Lao People's Democratic Republic
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Landlocked in South East Asia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (often known as Laos) borders China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The post-independence monarchy was overthrown by the Communist party in 1975 and the State is still governed along single party socialist principles with a strong executive dominating a weak elected parliament. In addition to restrictions on political opposition and freedom of expression, Laos has ongoing issues relating to its treatment of the ethnic Hmong population both in the country and those returning from living as refugees outside of Laos.
The Southeast Asian nation of Lao PDR (also referred to as Laos) borders five countries: China to the north, Myanmar to the north east, Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west and Cambodia to the south. Laos is a landlocked country and two thirds of its territory is mountainous. It is one of three countries located along the Mekong River – the tenth longest river in the world – along with Thailand and Cambodia. The country's capital city is Vientiane.
Population and language
The population of Laos is 6,436,000.1 and comprises an amalgam of ethnic groups, although the number of groups varies depending on the system of classification. The government reports the existence of 49 ethnic groups, while a survey cited by the UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Working Group on Minorities cited the presence of 236 ethnic groups.
The main language is Lao, but French is widely used in diplomatic circles, while many other languages are spoken among the country's numerous ethnic groups.
Laos achieved independence from France in 1949 and has remained a Communist country since 1975 when it emerged from a 22 year civil war. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party is the only legal political party in the country. While the Party Congress is the nominal decision-making body, in practice the Politburo which formulates policies and controls operations is the Party's most powerful unit.
Laos has substantial natural resources including forests, minerals and water. More than 50 per cent of the GDP is based on agriculture, forestry, livestock and fisheries and some 80 per cent of the population relies on natural resources for their livelihood.However, Laos is one of south east Asia's poorest countries; infrastructure is weak and food insecurity remains widespread, this has been exacerbated by droughts and floods in recent years, damaging the rice harvests on which many rely, according to the World Food Programme.
Laos began its transition from a centrally planned to a market economy in the 1990s, but has been heavily dependent on foreign aid for many years. However, the country is beginning to attract more foreign investment, not least with the announcement to develop a high speed rail network, largely financed by China, due to begin shortly. And, in further efforts to attract foreign investment, Laos opened a Stock Exchange (the LSX) in January 2011, initially with just two companies trading.
Media and civil society
In terms of human rights, freedom of expression in the country is tightly restricted. The ruling party retains control over all media outlets and Reporters without Borders ranked Laos 168 out of 178 (with one being the most free) in its 2010 World Press Freedom Index.
Human rights and children's rights
Discrimination against the Lao Hmong ethnic group is a persistent concern of human rights monitors. Marginalisation of the Hmong people stems from their support of the US army when the Vietnam conflict spread to Lao. In its annual report, Amnesty International reported that international monitors had been denied access to the 4,500 Lao Hmong asylum-seekers and refugees forcibly returned from Thailand in 2009 and housed in resettlement sites. The sites, whose residents included more than 1,000 children, were criticised for their poor conditions and failure to issue identity documents. Amnesty also referenced the case of two Hmong arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 12 and 15 years' imprisonment respectively after a politically motivated unfair trial.
In its most recent Concluding Observations to Laos, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern that the death penalty is not explicitly prohibited for children.
- UNDP, Country Profile of Human Development Indicators. Accessed 17 May 2011
- National Report of the State of Lao PDR to the Universal Periodic Review, May 2010
- UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Working Group on Minorities “Inclusion of Minorities in Public Life in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam”. Paper prepared by Vatthana Pholsena Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Presented at the ninth session 12-16 May 2003, p. 3, citing Chamberlain et. al.1996
- UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative
- UN Committee on the Rights of the Child,Concluding Observations to the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, February 2011, paragraph 71
- BBC country profile: Laos
- Amnesty International, “Annual Report 2011”
- National Report of Lao PDR to the Universal Periodic Review, May 2010
- UNDP Country Profile of Human Development Indicators, accessed 17 May 2011
- Reporters without Borders “World Press Freedom Index 2010”
- Business in Asia, "Laos at a glance"
- World Food Programme: Lao PDR Country page
- World Bank Lao PDR Country Brief
- UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative