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Saturday, 30 December, 2000, 13:16 GMT
Laos: 25 years of communism
Lao people
The average income is less than $1 a day
By Owen Bennett Jones in Laos

The people of Laos are famously relaxed. In every office someone sleeps. The capital's traffic is so light that hens live around one of the main roundabouts.

A foreign businessmen in town - there aren't many - put it like this: "The further Laos falls behind, the longer they've got to catch up."

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the revolution in this little-known Asian country. Laos has been a one party state since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.

But during this time, the Lao people have not flourished. Laos is one of the poorest countries on earth.

So far, attempts to open up the economy and attract foreign investment have borne little fruit. Most of its five million people are subsistence rice farmers, who don't make it to 55 years old.

Change

So the Lao People's Revolutionary Party has in recent years introduced some changes.

Backpackers and tourists are now welcomed. As they sip beers on the banks of the Mekong, they are even free to listen to western rock music.

A former member of the royal family - ousted by the communists 25 years ago - has recently opened a car dealership.

Saffron-robed Buddhist monks chat and laugh in incense-filled temple courtyards.

Religion is the opium of the people, Marx said. But in a country where opium is the opium of the people, religion - at least Buddhism - is tolerated.

Founding father

None of this has done anything for the reputation of Kaysone Phomvihane - the founding father of the Lao revolution.

Generally speaking, he's not ranked alongside the likes of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. But his legacy is enduring enough.

Whilst others have deviated from the straight and narrow, Laos remains a one party state. Security goons still fill the hotel lobbies and the press still tows the party line.

And despite the fact that Kaysone Phomvihane died eight years ago, there's even a burgeoning personality cult.

The authorities have just built an eight million dollar gold-plated museum dedicated to his life and times. Sadly the curator seems rather short of material.


Kaysone Phomvihane is by no means the only well-kept secret in Laos. There are also the bombs.

There are just a few photographs - some of them appear many times so as to fill up the space - and a display of the respected leader's comb, electric razor and favoured ping-pong bat.

But the crowning glory stands outside, where there's a new 30 foot, cast-iron, statue.

The sculptor hasn't gone for any flamboyant or flippant interpretation of his subject - his creation shows a middle-aged pot-bellied gentleman in a rather tight-fitting suit.

Laos's aging politburo - in matching suits - all turned up for the unveiling ceremony.

But as for the Lao, they didn't seem too interested and anyway they weren't invited. This was a private party - for the great leader's family friends and heirs.

Forgotten leader

For all that, I wanted to find out more. The official Vientiane Times has recently been canvassing opinion about the man.

Laos, one traffic policeman told the paper, has become known on the world's stage because of Kaysone Phomvihane.

I went to the Vientiane Times office and said: "I read your stories. What more can you tell me?"

Laos
It was lunchtime. "Sorry," they replied with winning smiles. "We're busy."

My next stop was Vientiane's only English language book shop. "Got anything on Kaysone Phomvihane?" I asked. "Ah," they said. "No, nothing at all."

A last resort then. The government itself - the foreign ministry press department. "Kaysone Phomvihane," I said. "What can you tell me?"

The official did at least agree that it was as fair a question as could be asked. Nodding vigorously he said: "I'll make some calls and get back to you." He never did.

Mystery violence

Kaysone Phomvihane is by no means the only well-kept secret in Laos. There are also the bombs.

There have been a whole series this year, but no one knows who is planting them.

The most recent certainly seemed to confuse the government. At first the foreign minister refused to talk about it. When pressed he said it was a piece of unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War.

Aware that that sounded rather lame, some other officials tried an alternative explanation. Someone had lit a bonfire, they said.

True patriots, they wanted to celebrate the 25th anniversary of national day, the 45th anniversary of the Lao People's revolutionary Party and of course the 80th anniversary of Kaysone Phomvihane's birthday.

But sadly their fire was right by a disused aerosol can that blew up.

If the government was struggling, then so too was everyone else. Theories range from disaffected royalists to rebellious tribesmen.

But for my money the best explanation for the bombing campaign came from one of the few Western diplomats in Vientiane.

I know who's planting them, he said.

"It's the septuagenarians on the politburo. They are trying to get rid of the octogenarians."

See also:

20 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Laos' battle with poverty
02 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Laos marks 25 years of Communism
02 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Bomb fears at Laos anniversary
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