General Info About Laos by Bernhard Heiser


Political Situation

After the 1975 takeover, Laos is ruled by the communist LPRP. The national motto is Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity and Prosperity.

Prime Minister Khamtay Siphandone is also Secretary-General of the Politburo, the Permanent Secretariat and the Central Committee, thus giving him the key role in Lao political affairs. He received political training in Hanoi, hence the Vietnamese influence is strong.

Since 1975, about 360,000 Lao citizens (about 10% of the population) escaped the government changes across the Mekong into Thailand. Many of them today still live in refugee camps in northern Thailand or in other countries.

Unlike other communist governments, the Lao P.D.R. didn’t outlaw religion. It was a wise choice, as Buddhism is the shape and texture of the country.

Although existing in Laos, dissent and rebel activity is at low levels, as the government more and more opens the country to political and economical

freedoms.

Geography and People

The total area is 236,800 sq km. Mountains and plateaus cover well over 70% of the country. More than half of the country is forest and woodland. The Mekong river plays a major role, running a third (1500km) of it’s total length through Laos.

Landlocked Laos shares borders with Burma, Cambodia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Today, about 5 million people live in Laos. The population density in Laos is very low with only 19 people per square kilometer (Germany 246, Great Britain 237, Thailand 120).

The country’s ethnic mix consists of 68 different minorities. About half the population are Lao Loum (low-land Lao). The three main ethnic groups are distinguished by the height they live at, the time they migrated to Laos and by other cultural and traditional characteristics. The bigger part of the population lives at subsistence level in small villages scattered throughout the country.

Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism is the dominating religion in Laos.

Economy

Despite its mineral, wood and hydroelectric power resources Laos is one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia. Agriculture, fishing and forestry provide 80% of the jobs. About 7% of total land area is used for agriculture, most of it for family owned rice plantations, mainly in the Mekong river valley and its fertile floodplains.

Other cash crops are cotton, tobacco, fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee. Opium probably still is the country’s biggest export earner. For many of the northern hill tribes opium is (although the government supports crop substitution programmes) the only source of income.

Wood products are important for export. Due to the lack of infrastructure, exploitation of mineral resources is still on a very low level. Electricity from the Nam Ngum dam is sold to Thailand and many additional hydropower plants are planned.

Compared to Thailand or Vietnam, the number of tourists is still relatively low, but tourism is already an important economical factor for the country. After the “Visit Laos Year 1999″ numbers of foreign visitors are expected to rise sharply.

Laos has been and still is dependant on foreign aid, in some years more

than 50% of the national budget. The economy after the 1975 Communist takeover wasn’t really working well. After some years free enterprise was partly allowed at village level.

In 1989, private foreign investment was allowed. Private land ownership is guaranteed by constitution and many people were given back seized land and houses. The results have been striking – growth has averaged 7.5% annually since 1988.

Climate

Tropical monsoon climate with rainy season from May to November (south-west monsoon). A good time for travel is the dry season from December to April. From November to February the bypassing north-east monsoon creates relatively low temperatures. A warm pullover can be very useful, especially for early morning bus or boat rides.

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