the population and is sanctioned by the Communist government as the state religion. Confucianism is practiced by some urban ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese minorities. Animists, most living in isolated rural areas, constitute nearly 33 percent of the population. Christians constitute slightly over 1 percent. Lao is the country’s official language; English, French, and Vietnamese are spoken by the elite in urban areas.
The Lao are a branch of the Tai people believed to have migrated from southern China sometime in the first millennium of the common era. The earliest known government entities in the central Mekong River basin—the center of Laotian economic life—were concentrations of political, economic, and military power known today as mandalas, to differentiate them from the modern notion of a nation-state. More powerful mandalas extracted tribute from other, smaller centers of power. In the fourteenth century a royal Tai leader, Fa Ngum (1316–1373), united many of these principalities into the Kingdom of Lan Xang, to which Laotian people trace their cultural and political ancestry.
In 1707 internal strife brought about the division of the Kingdom of Lan Xang into the three separate kingdoms of Vien Chan, Champassak, and Luang Prabang. Declining in power and regional authority, all three kingdoms came under the control of Siam (present-day Thailand) and became tribute-paying vassals of that state. In the late nineteenth century France gained control of all Siamese territory east of the Mekong River, part of the region that became known as French Indochina. Laos became a French protectorate in the early twentieth century.
Japan occupied Laos during the World War II. In March 1945 the Japanese proclaimed the end of French colonial rule in Laos, compelling King Sisavang Vong (1885–1959) to issue a declaration of independence. A nationalist movement dethroned the king temporarily. French forces reoccupied Laos in 1946, and on August 27 France reestablished control over the country and reinstituted the monarchy. In May 1947 King Sisavang Vong promulgated a constitution providing for democratic government under a constitutional monarchy. The parliamentary democracy that emerged granted nominal executive authority to the king, who was assisted by a prime minister and Council of Ministers. The legislative branch of government was an elected fifty-nine-member National Assembly to whom the prime minister and cabinet were responsible.
In 1949 Laos gained limited autonomy when it became an independent sovereign state within the French Union. Communist-inspired Laotian Pathet Lao, or “land of the Lao,” forces joined with the Vietnamese Viet Minh to fight against France in the First Indochina War in the early 1950s. By the end of the war the Pathet Lao controlled two Laotian provinces, while the remainder of the country remained a constitutional monarchy.
In 1954 the first Geneva Conference established a unified and fully independent Laos as a buffer state between Communist-aligned North Vietnam and Western-aligned Thailand. The Geneva Conference of 1962 created a coalition government for Laos, which included the Pathet Lao. The remainder of the 1960s was dominated by increased Laotian civil war and increased involvement in armed regional conflicts, particularly the Vietnam War. In 1973 a ceasefire was declared, and 1974 saw the creation of the Laotian Provisional Government of National Unity, which included both Pathet Lao and rightist elements. Its collapse in 1975 was followed by the king’s abdication, and the Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao movement seized complete power in Laos and established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR), a Marxist-Leninist Communist government closely aligned with and modeled on Vietnam. It adhered to strict Communist economic strictures, including collectivization of agriculture, and ideologically orthodox social constraints. Government attempts to “reeducate” the country’s elite and non-Communist-aligned leadership included forced labor camps and long periods of imprisonment. Human rights organizations estimate that approximately three hundred thousand Laotians “disappeared” within the borders of the country between 1975 and 2001. Even as of 2007, the ruling government of the LPDR did not tolerate dissent.
The mid-1980s brought a less centralized economy and a gradual increase in private enterprise. Farming returned to being a largely individual and family-based enterprise. The International Monetary Fund and other international sources continue to provide essential financial aid without which the economy would collapse. Once powerful, Vietnamese political and economic influence in Laos began to diminish in the 1990s. The Laotian government today practices a kind of economic pragmatism that reconciles Communist ideology with marketplace realities. The government retains strict control of all communication media, including French and English language newspapers in urban areas.
Sixteen years after the establishment of the LPDR, the national legislature—the Supreme People’s Assembly—completed the task of drafting a constitution and promulgated it in August 1991. It calls for a National Assembly: a unicameral, or one-chambered, legislature, which as of the 2006 elections consisted of 115 members elected by popular vote for terms of five years. The constitution also calls for executive power to be vested in a president and a Council of Ministers, headed by a prime minister, who serves as head of the National Assembly’s majority party. Laos currently has only one legal political party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP).
The legal system in Laos is based on traditional regional custom and French legal norms and procedures, as well as socialist practice. Various provincial and appellate courts hear cases across Laos. The country’s highest court is the People’s Supreme Court, whose judges are appointed by a special committee of the National Assembly.
Political Parties and Factions
Since 1975, the LPRP has been Laos’s only legal political party. Founded in 1955 by Prince Souphanouvong (1909–1995) and prominent politician Kaysone Phomvihan (1920–1992), both of whom were influenced by the regional Indochinese Communist Party, the party remained secret until the establishment of Communist government in Laos in 1975. The party’s internal structure includes a politburo, responsible for decision-making at the highest level.
More than 10 percent of Laotians, including most members of the political opposition, fled the country in the aftermath of the Communist takeover in 1975. Many settled in Thailand, while others landed in the United States, France, Australia, and Canada.
In 1997 Laos joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which had first been established by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand in 1967. Brunei joined in 1984, followed by Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar in the 1990s. ASEAN seeks to reduce tensions and increase collaboration among its member nations. It works to accelerate the region’s economic growth, cultural development, and social progress. In 1999 ASEAN’s member nations agreed to pursue development of a free trade zone in Southeast Asia by eventually eliminating duties on most goods traded in the region. Estimated to take effect in the year 2010 or later, the proposed zone will be the world’s largest free trade zone, encompassing some 1.7 billion people and trade valued at $1.2 trillion. In May 2002 ASEAN’s ten member countries pledged to form a united front against terrorism in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. They established a regional security framework, including joint training programs, exchange of intelligence information, and the introduction of national laws governing arrest, investigation, and extradition of suspects.
Southeast Asian financial markets took a sudden, precipitous decline in 1997 when investors lost confidence in a number of Asian currencies and securities. In Laos the decline interrupted economic growth rates noticeable since partial privatization of the economy in the 1980s. The crisis inflicted particularly harsh damage on the value of the kip, Laos’s national currency.
In 2003, closure of Laotian refugee camps in Thailand forced tens of thousands of Laotian exiles to return home, where they initially expected harsh reprisals. The government instead encouraged their peaceful settlement among politically moderate lowland populations.
Laos is a mountainous country with thick subtropical forests covering much of the land. It lacks modern infrastructure in the way of roads, railways, and telecommunications. Electricity is available in only a few urban areas. Government plans in the twenty-first century call for major road improvements, including some scheduled to be done with Japanese financial support.
Subsistence agriculture provides 80 percent of total employment and accounts for half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which ranks among the lowest in Asia. Important crops are rice, sweet potatoes, corn, coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, tea, and peanuts. What light manufacturing exists depends on the processing of raw materials and natural resources. Key exports are garments, wood products, coffee, electricity, and tin. Proposed hydropower and road building projects are expected to increase demand for construction labor and create some additional revenue. The rivers of Laos hold enormous potential for the development of water storage and hydroelectric power. One major hydroelectric project is already operational, with another scheduled for completion in 2013. Opposition to hydroelectric development comes chiefly from international concerns regarding potential environmental and social costs.
The limited Laotian economy does not permit maintenance of a properly funded military, and there is little political will in the country to allocate sparse funding to the Lao People’s Army and the country’s air force, which have become degraded over time. Some international security situations are likely to remain unaddressed in the twenty-first century, drug trafficking among them. Northern Laos is part of Asia’s infamous opium producing “Golden Triangle” region, which periodically produces problems with armed smugglers and trafficking along the Laos-Myanmar border.
Other illicit issues plague Laos, which shares with Cambodia and Thailand an active and recognized sex industry, largely centered in urban areas. It is also a transit and destination country for trafficking of human beings, usually economic migrants (immigrants seeking to improve their quality of life), who are used in prostitution. Laos does not yet fully comply with internationally agreed upon minimum standards for elimination of human trafficking and has yet to make significant efforts to do so.
In the twenty-first century the citizens of Laos face serious health issues. Life expectancy in the country remains relatively low at fifty-four years for men and fifty-eight years for women. Malaria, influenza, dysentery, and pneumonia remain leading causes of death and are prominent public health concerns. Eighty percent of Laos’s people live in rural areas, where medical care and public health services remain inadequate. Improvement of services is a high government priority.
Evans, Grant. The Land in Between: A Short History of Laos. New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2002.
Savada, Andrea Matles, ed. Laos: A Country Study. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995.