Country profile - Laos

Where is LAOS? The small South-East Asian nation of Laos remains ravaged by the two million tonnes of bombs dropped on it during the US-Vietnam War – more explosives than the US dumped on Germany in World War Two. Live tennis-ball-size bombs, known in Laos as ‘bombies’, continue to kill farmers who hit them while hoeing and also take the lives of children who mistake them for toys.

The bombs failed to destroy the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran through Laos. This secret, jungle-covered route allowed next-door North Vietnam to supply its guerrillas who were assaulting US-backed South Vietnam. Laos won its war against the US and its client regime in 1975, but the victors’ communist policies inspired 10 per cent of the population to flee. Many still refuse to come back until the communists are ousted.

This may be a one-party state but there is no political personality cult in Laos. The elderly leaders are instead secretive, unseen and silent, almost as if they were still clandestine guerrillas fighting from remote caves. Ironically they now work in US-built offices which were abandoned when Vientiane, the capital, fell to Pathet Lao guerrillas in 1975.

Charming, sleepy Vientiane rests on the northern shore of the languid Mekong River across from Thailand. The two nations recently built a ‘Friendship Bridge’ to span the river for the first time, amid hopes that they are finally solving their troublesome border spats. As a result of the bridge, Vientiane is bracing itself for future shock, including the problems of traffic jams, pollution, AIDS and other woes it has hitherto escaped. Laotians are hoping, however, that the benefits of intellectual, cultural and commercial exchanges will outweigh the negatives.

Laos lacks a sea coast or a railroad. It is also blanketed by gorgeous but steep mountains, which mean, for good or ill, that development will be slow however much foreign aid or investment pours in. Nevertheless Laos is keen to shake off its isolation and integrate with the rest of the world. Dazzled by hopes of earning millions of dollars in fast foreign cash – and shocked by the sudden drying-up of aid and trade with the former Soviet Union – the fabled ‘land of a million elephants’ wants instead to become the land of a million deals. Gold, minerals, oil, gems, tourist sites, banking, transportation, construction: you name it and it’s probably up for grabs. Some foreigners see Laos as the best place in Indochina to make money with the least possible risk: liberal foreign-investment laws were recently unveiled and the economy was restructured towards capitalism. The economy is already into its second period of structural adjustment as a condition of a World Bank loan.

Politically, however, Laos has vowed to remain a one-party nation, rejecting multiparty democracy. Those accused of hostility to the regime are still liable to be detained for long periods.

Richard S Ehrlich


photo from Laos

LEADER: President Nouhak Phoumsavan; Prime Minister Khamtay Siphandone

ECONOMY: GDP per capita $220 (US $22,240)
Monetary unit: Kip
Main exports: Electricity, wood products, coffee, tin
Main imports: Food, fuel oil, consumer and manufactured goods
External debt: $1.1 billion (1990 estimate)
Agriculture accounts for 60% of GDP and employs 85% of the workforce. Production of tin concentrate is the main industry; foreign companies are mainly interested in minerals such as coal, iron, gold and gems. Laos is the world’s third largest opium producer.

PEOPLE: 4.4 million. Population growth rate 2.9% per annum.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 98 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Lao 50%, Phoutheung (Kha) 15%, tribal Thai 20%, Meo, Hmong, Yao and other 15%.
Religion: Buddhist 85%, animist and other 15%.
Languages: Lao (official), ethnic languages, French (the former colonial language).

Sources: Asian Development Bank; World Bank; World Health Organization; State of the World’s Children 1994; Third World Guide 93/94; Asia & Pacific Review 1993/94; UNESCAP; and government statistics.

Last profiled in October 1984



[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Lowland Lao are more wealthy. But most people live at subsistence level. There are few resources to distribute.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
92% for men, 76% for women - a huge improvement since the Revolution.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Usually self-sufficient in food but primitive infrastructure means almost all manufactured goods are imported.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown]
No freedom of speech or dissent. Exchanging ideas with foreigners is difficult.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Traditional Lao society keeps women subservient to men. But female education and employment in cities has improved.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
51 years. Compares with a regional average of 67 and the US's 76.
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Shocked by the collapse of its former allies and trading partners in the Soviet bloc, Laos is opening its economic doors to capitalism while keeping the communist political lid firmly on. The worst of both worlds could result.


NI star rating

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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