Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Figure 1. Administrative Divisions of Laos, 1994
A LANDLOCKED NATION in the center of the Southeast Asian peninsula, the country that is now the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos), is bordered by Cambodia, China, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam (only Cambodia is smaller), neighbors which, to varying degrees, have influenced Laotian historical, cultural, and political development. Slightly smaller than the state of Oregon, Laos is largely mountainous and forested; only about 4 percent of its total land area is arable. The tropical monsoon climate is a major determining factor in agricultural productivity and transportation.
Laos was inhabited five or more millennia ago by Austroasiatic peoples. From the first century A.D., princely fiefdoms based on wet rice cultivation and associated with the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang developed in the middle Mekong Valley. Various other kingdoms reflecting the cultures of Cham and Mon peoples existed in the region; the fiefdoms were subject to the influence of mandala (see Glossary) in the central Mekong region. Migrations in the seventh century continued to expand both the various influences and the cultural mix of the region. By the eighth century, the Mon mandala were under Khmer domination.
Beginning in the thirteenth century, Mongols exercised a decisive political influence in the middle Mekong Valley; dynastic conflicts associated with their intervention led to the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Kingdom of the Million Elephants). At that time, the beginnings of a multiethnic state--in the configuration of small confederative communities--were evident. The recorded history of Laos began in the fourteenth century with Fa Ngum (r. 1354-73), the first king of Lan Xang. Under Fa Ngum, the territory of Lan Xang was extended; it remained in these approximate borders for another 300 years.
The reign of King Souligna Vongsa (r. 1633-90)--a time when the kingdom was united and ruled by its own king--has been referred to as the golden age of Laos. With the death of Souligna Vongsa, however, succession struggles led to the division of Lan Xang. Conflicts with Burma, Siam, Vietnam, and the Khmer kingdom continued in the eighteenth century culminating in Siamese domination.
Early in the nineteenth century, Siam held hegemony over much of the territory of contemporary Laos, which then consisted of the principalities of Louangphrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. Siam faced contention from France--which had established a protectorate over Vietnam--and sought to extend its influence in Indochina. By the end of the nineteenth century, France had supplanted Siam as the dominant power. Laos was integrated into the French colonial empire of Indochina as a group of directly ruled provinces, except for Louangphrabang, which was ruled as a protectorate.
Laos remained under French administration from about 1890 until World War II, when Japan occupied French Indochina. Japanese military authorities induced King Sisavong Vong of Louangphrabang to declare the independence of his kingdom from France in April 1945, prior to Japan's surrender in the war. In September 1945, an "independent" government under the Lao Issara (see Glossary) defied the king and declared the union of Vientiane and Champasak with Louangphrabang. The following year, French troops reoccupied the country, conferring limited autonomy on the unified Kingdom of Laos within the French Union. A constitution was promulgated in 1947, and elections were held for a National Assembly. The independence of Laos was formally recognized within the French Union in 1949; Laos remained a member of the union until 1953.
The 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina provided for the cessation of hostilities in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam--the first Indochina War--the struggle for independence against French colonial forces, and the withdrawal of foreign forces. The Royal Lao Government agreed to include the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation; Pathet Lao became the generally accepted term for the communist-led guerrilla movement) in the government coalition. Phôngsali and Houaphan (Sam Neua) provinces were designated areas of regroupment for Pathet Lao forces, "pending a political settlement."
Negotiations between the Royal Lao Government and the Pathet Lao continued from 1955 to 1957. The Neo Lao Hak Xat (Lao Patriotic Front; superseded by the Lao Front for National Construction in 1979), established in 1956, served as a political front for the Pathet Lao and was secretly guided by the Lao People's Party, which was established in 1955 as part of the Indochinese Communist Party. In 1972 the Lao People's Party changed its name to the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), since 1975 it has been the ruling party.
A coalition government, including some Pathet Lao personalities, was formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1957. But, it collapsed the following year, and rightist politicians took over. United States aid increased greatly. The communist insurgency resumed in northern Laos in 1959.
In 1960 Kong Le, a young Royalist paratroop captain, led a coup d'état to install a Neutralist government under Souvanna Phouma-- neither rightist nor Pathet Lao--which would end the fratricidal fighting. But, within a year, rightist forces under General Phoumi Nosavan drove Souvanna Phouma's government from Vientiane. The Neutralists then naively allied themselves with the Pathet Lao and received airlift support from the Soviet Union. North Vietnamese troops intervened in Laos in regular units for the first time, inflicting heavy losses on the rightists receiving military and economic aid from the United States.
A Second Geneva Conference on Laos was held in 1961-62. Agreements provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos-- something realized only on paper. A second coalition government formed in July 1962 proved to be equally short-lived. The civil war quickly resumed and continued into the 1970s, with each side-- backed either by the United States or Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union)--trading accusations of violating the agreements. Souvanna Phouma, prime minister in the first coalition government in 1957, again following Kong Le's coup in 1960, and again in July 1962 following that year's Geneva agreements, became prime minister of a third coalition government, or Provisional Government of National Union, with the participation of the Lao Patriotic Front in 1974. (He resigned upon the establishment of the LPDR in 1975.)
The collapse of South Vietnam and Cambodia in mid-1975 played into the hands of the Lao Patriotic Front and hastened the decline of the third coalition government. The LPRP, the mastermind behind the Lao Patriotic Front, dismissed the Provisional Government of National Union and persuaded King Savang Vatthana to abdicate.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed on December 2, 1975, ending the era of a conservative monarchy dominated by a few powerful families. Souphanouvong became the first president of the LPDR. A half-brother of Souvanna Phouma, cousin of Savang Vatthana, one of the original founders of the Neo Lao Hak Xat, and the titular head of the Lao Patriotic Front, Souphanouvong was known as the "red prince" because of his royal lineage and communist associations. The LPDR has been a single-party communist government since its proclamation.
Ethnically diverse, Laos has more than forty ethnic groups. Lao is the distinction for some of the ethnic groups; Laotian is the term used to refer to all people of Laos, or the national population. The Lao, descendants of the Tai peoples who began migrating from China in the first millennium A.D., constitute approximately half the people of Laos. Although government rhetoric celebrates the multiethnic nature of the nation and asserts that it wishes to reduce the favoritism historically extended toward the "lowland" Lao Loum and the discrimination against the "midland" Lao Theung and "upland" Lao Sung, the ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the LPRP Central Committee, the National Assembly, and in government offices. (Some of the ethnic minorities have populations of only a few hundred persons.)
Although the different ethnic groups have different residential patterns, agricultural practices, and religious beliefs, for all groups the village community has a kinship nexus, which may also differ in form. The mountainous topography, which has inhibited roadbuilding and limited exchanges among villages and ethnic groups, has contributed to maintaining distinctions among ethnic groups.
Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos; the present constitution formally proclaims religious freedom. Although many communist nations do not look favorably upon the practice of religion--constitutional stipulations notwithstanding--this is not necessarily the case in Laos, where approximately 85 percent of citizens are Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is predominant among the Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups; animist beliefs are widespread among the entire population. The wat, the Buddhist temple or monastery complex, is a central fixture of village life, and the site of major religious festivals, which occur several times a year. Since the LPDR's establishment in 1975, the government has attempted to manipulate Buddhism to support its political goals, although without provoking a schism in the sangha, or clergy.
The population as of mid-1994 was estimated at approximately 4.7 million people. The population growth rate is relatively high-- estimated at approximately 2.9 percent per year. But, child and infant mortality rates are also high, and life expectancy averages less than fifty-two years. Laos has a relatively low population density; more than 85 percent of the population is rural, living in small villages of typically less than 1,000 people. Rural life is tied to the changing agricultural seasons. Of the "urban" areas, most people live in the Mekong River valley towns and those of its tributaries. Vientiane, the capital and largest city, is also the center of a very limited industrial sector. The reach of recent economic reforms--and the change and opportunity they offer--have not extended much beyond the Vientiane plain.
Education and social services are rudimentary, although some improvements have been made. The LPDR has made a commitment to five years of universal primary education, but limited financial resources and a lack of trained teachers and teaching materials have restricted educational opportunities. Enrollments have increased, however. Western health care is largely confined to the more "urban" areas, dictated in part by the difficulties of transportation. Similarly, improvements in health care are constrained by finances and the limited numbers of trained health care workers.
Presenting a clear quantitative economic profile of Laos is complicated by the lack of recent (or other) statistics, as well as by reliability, as there are internal contradictions in many statistics. Nonetheless, Laos is clearly one of the poorest countries in the world, with per capita GNP estimates ranging from US$295 to US$350 per annum. A rural, subsistence, agricultural economy heavily influenced by weather--that is conditions of drought or flood--Laos still has not met self-sufficiency in food production. LPDR officials frequently note that Laos remains "underdeveloped," has a largely unskilled work force, and needs infrastructure development. Such advancements are recognized as particularly important in such fields as agro-forestry and hydropower, two areas with potentially high foreign exchange earnings. Imports far outpace exports. Even primary exports-- hydroelectricity, timber, and coffee--are limited. The potential for the exportation of mineral resources, particularly tin and gypsum, has not yet been realized.
Centralized economic measures of a command economy were instituted when the LPDR was proclaimed in 1975. Beginning with the New Economic Mechanism in 1986, however, and with various other reform measures since then, Laos has opened up to market forces. The government has also encouraged both foreign and domestic investment--especially for the private sector. Reforms have abolished agricultural cooperatives, privatized most state enterprises while encouraging private-sector initiatives, and revised the taxation system. Although still dominated by the agricultural sector, the economy has been stimulated and the availability of goods has increased. However, Laos remains dependent on continued foreign aid and concessional loans.
As the LPRP came to power in late 1975 on the coattails of communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the LPDR naturally turned to the communist bloc for economic support and received aid from both the Soviet bloc countries and China. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Soviet bloc aid has halted and Vietnamese patronage has diminished, necessitating a search for other investors and aid donors.
The situation with regard to economic assistance from Russia has begun to change. During 1994 Laos and Russia signed two cooperation agreements. In March the Lao National Council of Trade and Industry and the Russian Council of Trade and Industry signed documents on scientific and technical cooperation. Laos will receive technical assistance from Russia and funds from third countries, the International Monetary Fund (IMF--see Glossary), and interested businessmen for programs to protect the environment, conserve and restore forests, raise harvest efficiency, eradicate crop pests, and increase mining and exploration efforts. In August, Laos signed a trade protocol with Russia for economic and trade cooperation. According to its terms, Laos will buy construction materials, electric appliances, spare parts for aircraft, and other items; Russia will purchase tin, coffee, tropical wood products, and clothing from Laos.
In the early 1990s, Laos received increased aid from Japan and from Western nations--including Australia, France, and Sweden--as well as increased support from international and regional organizations. Foreign assistance in 1993-94 was estimated at US$211.7 million, of which US$141.4 million was gratis aid and US$70.3 million was in the form of loans bearing low interest rates.
Assistance from the World Bank (see Glossary), the IMF, and the Asian Development Bank has both guided and been predicated upon reform measures. Their programs, however, have tended to be concentrated in Vientiane and the Mekong Valley centers, with improvements in infrastructure thus benefitting only the urban areas; rural areas have lagged behind on the developmental scale.
The LPDR's Socio-economic Development Plan 1993-2000 emphasizes the production of foodstuffs, commercial products, rural development, human resources development, and the exploitation of natural resources in conjunction with concerted efforts to protect the environment. It also calls for an expansion of economic relations and cooperation with the outside world. The importance of infrastructure development is also recognized. Roadbuilding is seen as strategically important for socioeconomic development-- especially with regard to programs for public health and education- -particularly for rural areas and areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. The Public Investment Programme (PIP), a part of the plan, is to be supported by donors for as much as US$1.4 billion. PIP targets include irrigating unused land, planting forests, and moving away from subsistence production and slash-and-burn agriculture toward sedentary market agriculture and a more diversified economy.
As elsewhere, foreign and economic relations are linked; for Laos, this is particularly true with regard to Thailand, its primary trading and investment partner. Laos and Thailand must constantly negotiate a variety of political and economic issues, including the status of Lao refugees and refugee camps in Thailand as well as LPDR claims that Thailand is sheltering Lao insurgents. Laos has pressed for additional border crossing points and clearer border demarcation; free and fair competition in providing transport services for cross-border trade; cooperation in various economic and technical projects and joint trade and investment enterprises; and cooperation between banks and customs services. Thailand is the primary purchaser of timber and hydroelectricity from the LPDR; the export of hydroelectric power is paradoxical given the low level of electrification in Laotian villages.
Notwithstanding several border incidents in the late 1980s, relations between Laos and Thailand have improved over the past decade. More recently, the April 1994 opening of the Friendship Bridge linking the two countries has provided for greater commercial potential--increased trade, tourism, and transit. And, in July 1994, a joint venture agreement was signed to allow a Thai company to build and develop a special economic zone--with nine projects--in Vientiane Municipality. The two countries have also agreed in principle to establish consular missions outside each others' capitals. Insurgent raids in rural areas, primarily from the Hmong, but also from smaller Lao resistance groups based in Thailand, complicate Lao-Thai relations and are an annoyance, but not a threat, to the stability of Laos.
The improved investment climate in Laos has also raised the possibility of building a rail line; currently there is none. In November 1994, Thailand was granted permission to conduct a six- month feasibility study on a railway line between Vientiane and Nong Khai, Thailand, via the Friendship Bridge. Forty-two percent of the cost of the survey will be paid by the British government, the remainder by a Thai company. If it is found economically feasible to develop a railway, and the Thai company decides to invest in its construction, the National Railway Company, Limited of Laos will be established. The LPDR will hold 25 percent of the railroad company, the Thai company the remaining 75 percent.
As noted, the LPDR was established following communist party victories in Vietnam and Cambodia. Similarities with other one- party communist states exist. The party dominates the government and still operates under relative secrecy. High-ranking party members occupy high-level posts in the government, military, and mass organizations, and there is a distinct overlap of military personnel. In fact, the ministers of interior, agriculture and forestry, and national defense are army generals, as is the prime minister. At the third congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Youth Union held in May 1994, 214 of 247 delegates were LPRP members.
Even though the party's role and powers are scarcely mentioned in the constitution, the LPRP determines national policies through its nine-member Political Bureau (Politburo) and fifty-two-member Central Committee. A constitution was not adopted until 1991-- sixteen years after the LPDR's founding. The executive branch retains the authority to issue binding decrees, but the party retains the power to make critical decisions.
The legislative branch is by constitutional provision the highest organ of state. Elections are held by secret ballot. The first elections to the Supreme People's Assembly were held in March 1989, almost fourteen years after the LPDR's proclamation; the opening session was in May-June. Elections to the National Assembly (the renamed Supreme People's Assembly) for five-year terms were held in December 1992; the first session did not convene until February 1993. Although more than 150 candidates vied for eighty- five seats in the assembly, most candidates belong to the LPRP--as it is the only legal party--and most are approved by the LPRP prior to the elections. Although the National Assembly seemed to be playing a larger role in the passage of legislation in the early 1990s, in reality the assembly merely "discusses and endorses" all laws in controlled policy debates during the twice-yearly plenary sessions.
The LPRP has grown from approximately 25,000 members at the inception of the LPDR in 1975 to approximately 60,000 members at the time of the Fifth Party Congress in March 1991. (By contrast, in 1993, there were more than 70,000 Lao Federation of Trade Union members.) During the Fifth Party Congress, the LPRP removed several elder statesmen from the Politburo and elected some slightly younger cadres to a new Central Committee. The party is not immune to internal criticism and has acknowledged official corruption (and nepotism) as a serious and continuing problem.
Formal avenues of information and communication have been limited by lack of funds since French colonial rule and are now tightly controlled. Dissemination of information is sporadic and further restricted by controls on the distribution of printing materials. Radio and television services are also monopolized by the party. Broadcasts from Thailand, however, have a large audience in Laos.
Broad security measures limit freedoms as under other communist regimes; freedoms may be guaranteed in the constitution, but in reality they are quite restricted. After the communist victory in 1975, many members of the previous Royal Lao Government and military who had remained in the country instead of fleeing were placed in reeducation centers or "seminar camps." "Social deviants" as well as political opponents were held in these centers; these camps have been closed and most "political prisoners" have since been released. However, Amnesty International continues to press for the release of persons still in detention.
After the LPRP seized power, and during its consolidation of the government, some 350,000 persons--of whom many were Hmong belonging to Vang Pao's United States-funded irregulars--fled the country. Many persons remained in refugee camps in Thailand; some departed from there to third countries; still others resided in southern China. The refugee situation has recently changed significantly.
Although there are variations in the numbers of refugees repatriated and/or remaining in the camps according to the sources reporting, it can be said that a significantly larger number of refugees have been repatriated or resettled in a third country compared with those who remain in Thailand. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began a voluntary repatriation program in 1980. Ten years later, fewer than 6,000 refugees had been repatriated under UNHCR supervision. Approximately 15,000 refugees had returned to Laos independently, and the vast majority--approximately 300,000--had resettled abroad. In 1989 there were an estimated 90,000 Lao refugees in Thailand; as of June 1991, an estimated 60,000 refugees remained. This number was further reduced by half at the end of 1993. As of January 1995, UNHCR estimates were that only 9,000 refugees, mainly Hmong, remained in Thai camps. Vientiane estimated that the more than 8,000 refugees remaining in Thailand at the end of 1994 would be repatriated by the end of 1995. Laos, Thailand, and the UNHCR have agreed to resettle or repatriate all remaining Lao refugees by the end of 1995.
The foreign relations of Laos have in large part been determined by the country's physical location and its desire to maintain national security. During the communist revolutionary struggle in Indochina, Laos had close ties with Vietnam--a "special relationship"--which was formalized by a twenty-five-year treaty of friendship and cooperation signed in 1977. More recently, Laos has sought to improve relations with China, an ally during the Indochina Wars, but with whom relations deteriorated following the 1979 China-Vietnam conflict. Trade between the two countries has increased, and Laos has received some economic and military aid. In May 1994, a high-level LPDR military delegation paid an official visit to China to promote relations of friendship and "all-around solidarity between the two armies."
The end of the Cold War, concomitant with the limited ability of the former Soviet bloc and Vietnam to offer economic assistance, has influenced the LPDR to become more flexible in its foreign policy in the 1990s. Since 1992 Laos has held observer status with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); this has been viewed as a likely precursor to membership in that organization. And, despite various cooperation projects with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) during the 1980s, in January 1994 Laos contracted with a Republic of Korea (South Korea) construction company to build a hydropower dam on the Ho River in Champasak Province. Laos resumed diplomatic relations with Israel in December 1993. The LPDR minister of foreign affairs visited Israel in August 1994; and Israel has agreed to provide training grants to LPDR officials. In September 1994, Laos established diplomatic relations with South Africa and Lithuania.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Laos were maintained upon the proclamation of the LPDR in 1975, and the two countries have seen a slow, but steady, improvement in relations since 1982. Two key--and intertwining--components have dominated the United States relationship with Laos: accounting for those Americans classified as prisoners of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA) at the end of the Indochina Wars, and controlling the growth of, and trafficking in, narcotics. Cooperation in one area begets cooperation in the other. As a measure of sincerity for improving relations, the United States has sought greater LPDR cooperation in providing information on the fate of POW/MIAs and in searching for their remains. As of September 1994, thirty-three joint missions of field searches and excavations of crash sites had been conducted. In August 1994, the two sides agreed to carry out six joint field activities in the future, and the United States was permitted to increase the number of personnel on its teams. In counternarcotics cooperation, Laos agreed to step up its efforts to combat the cultivation, production, and transshipment of opium, heroin, and marijuana. Crop substitution programs in conjunction with the United States and the United Nations Development Programme, as well as narcotics training programs and improved law enforcement measures, have been instituted. In 1994, after four years of United States certification (with explanation) for counternarcotics cooperation, Laos was granted a national interest waiver in lieu of full certification because of poor counternarcotics performance. (Certification is dependent on counternarcotics cooperation either with the United States or with the LPDR taking steps on its own to achieve full compliance with the goals and objectives of the 1988 United Nations Convention on Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances). In 1995 Laos was again certified as cooperating fully. If the United States were to deny certification, continued efforts in counternarcotics cooperation and cooperation in POW/MIA accounting would be jeopardized. Counternarcotics efforts have made limited progress, constrained in part by limited training, management and administrative skills, and law enforcement, as well as by LPDR finances and higher priorities. A decline in opium production in the 1993-94 growing season was a result of adverse weather rather than decreased areas under cultivation.
The LPDR is poorly equipped in the national security arena, and the need for modernization is evident. Constrained by its economic limitations and foreign assistance geared toward economic (primarily infrastructure) improvements, the Lao People's Army has been unable either to modernize its outdated equipment or to elevate the level of training.
The primary mission of the armed forces has been to maintain national defense and public security, political stability, and social order. However, national defense objectives and the security environment have changed. The armed forces are no longer fighting a war of national liberation, although their wartime exploits are still extolled in the official media. Domestic opposition is contained by the police and a system of party control. External opposition, in particular resistance elements based in Thailand, is limited. Each of these factors has contributed to a reduction in the size of the armed forces in the 1990s. In 1991 there were approximately 55,000 persons in the armed forces; by 1994 armed forces personnel reportedly totaled 37,000.
The armed forces now have the additional assignment of contributing to socioeconomic and rural development, with the aim of achieving greater self-sufficiency. Thus, the military is ordered to check and boost crop cultivation and monitor livestock transport; grow vegetables for daily meals; and create favorable conditions for promoting poultry and fish breeding. In 1989 the Corporation for Agro-Forestry Development and Service was established. Connected to the Ministry of National Defense, the corporation is responsible for improving and building the agricultural base and engaging in public security activities in three southern districts of Xaignabouri Province. In the five years since its establishment, the corporation has repaired and paved roads and built irrigation systems. In another venue, the Lao People's Army began a joint venture in 1994 with the Chinese People's Liberation Army to produce pharmaceuticals for the Lao People's Army as well as for domestic and foreign markets.
The military relationship with Vietnam has also evolved. In July 1994, it was noted that the Political and Military Institute of the People's Army of Vietnam had accepted more than 400 students from the LPDR since 1978. Nonetheless, Laos cannot rely on Vietnam for military assistance and equipment to the extent it had previously.
Since its inception in December 1975, the LPDR has been notable for its remarkable stability and continuity. For almost twenty years, the same few men have been in power. The leadership core, an elite group of founding members of the LPRP, hold key positions in the party, government, and military organs. The majority of the members of the Politburo and the Central Committee are people who participated in the revolutionary struggle.
In the early 1990s, the deaths of high-ranking leaders--a natural consequence of an aging leadership--have meant a reshuffling of positions. Of note is the fact that no power struggles were in evidence. Rather, leaders simply moved up in rank. The death in November 1992 of Kaysone Phomvihan, who had been active since the 1940s in the resistance forces, then proclaimed the LPDR's first prime minister, and finally elected president in 1991, left no gap in the leadership. Nouhak Phomsavan was elected to the largely ceremonial position of president. A close comrade of Kaysone, and similarly a veteran of the revolution, Nouhak was a former minister of finance and a deputy prime minister. Nouhak will be eighty-one years old in April 1995. Khamtai Siphandon, another leader in the early resistance efforts, and a former minister of national defense (1975-91) and deputy prime minister, moved up to the prime minister's post in 1991. Supposedly ten years younger than Nouhak, Khamtai's "youth" was seen by some as the reason for his appointment to the more active role of prime minister.
Other elder statesmen also have died in the early 1990s. Former Politburo member Phoumi Vongvichit, acting president of the LPDR from the retirement of Souphanouvong in 1986--until his own retirement in 1991--died in January 1994. Among other Politburo members who have died are deputy prime minister Phoun Sipraseut, who was also chief of the Foreign Relations Committee, LPRP Central Committee, and "official in charge of guiding foreign affairs" (and former minister of foreign affairs), who died in December 1994; Somlat Chanthamat, who died in 1993; Sisomphon Lovansai, who died in 1993; and Sali Vongkhamsao, who died in 1991. Some of these leaders had already retired and held largely ceremonial posts at the time of their death.
Coming full circle with a royalist heritage but communist sympathies, was Prince Souphanouvong. President from the founding of the LPDR until he withdrew for health reasons in 1986, his position was not officially relinquished until March 1991 at the Fifth Party Congress, when he was also removed from the Politburo. His death in January 1995 ended the last direct link between the monarchy established in the mid-fourteenth century by Fa Ngum and the single-party communist regime, that is the LPDR. (Two of Souphanouvong's sons, however, are active in the government, one in the Ministry of Finance, the other in the Social Science Commission.)
Almost twenty years after its founding, Laos is, once again, as during many prior kingdoms, dominated by a small and powerful elite marked by nepotism. The country will have to deal with several significant issues in the years ahead even as the remaining aging leaders continued to govern in early 1995 as a cohesive group without active opposition. These issues include: How effectively will the LPDR use the assistance proffered by various international banks, friendly aid donors, and foreign investors? How will Laos deal with its considerable economic potential but also considerable educational deficits? When will students begin to seek greater opportunities for advancement outside the single- party system? Will the party remain in full control and will there be a regularized political succession? These are but some of the issues regarding the future direction of Laos as the nation responds to the challenges presented by economic reform and progress.
March 1, 1995
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Since the Introduction was written, the work of the party and government have continued as usual. The sixth ordinary session of the National Assembly closed and the tenth plenary session of the LPRP's Fifth Central Committee was held. The National Assembly endorsed a ministerial reshuffle involving lateral personnel changes. Meetings between the foreign ministers of Laos and Thailand discussed the need to resolve the still unsettled 1987 border dispute.
Of economic significance, was the April 5 signing of the Agreement on Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. The agreement, supported by the United Nations Development Programme, replaces a 1957 pact between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and took two years to negotiate. The agreement establishes the Mekong River Commission as an institutional body and legal framework with which to promote basin- wide studies and joint development projects in the lower Mekong River basin; China and Burma are expected to join the commission at some point. Five areas of cooperation have been delineated: hydropower generation, irrigation, fisheries, navigation, and tourism. Plans for a series of dams on the Mekong, however, have been contested by various environmental groups although the agreement purportedly takes environmental protection into account.
April 26, 1995
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On May 12, 1995, the United States removed Laos from its list of countries prohibited from receiving foreign assistance funds for reasons of national interest, making development aid an option.
June 22, 1995
Data as of July 1994
NOTE: The information regarding Laos on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Laos Introduction information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Laos Introduction should be addressed to the Library of Congress.