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Geography and Climate

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is centrally located in South-East Asia with a land area of 236,800 square kilometres. With no coastline, it is bordered by China to the north (505 kilometres), Cambodia to the south (435 kilometres), Vietnam to the east (2,069 kilometres), Myanmar to the northwest (236 kilometres), and by Thailand to the west (1,833 kilometres). The Lao People's Democratic Republic is comprised largely of mountains, highlands and plateaus. Despite the assumption that the country is quite small because of its population, the actual land size is equivalent to Great Britain.
About 75 percent of the country is mountainous, and the remaining 25 percent is lowlands adjacent to the Mekong River, which runs for 1,800 kilometres along and within the western border. Geographically the country is located in a warm and humid zone with only two seasons a year. The rainy season, with an average temperature of 27.3 degrees Celsius (May to November), and the dry season, with an average temperature of 24.2 degrees Celsius (December to April).
The Mekong River provides the main transport artery between the north and south, as well as irrigating the fertile flood plains. The country is rich in flora and fauna. About 50 percent of the primary forest is hard wood timber.

 History and Culture

 

 History

The first recorded history of the Lao People's Democratic Republic began with the unification of the country in 1353 by King Fa Ngum. Establishing his capital at Luang Prabang, King Fa Ngum ruled a kingdom called Lane Xang (literally, "Million Elephants") which covered much of what today is Thailand and the Lao People's Democratic Republic. His successors, especially King Setthathirat in the 16th century, established Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country.
In the 18th century, Lane Xang entered a period of decline caused by dynastic struggles and conflicts with Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Vietnam and the Khmer kingdom.
In the 19th century, the Siamese established hegemony over much of what is now the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Late in the century, the French supplanted the Siamese and integrated all of the country into the French Empire as directly ruled provinces, except for Luang Prabang, which was ruled as a protectorate.
The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined much of the present Lao People's Democratic Republic’s boundary with Thailand.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, including what is now the Lao People's Democratic Republic. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang was induced to declare independence from France in 1945, just prior to Japan's surrender. In September 1945, Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free Lao (Lao Issara) banner.
In 1946, French troops re-occupied the country and conferred limited autonomy following elections for a constituent assembly. France formally recognized the country’s independence within the French Union in 1949, and it remained a member of the Union until 1953.
Pro-western governments held power after the 1954 Geneva peace conference until 1957, when the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed. The coalition government collapsed in 1958 amid increased polarization of the political process. Rightist forces took over the government and communist liberation movement (known as the Pathet Lao) resumed in 1959. In 1960, Kong Le seized Vientiane in a coup and demanded the formation of a neutralist government to end the fighting.
This government was led by Souvanna Phouma but was driven from power later that same year by rightist forces under General Phoumi Nosavan. In response, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist movement and began to receive support from the Soviet Union. Phoumi Nosavan's rightist regime received support from the United States of America.
In 1972, the communist people's party renamed itself the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and went on to join a new coalition government, but political struggle between the communists, neutralists and rightists continued. The communist victories in Saigon and Phnom Penh in 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition. On December 2, 1975, the king renounced his throne in the constitutional monarchy and entrusted his power to the Lao people. The LPRP dissolved the coalition cabinet and the communist Lao People's Democratic Republic was established.
The LPRP introduced socialist economic policies soon after taking control of the government, but the economy never became completely socialized. For example, the party leaders initially encouraged the formation of cooperatives in the agriculture sector, but within three years they reversed the policy to allow farmers the option of joining a cooperative or not in the hope of reviving the agriculture sector. A series of economic setbacks in the 1980s eventually led the LPRP to alter its economic course and embark on the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) in 1986. The NEM entailed a shift towards limited market principles, essentially blending socialism with a modicum of a market economy.
Since the introduction of the NEM, the LPRP has pursued a gradual, but steady, move towards a modern market economy. The legal framework for the economy is still in the process of development, but the country has had a constitution since 1991 and one of the most liberal foreign investment laws in South-East Asia.

Culture

The majority of the Lao population are Buddhist (60 percent) which is regarded as the national religion. Laotian values and beliefs are, however, a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism. Several of the hill tribes practice animism, while Islam and Christianity can also be found in small numbers among the hill tribes and others. Many of the traditional values, costumes, and ways of living are still found throughout the country, which combine to create an enchanting and serene place to live.

Population

The population is estimated at 5.1 million people (July 1997), with a growth rate of 2.78 percent. Despite its small size, the population of the country is extremely diverse. In total, the Lao People's Democratic Republic contains 68 ethnic groups based on their linguistic features, and many of the ethnic groups are hill tribes living in the mountain ranges.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is also one of the least densely populated countries in Asia with around 20 people per square kilometre.

 Languages

Linguistically, the population of the Lao People's Democratic Republic may be classified into six broad groups:
• Tai-Lao
This consists of the Phutai, Tai Dam, Tai Jhao, Tai Deng, Tai Neua, Tai Lue, Phuan and Yuan. This group comprises two-thirds of the total population and its oral and written languages are regarded as the official language.
• Mon-Khmer
The Khmu, Lamed, Lavae, So and Makong belong to this group.
• Hmong-Yao
This group consists of the Hmong Khao, Hmong-Lai, Yao, Lantan and Akha. They are scattered throughout the north and the higher altitudes of the central region.
• Tibeto-Burman
The Kho, Khui, Sida, Lolo, Phu Noi and Musir belong to this group.
• Viet-Mon
This group consists largely of the Mon, Tum, Slang, Tree and Nguan.
• Hau (Haw)
This group consists only of the Hau tribe, who live in the northern provinces.
Other languages include French, English, and various ethnic languages.

Government Structure

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is governed by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), which is under the direction of the Party Congress. Election of party leaders occurs every four or five years. The main decision-making body is the Political Bureau (Politburo), which is comprised of nine members and chosen by the Central Committee. The Central Committee contains 49 members.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic adopted its constitution in 1991. The following year elections were held for a new 85-seat National Assembly, with members elected by secret ballot to five-year terms. The assembly, which expanded in 1997 to 99 members and meets once a year, approves all laws, although the executive branch retains the authority to issue binding decrees.
The National Assembly elects the President on the recommendation of the National Assembly Standing Committee. It also elects the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on the recommendation of the President. The Council of Government (Cabinet) is based on the twelve ministries. The next election for the National Assembly is scheduled for December 2002. Other features of the government structure include a judicial branch comprised of district and provincial courts, and a national Supreme Court. The legal system is a mixture of traditional customary law, French legal norms, and socialist practices. The first legal code was not established until 1988, but the foundation of the legal system is the 1991 Constitution.
Administratively, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is divided into 16 provinces, Vientiane prefecture, and one special zone.
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