Countries at the Crossroads 2005 - Laos

  • Author: Carolyn Bull
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    5 May 2005

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)



Carolyn Bull is a PhD candidate in Politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is one of the world's few remaining Communist regimes. Since taking power in 1975, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has favored the Chinese model of absolute one-party rule combined with gradual economic liberalization. Economic reform since 1986 under the New Economic Mechanism has not been matched by political or social transformation, although Lao society has gradually enjoyed greater freedom of movement, employment, and international interaction. The human rights situation has improved incrementally, but the government's record remains disturbing. The LPRP controls dissent tightly and acts harshly against those it perceives as threatening to itself or to social order.

Standards of government accountability in Laos are extremely poor. Laotians cannot change their government, as National Assembly elections are restricted to LPRP members and a few approved independents. Leadership change is determined by the LPRP, which dominates government at all levels. Neither the legislature nor the judiciary provides effective checks against executive excess, and the civil service is politicized. The government views civil society as a threat to its monopoly on power and citizens have only minimal access to government information or consultation mechanisms. Restrictions on freedom of expression are severe. The government controls the local media, and slander of the state is proscribed through harsh penalties.

The state violates most international human rights standards. Violations have included restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, particularly the Hmong. Laos has few functioning institutional safeguards against state abuse.

Having evolved only since the 1990s, Laos's constitutional and legal system is embryonic. The long absence of the rule of law has created an environment in which the authorities often apply the law arbitrarily and inhibit or violate the rights of citizens. The judiciary is subject to frequent executive, legislative, and LPRP interference, and the rights of the accused to presumption of innocence, defense, and a fair trial are severely curtailed. The military, which is highly influential in government policy making, operates outside civilian state control.

State corruption in Laos is pervasive, impeding reform. The politically powerful engage in a wide range of corrupt behavior, and the regulatory environment to protect against this is virtually nonexistent. Despite some accountability reforms, no effective legislative process exists to punish official corruption, nor are there effective internal or external audit systems for government. Government actions are generally nontransparent and secretive.

There are few signs that the current regime is open to change, and it continues to seek legitimacy through suppressing opposition. Over time, however, some reform may flow from increasing openness to external social, cultural, and political influences and the modernizing pressures of a younger, better-educated elite poised to benefit from accelerating reform. The progress of reform in neighboring states, particularly Vietnam, will be important.

Accountability and Public Voice – 1.19

Laos is a one-party Communist state that has been governed continuously by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) since 1975. The 1991 constitution enshrines the LPRP as the sole legal political party; thus there is no opportunity for rotation of power or alternative political activism.

The 109-seat National Assembly is elected every five years by secret ballot under universal adult suffrage.1 Elections are multi-candidate, and although candidates are not required to be LPRP members, the party's vetting process ensures that the vast majority are. All candidates are nominated by party committees, government organizations, or state-owned enterprises and must be approved by the LPRP and the National Assembly.

The February 2002 National Assembly elections, with only one successful nonpartisan candidate, reaffirmed the LPRP's supremacy. The absence of opposition having eliminated the need for electoral interference, candidates had reasonable access to pre-election publicity, and the turnover of members was significant – 60 percent were elected for the first time in 2002.2 As international election monitors are not permitted in Laos and no effective indigenous monitoring capacity exists, it is difficult to gauge election conduct. Some irregularities in voting and tallying were reported by informal observers.3

The LPRP dominates government at all levels. General Khamtay Siphandone has been president of the party and state since 1998, and the prime minister, deputy prime minister, defense minister, and National Assembly chair are also politburo members. The president and vice president are appointed by the National Assembly. On the president's recommendation, the National Assembly elects the prime minister and other ministers, many of whom are not assembly members. In reality, all decisions regarding key leadership positions are determined by factional struggles within the LPRP and the military. There is little leadership movement; succession is often determined on the death or retirement of the incumbent. Nepotism and patronage are endemic within the party, the government, and the bureaucracy.

The LPRP's 10-member politburo and 52-member central committee determine most government policy; major decisions are taken at five-yearly party congresses, of which the last was held in 2001. Although the leadership has become gradually more open to economic reform and even to ethnic and gender diversity, it has shown very little appetite for political reform.

The National Assembly generally acts as a rubber stamp for LPRP decisions. It may consider and amend draft legislation, but the executive branch retains the authority to issue binding decrees. The absence of any opposition force, combined with the assembly's relative inexperience and lack of resources and skills makes it an ineffective check against the executive. Some positive developments have taken place in recent years, including more active debate of draft laws and the establishment of a citizen complaints and petitions section. However, the quality of legislative drafting, debate, and public consultation remains extremely weak.

The government has made some progress in adopting laws to improve government administration, including through a provincial and district decentralization program. During 2004, the government continued to consider public management reform issues, including the questions of financial accountability and public consultation.

Civil service structures in Laos parallel those of the LPRP. Civil service recruitment is seldom transparent or based on merit. Promotion tends to be through seniority, clan ties, and political patronage. A significant ghost-worker problem reflects the absence of any system for registering or removing former civil servants from payrolls.4 A new Civil Service Act passed in May 2003 provides for recruitment exams, job descriptions, assignment criteria, performance evaluations, and a reward system. Little progress has been made on its implementation, however, as is the case with plans to upgrade the Department of Public Administration and Civil Services. During 2004 the government made some limited progress in considering reforms to separate party and civil service structures.

Citizens have only minimal access to timely information about pending legislation, regulations, or government policy, nor are there established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups. Civic groups do not have opportunities to testify, comment on, or influence pending government policy or legislation.

Despite constitutional protections, Laotians are subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. Media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed antigovernment.

Freedom of speech is also restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid "slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state." Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for antigovernment propaganda. Journalists who do not file "constructive reports" or who attempt to "obstruct" the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years.5 The authorities have harassed the English-language press.

Lao citizens have easy access to the Thai broadcast media, international TV stations, and shortwave broadcasters, although some censorship occurs. Foreign publications are generally disseminated freely, but the government has been known to censor them and even insert its own articles.6 Restrictions on publications mailed from overseas are loosely enforced. All domestic internet providers are controlled by the state; email is monitored sporadically, and some Web sites are blocked.

Laos restricts foreign journalists through onerous visa requirements and compulsory escorts. Restrictions on freedom of expression were highlighted in June 2003 when 12- to 20-year sentences were imposed on two European journalists, an American pastor of ethnic Hmong background, and at least three of their Lao assistants for reporting on the Hmong insurgency and for alleged involvement in the death of a security official. Although the foreigners were released in July 2003, at least two of the Lao remain in detention.7

The government limits the privacy rights of individuals and has an extensive surveillance network. Unlawful searches and seizures are common, while the government routinely ignores legal protections on privacy of mail, telephone, and electronic communications. Laos's isolation and curbs on freedom of expression have dampened artistic development, although this is not specifically restricted.8


  • The government should open up National Assembly elections to multiple parties and take steps to ensure the conduct of free and fair elections.
  • The government should expand the role of the National Assembly and match this with efforts to strengthen the assembly's legislative drafting, public consultation, and monitoring capacities.
  • The government should step up efforts at public administration reform, such as implementing the Civil Service Act, separating party and civil service structures, and introducing a merit-based appointments system.
  • The government should enact a new press law protecting press freedom and desist from interfering with and intimidating the media.
  • The government should dismantle its surveillance network, including the monitoring of mail and telecommunications, and strengthen laws to protect the privacy of individuals from state interference.

Civil Liberties – 2.16

The constitution prohibits torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention without trial. Laos signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 2000 but has continued to delay ratification. It has not signed the Convention Against Torture. Government understanding of these conventions, let alone implementation, is deficient; in addition, Laos has not met reporting requirements.

In practice, state actors routinely abuse the civil liberties protected under these instruments.9 Limits on length of detention, while prescribed in law, are seldom met for court hearings or judgments. Individuals have been held for as long as 18 years without trial.10 Individuals without money or connections can spend years imprisoned without trial, and prisoners who have served out their sentence but cannot pay their prison expenses are not set free. In some cases the government has applied national security laws to routine criminal actions to justify long periods of detention without trial. Illegal and incommunicado detention by security forces and the police is common.

Torture, shackling, and other sorts of ill-treatment by police and prison officials are widespread, especially with respect to detainees accused of insurgent or antigovernment activity. Access by prisoners to food and medical care is so restricted as to be life-threatening, particularly for those without family support. Money and personal connections are the only effective means by which detainees may obtain access to legal representation, prevent long-term detention without trial, and secure release. Important safeguards, such as judicial oversight, independent monitoring, and a functioning court system are virtually nonexistent.

Laos has taken few steps to address international concerns about its nine known political prisoners,11 including the uncertain fate of five student prisoners of conscience arrested in 1999.12 Because the government refuses to admit any human rights abuses, it has not set up procedures for redress of such complaints.

With most political opposition stymied, the main threat to government authority comes from the long-running Hmong insurgency in the highlands. A crackdown on rebel groups by Laotian security forces during 2003 caused several hundred civilian casualties.13 In turn, insurgent groups perpetrated fatal attacks on public transportation and in markets during 2003. In early 2004 the government launched a fresh offensive to eradicate these groups, renewing concerns about the impact on civilians in affected areas. At the same time, however, the government has made some effort to defuse the issue. Some Hmong appear to have been offered unofficial amnesties, while progress was made toward an agreement with the U.S. to resettle some 15,000 Hmong refugees sheltering in border camps in Thailand.

Within its limited capacity, the state acknowledges some issues affecting women, people with disabilities, and other distinct minority and interest groups, to the extent that these do not confront party interests. The state's ability and motivation to address these issues is limited by resource constraints, as well as by the issues' low profile in the absence of political opposition or civic groups able to pressure the government to take action. The government's efforts to address these issues have often been confined to facilitating the work of international NGOs. In the case of ethnic or religious minority groups, the government's motivation is further limited by a desire to ensure that these groups remain marginalized from the country's political life. Although 3 cabinet ministers and 28 National Assembly members belong to minorities, minority groups generally have little input into political affairs, which are dominated by the ethnic Lao.

The constitution protects equity for women and minorities, and the family code prohibits legal discrimination in marriage and inheritance. Laos has ratified the relevant international conventions,14 although again it struggles with implementation. Gender discrimination is not generalized, but societal discrimination persists. Many urban women hold responsible positions in the civil service and private sector, drawing incomes commensurate with those of men. In contrast, women are significantly underrepresented in the party and government. Only 3 of 53 LPRP central committee members are women, with no female representation in the politburo or council of ministers. In the 2002 National Assembly elections, female representation increased from 20 to 22 of 109 members.

Domestic violence is illegal and not known to be widespread. Rape cases tried in court usually lead to convictions, although spousal rape is not illegal. The government has actively supported the Lao Women's Union and National Commission for Mothers and Children, as well as development assistance programs targeting women. Trafficking in women and children is a major problem, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 persons trafficked annually, mostly for prostitution. Although official involvement does not appear widespread, some local officials have been complicit in or profited from trafficking. Laos has made efforts to support international anti-trafficking endeavors, including through providing judicial and police training and in-kind support for NGOs such as office space and airtime. A draft anti-trafficking law is in progress.

The government is less proactive in promoting the rights of ethnic minorities. Ethnic Lao constitute approximately 40 percent of the population, with upland hill tribes, Vietnamese, Chinese, and south Asian groups comprising the remainder. Minorities experience some discrimination in mainstream society but tend not to suffer widespread government discrimination, with the exception of the Hmong. In this respect, the alleged torture and murder of five ethnic Hmong children by Lao soldiers in May 2004 is of concern.15

The 6.8 percent of the population with disabilities are seriously affected by limited education and training opportunities.16 Government and donor support has focused on physical or medical rehabilitation, with little emphasis on employment or training. Homosexuality is illegal for men (and not mentioned in law for women), and although a more relaxed atmosphere has developed in recent years, police raids and arrests occasionally occur.

Approximately half the population practice Theravada Buddhism, and government support has given this religion an elevated status that brings with it relative freedom of existence. On the other hand, the government has incorporated Buddhist communities into the government structure and exerts a high degree of direction over the Buddhist clergy. Party requirements to integrate communist ideology into Buddhist teaching and for monks to attend party meetings appear, however, to be on the wane.

Article 9 of the constitution discourages acts that create divisions among religions and persons, and narrow interpretations of this article by the LPRP have emphasized the potential for religion to divide and destabilize. Accordingly, the freedom of minority religions is more restricted, particularly in the provinces. Animism is common among the hill tribes, and there are small numbers of Muslims, Christians, and Baha'is. Several Laotians have been imprisoned for proselytizing and other religious activities. Christians in particular attract government suspicion, partly due to their foreign connections. During 2003 at least 20 Christians were arrested, and although the number of detentions appears to be falling, official coercion of Christians to renounce their faith continues. In August 2004 a further four Christians were arrested.17 Others were reportedly barred from worshipping or forced to renounce their beliefs, while some churches were closed.

In July 2002, the government promulgated a decree on religious practice18 that expanded the range of activities permitted to all religious practitioners, including for minority religions to proselytize and print religious material. Its requirement that groups obtain advance permission for such activities proved restrictive in practice. In 2003, all such applications were rejected. However, freedom of religion appears to have improved slightly in 2003-04, with the reopening of some churches and release of some religious property.

Freedom of assembly and speech are guaranteed in the constitution but not upheld in practice. The penal code prohibits participation in an organization for the purposes of demonstrations or other acts that cause "turmoil or social instability." Such crimes are punishable by sentences of up to 20 years, or in some cases, execution. Party membership is not compulsory but confers obvious political, economic, and social benefits.

Civil society is tightly controlled. Although a number of international NGOs operate in the country, Laos has very few indigenous civil society organizations. The government perceives them as threatening to its monopoly on power and discourages their establishment. There is no legal framework enabling the registration of civil society organizations, which in practice remains virtually impossible. Some professional and socially oriented NGOs are permitted, but all political associations and parties (except the LPRP) are banned, as is any organization that criticizes the government.

Informal nonpolitical groups meet relatively freely, but like much daily activity their meetings are subject to state surveillance. Although this appears to be diminishing, the security service continues to monitor the movements of vast numbers of Laotians, aided by networks of village militia and neighborhood/workplace committees.

Trade unions are permitted within the framework of the officially sanctioned Federation of Lao Trade Unions, which is controlled by the LPRP. The level of unionization is low, given that some 85 percent of workers are subsistence farmers. Trade unions have little voice and are largely restricted to the public sector. Workers do not have the right to bargain collectively. According to the labor code, disputes are to be resolved through workplace committees, with final authority resting with the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. Strikes are rare; while they are not prohibited by law, a ban on subversive activities and destabilizing demonstrations under the penal code acts as a disincentive.

Private enterprises now constitute about 80 percent of business activity in Laos, and business associations, while embryonic, have begun to develop. They are not independent, however: the 20 or so existing associations are formally linked to line ministries, and the party guides the fledgling Chamber of Commerce.19

Due to tight government control, demonstrations are extremely rare and have drawn excessive force. In October 1999 the first antigovernment demonstration since 1975 was quickly suppressed.


  • The government must genuinely commit itself to ending the impunity of state actors with respect to torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and to investing political and financial resources sufficient to promote radical change in state practice regarding the denial of individual civil liberties.
  • The government should fully and promptly investigate allegations of state abuse of prisoners and implement practical preventive measures such as regular prison inspections and access to prisoners, including by international agencies. Correctional facilities need urgent improvement to ensure that basic food, clothing, and health-care needs are met.
  • The government should amend the penal code to remove punitive measures relating to freedom of association, remove restrictions on trade unions, and allow collective bargaining.

Rule of Law – 1.63

The Lao judicial system consists of the People's Supreme Court; provincial, district, and municipal people's courts; and military courts. Although its independence is protected constitutionally, all levels of the judiciary experience frequent executive interference. Judicial appointments, including the president and vice-president of the People's Supreme Court and judges, are made by the National Assembly Standing Committee, which is controlled by the LPRP, as is the office of the public prosecutor.

There are no protections to prevent the use of state funding for the judiciary as an instrument of political control, although the opacity of funding disbursement and expenditure procedures makes it difficult to prove. In cases of political or personal interest, state authorities ignore judicial decisions with impunity or change them arbitrarily. The police, for example, have in some cases administratively overruled court decisions and continued to detain persons released by the courts. The police are not known to have been held to account for such behavior.

The judiciary is corrupt, and bribery of judges is of particular concern given that cases are decided by three-judge panels rather than juries. Since 1991 only one judge has been removed for improper behavior.20 Trial outcomes are often predetermined.

The skill level of the judiciary is weak. Despite improvements introduced by development assistance programs and upgrades to the curriculum at the National University of Laos, judges and other legal officials lack sufficient legal training to handle the challenges of upholding law to international standards.

The constitution provides for open trials, with the exception of those relating to national security provisions, state secrets, minors, and some types of family law. However, the rule of law prevails in neither civil nor criminal matters. Laos does not have an extensive legal system and is primarily governed through the issuance of decrees. Although since 1989 the government has gradually strengthened the legal framework to a body of around 50 key laws, including a new constitution in 1991, it has generally proved reluctant to pursue legal reform. Implementation poses major challenges for poorly trained judges and administrators.

The 1989 Lao Law Concerning Criminal Case Proceedings sets out procedures for arrest, detention, and criminal prosecution, including measures to safeguard the right to be informed of charges, to present evidence, and to appeal. In practice, citizens are not guaranteed due process, and trials consistently fail to meet international standards of fairness. Although the presumption of innocence is guaranteed by law, trial judges usually determine the verdict in advance on the basis of police or prosecution reports. The emphasis thus falls on the presumption of guilt, making criminal conviction rates high.

Although accused persons have the constitutional right to defend themselves, and a Board of Legal Counselors is empowered to provide legal assistance, most defendants lack access to counsel and often do not know the charges laid against them. In practice the majority defend themselves. There is no legal aid system, and in 2004 there were only about 40 private lawyers in Laos. Even well-resourced defendants are not assured of a fair trial in cases that touch on powerful vested interests. A bar association exists but is not independent. Planned reforms announced in June 2004 would enhance its role in providing access to the law, including through a training scheme from early 2005 to increase the pool of publicly available solicitors.

The constitution provides for equal treatment for all citizens regardless of sex, social status, education, faith, or ethnicity. In practice, the government has sometimes acted to redress well-documented cases of discrimination, although Laos lacks a sufficiently developed legal mechanism under which citizens may bring charges. Noncitizens are discriminated against with respect to marriage.21

Security forces are highly influential in government policy making, although they play a less pronounced role than do neighboring Burma's. The president, vice president, and prime minister are senior ranking military officers, as are 7 of the 10 politburo members. The LPRP relies on its armed forces to maintain its grip on power, and the military exercises near total authority over state security policy. The police, military, and internal security apparatuses operate outside civilian state control. A military tribunal system exists, but judgments are not subject to civilian review by the Supreme Court. There is no political appetite for security sector reform, which is viewed in party circles as a threat to the supremacy of the vested interests underpinning their power base.22

The constitution protects state, collective, and private forms of ownership. There have been efforts since the mid-1990s to develop a land titling system for urban and peri-urban areas, including through a 1997 Land Law. However, security of tenure remains weak. The establishment in March 2003 of a National Land Policy Committee may over time promote progress.

Inequality in land and property ownership between ethnic groups and sexes persists; the economically deprived are vulnerable to land snatching by politically powerful groups, including the military. Land rights for farmers in highland areas remain insecure, with such groups often forcibly relocated without adequate compensation or support. A government Land and Forest Allocation Program has given villagers important collective rights to forest and agricultural land and improved resolution of conflicting claims. However, direct or indirect government pressure to resettle under the program has displaced up to 80 percent of villages in some areas, with the impoverished and ethnic minorities particularly affected.23 Likewise, existing or planned government projects such as the Nam Theun Two dam threaten the forced resettlement of thousands of people.


  • The government should commit itself to ending all forms of interference in the judiciary and work to implement institutional protections to enforce this.
  • Legal reform and development should be prioritized, including aligning key laws relating to criminal punishment and procedure with international standards, particularly regarding national security provisions.
  • The government should allocate resources to reform judicial institutions and promote judicial professionalism, especially with respect to trial procedure. The establishment of legal defense services, including a legal aid system, should be given urgent priority.
  • The government must separate the armed forces from state institutions and establish procedures for imposing civilian accountability over the military, particularly by bringing the military under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 1.51

State corruption in Laos is so pervasive that it impedes development at all levels. Graft began to escalate in the mid-1980s along with the growth of large-scale infrastructure projects, border trade, and foreign investment. State officials, the police, and the military regularly accept bribes for preferential treatment and are complicit in the narcotics trade. Formal state involvement in the economy has declined significantly since 1986, with 90 percent of state-owned enterprises now privatized, although some sensitive or particularly lucrative industries, such as wood processing, remain state-controlled. However, the military and political elite have extensive commercial empires that take in forestry, construction, trade, and tourism interests. The police regularly demand payoffs, including for dropping criminal charges.

Any regulatory environment to protect against corruption is virtually nonexistent. Laos has no conflict-of-interest legislation or other mechanisms to enforce the separation of public office from the personal interests of officeholders. The quality, transparency, and attitude to reform of the bureaucracy vary between departments. Although some have taken advantage of economic reforms to adopt more dynamic processes, in general the Communist-inspired bureaucracy has adopted a reactionary approach designed to protect its resources and power. It is burdened by excessive, arcane regulations that impede reform and nurture corruption. Bureaucratic decision making is opaque and lengthy, discouraging public input. The concentration of decision-making power in the prime minister's office further expands possibilities for corruption.

In 2000 the prime minister issued an anticorruption decree targeting official abuses of power such as embezzlement, fraud, and bribe-taking. It applies to civil servants, the party, the military, police, and state-enterprise managers. The effectiveness of the decree has been undermined by the fact that it is not a law as such and does not define punishments. It has not evolved into an effective legislative process to prevent or punish official corruption, and the legal system has not begun to punish corrupt officials. Victims of corruption have no effective mechanism to pursue their rights. There is no open assets-declaration system for public officials or administrative processes that support this goal. The government is currently working on an anticorruption law. An anticorruption commission established in 1993 has proved ineffectual.

The government has no effective internal audit system to ensure accountability in expenditure and tax collection. Fiscal decentralization since the late 1990s has not been accompanied by accountability measures. The government has made some progress toward better public financial management, including the establishment in 2001 of a National Audit Office to inspect and audit the civil service. However, this body reports directly to the prime minister's office, is not independent, and has been largely ineffectual. Regulations were adopted in 2002 to enhance the financial accountability and transparency of government departments, requiring them to submit annual financial statements to the National Assembly,24 but there is no ombudsman. More positively, management audits of key state-owned enterprises have occasionally resulted in top-level management changes. Financial reporting and procurement requirements for these enterprises were improved with the introduction of a new decree in 2002.

The National University of Laos in Vientiane is the country's only university. Informal preferential access is given to students with political connections or wealth, including through the selling of admission places and grades by academics seeking to supplement low wages. The appointments and promotions system for academic staff is also subject to political favoritism.

Whistleblowers and anticorruption activists have no legal protection, and tight restrictions on media freedom shield corrupt state or party officials from public exposure. State and party officials carry on corrupt practices with almost complete impunity.

Along with weak rule of law, lack of governmental transparency is one of the key impediments to development in Laos. Combined with a culture of secrecy, multiple layers of opaque and inefficient bureaucracy preclude timely public access to most forms of government information. Members of the public seeking information rely on personal connections and/or bribery, with the poor and disadvantaged thereby excluded. There is no freedom of information legislation or other mechanisms by which citizens may petition for information.

The budget-making process is not transparent. In contravention of constitutional provisions, the National Assembly does not receive adequate budget information, nor does it review extra-budgetary spending or government equity holdings, although it officially approves the budget. Budget documents have sporadically been made public since 1997 but do not conform to international standards for open budget preparation. Transparency has improved with the publication of the budget in the official gazette since 2002 and of the budget plan since 2003.25 However, other key information such as extra-budgetary activities, tax exemptions, and fiscal reporting has not been made public.26 Similarly, government accounts are incomplete. The Ministry of Finance has a financial inspection department, but this only inspects the accounts of those government organizations in which problems are known to have occurred.27

The awarding of government contracts is not transparent, and no legislative regime covers public procurement. Laos is heavily dependent on donor assistance, which is distributed freely. Corruption is rife in both sectors; the rigging of donor procurement processes to provide kickbacks to officials is common. A Procurement Monitoring Office was established in the Ministry of Finance in 2003 to oversee the implementation of better procurement processes, and revision of implementing regulations is currently underway.28


  • The government must implement systemic reform at all levels to address state corruption, nontransparency, and procedural inefficiency. It should enact conflict-of-interest legislation, an anticorruption law, and legal protections for whistleblowers; establish an effective independent anticorruption commission; and consider developing an ombudsman institution.
  • Public finance reform should be expedited, including establishing effective internal and external audit mechanisms, separating the National Audit Office from the control of the prime minister's office, improving budget transparency, and revising government procurement regulations.
  • The government should work to reform cultures of secrecy and improve public access to information, including through enacting freedom-of-information legislation, strengthening information infrastructure, and implementing processes by which citizens may petition for information. It should also take steps to improve information flow to and consultation with the National Assembly.


1 With the exception of citizens with mental disabilities or who have had their right to vote revoked by a court.

2 The Parliamentary Centre Visits Lao PDR (Ottawa: The Parliamentary Centre, 2004),, accessed 6 September 2004.

3 Author interviews.

4 C. Westcott, Summary of Lao PDR Governance Assessment (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2001), 26,, accessed 2 September 2004.

5 Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Any Part of the World, Written Statement submitted by the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC), a non-governmental organization in special consultative status (Geneva: United Nations Commission on Human Rights, report no. E/CN.4/2004/NGO/127, 8 March 2004), 2.

6 Laos – 2004 Annual Report (Paris: Reporters Sans Frontieres [RSF], 2004),, accessed 1 September 2004.

7 The two individuals believed to remain in detention are Thao Moua and Pa Phue Khang; see "Appeal for the release of the guides of Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud" (RSF, 25 July 2003),, accessed 6 December 2004; see also, "ASEAN Summit – Foreign Press urged to expose lack of free expression in Laos and plight of jailed local guides" (RSF, 26 November 2004),, accessed 6 December 2004.

8 S. Shaeffer, Keynote Speech Delivered by Dr Sheldon Shaeffer, Director UNESCO, Bangkok, at the opening reception of aseanARToday Thailand and Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar 4 June 2002 (Bangkok: UNESCO, 2002),, accessed 16 September 2004.

9 For more details see, "Lao Peoples Democratic Republic: The Laws are promulgated but have no impact on the people: Torture, ill-treatment and hidden suffering in detention" (London: Amnesty International [AI], 2002),, accessed 13 August 2004.

10 Ibid.

11 These include two officials from the pre-1975 government and two who served in the present regime before being jailed in 1990 for advocating multiparty politics. Laos: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2003 (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, 2004).

12 For further details on political prisoners, see Laos (AI, 2003a),, accessed 13 August 2004.

13 Ibid.; see also "Laos: Use of Starvation as a weapon of war against civilians" (AI, AI Index ASA 26/013/2003, 2003b; 2 October 2003),, accessed 13 August 2004.

14 Laos ratified the International Convention on the Eradication of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1974, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1981, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991.

15 "Laos: Disembowelling and torture of children condemned as war crimes" (AI, 13 September 2004),, accessed 16 September 2004.

16 "Study on Generating Employment through Micro and Small Enterprise and Cooperative Development in Lao PDR" (Geneva: International Labour Organisation [ILO], 2002),…, accessed 2 September 2004.

17 Religious Freedom in Laos: Persecution Alongside Progress (New Malden, Surrey: Christian Solidarity Worldwide, 2004),, accessed 7 December 2004.

18 Prime Minister's Decree 92 on the Administration and Protection of Religious Practice (Vientiane: Government of Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2002).

19 C. Westcott, Summary of Lao PDR Governance Assessment, 30.

20 Laos: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2003 (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, 2004).

21 Citizens are required to obtain prior approval before marrying foreigners, and while such approval is generally given, it requires a lengthy and burdensome application process.

22 T. Huxley, Reforming Southeast Asia's Security Sectors (London: Kings College London, Centre for Defence Studies, Conflict, Security and Development Group, 2001), 21-22.

23 P. Vandergeest, "Land to some tillers: Development-induced displacement in Laos," International Social Science Journal 55, 175 (2003): 47-56.

24 Lao PDR: Economic Monitor: May 2004 (Vientiane: World Bank Office, 2004), 24.

25 Ibid.

26 C. Westcott, "Combating Corruption in Southeast Asia," in J. Kidd and F-J Richter (eds), Fighting Corruption in Asia: Causes, Effects and Remedies (Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2003), 249,, accessed 2 September 2004.

27 Marc A. Miles, Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., Mary Anastasia O'Grady, and Ana I. Eiras, "2004 Index of Economic Freedom: Laos" (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2004),, accessed 6 September 2004.

28 Lao PDR: Economic Monitor (World Bank).

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