GOVERNMENT, CONSTITUTION AND POLITICS IN LAOS

GOVERNMENT OF LAOS

Laos is one of the last bastions of communism along with Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and China. The country is formally under the control of the Laotian People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Communist Party in Laos is a bit shy about coming across as too overtly Communist. The word “Communism” does not appear on any government documents and there are no statues of Marx or Lenin other than a bust of Lenin in the Lao National History Museum.

Laotian politics is characterized by strongmen and secrets. No one outside the inner circle seems to know what is really going on. One European diplomat told the New York Times, “It’s still vague and murky. That’s my best assessment.” There are no real alternatives to the LPRP. The diploma told the New York Times, “There is nothing to take its place, no civil society, no democratic opposition, nothing. This country is totally repressed.” Additionally, there is no charismatic leader like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyo for local people and the international community to rally around.

Government type: Laos is a Communist state governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. According to the U.S. state department Laos is a "most repressive state" and a "place of unusually harsh government control." The republic democratic people party of Laos came to power in 1975. The executive power is controlled by the president and elected by the national assembly for a 5 year period. The president is assisted by the prime minister who, in turn, is in charge of the ministry council. The legislative power, guarantor of the constitution, is held by the national assembly, which consists of 85 representatives elected by the people for a term of 5 years. The most recent National Assembly (NA) election was held in 2011. The constitution legitimizes only a single party, the LPRP, and almost all candidates in the 2011 election were LPRP members vetted by the party.

According to Lonely Planet: Reforms and new political will are thus both necessary for the country to prosper. The LPRP is now Marxist-Leninist in nothing but name. Rather it exercises a single-party dictatorship, and is becoming increasingly nationalistic. This may appeal to Lowland Lao, but less to the tribal minorities. Care will be needed to maintain social cohesion. It remains to be seen whether the Party has the resourcefulness to meet the challenges ahead. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Flags and Symbols in Laos

Flag: The Laos flag has three horizontal stripes—a red band at top and bottom, with a large blue (double width) band in between—with a white disc at the center. By one account: The red symbolizes courage, and heroisim and the blue represents nationhood. The white circle signifies the light of Communism. According to another rendering: Red symbolises the blood shed for liberation. The blue band represents the Mekong River and prosperity; the white disk symbolizes the full moon against the Mekong River, but also signifies the unity of the people under the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, as well as the country's bright future

The old royalist flag had a three-headed elephant, a symbol of royalty, on it. The Laotian flag is only allowed to be displayed on National Day (December 2nd) when it is sometimes accompanied by a second Laotian flag with a hammer and sickle on it. Many Laotians dutifully hang out hammer-and-sickle banners on national day.

National anthem: name: "Pheng Xat Lao" (Hymn of the Lao People) lyrics/music: Sisana Sisane and Thongdy Sounthonevichit. The music was adopted in 1945; the lyrics in 1975. The anthem's lyrics were changed following the 1975 Communist revolution that overthrew the monarchy. First verse: “For all time the Lao people have glorified their Fatherland, United in heart, spirit and vigour as one. Resolutely moving forwards, Respecting and increasing the dignity of the Lao people And proclaiming the right to be their own masters.”

National symbol: elephant. National holiday: Republic Day, 2 December (1975). National Flower, Dok Champa : You might know the Dok Champa by its other name, the frangipani. This evocative tropical flower, with its sweet romantic fragrance, is seen everywhere from north to south in Laos, most especially decorating the vats and monasteries. You might even receive a string of these white-and-yellow flowers around your neck as a welcoming gesture, or see a bunch of them used to decorate a ceremony, But everywhere the meaning of Dok Champa for Laotians is the same : Joy in life and sincerity.

Names for Laos and the People of Laos

Country name: conventional long form: Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Conventional short form and commonly used in general: Laos. Local long form: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao. Local short form: Pathet Lao (unofficial). Lao is used by Lao people (the 's' is dropped in Lao language). [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

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 “Lao” is derived from a Chinese word meaning “great” or civilized.” The ancient kingdom of Laos was known as Lan Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants). The traditional Lao name for the country is Pathet Lao, meaning “the country of the Lao.” U.S. President John F. Kennedy pronounced the name of the country “Louse.” Many Americans pronounce the name “Lay-os.”

On the use of the terms Lao and Laotian: the term Lao refers to people who are ethnic Lao; it is not used to refer to those living in Laos who are members of other ethnic groups, for example, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Hmong. The term Laotian is used to refer to all the people living in Laos, regardless of ethnic identity. *

In Travels in Indo-China and the Chinese Empire (1867). Louis de Caene wrote: “ It has been predicted that we should spend some months in Laos—a region of evil name, protected by the rocks with which its river bristles, and still more by the miasma exhaled by the sun’s heat, from the curiosity to ambition of its neighbors.” The Lao writer Mayoury Ngaosyvathn said: “For the Lao people, the invisible link with the nation, the nationhood, is inborn and transmitted from generation to generation.

Themes in the History of Laos

Modern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th century under King Fa Ngum. For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand. In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam. A gradual, limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws began in 1988. Laos became a member of ASEAN in 1997 and the WTO in 2013. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The history of Laos has been characterized by 1) the efforts to create first a kingdom and then a nation-state from a jumble of kingdoms, tribes, ethnic groups, family clans, fiefdoms with an area characterized by porous borders and captured, lost and recaptured territory; and 2) the tenacity of the Lao people is the face of waves of invaders and the fractured geography and culture of Laos itself.

Laos has traditionally played the role of a buffer zone between Vietnam, China and Thailand. Northern Laos has traditionally had links with the cultures of peoples of China while southern Laos was more closely linked to cultures in the south like the Khmers. The Lao people are essentially the same ethnic group as the people that live in northeast Thailand. In recent decades Laos has served as buffer between the rival Communist states of Vietnam and China and the capitalist states in Southeast Asia.

Until fairly recently Lao history was passed on from generation to generation by balladeers and monks. The whole concept of Lao nationalism is kind of a novel idea and was not really developed until around the time of World War II and still has not been embraced by Laos’s other ethnic groups.

Brief History of Laos

Historical research shows that the rudimentary structures of a multiethnic state existed before the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the thirteenth century. These prethirteenth-century structures consisted of small confederative communities in river valleys and among the mountain peoples, who found security away from the well-traveled rivers and overland tracks where the institutions and customs of the Laotian people were gradually forged in contact with other peoples of the region. During these centuries, the stirring of migrations as well as religious conflict and syncretism went on more or less continuously. Laos's shortlived vassalage to foreign empires such as the Cham, Khmer, and Sukhothai did nothing to discourage this process of cultural identification and, in fact, favored its shaping. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the thirteenth century--an historically important watershed- -the rulers of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang) constituted a large indigenous kingdom with a hierarchical administration. Even then, migratory and religious crosscurrents never really ceased. The durability of the kingdom itself is attested to by the fact that it lasted within its original borders for almost four centuries. Today, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos) covers only a small portion of the territory of that former kingdom. *

Internecine power struggles caused the splitting up of Lan Xang after 1690, and the Lao and the mountain peoples of the middle Mekong Valley came perilously close to absorption by powerful neighboring rivals, namely Vietnam and Siam (present-day Thailand); China never posed a territorial threat. Only the arrival of the French in the second half of the nineteenth century prevented Laos's political disintegration. In a "conquest of the hearts" (in the words of the explorer and colonist Auguste Pavie)--a singular event in the annals of colonialism in that it did not entail the loss of a single Lao life--France ensured by its actions in 1893 that Laos's separate identity would be preserved into modern times. During the colonial interlude, a few French officials administered what their early cartographers labeled, for want of a better name, "le pays des Laos" (the land of the Lao, hence the name Laos), preserving intact local administrations and the royal house of Louangphrabang. *

However, Laos's incorporation into French Indochina beginning in 1893 brought with it Vietnamese immigration, which was officially encouraged by the French to staff the middle levels of the civil services and militia. During the few months in 1945 when France's power was momentarily eclipsed, the consequences of this Vietnamese presence nearly proved fatal for the fledgling Lao Issara (Free Laos) government. The issue of Vietnamese dominance over Indochina remained alive into the postindependence period with the armed rebellion of the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation), who proclaimed themselves part of an Indochina-wide revolutionary movement. The Royal Lao Government grappled with this problem for ten years but never quite succeeded in integrating the Pathet Lao rebels peacefully into the national fabric. *

By the 1960s, outside powers had come to dominate events in Laos, further weakening the Vientiane government's attempts to maintain neutrality in the Cold War. For one thing, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the most powerful entity left in Indochina by the 1954 Geneva armistice and the exit of France, cast a large shadow over the mountains to the west. Also, the United States, which had exerted strong pressure on France on behalf of the independence of Laos, became involved in a new war against what it regarded as the proxies of the Soviet Union and China. Even then, however, high-level United States officials seemed unsure about Laos's claim to national identity, and Laos became the country where the so-called "secret war" was fought. *

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, proclaiming that Laos's territorial integrity as well as its independence, sovereignty, and solidarity with other new regimes of Indochina, would be defended. 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 bettering the lives of its citizens. *

History of Government in Laos

As a traditional society until 1975, Laos was a conservative monarchy, dominated by a small number of powerful families. In 1975 it was transformed into a communist oligarchy, but its social makeup remained much the same. In the 600-year-old monarchy, the Lao king ruled from Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang), while in other regions there were families with royal pretensions rooted 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In December 1975, with the declaration of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos), the king abdicated. Although Laos was reorganized as a communist "people's democracy," important vestiges of traditional political and social behavior 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. *

Lao Loum, or lowland Lao, families continue to wield the greatest influence. Despite the rhetoric of the revolutionary elite concerning ethnic equality, Lao Theung, or midland Lao, and Lao Sung, or upland Lao, minorities are low on the scale of national influence, just as they were in pre1975 society. However, 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 peoples. *

Although manifesting many of the characteristics of a traditional Lao monarchy dominated by a lowland Lao Buddhist elite, the country has 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 reeducation centers 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 labeled by Prince Souvanna Phouma, former prime minister of the RLG, as "socialisme à la laotienne" (Lao-style socialism). *

The mélange of traditional politics, accompanied by patronclient relations, with communist-style intra-institutional competition, has produced a unique political culture. Power centers tend to cluster around key personalities, and those in power become targets of opportunity for members of their extended family and friends. *

Constitution of Laos

Constitution: promulgated August 14, 1991; amended in 2003. The Constitution was endorsed by the Supreme People’s Assembly on August 14, 1991. Before that the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party operated for 15 years without a constitution.

The constitution Of The Lao People's Democratic Republic Adopted by The 6th Session of the People's Supreme Assembly (2nd Legislature) in Vientiane, August 13-15, 1991. The 1991 constitution, which contains elements of an earlier revolutionary orthodoxy, is clearly influenced by the economic and political liberalization within Laos, as well as by the dramatic changes in the socialist world and the international balance of forces. The constitution specifies the functions and powers of the various organs of government and defines the rights and duties of citizens. Several chapters prescribing the structure of the state define the function and powers of the National Assembly (the renamed SPA), the president, the government, the local administration, and the judicial system. The constitution has little to say, however, about the limitations on government. In foreign policy, the principles of peaceful coexistence are followed. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

On August 14, 1991, sixteen years after the establishment of the LPDR, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the country's highest legislative organ, adopted a constitution. Although the SPA had been charged with drafting a constitution in 1975, the task had low priority. It was not until the Third Party Congress that party Secretary General Kaysone stated that the LPRP should "urgently undertake the major task...of preparing a socialist constitution at an early date." Laotian press reports subsequently revealed that a constitutional drafting committee was working informally under the chairmanship of Politburo member Sisomphone Lovansai, a specialist in party organization, with the help of East German advisers. Despite the proclaimed urgency of the task, only on May 22, 1984, did the SPA Standing Committee formalize the appointment of Sisomphone to head a fifteen-person drafting committee. *

Although the constitution purports to guarantee freedom of speech and petition and its framers give lip service to the desirability of public discussion, the ruling party sent a clear message with these arrests that it will not tolerate challenges to its exclusive exercise of power. Veteran party leaders were clearly more impressed by the political models of Vietnam and China than by the examples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Although willing to experiment with economic liberalization, party leaders seemed determined to retain political domination--if they could-- through a Leninist-style party. *

First 12 Articles of the Constitution of Laos

Article 1. The Lao People's Democratic Republic is an independent country with sovereignty and territorial integrity covering both territorial waters and airspace. It is a unified country belonging to all multi-ethnic people and is indivisible. Article 2. The state of the Lao People's Democratic Republic is a People's Democratic State. All powers are of the people, by the people and for the interests of the multi-ethnic people of all strata in society with the workers, farmers and intellectuals as key components. Article 3. The rights of the multi-ethnic people to be the masters of the country are exercised and ensured through the functioning of the political system with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party as its leading nucleus.

Article 4. The National Assembly is the organisation of the people's representatives. The election of members of the National Assembly shall be carried out through the principles of universal, equal and direct suffrage, and secret balloting. Voters have the right to propose the dismissal of their own representatives if they are found to behave unfit to their honour and to lose the people's confidence. Article 5. The National Assembly and all other state organisations are established and function in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism.

Article 6. The state protects the freedom and democratic rights of the people which cannot be violated by anyone. All state organisations and functionaries must popularise and propagate all policies, regulations and laws among the people and, together with the people, organise their implementations in order to guarantee the legitimate rights and interests of the people. All acts of bureaucratism and harassment that can be physically harmful to the people and detrimental to their honour, lives, consciences and property are prohibited.

Article 7. The Lao Front for National Constitution, the Lao Federation of Trade Union, the Lao People's Revolutionary Youth Union, the Lao Women's Union and other social organisations are the organs to unite and mobilise all strata of the multi-ethnic people for taking part in the tasks of national defence and construction; develop the rights to mastership of the people and protect the legitimate rights and interests of members of their respective organisations.

Article 8. The state pursues the policy of promoting unity and equality among all ethnic groups. All ethnic groups have the rights to protect, preserve, and promote the fine customs and cultures of their own tribes and of the nation. All acts of creating division and discrimination among ethnic groups are prohibited. The state implements every measure to gradually develop and upgrade the levels of socio-economy of all ethnic groups.

Article 9. The state respects and protects all lawful activities of the Buddhists and of other religious followers mobilises and encourages the Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in the activities which are beneficial to the country and people. All acts of creating division of religions and classes of people are prohibited. Article 10. The state manages the society by the provisions of the Constitution and laws. All party and state organisations, mass organisations, social organisations and all citizens must function within the bounds of the Constitution and laws. Article 11. The state implements the policy of national defence and security with the participation of all people in all aspects. The national defence and security forces must enhance their loyalty to the country and people ; carry out the duty to protect the gains of the revolution, the lives, property and labour of the people ; and contribute to the tasks of national development.

Article 12. The Lao People's Democratic Republic pursues the foreign policy of peace, independence, friendship and cooperation; and promotes the relations and cooperation with all countries on the basis of the principles of peaceful coexistence ; respect for - each other's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; non-interference in each other's internal affairs ; equality and mutual interests. The Lao People's Democratic Republic supports the struggle of the world people for peace, national independence, democracy, and social progress.

Creating the Constitution of Laos

Although the political institutions had functioned without a written constitution for fifteen years, the lack of a constitution created serious drawbacks for the country. International development agencies were reluctant to invest in Laos given the absence of a fixed, knowable law. Amnesty International, in a 1985 report on Laos, asserted that without a constitution or published penal and criminal codes, citizens were "effectively denied proper legal guarantees of their internationally recognized human rights." Even the party newspaper, Xieng Pasason (Voice of the People), commenting in June 1990 on the absence of a constitution and a general body of laws, acknowledged that "having no laws is... a source of injustice and violation, thus leading to a breakdown of social order and peace, the breeding of anarchy, and the lack of democracy." [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Reasons for the leisurely pace of constitution drafting, unusually slow even for the plodding bureaucracy, were not readily apparent. Vietnam had adopted a revised constitution in 1980 and Cambodia in 1981, only two years after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge. According to some reports, progress in Laos had been blocked by differences within the Politburo over certain substantive clauses. Perhaps most important, the party leadership, accustomed to rule without question, may have assigned a low priority to producing a document that might eventually lead to challenging their authority, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Further, the public seemed not to care. *

After the new SPA was elected in March 1989, it formally appointed a seventeen-member constitutional drafting committee. The National Radio of Laos reported that the drafting committee was working "under the close supervision of the Political Bureau and the Secretariat of the Party Central Committee." Six members of the drafting committee were members of the Central Committee; two of these members also served on the SPA, which also had six members on the drafting committee. *

In April 1990, after securing approval of its document from the LPRP Politburo and the Secretariat, the SPA finally made public the draft constitution. With its publication, the party Central Committee issued Directive Number 21, on April 30, 1990, calling for discussion of the draft, first among party and government officials and then among the public. The discussions, although orchestrated by party cadres, did not always please party authorities. An LPRP spokesman released a memo complaining that "people in many major towns" had dwelled too much on what the constitution had to say about the organization of the state. In June a member of the Central Committee cautioned against demonstrations to "demand a multiparty system" and warned that demonstrators would be arrested. Competing parties would not be tolerated, he asserted, adding that "our multi-ethnic Lao people have remained faithfully under the leadership of the LPRP." In a later pronouncement, he said that "the Party has proved to the people in the last 35 years that it is the only party that can take care of them" and he lectured that "too many parties invite division." A Central Committee directive, dated June 14, 1990, hinted at the quality of the public discussion, noting that "in many cases where people were convoked to a meeting, they were simply given question and answer sheets to study." *

However, not all discussions of the draft constitution were perfunctory. Undoubtedly inspired by the examples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union--where the monopoly of power by communist parties had crumbled--a group of some forty government officials and intellectuals began criticizing the country's one-party system in a series of letters and meetings in April 1990. Organized in the unofficial "Social Democratic Club," the group called for a multiparty system in Laos. One member of the group, an assistant to the minister of science and technology, submitted a letter of resignation to Prime Minister Kaysone in which he labeled Laos a "communist monarchy" and a "dynasty of the Politburo" declaring that the country should "change into a multi-party system in order to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity to the people." *

Criticism of the draft document gathered strength in the succeeding months; Laotian students in Paris, Prague, and Warsaw joined in the call for free elections. Criticism broadened as a group of young, educated party cadres associated with nonparty bureaucrats--many educated in France and Canada--targeted veteran party leaders. These groups charged that the new policies of the old guard were fostering corruption and increased social and economic inequality. It was not until October 1990 that the government finally cracked down on these calls for democratic reforms, with the arrest of several protesters, including a former vice minister in the State Planning Commission and a director in the Ministry of Justice who were sentenced to long prison terms in Houaphan. *

Highlights of the Laos Constitution

The 1991 constitution, which contains elements of an earlier revolutionary orthodoxy, is clearly influenced by the economic and political liberalization within Laos, as well as by the dramatic changes in the socialist world and the international balance of forces. The constitution specifies the functions and powers of the various organs of government and defines the rights and duties of citizens. Several chapters prescribing the structure of the state define the function and powers of the National Assembly (the renamed SPA), the president, the government, the local administration, and the judicial system. The constitution has little to say, however, about the limitations on government. In foreign policy, the principles of peaceful coexistence are followed. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The constitution legally establishes a set of authorities that resemble the traditional differentiation among executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The delineation does not imitate any particular model (neither Vietnamese, nor Russian, nor French), but it pays respect to the idea of a basic blueprint of responsibilities lodged in designated institutions. There is room for evolution of government authority, but there are also specific boundaries. *

Government outside Vientiane has developed an independence over the years, reflecting the exigencies of the Pathet Lao armed struggle and of economic self-reliance during the postwar socialist pitfalls. The constitution eliminated elected people's councils at the provincial and district level as "no more necessary," in an effort to fit the state apparatus to the needs of building and developing the regime under "the actual conditions of the country." Again, the will of the ruling party determines which road the administration follows in regard to local governance, but the constitution has left governors, mayors, and district and village chiefs free to "administer their regions and localities without any assistance from popularly elected bodies." The leading role of the party within the administration of the nation overall is illustrated by the fact that party Politburo members are found in state offices--the offices of the president of state, and prime minister, deputy prime ministers (two), chair of the National Assembly, minister of defense, and chair of the Party and State Inspection Board. *

The dominant role played by the LPRP is scarcely mentioned, and the constitution is almost silent about the party's functions and powers. One brief reference to the ruling party is made in Article 3, which states that the "rights of the multiethnic people to be the masters of the country are exercised and ensured through the functioning of the political system with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party as its leading nucleus." *

Article 5 notes that the National Assembly and all other state organizations "function in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism." This stricture is an obvious reference to the Marxist-Leninist principle, which calls for open discussion within a unit but prescribes that the minority must accede to the will of the majority, and lower echelons must obey the decisions of higher ones. *

The chapter on the socioeconomic system does not mention the establishment of socialism, a principal goal of earlier dogma. Instead, the objective of economic policy is to transform the "natural economy into a goods economy." Private property appears to be assured by the statement that the "state protects the right of ownership," including the right of transfer and inheritance. The state is authorized to undertake such tasks as managing the economy, providing education, expanding public health, and caring for war veterans, the aging, and the sick. The constitution admonishes that "all organizations and citizens must protect the environment." *

Human Rights and the Laos Constitution

The first words of the Preamble refer to the "multi-ethnic Lao people," and frequent use of this term is made throughout the text, a clear rhetorical attempt to promote unity within an ethnically diverse society. The "key components" of the people are specified as workers, farmers, and intellectuals. The Preamble celebrates a revolution carried out "for more than 60 years" under the "correct leadership" of the ICP. *

Article 7 calls upon mass organizations, such as the Lao Front for National Construction, the Federation of Trade Unions, the People's Revolutionary Youth Union, and the Federation of Women's Unions, to "unite and mobilize the people." The Lao Front for National Construction, the successor to the LPF, served as the political front for the party during the revolutionary struggle. As of mid-1994, its mandate is to mobilize political support and raise political consciousness for the party's goals among various organizations, ethnic groups, and social classes within society. Other mass organizations are assigned to pursue these goals among their target populations of workers, youths, and women. *

The constitution proclaims that the state will respect the "principle of equality among ethnic tribes," which have the right to promote "their fine customs and culture." Further, the state is committed to upgrading the "socio-economy of all ethnic groups." Regarding religion, the state "respects and protects all lawful activities of the Buddhists and of other religious followers." Buddhist monks and other clergy are reminded that the state encourages them to "participate in the activities which are beneficial to the country". *

A chapter on the rights and obligations of citizens sets forth a cluster of well-known rights found in modern constitutions, including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. Women and men are proclaimed equal, and all citizens can vote at age eighteen and hold office at twenty-one. In return, citizens are obliged to respect the laws, pay taxes, and defend the country, which includes military service. In commenting on this chapter in 1990, Amnesty International, clearly concerned about past human rights abuses, criticized the document for what was not included. Amnesty International noted the absence of provisions for protecting the right to life, abolishing the death penalty, guaranteeing the inalienability of fundamental rights, prohibiting torture, safeguarding against arbitrary arrest and detention, protecting people deprived of their liberty, and providing for a fair trial. No safeguards exist to protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and independence of the judiciary. *

Although the constitution doesn’t change the imbedded patterns of the Laotian political system or threaten the dominant role of the party, it has the potential to protect human rights and respect for the law, by the rulers as well as the ruled. The crumbling of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well as strains in communist systems elsewhere, accompanied by widespread movements for democracy, suggest that Laos will not be immune to growing demands for a more dependable rule of law. *

Royal Family

See History

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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