A quiet, landlocked Buddhist nation in Southeast Asia, Laos is a true backwater. Many of the country’s political and historical developments have been the result of the ripple effects of events in neighboring countries: Thailand is its “cousin” to the west; China, the monster to the north; and Vietnam, the tumultuous and war-ravaged nation to the south. Communism reached Laos after World War II, took hold in the 1970s, and has yet to leave. Only half of Laos’ population of about 6 million is ethnically Laotian. The rest belong to one of about 70 different ethnic groups and tribes. Laos is the world’s third-largest producer of opium, behind Afghanistan and Burma.
Lay of the Land: Laos is a landlocked nation nestled in the mountains of the Indochinese Peninsula of Southeast Asia. Most of the country is rugged, often densely forested, with the population concentrated in the Mekong River plains along the western border. The wet monsoon season, May to September, bring heavy rainfall.
Laos’ Golden Age occurred during the 57-year reign of King Surinyavongsā (1637-1694), during which his kingdom of Lan Xang was a center of religion and the arts. Surinyavongsā had only one son, Chao Rachabut, whom Surinyavongsā ordered executed when he was found guilty of adultery. This left an unclear succession when Surinyavongsā finally died, and Laos was victimized by factionalism and foreign intervention from all sides.
During its “secret war” in the 1960s, the US supported Souvanna Phouma’s government in Laos. There was no formal military alliance, and there were no American military bases or ground troops in Laos (as was the case in South Vietnam). US supply efforts were flown by civilian companies under charter to Souvanna Phouma’s government, while US military pilots in civilian clothes secretly flew forward air control missions over Laos. CIA advisers assisted the guerrilla units of General Vang Pao’s Hmong army, which, along with irregular forces in the south,were supplied with rice, arms, and pay by CIA operatives based at Udon Thani in Thailand. The total number of CIA personnel involved in this effort never exceeded 225 and included some fifty case officers.
The United States conducts a modest amount of trade with Laos, which has been increasing over time. Trade more than doubled in 2008, after the US signed a bilateral trade agreement with Laos.
US-based Plot to Overthrow Laotian Government Thwarted
The primary human rights problems cited by the State Department for Laos include citizens being unable to change their government, harsh prison conditions that at times were life threatening, corruption in the police and judiciary, government infringement on citizens’ right to privacy, lack of respect for the right to free speech, the press, assembly, or association, trafficking in persons, especially women and girls for prostitution, and discrimination against minority groups, such as the Hmong.
Donald R. Heath
Seng Soukhathivong has served as Laos’ ambassador to the United States since June 28, 2010.
After 33 years in the Foreign Service, Karen B. Stewart received her second appointment to be an ambassador when President Barack Obama selected her for the top U.S. diplomatic post in Laos. She was sworn in on October 25, 2010. She previously served twice in Laos, first as an economic reporting officer in the 1980s and then as deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires from 1999-2001.
Ravic R. Huso served as the ambassador Laos until September 2010. Huso received his undergraduate degree from the College of Idaho (1973) and earned a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Virginia (1976). He was selected by the State Department for senior training and chose to attend the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, graduating with the Class of 1993.