Laos / The Country and its People




Laos / Geography

Mekong River

Photo: Ferry pier at Mekong river in Laos

Covering an area of 236,800 square kilometres Laos is about two thirds the size of Germany. In the West the country borders on Thailand and Burma, in the North on China and Vietnam, in the East on Vietnam and in the South on Cambodia. Laos is the only Southeast Asian country without direct access to the sea. Most of the country is mountainous, and where there are no mountains one meets with highland plateaus.

Laos' main artery is the Mekong, which for more than 1,800 kilometres - almost half of its entire length - passes through the country or forms the boundary between Laos and Thailand.


Laos / Climate

Mekong River

Photo: Ferry pier at Mekong river in Laos

Just like Thailand, Laos has three main seasons: the cold season from November to February, the hot season from March to April or May and the rainy season from May or June to October. It rains more in the North than in the South.


Laos / Population


Photo: Laotian Family

According to Asiaweek's issue of December 1, 1995, the population of Laos, at that time, counted about 4.8 Million, which in terms of population makes Laos the third smallest country in Southeast Asia (after Brunei with 300,000 and Singapore with 3.1 Million).

About half of the country's population are Laotians, a people ethnically closely related to the Thais. The languages Thai and Laotian are also very similar.

Roughly one quarter of the population, mostly to the South, ethnically belongs, like the Cambodians, to the Mon-Khmer group, about 15 % are Thais, and various hill tribes make up another 10 % of the population.

Laos is one of the very few countries in Southeast Asia without significant ethnic tensions. The long-time leader of the communist movement in Laos, former Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihan, was born of a Vietnamese and a Laotian parent.

The citizens of the country have a reputation for being extremely peaceful and friendly - even though Laos had been caught up in the Vietnam war and in a civil war lasting for years.


Laos / History / Laotian Kingdoms

In 1353, after Laos had first been ruled by Khmers from Angkor, then by Thais from Sukhothai,Prince Fa Ngoum founds the Kingdom of Laos or "Lane Xang", as it was called at the time, as a sovereign state. It extends over present-day Laos as well parts of what is now North Thailand. The first capital of Laos is Luang Prabang. King Fa Ngoum makes Buddhism the national religion.

In the 15th century the Vietnamese temporarily occupy the Laotian Kingdom and Luang Prabang.

In the 16th century Vieng Chan (Vientiane) develops into a parallel capital of the Laotian Kingdom. Burma, the dominant power in Southeast Asia in the 16th century, gains strong influence over Vieng Chan. Nevertheless, in 1563 King Setthathirat makes Vieng Chan the official capital of Laos.

In 1575, the Burmese occupy Vieng Chan and stay for seven years.

After two parallel Laotian kingdoms had developed in Luang Prabang and Vieng Chan, they were reunited in 1591 under King Nokeo Koumane.

In 1700Laos breaks up into three kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vieng Chan and Champassak to the South.

After the Siamese capital Ayutthaya had been conquered and sacked by Burmese armies, Laos, in 1767, again falls under full Burmese rule. But after only a few years the Siamese kingdom, with its new capital Bangkok, grows stronger and Laos again has to obey Siamese overlords.

In 1827 the Laotians under King Anou rebel against the Siamese but are soon defeated. The Laotian state disintegrates.


Laos / History / Colonial Times

In 1868, after having annexed South Vietnam as a colony and having turned Cambodia into a French protectorate, the French send an initial expedition to Laos to investigate the Mekong trade routeto China.

In 1886 France receives permission from Siam largely ruling Laos, to install a vice consulate in Luang Prabang. In 1887, Siam, anticipating French expansion, vacates large parts of Laos.

In 1893 France declares the Mekong the official border between Laos and Siam. Might is right; Siam accepts the unilateral decision of big-gun France. Laos officially becomes a French protectorate.

However, France has only limited interest in her new possession. Paris sends Vietnamese officials to Laos to set up an administration but does little to develop the Laotian economy.

In September 1940 , after France is invaded by Germany, Japanese troops occupy Indochina without meeting any resistance.

Officially the word is that the French colonial power leaves all military installation for the Japanese troops to use; in exchange the French colonial administration remains in office. Therefore the years of World War II bring less destruction to Laos than, for instance, to the fiercely contested Southeast Asian states of Burma and the Philippines.

In East Asia, World War II ends August 14, 1945, with the capitulation of Japan. Subsequently, France tries to re-establish herself as colonial power in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

On September 1, 1945, Laos declares its independence. France refuses to accept this, and retaliates by sending troops into Laos. A guerilla war against the French colonial power starts.


Laos / History / Independence

On July 19, 1949, France formally grants Laos independence. For almost three decades, from 1949 to 1975, the political situation in Laos is highly confusing. Three factions struggle for power: 1. Conservatives, commanding, among other forces, a 30,000-men army of the Hmong (Meo) hill tribe; 2. Neutralists, organized by Prince Souvanna Phouma; 3. Communists, lead by a feudal prince, Souphanouvang (a contradiction Marx had not anticipated).

The civil war among the three rival factions is, however, not fought as fiercely as the civil wars in Vietnam or Cambodia. Several times in three decades coalition governments are formed, including all three factions. The neutralists usually lead the coalitions.

From 1964 to 1973 the US fight a secret war in Laos, against Laotian communists as well as North Vietnamese troops channeling war material to the Vietcong in South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Min Trail through Laos.

After the US forces begin their retreat from Indochina in 1973, the right-wing government in Vientiane is replaced by a coalition government of neutralists and the communist Pathet Lao.

In 1975, after communist troops conquered the capitals of Vietnam and Cambodia, the communist Pathet Lao gains sole power in Laos. While in Laos, too, parts of the population are detained in reeducation camps, there isn't the kind of revenge as in Cambodia. Former neutralist Premier Minister Souvanna is not even arrested, just demoted in rank to government advisor.

In the following decades Laos cultivates a close relationship to Vietnam. The most powerful man in communist Laos, General Secretary of the Revolutionary Party of the People, Kaysone Phomvihan, is half Laotian and half Vietnamese.

In March 1991, at the fifth congress of the Revolutionary People's Party, far-reaching changes of the economic structure of the country are decided. As in China and Vietnam, private business, free-market competition and foreign investment are permitted in order to accelerate the economic development of the country. However, as in China and Vietnam, political leaders are not inclined to share power in a multi-party system.