The Lao PDR, a small country inhabited by 5.4 million people (latest estimates), has a total land area of 236,800 sq.kms, stretching more than 1700 kms from north to south and between 100-400 kms east to west. It is a land-locked and mountainous country in the centre of the Indo-China peninsula bordering China and Myanmar in the north, Vietnam in the east, Thailand in the west and Cambodia in the south. The 1865 km stretch of the Mekong river defines the parts of its borders with Myanmar and Thailand, and also serves as a traditional link for Laos to Thailand and Cambodia.
The Lao PDR is a tropical country and its climate is affected by heavy monsoon rains from May to September. It is cool and pleasant from November to February, though the evenings might require a light coat or wrap. Occasional showers occur in March and April, but during this time, the weather is generally hot and humid.
The Mekong River valley to which the Lao PDR belongs, was inhabited as far back as 10,000 years ago. Ethno-linguistically, the Lao people belong to the Thai-Kadai group extending from the Brahmaputra to the Gulf of Tonkin and probably came in small groups as early as the 8th century AD from South China. They established small polities known as muangs under hereditary chieftains. Until the 13th century, there were several independent Thai muangs in northern Thailand and Laos. From about the 7th century to about the 11th or 12th century, there was a strong influence of Hindu culture and religion in Laos. This is reflected in the Lao national version of the Ramayana and archaeological finds, Shiva lingas and similar icons in different parts of the country. Buddhism had a major impact, most obviously in the language, which uses a script derived from Pali. It is the main religion of the country.
Establishment of 1st Lao Kingdom
The first well-known Lao political figure was the 14th century muang leader Fa Ngum who captured Wieng Chan (Vientiane) and parts of Northeast Thailand to set up, in 1353 AD, one of the largest kingdoms of South East Asia. He named his Kingdom Lane Xang, or the Land of a Million Elephants. In fact, the written history of the Lao PDR may be said to begin with Fa Ngum. It was Fa Ngum who made Theravada Buddhism his State religion. Till the mid-16th century, the capital of the Lane Xang monarchs was Luang Prabang. Subsequently, it was shifted to Vientiane. There were internecine wars in Lane Xang during the 17th century, leading to the breakup of the Kingdom into three States namely, Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak. These states came under Siamese influence and Laos became a vassal state of the Siamese Empire.
In the late 19th century, the French made inroads into Indo-China and eventually took Laos over from the Siamese. They also united Lao principalities as one colonial territory, but never found it profitable to develop the country commercially. The Mekong was not fully navigable and the country was too mountainous for plantations or agricultural production. To the French, the importance of Laos was mainly as a buffer between Siam, British Burma and the economically important Annam and Tonkin regions.
During the Second World War, the French Government was briefly replaced by the Japanese, and the Lao King Sisavanhvong proclaimed his independence from the French in April 1945. However, Japanese rule collapsed as a result of their defeat in the Second World War. Subsequently, in August 1947, all former Lao territories were united under the name of the Kingdom of Laos, which was granted independence and sovereignty by the French in 1953 under the Treaty of "Amity and Association".
From Kingdom to Lao PDR
The defeat and withdrawal of the US from Vietnam in 1975 led to the collapse of anti-communist resistance in Indochina, including in Laos. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party, headed by Kaysone Phomvihane, assumed power in Laos and the name of the country was changed from "Kingdom of Laos" to "Lao People's Democratic Republic". Kaysone Phomvihane, with the help of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, ruled the country as Prime Minister and President until his death in 1992. He was succeeded by his former deputy, Khamtay Siphandone, as the Secretary General of the Party and the Prime Minister. After the National Assembly elections of 1998, Khamtay Siphandone was elected as President of the Lao PDR. The seventh Congress held in March, 2001 re-elected him as the President of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). A new Cabinet line-up with Bounnyang Vorachith as the Prime Minister was elected immediately after the 7th Congress of 2001.
The present Constitution of the Lao PDR was adopted on 15th August 1991. The key thrust of the Constitution is that while the Lao People's Revolutionary Party is responsible for setting broad policy guidelines, the Government is expected to manage day-to-day administration within the policy guidelines so defined. The present President of the Republic is also the General Secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The President can appoint or dismiss the Prime Minister and the Government with the approval of the National Assembly. The National Assembly is elected for a period of five years. The National Assembly meets twice a year and remains in office for five years. Its present strength is 106 members, who were elected to office in 2002.
The government inherited a war-torn and extremely under-developed economy in 1975. It was faced with the formidable task of reconstruction and development. During the first few years, there was little respite from falling living standards and general economic uncertainty. Recognising the inadequacy and weakness of the ideologically preferred economic framework, the Government initiated its comprehensive restructuring. Accordingly, in 1986, the New Economic Mechanism was introduced. It granted operating autonomy to private enterprises. Domestic and foreign investors were given a major role in the economy. Private sector activity was allowed in most sectors, including rice production. In addition, the Government introduced changes in its financial policy. The country's development strategy shifted towards a greater market orientation and a liberalisation of the economy. During the '90s, the Government adopted measures under the Medium Adjustment Programme of the IMF and the World Bank, with the objective of establishing domestic and external financial stability as well as structural reforms. The small construction and manufacturing sectors also witnessed an impressive growth as domestic and foreign investors responded to the new opportunities opened by the reforms. Strong emphasis was laid on advancing towards comprehensive and genuine reforms to enlarge privatisation, strengthen the commercial basis of banking, and build on adequate legal regulatory framework. Macro-economic performance considerably improved in 1993-94 with real growth of about 7%. External factors performed well and the economy improved.
The Lao economy continues to be dominated by the agricultural sector even though its share has declined in recent years. The economy remains vulnerable to weather conditions, as agriculture is heavily dependent on rainfall. With the recent installation of irrigation water pumps from India, agricultural production, particularly paddy cultivation during the dry season, has improved significantly. In 2000, Laos declared that it had attained self-sufficiency in rice. The Government has also promoted industrial and service sectors with main thrust on power generation, tourism and transportation. Strategy has been aimed at improving the country's infrastructure and development of hydropower for exports. In recent years, the garment industry and exports have registered high growth.
The Asian crisis that engulfed South East Asia in mid-1997 did not leave Laos untouched. The local currency, the Kip, pegged to the Thai Baht, has sharply depreciated. Despite marginal recovery in the region, the Lao Kip continues to remain at a very low level i.e over 10,600 Kip to a dollar, as compared to 900 Kip to a dollar in mid-1997. The domestic purchasing power has also been lost significantly as the consumer price index registered an increase of over 400 per cent between June 1997 and June 2002. Transport and communication infrastructures remain a major challenge, and the efforts to tackle them suffered due to the regional economic crisis. In 2000, GDP growth rate was 5 % compared to 4% in 1998, indicating a small increase in per capita income, while industry grew at 7.5%, marking a decrease by 1% compared to the previous year. Services and agriculture recorded a growth of 5.7 and 5 per cent respectively.
The 7th Party Congress, followed by the National Assembly and the newly appointed Government, declared in 2001 a long-term policy objective of taking the Lao PDR out of its 'Least Developed Country' status by 2020. The Committee for Planning & Cooperation has been entrusted with the responsibility to draft suitable programmes, both in short and long term, to achieve the target.
Water constitutes the most important natural resource endowment of the country. There is huge potential to develop hydro-power for export to Thailand and Vietnam. A rich forest cover is another major natural resource for Laos. 80% of domestic energy consumption is based on fuel wood, and an estimated 300,000 hectares of forest are lost annually. As a result, there has been a serious depletion of forest cover, from nearly 70% to about 47% of the total land area. Lao forests contain a wide variety of tree species that are suitable for commercial use. Sizeable deposits of gemstones, gold, copper, iron ore and tin are known to exist in the country. Exploration of potential resources is under way. Though the Lao PDR is well endowed with natural resources, its per capita GDP has been revised downwards to US $300 due to currency devaluation.
Even with an average growth rate of 2.6%, the population density of Laos remains one of the lowest in the region, i.e., 19.4 persons per square kilometer. Life expectancy, at 51 years, is still one of the lowest in the world. Infant mortality, under-5 mortality, and maternal mortality rates are quite high. About 50% of the adult population is literate.
Composition of the Society
The Lao people are predominantly Buddhists (over 90%). Other than Buddhism, spirit worship, animism and ancestor worship are practised among some of the various tribal groups.
There also exist a few Christians, and a small Muslim community, mainly the Chams, or Cambodian Muslims, who fled Pol Pot's Kampuchea in the 70's. They have their own mosque, as do the Indian Muslims, where most of the Islamic diplomats also repair for prayers.
The Lao are ethnically diverse, comprising some 68 tribes, each with its own language, sub-groups and religious beliefs. Chief among the tribes are:
- The Lao Loum, who occupy the lowland plains and the Mekong river valley, and constitute some two-thirds of the total population.
- The Lao Theung, comprising about 22% of the population, who occupy lower mountain slopes and who are thought to have been the first inhabitants of the Lao PDR.
- The Lao Soung, who occupy the higher mountain slopes over 1000 metres, constituting about 10% of the total population. The Hmong belong to the Lao Soung group of tribes.
The total number of ethnic groups (68 main groups and 149 sub-groups, according to the Census of 1995), represent a diversity of culture and social forms. A matriarchical structure seems to take predominance in Lao society.
Notorious for its situation at the heart of the Golden Triangle, the Lao PDR is a traditional opium growing country. Opium is grown mainly in the northern mountainous stretches in areas where crops such as rice have so far been difficult to grow.
The Lao Government is now, in conjunction with the United Nations, the ADB, the IMF and the World Bank, making serious efforts to eliminate the production of opium through programmes such as the growing of alternate cash crops; the building of feeder roads into the remotest areas to help the sales of these crops; the setting up of small clinics & rehabilitation centres; the provision of basic education & alternate employment; and several others.
"For the first time in many years, we can now safely assume that Laos is no longer a supplier of illegal opiates to the world", according to the UNODC in June, 2005.
Vientiane boasts of two hospitals (the second inaugurated in 2002) and a small clinic for foreigners. However, most expatriates in Laos use the medical facilities across the border in Thailand.
The French, when they seized power, stayed too short a time to place any priority on education. Villages in Lao are often so small - with a maximum of five or seven houses situated as far as twenty five miles from their closest neighbour - that it has not seemed practicable to have a school for each village. There is perhaps 55% literacy. The one University in Vientiane has a faculty of medicine, architecture and engineering, in addition to various arts subjects. Degrees are awarded up to graduate level.
Very little exists by way of entertainment in Laos, apart from a few snooker bars and nightclubs. The National Culture Hall was financed and built by the Chinese and inaugurated in 2000 for state functions. There are no commercial cinema halls or theatres. There is an Opera House, but mainly an institution to teach Lao music and ballet.
The Lao, like the Thai, love eating out, and are, like the Vietnamese, thoroughly omnivorous. Vegetarians will delight in the fresh, crisp vegetables served in Lao restaurants, but should specifically ask that no fish or oyster sauce is added. A wide variety of fish is available, while the staple meat is beef. Sticky rice is the most popular food.
There are four Indian Restaurants in Vientiane that are popular with the expatriate crowd and tourists.
Vang Vienng, Luang Prabang and Pakse also have Indian Restaurants .
Traditional transport in Laos makes extensive use of the Mekong, especially in matters of trade; but the Mekong is not navigable, either down its full length, or throughout the year. Dirt roads were used by the Lao until the advent of the French, who built the first roads and the first big bridges. The French also introduced a railway line, but this was only used as a ferry to transport goods from the nearest sea port in Cambodia up to a river landing in southern Laos. No attempt was made to introduce railways as a serious transport carrier of goods and passengers.
For the most part, road travel in the principal cities, and connecting them, is comfortable, on good Chinese or Vietnamese built roads. Interior roads however do not exist, and surface travel is not possible except in four-wheel drives. Southern roads are generally being built faster than northern ones, due to the mountainous & rocky terrain of Laos' northern provinces.
Airline travel is available on several domestic sectors, with Chinese built Y-7s and Y-12s. A few French-maintained ATRs service the principal tourist sectors. There are daily flights to Bangkok. A new service, introduced in 2001, flies from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi to Vientiane to Pakse, Siem-Reap and Phnom Penh twice a week. A new flight has recently been announced from Luang Prabang to Jing Hong (China).
The Friendship and Other Bridges
The Friendship Bridge, financed by Australia, is the first international bridge connecting the Lao PDR to Nong Khai in Thailand. It was inaugurated in 1996. A second international bridge connecting Savannakhet in the South of Laos to Mukhadan across the river in Thailand is expected to be completed by 2005. A third bridge across the Mekong, built by the Japanese Government, is a national one, although it is very close to the Lao-Thai border in the south, at Pakse.
Suggested Reading List
- Phongsavath Boupha, Evolution of the Lao State, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2002.
- Martin Stuart-Fox, Contemporary Laos
- G. Coedes, The Making of South East Asia
- G. Coedes, The Indianised States of Indo-China
- Home Page, The Little World of Laos
- Hall, The Countries of South East Asia
- Tibor Mende, South East Asia between the two Worlds
- Lorrained Saimon, Focus on Indo-China
- Dommen, Conflict in Laos
- Donal Lancaster, Emancipation of French Indo-China
- Perala Ratnam, Laos and Super Powers
- Perala Ratnam, Laos and its Culture
- Joseph J. Zasloff, The Pathet Lao
- Chalermint Press, Bangkok, Battle of Vientiane, 1960
- Donald P. Whitakar (Washington), Area Handbook for Laos
- Grant Evans & Kelvin Rowley, Red Brotherhood at War
- Mac Alister Brown & Joseph J. Zasloff, Apprentice Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Laos 1930-1985
- Than M. and Tan, J.L.H.(Ed.) 1997, Laos' Dilemmas and Options
- Christopher Kremmer, The Stalking of Elephant Kings
- Hugh Toye, Laos: Buffer State or Battleground (London: Oxford University Press, 1968)
- Bernard Fall, Anatomy of a Crisis: The Laotian Crisis of 1960-61 (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1969)
- Arthur J. Dommen, Conflict in Laos: The Politics of Neutralization (New York: Praeger, 1971)
- Charles A. Stevenson, The End of Nowhere: American Policy Toward Laos Since 1954 (Boston: Beacon, 1972)
- Brig. Gen. Soutchay Vongsavanh, RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle (Washington, D.C.: US Army Center of Military History, 1978)
- James E. Parker, Jr., Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA
- Timothy N. Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: US Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975
- Kenneth Conboy with James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos
- Grant Evans, Politics of Ritual and Remembrance in Laos
- Grant Evans, A Short History of Laos - the Land In Between
Websites about Laos