Government & Politics

Since 2 December 1975, Laos has been titled the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Sathalanalat Pasathipatai Pasason Lao). Informally, it is acceptable to call the country Laos, or in the Lao language, Pathet Lao (pather means land or country, from the Sanskrit pradeshay. 'Among English- speakers there is a growing tendency to drop the extra's' added by the French and simply use 'Lao' as the country's shortened unofficial name. After 1975, the former pro-Western, monarchical regime was replaced by a government that espoused a Marxist-Leninist political philosophy (see History for more details). The national motto is Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity & Prosperity (the latter being substituted for 'Socialism'in 1991).
The Party
The central ruling institution in Laos is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), which is modeled on the Vietnamese Communist Party. The LPRP is directed by the Party Congress, which meets every four or live years to elect Party leaders. Other important Party organizations include the . nine-member Political Bureau (Politburo), the 49-member Central Committee and the Permanent Secretariat.

The Party ideal is a 'proletarian dictatorship', though membership in the LPRP has consisted mainly of peasant farmers and tribes people from various ethnic groups; urban worker membership has increased since 1975. Before the Revolution, Party membership was about 60% Lao Theung (lower mountain dwellers, mostly of proto- Malay or Mon-Khmer descent), 36% Lao Loum (lowland Lao) and 4% Lao Sung (mostly Hmong and Mien hill tribes). Today's percentages are known only by the Party leadership.

The main seat of LPRP power is the Politburo, which officially makes all policy decisions. In theory, the members of the Politburo are selected by the Party Central Committee. In practice, since the Secretary General of the Politburo, the Secretariat and the Central Committee are all the same per- son, ie , Khamtay Siphandone (who is also the President), virtually all members of these major Party organs are co-opted by this lead position, which has enjoyed the full support of the Vietnamese since the 1940s.

The LPDR government is structured along Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) lines. The Council of Ministers consists of 13 ministries: Agriculture and Forestry; Trade and Tourism; Communications, Post, Transport and Construction; Education; Finance; Foreign Affairs; Industry and Handicraft; Information and Culture; Interior; Justice; Labour and Social Welfare; National Defence; and Public Health. Also at the ministerial level are the Office of the Prime Minister, the Bank of the Lao PDR, the State Planning Committee and the National Mekong Committee.

The National Assembly (formerly the Supreme People's Assembly) serves as the legislative body and is modeled on the SRV's National Assembly and the former USSR's Supreme Soviet. Since the Revolution, membership in the Assembly has varied and at present totals 99. All but one of the current National Assembly deputies are Communist Party members, and over two thirds are also members of the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC) and the AI lance of Lao Patriotic neutralist Forces (a group of military officers aligned with the Lao People's Revolutionary Army). In this the Assembly has become increasingly Party-oriented since the Revolution, when only around two-thirds of the deputies were LPRP members. Assembly deputies are elected by the public; in the last election 160 candidates competed for the available seats.

The Assembly's main function thus far has been to meet annually to give approval to the declarations 01" the prime minister. It also 'elects' both the president and prime minister every five years, though in reality these choices are decided in advance by the Central Committee. Even so, the last poll, held in February 1998, took place in total secrecy.

Constitution & Legal Code
For 15 years following the Revolution, the LPDR had no constitution. The first official constitution was drafted in mid-1990. Interestingly enough, it contains no reference to socialism in the economy but formalizes private trade and foreign investment. The constitution also removed the hammer-and-sickle and communist star from the official national also to he used on government signs and stationery, replacing it with a likeness of Vientiane's sacred Pha That Luang monument (see Economy later in the is chapter for more on the Lao brand of communism).

The LPDR's first legal code was enacted in 1988, the same year that Vientiane began searching abroad for foreign capital. The new canon set up a court system, prosecutor's office, criminal trial rules and one of Asia's most liberal investment codes. Although the Lao constitution guarantees property rights, the PL still holds substantial amounts of private property seized in 1975. Only through direct military connections have many people begun to get their land and houses back.

The Lao have a saying that they may utter when they want to indicate to someone that they're not rich, or that they can't afford a high asking price: 'I'm (one of the) people, not (one of the) government'. In other words phuu mli sli - 'people with colour' (ie, those in uniform) - are generally assumed to have access to wealth denied the average citizen. As in many developing countries, the low salaries paid to government employees motivate some civil servants to seek other sources of in - come. Some work other jobs outside government hours, while others take the easy money offered to them by private interests seeking to navigate the Lao government bureaucracy.

At the everyday level of the common bureaucrat, this takes the form of minor bribes or 'tips' of a few thousand kip here and there, accepted for faster or preferential service, or sometimes simply for doing one's job. At higher levels of government the sums can be vast. Virtually any foreign organization - governmental or nongovernmental, public or private - that wants to do business in Laos participates in the game in one way or another. Bids for government or foreign-aid contracts - especially highway projects, energy programs and other high-ticket items - face fierce competition and the deciding factor often comes down to which company pays the best kickback. This some- times results in substandard project fulfillment since it's not always the best company that gets the contract. Foreign companies and aid organizations also usually have a 'fixer' on staff, a Lao whose job it is to arrange air tickets when the planes are full or to smooth over other inconveniences. Such practices, of course, exacerbate corruption. Considering that the Lao government is able to collect very little in income taxes, some corruption is understandable as a way to generate income for government works. Most bribes, after all, are a kind of luxury tax on the rich. Through minor corruption, a government uniform provides those who aren't very well educated or very ambitious with an earning potential they couldn't otherwise achieve.

But many Lao privately express the opinion that corruption in Laos is getting a little out of hand. An estimated 40% of all foreign aid goes directly to the government' payroll and -the more aid and investment funds come into the country, the richer the ministers and their cronies become. Huge chateau-style estates are springing up on the outskirts of Vientiane for high-ranking government officials and their relatives.

Meanwhile the government spends less than 20% of the national budget on social welfare. This mimics exactly the level of government corruption the Pathet Lao (PL) promised to wipe out when they wrested power from the Royal Lao Government in 1975. For those citizens who believed in the socialist ideal of socio-economic equalization and the redistribution of wealth, the increasingly visible signs of corruption are disillusioning. Not all government officials are corrupt, and honest, hard-working officers can be found. That they're the exception to the rule is obvious by the way working ex pats single them out for praise.

National Symbols
Laos's national seal, often applied to official government publications, features a near-complete circle formed by curving rice stalks that enclose six component symbols of the productive proletarian state: Vientiane's Pha That Luang (which represents religion) a checkerboard of rice fields (agriculture); gear cogs (industry); a dam (energy); a highway (transport); and a grove of trees (forestry). A label in Lao script at the bottom of the seal reads Lao People's Democratic Republic'.

The national flag consists of two horizontal bars of red (symbolizing courage and heroism), above and below a bar of blue (nationhood) on which is cent red a blank white sphere (the light of communism), sometimes also interpreted as a moon. This flag is flown in front of all government offices and by some private citizens on National Day (2 December).

On this holiday the Lao national flag may be joined by a second flag featuring a yellow hammer and sickle cent red on a field of red, the international symbol of communism. The latter's display is rather ironic given that the word 'communism' doesn't appear in any government documents, not even the Lao constitution, and considering that the hammer and sickle were removed from the national seal in the early 1990s. Nor are there any public statues of Lenin or Marx anywhere in the country, save for one Lenin bust in Vientiane's Lao National History Museum.

The late Kaysone Phomvihane, founder of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, has become the country's foremost national hero. In 1995 the government took delivery of 20 busts of Kaysone from North Korean sculptors. These busts have been placed beneath Lao Buddhist-style pavilions in the centre of public memorial squares in every provincial capital as well as in other selected locations around the country.

Lao Front for National
The LFNC was formed in 1979 to take the place of the old Lao Patriotic Front, which had been in existence since 1956 as a political cover for the clandestine Lao People's Party. Its new incarnation was intended to quell unrest among the general population by providing mass participation in a nationalistic effort. You don't have to be a Party member to join, as long as you follow Party principles.

The LFNC is comprised of the LPRP, the Federation of Lao Trade Unions, the Federation of Lao Peasants, the Association of Women, the Lao People's Revolutionary Youth Union and other groups originally organized by the Party. It is administered by a National Congress (the general member- ship), a Presidium (headed by President Khamtay Siphandone, elected by the National Assembly), a Secretariat, a Central Committee and local committees at the village, canton, district and provincial levels.

Like the National Assembly, the LFNC has no real power and appears mainly to serve as a rubber stamp apparatus for LPDR policies. Still, it does suggest the potential for pluralism in the Lao government structure.

Political Divisions
Laos is divided into 16 khwaeng (provinces); Vieng Chan (Vientiane), Sainyabuli, Luang Prabang, Luang Nam Tha, Xieng Khuang, Hua Phan, Phongsali, Bokeo, Udomxai, Bolikhamsai, Kharnrnuan, Savannakhet, Salavan, Sekong, Attapeu and Champasak.

In addition, Vientiane (Kamphaeng Nakhon Wieng Chan) is an independent prefecture on an administrative parity with the provinces. The eastern half of Vientiane Province and parts of Xieng Khuang and Bolikhamsai, which have been chronically troubled by armed bandit and/or insurgent attacks, were amalgamated into the 'Saisombun Special Zone' in 1995, administered by the Lao military.
Below the province is the meuang (district), which is comprised of two or more Mall (villages).

Ties with Vietnam
The Vietnamese influence on Lao political affairs is still strong, thanks to continuing connections between ageing hardliners educated in Vietnam and their ideological mentors-Several high-ranking Party members with Vietnamese military and political training - including former presidents Kaysone Phomvihane and Souphanouvong (the 'Red Prince') - died between 1992 and 1995, leading some observers to believe that Vietnamese influence will wane as the hardliners are replaced by younger pragmatists.

The current president, 73-year-old Kharntay Siphandone, however, was trained in Hanoi and has close links with the Vietnamese military establishment. The prime minister, Bounyang Vorachit, formerly served as the country's Finance Minister and is also considered a hardliner who is primarily influenced by Vietnamese political ideology, having graduated from the Institute of Political conomics in Vietnam.

Dissent & Insurgency
For the most part there is no significant 'democratic movement' or widespread out spoken discontent in Laos. In part this can be explained by the Lao Buddhist tendency to respond with 'baw pen nyl1ng' ('it doesn't matter') when faced with adversity, and in part because by and large the Lao appear to have resigned themselves to the post-Revolution political system, which has brought the first extended period of secular peace in three centuries. The threat of being sent to samana silenced most protest during the late 1970s and 1980s. But probably the most compelling reason dissent is noticeably sparse is simply because dissenting Lao have a built-in escape hatch - the Mekong River border with Thailand (see the entry The Exodus under History earlier).

The quickly aborted public demonstration in Vientiane on 26 October 1999, organized by the short-lived Lao Students Movement for Democracy (see History), has been the only time since the 1975 Revolution that Lao citizens have publicly protested against government policies.

A small, armed insurgent movement quite possibly several - lurks in the forests and mountains. Some are Hmong warriors who seek to fulfill Vang Pao's dream of creating an independent Hmong district, or who are simply seeking revenge for PL defeats or long stints in re-education camps. Other factions may be armed groups financed by fanatical anti-communist Thais who had connections with the now-defunct Royal Lao Army, and by US POW/MIA groups hoping to gain information on US airmen lost in Laos during the Indochina War. In the early 1990s the US National League of Families, a POW/MIA advocacy group, were discovered to have diverted US$700,000 to guerrilla training programs for Lao and Hmong living in Thailand.

Experts speculate there may be several thousand (estimates vary from a conservative 200 to a ridiculous 10,000) armed insurgents in the hinterland. The Ethnic Liberation Organization of Laos (ELOL), considered the largest opposition group, is comprised of remnants of a Hmong insurgency called the Chao Fa (Lords of the Sky) who came together in 1975 under Hmong leader Zhong Zhua Her (aka Pa Kao Her), previously a senior Hmong resistance fighter against PL and Vietnamese forces. From 1980 until 1984 the Chao Fa received sanctuary, training and weapons from China; after China withdrew support, Zhong Zhua Her reorganized the reportedly 2000-strong group in Sainyabuli Province under the name ELOL and is said to command the only outpost in Laos never penetrated by the communists.

The second-largest insurgency organization, the Lao National Liberation Front (LNLF), consists of Hmong membership loyal to Vang Pao with a combined force of around 1500 in Xieng Khuang Province. It's rumored .that a renegade lowland Lao general, rather than a Hmong, currently leads the LNLF. Despite their ethnic kinship, the LNLF and ELOL have no alliance and are reported to be hostile towards one another.

A 'Lao United Independence Front' occasionally issues messages to the Thai media proclaiming a 'provisional government' somewhere in Laos, but if this group really exists at all it is probably on Thai soil. Other groups who have issued anti- government decrees include the Free Lao National Liberation Movement, the Free Democratic Lao National Salvation Force and the France-based Movement for Democracy in Laos.

For the most part the country's armed rebels operate sporadically. Meanwhile, international support for any such movements steadily wanes as the Lao government continues to open the country to more political and economic freedoms. For more details on armed rebel activity in Laos, see History earlier in this chapter and Dangers & Annoyances in the Facts for the Visitor chapter.