issue 140 October 1984
Leader Kaysone Phomvihon, Prime Minister
Economy GNP per capita $80 per year
Monetary unit: kip
Main exports: timber, electricity, tin, coffee
People 3.8 million, 14% urban
Infant mortality: 130 per 1,000 live births
Percentage of population with access to clean water: 20% urban, 2% rural
Ethnic groups: about 60% Laotian, 35% hill tribes, 5% Vietnamese and Chinese Religion: mainly Hinayana Buddhist, hill tribes are animist
Previous colonising power: France, independence 1954
TO the French, Laos seemed to be an earthly paradise, a landlocked Tahiti in South East Asia. Colonial administrators, attracted by the climate, the opium and the prospect of an indolent and perhaps dissolute life, eagerly competed for posts in Laos.
The people of Laos benefited rather less from colonialism. When the French departed in 1954, they left little behind except a strong nationalist movement. There was hardly any industry, agriculture had stagnated, there were few roads and no railways.
The gap left by the French was filled by the Americans, who supported the Royal Lao government in a long civil war against the communist Pathet Lao. The war in Vietnam spread and Laos suffered widespread destruction. At least 100,000 died, and millions of acres of paddy and forest were destroyed. Today there are still unexploded bombs and mines, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed in the stagnant water of bomb craters.
Much of Laos is covered in thick tropical forest. The largest ethnic group, the Laos, live mainly in the Mekong Valley, cultivating its rich alluvial soils. The mountain areas are inhabited by tribal groups like the Meos. Western Laos is part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ -- about 50 tons of opium are produced each year under state control.
Laos has reserves of minerals, particularly tin, which it is beginning to exploit. The main crops are rice, coffee, tobacco, cotton and spices. It is self-sufficient in rice, the staple food, but yields are still low. In 1979 the government abandoned its policy of setting up agricultural cooperatives, relaxed restrictions on private enterprise and increased wages.
At the end of the war many trained people fled to Thailand, and there is a shortage of skilled labour. There has been occasional armed resistance to the government, from Hmong hill tribesmen and other minorities as well as from remnants of the Royal Lao Army. China has reported the formation of a ‘Lao People’s National Liberation United Front’ to fight the government.
Laos at first tried to remain neutral in the dispute between Vietnam and China, but since 1977 has been firmly allied to Vietnam and so the Soviet Union. Comecon countries provide three quarters of its aid.
Health and education services are expanding. The government is developing basic health care through vaccinations, education in hygiene and the supply of pure water but resources are scarce.
Laos’s traditional Buddhism was unaffected by European missionaries and is tolerated today. Vientiane, an ancient religious centre, is a city of elegant if dilapidated pagodas. Boums or festivals are occasions for traditional song, dance and drama. The peoples of Laos and their cultures have survived a century of turbulence and revolution, and have now slowly begun to build a better future.
Sources: World View 1984, State of World's Children 1984, Medical and Scientific Aid to Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea.