Laos - Political background

Like its neighbors, Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos was subjugated to French colonialism in the late nineteenth century. The French saw Laos primarily as an extension of their Vietnam colony. After a period of Japanese occupation during World War II, and the conclusion of the first "Indochina" war, Laos gained its independence in 1953. Gradually Laos was drawn into the vortex of the Cold War, and a struggle developed between the Communist faction, called the Pathet Lao, and the pro-Western regime of the Royal Lao government. In 1957, 1962, and again in 1973, there were unsuccessful attempts to form coalition governments. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Royal Lao government received substantial financial and military assistance from the United States, making Laos a hyper-dependent country. Politics during this period were characterized by chaos, significant infighting among rival factions, and numerous military coups. U.S. military assistance was part of the "secret war in Laos" orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) through front organizations such as Air America. It was not until 1973 that a ceasefire agreement was signed between the Pathet Lao and the government forces of Prince Souvanna Phouma.

The 1975 victories of Communist forces in Vietnam and Cambodia motivated the Pathet Lao to undertake an offensive of its own, eventually seizing all major Laotian cities, including the capital of Vientiane. Basic control was consolidated by August, and on 2 December 1975, the Pathet Lao established the Lao People's Democratic Republic, terminated the coalition government, and abolished the monarchy. Important military and civilian officials were sent to "reeducation" camps. Those involved in the "secret war" and closely associated with the U.S. government or CIA suffered the most in such camps.

In the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the National Assembly officially acts as a principal lawmaking body. With a membership of 99, it determines major national laws and appoints the Council of Ministers and president. Assembly members are elected from the various areas of the country. There are 12 ministries, including education, interior, finance, and agriculture. The Council of Ministers is led by its chairperson, who also assumes the title of premier. Under the premier there are five vice-premiers. They assist the premier in five key realms of government: economy; health, education and culture; defense; foreign affairs; and national development planning.

Any discussion of Lao politics would be incomplete without describing the critically important role of the Lao Communist Party, the country's only legal political group, known formally as the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). It dominates Lao politics, and opportunities for advancement are highly dependent on one's ranking within the party. Unlike the money politics of many neighboring countries, political success in Laos is highly dependent upon loyalty to the party and its ideology. Under this system, minorities and those of humble background have been able to attain high-ranking positions in the party.

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