A mountainous republic in southeastern Asia.
Landlocked country in SE Asia, bounded N by China, E by Vietnam, S by Cambodia, W by Thailand, and NW by Myanmar.
A constitution was endorsed 1991 providing for an executive president to be elected for a five-year term, and a 79-member supreme people's assembly, with a similar term. A 1992 amendment replaced the supreme people's assembly with a new national assembly.
The controlling force and only political party in Laos is the communist party (Lao People's Revolutionary Party, the LPRP), which is dominated by its 11-member political bureau and heads the broader Lao Front for National Reconstruction.
The original SE Asian tribal groups saw a migration from the 4th–5th centuries of people from China. Laos came under Indian influence and adopted Buddhism during the 7th–11th centuries. As part of the Khmer empire from the 11th–13th centuries, it experienced much artistic and architectural activity. From the 12th century, the country was invaded by the Lao from Thailand, who established small independent kingdoms and became Buddhists. Laos became an independent kingdom in the 14th century and was first visited by Europeans in the 17th century, becoming a French protectorate 1893–1945. After a brief period of Japanese occupation, France reestablished control 1946 despite opposition from the Chinese-backed Lao Issara (Free Laos) nationalist movement. The country became semiautonomous 1950, when, under the constitutional monarchy of the king of Luang Prabang, it became an associated state of the French Union.
In 1954, after the Geneva Agreements, Laos gained full independence. Civil war broke out between two factions of former Lao Issara supporters: a moderate, royalist-neutralist group led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, which had supported the 1950 French compromise and was the recognized government for most of the country; and a more extreme communist resistance group, the Pathet Lao (“land of the Lao”), led by ex-Prince Souphanouvong (the half brother of Prince Souvanna) and supported by China and the Vietminh, which controlled much of N Laos.
A coalition government was established after the 1957 Vientiane Agreement. This soon collapsed, and in 1960 a third, right-wing force emerged when General Phoumi Nosavan, backed by the royal army, overthrew Souvanna Phouma and set up a pro-Western government headed by Prince Boun Gum. A new Geneva Agreement 1962 established a tripartite (right–left–neutral) government under the leadership of Prince Souvanna Phouma. Fighting continued, however, between the North Vietnamese–backed Pathet Lao and the US-backed neutralists and right wing. There was massive aerial bombardment by the US Air Force until the 1973 Vientiane Agreement established a cease-fire line dividing the country NW to SE, giving the communists two-thirds of the country, but giving the Souvanna Phouma government two-thirds of the population. All foreign forces (North Vietnamese, Thai, and US) were to be withdrawn, and both sides received equal representation in Souvanna Phouma's provisional government 1974.
In 1975 the communist Pathet Lao (renamed the Lao People’s Front) seized power. King Savang Vatthana (1908–1980), who had succeeded 1959, abdicated, and Laos became a People’s Democratic Republic under the presidency of Prince Souphanouvong. Prince Souvanna Phouma remained as an “adviser” to the government, but the real controlling force was now the prime minister and communist party leader, Kaysone Phomvihane.
The new administration, which inherited a poor, war-ravaged economy, attempted to reorganize the country along socialist lines, nationalizing businesses and industries and collectivizing agriculture. Faced with a food shortage and the flight of more than 250,000 refugees to Thailand, it modified its approach 1979, introducing production incentives and allowing greater scope for the private sector. Further “liberalization” followed from 1985 under the prompting of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with a new profit-related “socialist business accounting system” being adopted. Phoumi Vongvichit became acting president 1986 owing to Souphanouvong’s ailing health. In March 1989, multiparty elections were held for the first time since the communists came to power 1975, with the communists retaining political control.
In 1991 the new president, Kaysone Phomvihane, called for the acceleration of the pace of replacement of agricultural cooperatives by privately owned farms, as part of economic restructuring. A new constitution was endorsed Aug 1991 and General Khamtay Siphandon, former vice premier and defense minister, became the new premier. Phomvihane died Nov 1992 and Nouhak Phoumsavan was elected to replace him. In Dec, elections were held to a newly created national assembly, replacing the supreme people's assembly, but all candidates required approval by the LPRP.
Laos was closely tied to the USSR before the latter's demise 1991. In 1989 party-to-party relations were established with China after a ten-year break. In 1991 the US upgraded its diplomatic representation in Laos to ambassadorial level for the first time since the communists' accession 1975. Laos has retained close links with Vietnam.