LAO PEOPLE'S REVOLUTIONARY PARTY—LAOS’S ONLY POLITICAL PARTY

LAO PEOPLE'S REVOLUTIONARY PARTY (LPRP)

Ruling party: Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP, Choummali Saignason) is one of the last one-party regimes. Modeled after the Vietnamese Communist Party, it is now primarily Communist in name only. It issues Five Year Plans and announces shuffles in the leadership positions at party congresses held every five years. There are pro-Chinese, pro-Lao and pro-Vietnamese factions with in the LPRP. There is also some rivalry between between hardliners and reformers.

Whereas communist parties in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have crumbled, in Laos, the ruling communist party, the Phak Pasason Pativat Lao (Lao People's Revolutionary Party-- LPRP has retained undiluted political control. The constitution, adopted in August 1991, notes simply in Article 3 that the LPRP is the "leading nucleus" of the political system. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

LPRP statutes, revised following the Fifth Party Congress held in 1991, leave no doubt regarding the dominant role of the party: The party is...the leading core of the entire political system, hub of intelligence, and representative of the interest of the people of all strata. The party formulates and revises the major lines and policies on national development in all spheres; finds solutions to major problems; determines the policies regarding personnel management, training of cadres, and supplying key cadres for different levels; controls and supervises activities of party cadres and members, state agencies and mass organizations. *

Origins of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP)

The LPRP has its roots in the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930. (Ho Chi Minh led the struggle for Vietnamese independence and was the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 1945 until his death in 1969.) The ICP, composed entirely of Vietnamese members in its early years, formed the Committee for Laos (or a "Lao section") in 1936. Only in the mid-1940s did the Vietnamese communist revolutionaries step up active recruitment of Laotian members. In 1946 or early 1947, Kaysone Phomvihan, a law student at the University of Hanoi, was recruited, and Nouhak Phoumsavan, engaged in a trucking business in Vietnam, joined in 1947. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In February 1951, the Second Congress of the ICP resolved to disband the party and to form three separate parties representing the three states of Indochina. However, it was not until March 22, 1955, at the First Party Congress, that Phak Pasason Lao (Lao People's Party--LPP) was formally proclaimed. (The name LPRP was adopted at the Second Party Congress in 1972.) It seems likely that from 1951 to 1955, key Laotian former members of the ICP provided leadership for the "resistance" movement in Laos, under the tutelage of their Vietnamese senior partners. In 1956 the LPP founded the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Lao Patriotic Front--LPF) the political party of the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation, to act as the public mass political organization. Meanwhile, the LPP remained clandestine, directing the activities of the front. *

The Vietnamese communists provided critical guidance and support to the growing party during the revolutionary period. They helped to recruit the leadership of the Laotian communist movement; from its inception, the LPRP Political Bureau (Politburo) was made up of individuals closely associated with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese furnished facilities and guidance for training not only the top leadership but also the entire Laotian communist movement. The Vietnamese assigned advisers to the party, as well as to the military forces of the LPF. Under the guidance of North Vietnamese mentors, LPRP leaders shaped a Marxist-Leninist party, political and mass organizations, and an army and a bureaucracy, all based upon the North Vietnamese model. *

From their perspective, Laotian communists had not compromised their legitimacy as a nationalist movement by their dependence on Hanoi. During the revolutionary period prior to 1975, when LPRP leaders looked to the North Vietnamese for a sense of overall direction and cohesion, they found many common interests. Both parties faced the same enemies: first France and then the United States. They held a similar view of the world and of the desirable solution to its problems. In some cases, this affinity was strengthened by family relations (for example, Kaysone, whose Vietnamese father, Luan Phomvihan, had been a secretary to the French resident in Savannakhét) or marriage ties (Souphanouvong and Nouhak had Vietnamese wives). *

Following the First Party Congress, it was seventeen years until the Second Party Congress was convened, in February 1972. The Third Party Congress met ten years later, in April 1982; the Fourth Party Congress convened in November 1986, and the Fifth Party Congress in March 1991.

Development of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP)

The LPP steadily grew from its initial 300 to 400 members ("25 delegates representing 300 to 400 members" were said to have attended the founding congress of the party). By 1965 there were 11,000 members; by 1972, as it prepared to enter into the final coalition with the RLG, it had grown to some 21,000 members; by 1975, when the party seized full power, it claimed a membership of 25,000; and by 1991, at the convening of the Fifth Party Congress, the LPRP claimed its membership had increased to 60,000. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

When the LPRP first revealed itself to the public in 1975, the Central Committee comprised twenty-one members and six alternates. By the Fourth Party Congress, its size had expanded to fifty-one members and nine alternates. The average age of a Central Committee member in 1986 was fifty-two, with the oldest seventy-seven and the youngest thirty-three. The number of women on the Central Committee rose from three to five, including Thongvin Phomvihan, then Secretary General Kaysone's wife, who was chair of the LPRP's People's Revolutionary Youth Union and, in 1982, the first woman appointed to the Central Committee. *

At the Fifth Party Congress, the Central Committee stabilized in size at fifty-nine members and took on a few younger, more educated men to replace deceased or retired members. At the time, the oldest member was seventy-seven, the youngest thirty-five, with 22 percent over sixty, 30 percent between fifty and fifty-nine, and 40 percent under forty-nine. Only two women are full members of the Central Committee, and two continue as alternates. Thongvin Phomvihan--who had ranked thirty-fifth in 1986--was removed, accompanied by rumors of excessive political influence in her business activities. Notwithstanding this setback to Kaysone's family fortune, their son, Saisompheng Phomvihan, was appointed to the Central Committee, ranking forty-fifth, and was named governor of Savannakhét Province in 1993. This appointment inspired some private muttering about the emerging "princelings," referring as well to Souphanouvong's son, Khamsai Souphanouvong, number thirtyfour on the Central Committee, who became minister of finance. *

At the Fifth Party Congress, the party abolished the nineperson Secretariat of the Central Committee and changed the designation of the head of the party (Kaysone) from secretary general to chairman. Until it was abolished, the Secretariat wielded influence second only to that of the Politburo. The Secretariat issued party directives and acted on behalf of the Central Committee when it was not in session, in effect managing the day-to-day business of the party. Khamtai Siphandon became party chairman in November 1992, but it is not certain whether he will accrue the same power and influence as his predecessor. *

Structure of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP)

The LPRP has been organized in a manner common to other ruling communist parties, with greatest similarity to the Vietnamese Communist Party. As in other such parties, the highest authority is the party congress, a gathering of party cadres from throughout the country that meets on an intermittent schedule for several days to listen to speeches, learn the plans for future party strategy, and ratify decisions already taken by the party leadership. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Next in the party hierarchy--since the elimination of the Secretariat in 1991--is the Central Committee, the party elite who fill key political positions throughout the country. The Central Committee is charged with leading the party between congresses. In addition to members of the Politburo and former members of the Secretariat, the committee includes key government ministers, leading generals of the army, secretaries of provincial party committees, and chairpersons of mass organizations. *

Despite the party's rhetoric asserting ethnic equality, the Central Committee has been dominated by lowland Lao. Upland minorities remain sparsely represented at the highest levels of party leadership. Only four members of ethnic minority groups were reported on the Central Committee elected at the Fifth Party Congress. *

The Central Committee is served by a number of subordinate committees. These committees include, most importantly, the Office of the Central Committee, and five other offices: Organization Committee; Propaganda and Training Committee; Party and State Control Committee; Administrative Committee of the Party and State School for Political Theory; and Committee for the Propagation of Party Policies. *

Each of the sixteen provinces (khoueng) is directed by a party committee, chaired by a party secretary who is the dominant political figure in the province. At a lower level are 112 districts (muang), further divided into subdistricts (tasseng), each with their own party committees. Administratively, subdistricts have been abolished in principle since around 1993, but implementation has been uneven across provinces. It is unknown whether subdistrictlevel party committees have also been abolished. At the base of the country's administrative structure are more than 11,000 villages (ban), only some of which have party branches. *

Semisecrecy of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party

Unlike other communist regimes, the LPRP has long maintained a semisecrecy about its mode of operation and the identity of its rank-and-file members. However, the LPRP follows the standard communist practice of planting party members within all principal institutions of society--in government, in mass organizations, and, formerly, in agricultural collectives. These individuals serve as leaders and transmit party policy. They also act as the eyes and ears of the central party organization. Although party members are admonished not to reveal themselves, it is not difficult for knowledgeable persons to pick out the party members in their organization. In each ministry, for example, the key power wielders are party members. All party members do not, of course, hold positions of authority. Some occupy the lower ranks, serving, for example, as messengers, drivers, and maintenance personnel. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

By the late 1980s, some of the LPRP's semisecrecy had eroded. Party leadership lists, which, during revolutionary and early postrevolutionary days had been secret, were published. But a quasi-clandestine attitude remains among the party rank and file that can be explained by several factors. Clandestine behavior is an old habit that is not easily shed. Secrecy adds to the party's mystery, inspires anxiety and fear, and contributes to control. In view of its long history of revolutionary activity, party veterans fear infiltration and subversion. LPRP pronouncements during its first decade of rule frequently alluded to "CIA and Thaireactionary -inspired agents," and later, when relations with China grew tense, to the danger of "big power hegemonism." Moreover, party leaders appear to lack confidence in the quality of their membership, speaking from time to time about "bad elements" within the party. *

The LPRP is relatively small compared with other incumbent parties. For example, the 40,000 members that the party claimed in 1985 represented 1.1 percent of the population (estimating 3.5 million inhabitants). In 1979 the Vietnamese Communist Party had 1.5 million members in a population of 53 million, or approximately 3 percent. *

Ideology of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party

When LPRP leaders came to power in 1975 as victorious revolutionaries guided by Marxism-Leninism, they retained a zeal for creating a "new socialist society and a new socialist man." They declared their twin economic goals as the achievement of "socialist transformation with socialist construction." They asserted that in establishing the LPDR in 1975, they had completed the "national democratic revolution." (The national goal had been to expel the French colonialists and the United States imperialists. The democratic goal was to overthrow "reactionary traitors, comprador bourgeoisie, bureaucrats, reactionaries, feudalists and militarists...."). The LPRP claimed that it had won the national democratic revolution by winning a "people's war" with a "worker-peasant" alliance, under the secret leadership of the LPRP working through a national front. It proclaimed a commitment to "proletarian internationalism" and the "law of Indochinese solidarity" and at the same time defined Vietnam and the Soviet Union as friends and the "unholy alliance" among United States imperialism, Chinese "great power hegemonism," and Thai militarism as enemies. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

By the late 1980s, as communism was undergoing a radical transformation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Kaysone and his colleagues on the Politburo still professed an adherence to Marxism-Leninism, but they emphasized the necessity for Laos to pass through a stage of "state capitalism." Following Mikhail Gorbachev's example of perestroika, Kaysone proclaimed in 1989 that state enterprises were being severed from central direction and would be financially autonomous. V.I. Lenin's New Economic Policy was frequently cited to legitimize the movement toward a market economy and the necessity to stimulate private initiative. *

By the early 1990s, even less of the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric remained. The party has continued to move internally toward more free-market measures and externally toward reliance upon the capitalist countries and the international institutions on which they depend for investment and assistance. The "law" of Indochinese solidarity has been amended, and the LPDR's "special relations" with its former senior partner are no longer invoked, even though party spokesmen still insist that Laos retains a solid friendship and "all-round cooperation" with Vietnam. *

Despite this erosion of communist ideology, retaining exclusive political power remains a primary goal of the party. In a speech in 1990, Secretary General Kaysone asserted the basis of legitimacy of the party: The party is the center of our wisdom. It has laid down the correct and constructive line, patterns, and steps compatible with realities in our country and hence has led the Lao people in overcoming difficulties and numerous tests to win victory after victory, until the final victory. History has shown that our party is the only party which has won the credibility and trust of the people. Our party's leadership in our country's revolution is an objective requirement and historic duty entrusted to it by the Lao multiethnic people. Other political parties which had existed in our country have dissolved in the process of historical transformation. They failed to win the control and support of the people because they did not defend the national interest or fight for the interests and aspirations of the people.

Internal Stability of the LPDR and External Influences

Since the LPDR was proclaimed in December 1975, its leadership has been remarkably stable and cohesive. The record of continuous service at the highest ranks is equaled by few, if any, regimes in the contemporary world. Laotian leaders have an equally impressive record of unity. Although outside observers have scrutinized the leadership for factions--and some have postulated at various times that such factions might be divided along the lines of MarxistLeninist ideologues versus pragmatists or pro-Vietnamese versus nationalists (or pro-Chinese), there is no solid evidence that the leadership is seriously divided on any critical issues. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In 1975 the Laotian communist leaders, most of whom had spent the revolutionary decade from 1964 to 1974 operating from Pathet Lao headquarters in the caves of Sam Neua Province, came down from the mountains to Vientiane to direct the new government. At the outset of their accession to power, they were suspicious, secretive, and inaccessible, and lower-level cadres were maladroit in imposing heavy bureaucratic controls. Travel within the country was limited, personal and family behavior was monitored by newly organized revolutionary administrative committees, cadres were assigned to disseminate propaganda, and seminars were held to provide political education for all sorts of groups. During these early years, the party squandered much of the goodwill and friendly acceptance from a population tired of war and the corruption of the old regime. *

At first, Laotian communist leaders were committed to fulfilling their revolutionary goals of fundamentally altering society through "socialist transformation and socialist construction." After 1979 the regime modified its earlier zealous pursuit of socialism and pursued more liberal economic and social policies, in much the same manner as Vietnam. *

For more than a decade after 1975, the Vietnamese continued to exercise significant influence upon the Laotian leadership through a variety of party, military, and economic channels. By the end of the 1980s, however--in particular following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in 1991 and diminishing assistance from the Soviet Union to Vietnam and Laos--Vietnam turned inward to concentrate on its own problems of development. This emboldened Laotians leaders to jettison even more of their socialist ideological baggage, abandon agricultural collectivization, and move toward a market economy. Laos was also free to pursue an independent foreign policy. The single most important vestige of the former communist system was the solitary ruling party, the LPRP. *

Political Opposition in Laos

Major opposition party: There are none. According to Lao Movement for Human Rights: “There is really no pro-democracy movement of any sort in Laos. The threat of re-education camps scared off many potential dissenting voice. Those who didn’t like the government escaped to Thailand across the Mekong River. After bogus elections in 2011, the Lao Movement for Human Rights asserted: “The great losers of these elections remain Liberty, Democracy and the Lao citizens. A people under the control of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), a people hostage of this single-state party, a people that can choose only on a list pre-established by the party. The ’’independent’’ candidates must also have the approval of the party.” [Source: Mouvement Lao pour les Droits de l’Homme (MLDH), Lao Movement for Human Rights, May 13, 2011]

Over the centuries, residents of the Laotian Buddhist kingdom developed gentle techniques of accommodation, often searching for more powerful patrons either outside the country or within. Authorities governed during the early years after 1975 with little popular support, but most Laotians simply submitted to their authority because they had little alternative. However, the authorities were not harsh compared to other communist regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, most of which--by mid-1994--have toppled. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The relatively passive Laotian political culture inspires few direct challenges to one-party domination, and party authorities firmly assert the limits of political dissent. LPRP spokesmen invoke a litany of explanations to justify the party's monopoly of power--for example, the country is too underdeveloped and the people too little educated to permit more than one party. Further, there are too many ethnic groups, and open political participation would lead to disunity and chaos. Political stability, provided by the leadership of a single party, is said to be necessary for economic growth. The LPRP has also pointed out the corrupt multiparty system of the RLG. An abiding political reality, however, is that those who have power wish to retain it. *

Restrictions on political opposition do not appear to be a salient issue among a majority of the population, although a small number of educated Laotians in intellectual, student, and bureaucratic circles have raised a few protests. Despite the toll of age and failing health among the aged Politburo members, the leadership governs without active opposition. Even when communist leaders were unceremoniously dumped in Eastern Europe, vigorously challenged in the Soviet Union, and confronted by students in China, communist leaders in Laos retained their hold as they guided the regime into the uncharted realm of reform. It is not clear why there was so little challenge to these aging leaders. They maintained a cohesion among themselves, perhaps a product of their many years as comrades in revolution, living in caves and dodging United States bombs. They may have also sustained an enduring respect from party stalwarts who followed them during twenty-five years of revolution. Whether the government will encounter political opposition from a broader segment of Laotian society as it moves to a more market-oriented economy and increasingly opens its doors to Western influence remains to be seen. *

Anti-Government Protests in Laos

In October 1999, there was a pro-democracy demonstration in Vientiane, involving 50 university students and professors. The protest was small but people were shocked that it occurred at all. It was the first such demonstration since the Pathet Lao took power in 1975.

In an open letter the demonstrators called for respect of human rights, the release of political prisoners, a multiparty political system and a real democratic election for a new National Assembly. Within minutes after the protest began the demonstrators were rounded up by security agents. A couple were able to escape to Thailand.

Among those detained was Thingpaseuth Keuakoum, the founder of the Lao Student Movement for Democracy. Little was known the fate of the protesters after the event. At least five were in detention months later. They are believed to have been held in Vientiane’s Samkhe Prison. The government denies that the incident took place.

Laotians interviewed sympathized with some of the issues the protesters were addressing but found their protests to be naive, futile and foolish. They said that they wanted economic rights but weren’t even sure with what was meant by human rights.

Image Sources:

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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