Developments in the Lao People's Democratic Republic

Developments in the Lao People's Democratic Republic

In spite of the regime's revolutionary rhetoric about selfreliance on the march to socialism, Western aid was simply replaced over the 1970s and 1980s by aid from "fraternal countries" of the Soviet bloc. Living standards declined further. Nongovernmental organizations, including some from the United States, in cooperation with local officials, established a few small-scale aid projects that reached out to real needs in the areas of health, education, and economic development.

Kaysone and his colleagues, following the well-known examples of Soviet and East European party leaders, led carefully protected lives behind the walls of their guarded compounds in the capital, secluded from public scrutiny and shielded from any manifestation of hostility, their movements kept secret. The minister of interior, Somseun Khamphithoun, whose ministry was responsible for the operation of the seminar camps, was never seen publicly in Vientiane. Corruption, widespread in the years of the United States civilian and military aid programs, resumed with the new opportunities presented by the "economic opening" beginning in 1986.

The first Supreme People's Assembly, appointed by the National Congress on December 2, 1975, rapidly faded into obscurity, although its twice-yearly meetings were reported in the controlled press. In 1988, perhaps because the regime wished to give itself some semblance of popular underpinning, it suddenly announced that elections would be held for a new Supreme People's Assembly. Elections were held on June 26, 1988, for 2,410 seats on districtlevel people's councils and on November 20, 1988, for 651 seats on province-level people's councils. On March 26, 1989, elections were held for seventy-nine seats on the Supreme People's Assembly. Candidates in all elections were screened by the party. Sixty-five of the seventy-nine members of the assembly were party members.

In the area of foreign relations, Laos joined the ranks of the "socialist camp" on December 2, 1975. Gone was any pretense of neutrality. In the new state of affairs where "peace" had at long last been achieved and no one paid attention to the presence of "fraternal" foreign troops on Laotian soil, the delegations of the ICC in Laos returned to their respective countries, leaving behind piles of unpaid bills.

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. 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 as early as November 1973 when Le Duan, first secretary of the Vietnamese party, visited Viangxai. Thereafter, special relations was the term increasingly emphasized in joint statements. In July 1977, Laos and Vietnam signed the twenty-five-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. 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.

Despite some incidents along their common border, Thailand took an accommodating stand toward the country. Opening the border to trade and eliminating the "sanctuary" problem were affirmed as goals in a 1979 joint communiqué between Kaysone and the Thai prime minister, Kriangsak Chomanand, which was subsequently cited by Laotians as the touchstone of their relations with Thailand. Following a series of shooting incidents in 1984 involving rival claims to three border villages, a major dispute arose in December 1987 over territory claimed by Laos as part of Botèn District in Xaignabouri and by Thailand as part of Chat Trakan District in Phitsanulok Province. The fighting that ensued claimed more than 1,000 lives before a cease-fire was declared on February 19, 1988. The origin of the dispute was the ambiguity of the topographic nomenclature used in the 1907 FrancoSiamese border treaty over the area of the Nam Heung, up which Fa Ngum's army had traveled in the fourteenth century. After 1975 the sanctuary problem also defied solution for a decade, with the Hmong and communist rebels occupying some of the old Lao Issara resistance bases in Thailand. However, a series of working-level meetings between the two sides were arranged that served to defuse the conflict, and relations improved markedly in the late 1980s.

Although official relations between Laos and China were strained by the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, the two countries maintained diplomatic relations, and local trade continued across their common border. The ending of the brief war saw a rapid and steady improvement in mutual ties and exchanges of visits at all levels. Kaysone visited Beijing, and a border demarcation commission completed its work to mutual satisfaction.

Laos seemed at last to have achieved stable relations with its neighbors. Centuries-old conflicts that had repeatedly seen foreign invaders trampling Laotian soil with their elephants or tanks, Laotians conscripted by this or that pretender to the throne, pagodas built and then destroyed, and the countryside laid waste, had receded. Peace brought the prospect of a better life, if not yet participation in a multiparty democracy. It was as if after so much suffering Laotians had turned inward, seeking the fulfillment that had always come from their families, their villages, their sangha, and their pride in the moments of glory in their country's long history.

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