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Signaling its intent to move slowly on market reforms, Laos's ruling party used its March 2001 party congress to bolster the standing of President Khamtay Siphandon and other hardliners, while offering no fresh initiatives to speed up the Communist country's halting transition to a market economy. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party's (LPRP) lack of zest for deeper reforms, including privatizing the large state enterprises that dominate the economy, reflects its concern that boosting the private sector could undermine the party's tight grip on power by reducing its control over the economy. Meanwhile, ethnic Hmong rebels in the rugged northern highlands appeared to pull back in 2001 after stepping up their low-grade insurgency in 2000.
This landlocked, mountainous Southeast Asian nation won independence from Paris in 1953 following six decades as a French protectorate and occupation by the Japanese during World War II. Backed by Vietnam's Viet Minh rebels, Communist Pathet Lao (Land of Lao) guerrillas quickly tried to topple the royalist government in Vientiane. Following several years of political turmoil, Communist, royalist, and neutralist forces in 1960 began fighting a three-way power struggle. Amid its own civil conflict, Laos was drawn into the Vietnam War in 1964, when the United States began bombing North Vietnamese forces operating inside Laos. A 1973 ceasefire left Laos in the hands of a coalition government, but the Pathet Lao seized power in 1975 following the Communist victory in neighboring Vietnam. The guerrillas set up a one-party state under Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane's LPRP.
With Laos's centralized economy a shambles, the LPRP in 1986 began freeing prices, encouraging foreign investment, and privatizing farms and some state-owned enterprises. Partially unshackled, the economy grew by seven percent per year on average from 1988 to 1996. At the same time, the LPRP continued to reject calls for political reforms, jailing two officials in 1990 who called for multiparty elections. Following Kaysone's death in 1992, the party named as LPRP president Khamtay Siphandon, the prime minister and a veteran revolutionary. The party presidency is considered the most powerful post in the country. Khamtay later also became state president.
By the late 1990s, economic growth had slowed and the government's use of central bank financing for irrigation and other public works projects had helped send inflation to triple digits. After the government tightened its fiscal and monetary policies, inflation fell steadily, dropping to 9 percent by February 2001 from a peak of 167 percent in mid-1999.
Prior to the LPRP's seventh congress in 2001, many diplomats and observers expected the party to launch deeper reforms in an effort to sharpen the economy's competitiveness. The LPRP not only failed to announce fresh measures to boost the nascent private sector but also added only a few young faces to its Politburo and central committee. Moreover, Khamtay, 77, retained the party presidency. He is known to oppose more far-reaching economic reforms. Following the congress, the party named Bounnyang Vorachit, the deputy prime minister and the foreign minister, to replace Sisavath Keobounphanh as prime minister.
In the highlands, the Chao Fa and other armed Hmong groups have been waging low-grade insurgencies against the government since the Communist takeover. The Hmong are one of the largest of several upland hill tribes who, together with smaller numbers of non-hill ethnic minorities, make up roughly half the population. Ethnic Lao make up the remainder.
Laos's economy depends on agriculture, which makes up 51 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and trade and sales of hydroelectric power to neighboring Thailand. Most foreign investors, the majority of whom were Thai, pulled out of Laos in the wake of the regional financial crisis that began in 1997 and have not returned. Direct foreign investment approvals declined to $20 million in 2000 from their peak of $2.6 billion in 1995. This has helped make the country more dependent on remittances from Laotians living abroad and on foreign aid. Donor contributions now make up more than 15 percent of GDP, up from 6.25 percent in the mid-1980s, just before Laos began its tentative market reforms.
Laotians cannot change their government through elections, and the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) tightly restricts most basic rights. The 1991 constitution makes the LPRP the sole legal political party and gives it a leading role at all levels of government. Little is known about how President Khamtay and other senior leaders set policy. The 99-member national assembly is a rubber-stamp body that lacks even the power to introduce bills. The LPRP vets all candidates for assembly elections, which are held once every five years, most recently in 1997.
Both Laotian forces and Hmong rebels reportedly have committed human rights abuses relating to the Hmong insurgency. The Chao Fa rebel group killed more than 15 civilians in 2000 in four separate incidents in Vientiane and Xieng Khouang provinces and in Saysomboune Special Zone, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Laos's human rights record in 2000. During counterinsurgency operations in 2000, government troops burned down one village in northern Laos, nearly beat some villagers to death, and brutally beat some suspected insurgents, the report added.
The poorly equipped Hmong rebels have little chance of overthrowing the government, and the goals of their insurgency are not clear. The Hmong and other ethnic minorities face some discrimination in mainstream society and have little input into government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources, the U.S. State Department report said.
Laos's party-controlled courts provide citizens with little means of addressing government human rights abuses and other grievances. The judiciary "is subject to executive influence, suffers from corruption, and does not ensure citizens' due process," according to the U.S. State Department report. The report noted, however, that government and party officials appear to exert less influence over the courts than in the past. Police at times arbitrarily arrest and detain suspects, abuse detainees, and detain defendants who have been cleared by courts, the report also said. In prisons, authorities provide inmates with minimal food and health care and sometimes use "degrading treatment" against prisoners, especially suspected insurgents, according to the report.
There are no accurate figures on the number of Laotian political prisoners, although authorities are holding at least four. Two of them served in the pre-1975 government and two served in the present regime before being detained in 1990 for advocating multiparty politics, the U.S. State Department report said.
The government has in recent years scaled back its monitoring of ordinary civilians. The security service, however, still occasionally searches homes without warrants, monitors some telephone and other personal communications, and maintains a sporadically active system of neighborhood and workplace committees that inform on the population, according to the U.S. State Department report.
The government owns all newspapers and broadcast media and keeps a tight lid on their content. Authorities said in June that they would introduce a new law requiring journalists to slant their news coverage to favor the government, Reuters reported. Current regulations already subject journalists who do not file "constructive reports" or attempt to "obstruct" the LPRP's work to jail terms of between 5 and 15 years. Freedom of the press, and of free speech more generally, are also restricted by penal code provisions that broadly forbid slandering the state, distorting LPRP or state policies, inciting disorder, or disseminating information or opinions that weaken the state.
The government monitors e-mail, controls all domestic Internet servers, and blocks access to some political Web sites, the U.S. State Department report said. The National Internet Control Committee issued sweeping regulations in 2000 that criminalized "disturbing the peace" and "reporting misleading news" over the Internet. The number of Laotian Internet users is not known.
Authorities have in recent years arrested and detained some Laotians based on their religious beliefs, forced some Christians to renounce their beliefs, and closed several churches, according to the U.S. State Department report. They also prohibit Laotians from printing religious texts or distributing them outside congregations and restrict the import of foreign religious texts and materials, the report added. In a country where more than half the population is Buddhist, the LPRP controls the Buddhist clergy. It requires monks to study Marxism-Leninism, attend certain party meetings, and weave party and state policies into their Buddhist teachings. Authorities have, however, permitted some temples to receive support from abroad, expand the training of monks, and emphasize traditional teachings.
Many Laotian women hold important civil service and private sector jobs. On the whole, however, women face some employment discrimination and are underrepresented in government and politics, the U.S. State Department report said. The report also said that Laos is "a source and transit country for trafficking in persons," and that many Laotian women and children are believed to be victims of trafficking.
The regime tightly controls trade unions. The law requires all unions to belong to the party-controlled Federation of Lao Trade Unions, and workers lack the right to bargain collectively. Strikes are not expressly prohibited, but they occur rarely. In any case, with subsistence farmers making up 85 percent of the workforce, few Laotian workers are unionized. Consistent with its policy on trade unions, the government also prohibits nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that have political agendas. However, it permits some professional and social-oriented NGOs to function.