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Country Profile

Area: 236,800 sq km (91,400 sq mi)
Population: 6 million (2011 estimate)
Capital City: Vientiane
People: Lao (55%), Phuthai (10.5%), Khmu (11%), Hmong (8%). Official total is 47 ethnic groups.
Languages: Lao (official), French, various ethnic languages
Religion(s): The population is 67% Buddhist, 1.5% Christian and 31.5% other or unspecified (2005 Census).
Currency: Lao Kip
Major political parties: Lao People's Revolutionary Party (Leader: Choummaly Savasone)
Government: Communist State
Head of State: President Choummaly Savasone
Prime Minister/Premier: Thongsing Thammavong
Foreign Minister: Thongloun Sisoulith (also Deputy Prime Minister)
Membership of international groupings/organisations: Laos is a member of the United Nations (UN), Non Aligned Movement (NAM), Group of 77 at the United Nations (G77), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). In addition: ACCT, APT, ARF, AsDB, CP, EAS, FAO, G-77, IBRD, ICAO, ICRM, IDA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, Interpol, IOC, IPU, ITU, MIGA, OIF, OPCW, PCA, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UPU, WFTU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WToO, WTO (observer).

(Note on Lao Names: Lao people generally have two names, the first being the given name and the second the family name. Nevertheless, if only one name is used, it should be the first, e.g. President Choummaly)

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Basic Economic Facts

GDP: US$ 6.5 billion (2010)
GDP per capita: US$1,004 (2010)
GDP per capita (PPP): US$2,449 (2010 )
Annual Growth: 8.3% (2011 estimate)
Inflation: 6% (2010)
Major Sectors: Agriculture (29.2% of GDP), Services (38.3%),Industry (32.4%) – natural resource mining, timber and electric power generation dominate.
Major trading partners: Laos is a net importer and mainly trades with countries in the region. In 2010 its main trading partners were Thailand, China and Vietnam.
Aid & development: Measurable aid to Laos in 2009 totalled US$ 570m. The largest donor was Japan. International organisations working with Laos who have offices in Vientiane include the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank various UN agencies and the European Commission.
Exchange rate: £1 = 12,492LAK (Lao Kip) (February 2012).
Since 1988, the Lao economy has grown on average 6% a year, and steps are being taken to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Economic growth since the 1990s has reduced poverty levels to some degree, but Laos still relies heavily on foreign aid and investment, especially from Japan, China and Vietnam. The Lao Government is keen to raise the country’s profile to attract more foreign investors. In early 2011, the Laos Stock exchange began trading, with two companies listed.

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Recent History

After gaining its independence from France in 1953, the Kingdom of Laos found itself embroiled in regional conflicts resulting from the struggle for control of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese supported the Pathet Lao, a nationalist front organisation controlled by the communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Thais and the Americans supported right-wing groups. Prince Souvanna Phouma, Prime Minister for most of the period from 1951 to 1975, attempted to follow a neutral course.

Following the American withdrawal from Vietnam the Lao Communists consolidated their control of Laos, which culminated in the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in December 1975.

As the LPRP instituted a one-party state and introduced tough socialist reforms of the economy it continued its hard line policies until economic difficulties in the late 1980s forced it to bring in more liberal measures in line with those being adopted in Vietnam, with which Laos has been closely aligned since 1975.

In 1992 Kaysone Phomvihane, the long-time leader of the LPRP died. He was succeeded as party leader by the then Prime Minister, Khamtay Siphandone. Since then the government and party have cautiously introduced market reforms, while maintaining tight political control in a one-party system of government.

Longer Historical Perspective

The Lao are one branch of the Tai ethnic group which moved southwards from southern China, settling in parts of present day Laos from at least the thirteenth century. From its foundation in 1353 until about 1700 the Lao Kingdom of Lane Xang was one of the most powerful states in mainland Southeast Asia and included much of present day Thailand. Thereafter the kingdom was divided into rival principalities and fell into decline, losing power to the expanding Vietnamese and Siamese states. It was effectively saved from absorption by these two states by the establishment of a French protectorate at the end of the nineteenth century.

Under French rule development in Laos, whether it be economic, educational or political, was slow compared to that in Vietnam and Cambodia, the other countries in French Indochina. A stimulus to political development was provided by the Japanese occupation of Indochina during the Second World War. After the Japanese defeat in August 1945 a Free Lao movement, the Lao Issara, proclaimed Lao independence, but with the support of the King and Crown Prince the French regained control of the country in 1946, driving the nationalists into exile. The French finally granted Lao independence in 1953.

Laos allowed North Vietnam to use its land as a supply route for its war against the South in the Vietnam War. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese. The result of these actions were a series of coups d’état and, ultimately, the Laotian Civil War (1953-1973) between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao.

During the Vietnam War (1955-1975), it was reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. It's estimated that more ordnance were dropped on Laos than were used during the whole of the Second World War. Of the 260 million bombs that were dropped, particularly on Xiangkhouang Province on the Plain of Jars, 80 million failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy. Today, Laos still holds the distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world. Because it was particularly heavily affected by cluster bombs during this war, Laos was a strong advocate of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the weapons and assist victims, and hosted the First Meeting of States Parties to the convention in November 2010.

BBC News Country Timeline: Laos (

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Laos' Relations with its Neighbours

Although the Lao people are much more closely related to the Thais than to other neighbours in language and culture, Laos was linked to Vietnam and Cambodia as part of French Indochina from the end of the nineteenth century until independence in 1953. Following an attempt to steer a neutral course, ties with Vietnam and Cambodia were strengthened after the communist victories in all three countries in 1975. Relations with the strongly anti-Communist governments of Thailand were difficult. In the aftermath of the Sino-Vietnamese rift of the late 1970s and 1980s, Laos' relations with China were also strained.

As the general situation in mainland Southeast Asia improved in the 1980s and early 1990s with a decrease in ideological alignments and progress towards a solution of the divisive Cambodian problem, Laos was able significantly to improve ties with other countries in the region. The first bridge across the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos was opened in April 1994. In November 1994 the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was established – involving Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam - whose principle objective is the sustainable utilisation of the Mekong Basin. Laos joined ASEAN in July 1997 and joined ASEM in October 2004.

Vietnam continues to enjoy strong political and economic ties with Laos. However, China’s influence has grown substantially in line with its economic interests. China has invested heavily in infrastructure in Laos, and construction of a US$7 billion high speed rail project began in 2011, but work is currently suspended.

Laos' Relations with the International Community

The EU Commission opened an office in Laos in May 2003.

Laos is currently working on preparations to join the World Trade Organisation.

Laos' relations with the UK

The first resident British Ambassador arrived in Laos in the mid-1950s. The Embassy was closed in 1985 and responsibility for British representation to Laos passed to the British Ambassador in Bangkok. A British Trade Office opened in Vientiane in 1995 but closed after a review in 2004. The British Ambassador to Laos, Mr Asif Ahmad, is resident in Thailand.

Laos, similarly, had an Embassy in London from the 1950s until it was closed in the mid-1980s. The current Lao Ambassador is His Excellency Mr Khouanta Phalivong who is resident in Paris.

The UK played an important diplomatic role in Laos as Co-Chairman (along with the former USSR) of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indo-China and the 1961/2 Geneva Conference on Laos.

UK Development Assistance

The Department for International Development (DFID) does not have a bilateral aid programme in Laos. British aid is, however, currently supporting some de-mining work in Laos up until 2013. Primarily, UK support to Laos is channelled through multilateral organisations such as the EU. Details of DFID projects and spend can be found on the DFID website ( .

Cultural Relations with the UK

Cultural links are relatively limited in nature. However in 2001 the David Glass Interactive Theatre Group worked with the Lao Women's Union to stage a number of performances in Vientiane with the theme of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and drug issues.

The number of British visitors to Laos has increased over recent years, with an estimated 40,000 visiting in 2010.

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Laos is a land-locked country, bordering China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. It is largely mountainous. The most fertile land is found in the valley of the Mekong, which flows from the north of Laos to the south and which forms the frontier with Thailand for over 60% of its length.

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Trade and Investment with the UK

Bilateral trade between the UK and Laos accounts for only a small portion of UK trade with SE Asia, although it is increasing. UK exports of goods only to Laos in 2010 were worth £3.4m (191% yoy). UK imports from Laos in 2010 were worth £39.8m (up 24% yoy). For the period January to Nov 2011 UK exports of goods to Laos amounted to £6m (up 114% yoy) while imports from Laos totalled £48m (up -36%. yoy).

Although Laos has not traditionally been a significant market for the UK, it has been encouraging to see more companies showing a closer interest. Salamander Energy have concluded a Production Sharing Agreement with the Lao Government to explore for onshore oil & gas and other prominent companies include G4S and KPMG.

The UK Government does not have commercial representation in Laos but the UKTI team at the British Embassy in Bangkok provides basic cover. We are supporting some EU member states in setting up a European Chamber of Commerce in Laos, which will provide a focal point for business advice and give foreign companies a stronger voice in dealings with the Lao Government.

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Recent Political Developments

Laos will be hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Heads of Government Summit in November 2012.

Construction of the Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River's mainstream in Northern Lao PDR was suspended in May 2011 to allow for further consulation to take place to assess the environmental impact.

The government celebrated the 30th anniversary of its accession to power in December 2005. The 8th Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party was held in March 2006.


General elections are held every five years, with the last one taking place in 2011.

The current National Assembly was elected on 30 April 2011. HE Choummaly Sayasone remained as President of the Lao PDR, along with Thongsing Thammavong as Prime Minister and Thongloun Sisoulith as Foreign Minister.

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The human rights situation in Laos has improved over the last decade with Laos ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in September 2009.

There are reports of harassment of Christians by the Lao authorities, who appear to object to active proselytising by some groups rather than to the right of peaceful worship, which is recognised by the Lao Constitution. Another cause for concern is the alleged mistreatment of the ethnic Hmong people in Laos. Amnesty International have reported continuing government clashes with Hmong insurgents and forced relocation of Hmong villages. The UK, together with the EU, regularly raises these issues with the Lao government when opportunities arise.

Laos has long held a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. But in April 2001 the scope of application of the death penalty was extended to drug related crimes at the urging of ASEAN partners. The EU has urged Laos to maintain its de facto moratorium on the death penalty.

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Last Updated: February 2012

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