It is a country on the fringes both of the news and the development of Asia, seemingly forgotten by history and yet history itself, that of the Indo-Chinese conflict, in particular, remains a strong and somewhat cumbersome legacy in many respects.
Inhabited by seven million people of many ethnic groups but mostly Lao, with an area of 236,800 square kilometers, landlocked, rich in forests and waters, it is surrounded by populous and encroaching neighbours. In modern history it resulted in very real Vietnamese protection which also involved ideological reasons, and more recently Thai pressure and the growing and inescapable pressure of China.
The regime that leads it, which is also the legacy of the Indochina conflict, is one that derives most advantage from relations with its neighbours, including cross-border trade and the management of its minorities, while the population sees its resources cross the borders while the well-being from it only barely touch it.
A spectacular and natural environment associated with a not always justifiable backwardness through the persistence of traditional ways of life, especially among minorities, are the first and seemingly unalterable characteristics of this country. As the regime that governs it is unalterable, issuing from the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation), the guerrilla movement that led the liberation struggle from the French and then against the pro-US government until the final takeover in 1975.
Its political expression is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, a single party acting through a National Assembly of a hundred members, the result of elections which regularly bar the doors to international observers. With regular deadlines this party-government-state perpetuates itself and the evils of the country: inaction, repression and the selling-off of resources in exchange for financial and political support to the regime passed off as stability, lack of conflicts and careful use of its resources.
Laos is an exception in Asia, growing but still barely touched by the progress that brings money to its leaders and investors and leaves on their rugged territory, furrowed by deep river valleys, environmental scars, unmet expectations and many other problems, such as growth by infection from HIV/AIDS.
Agriculture is the primary activity for at least 70% of the population, even though less than 5% of the land is for agricultural use, and many areas are accessible only by winding roads, often impassable, or by following the course of rapid rivers of wide-ranging seasonal variability.
Beginning with the Mekong, which crosses the country from north to south and which was the real birthplace of some of the more unrealistic projects of the region, intended to alleviate the thirst for energy and the need for cheap transport of neighboring China and Thailand, in the hopes of the native river population that it would increase by a few dollars the annual average of nearly $800.
Undertaken especially however to support the ambitions of the regime. Finally, a tight control, rigidly ideological, characterizes public life, with few concessions to political representation, civil rights and freedom of expression. If repression is widespread, and also includes the practice of religion, there are ample dossiers on the atrocities against the transnational Hmong minority, which has never been forgiven for being an old US ally in the Indochina conflict and irreducibly Christian. If with difficulty, and still today in a context of repression and control of religious activities, Buddhism is necessarily linked to the history and tradition of the country, the Christian faith, however, in the ideology of power remains a legacy of the hegemonic will of Europe and the United States and as such barely tolerated and often forced into silence. (S.V.)