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Laos - Government


AS A TRADITIONAL SOCIETY until 1975, Laos was a conservative monarchy, dominated by a small number of powerful families. In 1975 it was transformed into a communist oligarchy, but its social makeup remained much the same. In the 600-year-old monarchy, the Lao king ruled from Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang), while in other regions there were families with royal pretensions rooted in the royal histories of Champasak (Bassac), Vientiane (Viangchan), and Xiangkhoang (Tran Ninh). They were surrounded by lesser aristocrats from prominent families who in turn became patrons to clients of lower status, thus building a complex network of allegiances. The king reigned from Louangphrabang but did not rule over much of the outlying regions of the country.

In December 1975, with the declaration of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos), the king abdicated. Although Laos was reorganized as a communist "people's democracy," important vestiges of traditional political and social behavior remained. The aristocratic families were shorn of their influence, but a new elite with privileged access to the communist roots of power emerged, and clients of lower status have searched them out as patrons. In addition, some of the old families, who had links to the new revolutionary elite, managed to survive and wield significant influence. As newly dominant elites replaced the old, they demanded a similar deference.

Lao Loum, or lowland Lao, families continue to wield the greatest influence. Despite the rhetoric of the revolutionary elite concerning ethnic equality, Lao Theung, or midland Lao, and Lao Sung, or upland Lao, minorities are low on the scale of national influence, just as they were in pre1975 society. However, the power of the central government over the outlying regions has remained tenuous, still relying upon bargains with tribal chieftains to secure the loyalty of their peoples.

Although manifesting many of the characteristics of a traditional Lao monarchy dominated by a lowland Lao Buddhist elite, the country has exhibited many of the characteristics of other communist regimes. It has shown a similar heavy bureaucratic style, with emphasis within the bureaucracy on political training and long sessions of criticism and self-criticism for its civil servants. Laos imported from its Vietnamese mentor the concept of reeducation centers or "seminar camps," where, during the early years in power, thousands of former Royal Lao Government (RLG) adversaries were incarcerated. However, this communist overlay on traditional society has been moderated by two important factors: Lao Buddhism and government administrative incompetence in implementing socialist doctrine. Thus, what emerged in Laos has been a system aptly labeled by Prince Souvanna Phouma, former prime minister of the RLG, as "socialisme à la laotienne" (Lao-style socialism).

The mélange of traditional politics, accompanied by patronclient relations, with communist-style intra-institutional competition, has produced a unique political culture. Power centers tend to cluster around key personalities, and those in power become targets of opportunity for members of their extended family and friends.

<>Lao People's Revolutionary Party - LPRP
<>The Constitution


Laos - Lao People's Revolutionary Party - LPRP


Whereas communist parties in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have crumbled, in Laos, the ruling communist party, the Phak Pasason Pativat Lao (Lao People's Revolutionary Party-- LPRP has retained undiluted political control. The constitution, adopted in August 1991, notes simply in Article 3 that the LPRP is the "leading nucleus" of the political system. LPRP statutes, revised following the Fifth Party Congress held in 1991, leave no doubt regarding the dominant role of the party:

The party is...the leading core of the entire political system, hub of intelligence, and representative of the interest of the people of all strata. The party formulates and revises the major lines and policies on national development in all spheres; finds solutions to major problems; determines the policies regarding personnel management, training of cadres, and supplying key cadres for different levels; controls and supervises activities of party cadres and members, state agencies and mass organizations.

Origins of the Party

The LPRP has its roots in the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930. (Ho Chi Minh led the struggle for Vietnamese independence and was the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 1945 until his death in 1969.) The ICP, composed entirely of Vietnamese members in its early years, formed the Committee for Laos (or a "Lao section") in 1936. Only in the mid-1940s did the Vietnamese communist revolutionaries step up active recruitment of Laotian members. In 1946 or early 1947, Kaysone Phomvihan, a law student at the University of Hanoi, was recruited, and Nouhak Phoumsavan, engaged in a trucking business in Vietnam, joined in 1947.

In February 1951, the Second Congress of the ICP resolved to disband the party and to form three separate parties representing the three states of Indochina. However, it was not until March 22, 1955, at the First Party Congress, that Phak Pasason Lao (Lao People's Party--LPP) was formally proclaimed. (The name LPRP was adopted at the Second Party Congress in 1972.) It seems likely that from 1951 to 1955, key Laotian former members of the ICP provided leadership for the "resistance" movement in Laos, under the tutelage of their Vietnamese senior partners. In 1956 the LPP founded the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Lao Patriotic Front--LPF) the political party of the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation, to act as the public mass political organization. Meanwhile, the LPP remained clandestine, directing the activities of the front.

The Vietnamese communists provided critical guidance and support to the growing party during the revolutionary period. They helped to recruit the leadership of the Laotian communist movement; from its inception, the LPRP Political Bureau (Politburo) was made up of individuals closely associated with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese furnished facilities and guidance for training not only the top leadership but also the entire Laotian communist movement. The Vietnamese assigned advisers to the party, as well as to the military forces of the LPF. Under the guidance of North Vietnamese mentors, LPRP leaders shaped a Marxist-Leninist party, political and mass organizations, and an army and a bureaucracy, all based upon the North Vietnamese model.

From their perspective, Laotian communists had not compromised their legitimacy as a nationalist movement by their dependence on Hanoi. During the revolutionary period prior to 1975, when LPRP leaders looked to the North Vietnamese for a sense of overall direction and cohesion, they found many common interests. Both parties faced the same enemies: first France and then the United States. They held a similar view of the world and of the desirable solution to its problems. In some cases, this affinity was strengthened by family relations (for example, Kaysone, whose Vietnamese father, Luan Phomvihan, had been a secretary to the French resident in Savannakhét) or marriage ties (Souphanouvong and Nouhak had Vietnamese wives).

Following the First Party Congress, it was seventeen years until the Second Party Congress was convened, in February 1972. The Third Party Congress met ten years later, in April 1982; the Fourth Party Congress convened in November 1986, and the Fifth Party Congress in March 1991.

Party Structure

The LPP steadily grew from its initial 300 to 400 members ("25 delegates representing 300 to 400 members" were said to have attended the founding congress of the party). By 1965 there were 11,000 members; by 1972, as it prepared to enter into the final coalition with the RLG, it had grown to some 21,000 members; by 1975, when the party seized full power, it claimed a membership of 25,000; and by 1991, at the convening of the Fifth Party Congress, the LPRP claimed its membership had increased to 60,000.

The LPRP has been organized in a manner common to other ruling communist parties, with greatest similarity to the Vietnamese Communist Party. As in other such parties, the highest authority is the party congress, a gathering of party cadres from throughout the country that meets on an intermittent schedule for several days to listen to speeches, learn the plans for future party strategy, and ratify decisions already taken by the party leadership.

Next in the party hierarchy--since the elimination of the Secretariat in 1991--is the Central Committee, the party elite who fill key political positions throughout the country. The Central Committee is charged with leading the party between congresses. In addition to members of the Politburo and former members of the Secretariat, the committee includes key government ministers, leading generals of the army, secretaries of provincial party committees, and chairpersons of mass organizations.

When the LPRP first revealed itself to the public in 1975, the Central Committee comprised twenty-one members and six alternates. By the Fourth Party Congress, its size had expanded to fifty-one members and nine alternates. The average age of a Central Committee member in 1986 was fifty-two, with the oldest seventy-seven and the youngest thirty-three. The number of women on the Central Committee rose from three to five, including Thongvin Phomvihan, then Secretary General Kaysone's wife, who was chair of the LPRP's People's Revolutionary Youth Union and, in 1982, the first woman appointed to the Central Committee.

At the Fifth Party Congress, the Central Committee stabilized in size at fifty-nine members and took on a few younger, more educated men to replace deceased or retired members. At the time, the oldest member was seventy-seven, the youngest thirty-five, with 22 percent over sixty, 30 percent between fifty and fifty-nine, and 40 percent under forty-nine. Only two women are full members of the Central Committee, and two continue as alternates. Thongvin Phomvihan--who had ranked thirty-fifth in 1986--was removed, accompanied by rumors of excessive political influence in her business activities. Notwithstanding this setback to Kaysone's family fortune, their son, Saisompheng Phomvihan, was appointed to the Central Committee, ranking forty-fifth, and was named governor of Savannakhét Province in 1993. This appointment inspired some private muttering about the emerging "princelings," referring as well to Souphanouvong's son, Khamsai Souphanouvong, number thirtyfour on the Central Committee, who became minister of finance.

Despite the party's rhetoric asserting ethnic equality, the Central Committee has been dominated by lowland Lao. Upland minorities remain sparsely represented at the highest levels of party leadership. Only four members of ethnic minority groups were reported on the Central Committee elected at the Fifth Party Congress.

The Central Committee is served by a number of subordinate committees. These committees include, most importantly, the Office of the Central Committee, and five other offices: Organization Committee; Propaganda and Training Committee; Party and State Control Committee; Administrative Committee of the Party and State School for Political Theory; and Committee for the Propagation of Party Policies.

Since 1972 the genuine center of political power, as in other communist parties, has resided in the Politburo. Membership of the Politburo, and formerly that of the Secretariat, is drawn from the Central Committee. A small group of men--seven in 1972 and eleven by 1993--have provided the critical leadership of the communist movement in Laos. A signal attribute of this group has been its remarkable cohesion and continuity. The Politburo has been dominated for more than fifteen years communist rule by the same stalwart band of revolutionary veterans. The twenty-five Laotian former members of the ICP who founded the LPP in 1955, and from whom the Politburo was drawn, remained in almost identical rank until illness and age began to take their toll in the 1980s. Kaysone was named secretary general of the then secret LPP upon its establishment, a post he retained until his death in 1992. Nouhak retained his number-two position on the Politburo into 1993. It was not until the Fifth Party Congress that Souphanouvong, Phoumi Vongvichit, and Sisomphone Lovansai (ranking third, fourth, and seventh, respectively) were retired with honorific titles as counselors to the Central Committee. Prime Minister Khamtai Siphandon was promoted to succeed Kaysone as chief of the party, and Phoun Sipaseut advanced a notch in rank. In 1991 the Politburo numbered ten, including only two new members.

Although the exact manner of Politburo decision making has never been revealed, a collegiality, based on long years of common experience, appears to have developed. In addition to their powerful position on the Politburo, members exercise additional political power--perhaps even more than in most other communist systems--through important posts within the governmental structure. In fact, for many years, five Politburo members also held seats on the Secretariat.

At the Fifth Party Congress, the party abolished the nineperson Secretariat of the Central Committee and changed the designation of the head of the party (Kaysone) from secretary general to chairman. Until it was abolished, the Secretariat wielded influence second only to that of the Politburo. The Secretariat issued party directives and acted on behalf of the Central Committee when it was not in session, in effect managing the day-to-day business of the party. Khamtai Siphandon became party chairman in November 1992, but it is not certain whether he will accrue the same power and influence as his predecessor.

Each of the sixteen provinces (khoueng) is directed by a party committee, chaired by a party secretary who is the dominant political figure in the province. At a lower level are 112 districts (muang), further divided into subdistricts (tasseng), each with their own party committees. Administratively, subdistricts have been abolished in principle since around 1993, but implementation has been uneven across provinces. It is unknown whether subdistrictlevel party committees have also been abolished. At the base of the country's administrative structure are more than 11,000 villages (ban), only some of which have party branches.

Semisecrecy of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party

Unlike other communist regimes, the LPRP has long maintained a semisecrecy about its mode of operation and the identity of its rank-and-file members. However, the LPRP follows the standard communist practice of planting party members within all principal institutions of society--in government, in mass organizations, and, formerly, in agricultural collectives. These individuals serve as leaders and transmit party policy. They also act as the eyes and ears of the central party organization. Although party members are admonished not to reveal themselves, it is not difficult for knowledgeable persons to pick out the party members in their organization. In each ministry, for example, the key power wielders are party members. All party members do not, of course, hold positions of authority. Some occupy the lower ranks, serving, for example, as messengers, drivers, and maintenance personnel.

By the late 1980s, some of the LPRP's semisecrecy had eroded. Party leadership lists, which, during revolutionary and early postrevolutionary days had been secret, were published. But a quasi-clandestine attitude remains among the party rank and file that can be explained by several factors. Clandestine behavior is an old habit that is not easily shed. Secrecy adds to the party's mystery, inspires anxiety and fear, and contributes to control. In view of its long history of revolutionary activity, party veterans fear infiltration and subversion. LPRP pronouncements during its first decade of rule frequently alluded to "CIA and Thaireactionary -inspired agents," and later, when relations with China grew tense, to the danger of "big power hegemonism." Moreover, party leaders appear to lack confidence in the quality of their membership, speaking from time to time about "bad elements" within the party.

The LPRP is relatively small compared with other incumbent parties. For example, the 40,000 members that the party claimed in 1985 represented 1.1 percent of the population (estimating 3.5 million inhabitants). In 1979 the Vietnamese Communist Party had 1.5 million members in a population of 53 million, or approximately 3 percent.

Ideology of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party

When LPRP leaders came to power in 1975 as victorious revolutionaries guided by Marxism-Leninism, they retained a zeal for creating a "new socialist society and a new socialist man." They declared their twin economic goals as the achievement of "socialist transformation with socialist construction." They asserted that in establishing the LPDR in 1975, they had completed the "national democratic revolution." (The national goal had been to expel the French colonialists and the United States imperialists. The democratic goal was to overthrow "reactionary traitors, comprador bourgeoisie, bureaucrats, reactionaries, feudalists and militarists...."). The LPRP claimed that it had won the national democratic revolution by winning a "people's war" with a "worker-peasant" alliance, under the secret leadership of the LPRP working through a national front. It proclaimed a commitment to "proletarian internationalism" and the "law of Indochinese solidarity" and at the same time defined Vietnam and the Soviet Union as friends and the "unholy alliance" among United States imperialism, Chinese "great power hegemonism," and Thai militarism as enemies.

By the late 1980s, as communism was undergoing a radical transformation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Kaysone and his colleagues on the Politburo still professed an adherence to Marxism-Leninism, but they emphasized the necessity for Laos to pass through a stage of "state capitalism." Following Mikhail Gorbachev's example of perestroika, Kaysone proclaimed in 1989 that state enterprises were being severed from central direction and would be financially autonomous. V.I. Lenin's New Economic Policy was frequently cited to legitimize the movement toward a market economy and the necessity to stimulate private initiative.

By the early 1990s, even less of the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric remained. The party has continued to move internally toward more free-market measures and externally toward reliance upon the capitalist countries and the international institutions on which they depend for investment and assistance. The "law" of Indochinese solidarity has been amended, and the LPDR's "special relations" with its former senior partner are no longer invoked, even though party spokesmen still insist that Laos retains a solid friendship and "all-round cooperation" with Vietnam.

Despite this erosion of communist ideology, retaining exclusive political power remains a primary goal of the party. In a speech in 1990, Secretary General Kaysone asserted the basis of legitimacy of the party: The party is the center of our wisdom. It has laid down the correct and constructive line, patterns, and steps compatible with realities in our country and hence has led the Lao people in overcoming difficulties and numerous tests to win victory after victory, until the final victory. History has shown that our party is the only party which has won the credibility and trust of the people. Our party's leadership in our country's revolution is an objective requirement and historic duty entrusted to it by the Lao multiethnic people. Other political parties which had existed in our country have dissolved in the process of historical transformation. They failed to win the control and support of the people because they did not defend the national interest or fight for the interests and aspirations of the people.


Internal Stability and External Influences

Since the LPDR was proclaimed in December 1975, its leadership has been remarkably stable and cohesive. The record of continuous service at the highest ranks is equaled by few, if any, regimes in the contemporary world. Laotian leaders have an equally impressive record of unity. Although outside observers have scrutinized the leadership for factions--and some have postulated at various times that such factions might be divided along the lines of MarxistLeninist ideologues versus pragmatists or pro-Vietnamese versus nationalists (or pro-Chinese), there is no solid evidence that the leadership is seriously divided on any critical issues.

In 1975 the Laotian communist leaders, most of whom had spent the revolutionary decade from 1964 to 1974 operating from Pathet Lao headquarters in the caves of Sam Neua Province, came down from the mountains to Vientiane to direct the new government. At the outset of their accession to power, they were suspicious, secretive, and inaccessible, and lower-level cadres were maladroit in imposing heavy bureaucratic controls. Travel within the country was limited, personal and family behavior was monitored by newly organized revolutionary administrative committees, cadres were assigned to disseminate propaganda, and seminars were held to provide political education for all sorts of groups. During these early years, the party squandered much of the goodwill and friendly acceptance from a population tired of war and the corruption of the old regime.

At first, Laotian communist leaders were committed to fulfilling their revolutionary goals of fundamentally altering society through "socialist transformation and socialist construction." After 1979 the regime modified its earlier zealous pursuit of socialism and pursued more liberal economic and social policies, in much the same manner as Vietnam.

For more than a decade after 1975, the Vietnamese continued to exercise significant influence upon the Laotian leadership through a variety of party, military, and economic channels. By the end of the 1980s, however--in particular following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in 1991 and diminishing assistance from the Soviet Union to Vietnam and Laos--Vietnam turned inward to concentrate on its own problems of development. This emboldened Laotians leaders to jettison even more of their socialist ideological baggage, abandon agricultural collectivization, and move toward a market economy. Laos was also free to pursue an independent foreign policy. The single most important vestige of the former communist system was the solitary ruling party, the LPRP.


Laos - The Constitution


Development of the Constitution

On August 14, 1991, sixteen years after the establishment of the LPDR, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the country's highest legislative organ, adopted a constitution. Although the SPA had been charged with drafting a constitution in 1975, the task had low priority. It was not until the Third Party Congress that party Secretary General Kaysone stated that the LPRP should "urgently undertake the major task...of preparing a socialist constitution at an early date." Laotian press reports subsequently revealed that a constitutional drafting committee was working informally under the chairmanship of Politburo member Sisomphone Lovansai, a specialist in party organization, with the help of East German advisers. Despite the proclaimed urgency of the task, only on May 22, 1984, did the SPA Standing Committee formalize the appointment of Sisomphone to head a fifteen-person drafting committee.

Although the political institutions had functioned without a written constitution for fifteen years, the lack of a constitution created serious drawbacks for the country. International development agencies were reluctant to invest in Laos given the absence of a fixed, knowable law. Amnesty International, in a 1985 report on Laos, asserted that without a constitution or published penal and criminal codes, citizens were "effectively denied proper legal guarantees of their internationally recognized human rights." Even the party newspaper, Xieng Pasason (Voice of the People), commenting in June 1990 on the absence of a constitution and a general body of laws, acknowledged that "having no laws is... a source of injustice and violation, thus leading to a breakdown of social order and peace, the breeding of anarchy, and the lack of democracy."

Reasons for the leisurely pace of constitution drafting, unusually slow even for the plodding bureaucracy, were not readily apparent. Vietnam had adopted a revised constitution in 1980 and Cambodia in 1981, only two years after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge. According to some reports, progress in Laos had been blocked by differences within the Politburo over certain substantive clauses. Perhaps most important, the party leadership, accustomed to rule without question, may have assigned a low priority to producing a document that might eventually lead to challenging their authority, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Further, the public seemed not to care.

After the new SPA was elected in March 1989, it formally appointed a seventeen-member constitutional drafting committee. The National Radio of Laos reported that the drafting committee was working "under the close supervision of the Political Bureau and the Secretariat of the Party Central Committee." Six members of the drafting committee were members of the Central Committee; two of these members also served on the SPA, which also had six members on the drafting committee.

In April 1990, after securing approval of its document from the LPRP Politburo and the Secretariat, the SPA finally made public the draft constitution. With its publication, the party Central Committee issued Directive Number 21, on April 30, 1990, calling for discussion of the draft, first among party and government officials and then among the public. The discussions, although orchestrated by party cadres, did not always please party authorities. An LPRP spokesman released a memo complaining that "people in many major towns" had dwelled too much on what the constitution had to say about the organization of the state. In June a member of the Central Committee cautioned against demonstrations to "demand a multiparty system" and warned that demonstrators would be arrested. Competing parties would not be tolerated, he asserted, adding that "our multi-ethnic Lao people have remained faithfully under the leadership of the LPRP." In a later pronouncement, he said that "the Party has proved to the people in the last 35 years that it is the only party that can take care of them" and he lectured that "too many parties invite division." A Central Committee directive, dated June 14, 1990, hinted at the quality of the public discussion, noting that "in many cases where people were convoked to a meeting, they were simply given question and answer sheets to study."

However, not all discussions of the draft constitution were perfunctory. Undoubtedly inspired by the examples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union--where the monopoly of power by communist parties had crumbled--a group of some forty government officials and intellectuals began criticizing the country's one-party system in a series of letters and meetings in April 1990. Organized in the unofficial "Social Democratic Club," the group called for a multiparty system in Laos. One member of the group, an assistant to the minister of science and technology, submitted a letter of resignation to Prime Minister Kaysone in which he labeled Laos a "communist monarchy" and a "dynasty of the Politburo" declaring that the country should "change into a multi-party system in order to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity to the people."

Criticism of the draft document gathered strength in the succeeding months; Laotian students in Paris, Prague, and Warsaw joined in the call for free elections. Criticism broadened as a group of young, educated party cadres associated with nonparty bureaucrats--many educated in France and Canada--targeted veteran party leaders. These groups charged that the new policies of the old guard were fostering corruption and increased social and economic inequality. It was not until October 1990 that the government finally cracked down on these calls for democratic reforms, with the arrest of several protesters, including a former vice minister in the State Planning Commission and a director in the Ministry of Justice who were sentenced to long prison terms in Houaphan.

Thus, although the constitution purports to guarantee freedom of speech and petition and its framers give lip service to the desirability of public discussion, the ruling party sent a clear message with these arrests that it will not tolerate challenges to its exclusive exercise of power. Veteran party leaders were clearly more impressed by the political models of Vietnam and China than by the examples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Although willing to experiment with economic liberalization, party leaders seemed determined to retain political domination--if they could-- through a Leninist-style party.

Highlights of the Constitution

The 1991 constitution, which contains elements of an earlier revolutionary orthodoxy, is clearly influenced by the economic and political liberalization within Laos, as well as by the dramatic changes in the socialist world and the international balance of forces. The constitution specifies the functions and powers of the various organs of government and defines the rights and duties of citizens. Several chapters prescribing the structure of the state define the function and powers of the National Assembly (the renamed SPA), the president, the government, the local administration, and the judicial system. The constitution has little to say, however, about the limitations on government. In foreign policy, the principles of peaceful coexistence are followed.

The constitution legally establishes a set of authorities that resemble the traditional differentiation among executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The delineation does not imitate any particular model (neither Vietnamese, nor Russian, nor French), but it pays respect to the idea of a basic blueprint of responsibilities lodged in designated institutions. There is room for evolution of government authority, but there are also specific boundaries.

Government outside Vientiane has developed an independence over the years, reflecting the exigencies of the Pathet Lao armed struggle and of economic self-reliance during the postwar socialist pitfalls. The constitution eliminated elected people's councils at the provincial and district level as "no more necessary," in an effort to fit the state apparatus to the needs of building and developing the regime under "the actual conditions of the country." Again, the will of the ruling party determines which road the administration follows in regard to local governance, but the constitution has left governors, mayors, and district and village chiefs free to "administer their regions and localities without any assistance from popularly elected bodies." The leading role of the party within the administration of the nation overall is illustrated by the fact that party Politburo members are found in state offices--the offices of the president of state, and prime minister, deputy prime ministers (two), chair of the National Assembly, minister of defense, and chair of the Party and State Inspection Board.

The first words of the Preamble refer to the "multi-ethnic Lao people," and frequent use of this term is made throughout the text, a clear rhetorical attempt to promote unity within an ethnically diverse society. The "key components" of the people are specified as workers, farmers, and intellectuals. The Preamble celebrates a revolution carried out "for more than 60 years" under the "correct leadership" of the ICP.

The dominant role played by the LPRP, however, is scarcely mentioned, and the constitution is almost silent about the party's functions and powers. One brief reference to the ruling party is made in Article 3, which states that the "rights of the multiethnic people to be the masters of the country are exercised and ensured through the functioning of the political system with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party as its leading nucleus."

Article 5 notes that the National Assembly and all other state organizations "function in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism." This stricture is an obvious reference to the Marxist-Leninist principle, which calls for open discussion within a unit but prescribes that the minority must accede to the will of the majority, and lower echelons must obey the decisions of higher ones.

Article 7 calls upon mass organizations, such as the Lao Front for National Construction, the Federation of Trade Unions, the People's Revolutionary Youth Union, and the Federation of Women's Unions, to "unite and mobilize the people." The Lao Front for National Construction, the successor to the LPF, served as the political front for the party during the revolutionary struggle. As of mid-1994, its mandate is to mobilize political support and raise political consciousness for the party's goals among various organizations, ethnic groups, and social classes within society. Other mass organizations are assigned to pursue these goals among their target populations of workers, youths, and women.

The constitution proclaims that the state will respect the "principle of equality among ethnic tribes," which have the right to promote "their fine customs and culture." Further, the state is committed to upgrading the "socio-economy of all ethnic groups."

Regarding religion, the state "respects and protects all lawful activities of the Buddhists and of other religious followers." Buddhist monks and other clergy are reminded that the state encourages them to "participate in the activities which are beneficial to the country".

The chapter on the socioeconomic system does not mention the establishment of socialism, a principal goal of earlier dogma. Instead, the objective of economic policy is to transform the "natural economy into a goods economy." Private property appears to be assured by the statement that the "state protects the right of ownership," including the right of transfer and inheritance. The state is authorized to undertake such tasks as managing the economy, providing education, expanding public health, and caring for war veterans, the aging, and the sick. The constitution admonishes that "all organizations and citizens must protect the environment."

A chapter on the rights and obligations of citizens sets forth a cluster of well-known rights found in modern constitutions, including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. Women and men are proclaimed equal, and all citizens can vote at age eighteen and hold office at twenty-one. In return, citizens are obliged to respect the laws, pay taxes, and defend the country, which includes military service. In commenting on this chapter in 1990, Amnesty International, clearly concerned about past human rights abuses, criticized the document for what was not included. Amnesty International noted the absence of provisions for protecting the right to life, abolishing the death penalty, guaranteeing the inalienability of fundamental rights, prohibiting torture, safeguarding against arbitrary arrest and detention, protecting people deprived of their liberty, and providing for a fair trial. No safeguards exist to protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and independence of the judiciary.

Laos is made up of provinces, municipalities, districts, and villages. The constitution gives no clear guidance on provincial and district responsibilities except to specify that the leaders at each echelon must ensure the implementation of the constitution and the law and must carry out decisions taken by a higher level. In spite of the party's inclination to centralize decision making, provinces and localities have enjoyed a surprising degree of autonomy in shaping social policy. This independence is partly due to limited resources and poor communications with Vientiane. But the central government has also encouraged direct contacts along the borders with China, Thailand, and Vietnam, and trading agreements with neighboring jurisdictions.

Although it is unlikely that the constitution will immediately change the imbedded patterns of the Laotian political system or threaten the dominant role of the party, it has the potential to protect human rights and respect for the law, by the rulers as well as the ruled. The crumbling of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well as strains in communist systems elsewhere, accompanied by widespread movements for democracy, suggest that Laos will not be immune to growing demands for a more dependable rule of law.




Bureaucratic Culture

The historical evolution of Laos created identifiable layers of bureaucratic behavior. Traditional royal customs and Buddhist practices set the foundation. Next, there was an overlay of French influence, the product of colonial rule from 1890 to 1954. During this period, several generations of Laotian bureaucrats were trained and often placed in subordinate rank to French-imported Vietnamese civil servants. The administration used French as the official language and followed French colonial administrative practices. From 1954 to 1975, there was an increase in United States influence, and the United States provided training and educational opportunities for future bureaucrats as well as employment in United States agencies. Because of its brevity, however, the United States impact was far less pervasive than the French.

When the communists seized power in 1975, a new layer of bureaucrats--strongly influenced by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union and its allies--was added. Many of the French-trained and United States-influenced bureaucrats fled across the Mekong River. Of those who stayed, perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 were sent to seminar camps or reeducation centers. The few Westerntrained bureaucrats who remained possessed French- or Englishlanguage skills and the technical competence needed to deal effectively with the Western foreign aid donors so critical to the economy. The Western-trained bureaucrats were essential because not many of the new revolutionary cadres who moved into key positions of bureaucratic authority had much formal education, knowledge of a foreign language, or competence in the technical and managerial skills necessary to run a national economy. The few cadres in each ministry who were capable of managing the economy were often unavailable because there were so many demands for their services: for example, meeting with visiting foreign delegations, traveling to international meetings, and attending political training sessions.

Since its inception, the LPDR bureaucracy has been lethargic and discouraged individual initiative. It has been dangerous to take unorthodox positions. Some officials have been arrested on suspicion of corruption or ideological deviation: for example, "pro-Chinese" sentiment. Initiative has been further constrained by the lack of legal safeguards, formal trial procedures, and an organized system of appeal. The beginnings of a penal code, which the SPA endorsed in 1989, and the promulgation of a constitution in 1991, however, may solidify the system of justice and provide a clear definition as to what constitutes a crime against socialist morality, the party, or the state.

The lethargy of the bureaucracy is understandable within the cultural context of Laos. As a peasant society at the lower end of the modernization scale, the LPDR has adopted few of the work routines associated with modern administration. Foreign aid administrators frequently point out that Laotian administrators have difficulty creating patterns or precedents, or learning from experience. Laotians are known for their light-hearted, easy-going manner. This bo pinh nyang (never mind--don't worry about it) attitude is reflected in the languid pace of administration. Official corruption has also been acknowledged as problematic.

Kaysone acknowledged the bureaucracy's low level of competence. In his report to the Fourth Party Congress in 1986, he chided those in authority who gave "preference only to (their friends) or those from the same locality or race; paying attention to only their birth origin, habits and one particular sphere of education." Patronage is but one area that has come under scrutiny and resulted in admonishments to strengthen inspection and control. Kaysone further railed against "dogmatism, privatism, racial narrowmindedness , regionalism and localism."

<>The President


Laos - The President


The president of the country is elected by a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly for a term of five years. One surprising constitutional provision transforms the presidency from a ceremonial position into an important political power. The president appoints and can dismiss the prime minister and members of the government, with the approval of the National Assembly-- parliamentary responsibility that has not yet occurred in the short life of the current constitutional regime. He also presides over meetings of the government, "when necessary," and appoints and dismisses provincial governors and mayors of municipalities as well as generals of the armed forces, upon the recommendation of the prime minister. In addition, the president receives and appoints ambassadors and declares states of emergency or war.

The powers accorded to the president grew perceptively during the drafting process of the constitution, but the sudden death of Kaysone, who had moved from prime minister to state president after the promulgation of the constitution, temporarily introduced doubts regarding the relative power potential of the two offices. Nonetheless, the president of state heads the armed forces and has the right and duty to promulgate laws and issue decrees and state acts.

The primary organization for administration is the government, which consists of the prime minister--its head--and deputy prime ministers, ministers, and chairs of ministry-equivalent state committees. The prime minister, appointed by the president with the approval of the National Assembly, serves a five-year term. Duties of this office include the guidance and supervision of the work of government ministries and committees, as well as of the governors of provinces and mayors of municipalities. The prime minister appoints all the deputies at these levels of government, as well as the local district chiefs.


Laos - Legislature


The National Assembly, the country's supreme legislative body, is to be elected every five years. Significantly, this designation was used in RLG and French colonial times, before the introduction of the title "Supreme People's Assembly" in late 1975. It is located in a new building, far larger than the previous structure built in colonial times, and contains an auditorium seating 800 persons.

The National Assembly makes decisions on fundamental issues and oversees administrative and judicial organs. Its most significant powers include electing and removing the president of state, the president of the Supreme People's Court, and the prosecutor general, "on the recommendation of the National Assembly Standing Committee." Its prestige has been further enhanced by the constitutional mandate to "make decisions on the fundamental issues of the country" and to "elect or remove the President of state and the Vice President of state", by a two-thirds vote, and to approve the removal of members of the government on the recommendation of the president of state. Its powers encompass amending the constitution, determining taxes, approving the state budget, endorsing or abrogating laws, and electing or removing the two top judicial figures in the system. Members of the National Assembly have the "right to interpellate the members of the government." The National Assembly also ratifies treaties and decides questions of war and peace. These powers may prove to be limited, however, by a provision in the constitution that the National Assembly will generally meet in ordinary session only twice a year. The Standing Committee meeting in the interim may convene an extraordinary session if it deems necessary.

The constitution does not specify the number of members in the National Assembly, whose candidates are screened by the LPRP. The 1989 election placed seventy-nine members in this body, representing districts of between 40,000 and 50,000 persons each. The election campaign lasted two months, and candidates appeared before voters at night in local schools or pagodas. Voting consisted of crossing out unfavored candidates, and every ballot contained at least two candidates. The number of party members elected by this process was officially placed at sixty-five.

Between sessions, the Standing Committee of the National Assembly, consisting of the president and the vice president elected by the National Assembly and an unspecified number of other members, prepares for future sessions and "supervise[s] and oversee[s] the activities of the administrative and judicial organizations." It is empowered to appoint or remove the vice president of the Supreme People's Court and judges at all levels of the lower courts. Its supervisory role can be reinforced by National Assembly committees established to consider draft laws and decrees and to help in the supervision and administration of the courts. The special National Assembly Law passed March 25, 1993, specifies five substantive areas for National Assembly committees: secretarial; law; economic planning and finances; cultural, social, and nationalities; and foreign affairs. The membership of the committees includes not only National Assembly members but also chiefs and deputy chiefs, who "guide the work," and technical cadres.


Laos - Judiciary


The development of the legal and judicial system did not begin until almost fifteen years after the state was proclaimed. In November 1989, a criminal code and laws establishing a judicial system were adopted. In 1993 the government began publishing an official gazette to disseminate laws, decrees, and regulations.

In 1990 the judicial branch was upgraded. New legislation provided a draft of a criminal code, established procedures for criminal cases, set up a court system, and established a law school. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice added a fourth year of studies to a law program for training magistrates and judges.

Also in 1990, the functions of the Supreme People's Court were separated from those of the office of the public prosecutor general. Until then, the minister of justice served as both president of the court and director of public prosecutions.

Although the implementation of judicial reforms proceeded slowly and had not significantly improved the administration of justice by mid-1994, the new legal framework offers the possibility of moving away from the arbitrary use of power toward the rule of law. In late 1992, however, the government suspended the bar until it formulates regulations for fees and activities of (the few) private lawyers who are able to advise in civil cases. Lawyers are not allowed to promote themselves as attorneys-at-law. Theoretically, the government provides legal counsel to the accused, although in practice persons accused of crimes must defend themselves, without outside legal counsel. However, the assessors (legal advisers)--who are often untrained--and the party functionaries are being increasingly replaced by professional personnel trained at the Institute of Law and Administration.

The constitution empowers the National Assembly to elect or remove the president of the Supreme People's Court and the public prosecutor general on the recommendation of its Standing Committee. The Standing Committee of the National Assembly appoints or removes judges (previously elected) of the provincial, municipal, and district levels.

Further evidence of an attempt to shift toward a professional judicial system is found in the public prosecution institutes provided for at each level of administration. The task of these institutes is to control the uniform observance of laws by all ministries, organizations, state employees, and citizens. They prosecute under the guidance of the public prosecutor general, who appoints and removes deputy public prosecutors at all levels.




Human Rights

Human rights have been gaining a measure of respect in Laos. In the early years of the LPDR, party authorities arbitrarily sent people labeled as social deviants--"prostitutes, addicts, gamblers, hippies, thieves, and lost children"--to seminar camps. Political opponents associated with the former RLG--perhaps as many as 30,000 to 50,000--were also confined to these camps.

By the late 1980s, there was a slight liberalization in the granting of human rights. Many, although not all, of the seminar camps had been closed, and some former inmates were assigned to labor and construction units and collective farms near the camps. It became easier for a citizen to travel within the country and gain permission to cross the Mekong River to Thailand or travel abroad. As of April 1994, any Laotian with an identification card and foreigners with valid visas were permitted to travel anywhere in the country--with specific travel papers--except to a few, unspecified, "restricted areas." Restrictions on Buddhist religious practices became more relaxed, and even high-level government officials routinely attended Buddhist functions. The number of Buddhist monks increased, with some 30,000 reported to be practicing in 1991. The agents of state internal security, principally the police and other cadres of the Ministry of Interior, seemed less oppressive. In 1991 twenty-five detainees who had been held at seminar camps since 1975 were released. The number the government was known to be holding as of 1993 had diminished to fewer than twelve, all former officials or military officers of the RLG. The LPDR claimed that the remaining detainees were free to travel in Houaphan Province, where they are confined.

Nonetheless, many freedoms remain inaccessible. The government controls most large public gatherings, and, except for religious, athletic, and communal events, generally organizes them. Political demonstrations, protest marches, and other "destabilizing subversive activities" are expressly banned by the new penal code. The constitution guarantees the freedoms of speech and the press, but the exercise of these freedoms is subject to a wide range of government controls.

<>Political Opposition


Laos - Insurgents


A small-scale insurgency that has existed since 1975 continues in the early 1990s, although at a much lower level than in previous years. This insurgency has never seriously threatened the regime, but it is troublesome because the insurgents commit sabotage, blow up bridges, and threaten transport and communications. The great majority of insurgents are Hmong, led by ex-soldiers from United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-supported units who fought against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops in the 1960s. Hmong groups, most of them formerly associated with the RLG, draw recruits and support from Hmong refugee camps and operate from bases in Thailand with the cooperation of local Thai military officers. As relations between Thailand and Laos continued to improve in the 1990s, support for this insurgent activity declined. Resistance spokesmen claim that their principal source of funds for weapons and supplies comes from Laotian expatriate communities overseas, including the 180,000 Laotians in the United States.

Even though the government lacks widespread public support, insurgency is less a measure of discontent than evidence of a serious ethnic problem. The LPDR, like the RLG that preceded it, has been dominated by lowland Lao. The two governments exemplify the traditional Lao disdain for upland peoples, in spite of Pathet Lao rhetoric in favor of ethnic equality. On the one hand, because many Hmong fought on the side of the "American imperialists," government leaders feel additionally suspicious of them. On the other hand, Hmong and other upland minorities who served with the United States-supported forces have been suspicious and uncomfortable under their former enemies. Thus, a core of insurgents, composed largely of ethnic minorities, continues to fight against the authorities. It will be extremely difficult-- perhaps impossible--for the government to pacify them, especially without help from Vietnamese military units, if the insurgents enjoy access to sanctuary in Thailand along the easily crossed 1,000 kilometer Mekong River border.

In the early 1980s, Hmong insurgents claimed that the Lao People's Army (LPA) was using lethal chemical agents against them. The Hmong refugees in Thailand often referred to the chemical agents as "poisons from above;" foreign journalists used the term "yellow rain." The government vehemently denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use" in the post-1983 period. The LPDR again denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use."


Laos - Refugees


From 1975 to 1985, after the communists had seized power and were consolidating their hold, some 350,000 persons fled across the Mekong River to Thailand and, in most cases, resettled in third countries. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, this outflow had declined substantially. In 1990, for example, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 lowland Lao and 4,000 to 5,000 upland Lao departed illegally for Thailand. The Thai government refused to admit these refugees as immigrants. Third-country resettlement has grown more difficult with the end of Cold War solidarity with emigrants who claim to be "victims of communism." Moreover, Laos has become more liberal in granting exit permits to those desiring to emigrate.

By the early 1990s, almost as many Laotians were returning to Laos as were leaving. Under a voluntary repatriation program worked out in 1980 by Laos and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 19,000 Laotians had voluntarily returned to their homeland by the end of 1993, and an estimated 30,000 more had returned without official involvement. Most of the returnees are lowland Lao. Of the approximately 30,000 Laotian refugees remaining in camps in Thailand in 1993, the majority are upland Lao. Approximately 1,700 Laotian refugees remain in China. Émigrés who had resettled in third countries are returning in increasing numbers to visit relatives and, in a few cases, to survey business opportunities in the more liberal economy.


Laos - Political Opposition


Over the centuries, residents of the Laotian Buddhist kingdom developed gentle techniques of accommodation, often searching for more powerful patrons either outside the country or within. Authorities governed during the early years after 1975 with little popular support, but most Laotians simply submitted to their authority because they had little alternative. However, the authorities were not harsh compared to other communist regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, most of which--by mid-1994--have toppled.

The relatively passive Laotian political culture inspires few direct challenges to one-party domination, and party authorities firmly assert the limits of political dissent. LPRP spokesmen invoke a litany of explanations to justify the party's monopoly of power--for example, the country is too underdeveloped and the people too little educated to permit more than one party. Further, there are too many ethnic groups, and open political participation would lead to disunity and chaos. Political stability, provided by the leadership of a single party, is said to be necessary for economic growth. The LPRP has also pointed out the corrupt multiparty system of the RLG. An abiding political reality, however, is that those who have power wish to retain it.

Restrictions on political opposition do not appear to be a salient issue among a majority of the population, although a small number of educated Laotians in intellectual, student, and bureaucratic circles have raised a few protests. Despite the toll of age and failing health among the aged Politburo members, the leadership governs without active opposition. Even when communist leaders were unceremoniously dumped in Eastern Europe, vigorously challenged in the Soviet Union, and confronted by students in China, communist leaders in Laos retained their hold as they guided the regime into the uncharted realm of reform. It is not clear why there was so little challenge to these aging leaders. They maintained a cohesion among themselves, perhaps a product of their many years as comrades in revolution, living in caves and dodging United States bombs. They may have also sustained an enduring respect from party stalwarts who followed them during twenty-five years of revolution. Whether the government will encounter political opposition from a broader segment of Laotian society as it moves to a more market-oriented economy and increasingly opens its doors to Western influence remains to be seen.




Information and communication have been tightly controlled in Laos since the days of French colonialism. During the years of revolutionary struggle against the RLG, the LPRP relied heavily upon radiobroadcasts in the Lao and Hmong languages. Starting in 1960, with technical assistance from North Vietnam, these radiobroadcasts, lasting four hours a day, reached a largely illiterate and mountain-dwelling audience. Press operations, oriented to the towns of the Mekong Valley, were conducted secretly, if at all, by the clandestine Pathet Lao. Radiobroadcasters never mentioned the official name of the party until a few months before the seizure of power in December 1975.

Given such a heritage of party control, it is not surprising that the postrevolutionary operation of the mass media is a tightly controlled party monopoly without private participation. The joint party-government organization of the media is reflected in the Ministry of Information and Culture and the State Board of News Agency, Newspaper, Radio, and Television. The party maintains the more narrowly focused Propaganda and Training Committee whose chairman is also the head of the state board. The overall goal of the press is stated as making the mass media into a link among the party, the state, and the masses.

In mid-1994 the official media consisted of the party-sponsored daily newspaper, Xieng Pasason (The Voice of the People) [Vientiane], in Lao language only. Khaosan Pathet Lao (Lao News Agency), a news service of the Committee of Information, Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, distributes daily bulletins in Lao, English, and French. The National Radio of Laos, the stateowned radio service, has a national network and seven regional stations that broadcast in Lao and tribal languages. The four government-owned Laotian television stations broadcast daily for a few hours each. Regional stations broadcast in Lao and in tribal languages.

Other media are specialized for particular audiences. For example, the daily Vientiane Mai (Vientiane News), covers local matters of significance to the party. The journal Sangkhom Thoulakit (Society and Business), in Lao, targets readers interested in Vientiane business and society. A theoretical quarterly, Aloun Mai (New Dawn), established in 1985, appeared with some regularity to disseminate major speeches by party leaders, among other official pronouncements. An arts and letters monthly, Vannasin, is surviving, but the print output of various mass organizations such as the People's Revolutionary Youth Union's Noum Lao (Lao Youth), a fortnightly journal, or those of the Federation of Women Union's is only intermittent. Lao Dong (Labor) is the fortnightly journal of the Federation of Trade Unions.

Laotian media output is sporadic and relatively insignificant compared with the impressions made by Thai television, radio, and commercials, and the daily newspapers carried into Vientiane by international travelers. Given the proximity of Thai radio and television, Thailand remains both an open window to a different economic system and provides a perspective on the news. Further, outside information and culture have proven to be too pervasive to be worth eradicating by surveillance or jamming.

So far as publishing is concerned, the Ministry of Information and Culture held a seminar in 1992, which reviewed its activities over the previous sixteen years and worked out a "plan of action" for the coming period with "provisional regulations on publication, printing, and distribution in the Lao PDR." Reinforcement of this type of intellectual planning is achieved through periodic conferences with delegations from the official news agencies of Vietnam and Cambodia, and through visits to China. A delegation of Thai writers was also entertained.




More than most countries, Laos suffers the constraints of physical location in shaping its foreign policy. Historically, the landlocked Laotian kingdom of Lan Xang, situated along the middle stretch of the Mekong River, had to contend with the predatory kingdoms of Burma to the north, Vietnam to the east, and Siam (present-day Thailand) to the west. After these kingdoms' seventeenth-century period of ascendancy, the lowland Lao kingdom broke up into the principality of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang), which survived by offering tribute to both east and west, and Vientiane and Champasak (Bassac), which were reduced by the end of the eighteenth century to tributaries of Siam. Vietnam then asserted suzerainty over Xiangkhoang and Khammouan to the west. Thus, the foreign relations of the Laotians reflected their geography--landlocked and narrowly confined by valleys and mountains that supported a limited, overwhelmingly agricultural population exposed to more numerous and productive neighbors. In addition, the lack of national cohesion among various tribal groups subsisting in the mountains diminished the thrust of Laotian statehood.

Starting in 1893, Laotian kingdoms were subjected to the "protection" of France, which reasserted Vietnamese claims against Siam to all Laotian territories east of the Mekong River and in Xaignabouri and Champasak. This period of subordination was followed by the intervention of the United States and Thailand after 1954, succeeded by Vietnamese communists after 1975. More recently, since 1989, foreign policy has veered back toward more independence, in relinquishing both Marxist-Leninist ideology and the special influence of Vietnam.

The geographical and demographic confines of Laos have not been the only constraints on its foreign policy. Given the weakness of the state, the international environment has largely determined both the opportunities and the limits of national strategy. The most obvious recent example is the economic collapse and political breakup of the Soviet Union and the consequent retrenchment of its economic assistance throughout Indochina. This series of events helped cause Vietnam's withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia and Laos by 1990, which encouraged Thailand to reenter Indochina as a field for business. In turn, Vietnam sought to normalize relations with China, which also withdrew its military support from Cambodia.

These policy shifts redefined the conceivable strategies for a government concerned with economic development and political leeway. The shibboleths of Marxism-Leninism and state-organized agriculture and industry were no longer appropriate. In need of economic advice and investment, Laos looked beyond Vietnam and the Soviet bloc, to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other international organizations, and aid from a few Western nations and Japan. Besides increasing dramatically the presence of Thai traders and investors, Laos responded positively to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and advice from various United Nations (UN) agencies. At the same time, it began to establish a legal foundation for the protection of business risk-takers. Thus, the road to "national uplift" no longer stretched through the alien fields of Soviet/Vietnamese collectivism; people in Mekong Valley towns could see more products in their markets, and peasants began to believe that communal agriculture was a government imposition not likely to return.

Despite the security gained during the French protectorate, Laos lost ground economically because of its slowness in absorbing European technology and in developing trade beyond its borders. By and large, it failed to tap the mineral resources beneath its mountains, except for tin, which was mined by the French, and to investigate its oil potential. It did next to nothing to build an infrastructure for international trade. Even if a railroad system and reliable roads had been built, Laos still would have confronted potential controls over its access to the sea from Thailand or Vietnam. However, the hydroelectric capacity of the country has provided a major export that Thailand cannot afford to do without.

Because the rugged Annamite Mountains separate the Mekong Valley from Vietnamese population centers to the east, physical communication with the Thai nation to the west has always been easier, even before the Friendship Bridge across the river was completed in April 1994. Thus, the threat of Thai intervention across the Mekong River cannot be treated lightly by the LPDR's military planners, particularly under dry season conditions. At the same time, the ease of Vietnamese infiltration through the Annamite Mountains was thoroughly demonstrated during the years of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which led across southeastern Laos into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

Basic Goals

The basic goals of foreign policy have not differed from one regime to another. National security or survival are fundamental concerns, and both the RLG and the LPDR have striven to preserve a Laotian state, even though their philosophies for organizing and serving the people differed fundamentally. In the 1990s, ideology shifted away from relentless Marxism-Leninism to "state capitalism" and single-party "democracy." Such formulations place Laos outside any rigid ideological camp and leave the national agenda open to the general promise of economic development. Officially, the government has dedicated itself to a foreign policy of peace, "independence, friendship and non-alignment," with the instrument for achieving those conditions being the LPRP.

In the 1940s, the ICP provided the most assertive challenge to colonialism. With the ending of French and United States dominance over the Laotian peoples, the communist-inspired LPRP has wrestled with the next challenge--economic and national development. The success of that undertaking and the survival of the party that has assumed it remains in the balance in the 1990s. The key to success, however, lies in developing and maintaining fruitful foreign relations.

Bureaucratic Complications

A serious need for skilled technical and economic personnel still hinders the government's dealings with international agencies and businesspeople. Thousands of the most trained and enterprising citizens fled the country after 1975. A related problem for foreign policy makers is the relative lack of young university graduates who are fluent in English and familiar with international economics. The several thousand Laotian students sent between 1975 and the late 1980s to the Soviet Union and its East European allies for several years of training often have returned without tangible or relevant skills. The hundreds of training years provided in the Soviet Union did not produce a solid base of junior diplomatic officers intellectually prepared to move easily among UN economic development agencies or in Western state capitals. In the 1990s, education in Western states has become essential for advancement. As the horizon broadened for Laotian diplomats and businesspersons, elite families in Laos sought training in United States or Australian universities. Thailand is also willing to pick up some of the demand for educational opportunity, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states are also a potential source for scholarships.

Recruitment of a professional foreign service is no easier in these circumstances. Moreover, party experience seems to count more heavily than sophistication in language and diplomatic training, even in the realm of foreign relations.

Economic Factors

The retarded economic diversification and development of Laos constrained its foreign policy opportunities and generated its dependency in succession upon France, the United States, and the Soviet bloc. Following the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, Laos has become heavily dependent upon the advice and contributions of UN agencies and the readiness of regional states such as Australia, Japan, and Thailand to invest in its economy. Sweden has also made significant economic contributions.

There has been a dramatic shift away from maintaining basic solidarity with a military/political bloc of mentors--first, the United States regional security alliance and then the "special relations" of Vietnamese-influenced Marxism-Leninism--to maximizing donor-recipient relations with UN agencies, state donors, and private investors. Although the universe of relations has not essentially grown, especially with Russia cutting back on its assistance, the expectation of genuine economic progress has begun to creep into economic dealings with outsiders. By moving resolutely and responding to Thai and Chinese gestures, Laos has broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors. The presence of Thai traders and investors has dramatically increased.

The degree to which Laos has depended upon outside donors and investors, and which ones, has been a function not only of need but also political choice, a dependence that was carefully controlled during Kaysone Phomvihan's tutorship. Without his pervasive leadership, foreign economic relations might have fallen victim to internal rivalries between ministries and factions within the party.

However, through legislation enacted by the National Assembly in 1991 of a basic criminal and investment code and the creation of a judiciary, Laos opened its doors wider to serious investors. In addition, the stabilization of foreign exchange rates and inflation signaled major steps toward engaging constructively with countries outside the ideological blocs within which it used to confine itself. The new institutions require a few years of serious testing, but a Burma-like return to stagnation seems unlikely, even with Kaysone's departure from the helm. The tantalizing images of Thailand's growth and prosperity, conveyed by television along the Mekong border, and increasingly easier travel across the river--in both directions--makes the economic policy of openness seem all but irreversible.

Relations with ...
<>Soviet Union
<>United States


Laos - Vietnam


Relations with Vietnam had secretly set the strategy for the LPRP during the struggle to achieve full power, and the "sudden" opportunity to establish the LPDR in 1975 left no leeway to consider foreign policy alignments other than a continuation of the "special relations" with Vietnam. The relationship cultivated in the revolutionary stage predisposed Laos to Indochinese solidarity in the reconstruction and "socialist construction" phases and all but ensured that relations or alignments with China and Thailand would be wary and potentially unfriendly. Further, the LPRP, unlike the Cambodian communists under Pol Pot, was far too accustomed to accepting Vietnamese advice to consider striking out on its own. The final seizure of power by the hitherto secret LPRP in 1975 brought both a public acknowledgment of the previously hidden North Vietnamese guidance of the party and genuine expressions of gratitude by the LPRP to its Vietnamese partners. The challenge facing the ruling group--the construction of a socialist society-- was seen as a natural extension of past collaboration with North Vietnam. The revolution was simply entering a new phase in 1975, and the LPRP leaders congratulated themselves upon ousting the "imperialists" and looked forward to advice and economic as well as military support, which was not available from any neighbor or counterrevolutionary state.

LPRP leaders were accustomed to discussing policies as well as studying doctrine in Hanoi. They formalized governmental contacts with their mentors at biannual meetings of the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam starting in 1980 and through the joint Vietnam-Laos Cooperative Commission, which met annually to review progress of various projects. Other levels of cooperation between Laos and Vietnam existed, for example, party-to-party meetings and province-to-province exchanges, as well as mass organizations for youths and women. Meetings of the commission were held regularly.

The primary channels for Vietnam's influence in Laos, however, were the LPRP and the LPA. In the LPRP, long-standing collaboration and consultation at the very top made special committees unnecessary, whereas in the LPA, the Vietnamese advisers, instructors, and troops on station constituted a pervasive, inescapable influence, even though they scrupulously avoided public exposure by sticking to their designated base areas. Cooperation in the military field was probably the most extensive, with logistics, training, and communications largely supplied by Vietnam throughout the 1970s and 1980s (heavy ordnance and aircraft were provided by the Soviet Union).

The phrase "special relations" came into general use by both parties after 1976, and in July 1977, the signing of the twentyfive -year Lao-Vietnamese Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation legitimized the stationing of Vietnamese army troops in Laos for its protection against hostile or counterrevolutionary neighbors. Another element of cooperation involved hundreds of Vietnamese advisers who mentored their Laotian counterparts in virtually all the ministries in Vientiane. Hundreds of LPRP stalwarts and technicians studied in institutes of Marxism-Leninism or technical schools in Hanoi.

The resources that Vietnam was able to bestow upon its revolutionary partner, however, were severely limited by the physical destruction of war and the deadening orthodoxy of its economic structures and policies. However, it could put in a good word for its Laotian apprentices with the Soviet Union, which in turn could recommend economic assistance projects to its East European satellite states. Yet, Vietnam's influence on Laos was determined by economic assistance and ideology as well as by geographical and historical proximity. The two nations fit together, as the leaders liked to say, "like lips and teeth." Vietnam provided landlocked Laos a route to the sea, and the mountainous region of eastern Laos provided Vietnam a forward strategic position for challenging Thai hegemony in the Mekong Valley.

During the 1980s, Vietnam's regional opponents attributed to it a neocolonial ambition to create an "Indochina Federation." This phrase can be found in early pronouncements of the ICP in its struggle against the French colonial structures in Indochina. The charge, exaggerated as it was, lost its currency once Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989 and subsequently from Laos. Laos's dependence on Vietnam since 1975 could then be perceived as a natural extension of their collaboration and solidarity in revolution rather than as domination by Vietnam.

With the departure of Vietnamese military forces--except for some construction engineers--and the passing of most senior Vietnamese revolutionary partners, the magnetism of the special relationship lost its grip. Further, Vietnam was never able to muster large-scale economic aid programs. It launched only 200 assistance projects between 1975 and 1985, whereas the Soviet Union generated considerably more in the way of contributions. In 1992 the long-standing Vietnamese ambassador to Laos, a veteran of fourteen years' service, characterized the relationship as composed "d'amitié et de coopération multiforme entre les pays" (of friendship and diverse cooperation between the two countries). This pronouncement was far less compelling than the "objective law of existence and development" formulation sometimes expressed in the past.

Although Vietnam's historical record of leadership in the revolution and its military power and proximity will not cease to exist, Laos struck out ahead of Vietnam with its New Economic Mechanism to introduce market mechanisms into its economy. In so doing, Laos has opened the door to rapprochement with Thailand and China at some expense to its special dependence on Vietnam. Laos might have reached the same point of normalization in following Vietnam's economic and diplomatic change, but by moving ahead resolutely and responding to Thai and Chinese gestures, Laos has broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors independent of Vietnam's attempts to accomplish the same goal. Thus, Vietnam remains in the shadows as a mentor and emergency ally, and the tutelage of Laos has shifted dramatically to development banks and international entrepreneurs.


Laos - Thailand


In some respects, Thailand can be seen as a greater threat to the country's independence than Vietnam because of its closer cultural affinity (Theravada Buddhism), its easier access, and its control over the railroad and highway routes to the sea. The Mekong River, which both sides have an interest in making a "river of true peace and friendship"--as their respective prime ministers called for in 1976--also provides a north-south artery during the rainy season.

Relations with Thailand have been uneven. An alarming patrol boat shooting incident occurred in 1980, but this brief encounter was overshadowed by the border disputes and military clashes of 1984 and 1987 in Xaignabouri Province west of the Mekong. These conflicts originated in rival claims to forest resources based on maps from the early days of the French protectorate.

The determination in 1988 of Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhaven to open up the Indochina market abruptly turned a deadly conflict into a wave of goodwill gestures and business ventures. Kaysone paid an official visit to Bangkok in 1989, his first since the brief 1979 rapprochement with Prime Minister General Kriangsak Chomanand. These gestures were followed by official visits by Princess Maha Chakkri in March 1990 and Crown Prince Maha Wachirolongkon in June 1992. An irony of this process of reacquaintance was the dropping from the Politburo in 1992 of Army Chief of Staff General Sisavat Keobounphan, who had dealt closely and effectively with the Thai military command in restoring neighborly relations but who apparently was considered by his party colleagues to have indulged in personal gains. Indeed, this corruption of a senior party leader symbolizes the fear among some Laotian leaders that Thailand, with its materialism and business strength and greed, "want to eat us."

Two political issues slowed rapprochement during the 1980s: first, the continuing issue of Laotian migrants and refugees remaining in temporary camps--whom Thailand had no desire to accept as immigrants--and second, Laotian and Hmong resistance groups who used the camps as a base. The Hmong constituted half of the camp dwellers and were expected to avoid repatriation the longest, out of fear of reprisal and hope for national autonomy. Thailand announced in July 1992, however, that Laotian refugees who have not returned home or found third-country resettlement by 1995 will be classified as illegal immigrants and face deportation.

In the first few years of rapprochement, Thai businesspersons have not threatened to buy up long-term economic opportunities in Laos because they seem to seek shorter-term commercial ventures. Yet the possibility of heavy interdependence generated by Thai investors remains. A Thai business presence in Laos will probably depend on the continuing demonstration of Laos's independence from Vietnam.

The persistence of a resistance movement since 1975 is attributable to permissive policies on the part of Thailand on behalf of their former Laotian cohorts. With the demise of the Cold War, the motivation to harass the LPDR and its Vietnamese military partners has dwindled. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to press the Thai military command to live up to its March 1991 agreement to disarm rebels and discourage Laotian sabotage operations. At the same time, Thailand has made clear its unwillingness to assimilate Hmong refugees.

The threat of a return of Vietnamese troops remains as a cautionary note to the Thai military, who prefer to keep Laos as a buffer rather than the military line of contact with the Vietnamese. The Friendship Bridge should open the interior to more foreign trucking and commerce and more openly reveal any foreign military presence in Laos.

Future Laotian-Thai relations have a clear path visible toward mutually beneficial trade and investment, which need not be obscured by refugees or economic migrants, by one-sided economic dealings of an exploitative kind, or by inflamed border disputes. The exodus of tens of thousands of middle-class lowland Lao and mountain dwelling Hmong across the Mekong into Thailand created a tense border that Thailand preferred to close off to commerce of any kind. An improved trade relationship has been achieved in spite of past feelings of superiority or victimization, and growing interdependence may make the path easier to follow.


Laos - China


Relations with China have traditionally consisted of trade and aid, largely in road construction in the northern provinces of Laos, without directly challenging the interests of Thailand or Vietnam in the central and southern regions. However, Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 to unseat then prime minister Pol Pot, provoked China into a limited invasion of Vietnam-- approximately nineteen kilometers deep--to "teach Vietnam a lesson." Laos was caught in a dangerous bind, not wanting to further provoke China, but not able to oppose its special partner, Vietnam. The Laotian leadership survived the dilemma by making slightly delayed pronouncements in support of Vietnam after some intraparty debate and by sharply reducing diplomatic relations with China to the chargé d'affaires level--without a full break. The low point in Sino-Laotian relations came in 1979, with reports of Chinese assistance and training of Hmong resistance forces under General Vang Pao in China's Yunnan Province.

This hostile relationship gradually softened, however, and in 1989 Prime Minister Kaysone paid a state visit to Beijing. In 1991 Kaysone chose to spend his vacation in China rather than make his customary visit to the Soviet Union. Diplomatic and party-to-party relations were normalized in 1989. Trade expanded from the local sale of consumer goods to the granting of eleven investment licenses in 1991--including an automotive assembly plant. Following the establishment of the Laotian-Chinese Joint Border Committee in 1991, meetings held during 1992 resulted in an agreement delineating their common border. China's commercial investments and trade with Laos have expanded quietly, but not dramatically, in 1993 and 1994.

Unlike its other neighbors, China has not historically dominated the Laotians. In the final analysis, China represents the most powerful remaining communist state to which Laos might turn for support against Thai or Vietnamese hegemony.


Laos - Soviet Union


The Soviet Union and Soviet bloc involvement with Laos originated as a secondary element in the East-West contest over the communist-led revolution in Vietnam and in the Sino-Soiet rivalry that this contest exacerbated. Even though the Laos subtheater was formally neutralized by the Geneva Agreement of 1962, the superpower involvement in Laos continued in the form of military supplies, advice, and diplomatic and propaganda support to the opposing sides up to the end of the war. The succeeding period of coalition government in Vientiane lasted fewer than two years and left the Soviets not only enjoying the prestige of supporting the winning party--the Marxist-Leninist LPRP, which by then had publicly revealed itself--but also holding the bag of vast economic development needs in a nation losing its most skilled persons across the border to the West. The Soviet Union had helped its friends prevail over the opponents of the revolution, but the Marxist-Leninist model for building up an overwhelmingly agricultural nation was not effective with the complaisant Lao peasantry.

Since 1989 aid from the Soviet Union and its successor states-- which once accounted for more than half the aid to Laos and approximately 1,500 technicians and advisers--has slowly dwindled. The memorial to Soviet efforts in Laos lies in dozens of projects such as bridges, roads, airports, hospitals, and broadcast facilities; in tons of military equipment, including MiG jet fighters and air transports; and in the hundreds of students with a faltering command of the Russian language, some of whom are trained for such jobs as railroad operator or circus clown, for which Laos has no market.

The Laotian leadership has resolutely sought to take up the slack among its previous bilateral and multilateral donors. By 1990 bilateral external assistance disbursed by Russia was down to 36 percent of the total, from a previous 60 percent; Hungary, the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Mongolia, and Vietnam contributed a mere 3.7 per percent. The number of student fellowships--usually 300 per year--decreased dramatically. The downward spiral continued as the Russians shifted their dwindling influence in the region to cooperation with the five permanent members of the UN in settling the war in Cambodia. And, in a further move away from dependence, the coming generation of national leaders felt anxious about obtaining useful education in the West for their children, even if they could still get by with Vietnamese and French.


Laos - United States


Relations with the United States suffered some of the same cutbacks as those experienced by Vietnam and Cambodia after the United States withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, but there were important differences. After 1975 Laos provided the United States the only official window to its former enemy states in Indochina. The United States was also willing to treat all departing Laotians as political refugees entitled to asylum, with hopes that third countries might eventually accept them for resettlement. And, in spite of the full economic and diplomatic embargo imposed by the United States on Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, United States diplomatic relations with Laos facilitated such occasional humanitarian aid projects as food and prosthetics. In this manner, the door to full diplomatic relations was kept ajar.

Diplomatic relations with the United States were never broken, even though the United States Agency for International Development (AID) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) both withdrew, under harassment, and diplomatic representation in Vientiane and in Washington was reduced to the level of chargé d'affaires, with a limit of twelve persons and no military attachés. Relations eventually were reciprocally restored to the ambassadorial level in the summer of 1992.

A tentative agreement to allow United States Peace Corps personnel in Laos fell through in the spring of 1992. The admission of Peace Corps workers was initially approved but then rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Apparently some party leaders feared that the volunteers might have a subversive impact on the Laotians, especially if deployed outside Vientiane. As of 1993, a country agreement was on the table, and the Peace Corps remained interested in sending volunteers but was waiting for Laos to initiate a program.

Other United States agencies run small programs in Laos. In 1992 AID made a US$1.3 million grant for a prosthetics project. Because AID does not have an office in Laos, the program is administered from AID's office in Bangkok. The United States Information Service, the overseas branch office of the USIA, reopened a one-officer post in Vientiane in October 1992. The post concentrates on supporting English-language teaching activities and publications, press activities, and cultural and educational exchanges. Two Laotian Fulbright grantees were in the United States in 1993.

Since the establishment of the LPDR, Laos and the United States have cooperated in varying degrees on two major issues of high priority to the United States. One is the search for information on the more than 500 United States servicemen listed as missing in action (MIA) in Laos. This problem has proved to be a surprisingly durable issue, which delayed an otherwise uncomplicated and mutually beneficial rapprochement between the two states. Starting in 1985, Laos treated the MIA issue seriously enough to undertake joint searches of known wartime crash sites of United States aircraft. However, the United States Senate Select Committee on Prisoner of War/MIA Affairs concluded in January 1993 that: "The current leaders of Laos, who are the successors to the Pathet Lao forces that contended for power during the war, almost certainly have some information concerning missing Americans that they have not yet shared." Further cooperation brightened the atmosphere of Laos-United States relations, even though a full accounting of United States military personnel lost in the Laos theater of war can probably never be achieved.

The second long-standing issue is the production and export of opium. In April 1993, Laos received a national interest certification on the issue of cooperation in counternarcotics activities. Opium traffic out of Laos is a tangible irritant to relations, however, particularly because of the suspicion that high-ranking Laotian officials, especially those in the military, are involved in protecting the trade. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration worked with the LPDR to maintain Laos's eligibility--despite its opium trade--as a potential United States aid recipient. In 1990 an economic aid project worth US$8.7 million was provided to help the hill tribes that grow poppies turn to substitute crops. Thus, the legal barriers to expanding Laos-United States consultation and commerce were essentially removed. Yet most-favored-nation treatment for imports such as coffee from Laos might conceivably have to await the full release of the last of the political prisoners held in the mountainous eastern provinces since 1975.

An irritant in Laos-United States relations was the United States charge in 1981 that Laos had engaged in aerial spraying with deadly toxins--yellow rain--against Hmong villages. The United States government adopted the position that chemical weapons were used in Laos in the late 1970s through 1983. Such reports lost credibility after 1984, however, when the United States stationed scientific personnel in Bangkok to test any incoming evidence, which never appeared.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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