The first advertisement over the walkway from the plane in Vientiane in January 2017 is for apartments in a gated community. Enclosure and privatisation are the watchwords in Laos now. Bounded by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China, this land-locked country is clearly open for business, and under intense pressure from its neighbouring states, as it has always been. The capital is Vientiane, a relocation of the administrative centre from the Buddhist temple complex of Luang Prabang, both of which suffered from invasions and levelling of religious sites over past centuries by the Vietnamese, by the Burmese, by the Thais, and then by the French and the United States.
Laos is the size of England but with about a tenth of the population. The seven million people have bravely fought invaders and oppressors, and suffered a history in the last half century or so that saw about 10 percent of the population murdered by the US military. The Lao people fought alongside the Vietnamese in the Indochina War, and then, with the defeat of the US in 1975, the Pathet Lao seized power, ruling the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) through the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) ever since. The history of that bloody struggle is still very much present, still claiming new victims day by day. Laos is, for the size of its population, the most heavily bombed country in the world, an incredible two million tons of bombs were dropped on it by the US between 1964 and 1973. Many of those bombs were targeted at the areas around the Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs down the country next to the Vietnamese border, and the Johnson and Nixon regimes were able to deny involvement for many years while US military bombing runs decimated the population (literally ‘decimated’ it). US planes on missions across Laos would also often offload remaining weapons on their way back to base over other parts of the countryside in order to save themselves the risk of landing with live munitions on board. 30 percent of those bombs dropped on Laos failed to explode and they are now under the surface, often in the form of small cluster bombs the size of a tennis ball, and sometimes as complete bomb casings. There are 300 casualties a year from ‘UXO’, ‘unexploded ordnance’, and an unending task of tracking them down, as portrayed in the Australian documentary ‘Bomb Harvest’.
Alongside Dervla Murphy’s 1999 travelogue, the most detailed history is by Grant Evans in A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. A revised expanded edition of his 2002 book appeared in 2012 shortly before he died (by which time he had become enrolled as an academic advisor and member of the Lao Academy of Social Sciences), but was published in Thailand, not in Laos. Grant Evans was former editor the Communist Party of Australia newspaper The Tribune, and so makes some astute political comments about the pressures the Pathet Lao were under before they took power in 1975 and then the machinations of the LPRP as it renegotiated its relationship with the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Thai regime and with China. Evans doesn’t shy from the issue of prison camps set up after 1975 nor from the racist revenge treatment of minority communities that were unlucky enough to have members enrolled the US military’s dirty war. These two books by Murphy and Evans provide the primary documentary resources for this account.
From 1978-1979 the government, urged by Soviet advisors (of which there were about 1,500 in the country by that point), undertook a disastrous agricultural collectivisation programme. The programme was cancelled within eighteen months after regional authorities had produced local returns showing that there were nearly 2,500 collectives formed. Part of the problem was the resistance by local farmers, and part of the problem was the bureaucratic nature of the exercise; local officials were keen to comply with the demand, but they did this by simply reporting numbers of collectives rather than actually doing anything with them on the ground. Agriculture and forestry counts for about 43 percent of production, industry and construction about 32 percent, and the growing service sector, which includes tourism, counts for just over 25 percent. The regime has its eyes on foreign investment but is, as always, the junior partner.
For example, the front page story of the 9 January 2017 Vientiane Times was that ‘Four foreign companies ink deals for use of Lao satellite’, but it turns out that China, one of the countries that will lease the satellite, designed, developed and delivered it into orbit. This is actually a Private Finance Initiative in which Laos pays China, which controls the technology, and then China makes use of the product. The same issue of the paper has more glowing reports about energy generation, one of the growing industry sectors in Laos, which aims to complete industrialisation, undergo its own industrial revolution, according to the government, by 2020. Electricity now accounts for over 10 percent of exports in vast hydroelectric projects, including the 2010 Nam Theun 2 dam, coordinated with China and Thailand. Garment output accounts for just over 13 percent, and timber nearly 16 percent. Copper and gold still accounts for over half of exports, and these private companies are the most lucrative legal entities in the country. The timber export figures are particularly unreliable. The army was told to make itself financially sustainable in 1988, and has set up a number of private partnerships, many of which are illegal; there are vast areas of the country that are no-go zones for visitors guarded by army personnel functioning as paramilitary protection forces for logging operations which then smuggle hardwoods out of the country.
This problem of deforestation was documented by the intrepid traveller Dervla Murphy back in 1999 in her book One Foot in Laos; she feared then that the situation was getting worse, and it is. There were parts of the countryside she couldn’t access, prevented by local town chiefs and militia, and she was warned that it was dangerous because of remaining guerrilla operations by disaffected minority ethnic communities, particularly the (H)Mong who are still distrusted because of the role they played during the Indochina war, mobilised by the US forces for counterinsurgency activities. There is some truth that these were a threat, and a prominent right-wing counterinsurgency battalion commander, Vang Pao, active in the country before 1975, was still aiming to overthrow the government at the time Murphy travelled in Laos. There were attacks around that time on government forces; even, in 2003, attacks on tourist buses on Route 13 from the capital to the old capital Luang Prabang, in an attempt to undermine the regime. However, with readjustment of US foreign policy, and Obama’s 2009 declaration that Laos (and Cambodia) was no longer Marxist-Leninist and so no longer a threat to the free world, these remains of the counterinsurgency have pretty well evaporated. Some activists from the émigré (H)Mong community in the US were arrested a few years back for planning a coup in Laos, a message to them as to where US interests now lay. Even Vang Pao saw the writing on the wall, and sent a message from exile on 22 December 2009 that ‘we have to make a change right now’, proposing peace talks. A Lao Foreign affairs spokesperson replied, reminding him that he had been sentenced to death in 1975, and pointed out that any peace talks could only take place after the sentence had been carried out. Vang Pao died in January 2011. There are still old anti-communist voices, of course, and whether the new Trump regime will be more sympathetic to them than Obama remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely.
In fact, it transpired that the main danger to Dervla Murphy during her travels came from state and para-state forces guarding illegal logging operations. Murphy also described the development of new highway schemes that, alongside the dam projects which displace local minority communities and the logging and mining operations, are ‘industrialising’ the countryside in accordance with private profit. Murphy can be accused of romanticising traditional rural life in Laos – a criticism that has been made of her other travel books – but she actually is quite right about the problem with the way this particular kind of industrialisation is taking place. For example, the 13 January 2017 Vientiane Times reported on its front page that the go-ahead had been given by the Vientiane People’s Council for a new highway that will cut along the edge of the city next to the Mekong. The artist impression image of the road shows toll-booths, and even this paper – a private enterprise that effectively functions as a government mouthpiece – reported over the following days the fury of local residents who were being told to give up land in return for a cut of the profits from what was explicitly being sold as a ‘Public Private Partnership’. Vientiane Times copy is vetted and, as Big Brother Mouse, a literacy NGO project points out, all books have to be approved by the government before publication. There are innumerable corporate control mechanisms to manage different civil society organisations that might pose a threat to the regime; Buddhist groups are registered and monitored by the state, for example, and Christian organisations have to operate under the auspices of the ‘Lao Evangelical Church’. There are no democratic institutions. In the 133-member National Assembly elections for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, voters choose from 190 candidates selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. These 190 include four ‘non-party’ candidates from the ‘business sector’.
When the phrase ‘Public Private Partnership’ is used in Laos it is necessary to keep in mind that state sector employment has never been more than 1 percent (whereas it is roughly 23 percent in the UK and 14 percent in the United States). Conscription and the operation of local militia forces organised by the LPRP ensure the state apparatus runs without having actually to employ many people. What might easily be assumed to be state concerns, such as the ubiquitous outlets for ‘Beer Lao’, a quite nice lager made from rice, are actually all private; Beer Lao is made by Carlsberg, and the nearest competitor, pissy ‘Namkhong’, is made by Heineken.
The regime moved very rapidly after the first glimmerings of Glasnost, faster than many other regimes in the Soviet sphere of influence and behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’. Explicit private finance initiatives were already in place in 1986 with the announcement of the ‘New Economic Mechanism’ – the final abandonment of any claim to be building a socialist or, still less, communist country – and in 1988 Laos opened up to foreign investors, shifting its focus from the Soviet Bloc to Thailand and then to capitalist China. This also meant loosening ties with Hanoi, and the remaining 45,000 Vietnamese combat troops were withdrawn from the country between 1988 and 1989. The LPDR withdrew support for the Thai Communist Party, hinted at repatriation deals of émigré activists with Bangkok, and this did the trick in facilitating new economic ties to the south, to Thailand. These possible extradition arrangements now extend to activists with the Thai Red Shirt movement. After shopping their old comrades in Thailand, the way was also open for deals with China (over extraction mining and hydroelectric dams). China repatriated 3000 Lao in 1997 that had been retained up to then as potential guerrilla irritants to the regime were they to be needed, and Jiang Zemin visited Vientiane in 2000, the first state visit by a Chinese premier to the country. A train-line between Vientiane and the Chinese border is on the books, and land enclosures have begun to seal areas of land and remove local inhabitants to make way for it. Photo-shoots of trade deals on the LPDR websites now show images of pudgy Lao government ministers in crumpled suits rather awkwardly shaking hands with their sleeker flashily-dressed Chinese counterparts.
There is a growing new middle class that races around in massive shaded-glass SUVs and which is linked to and protected by the regime. For example, the holiday town of Vang Vieng is popular not only with Australian, European and US back-packers but also with the wealthy kids of the apparatchiks in the capital. Most of the hotels are ranged along the right bank of the Nam Song river, but the left bank has become site over the last few years for unofficial restaurant sites which blare out heavy beat music through the night. The right-bank hotel owners petitioned the local mayor, who sent a letter of protest to the regional authorities to be forwarded to the capital. The left-bank rave sites were driving away guests unable to sleep through the noise, ruining their business, but the hotel managers have no recourse to the state. The cannot ask the local police, they said, because the police never act without a bribe, and in this case the police are reluctant to take action against the left-bank noise-makers because they are the sons and daughters of wealthy families in the capital linked to the regime.
The opening up of Laos for business, and correlative abandonment of any pretence of its aim to build a socialist society free of imperialism, has also been accompanied by the return of old ideological forms. For example, after 1975 there was an attempt to institute new forms of egalitarian nominations of identity. In place of the elaborate speech codes which respected and reproduced class and caste hierarchies, the regime promoted the use of ‘sahai’ (or ‘comrade’) as a form of address. A businessman back visiting Laos who had fled the country for the US in 1975, complained, while travelling on the bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, that things had changed in the country under the new regime, even that the language had changed so much that, he said, about seventy percent of it was now unrecognisable to him. What had been lost, he said, was the ‘depth’ of the old language, by which he meant that the markers of respect and contempt so that you know who you are speaking to in the chain of command weren’t now present in everyday speech. Even so, ‘sahai’ form has all but disappeared now, with ‘than’ (or ‘sir’) making a comeback, and also the ‘nop’ (the respectful bow of the head to superiors) returning.
Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Pathet Lao, died in 1992, and there were attempts after 1995 to build a personality cult around his image, but these attempts have failed. Memorial sites around towns with busts of Kaysone (busts manufactured in North Korea) have fallen into disrepair. It has been other statues of leaders that have been venerated with offerings of flowers on significant anniversaries instead, leaders like the historical royal personages Fa Ngum and Chao Anou, but also the more recent figure Prince Souphanuvong who worked actively with the Pathet Lao against the US but who marks some kind of lineage with the old monarchy deposed in 1975. Wealthy figures from the regime will now even appear in public as benefactors for hospitals or youth centres, making donations to good causes, symbolically re-enacting the monarchical forms they were supposed to have abolished.
A ceremony in December 2002 for the erection of a statue of King Fa Ngum (1316-1374) was attended by state officials, who clarified that this was not intended to signify, they said, ‘the revival of the monarchy’. Nevertheless, this event and the denial itself does indicate something of the way the regime is now stabilising itself. This stabilisation also entails recomposing relationships between the nation state and religion. Laos is a Buddhist country, but the monarchy was Hindu, with strong traces of Hindu imagery in Lao Buddhist temples. Now, if a new monarchical regime of any kind is to re-emerge it will be on the basis of a new compact with the Buddhists. The Pathet Lao and then the LPRP directing the LPDR had historically strong connections with the Vietnamese, with many inter-marriages in the course of the anti-colonial struggle up to 1975. That too is changing. Today it is rare to find leading figures in the party or state apparatus with Vietnamese partners, and there are rumours that it is difficult to obtain a powerful position in the economy or government if you are not ‘pure Lao’. (H)Mong youth in a literacy class in Luang Prabang complained of their marginalisation by the Lao. The Lao youth who participated in discussion wore full orange Buddhist robe.
There has been opposition to the regime since 1975, and not only from the disgruntled remains of the US occupation forces (of Vang Pao and the like). A ‘Social Democrat Club’ in Vientiane was formed and then rapidly suppressed in 1990. The Vice-Minister for Science and Technology, Thongsouk Saisankhi, complained that the LPDR was a ‘communist monarchy’ – a telling diagnosis of the problem – and called for a multiparty system. He was arrested and died in prison in 1998. In 1999 there were student protests in Vientiane which were violently suppressed. Since then, and with the fading of insurgent activities by the (H)Mong and other ‘tribal’ peoples, opposition has tended to shift to the NGO sector, to a quieter practical building of alternatives around questions of ecological sustainability and food security. But even these are dealt with viciously when they start to intrude on interests of corrupt private-state enterprises. For example, in 2012 environmental activists Sombath Somphone was abducted on a street in Vientiane, and hasn’t been seen since. His work in the Participatory Development Training Center that he founded continues. The complaints about his disappearance are bitter but cautious. Sombath’s wife Shui-Meng Ng, who still directs the project and works in the Saoban craft shop in Vientiane, emphasises that the work was not designed to be a critique of the regime but was on the basis of peaceful engagement with community issues. Dervla Murphy makes the interesting claim, in some of the later interviews in One Foot in Laos, that the matriarchal character of Lao culture has meant that while the male leadership of the state has collaborated with big business, the development of alternatives more in line with the original collectivist ethos of the Pathet Lao – a communist anti-imperialist and environmental ethos – is kept alive by the women in the apparatus organised through the Lao Women’s Union. Murphy’s book provides a more ecological and feminist account than Evans’ Short History of Laos, a good counterpoint to it.
The LPDR state flag (a white circle on a blue central blue strip edged top and bottom with red) is often accompanied by the LPRP (Pathet Lao) red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle emblazoned on it. So, there are symbols of the old socialism around aplenty, but little if nothing of the practice. The suggestion that Laos is a ‘deformed workers state’ or, more bizarrely, that, with China, Cambodia and Vietnam, it is one of four ‘socialist’ countries in the region is laughable, insulting to the people of Laos as well as to any historical political analysis of what is actually the case, damning with faint praise. One of the hotel managers in Vang Vieng shrugged hopelessly at the corruption of the local police apparatus and the futile petitioning for something to be done to protect their businesses. ‘Nothing can be done’, he said, we can only wait. ‘Well, you know’, he said, ‘it is a communist state’. Well, no, it is not. Laos is a capitalist country, a closed state locked into neoliberalism. There is, for sure, a history of struggle for communism here, but also a history of tragic failure, failure of a party that modelled itself on the Stalinist communist parties of the Soviet Union and China, and failure in a context of pressure that would have buckled even the most democratic and revolutionary of leaderships.
This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles