Laos

It is a land of virgin forests, and is also one of the poorest.

The tension between these abundant natural resources, on one hand, and the poor's lack of access to these, on the other, helps characterize the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR). The country director of Oxfam in Lao PDR, Dominique Van der Borght, said this Southeast Asian country shows a “different face of poverty.”

In using natural resources, after all, he said locals “have been excluded from the process, more than integrated.”

Various studies prove this point.

The World Bank (WB), for one, acknowledges that Lao PDR “has a wealth of natural resources: forest cover that is substantially higher than in surrounding countries; the largest per capita volume of (internal) renewable water resources in the region; and considerable mineral resources, such as gold, lignite and copper.”

It is “also one of the most biodiversity-rich countries in the region.”

Van der Borght said: “The fact that it is a country with lots of natural resources and very low population density makes it very unique when compared with its neighbors. Lao has water, soil, forest land, minerals that are in high demand in their neighboring countries due to their industrialization process.”

The WB said these natural resources “have catalyzed past economic growth throughout the Lao PDR.”

Quarter of population poor

While Lao PDR has these resources, however, much of these remain inaccessible to the Lao PDR's 6.8 million citizens.

The Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy describes the capital of the Lao PDR, one of Southeast Asia's least populated countries, as “small and relatively underdeveloped.”

Taufik Indrakesuma and Johannes Loh, researchers from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the capital Vientiane faces problems such as the following:

Up to 23% of its people live in poverty, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said.

This is an improvement from a poverty rate of 46% in 1992, but the UNDP said much more needs to be done.

Future in tourism

The UNDP said the biggest development challenge “is ensuring that the benefits from high economic growth, averaging more than 7% for the past 5 years, are evenly distributed and translated into inclusive and sustainable human development.”

It said: “Lao PDR’s economic boom is driven primarily by foreign direct investment in natural resource extraction and hydropower. Ensuring that this is conducted in an environmentally sustainable way and that the revenues generated benefit everyone is critical for the development of the country.”

For the researchers from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, another way to boost the country's economy is tourism.

A landlocked country, Lao PDR faces these problems as its current government is relatively younger than those of its neighbors.

Colonized by France

Its history, on one hand, stretches back to at least the year 1353, when King Fa Ngum built the kingdom of Lan Xang. This kingdom spanned the Mekong River “in the middle from north to south,” the Lao PDR government said.

In the 16th century, its capital moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.

Laos then underwent a history of invasions and rebellions, and ended up as a French colony in 1893.

It declared independence in 1945, only to be colonized again by the French in 1946. It got its full independence in 1954 after the Geneva Conference on Indochina.

Despite this long history, however, the country’s current government took over only in 1975. This came after years of political struggle that ended up deposing a monarchy.

Laos is now “one of the world’s few remaining communist states,” the BBC said.

Under this set-up, agriculture and forestry remain the top sources of livelihood, said the Food and Agriculture Organization. Its population is made up of at least 49 ethnic groups, and 67% of its citizens are Buddhists.

A member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 1997, it “has considerably opened up in recent years” politically speaking, the UNDP said. Lao PDR, for one, ratified 6 out of 9 core human rights treaties that created a “a more conducive legal environment for civil society.” It also joined the World Trade Organization in February 2013.

Now headed by President Bounnhang Vorachith, this single-party socialist republic is struggling to measure up to its Southeast Asian neighbors. –Rappler.com 

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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