Modern Laos


President Kaysone Phomvihane died in November 1992, aged 71. (His right-hand man, Prince Souphanouvong died just over two years later, on 9 January 1995.) As one obituary put it, Kaysone was older than he seemed, both historically and ideologically. He had been chairman of the LPRP since the mid-1950s and had been a protégé and comrade of Ho Chi Minh, who led the Vietnamese struggle for independence from the French. After leading the Lao Resistance Government - or Pathet Lao - from caves in Xam Neua province in the north, Kaysone assumed the premiership on the abolition of the monarchy in 1975. But under his leadership - and following the example of his mentors in Hanoi - Kaysone became the driving force behind the market-orientated reforms. The year before he died, he gave up the post of prime minister for that of president.

His death didn't change much, as other members of the old guard stepped into the breach. Nouhak Phounsavanh - a 78-year-old former truck driver and hardline Communist - succeeded him as president. Nouhak didn't last long in the position and in February 1998 he was replaced by 75-year-old General Khamtai Siphandon - the outgoing prime minister and head of the LPRP. Khamtai represents the last of the revolutionary Pathet Lao leaders who fought the Royalists and the Americans. In April 2006, Siphandon, the last of the old guard from the caves in Vieng Xai, was replaced as president by Choummaly Sayasone.

Recent years

With the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1986 there were hopes, in some quarters at least, that economic liberalization would be matched by political
. So far, however, the monolithic Party shows few signs of equating capitalism with democracy. While the Lao brand of Communism has always been seen as relatively tame, it remains a far cry from political pluralism.

In 2007, the politburo still largely controlled the country and, for now, sweeping changes are unlikely. Most of the country's leaders are well into their sixties and were educated in Communist countries like Russia and Vietnam. However, the younger Lao (particularly those who have studied in Japan, Australia, the UK or the US) are starting to embrace new political and economic ideas. The government takes inspiration from Vietnam's success and is more likely to follow its neighbour's lead than adopt any Western model of government.

As Laos moved towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century progress was being maintained. The troublesome Hmong, whose USA-based leadership's attempts to undermine the Laos government's authority came to nothing , seemed, finally, to be pacified. The nation's first railway line opened in early 2009 and huge Chinese investment poured into the country. With the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement set to open up trade throughout the region in 2010 (Laos will be subject to this in 2015), the Nam Theun II dam coming on-stream and Laos supposedly due to join the World Trade Organisation in 2010, the challenges facing Laos are some of the greatest in its history.

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