Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or more colloquially Muang Lao, is a landlocked country in the heart of Mainland Southeast Asia’s Indochinese peninsula, bordered to the northwest by Myanmar (Burma) and China, to the east by Vietnam, to the south by Cambodia, and to the west by Thailand.
Laos’ modern identity is rooted in the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao (Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol), which lasted for four centuries as one of Southeast Asia’s biggest kingdoms. Due to Lan Xang’s central geographic position in Southeast Asia, the kingdom developed into a prominent center for overland commerce, resulting in economic and cultural prosperity.
Following a period of internal strife, Lan Xang was divided into three kingdoms: Luang Phabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. It became a French protectorate in 1893, and the three territories merged to create what is today known as Laos. It temporarily achieved independence in 1945 after Japanese occupation, but was recaptured by France until 1949, when it was given autonomy. Laos gained independence in 1953, with Sisavang Vong establishing a constitutional monarchy. Shortly after independence, a protracted civil conflict brought an end to the monarchy in 1975, when the Communist Pathet Lao organization took control.
Laos is a socialist one-party state. It is a Marxist state ruled by a one-party communist politburo presided over by military generals. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnam People’s Army maintain a strong presence in Laos. Vientiane is the capital city. Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakse are other major cities. Lao is the official language. Laos is a multi-ethnic nation, with the Lao people accounting for about 60% of the population, mainly in the lowlands. Mon-Khmer communities, the Hmong, and other indigenous hill tribes dwell in the foothills and mountains, accounting for 40% of the population.
Laos’ ambitious development strategies are based on generating electricity from its rivers and selling it to its neighbors, namely Thailand, China, and Vietnam, as well as on its initiative to become a ‘land-connected’ nation, as evidenced by the planned construction of four new railways connecting Laos to those same countries. Together with the expansion of the mining industry, Laos has been dubbed one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia and the Pacific by the World Bank, with annual GDP growth averaging 7% over the last decade.
It is a signatory to the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA), ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, and La Francophonie. Laos sought for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1997 and was awarded full membership on 2 February 2013.
According to the non-governmental organization Transparency International, Laos continues to be one of the world’s most corrupt nations. This has discouraged foreign investment and exacerbated existing issues with the rule of law, particularly the country’s capacity to enforce contracts and commercial regulations. This has resulted in more than a third of Laos’s people living below the international poverty line (on less than US$1.25 a day). Laos is a low-income economy, having one of the world’s lowest per capita yearly earnings. The nation was rated 141st on the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2014, indicating a poor level of development. According to the 2015 Global Hunger Index, Laos is the 29th most impoverished country in the world, out of 52 countries with the worst hunger condition (s). Laos, too, has a dismal human rights record.