Laos (Lao People’s Democratic Republic):

Vientiane (534,000 (1995))

Language: Lao (official), French, English, and various ethnic languages

Currency: new kip (LAK)

Religion: Buddhist 60%, animist and other religions 40% (including various Christian denominations 1.5%)

Economy: GDP per capita: $1756.29 per person
40% of the population is below the poverty line (26% lives on under $1 per day and 73% lives on under $2 per day)

The government, which is one of the few remaining official Communist states, began to decentralize control and encourage private enterprise in 1986. The results were striking – growth averaged 7% in 1988-2001 except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis beginning in 1997. Despite this high growth rate, Laos remains a country with a primitive infrastructure; it has no railroads, a rudimentary road system, and limited external and internal telecommunications. Electricity is available in only a few urban areas. Subsistence agriculture accounts for half of GDP and provides 80% of total employment.

Main industries include tin and gypsum mining, timber, electric power, agricultural processing, construction, garments, and tourism. Export commodities include wood products, garments, electricity, coffee, and tin. Main export and import partners are Vietnam and Thailand. Import commodities include machinery and equipment, vehicles, fuel, and consumer goods.

Area: 230,800 sq km. (slightly larger than Utah)

Geography: Southeastern Asia; northeast of Thailand, west of Vietnam; also bordered by China, Myanmar, Cambodia; landlocked; most of the country is mountainous and thickly forested; the Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand; natural hazards: floods, droughts; Arable land: 3.47%; Climate: tropical monsoon

Infant Mortality Rate: 90.98
Life Expectancy at Birth – overall: 54.3 yrs; female: 56.33 yrs; male: 52.34 yrs
Probability of not reaching 40: 30.5%
Maternal mortality: 6.5 per 1000
Children Underweight Rate: 13%

Population: 5,921,545 (July 2003 est.); Growth rate: 2.45%
Ethnic Groups: Lao Loum (lowland) 68%, Lao Theung (upland) 22%, Lao Soung (highland) including the Hmong (“Meo”) and the Yao (Mien) 9%, ethnic Vietnamese/Chinese 1%
Fertility Rate: 4.94 children born/woman; Under 14 years old: 42%

Education: Literacy – total 52.8%; female – 38.1%; male – 67.5%; School life expectancy – total: 8.3 years; female: 7.4 years; male – 9.3 years

Government type: Communist state; Status: dictatorship

Independence: 19 July 1949 (from France); Constitution: August 1991

President: President Gen. KHAMTAI Siphandon (since February 1998)
President elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term; election last held Feb. 2002; Prime Minister appointed by the president with the approval of the National Assembly for a 5-year term

Noncommunist political groups are prohibited; most opposition leaders fled the country in 1975. The legal system is based on traditional customs, French legal norms and procedures, and socialist practice. Suffrage is 18 years of age and universal.

Similar to Thai cuisine; rice (esp. sticky rice) is the main staple;
all meals eaten with rice or noodles; foe, or noodle and meat soup
with fresh vegetables, is the most common meal in Laos (in many
towns, it is the only thing that can be found in restaurants, at any
time of the day); also, fried rice, papaya salad, laap (minced meat
with lime juice, mint leaves, onions, chilies), spring rolls, spicy
noodles with chili powder, dried water buffalo skin, seaweed
crackers, baguettes in the larger towns; wild animals caught by
hunting provide most of the meat (rats, deer, toads, squirrels,
birds, etc.); lao-lao (rice whiskey) extremely common; hot tea; Lao
coffee is some of world’s best (served with 1/3 portion condensed
milk and sometimes sugar)


Early History to Independence

The Laotians are descendants of Thai tribes that were pushed southward from Yunnan, China, in the 13th C. and gradually infiltrated the territory of the Khmer Empire. In the mid-14th C. a powerful kingdom called Lan Xang was founded in Laos by Fa Ngoun, who is also credited with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism and much of Khmer civilization into the country. Lan Xang waged intermittent wars with the Khmer, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai, and by the 17th cent. it held sway over sections of Yunnan, China, of south Burma, of the Vietnamese and Cambodian plateaus, and large stretches of northern Thailand. In 1707, however, internal dissensions brought about a split of Lan Xang into two kingdoms: Luang Phabang in upper Laos and Vientiane in lower Laos. During the next century the two states, constantly quarreling, were overrun by the armies of neighboring countries.

In the early 19th C. Siam (Thailand) was dominant over the two Laotian kingdoms, although Siamese claims were disputed by Annam. After French explorations in the late 19th C., Siam was forced in 1893 to recognize a French protectorate over Laos, which was incorporated into the union of Indochina. During World War II, Laos was gradually occupied by the Japanese, who in 1945 persuaded the king of Luang Phabang to declare the country’s independence.

In 1946 the French reestablished dominion over Laos, recognizing the king as constitutional monarch of the entire country. They granted an increasing measure of self-government, and in 1949 Laos became a semi-autonomous state within the French Union. In 1951, a Communist Laotian nationalist movement, the Pathet Lao, was formed by Prince Souphanouvong in North Vietnam. In 1953, Pathet Lao guerrillas accompanied a Viet Minh invasion of Laos from Vietnam and established a government in northern Laos. Laos attained full sovereignty that year and admission into the United Nations in 1955.

A New Nation’s Struggles

The new country faced immediate civil war as Pathet Lao forces, supported by the Viet Minh, made incursions into central Laos, soon occupying sizable portions of the country. Agreements reached at the Geneva Conference of 1954 provided for the withdrawal of foreign troops and the establishment of the Pathet Lao in two northern provinces. In 1957 an agreement was reached between the royal forces and the Pathet Lao, but in 1959 the coalition government collapsed and hostilities were renewed.

In 1960, a succession of coups resulted in a three-way struggle for power among neutralist, rightist, and Communist forces. The Communist Pathet Lao rebels remained under the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong in the northern provinces. The right-wing government of Boun Oum, installed in Vientiane, was recognized by the United States and other Western countries and controlled the bulk of the royal Laotian army. The Soviet Union and its allies continued to recognize the deposed neutralist government of Souvanna Phouma, who had fled to neighboring Cambodia.

In May 1961, with Pathet Lao and neutralist forces in control of about half the country, a cease-fire was arranged. A 14-nation conference convened in Geneva in 1962, producing another agreement providing for the neutrality of Laos under a unified government. A provisional coalition government, with all factions represented, was established under the premiership of Souvanna Phouma. Attempts to integrate the three military forces failed, however, and the Pathet Lao began moving against neutralist troops.

Open warfare resumed in 1963, and the Pathet Lao, bolstered by supplies and troops from North Vietnam, solidified control over most of north and east Laos. Right-wing military leaders staged a coup in 1964 and attempted to force the resignation of Souvanna Phouma; the United States and the Soviet Union emphasized their support of the premier, however, and he remained in office with a right-wing neutralist government.

The Vietnam War and Communist Rule

Pathet Lao guerrilla activity decreased after the start of U.S. bombings of North Vietnamese military bases and communications routes in 1965. The bombings also included attacks on what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a North Vietnamese supply route through eastern Laos. Communist pressure increased during 1969, and early in 1970 the Pathet Lao launched several major offensives. Early in 1971, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laotian territory in an unsuccessful attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. The attack drove the North Vietnamese deeper into Laos, and Laos became another battleground of the Vietnam War, with heavy U.S. aerial bombardments.

During this period, the United States extended enormous military and economic aid to the Laotian government, armed Hmong tribes (who also fought in Vietnam), and financed the use of Thai mercenary troops. The Pathet Lao, supported by North Vietnamese troops, scored major gains, consolidating their control over more than two-thirds of Laotian territory (and over one-third of the population). Heavy fighting persisted until Feb. 1973, when a cease-fire was finally declared. A final agreement between the government and the Pathet Lao, concluded in Sept. 1973, provided for the formation of a coalition government under the premiership of Souvanna Phouma, the stationing of an equal number of government and Pathet Lao troops in the two capitals, and the withdrawal of all foreign troops and advisers.

After Communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Pathet Lao took control of the country in 1975, abolished the monarchy, and made Laos a republic. Souphanouvong became president, and Kaysone Phomvihane, head of the Communist party, became premier. Huge numbers of Laotians (many Hmong) fled to Thailand and many eventually sought refuge in the United States. (Small Hmong forces, however, continue to fight against the Communists into the 21st C.) Laos became increasingly dependent on Vietnam for military and economic assistance, and the two countries signed a 25-year treaty of friendship in 1977.

The government, which is one of the few remaining official Communist states, began to decentralize control and encourage private enterprise in 1986. The results were striking – growth averaged 7% in 1988-2001 except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis beginning in 1997. The Party retains tight political control, however, and political dissent is harshly suppressed. The Buddhist community underwent a time of upheaval and suppression at the hands of the Communists and today, monks must undergo a political indoctrination when they enter monastic life, in order to assure the conformity of Buddhist teachings to Marxist principles (see the journal entry entitled “Religion in Laos”). Meanwhile, the nation has pursued improved relations with such former enemies as China, Thailand, and the United States. Laos was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.