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Laos Table of Contents

Laos

Chapter 5. National Security

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The Anousavari, on Lan Xang Avenue in Vientiane; built to commemorate those who died in the prerevolutionary wars, was begun in the early 1960s and completed in 1969.

LAOS FACES A NUMBER OF UNIQUE PROBLEMS in national defense and internal security, stemming from its central position in mainland Southeast Asia and its historically stronger neighbors. This continued to be true after the Phak Pasason Pativat Lao (Lao People's Revolutionary Party-- LPRP; see Glossary), came to power and proclaimed the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos) in December 1975. By mid-1994, however, Laos had succeeded in stabilizing its relations with its neighbors, so it faced no immediate foreign threat and only a small continuing internal threat.

Laos is geopolitically vulnerable, a landlocked nation surrounded by more powerful neighbors. Its closest foreign ally has been Vietnam, with whom it signed a twenty-five-year mutual security treaty in July 1977. Laos is also on close terms with China, whose long-term interest in Laos is to limit Vietnam's ambitions in Southeast Asia while sharing with Hanoi and Vientiane (Viangchan) a common aim in maintaining Marxist-Leninist singleparty regimes in power. In view of the strong presence of senior military officers in the top ranks of the party and government, it is not surprising that the country maintains close ties with the military-controlled State Law and Order Restoration Council in Burma. Relations are also close with the royal government of wartorn Cambodia. With Thailand, relations have changed over the years. Prior to 1975, Thailand saw Laos as a buffer against an expansionist Vietnam, but by 1994 Thailand looked upon Laos as the likeliest place for commercial expansion of its own. The country shares with Burma and Thailand possession of the Golden Triangle, the area where a significant portion of the world's heroin traffic originates.

Laos is also vulnerable because its small population--estimated at approximately 4.7 million people as of July 1994--limits its ability to deter foreign intervention in the event of a crisis. Furthermore, the significant population of ethnic minorities--about 50 percent of the total--is always a potential factor for instability. In 1994 ethnic minorities continue to suffer discrimination in terms of their representation in the country's institutions and their access to government services, although to what extent this discrimination feeds political and cultural tension vis--vis the government in Vientiane is speculative. The situation is complicated by the fact that although 1.5 million ethnic Lao reside in Laos, ten times that number live in northeastern Thailand. Similarly, Hmong (see Glossary) and Mien (Yao) tribes live in southern China, and Hmong and many tribal mountain Tai reside in northwestern Vietnam.

Other factors contribute to the vulnerability of Laos. The underdeveloped state of the economy and the lack of adequate means of transportation and communication encourage regionalism, which facilitates insurgent movements against the government. Additionally, the mountains and jungles of Laos provide an ideal environment for guerrilla warfare, because the terrain and lack of infrastructure inhibit the concentration of military forces to counter guerrilla action. Such forces, moreover, expose themselves to ambush in narrow mountain defiles if guerrillas control the surrounding high ground. There are few places in Laos where a conventional army does not risk a siege such as that of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. If the insurgents have bases outside permeable borders, they are virtually secure from pursuit and are able to mount raids with impunity.

Data as of July 1994