The Lao People’s Democratic Republic or Lao PDR (previously Laos) is about 237,000 sq. km. in land area but has a relatively small population of about 4.4 million in 1994. It is a land-locked country, sharing borders with Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Much of it is mountainous, and only about 5 per cent of the land is under continuous cultivation. Primary or secondary jungle (the latter resulting from transient slash-and-burn farming) covers 75 per cent of the land area.
As a nation Lao is a semi-artificial creation of the colonial era. The French devised its borders, cutting through many diverse ethno-linguistic groups. The preponderant Lao lowlanders brought to the emerging nation a long history of bitter division amongst themselves. Lao, as a neighbour of Vietnam, would also be wracked by ideological division and war for thirty years after World War II.
In 1975 the area of Lao was united under one indigenous government for the first time in almost 300 years. The doctrinaire socialism of this government led, however, to economic stagnation and the flight of almost 10 per cent of the country’s population across the Mekong river into Thailand. Today the government pursues ‘market socialism’, welcoming domestic and foreign private enterprise and aid from the capitalist world. But the country’s geography, ethnic complexity and turbulent history mean that Laos is starting from far behind most Southeast Asian countries in nation-building and economic development.