Laos

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Sathalanalat Paxathipatai
Paxaxon Lao
Lao People's Democratic Republic
Flag of Laos Emblem of Laos
Emblem
Motto"ສັນຕິພາບ ເອກະລາດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ເອກະພາບ ວັດທະນາຖາວອນ"
"Peace, independence, democracy, unity and prosperity"
Anthem: Pheng Xat Lao
"Hymn of the Lao People"
Location of Laos
Capital
(and largest city)
Vientiane
17°58′N 102°36′E
Official languages Lao
Official scripts Lao script
Demonym Laotian, Lao
Government Unitary communist and single-party state
 -  President Choummaly Sayasone
 -  Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong
 -  President of Lao National Assembly Pany Yathotu
 -  President of LFNC Sisavath Keobounphanh
 -  LPRP General Secretary Choummaly Sayasone
Independence from France 
 -  Autonomy 19 July 1949 
 -  Declared 9 Nov 1953 
Area
 -  Total 236,800 km² (83rd)
91,428.991 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 2
Population
 -  2009 estimate 6,800,000 [1] (104th)
 -  1995 census 4,574,848 
 -  Density 26.7/km² (177th)
69.2/sq mi
GDP (PPP) 2010 estimate
 -  Total $15.693 billion[2] (130th)
 -  Per capita $2,435[2] (48th)
GDP (nominal) 2010 estimate
 -  Total $6.341 billion[2] (137th)
 -  Per capita $984[2] (147th)
Gini (2008) 34.6 (medium
Currency Kip (LAK)
Time zone (UTC+7)
Internet TLD .la
Calling code +856


Laos, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a landlocked socialist republic in Southeast Asia. Laos traces its history to the Kingdom of Lan Xang or Land of a Million Elephants, which existed from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. After a period as a French colony, it gained independence in 1949. A long civil war ended when the communist Pathet Lao came to power in 1975.

On taking power, the communist government imposed a Soviet-style command economy. Because these policies prevented, rather than stimulated, growth and development, in 1986 the government announced a range of reforms designed to create conditions conducive to private sector activity.

Development has been hampered by poor communications in the heavily forested and mountainous landscape, where 80 percent of those employed practice subsistence agriculture. Foreign investment and foreign aid led to corruption in the elite of this one-party state.

Contents

Geography

Wat Phou: from left, the south palace, the tiers leading to the central sanctuary, the mountain peak shrouded in mist, and the north palace.
Map of Laos

The country's name in the Lao language is "Muang Lao." The French spelled it with the "s" which is usually retained in the English name (pronounced as one syllable). The usual adjectival form is "Lao" (as in "the Lao economy"). The term "Laotian," is commonly used to describe the people of Laos, to avoid confusion with the Lao ethnic group.

Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (Burma) and the People's Republic of China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west.

The thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Phou Bia at 9242 feet (2817 meters), with some plains and plateaus. The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand, whereas the mountains of the Annamite Chain form most of the eastern border with Vietnam.

Only about 4 percent of the total land area is classified as arable. The area of forested land has declined significantly since the 1970s as a result of commercial logging and expanded swidden, or slash-and-burn, farming.

The climate is tropical and characterized by monsoons. There is a distinct rainy season from May to November, followed by a dry season from December to April. Temperatures range from highs around 104°F (40°C) along the Mekong in March and April to lows of 41°F (5°C) or less in the uplands of Xiangkhoang and Phôngsali in January.

In 1993, the government set aside 21 percent of the nation's land area as national biodiversity conservation areas, which may be developed into national parks.

A number of animal species have been discovered or re-discovered in Laos in recent years. These include the striped or Annamite rabbit, the saola, and most recently the Laotian rock rat or kha-nyou.

The Laotian rock rat (kha-nyou) (Laonastes aenigmamus), sometimes called the "rat-squirrel," was first placed, in 2005, in a new family. Others claimed that it belongs to the ancient fossil family Diatomyidae, that was thought to be extinct for 11 million years.

Environmental issues include unexploded ordnance, deforestation, soil erosion, and the fact that most of the population does not have access to potable water.

The capital and largest city of Laos is Vientiane, and other major cities include Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakse.

History

The Tai (also spelled Dai) are a linguistic group originating in southern China, which includes the Lao, the Siamese, the people of the Shan region of north-eastern Myanmar, the Zhuang people of Guangxi Province in China and the Tho and Nung people of northern Vietnam. Under pressure from the expansion of the Han Chinese, the Tai began to migrate into South-East Asia during the first millennium C.E. They displaced earlier peoples (including the iron age culture who made the great stone jars from which the Plain of Jars in central Laos takes its name).

The Mekong River, which flows through what is now Laos, was a migration route. The Khmer Empire (Cambodia) prevented the Tai from dominating the Mekong Valley, so the Tai settled further south in the Chao Phraya Valley, where they formed a series of kingdoms ancestral to modern Siam and Thailand.

The 16th century That Luang temple in Viang Chan, symbol of the Lao state and the continuity of Lao history

Most of the Tai were converted to a form of Hinduism. Between the sixth and ninth centuries C.E. Buddhism was introduced into the Tai-speaking lands and became the dominant religion. But the Lao retain many animist religious practices from the pre-Buddhist era.

The Tai peoples divided into a number of linguistic sub-groups. These included the Tai-Lao, who during the eleventh and twelfth centuries C.E., spread along the middle Mekong Valley until blocked by the Khmers, who built the great temple at Wat Phū.

The Lao in turn divided into the Lao-Lum (Lao of the valley floor), the Lao-Thoeng (Lao of the mountain slopes) and the Lao-Sūng (Lao of the mountain tops). The Lao-Lum, having the best farming land and the best access to river transport, became the wealthiest. These divisions have haunted Lao history and still exist today, with many Lao-Thoeng and Lao-Sūng people having only a tenuous loyalty to a Lao-Lum dominated state.

The earliest historically identifiable Lao leader is Khun Lô, who probably conquered the Luang Phrabāng area in the twelfth century.

The Mongols invaded in 1253. Part of Kublai Khan's army advanced down the Mekong to attack the Khmers. After the Mongols withdrew, a new kingdom was founded by the Siamese at Sukhothai, which was later succeeded by a more powerful Siamese state with its capital at Ayutthaya (founded in 1351). The kingdom of Lān Nā, based at Chiang Mai and containing both Siamese and Lao elements, was founded at this time.

Idealised image of Fā Ngum, founder of the Kingdom of Lān Xāng (National History Museum, Viang Chan)

The Tai-Lao rulers of Luang Phrabāng formed a new state which, from about 1271 was ruled by a dynasty called the Phrayā. In about 1350 a prince of this dynasty, Fā Ngum, fled with his father after a dispute and sought refuge with the Khmers at Angkor, where he married a royal princess. In 1353 he returned with an army, and founded a new Lao state which covered the whole Lao-speaking Mekong valley. This was Lān Xāng, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants.

This kingdom lasted until the eighteenth century, when Siam invaded. To avoid a costly war with the French, the Siamese king ceded lands now known as Laos to them, and these were incorporated into French Indochina in 1893. The French saw Laos as a useful buffer state between the two expanding empires of France and Britain. Under the French, the capital (Vieng Chan) was changed to Vientiane.

Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II, the country declared its independence in 1945, but the French re-asserted their control and only in 1950 was Laos granted semi-autonomy as an "associated state" within the French Union. Moreover, the French remained in control until 1954, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy. A French military training mission continued to support the Royal Laos Army. In 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to supplant French support of the Royal Laos Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy.

Pha That Luang in Vientiane, the national symbol of Laos.

In 1968, while the U.S. was mired in the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack against the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing and leaving the conflict to irregular forces raised by the United States and Thailand. Significant aerial bombardment by the United States occurred by that country's attempt to eliminate North Vietnamese bases in Laos and disrupt supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

After the Saigon government had fallen to the North Vietnamese forces in 1975, the communist Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese Army (justified by the communist ideology of "proletarian internationalism"), overthrew the royalist government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on December 2, 1975. He later died in captivity. The North Vietnamese army, with its heavy weapons including heavy artillery and tanks was the real power behind the Pathet Lao insurgency.

After taking control, the Pathet Lao's government renamed the country as the "Lao People's Democratic Republic" and gave Vietnam the right to station military forces there and to appoint advisors. In the late 1970s, Vietnam ordered Laos to end relations with the People's Republic of China, which then cut the country off from trading with any country but Vietnam. Slowly economic restrictions were relaxed in the 1980s. Laos was admitted to ASEAN in 1997. Although control by Vietnam has decreased, Vietnam still wields political and economic influence in Laos.

Politics

The Victory Arch (Patuxay) in Viang Chan, built during the years of the Indochina war. The arch is known as "the vertical runway," because it was built with concrete donated by the United States for a new airport. It was never completed and even the official plaque describes it as "a monster of concrete."

The politics of Laos' takes place in a framework of a single-party socialist republic. The only legal political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.

The head of state in 2007 was President Choummaly Sayasone, also secretary-general of the party, elected by parliament for a five-year term.

The head of government was Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh, who with the council of ministers was appointed by the president with the approval of the national assembly for a five-year term.

The national assembly of 115 members, elected for a five-year term, essentially acts as a rubber stamp for the party, approving all new laws, although the executive branch retains authority to issue binding decrees.

The party determines government policies through the all-powerful nine-member politburo and the 49-member central committee. Important government decisions are vetted by the council of ministers.

Laos adopted a constitution in 1991.

The most recent elections took place in April 2006, when 175 candidates in sixteen electoral areas competed for 115 seats. The assembly was expanded to 99 members in 1997 and in 2006 elections had 115.

Regarding the judiciary, the president of the People's Supreme Court is elected by the national assembly, on the recommendation of the national assembly standing committee. The vice president of the People's Supreme Court and the judges are appointed by the national assembly standing committee.

Bomb attacks against the government have occurred, coupled with small exchanges of fire, across Laos. A variety of different groups have claimed responsibility including the Committee for Independence and Democracy in Laos, and the Lao Citizens Movement for Democracy. The United States has warned about the possibility of further attacks during the ASEAN summit in November.

Remnants of a Hmong group allied with the United States during the Vietnam War have been in armed conflict with the communist regime since 1975. Most Hmong are integrated into or at least at peace with society, with some occupying high-ranking positions in the state system.

Laos is divided into 16 provinces (kang), one municipality (kumpang nakon), and one special zone (ketpisade). The country is further divided into districts (muang).

Economy

A street market in Luang Prabang.

Laos has an inadequate infrastructure and a largely unskilled work force. The country's per capita income in 2005 was estimated to be $2124 on a purchasing power parity-basis, and ranked 138 on a list of 181 countries.

Agriculture, mostly subsistence rice farming, dominates the economy, employing an estimated 85 percent of the population and producing 51 percent of gross domestic product. Domestic savings are low, forcing Laos to rely heavily on foreign assistance. In 1999, foreign grants and loans accounted for more than 20 percent of GDP and more than 75 percent of public investment. In 1998, the country's foreign debt was estimated at $1.9-billion.

On taking power in 1975, the communist government imposed a Soviet-style command economic system, replacing the private sector with state enterprises and cooperatives; centralizing investment, production, trade, and pricing; and creating barriers to internal and foreign trade.

But the Lao Government realized these policies prevented, rather than stimulated, growth and development. In 1986, the government announced its "new economic mechanism." Initially timid, the package was expanded to include a range of reforms designed to create conditions conducive to private sector activity. Prices set by the market replaced government-determined prices. Farmers were permitted to own land and sell crops on the open market. State firms were granted increased decision-making authority and lost subsidies and pricing advantages. The government set the exchange rate close to real market levels, lifted trade barriers, replaced import barriers with tariffs, and gave private sector firms direct access to imports and credit.

In 1989, the government agreed with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to expand fiscal and monetary reform, promote private enterprise and foreign investment, privatize or close state firms, and strengthen banking. It also agreed to maintain a market exchange rate, reduce tariffs, and eliminate unneeded trade regulations. A liberal foreign investment code was enacted and appeared to be slowly making a positive impact.

The "Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge," built between Vientiane Prefecture and Nong Khai Province, Thailand, with Australian help, was inaugurated in April 1994. Although the bridge has created additional commerce, the Lao Government does not yet permit a completely free flow of traffic.

A ferryboat on the Nam Ou river. Rivers are an important means of transport in Laos.

The Asian financial crisis, coupled with the Lao Government's own mismanagement of the economy, resulted in spiraling inflation and a steep depreciation of the currency, known as the kip, which lost 87 percent of its value from June 1997 to June 1999. Tighter monetary policies brought about greater macroeconomic stability in 2000, and monthly inflation, which had averaged about ten percent during the first half of 1999, dropped to an average one percent over the same period in 2000.

The economy continues to be dominated by an unproductive agricultural sector operating largely outside the money economy and in which the public sector continues to play a dominant role. Also, economic development is hampered by the fact that 37 percent of educated Laotians lived abroad, putting the country in fifth place for worst "brain drain," a 2005 World Bank study reported.

In late 2004, Laos gained normal trade relations status with the United States, allowing Laos-based producers to face lower tariffs on their exports. This was expected to spur growth.

Exports totalled $271-million in 1999, increased to almost one billion dollars by 2007. Exports commodities included wood products, garments, electricity, coffee, and tin. Export partners included Vietnam, Thailand, the People's Republic of China, Germany, France, and Belgium.

Imports totalled $497-million in 1999, and jumped to over 1.3 billion dollars by 2007. Import commodities included machinery and equipment, vehicles, fuel, and consumer goods. Import partner included Thailand, Japan, the People's Republic of China, Vietnam,Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Tourism is being promoted to increase the number of service jobs available to Laotians.

Demographics

Wat Ho Pra Keo, Vientiane.
Plain of Jars: Site 1

In 2007, the population was estimated at 6.1 million. Urban dwellers made up 23 percent of the population. About 70 percent of the population was under 30 years old in 1995. Laos is one of the least densely populated countries in Asia.

About 69 percent of the population are ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants, who belong to the Tai linguistic group. A further eight percent belong to other "lowland" groups, which together with the Lao people make up the Lao Loum. Hill people and minority cultures such as the Lua, Hmong, Yao, Tai dumm, Dao, Shan, and several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples have lived in isolated regions for many years. Mountain tribes of mixed heritage are found in northern Laos and are known as Lao Soung or highland Laotians. In the central and southern mountains, Mon-Khmer tribes, known as Lao Theung or mid-slope Laotians, predominate. Some Vietnamese and Chinese minorities remain, particularly in the towns. Many left in two waves; after independence in the late 1940s and again after 1975. Of the estimated 100,000 Chinese residents in Laos in 1975, only ten percent remain, identified as the Sino-Lao.[3]

The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism. There are also animist and shamanist beliefs that involve house spirits (phi), village spirits, district spirits, and city spirits, which overlap with Buddhism. There also are a small number of Christians, mostly restricted to the Vientiane area, and Muslims, mostly restricted to the Myanmar border region. Christian missionary work is regulated.

Monks are the main religious practitioners, and most young men are expected to become a monk for a short period to prepare them for marriage. Monks are in charge of Buddhist ceremonies and function as dream interpreters, traditional medical practitioners, and counselors. Other religious practitioners include spirit mediums and shamans, most of whom are women.

Among the Lao, cremation is generally practiced. The remains normally are placed in a small “stupa” inside the temple fence. The remains are deemed to have spiritual power, and offerings are made to them to achieve fulfillment of one's wishes.

Laos remains a peasant society, with an estimated 85 percent of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture. There are a few professionals, including lawyers, working in the capital. There is a substantial foreign aid community that provides a body of professionals. The Vietnamese have tended to work as tradesmen and laborers in the cities.

Buses connect the major cities.

Ethnic Lao may choose their spouse, and there is some preference for cousins. Parents may propose a spouse and must be consulted about marriage partners. A payment like a bride-price is made. The marriage ceremony usually takes place in the bride's family home. A spirit-calling ceremony is central. Divorce can be initiated by either party and is not uncommon. There is some polygyny (a form of polygamy) among highland groups.

The oldest daughter and her husband move out of the family home after the marriage of the next daughter but try to live nearby. The youngest daughter, who must care for aging parents, inherits the main house. These groups of related nuclear families create the appearance of extended families, although new family units eventually separate from the original main house and become main houses. Highland patrilineal groups feature large houses containing extended families of related brothers. Men are recognized as the household head for religious and political purposes.

Songthaews are pick-up trucks with benches. They are used for long-distance and local public transport.

After the revolution, property was nationalized, yet after the economic reforms of the 1990s, private ownership was recognized. A land-titling program now grants 99-year leases and allows for commercial transfer. Most land is subject to recognition of rights through use.

The official and dominant language is Lao, a tonal language of the Tai linguistic group. Mid-slope and highland Lao speak an assortment of tribal languages. French, once common in government and commerce, has declined in usage, while knowledge of English, the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has increased.

The aristocracy was abolished in the 1975 revolution. Many members of the aristocracy fled, as did members of the state-based elite. A new elite appeared, composed of the upper echelons of the communist state apparatus. Foreign investment and foreign aid led to corruption in these upper echelons, which became pervasive. A small urban-based middle class appeared. Most people belong to the peasantry and are powerless and poor.

Before the revolution, formal dress for all groups imitated courtly style and included the sampot (dhoti-like trousers) for men and the sinh skirt for women. After the revolution egalitarian dress was emphasized. In the 1990s much of the older dress style came back as the new rich elite flaunted their wealth. Elite men now wear business suits.

Culture

A Lao meal.

Lao food is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines. Sticky rice is the staple, and there are many traditions and rituals associated with its production. Galangal and fish sauce are important ingredients. The Lao national dish is “laap” (sometimes also spelled larb), a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish that is sometimes raw with a variable combination of green vegetables, herbs, and spices. Another characteristic dish is tam mak houng, green papaya salad. Lao cuisine has many regional variations, according to the fresh foods local to each region. A French influence is apparent in the capital city, Vientiane, where baguettes are sold on the street, and French restaurants are common and popular. Vietnamese cuisine is also popular.

The typical Lao stove, or brazier, shaped like a bucket, with room for a single pot or pan to sit on top, is called a tao-lo and is fueled by charcoal. The wok, maw khang in Lao, is used for frying and stir frying. Sticky rice is steamed inside of a bamboo basket, a huad, which sits on top of a pot, which is called the maw nung. A large, deep mortar called a khok is used for pounding tam mak hung and other foods, and is indispensable in the Lao kitchen.

A Lao-style mortar and pestle.

The traditional manner of eating was communal, with diners sitting on a reed mat on the wooden floor around a raised platform woven out of rattan called a ka toke. Dishes are arranged on the ka toke, which is of a standard size. Where there are many diners, multiple ka tokes will be prepared. Each ka toke will have one or more baskets of sticky rice, which is shared by all the diners at the ka toke.

Lao coffee is often called Pakxong coffee, which is grown around the town of Pakxong. Both robusta and arabica are grown in Laos. Most of the arabica in Laos is consumed locally and most of the robusta is exported to Thailand, where it goes into Nescafe. The custom in Laos is to drink coffee in glasses, with condensed milk in the bottom, followed by a chaser of green tea.

There are two general types of traditional alcoholic beverages, both produced from rice. Lao hai means jar alcohol and is served from an earthen jar. Likened to Japanese sake, it is communally and competitively drunk through straws at festive occasions. Lao lao or Lao alcohol is more like a whiskey. There is also a popular variant of lao lao made from purple rice, which has a pinkish hue.

Parents raise and support their children, creating strong family bonds. A key rite of passage for Buddhist males is to enter the monastery. Government-run primary schools have eclipsed temple education for boys. An awareness of the importance of higher education has increased, but most higher education is pursued abroad. A national university was established in the early 1970s, but it was dismantled by the revolution. In the mid-1990s a national university was reestablished. Restrictions on reading material and censorship have discouraged the emergence of a culture of reading among adults. Only 57 percent of the total population aged 15 and over can read and write.

The most distinctive Lao musical instrument is a bamboo mouth organ called a khene. Lao folk music, known as Lam, is extemporaneous singing accompanied by the khene. The Lao classical orchestra can be divided into two categories, Sep Nyai and Sep Noi. The Sep Nyai is ceremonial and formal music and includes: two sets of gongs (kong vong), a xylophone (lanat), an oboe (pei or salai), two large kettle drums and two sets of cymbals (xing).

The country has two World Heritage Sites: Luang Prabang and Wat Phou. Luang Prabang, formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name, is located in north central Laos, on the Mekong River about 425 km north of Vientiane. It has a population of about 22,000. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital, the seat of the kingdom of Laos.

The ruins of the Khmer temple at Wat Phū, near Champasak in southern Laos

Wat Phou, a ruined Khmer temple complex in southern Laos, is located at the base of Mount Phu Kao. There was a temple on the site as early as the fifth century, but the surviving structures date from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. The temple has a unique structure, with a shrine where a symbol of Hindu worship, or linga, was bathed in water from a mountain spring. The site later became a centre of Theravada Buddhist worship, which it remains today.

The government is seeking the same status for the Plain of Jars, a large group of historic cultural sites containing thousands of stone jars, which lie scattered throughout the Xieng Khouang plain in the Laotian Highlands at the northern end of the Annamese Cordillera, the principal mountain range of Indochina.

The government publishes all newspapers, including two foreign language papers: the English language Vientiane Times and the French language Le Rénovateur. Additionally, the Khao San Pathet Lao, the country's official news agency, publishes English and French versions of its eponymous paper. Internet cafes, serving the tourist market, are now common in the major urban centres. However, the government strictly censors content and controls access.

Satellite television dishes, beaming content from Thailand, are common. Many Laotians access the outside world through Thai television programs.

Notes

  1. Background notes – Laos. US Dept. of State. Retrieved December 8, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Laos. International Monetary Fund. Retrieved December 8, 2011.
  3. Florence Rossetti, "The Chinese in Laos- Rebirth of the Laotian Chinese Community as peace returns to Indochina." [1]. China Perspectives 13 (September - October 1997): 26. cefc.com. Retrieved May 14, 2008.

References

  • Clewley, John, "Beyond Our Khaen," In Simon Broughton and Mark Ellingham, with James McConnachie, and Orla Duane, (Eds.) World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books, 2000. ISBN 1858286360.
  • Fredenburg, P. and B. Hill. Sharing Rice for Peace and Prosperity in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Victoria, AUS: Sid Harta Publishers, 2006. ISBN 192120608X.
  • Freeman, M. A Guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos. Weatherhill, 1996. ISBN 0834804506.
  • Stuart-Fox, Martin, A History of Laos. Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521592356.
  • Stuart-Fox, Martin. The Lao Kingdom of Lan-Xang: Rise and Decline. White Lotus Co. Ltd, 1998. ISBN 9748434338.

External links

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