The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
LAOS – DIPLOMACY
On this page:
- Government and Politics
- Foreign Policy and Diplomacy
Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, meaning ‘kingdom of a million elephants’, established in the 14th century under King Fa Ngum. For 200 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. The kingdom saw centuries of gradual decline, halting with the ascension of Sourigna Vongsa in 1637. During his reign Lan Xang expanded frontiers and this period is often regarded as its final golden age. When Vongsa died without an heir, the kingdom split into three principalities: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. Between 1753 and 1769, Burmese armies overran northern Laos and annexed Luang Prabang, while Champasak and Vientiane eventually came under Siamese (Thai) suzerainty. Later, the Lao Rebellion against Siam from 1826 to 1828 failed and resulted in the ransacking of Vientiane.
Following its colonisation of Vietnam, France began to incorporate much of Lao territory into the French colonial empire during the late 19th century. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand. Laos lacked the natural resources, labour force, and coastline of its neighbouring regions – such as Annam and Tonkin – so was never a profitable colony; it never accounted for more than one percent of French Indochina’s exports. Consequently, the kingdom was not as closely administered nor received much investment. French colonial authority was concentrated in southern Laos; even at the height of the colonial period, there were no more than a few hundred French officials present. Under French rule, the Vietnamese were encouraged to migrate to Laos to fill the middle level positions in the civil services and militia.
On 9 March 1945, a nationalist group declared Laos once more independent, with Luang Prabang as its capital, but a month later, on 7 April, two battalions of Japanese troops occupied the city. The Empire of Japan attempted to force Sisavang Vong to declare Laotian independence, yet he simply declared an end to the kingdom’s status as a French protectorate. The King then secretly sent Prince Kindavong to represent Laos to the Allied forces and Prince Sisavong as representative to the Japanese. When Japan surrendered the French re-asserted control of Laos, conferring limited autonomy in the form of a constitutional monarchy and the fledgling Lao Issara (Free Lao) government. Watch the video below to get a quick overview of Laotian history.
Interactions between Laos and France continued well into the mid-20th century. During the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the Pathet Lao (translated to ‘Land of Laos’ or ‘Lao Nation’) was formed; a communist resistance organisation associated with their Vietnamese counterpart, the Viet Minh. These two forces set out to gain independence from the French for their respective countries. In 1950, the French were forced to give Laos semi-autonomy as an ‘associated state’ within the French Union.
Eventually, Laos gained independence from the French on 22 October 1953. At the Geneva Conference of 1954, the representatives of the Laotian government and of Laos's communist army, the Pathet Lao, acted more as observers than participants. As a sort of afterthought, Laos was designated a neutral country with a multi-party coalition government including Pathet Lao members. The Pathet Lao was supposed to disband as a military organisation, but it refused to do so. By the 1960s, outside powers had come to dominate events in Laos, further weakening the Vientiane royalist government’s attempts to maintain neutrality in the Cold War. The country quickly became embroiled in a Civil War (1959 to 1975) that overlapped the Vietnam War, the Indochina Wars, and the Cold War. To learn more about this pivotal conflict on the Indochina Peninsula, check out the Cove’s #KYR Vietnam – Special Issues.
In their fight against North Vietnam, the United States intensely bombed Lao territory to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran from North Vietnam through Laos, ending in South Vietnam. However, the bombing extended well beyond the trail and lasted for nearly a decade (1964 to 1973), leaving permanent craters and unexploded bombs in many rural areas. The aftermath of the wars still directly impacts daily life, and the country continues to rebuild from these events. For more information on the 'Secret War' which overlaid the Laotian Civil War, see the #KYR Laos – Special Issues.
In late 1975, months after the fall of Cambodia and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to the communists, the Pathet Lao came to power in Laos. King Savang Vatthana was forced to abdicate on 2 December (he later died under suspicious circumstances in a re-education camp), ending a six-century-old monarchy. During the 16 years of fighting, anywhere between 20,000 and 62,000 Laotians died. The new leader, Kaysone Phomvihane, proclaimed that Laos' territorial integrity as well as its independence, sovereignty, and solidarity with other new socialist regimes of Indochina, would be defended. Renaming the country as the Laos People’s Democratic Republic. In a demonstration of this determination, Laos fought a border war with Thailand in 1988 and protracted negotiations were necessary to demarcate the border between the two countries. Internally, the regime proved ruthless in stamping out political and armed opposition. Only since the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1986 has the government made some headway in the long and difficult process of improving the lives of Laotian citizens. This gradual return to private enterprise and the liberalisation of foreign investment laws has meant slow development. The following video answers the question: how does Laos exist as a country?
Government and Politics
The Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or LPDR) is one of the world's few socialist states openly endorsing communism. The name Laos originated with the French who coined it in the late 19th century as a convenient way to collectively refer to the various Lao kingdoms. The word is derived from a Chinese word meaning ‘great’ or ‘civilised’. The capital city is in Vientiane (Viangchan) which translates from the Buddhist liturgical language, Pali, to ‘city of sandalwood’.
The only legal political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and the head of state is President Thongloun Sisoulit. Since Laos is considered a one-party Marxism–Leninism communist state, the highest and the most powerful political position is General Secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, not the President. Though usually the LPRP’s General Secretary also assumes the office of President. Sisoulit became General Secretary of the LPRP on 15 January 2021 and was later elected President of Laos on 22 March 2021. The General Secretary controls the Politburo and the Secretariat, Laos' top decision-making bodies, making the officeholder de facto leader of Laos. Government policies are determined by the party through the all-powerful eleven-member Politburo of the LPRP and the 61-member Central Committee of the LPRP.
The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is the only legally recognised political party. They exercise unlimited executive power over the country and make most of the decisions unopposed. The LPRP is backed by the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and received support from the Vietnam’s People’s Army and the Lao People’s Army. The ruling party, a secretive and Leninist political organisation, has sole authority over the government and society of Laos. According to many experts its hold on power remains firm. Despite the existence of internal factions, the Party appears to be united against fundamental political change of democratisation. Laotian politics continues to be characterised by strongmen and secrets. No one outside the inner circle seems to know what is really going on in Laotian politics. For more information on the country’s political system, check out the next video.
The Laotian Prime Minister, who is currently Viphavan Phankham, is head of the government. The National Assembly of Laos (or Sapha Heng Xat) is a unicameral body consisting of 164 seats, with members directly elected in multi-seat constituencies by simple majority vote from candidate lists provided by the LPRP. The National Assembly has six committees through which it performs its duties. These committees include the Law Committee; the Economy, Planning and Finance Committee; the Cultural and Social Committee; the Ethnic Affairs Committee; the National Defence and Security Committee; and the Foreign Affairs Committee. Most of the legislation made by the assembly is under complete influence from the executive branch. Elections and appointments of the president and vice president are conducted by the National Assembly every five years with no term limits. The latest elections were held earlier this year.
The latest revision of the Constitution of the Lao People's Democratic Republic took place in 2015. Although Lao PDR was established in 1975, the task of drafting of a constitution held low priority. It took until 1991 for the formal adoption of the constitution which enshrined a 'leading role' for the LPRP. It now lays out the "two strategic tasks of defending and building the country, especially the undertaking of reforms in order to mobilise the resources within the nation to preserve the people's democratic regime and create conditions to move towards socialism." The civil law system is similar in form to the French. Administration is divided across 17 provinces (khoueng) and one prefecture (kampheng nakhon). To learn more about Laotian leaders’ political vision for the country, watch the video below.
As a traditional society until 1975, Laos was a conservative monarchy dominated by a small number of powerful families with royal pretensions in the royal histories of Champasak (Bassac), Vientiane (Viangchan), and Xiangkhoang (Tran Ninh). They were surrounded by lesser aristocrats from prominent families who in turn became patrons to clients of lower status, thus building a complex network of allegiances. The king reigned from Louangphrabang but did not rule over much of the outlying regions of the country. Although Laos was reorganised as a community ‘people’s democracy’, important vestiges of traditional political and social behaviour remained. The aristocratic families were shorn of their influence, but a new elite with privileged access to the communist roots of power emerged, and clients of lower status have searched them out as patrons. In addition, some of the old families, who had links to the new revolutionary elite, managed to survive and wield significant influence. As newly dominant elites replaced the old, they demanded a similar deference.
In Lao Loum, or lowland Lao, families continue to wield the greatest influence. The power of the central government over the outlying regions has remained tenuous, still relying upon bargains with tribal chieftains to secure the loyalty of their people. Although manifesting many of the characteristics of a traditional Lao monarchy dominated by a lowland Lao Buddhist elite, the country has also exhibited many of the characteristics of other communist regimes. It has shown a similar heavy bureaucratic style, with emphasis within the bureaucracy on political training and long sessions of criticism and self-criticism for its civil servants. Laos imported from its Vietnamese mentor the concept of re-education centres or 'seminar camps,' where, during the early years in power, thousands of former Royal Lao Government (RLG) adversaries were incarcerated. However, this communist overlay on traditional society has been moderated by two important factors: Lao Buddhism and government administrative incompetence in implementing socialist doctrine. Thus, what emerged in Laos has been a system aptly labelled by Prince Souvanna Phouma, former prime minister of the RLG, as "socialisme à la laotienne" which translates into “Lao-style socialism.”
The mélange of traditional politics, accompanied by patron-client relations, with communist-style intra-institutional competition, has produced a unique political culture. Power centres tend to cluster around key personalities, and those in power become targets of opportunity for members of their extended family and friends. Check out the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s informative video to gain a deeper understanding of Laotian politics in practice.
Access the following resources to learn more about the Laotian Government.
- Laotian Times | Laos Elects New President and Prime Minister
- East Asia Forum | Hints at political change in Laos
- ASPI The Strategist | Laos: human rights in the Land of a Million Elephants
- Laotian Times | Lao Civil Servants told to Mind Manners, Stop Abusing Position
- The Business Times | Political stability in Laos holds the key to economic prosperity
Foreign Policy and Diplomacy
Often overlooked in Southeast Asian regional geopolitics is the landlocked country of Lao PDR. Most of its landscape consists of thick forest and rugged mountains, and thus the country has very few areas that can sustain large populations centres. This explains why Laos has a population of only 6.7 million people, which is remarkably smaller when compared to its neighbours. Moreover, the central Government has no real control over the countryside and lacks the funds to invest in infrastructure to unify the nation. This insecurity – in combination with the rugged terrain – has enabled separatist factions from stacking claims on the remote outskirts of the country. In addition, Laos finds itself wedged between three larger neighbours and fears becoming a battleground for larger powers. During the proxy conflict of the Cold War, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than they did Japan and Germany during World War II. Understandably, policymakers in the capital Vientiane are not keen on cooperation with the West.
The foreign relations of Laos have long been defined by its rank in the ‘socialist camp’. After the takeover by the Pathet Lao in December 1975, they were characterised by a hostile posture toward the West, with the government aligning itself with the Soviet bloc; maintaining close ties with the Soviet Union and depending heavily on the Soviets for most of its foreign assistance. Laos also maintained a ‘special relationship’ with Vietnam that created tensions with China. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and with Vietnam's decreased ability to provide assistance, Laos has sought to improve relations with its regional neighbours and has emerged from international isolation through improved and expanded relations with other nations such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, Australia, France, Japan, and Sweden. Trade relations with the United States were normalised in 2004. Laos was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1997 and applied to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1998. In 2005 it attended the inaugural East Asia Summit.
More recently, Laos has turned to China, and much like Cambodia, trade along the Mekong River dominates the economic life in Laos. Narrowly, 27% of its total trade is conducted with China, which is the highest percentage in all of Southeast Asia. Additionally, Beijing is constructing a high-speed railway across Laos which includes 75 tunnels and 167 bridges. The Government in Vientiane claims to follow a policy of neutrality, yet in practice Laos seems to be steadily turning into a Chinese client-state like Cambodia.
Thus, the foreign relations of the Laotians are reflected in their geography – landlocked and narrowly confined by valleys and mountains that support a limited and underwhelming agricultural population exposed to more numerous and productive neighbours. In addition, the lack of national communication and cohesion among various ethnic groups subsisting in the mountains diminishes the strength of Laotian statehood. Its history of invasion and vulnerability as a landlocked country means Vientiane has generated unique relations with its neighbours on the Indochina Peninsula and great powers. To hear from the Laotian Prime Minister on the country’s diplomatic stance at the United Nations, watch the video below.
Vietnam's influence on Laos was determined by economic assistance and ideology as well as by geographical and historical proximity. The two nations fit together, as the leaders liked to say, "like lips and teeth." Vietnam provided landlocked Laos a route to the sea, and the mountainous region of eastern Laos provided Vietnam a forward strategic position for challenging Thai hegemony in the Mekong Valley. In accordance with the organic links between the Vietnamese and Laotian parties that have been acclaimed by the highest party leaders, Laos has been tied more closely to Vietnam than to any other country in modern history. The term 'special relations' (in Lao, khan phoua phan yang phiset) to describe the linkage between the two parties and governments had come into use in late 1973. The Indochinese solidarity in socialist construction continued a few years later in July 1977, when Vientiane and Hanoi signed the twenty-five-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Another element of cooperation involved hundreds of Vietnamese advisers who mentored their Laotian counterparts in virtually all the ministries in Vientiane. Hundreds of LPRP stalwarts and technicians studied in institutes of Marxism-Leninism or technical schools in Hanoi. They also agreed to redefine their common border, which was demarcated in 1986. In early 1989, the Vietnamese troops that had been stationed in Laos continuously since 1961 were reported to have been withdrawn.
Since 1989, Laotian foreign policy has veered back toward more independence, in relinquishing both Marxist-Leninist ideology and the special influence of Vietnam. Lao struck out ahead with its New Economic Mechanism and opened the door to rapprochement with Thailand and China. Thus, Vietnam remains in the shadows as a mentor and emergency ally, while the tutelage of Laos has shifted dramatically to development banks and international entrepreneurs.
In the 18th century, Thailand (formerly Siam Kingdom) invaded the Laos Kingdoms. The territory endured a massive loss of resources, people, artistic knowledge, and land. Moreover, Laos was portrayed by some Thai as a low-class society. These became causes of tension between the two countries that still persists today. Nonetheless, the current relationship between the two countries has become friendlier. Because the rugged Annamite Mountains separate the Mekong Valley from Vietnamese population centres to the east, physical communication with the Thai nation to the west has always been easier – aided by similarities between the languages and mass consumption of Thai media by the Laotian population.
Neighbouring Thailand became by far the largest source of foreign investment. In 1994, the Friendship Bridge (paid for by the Australian Government) opened between Thailand and Laos across the Mekong River at Vientiane. Paving the way for greater trade between the two countries and symbolising a political realignment for Laos away from its colonial and Cold War ally Vietnam. A second bridge across the Mekong between the two countries, farther downstream, officially opened in 2006.
The exodus of tens of thousands of middle-class lowland Lao and mountain dwelling Hmong across the Mekong into Thailand created a tense border that Thailand preferred to close off to commerce of any kind. However, future Laotian-Thai relations have a clear, visible path toward mutually beneficial trade and investment, which need not be obscured by refugees or economic migrants, by one-sided economic dealings of an exploitative kind, or by inflamed border disputes. An improved trade relationship has been achieved in spite of past feelings of superiority or victimisation, and growing interdependence may make the path easier to follow.
Relations with China have traditionally consisted of trade and aid, largely in road construction in the northern provinces of Laos, without directly challenging the interests of Thailand or Vietnam in the central and southern regions. In late 1978, China conducted an invasion of Vietnam – approximately 19 kilometres deep – in response to Vietnam's military intervention in Cambodia. Laos was caught in a dangerous bind: not wanting to further provoke Beijing, but not able to oppose its special partner Hanoi. The Laotian leadership survived the dilemma by making slightly delayed pronouncements in support of Vietnam after some intraparty debate and by sharply reducing diplomatic relations with China to the chargé d'affaires level without a full break.
Vietnam and China are competing to exploit the LPDR's strategic and economic assets. Hanoi's influence on Laos remains strong, particularly in political and military affairs and among the Revolutionary Party's old guard, yet Beijing's influence is growing. Since the late 1990s, China has provided Laos with critical grants, low-interest loans, technical assistance, foreign investment, and high-profile development projects.
Unlike its other neighbours, China has not historically dominated the Laotians. Sino-Laotian relations gradually developed: party-to-party relationships were normalised, trade expanded, and a common border delineated in 1992. Now, Loa PDR is one of China's most trusted regional allies and Chinese influence is likely to grow even more as the country becomes increasingly reliant on Beijing. What distinguishes Lao PDR's embrace of China is that it is more 'even-handed' in its approach. In June 2020, Laos was one of 53 countries that backed the Hong Kong National Security Law at the United Nations. For a brief look into Sino-Laos contemporary relations, check out the following headlines.
Lao foreign policy was dramatically redefined in the 1990s after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Ideology shifted away from relentless Marxism-Leninism to 'state capitalism' and single party 'democracy.' Such formulations place Laos outside any rigid ideological camp and leave the national agenda open to the general promise of economic development. Officially, the government has dedicated itself to a foreign policy of peace, independence, friendship, and non-alignment, with the instrument for achieving those conditions being the Revolutionary Party.
Laos now has one of the most open foreign policies in the world and is basically on good terms with every nation. The Laotian political leadership has been proficient in balancing friendly relationships with both China and Vietnam, and there is broad consensus that his balance must be maintained. Alongside an agreement that Laos should maintain friendly relations with other ASEAN states, with Japan, and with the West. An example of Lao PDR’s savvy diplomatic choreography is its infrastructure in downtown Vientiane, which boasts an airport built by Japan, a riverbank re-development project undertaken by South Korea and its international conference halls erected by China.
In a display of growing diplomatic maturity as a member of ASEAN, Laos successfully hosted the 10th ASEAN Summit in November 2004 and again in September 2016. However, the enormous Chinese development assistance heading to landlocked Laos has finally shifted their diplomatic alignment. After Phnom Penh, Vientiane is now a second gateway for China into ASEAN and keeps the economic union out of the South China Sea issue. For the rest of the region, the neutrality of the two states is considered little more than a smokescreen.
For more information on Laotian foreign policy, explore the resources below.
- The ASEAN Post | Lao PDR's geopolitical advantage in Southeast Asia
- East Asia Forum | Vietnam’s tug of war with China over Laos
- Laotian Times | Obama’s Laos Visit: Changing History or Asia ‘Pivot’?
- Laotian Times | Lavrov Praises 'Long, Glorious History' of Russian-Laotian Partnership
- Nhan Dan Online | Continuously cultivating the Vietnam-Laos great friendship
- Laotian Times | Asean Summit Provides Platform For Laos’ Revamped Foreign Policy
- The Diplomat | On China's Doorstep, Laos Plays a Careful Game of Balancing
- The Vietnamese and Laotian relationship has been heavily influenced by the actions of foreign powers, most notably French occupation and the Vietnamese war. As these two nations steadily achieve greater influence within the region through greater autonomy and independence, what does that mean for the stability of South-East Asia, especially with regards to the rise of China? What does this mean to the ADFs growing relationship with Vietnam?
- Australia and Laos have a relationship based on various trade and regional matters, and the sale of education through the international student program. What other opportunities are there for the two nations to increase the bilateral relationship, particularly in military training activity?
- Laos is an active member of ASEAN and maintains solid global relationships, with minimal animosity towards any nation. How might some big regional players leverage this foreign policy standing to advance long standing regional problems? What might some of the key indicators of this be? What risk might this pose to regional stability?