The Mekong River, most of which flows in a broad valley, forms much of the boundaries with Myanmar and Thailand. For two stretches, however—one greater than 300 mi (480 km)—the Mekong flows entirely through the territory of Laos. Except for the Mekong lowlands and three major plateaus, the terrain of Laos is rugged, mountainous, and heavily forested; jagged crests in the north tower over 9,000 ft (2,740 m). In addition to the capital, important cities include Savannaket, Pakse, and Luang Phabang (the former royal capital).
Laos is one of the nations of Southeast Asia least touched by modern civilization. There are no railroads; roads and trails are limited; and use of the country's main communications artery, the Mekong River, is impeded by many falls and rapids. More than half the people live along the Mekong and its tributaries, and most are subsistence farmers. The urban areas are more prosperous, with a slowly growing middle class.
About two thirds of the population are Lao Loum, a people ethnically related to the Thai, who live along the Mekong River valley. The Lao Theung or Mountain Mon Khmer (about 22% of the population) generally reside in upland valleys. Highland groups include the Hmong (Meo), Yao (Mien), Black Thai, Dao, and several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples. There are also important minorities of Vietnamese and Chinese. A majority of Laotians are Theravada Buddhists; although the mountain peoples are generally animists, some have adopted Buddhism. Lao is the official language; French and English are also spoken.
Laos is one of Asia's poorest nations. Agriculture employs most of the Laotian workforce and accounts for about half of its gross domestic product. Rice is by far the chief crop; sweet potatoes, vegetables, corn, and peanuts are also grown. Commercial crops include coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, and tea. Illegal opium and cannabis were long produced in the northwest, part of the "Golden Triangle" (which also includes neighboring portions of Thailand and Myanmar), but production there was largely eradicated by 2005. Water buffalo, pigs, cattle, and poultry are raised, and fish from the rivers supplement the diet. Forests cover over half of the country; teak is cut and lac is extracted, but poor transportation and the lack of industry limit production. Copper, tin, and gypsum are mined; other mineral resources include gold and gemstones. Manufacturing is limited; textiles and garments are the most important products. Tourism has become increasingly significant in the 21st cent, providing service jobs for Laotians.
Laos has significant hydroelectric potential and, despite a relative lack of development, electricity is a prime export, mainly to Thailand. The other principal exports are textiles and garments, timber and wood products, coffee, and tin. Since machinery and equipment, vehicles, fuel, and most consumer goods have to be imported, there is a continuing foreign trade deficit. Leading trade partners are Thailand, Vietnam, and China. In an attempt to expand the nation's economy, a foreign investment law was passed in 1989; the statute was further liberalized in 1994.
Laos is governed under the constitution of 1991. The president, who is the head of state, is elected by the legislature for a five-year term. The government is headed by the premier, who is appointed by the president. The unicameral legislature consists of the 115-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected for five-year terms. The only permitted political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary party (the Lao Communist party). Administratively, the country is divided into fifteen provinces and one municipality (the capital).
The Laotians are descendants of Thai tribes that were pushed southward from Yunnan, China, in the 13th cent. and gradually infiltrated the territory of the Khmer Empire. In the mid-14th cent. a powerful kingdom called Lan Xang was founded in Laos by Fa Ngoun (1353-73), who is also credited with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism and much of Khmer civilization into Laos. Lan Xang waged intermittent wars with the Khmer, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai, and by the 17th cent. it held sway over sections of Yunnan, China, of S Myanmar, of the Vietnamese and Cambodian plateaus, and large stretches of N Thailand. In 1707, however, internal dissensions brought about a split of Lan Xang into two kingdoms: Luang Phabang in upper (northern) Laos and Vientiane in lower (southern) Laos. During the next century the two states, constantly quarreling, were overrun by the armies of neighboring countries.
In the early 19th cent. Siam was dominant over the two Laotian kingdoms, although Siamese claims were disputed by Annam. After French explorations in the late 19th cent. Siam was forced (1893) to recognize a French protectorate over Laos, which was incorporated into the union of Indochina. During World War II, Laos was gradually occupied by the Japanese, who in 1945 persuaded the king of Luang Phabang to declare the country's independence.
In 1946 the French reestablished dominion over Laos, recognizing the king as constitutional monarch of the entire country. The French granted an increasing measure of self-government, and in 1949 Laos became a semiautonomous state within the French Union. In 1951, a Communist Laotian nationalist movement, the Pathet Lao, was formed by Prince Souphanouvong in North Vietnam. In 1953, Pathet Lao guerrillas accompanied a Viet Minh invasion of Laos from Vietnam and established a government at Samneua in N Laos. That year Laos attained full sovereignty; admission into the United Nations came in 1955.A New Nation's Struggles
The new country faced immediate civil war as Pathet Lao forces, supported by the Viet Minh, made incursions into central Laos, soon occupying sizable portions of the country. Agreements reached at the Geneva Conference of 1954 provided for the withdrawal of foreign troops and the establishment of the Pathet Lao in two northern provinces. In 1957 an agreement was reached between the royal forces and the Pathet Lao, but in 1959 the coalition government collapsed and hostilities were renewed.
A succession of coups resulted (1960) in a three-way struggle for power among neutralist, rightist, and Communist forces. The Communist Pathet Lao rebels remained under the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong in the northern provinces. The right-wing government of Boun Oum, installed in Vientiane, was recognized by the United States and other Western countries and controlled the bulk of the royal Laotian army. The Soviet Union and its allies continued to recognize the deposed neutralist government of Souvanna Phouma, who had fled to neighboring Cambodia.
In May, 1961, with Pathet Lao and neutralist forces in control of about half the country, a cease-fire was arranged. A 14-nation conference convened in Geneva, producing (1962) another agreement providing for the neutrality of Laos under a unified government. A provisional coalition government, with all factions represented, was accordingly established under the premiership of Souvanna Phouma. Attempts to integrate the three military forces failed, however, and the Pathet Lao began moving against neutralist troops.
Open warfare resumed in 1963, and the Pathet Lao, bolstered by supplies and troops from North Vietnam, solidified control over most of N and E Laos. Disgruntled right-wing military leaders staged a coup in 1964 and attempted to force the resignation of Souvanna Phouma; the United States and the Soviet Union emphasized their support of the premier, however, and he remained in office with a right-wing neutralist government.The Vietnam War and Communist Rule
Pathet Lao guerrilla activity decreased after the start (1965) of U.S. bombings of North Vietnamese military bases and communications routes. The bombings also included attacks on what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a North Vietnamese supply route through E Laos. Communist pressure increased during 1969, and early in 1970 the Pathet Lao launched several major offensives. Early in 1971, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laotian territory in an unsuccessful attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. The attack drove the North Vietnamese deeper into Laos, and Laos became another battleground of the Vietnam War, with heavy U.S. aerial bombardments.
During this period, the United States extended enormous military and economic aid to the Laotian government, armed Hmong tribes (who also fought in Vietnam), and financed the use of Thai mercenary troops, whose numbers peaked to over 21,000 in 1972. The Pathet Lao, supported by North Vietnamese troops, scored major gains, consolidating their control over more than two thirds of Laotian territory (but over only one third of the population). Heavy fighting persisted until Feb., 1973, when a cease-fire was finally declared. A final agreement between the government and the Pathet Lao, concluded in Sept., 1973, provided for the formation of a coalition government under the premiership of Souvanna Phouma (inaugurated in Apr., 1974), the stationing of an equal number of government and Pathet Lao troops in the two capitals, and the withdrawal of all foreign troops and advisers.
After Communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Pathet Lao took control of the country in 1975, abolished the monarchy, and made Laos a republic. Souphanouvong became president, and Kaysone Phomvihane, head of the Communist party, became premier. Huge numbers of Laotians (many Hmong) fled to Thailand and many eventually sought refuge in the United States. (Small Hmong forces, however, continued to fight against the Communists into the 21st cent.) Laos became increasingly dependent on Vietnam for military and economic assistance, and the two countries signed a 25-year treaty of friendship in 1977.
In the early 1990s Laos abandoned economic communism for capitalism, but the party retained tight political control, and political dissent was harshly suppressed. Meanwhile, the nation pursued improved relations with such former enemies as China, Thailand, and the United States. Kaysone became president in 1991. He died the following year and was succeeded as president by Nouhak Phoumsavan. Khamtay Siphandone, a former military leader of the Pathet Lao, became party leader and, when Nouhak retired in 1998, assumed the job of president as well. Laos was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. Khamtay retired as party leader in Mar., 2006; he was succeeded in the post by Vice President (and Lt. Gen.) Choummaly Sayasone, who also succeeded Khamtay as president in June.
See M. S. Viravong, History of Laos (tr. 1959, repr. 1964); H. Toye, Laos: Buffer State or Battleground (1968); P. F. Langer and J. J. Zasloff, North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao (1970); M. Gdański, Notes of a Witness: Laos and the Second Indochinese War (1973); P. Ratnam, Laos and the Super Powers (1980); A. J. Dommen, Laos (1985); N. B. Hannah, The Key to Failure: Laos and the Vietnam War (1988).
Learn more about Laos with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Laos (or /ˈlaʊs/), officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in southeast Asia, bordered by Burma (Myanmar) and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west. 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 protectorate, it gained independence in 1949. A long civil war ended officially when the communist Pathet Lao movement came to power in 1975 but the protesting between factions continued for several years.
Private enterprise has increased since the late 1990s when economic reforms including rapid business licensing were introduced. Laos is still ranked among the lowest countries in terms of economic and political freedom. The economy of Laos grew at 7.5% in 2007, 35th fastest in the world. Eighty percent of the employed practice subsistence agriculture. The country's ethnic make-up is diverse, with around 55% belonging to the largest ethnic group, the Lao.
Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the fourteenth century by Fa Ngum, himself descended from a long line of Lao kings, tracking back to Khoun Boulom. Lan-Xang prospered until the eighteenth century, when the kingdom was divided into three principalities, which eventually came under Siamese suzerainty. In the 19th century, Luang Prabang was incorporated into the 'Protectorate' of French Indochina, and shortly thereafter, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were also added to the protectorate. Under the French, Vientiane once again became the capital of a unified Lao state. Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II, the country declared its independence in 1945, but the French under De Gaulle 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 de facto control until 1954, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy. Under a special exemption to the Geneva Convention, 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 replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy.
Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War, and the eastern parts of the country were invaded and occupied by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which used Laotian territory as a staging ground and supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The result of these actions were a series of coups d'état and, ultimately, the Laotian Civil War between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao.
In the Civil War, the NVA, with its heavy artillery and tanks, was the real power behind the Pathet Lao insurgency. In 1968, 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. Massive aerial bombardment by the United States followed as it attempted to eliminate North Vietnamese bases in Laos in order to disrupt supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
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.
After taking control of the country, Pathet Lao's government renamed the country as the "Lao People's Democratic Republic" and signed agreements giving Vietnam the right to station military forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country. Laos was ordered in the late 1970s by Vietnam to end relations with the People's Republic of China which cut the country off from trade with any country but Vietnam. Control by Vietnam and socialization were slowly replaced by a relaxation of economic restrictions in the 1980s and admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Laos is divided into 16 provinces (qwang) and Vientiane Capital (Na Kone Luang Vientiane):
Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia and the thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Phou Bia at 2,817 m (9,242 ft), 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.
The climate is tropical and monsoonal. There is a distinct rainy season from May to November, followed by a dry season from December to April. Local tradition holds that there are three seasons (rainy, cold and hot) as the latter two months of the climatologically defined dry season are noticeably hotter than the earlier four months. The capital and largest city of Laos is Vientiane, and other major cities include Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakxe.
In 1993, the government set aside 21% of the nation's land area as National Biodiversity Conservation Areas (NBCA), which may be developed into a national park system.
Laos is the home to the Indochinese tiger, the giant gaur, and the Asian elephant. 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 country is one of four in the opium poppy growing region known as the "Golden Triangle". According to the October 2007 UNODC fact book "Opium Poppy Cultivation in South East Asia", the poppy cultivation area was , down from in 2005.
Laos' first, French-written and monarchical constitution was promulgated on May 11, 1947 and declared it to be an independent state within the French Union. The revised constitution of May 11, 1957 omitted reference to the French Union, though close educational, health and technical ties with the former colonial power persisted. The 1957 document was abrogated on December 3, 1975, when a communist People's Republic was proclaimed. A new constitution was adopted in 1991 and enshrined a "leading role" for the LPRP. The following year, elections were held for a new 85-seat National Assembly with members elected by secret ballot to five-year terms. This National Assembly, which essentially acts as a rubber stamp for the LPRP, approves all new laws, although the executive branch retains authority to issue binding decrees. The most recent elections took place in April 2006. The assembly was expanded to 99 members in 1997 and in 2006 elections had 115.
The FY 2000 central government budget plan called for revenue of $180 million and expenditures of $289 million, including capital expenditures of $202 million.
The government of Laos — one of the few remaining official communist states — began decentralising control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986. The results, starting from an extremely low base, were striking: growth averaged 6% in 1988-2004 except during the short drop caused by the Asian financial crisis beginning in 1997.
Major urban centers have experienced the most growth. The economies of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet in particular have experienced significant booms in recent years. The Lao economy is heavily dependent on investment and trade with its larger and richer neighbors, Thailand, Vietnam, and, especially in the north, China. Pakxe has also experienced growth based on cross-border trade with Thailand and Vietnam.
Much of the country, however, lacks adequate infrastructure. Laos has no railways, although a short link to connect Vientiane with Thailand over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge is currently under construction. The major roads connecting the major urban centres, in particular Route 13 South, have been significantly upgraded in recent years, but villages far from major roads are accessible only through unpaved roads that may not be accessible year-round. There is limited external and internal telecommunication, particularly of the wire line sort, but mobile cellular phone use has become widespread in urban centres. In many rural areas electricity is unavailable or offered only during scheduled periods. Songthaews (pick-up trucks with benches) are used in the country for long-distance and local public transport.
Subsistence agriculture still accounts for half of GDP and provides 80% of total employment. Laos has the lowest percentage of arable land and permanent crop land in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Only 4.01% of Laos is arable land, and only 0.34% of the country is planted with permanent crops. Rice dominates agriculture, with about 80% of the arable land area used for growing rice. Approximately 77% of Lao farm households are self-sufficient in rice. Through the development, release and widespread adoption of improved rice varieties, and through economic reforms, Lao PDR achieved a net balance of rice imports and exports for the first time in 1999. Between 1990 and 2005, rice production increased from 1.5 million tons to 2.5 million tons, an average annual growth rate of more than 5%. This increase in production has been valued at $8 million to $19 million per year. Lao PDR may have the greatest number of rice varieties in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Since 1995 the Lao government has been working with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to collect seed samples of each of the thousands of rice varieties found in Laos.
The economy receives aid from the IMF and other international sources and from new foreign investment in food processing and mining, most notably of copper and gold. Tourism is the fastest-growing industry in the country. However, economic development in general is hampered by a serious case of brain drain. A 2005 World Bank study reported that 37% of educated Laotians lived abroad, putting the country in fifth place for worst brain drain.
In late 2004, Laos gained Normal Trade Relations status with the US, allowing Laos-based producers to face lower tariffs on their exports; this may help spur growth.
69% of the country's people are ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants and the politically and culturally dominant group. The Lao belong to the Tai linguistic group who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium AD. They separated from the Thai of Thailand. A further 8% belong to other "lowland" groups, which together with the Lao people make up the Lao Loum.
Hill people and minority cultures of Laos such as the Hmong (Miao), Yao (Mien), Tai dumm, Dao, Shan, and several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples have lived in isolated regions of Laos for many years. Mountain/hill tribes of mixed ethno/cultural-linguistic heritage are found in northern Laos which include the Lua (Lua) and Khmu people who are indigenous to Laos. Today, the Lua people are considered endangered. Collectively, they 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, Chinese and Thailand Thai minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many left in two waves; after independence in the late 1940s and again after 1975.
The term "Laotian" does not necessarily refer to the ethnic Lao language, ethnic Lao people, language or customs, but is a political term that also includes the non-ethnic Lao groups within Laos and identifies them as "Laotian" because of their political citizenship.
The predominant religion in Laos is Theravada Buddhism which, along with the common Animism practiced among the mountain tribes, coexists peacefully with spirit worship. 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 by the government.
The official and dominant language is Lao, a tonal language of the Tai linguistic group. The language came from Thai, and based on Thai writing script. Midslope and highland Lao speak an assortment of tribal languages. French, still common in government and commerce, is still studied by many, as while of English, the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has increased in recent years.
Theravada Buddhism is a dominant influence in Lao culture. It is reflected throughout the country from language to the temple and in art, literature, performing arts, etc. Many elements of Lao culture predate Buddhism, however. For example, Laotian music is dominated by its national instrument, the khaen, a type of bamboo pipe that has prehistoric origins. The khaen traditionally accompanied the singer in lam, the dominant style of folk music. Among the various lam styles, the lam saravane is probably the most popular.
Rice is the staple food and has cultural and religious significance. There are many traditions and rituals associated with rice production in different environments, and among many ethnic groups. For example, Khammu farmers in Luang Prabang plant the rice variety Khao Kam in small quantities near the hut in memory of dead parents, or at the edge of the rice field to indicate that parents are still alive.
Satellite television dishes, beaming content from Thailand, are common throughout Laos. Many Laotians access the outside world through Thai television programs.
|Heritage Foundation/The Wall Street Journal||Index of Economic Freedom||149 out of 157|
|Reporters Without Borders||Worldwide Press Freedom Index||156 out of 167|
|Transparency International||Corruption Perceptions Index||163 out of 179|
|United Nations Development Programme||Human Development Index||130 out of 177|
Leaders of ethnic minorities in Laos