People's Democratic Republic
Area: 236,800 sq. km. (91,430 sq. mi.); area comparable
Capital--Vientiane (2003 pop. est. 633,000).
Other principal towns--Savannakhet, Luang Prabang,
Terrain: rugged mountains, plateaus, alluvial plains.
Climate: tropical monsoon; rainy season (May to
November); dry season (November to April).
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Lao (sing. and
Population (July 2004 est.): 5.7 million.
Annual growth rate (2004 est.): 2.44%.
Ethnic groups: Lao Loum (lowland): 68%; Lao Theung
(upland): 22%; Lao Soung (highland) 9%, including the
Hmong and the Yao; and ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese:
Religions: Principally Buddhism, with animism among
Languages: Lao (official), French, various highland
Health (2002): Infant mortality rate--87.06/1,000.
Life expectancy--56.75 years for women, 52.71
years for men.
Work force (2.8 million, 2002): Agriculture--81%;
industry and services--19%.
Type: Communist state.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state);
Chairman, Council of Ministers (prime minister and head
of government); 10-member Politburo; 52-member Central
Committee. Legislative--109-seat National
Assembly. Judicial--district, provincial, and a
national Supreme Court.
Political parties: Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP)--only
Administrative subdivisions: 16 provinces, one special
region, and Vientiane prefecture.
GDP (2004): $2 billion.
Per capita income (2002): $320.
GDP growth rate (2003): 5.7%.
Natural resources: Hydroelectric power, timber, and
Agriculture (53% of GDP, 2001 est.): Primary products--glutinous
rice, coffee, corn, sugarcane, vegetables, tobacco,
ginger, water buffalo, pigs, cattle, poultry, sweet
potatoes, cotton, tea, and peanuts.
Industry (23% of GDP, 2001 est.): Primary types--garment
manufacturing, electricity production, gypsum and tin
mining, wood and wood processing, cement manufacturing,
Industrial growth rate (2001 est.): 9.7%.
Services (2001 est.): 24% of GDP.
Trade: Exports (2003 est.)--$332 million: gold
and copper, garments, electricity, wood and wood
products, coffee and other agricultural products,
rattan, and tin. Major markets--Thailand,
Vietnam, France, and Germany. Imports (2003
est.)--$492 million. Major imports--fuel, food,
consumer, goods, machinery and equipment, vehicles and
spare parts. Major suppliers--Thailand, Vietnam,
Laos' population was estimated at 5.7 million in 2004,
dispersed unevenly across the country. Most people live
in valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries.
Vientiane prefecture, the capital and largest city, had
about 633,000 residents in 2002. The country's
population density was 25/sq. km.
half the country's people are ethnic Lao, the principal
lowland inhabitants as well as the politically and
culturally dominant group. The Lao are descended from
the Tai people who began migrating southward from China
in the first millennium A.D. Mountain tribes of
Miao-Yao, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman -- Hmong, Yao,
Akha, and Lahu -- and Tai ethno linguistic heritage are
found in northern Laos. Collectively, they are known as
Lao Sung or highland Lao. In the central and southern
mountains, Mon-Khmer tribes, known as Lao Theung or
mid-slope Lao, predominate. Some Vietnamese and Chinese
minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many
left in two waves--after independence in the late 1940s
and again after 1975.
predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism. Animism is
common among the mountain tribes. Buddhism and spirit
worship coexist easily. There also are small numbers of
Christians and Muslims.
official and dominant language is Lao, a tonal language
of the Tai linguistic group. Mid-slope and highland Lao
speak an assortment of tribal languages. French, once
common in government and commerce, has declined in
usage, while knowledge of English--the language of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--has
increased in recent years.
Laos traces its first recorded history and its origins
as a unified state to the emergence of the Kingdom of
Lan Xang (literally, "million elephants") in 1353. Under
the rule of King Fa Ngum, the wealthy and mighty kingdom
covered much of what today is Thailand and Laos. His
successors, especially King Setthathirat in the 16th
century, helped establish Buddhism as the predominant
religion of the country.
the 17th century, the kingdom of Lan Xang entered a
period of decline marked by dynastic struggle and
conflicts with its neighbors. In the late 18th century,
the Siamese (Thai) established hegemony over much of
what is now Laos. The region was divided into
principalities centered on Luang Prabang in the north,
Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south.
Following their colonization of Vietnam, the French
supplanted the Siamese and began to integrate all of
Laos into the French empire. The Franco-Siamese treaty
of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied French
Indochina, including Laos. King Sisavang Vong of Luang
Prabang was induced to declare independence from France
in 1945, just prior to Japan's surrender. During this
period, nationalist sentiment grew. In September 1945,
Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to
form an independent government under the Free Laos (Lao
Issara) banner. The movement, however, was short-lived.
By early 1946, French troops reoccupied the country and
conferred limited autonomy on Laos following elections
for a constituent assembly.
During the first Indochina war between France and the
communist movement in Vietnam, Prince Souphanouvong
formed the Pathet Lao (Land of Laos) resistance
organization committed to the communist struggle against
colonialism. Laos was not granted full sovereignty until
the French defeat by the Vietnamese and the subsequent
Geneva peace conference in 1954. Elections were held in
1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince
Souvanna Phouma, was formed in 1957. The coalition
government collapsed in 1958, amidst increased
polarization of the political process. Rightist forces
took over the government.
1960, Kong Le, a paratroop captain, seized Vientiane in
a coup and demanded the formation of a neutralist
government to end the fighting. The neutralist
government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not
successful in holding power. Rightist forces under Gen.
Phoumi Nosavan drove it from power later that same year.
Subsequently, the neutralists allied themselves with the
communist insurgents and began to receive support from
the Soviet Union. Phoumi Nosavan's rightist regime
received support from the U.S.
second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for
the independence and neutrality of Laos. Soon after
accord was reached, the signatories accused each other
of violating the terms of the agreement, and with
superpower support on both sides, the civil war soon
resumed. Although it was to be neutral, a growing
American and North Vietnamese military presence in the
country increasingly drew Laos into the second Indochina
war (1954-75). For nearly a decade, Laos was subjected
to extremely heavy bombing as the U.S. sought to destroy
the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through
1972, the communist People's Party renamed itself the
Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). It joined a new
coalition government in Laos soon after the Vientiane
cease-fire agreement in 1973. Nonetheless, the political
struggle between communists, neutralists, and rightists
continued. The fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to
communist forces in April 1975 hastened the decline of
the coalition in Laos. Several months after these
communist victories, the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane.
On December 2, 1975, the king abdicated his throne, and
the communist Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR)
new communist government imposed centralized economic
decision-making and broad security measures, including
control of the media and the arrest and incarceration of
many members of the previous government and military in
"re-education camps." These draconian policies and
deteriorating economic conditions, along with government
efforts to enforce political control, prompted an exodus
of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. About 10% of
the Lao population sought refugee status after 1975,
many of whom resettled in third countries, including the
United States. From 1975 to 1996, the U.S. resettled
some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including
time, the Lao Government closed the re-education camps
and released most political prisoners. By the end of
1999, more than 28,900 Hmong and lowland Lao had
voluntarily repatriated to Laos--3,500 from China and
the rest from Thailand. Through the Office of the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the
International Organization for Migration (IOM), and
non-governmental organizations, the U.S. has supported a
variety of reintegration assistance programs throughout
Laos. UNHCR has monitored returnees for a number of
years and has reported no evidence of systemic
persecution or discrimination against returnees per se.
UNHCR closed its Laos office at the end of 2001.