Laos country profile Update 06/20/2024 

Laos Flag

Laos, officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or LPDR), is a landlocked country located in Southeast Asia. It shares borders with Myanmar and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southeast, and Thailand to the west and southwest. The capital and largest city of Laos is Vientiane.

The history and culture of present-day Laos can be traced back to the kingdom of Lan Xang, which thrived from the 13th to the 18th century and was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia Update 06/20/2024 

Laos Map
Laos Map

Due to its central location, Lan Xang became an important hub for trade, leading to economic and cultural prosperity. After a period of internal conflicts, Lan Xang fragmented into three separate kingdoms: Luang Phrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. In 1893, these territories came under French protectorate and were later unified to form modern-day Laos.

The country briefly gained independence in 1945 during the Japanese occupation but was later colonized by France until it achieved autonomy in 1949. Laos finally gained full independence in 1953, establishing a constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong.

However, a civil war ensued, with communist resistance supported by the Soviet Union fighting against the monarchy, which received backing from military regimes supported by the United States.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the communist Pathet Lao came to power, putting an end to the civil war. Laos then relied on military and economic aid from the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991.

Laos is a member of various international organizations, including the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement, ASEAN, East Asia Summit, and La Francophonie. It gained full membership in the World Trade Organization in 2013. Laos is a one-party socialist republic, adhering to Marxism-Leninism, and governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The country’s human rights record has been criticized by non-governmental organizations, citing issues such as torture, restrictions on civil liberties, and persecution of minorities.

The majority of the population in Laos is composed of the Lao people, who inhabit the lowland areas and make up 53.2% of the population. Mon-Khmer groups, Hmong communities, and other indigenous hill tribes reside in the foothills and mountains. Laos focuses on hydropower generation and selling electricity to neighboring countries like Thailand, China, and Vietnam as part of its development strategy.

The country is also striving to become a “land-linked” nation, as evidenced by the construction of new railways connecting Laos with its neighboring countries.

Laos has experienced significant economic growth and has been recognized as one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with an average annual GDP growth of 7.4% since 2009, according to the World Bank.

Etymology

The name “Laos” was given by the French, who brought together the three Lao kingdoms under French Indochina in 1893. The French named the country after the dominant ethnic group, the Lao people, using the plural form of their name. In English, the ‘s’ in “Laos” is pronounced and not silent. In the Lao language, the country is referred to as “Muang Lao” (ເມືອງລາວ) or “Pathet Lao” (ປະເທດລາວ), both of which translate to “Lao Country.”

History

Prehistory and early history

In prehistory and early history, Laos has evidence of human occupation dating back thousands of years. In 2009, an ancient human skull was discovered in the Tam Pa Ling Cave, which is located in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos. This skull, estimated to be at least 46,000 years old, is the oldest modern human fossil found in Southeast Asia to date.

Archaeological findings have also revealed the presence of stone artifacts, including Hoabinhian types, indicating human activity during the Late Pleistocene period in northern Laos.

Around the 4th millennium BC, there is evidence of the development of an agriculturist society in Laos. Burial jars and other types of sepulchers suggest the existence of a complex society, with the appearance of bronze objects around 1500 BC and knowledge of iron tools by 700 BC.

During the proto-historic period, Laos had contact with Chinese and Indian civilizations. Linguistic and historical evidence suggests that Tai-speaking tribes migrated southwestward from Guangxi to the modern territories of Laos and Thailand sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries.

Lan Xang

Laos has its roots in the kingdom of Lan Xang, meaning ‘million elephants,’ which was established in the 13th century by a Lao prince named Fa Ngum. Fa Ngum’s family had been exiled from the Khmer Empire, and with the support of 10,000 Khmer troops, he conquered various Lao principalities in the Mekong river basin, including Vientiane, making it the capital. Fa Ngum belonged to a lineage of Lao kings tracing back to Khoun Boulom. During his reign, he adopted Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, and Lan Xang flourished.

However, due to his ruthless rule, Fa Ngum was eventually forced into exile in present-day Nan province in Thailand, where he passed away in 1373. His eldest son, Oun Heuan, succeeded him and ruled as King Samsenethai for 43 years. Lan Xang became an important trade hub during Samsenethai’s reign. However, after his death in 1421, the kingdom fell into a period of internal strife and division that lasted for almost a century.

In 1520, Photisarath ascended the throne and moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane to protect against a Burmese invasion. Setthathirath became king in 1548 after his father’s death and ordered the construction of the iconic symbol of Laos, That Luang. However, Setthathirath disappeared during a military expedition to Cambodia, leading to a period of instability, with Burmese invasions and civil war plaguing Lan Xang for over seventy years.

In 1637, Sourigna Vongsa became king and expanded Lan Xang’s frontiers. His reign is often considered Laos’s golden age. However, after his death without a successor, the kingdom split into three principalities. Between 1763 and 1769, Burmese armies invaded northern Laos and annexed Luang Prabang, while Champasak came under Siamese control.

Chao Anouvong was appointed as a vassal king of Vientiane by the Siamese. He encouraged the revival of Lao arts and literature and improved relations with Luang Phrabang. However, under pressure from the Vietnamese, he rebelled against the Siamese in 1826, resulting in the sacking of Vientiane. Anouvong was captured and taken as a prisoner to Bangkok, where he eventually died.

During the pre-modern period, warfare in Southeast Asia often revolved around the capture of people and resources from enemies. In 1876, a Siamese military campaign in Laos was described by a British observer as transformed into large-scale slave-hunting raids.

Please note that while the information provided is based on historical records, perspectives on historical events can vary, and additional research from various sources is recommended for a comprehensive understanding.

French Laos (1893–1953)

In the late 19th century, the Chinese Black Flag Army raided and ransacked Luang Prabang. King Oun Kham was rescued by France, and Luang Prabang was placed under the protection of French Indochina. Subsequently, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were also incorporated into the French protectorate. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Phrabang became the ruler of a unified Laos, with Vientiane reinstated as the capital. However, Laos held little significance for France, serving primarily as a buffer state between Thailand and the more economically important regions of Annam and Tonkin.

Although Laos produced tin, rubber, and coffee, it accounted for only a small fraction of French Indochina’s exports. By 1940, approximately 600 French citizens resided in Laos. Under French rule, the migration of Vietnamese to Laos was encouraged as a solution to a labor shortage in the wider Indochina colonial space. By 1943, the Vietnamese population had reached nearly 40,000, constituting the majority in major Laotian cities and having the right to elect their own leaders. Vietnamese made up 53% of the population in Vientiane, 85% in Thakhek, and 62% in Pakse. The exception was Luang Prabang, where the population was predominantly Lao. The French had developed a plan to relocate a significant Vietnamese population to key areas of Laos, but this was disrupted by the Japanese invasion of Indochina in 1945. Otherwise, the Lao people might have lost control over their own country.

During World War II, Laos was occupied by Vichy France, Thailand, Imperial Japan, and Free France. In March 1945, a nationalist group declared Laos independent with Luang Prabang as its capital. However, in April 1945, Japanese troops occupied the city and attempted to coerce King Sisavang Vong to declare Laotian independence. Instead, the king ended Laos’s status as a French protectorate. The king secretly sent representatives to both the Allied forces and the Japanese. After Japan’s surrender, some Lao nationalists declared independence, but French troops reoccupied the country by early 1946 and granted limited autonomy to Laos.

During the First Indochina War, the Pathet Lao independence organization, affiliated with the Indochinese Communist Party, emerged. The Pathet Lao, with support from the Vietnamese independence organization Viet Minh, waged war against French colonial forces. In 1950, the French granted Laos semi-autonomy as an “associated state” within the French Union. De facto control remained with France until October 22, 1953, when Laos achieved full independence as a constitutional monarchy.

Independence and Communist rule (1953–present)

The First Indochina War had a significant impact on Laos, leading to the signing of a peace accord for Laos at the Geneva Conference in 1954. However, in 1960, a series of rebellions erupted in the Kingdom of Laos, triggering a conflict between the Royal Lao Army and the communist-backed Pathet Lao guerillas, supported by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Despite attempts at forming a Provisional Government of National Unity, the situation deteriorated into a large-scale civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao received military support from the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Viet Cong.

Laos played a significant role in the Vietnam War as parts of its territory were invaded and occupied by North Vietnam, which used them as a supply route for its war against South Vietnam. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against PAVN positions, supported anti-communist forces in Laos, and launched incursions into Laos with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

In 1968, the PAVN launched a major attack, resulting in the demobilization of the Royal Lao Army. The conflict then relied on irregular ethnic Hmong forces of the “Secret Army,” led by General Vang Pao and backed by the United States and Thailand.

To prevent the collapse of the Royal Lao government and deny the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the United States carried out massive aerial bombardments against PAVN/Pathet Lao forces. Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped approximately two million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country in history relative to its population. This left a devastating legacy, with an estimated 80 million unexploded bombs remaining scattered throughout the country, posing a significant risk to the population.

In 1975, the Pathet Lao overthrew the royalist government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate. The Pathet Lao government, led by Kaysone Phomvihane, renamed the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Vietnam was granted the right to station armed forces and appoint advisers in Laos, solidifying the close ties between the two countries. Laos faced isolation in trade due to its decision to sever ties with the People’s Republic of China at Vietnam’s request.

The conflict between Hmong rebels and the government continued in various parts of Laos, and the United States resettled a significant number of Lao refugees, including many Hmong, from Thailand between 1975 and 1996.

On December 3, 2021, the Boten-Vientiane railway, a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was opened, connecting the northern town of Boten to the capital city, Vientiane.

Geography

Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, situated between latitudes 14° and 23°N and longitudes 100° and 108°E. Its terrain is predominantly composed of thick forests, rugged mountains, some plains, and plateaus. The highest peak in Laos is Phou Bia, reaching 2,818 meters (9,245 feet) in height. The Mekong River forms a significant portion of its western border with Thailand, while the Annamite Range marks most of the eastern border with Vietnam and the Luang Prabang Range serves as the northwestern boundary with the Thai highlands. There are two notable plateaus: Xiangkhoang in the north and the Bolaven Plateau in the south. Geographically, Laos can be divided into three main regions: the north, central, and south.

In terms of conservation efforts, the Laos government allocated 21% of the country’s land area for habitat preservation and conservation in 1993. Laos is one of the four countries in the “Golden Triangle,” a region known for opium poppy cultivation. However, according to a UNODC report in October 2007, the poppy cultivation area in Laos was reduced to 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles) from 18 square kilometers (6.9 square miles) in 2006.

Climate

The climate in Laos is predominantly tropical savanna and is strongly influenced by the monsoon pattern. It experiences a distinct rainy season from May to October, followed by a dry season from November to April. According to local tradition, there are three seasons: rainy, cool, and hot. The latter two months of the dry season are notably hotter than the earlier four months.

Administrative divisions

Laos is divided into 17 provinces (khoueng) and one prefecture (kampheng nakhon), which includes the capital city Vientiane (Nakhon Louang Viangchan). Additionally, a new province called Xaisomboun province was established on 13 December 2013. The provinces are further divided into districts (muang) and then villages (ban). In Laos, an “urban” village is essentially a town.

Prime_Minister_Narendra_Modi_and_ASEAN_heads_of_state_and_government_at_the_Rashtrapati_Bhavan_in_New_Delhi
Prime_Minister_Narendra_Modi_and_ASEAN_heads_of_state_and_government_at_the_Rashtrapati_Bhavan_in_New_Delhi

Government and politics Update 06/20/2024 

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is one of the few openly socialist states that endorse communism. The only legally recognized political party in Laos is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP).

Government and politics
Government and politics

As a one-party state, the General Secretary, who serves as the party leader, holds ultimate power and authority over the state and government, effectively serving as the supreme leader.

As of 22 March 2021, the head of state is President Thongloun Sisoulith, who has been the General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since January 2021. The current head of government is Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone. Government policies are determined by the party through the eleven-member Politburo of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and the 61-member Central Committee of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

Laos adopted its first French-written and monarchical constitution on 11 May 1947, declaring itself an independent state within the French Union. The revised constitution of 11 May 1957 removed reference to the French Union, although close educational, health, and technical ties with France persisted. In December 1975, the 1957 constitution was abolished when a communist people’s republic was proclaimed. A new constitution was adopted in 1991, which enshrined a “leading role” for the LPRP.

Foreign relations

After the Pathet Lao takeover in December 1975, Laos adopted a hostile stance towards the West in its foreign relations. The government of the Lao PDR aligned itself with the Soviet Bloc and maintained close ties with the Soviet Union, relying heavily on Soviet assistance. Laos also developed a strong relationship with Vietnam and formalized a treaty of friendship and cooperation in 1977, which created tensions with China.

However, in recent years, Laos has emerged from international isolation and expanded its relations with various countries. It has improved ties with Russia, China, Thailand, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland. Trade relations with the United States were normalized in November 2004 through approved legislation by the US Congress. Laos became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1997 and joined the World Trade Organization in 2016. In 2005, Laos attended the inaugural East Asia Summit, demonstrating its increased engagement in regional and international forums.

Military

On May 17, 2014, a tragic incident occurred when a plane carrying Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Douangchay Phichit and other high-ranking officials crashed. The officials were en route to a ceremony commemorating the liberation of the Plain of Jars from the former Royal Lao government forces. The crash took place in Xiangkhouang Province, and the Russian-built Antonov AN 74-300 aircraft was carrying a total of 20 people on board. This unfortunate event resulted in the loss of several prominent figures in Laos.

Hmong conflict Update 06/20/2024 

During the Laotian Civil War, some Hmong groups fought alongside the CIA-backed units on the royalist side. However, after the Pathet Lao took control of the country in 1975, the conflict continued in isolated pockets. The new communist government vowed to hunt down the “American collaborators” and their families. As a result, many Hmong people, estimated to be around 200,000, fled to Thailand, with a significant number eventually resettling in the United States. Some Hmong fighters remained in hiding in the mountains of Xiangkhouang Province for several years, and a small group emerged from the jungle in 2003.

In 1989, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) implemented the Comprehensive Plan of Action, which aimed to address the issue of Indochinese refugees from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Under this plan, refugees were screened, and recognized asylum seekers were given opportunities for resettlement, while others were to be repatriated under the guarantee of safety. Laos agreed to repatriate the Lao refugees living in Thailand, including thousands of Hmong people. However, only a few of the Lao refugees voluntarily returned to Laos, and there were allegations of forced repatriation.

The pressure to resettle the refugees grew as Thailand sought to close its remaining refugee camps. While some Hmong individuals returned to Laos with the assistance of UNHCR, reports of discrimination and mistreatment by Lao authorities led to concerns. In 1993, a prominent Hmong leader, Vue Mai, who had been recruited by the US Embassy to showcase the success of the repatriation program, disappeared in Vientiane after being arrested by Lao security forces.

The issue of Hmong repatriation to Laos sparked intense debate, particularly in the United States, where it faced strong opposition from American conservatives and human rights advocates. Congressional hearings were held to investigate the alleged persecution of the Hmong in Laos, and the opposition to repatriation grew. Some Hmong refugees refused to return to Laos, and in 1996, the United States agreed to resettle Hmong refugees who passed a new screening process.

Despite denials of forced repatriation, thousands of Hmong people remained reluctant to return. Some sought asylum at Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, while others fled to different parts of Thailand. In 2003, the United States agreed to accept 15,000 of the Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabok. However, several thousand Hmong individuals continued to live in Thailand, fearing forced repatriation to Laos.

Filmmaker Rebecca Sommer documented firsthand accounts of the Hmong’s plight in her documentary “Hunted Like Animals,” which highlighted the alleged persecution faced by the Hmong in Laos. The European Union, UNHCHR, and various international groups raised concerns about the forced repatriation. Plans for resettling Hmong refugees in the United States were complicated by provisions in the Patriot Act and Real ID Act, which classified some Hmong veterans as terrorists due to their involvement in past armed conflicts.

Human rights

Human rights violations continue to be a significant concern in Laos. Various reports and organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders, and the US State Department, have documented serious human rights abuses in the country. The government of Laos often disregards its own constitution and the rule of law, as the judiciary and judges are appointed by the ruling communist party.

Despite the Constitution of Laos containing provisions for human rights safeguards, such as equality between ethnic groups, gender equality, freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, the government frequently violates these rights. Amnesty International has expressed concerns about the government’s poor record on human rights standards and its lack of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms. Issues such as arbitrary detentions, disappearances, restrictions on free speech, prison abuses, and other violations persist.

In October 1999, a group of young people were arrested for attempting to display posters advocating peaceful economic, political, and social change in Laos. Some of them were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison on charges of treason. Reports suggest that their whereabouts remain unknown. Other cases of human rights abuses, including restrictions on freedom of expression, poor prison conditions, limitations on religious freedom, treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, and the use of the death penalty, have also been highlighted.

There have been reports of human rights abuses against specific groups, such as the Hmong minority and Christian believers. In 2011, allegations were made that Laos and Vietnamese troops raped and killed four Christian Hmong women in Xiangkhouang Province. Human rights advocates have raised concerns about torture, arrest and detention of political prisoners, as well as the treatment of foreign prisoners in Laos, including at Phonthong Prison in Vientiane.

Estimates suggest that around 300,000 people fled to Thailand as a result of government repression, including approximately 100,000 Hmong individuals, which represents about 30% of the Hmong population, as well as a significant number of Lao intellectuals, specialists, and officials. The civil war in Laos is believed to have caused around 130,000 deaths. Laos is also known as a source country for human trafficking, particularly in the sex trafficking of women and girls from various ethnic groups, as well as foreigners.

Economy

The Lao economy relies heavily on investment and trade with neighboring countries, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Cross-border trade, especially with Thailand and Vietnam, has contributed to the growth of cities like Pakxe. In 2009, the US government declared Laos was no longer a Marxist-Leninist state and lifted bans on Laotian companies receiving financing from the US Export-Import Bank, despite the country still officially being communist.

China has been the largest foreign investor in Laos since 1989, having invested over US$5.395 billion. Thailand and Vietnam are the second and third largest investors, respectively, with investments of US$4.489 billion and US$3.108 billion. Laos also receives development aid from international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, as well as foreign direct investment for various sectors such as society, industry, hydropower, and mining, including copper and gold.

Subsistence agriculture remains a significant part of the economy, contributing to half of the GDP and employing 80% of the population. However, arable land accounts for only 4% of the country’s total land area, with only 0.3% being used as permanent crop land. Rice cultivation dominates agriculture, utilizing around 80% of the arable land. The Lao government has been collaborating with the International Rice Research Institute to collect seed samples of the numerous rice varieties found in the country.

Laos possesses abundant mineral resources and imports petroleum and gas. Metallurgy is an important industry, and the government aims to attract foreign investment for the development of coal, gold, bauxite, tin, copper, and other valuable metals. The mining sector has attracted significant foreign direct investments, with over 540 mineral deposits identified and explored.

The country’s water resources and mountainous terrain make it capable of producing and exporting large amounts of hydroelectric energy. Of the potential capacity of approximately 18,000 megawatts, around 8,000 megawatts have been committed for export to Thailand and Vietnam. However, as of 2021, Laos continues to rely on fossil fuels, particularly coal, for domestic electricity production, despite the availability of cheap hydroelectric power.

In terms of development indicators, Laos ranked 139th on the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2018, indicating medium development. The country also faces challenges in terms of hunger, as it ranks as the 36th hungriest nation according to the Global Hunger Index. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights conducted an official visit to Laos in 2019 and highlighted concerns about the country’s top-down approach to economic growth and poverty alleviation, which can lead to impoverishment and jeopardize the rights of the poor and marginalized.

One of Laos’s most well-known products is Beerlao, which is exported to more than 20 countries worldwide. It is produced by the Lao Brewery Company.

Tourism

The tourism sector in Laos has experienced rapid growth over the years. The number of international visitors increased from 80,000 in 1990 to 1.876 million in 2010. It was expected that tourism would contribute to an estimated US$1.5857 billion by 2020. In 2010, one out of every 11 jobs was in the tourism sector. The export earnings from international visitors and tourism goods were projected to generate 16% of total exports, amounting to US$270.3 million in 2010 and growing to US$484.2 million (12.5% of the total) by 2020.

The tourism sector in Laos has been recognized internationally, and the country has received accolades such as the “World Best Tourist Destination” designation for 2013 by the European Council on Trade and Tourism, specifically for its architecture and history. Luang Prabang and Vat Phou are UNESCO World Heritage sites, attracting tourists from around the globe.

Laos celebrates major festivals, including the Lao New Year, which takes place around 13-15 April. The New Year festivities often involve a water festival, similar but more subdued than those in neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

To support the sustainable development of tourism, the Lao National Tourism Administration, along with other government agencies and the private sector, are working together. They aim to realize the vision outlined in the country’s National Ecotourism Strategy and Action Plan. The goals include minimizing the environmental and cultural impact of tourism, raising awareness about the importance of ethnic groups and biological diversity, generating income to conserve and manage protected areas and cultural heritage sites, and implementing tourism zoning and management plans for ecotourism destinations.

Infrastructure

Laos has several international airports, including Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Luang Prabang International Airport, and Pakse International Airport, which also serves a few international flights. The national carrier is Lao Airlines, and other airlines such as Bangkok Airways, Vietnam Airlines, AirAsia, Thai Airways, and China Eastern Airlines also serve the country.

Due to its mountainous geography, the development of ground transportation in Laos has faced challenges. However, there have been recent advancements. In 2009, a short 3-km long railway line connecting southern Vientiane to Thailand was opened. A significant breakthrough occurred in December 2021 with the opening of the 414-km long Boten–Vientiane railway, built as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This railway connects the capital Vientiane to Boten at the northern border with China. Additionally, there are plans for two new railway lines connecting Laos with Vietnam: the Vientiane–Vũng Áng and Savannakhet–Lao Bao railways. These developments align with the Laotian government’s vision of becoming a land-linked nation.

In terms of road transportation, major roads connecting urban centers, especially Route 13, have undergone significant upgrades in recent years. The Vientiane–Boten Expressway, Laos’s first expressway, runs parallel to Route 13 and the Boten–Vientiane railway. The first section, from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, opened in 2020, and other sections are currently under construction. However, it’s important to note that some villages located far from major roads can only be accessed through unpaved roads, which may not be accessible year-round.

Laos has limited external and internal telecommunication infrastructure, but mobile phones have become widely used. Approximately 93% of households have a telephone, either fixed line or mobile. Electricity is available to 93% of the population. Songthaews, a type of passenger vehicle, are commonly used for long-distance and local public transport in the country.

Water supply

According to World Bank data from 2014, Laos has achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets for water and sanitation set by the UNICEF/WHO Joint Monitoring Programme. However, as of 2018, there were still around 1.9 million people in Laos who did not have access to an improved water supply, and approximately 2.4 million people without access to improved sanitation.

Laos has made significant progress in increasing access to sanitation, especially considering its predominantly rural population. In 1990, only 8% of the rural population had access to improved sanitation. However, access to improved sanitation rose rapidly, reaching 10% in 1995 and 38% in 2008. During the period between 1995 and 2008, approximately 1,232,900 more people in rural areas gained access to improved sanitation. This progress is noteworthy when compared to similar developing countries.

To address the challenges of investing in sanitation in rural areas, the authorities in Laos have developed an innovative regulatory framework for public-private partnership contracts with small enterprises. This framework complements the conventional regulation of state-owned water enterprises, aiming to improve access to sanitation services for the population.

It’s important to note that the data mentioned here is from 2014 and 2018, and there may have been further developments and progress in the water and sanitation sector in Laos since then.

Demographics

You are correct that the term “Laotian” can have a political connotation and refers to the political citizenship of individuals within Laos, encompassing both ethnic Lao and non-ethnic Lao groups. It does not specifically pertain to the Lao language, ethnic Lao people, or their customs.

Laos has a relatively young population, with a median age of 21.6 years, making it the country with the youngest population in Asia as of the available data. The population of Laos was estimated to be around 7.45 million in 2020, and it is distributed unevenly across the country. The majority of the population resides in the valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. Vientiane prefecture, which serves as the capital and largest city of Laos, had approximately 683,000 residents in 2020.

It’s important to note that population figures and demographics may vary over time, and the information provided here is based on the available data at the time.

Ethnicity

The population of Laos can be categorized based on their distribution by elevation, which somewhat correlates with ethnic groupings. The majority of the population, more than half, consists of ethnic Lao people who reside in the lowlands. The Lao people belong to the Tai linguistic group and have been migrating south from China since the first millennium CE. Together with other “lowland” groups, they form the Lao Loum, which refers to the lowland people in Laos.

In the central and southern mountainous regions, there are Mon-Khmer-speaking groups known as Lao Theung or mid-slope Laotians. They are sometimes referred to as Khmu, Khamu, or Kha, indicating their Austroasiatic language affiliation. However, the latter term is considered pejorative. The Lao Theung were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. There are also minority populations of Vietnamese, Laotian Chinese, and Thai people, particularly in urban areas. Many of them left Laos after independence in the late 1940s, relocating to Vietnam, Hong Kong, or France. The Lao Theung constitute approximately 30% of the population.

In addition, there are hill people and minority cultures in Laos, including the Hmong, Yao (Mien), Dao, Shan, and various Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups. These communities have lived in isolated regions of Laos for a long time. The northern part of Laos is home to mountain/hill tribes with mixed ethno-cultural-linguistic backgrounds, such as the Lua and Khmu people, who are indigenous to Laos. Collectively, these groups are known as Lao Soung or highland Laotians. Lao Soung people make up about 10% of the population.

It’s important to note that these ethnic groupings and their percentages may vary, and the information provided here is a general overview.

Languages

The official and majority language of Laos is Lao, which belongs to the Tai-Kadai language family. However, slightly more than half of the population speaks Lao as their native language.

In rural areas, particularly among ethnic minority communities, people speak their own languages. Some of these languages include Khmu (Austroasiatic) and Hmong (Hmong-Mien), which are spoken in the midland and highland regions. In areas with a high prevalence of congenital deafness, various Laotian sign languages are used.

French also holds significance in government and commerce in Laos, and the country is a member of the French-speaking organization La Francophonie. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 173,800 French speakers in Laos. The decline of the French language in Laos occurred at a slower pace compared to Vietnam and Cambodia due to the close political relations between the Lao monarchy and France. However, with the onset of the Secret War and political factions emerging, the use of Lao as the sole language in areas held by the communist Pathet Lao increased, and French began to decline. Many French-educated and elite Lao individuals immigrated to countries like the United States and France to escape government persecution. In the early 1990s, with the end of isolationism, the French language experienced a revival in Laos due to the establishment of relations with French-speaking countries and the opening of French-language centers. Today, French has a stronger presence in Laos compared to other Francophone nations in Asia. It is taught in schools, used in public works, and serves as a language of diplomacy, the elite classes, higher professions, and the elderly.

English, as the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has seen increased popularity in recent years and is being studied more widely in Laos.

Religion

As of 2010, approximately 66 percent of the population in Laos identified as Theravada Buddhist. Christianity was followed by around 1.5 percent of the population, while the Muslim and Jewish populations each accounted for 0.1 percent.

The remaining 32.3 percent practiced other or traditional religions, with a significant number being practitioners of Satsana Phi, which is a form of traditional animism. Buddhism has had a strong influence on the social fabric of Laos and has peacefully coexisted with local polytheistic beliefs since its introduction to the country.

Health Update 06/20/2024 

In 2017, the life expectancy at birth for males in Laos was 62.6 years, while for females it was 66.7 years. The healthy life expectancy, which refers to the number of years a person can expect to live in good health, was 54 years in 2007. The government’s expenditure on health accounts for approximately four percent of the country’s GDP. In 2006, this amounted to about US$18 (PPP) per capita.

Education Update 06/20/2024 

In 2017, the adult literacy rate for women in Laos was 62.9%, while for adult men, it was 78.1%. The net primary enrollment rate, which measures the percentage of children of official primary school age who are enrolled in primary school, was 84% in 2004. The National University of Laos is the public university of the country.

However, Laos faces a brain-drain issue as many educated individuals choose to migrate to developed countries. It is estimated that approximately 37% of educated Laotians live outside of Laos. In terms of innovation, Laos was ranked 117th in the Global Innovation Index in 2021, a slight decline from its ranking of 113th in 2020.

Culture Update 06/20/2024 

Theravada Buddhism has a strong influence on Lao culture and is deeply ingrained in various aspects of the country. This influence can be seen in the language, temples, as well as the arts and literature of Laos. However, it’s important to note that many elements of Lao culture predate the arrival of Buddhism.

Lao music, for example, is characterized by the use of the khaen, a bamboo mouth organ that has ancient origins. The khaen is traditionally played alongside mor lam, the predominant style of Lao folk music.

Sticky rice holds great cultural and religious significance for the Lao people and is a staple food in their diet. It is preferred over jasmine rice, and Laos is believed to be the place of origin for sticky rice cultivation and production. Rice production is accompanied by various traditions and rituals, which differ among different ethnic groups and environments. For instance, Khammu farmers in Luang Prabang plant a specific rice variety called khao kam in small quantities near their houses to honor deceased parents or at the edge of the rice fields to signify the presence of living parents.

The sinh is a traditional garment worn by Lao women in their daily lives. It is a silk skirt that is hand-woven and holds cultural significance. The way the sinh is worn can provide information about the woman’s identity and background.

Cinema Update 06/20/2024 

Since the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) in 1975, there has been a limited number of films produced in Laos. The first feature-length film made after the monarchy was abolished was “Gun Voice from the Plain of Jars” directed by Somchith Pholsena in 1983, although it faced censorship and its release was prevented. It took several more years for commercial feature-length films to emerge, and “Sabaidee Luang Prabang” was one of the first, released in 2008.

There have been notable international productions filmed in Laos as well. The documentary feature film “Blood Road” released in 2017 was predominantly shot and produced in Laos with support from the Lao government. It received recognition, including a News and Documentary Emmy Award in 2018.

Australian filmmaker Kim Mordount directed his first feature film in Laos titled “The Rocket” in 2013. The film featured a Laotian cast speaking their native language and gained attention at international film festivals, winning awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and appearing at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Lao New Wave Cinema, a production company, has contributed to the production of Lao feature films that gained international recognition. “At the Horizon” directed by Anysay Keola was screened at the OzAsia Film Festival, and “Chanthaly” directed by Mattie Do, produced by Lao Art Media, was screened at the 2013 Fantastic Fest.

In 2017, Laos submitted “Dearest Sister” (Lao: ນ້ອງຮັກ), directed by Mattie Do, as its official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 90th Academy Awards (the Oscars). This marked Laos’s first-ever submission for the prestigious award.

Overall, while the production of films in Laos has been relatively limited, there have been notable efforts and achievements in recent years, both in domestic productions and international collaborations.

Festivals Update 06/20/2024 

There are some public holidays, festivities and ceremonies in Laos.

  • Hmong New Year (Nopejao)
  • Bun Pha Wet
  • Magha Puja
  • Chinese New Year
  • Boun Khoun Khao
  • Boun Pimai
  • Visakha Puja
  • Pi Mai/Songkran(Lao New Year)
  • Khao Phansaa
  • Haw Khao Padap Din
  • Awk Phansaa
  • Bun Nam
  • Lao National Day (2 December)

Media Update 06/20/2024 

In Laos, all newspapers are published by the government, including two foreign language papers: the English-language daily Vientiane Times and the French-language weekly Le Rénovateur. The country’s official news agency, Khao San Pathet Lao, publishes English and French versions of its paper. Laos has a total of nine daily newspapers, 90 magazines, 43 radio stations, and 32 TV stations operating nationwide.

It is important to note that the Lao government exercises strict control over media channels in order to prevent criticism of its actions. As a result, there are limited opportunities for independent or critical journalism within the country. The government maintains a tight grip on information dissemination and has been known to take actions against individuals who openly criticize the government. Such actions have included enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and instances of torture.

As of 2011, only two foreign media organizations, Nhân Dân (‘The People’) and the Xinhua News Agency, have been permitted to open offices in Laos. Both of these organizations established bureaus in Vientiane in that year. The control exerted by the Lao government over media outlets contributes to a lack of diverse and independent reporting within the country.

Polygamy

Polygamy is considered a crime in Laos according to the constitution and Family Code, although the penalty for practicing it is relatively minor. The country’s legal framework explicitly prohibits the recognition of polygamous marriages and emphasizes monogamy as the primary form of marriage.

Despite the legal restrictions, polygamy continues to be practiced as a customary tradition among certain groups, notably the Hmong people. As of 2017, approximately 3.5% of women and 2.1% of men between the ages of 15 and 49 were reported to be in polygamous unions.

It is important to note that while polygamy is not legally recognized or widely accepted, its practice among certain cultural and ethnic groups persists in Laos. The overall prevalence of polygamy in the country remains relatively low compared to monogamous unions.

Sport

Muay Lao, the national sport of Laos, is a martial art that bears similarities to Thailand’s muay Thai, Burmese Lethwei, and Cambodian Pradal Serey. It is a form of kickboxing that is widely practiced and cherished in the country.

However, the most popular sport in Laos is association football (soccer). The national football team is a member of the Asian Football Confederation and the ASEAN Football Federation. While the team has not qualified for major tournaments like the FIFA World Cup or the AFC Asian Cup, they have participated in minor competitions such as the AFC Solidarity Cup and the AFF Championship. The Lao League serves as the top professional league for football clubs in Laos, with Lao Army F.C. being the most successful club, having won 8 league titles.

Apart from football, Laos has not traditionally been involved in other team sports. However, in 2017, the country participated in team events at the Southeast Asian Games for the first time. The national basketball team also competed in the 2017 Southeast Asian Games, securing a victory over Myanmar in the eighth-place game.

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