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Country Profile : Laos

Country profile: Laos

Map of Laos

Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states, is one of east Asia's poorest countries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 it has struggled to find its position within a changing political and economic landscape.

Communist forces overthrew the monarchy in 1975, heralding years of isolation. Laos began opening up to the world in the 1990s, but despite tentative reforms, it remains poor and dependent on international donations.

Overview

The government has implemented gradual economic and business reforms since 2005 to somewhat liberalize its domestic markets. Its longterm plans for reform include high-profile projects such as the Nam Theun 2 power project.

Thailand is the largest foreign investor in Laos. While this support is badly needed, the dangers of exposing Laos's fragile economy to world trends are clear.

AT-A-GLANCE
National day celebrations, Vientiane
Politics: Ruling communists maintain a monopoly of political power
Economy: One of the world's poorest nations, Laos has little industry and relies on foreign aid; hopes are pinned on a hydroelectric project
International: Communist regime is backed by China and Vietnam

The Asian currency crisis of 1997 caused the national currency, the kip, to lose more than nine-tenths of its value against the US dollar.

Laos is a landlocked, mountainous country, widely covered by largely unspoilt tropical forest. Less than 5% of the land is suitable for subsistence agriculture, which nevertheless provides around 80% of employment.

The main crop is rice, which is grown on the fertile floodplain of the Mekong River. Vegetables, fruit, spices and cotton are also grown. Part of the region's heroin-producing "Golden Triangle", Laos has all but stamped out opium production.

Outside the capital, many people live without electricity or access to basic facilities. But Laos is banking on the anticipated returns from a billion-dollar dam scheme, intended to generate electricity for export to Thailand, to boost its economy and infrastructure.

Several small bomb blasts in recent years in and around the capital, Vientiane, have suggested that opposition to the ruling party may be growing. But any public dissent is dealt with harshly by the authorities.

The country's human rights record has come under scrutiny. Laos denies accusations of abuses by the military against the ethnic minority Hmong. Hmong groups have been fighting a low-level rebellion against the communist regime since 1975.

Facts

  • Full name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Population: 6.3 million (UN, 2009)
  • Capital: Vientiane
  • Area: 236,800 sq km (91,400 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Lao, French (for diplomatic purposes)
  • Major religion: Buddhism
  • Life expectancy: 63 years (men), 66 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 new kip = 100 ath
  • Main exports: Clothing, timber products, coffee, gold, copper, electricity
  • GNI per capita: US $740 (World Bank, 2008)
  • Internet domain: .la
  • International dialling code: +856

Leaders

President: Choummaly Sayasone

President of Laos
Communist rule continues under Choummaly Sayasone

Choummaly Sayasone, the head of the ruling communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), was appointed by the National Assembly to succeed Khamtay Siphandon as president in June 2006.

He took over the party leadership from the octogenarian former president in March.

The LPRP is the only legal political party in Laos and holds 98 of the 99 seats in the assembly.

Mr Sayasone is seen as a staunch ally of his predecessor, who served three terms and oversaw the country's entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 1997.

Choummaly Sayasone, who was born in 1936 in southern Laos, is a former defence minister and vice president.

Media

The ruling communists maintain strict control over the media. The government owns all newspapers and broadcast media. Newspaper circulation figures are very low.

Slandering the state, distorting party policies and spreading false rumours are all criminal offences. A draft law which would allow the development of private media has not been implemented.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders noted in 2008 that the majority of the media "only puts out news that is favourable to the communist regime". The group said many Laotian viewers watch TV stations from neighbouring Thailand.

There were some 100,000 internet users by March 2008 (ITU figure).

The press

Television

  • Lao National TV (TVNL) - state-run
  • Laos Television 3 - joint venture with Thai company

Radio

News agency

  • KPL - state-run
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