Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

LAOS: The State of the State

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

LAOS: The State of the State

Article excerpt

The year 2005 marked the 35th anniversary of the People's Revolutionary Party's takeover of the Laotian government. Throughout this period, journalists and scholars have used various labels to describe the Laotian state. Some referred to it as a communist or socialist authoritarian state while others have described it as a weak state that could not even pay the salaries of many of its employees regularly. It is true that Laos is one of the five remaining communist countries in the world. It is also true that the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) does not tolerate any form of political opposition that directly or indirectly challenges its rule. Laos remains one of the most underdeveloped and poorest countries in the world. Even in 2005, about 38 per cent of the population reportedly lived below the poverty line and the salary of senior government officials was not enough for a family of four to live decently. Furthermore, a large majority of the working people, especially those from minority areas, do not have any formal education.

In spite of these factors, this article attempts to demonstrate that the Laotian state is not static. Since the collapse of the communist bloc, the Laotian state has undertaken several reforms. Consequently, the nature of the state has changed over time. The government has also loosened control over the population. In the early 1990s, foreigner could not travel around the country freely. A Laotian businessman noted that he would not dare to talk to any foreigner as it could earn him a prison term.: In 2005, however, many foreigners moved around the country and interacted with people quite freely. One can see at coffee houses, restaurants and bars in Vientiane that most Laotian people are not afraid of dealing with foreigners any more. Since early 2000, the infrastructure has improved significantly.

This article examines the state of the state in Laos in 2005. In so doing, the article will highlight how the nature of the Laotian state changed in the last 15 years and assess its capacity to deal with social and economic reforms.

How Socialist and Authoritarian Is the Laotian State?

In 1975 the LPRP took control of the country by toppling the monarchy and establishing a one-party dominated socialist state under the rubric of Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR). Political organizations apart from the LPRP and its affiliated mass organizations were not allowed to exist. The LPRP was only supposed to give guidance to the government in implementing policies. In reality, however, the party and the state were intertwined, and party officiais had the final say in everything. As in most other communist countries, government officials were not promoted to senior positions without attending the party's cadre training school. In trying to indoctrinate ordinary people with communist ideology, the government installed loudspeakers in public places in major cities to broadcast communist propaganda.

In its dealings with the public, the government did not tolerate any challengers. Independent civil society organizations were virtually non-existent. As in most other communist countries, the government mainly used mass organizations to control societal groups. The party-state functioned more like a bureaucratic polity in which only senior members had a say in both the policy-making and implementation processes. The government also controlled the flow of information. Developments that reflected the weaknesses of the party-state were not covered in the state media. Due to the repressive environment, most Laotians did not talk about politics in public places. A Laotian businessman who later settled in America noted:

We felt that government agents were omnipresent and we would get into trouble if we talked about politics. It was okay if we spoke good things about the party and the government but if the government knew that we were criticizing its activities, we could get arrested. …

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