Laos was settled by Thai tribes from China during the 13th century C.E., and the area was unified under one government in 1353. It has been ruled by Myanmar (Burma), and beginning in the late 19th century C.E. by France. It was occupied by Japan during World War II. Laos achieved independence from France in 1949. The Lao People fought as allies with the U.S. during its involvement in the Vietnam War. After the U.S. military left Southeast Asia in 1975, Vietnam invaded Laos. Many Laotians sought refuge in Thailand and the U.S.
Laos is one of the few landlocked countries in Asia and shares borders with Thailand, Vietnam, China, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The population of Laos is currently estimated at approximately 7 million people and is comprised of more than 40 different ethnic groups, each having their own language, customs and traditions. The largest and majority ethnic group in Laos are the “Lao”, comprising approximately 55% of the population. Most of the other smaller ethnic groups in Laos were living in Laos centuries before the “Tai” ( Lao ) migration southwards from China and some of these smaller ethnic groups are believed to have been in Laos since prehistoric times.
The ethnic Lao originated from the greater “Tai” minority who migrated from southern China to the land presently known as Laos in the 13th century. Lao people are closely related ethnically and culturally to the “Thai” (Thailand), the “Shan” (Burma) as well as other “Tai” ethnic groups presently living in NE India, northern Vietnam and southern China.
Together with it’s lack of access to the sea, Laos’ rugged mountain terrain has meant that historically, and in comparison to most other countries in Asia, Laos has been comparative isolated, slow to develop economically and somewhat unknown to the outside world until the French occupation during the French colonial period in Indochina. Prior to the French colonial occupation, present day Laos called itself and was known as “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants”.
Similar to Vietnam and Cambodia, during the French colonial period, a local Lao independence movement was spawned in the early 20th century. Later after WWII when the French returned to reoccupy their former colonies in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, armed opposition and warfare broke out between the French and these local independence/revolutionary movements, and what is known as the “French Indochina Wars” began.
In this period immediately following WWII, China and the USSR began providing support to the Indochinese independence and revolutiary movements against the French. It was at this time that the Lao independence movement, similar to Vietnam and Cambodia, either unwittingly or by design, became aligned against the west in the Cold War.
As the French were worn down militarily and politically by these indigenous independence movements in the 1950’s, the United States stepped in and what is known in the west as “The Vietnam War” (i.e. “The American War” as it is known in these former Indochina states) began.
Although most Americans believe that the major wartime violence of “The Vietnam War” was limited to Vietnam, the countries of Cambodia (“The Sideshow War”) and Laos (“The Secret War”) were also severely affected. During this period, the US dropped more tonnage of bombs on Laos than on Vietnam or Cambodia and indeed more bombs were dropped upon Laos than all the tonnage of bombs dropped by all the warring factions (including US, UK, Germany, Japan combined) in WWII. Today in the 21st century, people are still being killed in Laos by the un-exploded ordinance which litters large areas of the country. This is one of the remaining legacies of the “Vietnam War” or the “American War” as it is known locally.
Another major legacy of the French colonial period and the French and American Wars of the 1950’s – 1970’s in Indochina was the creation and growth of the local communist parties, which by the end of the war in 1975 had succeeded in dominating local politics.
Since 1975 and until today the Lao Government has been controlled and managed by the Lao Communist Party and Laos is one of the worlds’ few remaining Communist one party states, along with Vietnam, China, North Korea and Cuba.
Warfare and destruction together with the political upheavals of the 20th century and Laos’ natural geographical realities have negatively affected development and economic growth. Laos is today one of the poorest countries in Asia. Also all sectors of Government services in Laos, including education and health are lagging behind the rest of SE Asia.
Laos is identified by the United Nations as a “Least Developed Country”. In recent decades Laos has become dependent upon foreign aid and presently has one of the highest per-capita foreign aid levels in the world. Although Laos had almost no external debt in the late 1980’s, presently Laos is described as a “Severely Indebted Low Income Country” (SILIC).
Economically, Laos faces difficult challenges for development. Laos is surrounded by the aggressive and highly competitive and rapidly developing economies of China, Vietnam and Thailand. Additionally the local Lao population (at about 7 million total) is small and a significant percentage is below the poverty line. These realities together with Laos’ lack of access to the sea, has left Laos with few comparative advantages in the present day “globalized” world economy. In short it could be said that Laos as a country and nation is marginalized in today’s world.
With encouragement from the large multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and Asian Development Bank, Laos has embarked upon a strategy to exploit natural resources (hydro-electric dams for export of electricity, mineral exploitation, etc.) and large infrastructure projects. Many of these large-scale projects are implemented and operated by large multinational corporations or commercial conglomerates, and encouraged and justified by the multilateral aid agencies on the rationale of regional development. Many of these projets arguably have little economic benefit to Laos other than short term income while bringing with them many social costs such as relocation of local communities, loss of arable farm land as well as natural resource depletion, while at the same time increasing Laos’ external debt … which in turn makes Laos increasingly dependent upon foreign aid.
Also in recent years, there has been a large influx of people and Chinese commercial interests, both state run and semi private, from China all of which are primarily involved in extraction or exploiting of Laos’ natural resources.
This development strategy has created some degree of tension between independent NGO’s/humanitarian organizations and the Government, as well as between the NGOs and the multilateral aid organizations and institutions. Independent NGOs claim that this strategy is a kind of multi-national “trickle down” strategy with Laos at the bottom of the beneficiaries list, while Laos and it’s people are absorbing most of the costs in both economic and social terms. While on the other hand, the Government in Laos maintains that given it’s economic “comparative disadvantages” and the realities of globalization, it has very few if any alternatives.
Population (2014 est) – 6,803,699
Area – 147,100mi
Capital – Vientiane
Lao – 55%
Khmou – 11%
Hmong – 8%
Other (over 100 minor ethnic groups) – 26%
Exports – wood products, coffee, electricity, tin, copper, gold, cassava
Imports – machinery and equipment, vehicles, fuel, consumer goods
Life Expectancy (2014 est) – M 61 years F 65 years
Infant Mortality (2014 est) – 54.53 deaths/1,000 live births
Adult Illiteracy Rate – 27.3%