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By staging a tightly controlled election in February 2002, the ruling Communist party in Laos signaled that it has few plans to loosen its iron-fisted grip over this impoverished Southeast Asian land after more than a quarter-century in power.
This landlocked, mountainous nation won independence 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 so-called neutralist forces in 1960 began waging a three-way civil war.
Amid continued fighting, Laos was drawn into the Vietnam War in 1964, when the United States began bombing North Vietnamese forces operating inside Laos. The Pathet Lao seized power in 1975 shortly after the Communist victory in neighboring Vietnam. The guerrillas set up a one-party Communist state under Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane's Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP).
By the mid-1980s, the Laotian economy was a shambles, reeling under a double blow of the LPRP's central planning and the legacy of civil war. In response, the LPRP in 1986 began freeing prices, encouraging foreign investment, and privatizing farms and some state-owned firms. Partially unshackled, the economy grew by 7 percent a 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. Meanwhile, Kaysone's death in 1992 ushered in a new strongman to lead the country. Veteran revolutionary Khamtay Siphandone, now 78, took the reigns of the all-powerful LPRP and later became state president.
At its seventh party congress in 2001, the LPRP added only a few young faces to its Politburo and Central Committee and did not announce any initiatives to boost the nascent private sector. Many diplomats and other observers had expected the party to launch deeper reforms in an effort to sharpen the economy's competitiveness. The LPRP's lack of zest for deeper change, including privatizing the large, creaking state firms that dominate the economy, reflects the aging leadership's concern that reducing the party's control over the economy could undermine its tight grip on power.
Against this backdrop, the February 2002 parliamentary elections provided little suspense. All but one of the 166 candidates for the National Assembly's 109 seats were LPRP members. In the rugged highlands, several 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. Together with smaller numbers of other ethnic minorities, the hill tribes make up roughly half the population. The politically dominant ethnic Lao Loum make up the remainder.
The economy depends on subsistence agriculture, which accounts for around half of output and provides livelihoods for 80 percent of Laotians. Trade and sales of hydroelectric power to neighboring Thailand are key sources of foreign revenue. The economy, however, has yet to recover from the regional financial crisis that began in 1997. Foreign investors, the majority of whom were Thai, pulled out of Laos in droves and have not returned. In a sign of the economy's fragility, donor aid makes up more than 15 percent of gross domestic product, 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 LPRP sharply 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. The National Assembly merely rubberstamps the party's proposals. The LPRP vets all candidates for assembly elections, which are held once every five years.
Both Laotian forces and Hmong rebels reportedly have committed some politically motivated killings and other human rights abuses relating to the Hmong insurgency. The poorly equipped Hmong rebels have little chance of overthrowing the government, and their goals are not clear. The Hmong and other ethnic minorities face some discrimination in mainstream society and have little input in government decisions on how land is used and natural resources are allocated, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002.
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, is corrupt, and does not ensure citizens' due process," the U.S. State Department report said, but noted that party and government officials appear to exert less influence over the courts than in the past.
Security forces often illegally detain suspects, and some Laotians have spent more than a decade in jail without trial, according to a June report by the human rights group Amnesty International, adding that prisoners sometimes must bribe jail officials to obtain their freedom, even after a court has ordered their release, are routinely tortured, have limited access to health care, and are provided with meager food rations, the report added.
Laotian jails hold several political prisoners. These include two officials from the pre-1975 government and two who served in the present regime before being jailed in 1990 for advocating multiparty politics, according to a U.S. State Department report. In addition, five students who disappeared after they tried to hold an unprecedented pro-democracy protest in 1999 are serving prison terms, Laotian officials conceded to visiting European members of parliament in June; the officials did not reveal the charges or the lengths of the sentences. As of the end of 2001, the government also was holding an estimated 100 to 200 national security suspects, most of them without trials, the U.S. State Department report said.
The government owns all newspapers and broadcast media, and news coverage parrots the party line. The law subjects journalists who do not file "constructive reports," or who attempt to "obstruct" the LPRP's work, to jail terms of from 5 to 15 years. Freedom of the press, as well as free speech in general, is also restricted by broadly drawn criminal laws that forbid inciting disorder, slandering the state, distorting LPRP or state policies, or disseminating information or opinions that weaken the state.
Laotian authorities monitor e-mail, control all domestic Internet service providers, and block access to some political Web sites, the U.S. State Department report said. The number of Laotian Internet users is not known.
Religious freedom is tightly restricted. Several Laotians are serving jail terms for proselytizing or other peaceful religious activities, according to the U.S. State Department report. Besides those formally tried and jailed, dozens of Christians have recently been detained, some for months, the report said, while others reportedly have been barred from worshipping openly or forced to renounce their beliefs.
Officials also prohibit Laotians from printing non-Buddhist religious texts or distributing them outside their congregations and restrict the import of foreign religious texts and materials; some minority religious groups reportedly are also unable to register new congregations or obtain permission to build new places of worship, the U.S. State Department report added.
In a society 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. Officials have, however, permitted some Buddhist 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, though women hold relatively few positions in government and politics, the U.S. State Department report said. The report also stated that Laos is "a source and transit country for trafficking in persons," with rough estimates suggesting that 15,000 to 20,000 Laotian women and girls are trafficked abroad each year for prostitution.
The government recently has scaled back its monitoring of ordinary civilians. The security service, however, still uses a "vast" surveillance network to monitor the personal communications and track the movements of some Laotians, according to the U.S. State Department report. The regime also maintains an informal militia and a sporadically active system of neighborhood and workplace committees that inform on the population, the report added.
Trade unions are state controlled and have little influence. All unions must belong to the official 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 around four-fifths of the workforce, few Laotian workers are unionized. Consistent with its policy of neutralizing trade unions, the regime prohibits nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from having political agendas. However, it permits some professional and socially-oriented NGOs, all of which it controls, to function.