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Chris Stowers / Panos

On the surface it would be hard to dispute Laos’s reputation as a centre of Buddhist tranquillity. Luang Prabang, the sleepy (religious) capital of majestic temples and parading monks, has become a minor magnet for Western travellers. Its perch on the gentle slopes of the Mekong allows the classic view of traditional longboats plying their way upstream and back. This part of Laos was the least affected by the US war on Vietnam. It combines lush green countryside with spectacular mountain scenery, particularly towards the border with China.

Some 80 per cent of the Laotian population still survive by means of subsistence agriculture; around a third operate outside the money economy altogether. This means they are undeniably ‘poor’ but also quite self-sufficient. It also means that the conventional economic data – such as that 20 per cent of Laos’ GDP comes from aid – only really refer to 20 per cent of the population. The same applies to the dramatic rates of economic growth this landlocked country has experienced in recent years – 7.2 per cent in 2006. That growth largely depends on tourism and hydroelectric power, though remittances from abroad are also crucial.

Luang and the larger political capital of Vientiane still have architectural remnants of French colonial days. Laos came under French control in 1893 – a tactical gift from the Thai royal family – and didn’t regain full independence as a constitutional monarchy until 1954. After their defeat at Dien Bien Phu by the Vietnamese the French lost their appetite for an Indochinese Empire. The void was quickly filled by the US, with tragic consequences for Laos.

The country was pulled into the Indochinese war, as the Royal Lao Army engaged in civil conflict with the North Vietnamese-backed communist Pathet Lao movement. The US dropped more bombs in Laos than were used in all theatres combined during World War Two. The aim was to block up the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail carrying weapons into South Vietnam; the results were the destruction of most of Laos’s feeble infrastructure, and farmers still digging up bombs more than 40 years later. Another legacy of that war is the continuing tension between the Laotian Government and the minority Hmong people, whom the US attempted to use as proxy warriors.

The Pathet Lao won the war and declared the ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic’. To this day Laos remains a one-party state run by an aging Communist élite although, as elsewhere, the heavy hand of communism has become somewhat lighter, especially over economic matters. Still, it would be going overboard to agree with the French restaurateur in Luang Prabang who referred to the system as one of ‘cool communism’.

The press is still entirely government-owned and as far as official politics go there is no news but good news. There are some political prisoners. Capital punishment is still in place for a wide range of offences – if seldom used. A forced resettlement policy designed to move people from the remote highlands to more accessible areas has caused loss of livelihood and health problems. The Hmong, moreover, have been attacked by government troops and attempts have been made to repatriate Hmong refugees from Thailand to an uncertain fate.

Tranquillity can mean stagnation or it can lead to critical reflection, producing positive change while maintaining what is of value in tradition. Laos stands at a crossroads. As the forces of corporate globalization press on its borders, change is inevitable – it remains to be seen whether self-reliance and sustainability can be part of that change.

map of Laos

Fact file

Leader General Choummaly Sayasone.
Economy GNI per capita $440 (Vietnam $620, France $34,810).
Monetary unit New kip.
Main exports Hydroelectricity and wood products.
Agriculture is by far the most important economic activity. Rice is the staple crop, with the country a treasure chest of rice varieties. Laos moved away from a centrally controlled economy to a market orientated system in 1986, and there has been significant privatization since 1988. There is no heavy industry; the production of tin concentrates is the main industrial activity.
People 6.2 million. Population annual growth rate 2.4%. People per square kilometre 26 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 62 per 1,000 live births (Vietnam 16, France 4). Maternal mortality rate 650 per 100,000 live births (Vietnam 130, France 17). HIV prevalence rate 0.1%.
Environment Very mountainous, poor fertility but rich biodiversity, including rare species such as the Indochinese tiger, giant gaur and Laotian rock rat. Many rivers provide hydroelectric potential. There are several controversial dam projects in various stages of development. Heavy logging endangers forest habitat and degrades water supplies.
Culture Around 60% are ethnic Lao. Hill peoples, including the Hmong, Yao, Dao and Shan make up around a third of the population. The remaining 5% are Chinese and Vietnamese.
Religion 58% Buddhist, 34% animist, 5% atheist, 2% Christian.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution The general poverty is relatively equally shared, according to the Gini index, a hangover from the days of strict communism. The top 10% controls a relatively low 30% of the wealth.
Literacy 69% adult literacy (77% men, 61% women). This has either dropped significantly since Laos was last profiled or, more likely, the previous figures overestimated communist achievements. Education is free but less than two-thirds attend primary school and less than a quarter secondary school.
Life expectancy 55 years (Vietnam 71, France 80). Poor public health infrastructure and services. Substantial risk from malaria and other tropical diseases.
Freedom One-party state ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which controls nearly all Lao media. Some political prisoners and repression of minorities, particularly the Hmong people. Authoritarian rule, but with a relatively light hand.
Position of women Formal equality, including representation in parliament and free education for girls. But violence against women and trafficking remain problems. The first shelter for battered women opened in 2006. Abortion is illegal.
Sexual minorities It is unclear whether acts in private between consenting adults are legal or not; an attitude of tolerance typical of the region prevails but the scene is definitely covert. The Government is committed to preventing a Thai-style sex industry from emerging in more conservative Laos.
Previously reviewed 1995
New Internationalist assessment Laos is a poor country but it has a high level of self-reliance and a relatively equal distribution of wealth. The fragile nature of both the subsistence economy and a fairly intact tropical forest ecosystem makes it potentially very vulnerable to the ravages of globalization. There is not widespread opposition to the creaky structures of the communist gerontocracy that rules the country – but change, when it comes, must balance vulnerability and openness.

New Internationalist issue 407 magazine cover This article is from the December 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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