by Christof Hartmann
The political history of modern Laos may be divided into two broad phases. From the end of World War II, when the country first gained independence, until the end of the Second Indochina War in 1975 the country was—due to its uneasy proximity to China and Vietnam—inevitably drawn into the political-military confrontation in the region. The search for a viable political system was thus overshadowed by the struggle between Western (first French and then US) powers and Vietnam. Laotian actors were relegated to mere junior partners in their own country, and elections—though regularly held—had no real impact upon the political process. Since the victory of the revolutionary forces in 1975, a pro-Vietnamese regime has held military, economic, and political supremacy. Since the 1990s, the communist system has experimented with economic liberalization and single-party parliamentary elections have been reintroduced.
Laos, a landlocked country on the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia, is a sparsely settled territory (five millions by the mid-1990s on a surface as large as Great Britain), neighboring Burma, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Its foundation as a separate state at the beginning of the 20th century was the incidental consequence of French and British colonial interests, insofar as these countries agreed on a division of the peninsula. At that time most ethnic Laotians lived across the Mekong river in Thailand, and the new province of French Indochina served mainly as a hinterland for the economic and political control of Vietnam. It brought together Laotians and a number of ethnic minorities living in the mountains along the border to Vietnam, and was mainly run by Vietnamese middlemen, who enjoyed a limited degree of autonomy.
Laos had been a kingdom (Lan Xang) since the 14th century. The royal family residing in the northern town of Luang Phrabang enjoyed the formal acknowledgement and support of the French colonial administration,