Help: I need info on Laos

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 24 14:39:56 MST 1999

>Can anyody give me any information on the current gov't and
>political/social situation in Laos?
>Juan Fajardo

The Boston Globe, July 22, 1996, Monday, City Edition

Laos learns to open up;  Investments by foreigners are encouraged

By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff


The only "skyscraper" in Laos, a seven-story building surmounted by a red
star, hammer and sickle, used to be brilliantly lighted at night, a
monument to communist ideals and socialist solidarity with neighboring
Vietnam and Cambodia.

Now this former home of the Ministry of Information is dark, deserted and
crumbling along with the system that the hammer, sickle and star symbolized.

While the government trots out banners declaring "Long Life to
Marxist-Leninism" for party congresses and other special occasions, the
derelict building is testimony to what Lao say is the basic attitude here
when it comes to politics - bo pen nyang, roughly, "It doesn't matter."

The attitude extends well beyond apathy toward the political system that
hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians and Americans died fighting for
and against.

Many Lao also feel a casual openness to the increasing influence of
neighboring Thailand's commercialism and the sports-rock culture of America
- influences the Lao government has until recently tried hard to restrain.

Investment in the landlocked nation of about 4 million people is pouring in
from Thailand, where natural resources are strained and labor costs are
rising. American investors, slow to participate in some earlier phases of
the Southeast Asian economic boom, are running a strong second. The
Japanese are mostly working through Thai front-men, but South Korean
businesses have a strong public presence.

The openness is reflected in other relaxed restrictions. There is a
midnight curfew, but it is widely disobeyed. Every Lao with a good
television and antenna gets at least two Thai stations. Thai TV is clearly
preferred over domestic shows.

The Eagles' recording of "Hotel California" is the most popular tune in
new, privately owned bars. While young locals shake their heads in
confusion at the cricket matches beamed in over Star TV, many are
thoroughly familiar with the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bulls.

"I'm surprised we've survived at all," says Somsanouk Mixay,
editor-in-chief of the government-run Vientiane Times. The bo pen nyang
attitude "is a bit fatalistic, a bit too relaxed. People have to care more.
You cannot build a country with such a philosophy."

However, it opens the door for a lot of building by others. Timber and
mining companies, communications satellites, hotels and electric generating
stations are all in the works, and all serve the interests of Laos' booming

"Lao are hospitable, very honest and perhaps a bit naive" in the face of
such a wave of interest and investment, Mixay worries.

Vietnam, godfather of Indo-Chinese communism in general and the Lao
communist party in particular, is pushing hard for regional integration.
China, whose internal transportation systems are severely overloaded, is
hotly interested in a back door through which the production of its
southwest provinces can reach world markets.

"The Chinese, Vietnamese and Malaysians all are very interested" in
developing what billboards at the Thai border grandly dub the Greater
Mekong Sub-Region, says a Western diplomat here.

"The Lao have had their reservations about whether they should be a conduit
between these major nodes of economic development or resist that," the
diplomat said. But recent developments indicate the government has come
down on the side of participation rather than isolation.

He pointed out that the symbols atop the former Ministry of Information are
not the only icons of socialist glory falling by the wayside.

A huge red star mounted atop the Pratuxai, a massive concrete structure
reminiscent of France's Arc de Triomphe, was carted away earlier this year.
Gone, too, are the hammer and sickle once prominent in the park on the main
route to Vientiane from Thailand.

And while older currency still bears communist emblems and a reference to
socialism as a prime goal of the state, newer bills feature an engraving of
Pha That Luang, a golden stupa glorifying Buddhism and Lao sovereignty, and
no reference to socialism.

"The party leaders said, 'We are not really communist, we are not really
socialist,' " Mixay says. "So they dropped those things."

Until economic changes spurred by the collapse of the Soviet Union began
transforming the region, Laos was a near puppet state of Vietnam. Now, the
diplomat said, "Vietnamese influence is very much on the wane due to the
lack of economic clout that Vietnam can bring" and to the evaporation of
communist solidarity.

The end of Soviet patronage spurred Vietnam and Laos toward a Chinese-style
attempt to liberalize economically while maintaining a strong one-party
political system. But it also set Laos, the weaker economy, searching for
new patrons to follow in the historical footsteps of the Siamese, the
French, the Americans and the Vietnamese.

Sweden, Germany, Japan and Australia all were willing to help, as were the
World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The international
organizations' conditions for providing aid gave economic liberalization a
strong push, and as a result Laos finds itself, for a change, charting its
own course in the region rather than following the lead of others.

Private businesses owned by Lao, joint ventures with foreigners and
wholly-owned foreign businesses all are possible, and the government even
has preferential policies toward enterprises it feels will aid the
country's modernization.

This has begun to attract the interest of overseas Lao, in particular
Lao-Americans, whose entrepreneurial skills are beginning to offset the
brain drain that occurred when tens of thousands of Lao associated with the
country's king, the Buddhist clergy or the US war effort fled the 1975
communist takeover.

"We are doing things basically the American way," says Ananh Norasingh,
owner of the N.E.C. Learning Center, which specializes in training Lao to
use computers and software.

An aeronautical engineer who spent nearly two decades in the United States,
Norasingh returned to Laos to visit his father in 1988, just after the
first tentative steps toward liberalization were made.

Because N.E.C. is a wholly Lao-owned educational business, Norasingh pays
no taxes on his income, his property or computer imports.

Norasingh could make much more as an engineer in Bangkok or America, "but
here is my home, and I think people need some education," he says. "So I
make this my work now."

"The country is not free - not like America," Norasingh says. "It is
socialist. But it is what they call free socialist. That's all I can say."

Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights

Louis Proyect
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