New Internationalist

Indochina - The facts and figures on four countries

February 1980


Population 43.8m
Life Expectancy 61 yrs. GNP per capita $420
Land Cultivated 44%; forest 37%
Natural Resources Extensive mineral deposits of which tin is the most important, Workforce Agriculture 77%; service 15%; industry 8% Religion Buddhist
Capital Bankok (4.5m people)
Government Thailand has a constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but power is held by military dictatorship whose current strongman is Prime Minister General Kriangsak Chamanand.
Country Mostly flat. Ban kok sits at the centre of a plain formed by silt carried down by the river Chao Phraya and the city itself and the surrounding countryside are criss-crossed by a network of navigable canals.
People The Thai people, a distinct race, are in the majority although there are substantial minorities of Chinese, Malays and Lao and many other smaller groups. Their country has the considerable distinction of never having been colonised, despite pressures from the British in Burma and the French in Indochina. That the Kings of Siam managed to hold them off is ascribed by some to a ‘flexible foreign policy’ and by others to the making of ‘humiliating concessions’. The absolute monarchy ended in 1932. The name of the country was changed from Siam to Thailand in 1939 and since then there has been a long series of repressive military dictatorships, broken only by a brief Period of democracy -1973-1976. Since 1945 Thailand has received considerable US support to help build a bulwark against communism in South-east Asia.


Population 3.0m (est.)
Life Expectancy 48 yrs. GNP per capita $70
Land Forest 74%; cultivated 16%; pasture 3%
Natural Resources Fresh-wate fish, timber, phosphates Workforce Agriculture 75%; service 21 %; industry 4% Religion Theravada Buddhist Capital Phnom Penh (70,000 people est.)
Government Heng Samrin is President of the Vietnam-backed People’s Revolutionary Council. The deposed government has Khieu Samphan as President and Prime Minister.
Country The plainlands of Kampuchea - its rice bowl - make up three-quarters of the country and the Kampucheans are nervous that their rich fertile land would be an attractive prize for the Vietnamese. Phnom Penh (named after a widow Penh who dedicated a temple on a small hill Phnom) is at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and can be reached by boat, although the deep-water port through which most aid must go is Kompong Som. The western forests along the Thai border are the refuge for Pol Pot forces.
People The taller dark-skinned Khmers look very different from the Vietnamese and make up a racially homogeneous population. Though their origins are obscure their primary cultural influence is from India. Their country has been absorbed at one time or another by Thailand and Vietnam so there is considerable animosity towards both. But of the two they probably have more in common with the Thais with whom they share religion.


Population 3.2m
Life Expectancy 42 yrs. GNP per capita $90
Land Forest 60%; cultivated 8%
Natural Resources Tin and timber with deposits of iron ore and potash not yet exploited
Workforce Agriculture 80%; service 14%; industry 6% Religion Hinayana Buddhist Capital Vientiane (116,000 pop)
Government Power rests with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. First Secretary and Prime Minister is Kaysone Phomvihane, The President is Prince Souphanouvong. The army is called the Pathet Lao.
Country ‘Wild’ is the best word for most of Laos. Its precipitous slopes, tumultuous rivers and thick vegetation are linked by few roads that dissolve into quagmires during the rainy season. Cultivation is often in pockets of irrigated rice in the valleys and in burned-off patches in the forests. The development of the country is strangled by its geography. The Chinese built 850 kilometres of all-weather roads in the north down to Luang Prabang but as relations cooled construction has stopped. There will probably by help from Vietnam and Comecon for roads in the east.
People Of the four countries Laos is the most ethnically diverse. The Lao are the largest group and concentrated in the Mekong valley from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. They make up 40 per cent of the population although perhaps five times as many Lao live in Thailand. The mountains have a large number of other groups who tend to divide up by altitude each preferring a different height.


Population 50.6m
Life Expectancy 62 yrs. GNP per capita $160
Land Forest 35%; cultivated 16%; pasture 14%
Natural resources Anthracite, lignite, coal, timber, fisheries, offshore oil and gas Workforce Agriculture 70%; service 21%; industry 9% Religion Taoism
Capital Hanoi (1.3m people)
Government All political power stems from the Communist Party of Vietnam (1.5m members in 1976) whose SecretaryGeneral is Le Duan. The Prime Minister is Pham Van Dong. Country Vietnam is usually described as ‘two rice baskets joined by their carrying poles’. The northern basket is the Red River Delta and the southern the Mekong Delta with populations concentrated in these areas. The south is the more fertile half and has traditionally been a rice surplus area with rich fisheries, whereas the north has had a history of shortage with production dependent on an intricate irrigation network.
People China has always exerted a strong influence and the people do look Chinese - their origins are held to lie in a Chinese expansion southwards over two thousand years ago and there are strong cultural and linguistic connections with China. But Vietnam has constantly struggled for independence from China just as it has struggled to control other parts of Indochina. Of the two halves of the country the north has generally had the intellectual leadership and reflecting this the French made Hanoi the capital of Indochina.

This feature was published in the February 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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