Laos: Country Overview
Laos is situated in the heart of the Indochinese Peninsula, with a population of 6.5 million. It has 16 provinces, one municipality (Vientiane) and one special zone (Saysomboune), with a population density of 25 per km2. The UNDP lists Laos 133rd out of 179 countries in the Human Development Index - which is to say it has a pretty low standard of living.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is a socialist republic. The only legal political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. After 1975 the Lao PDR signed agreements with Vietnam allowing Vietnamese military stationing in the country, and for Vietnam to advise in its governance. Vietnam's influence was slowly attenuated, along with a relaxation of collectivisation and other economic restrictions, through the 1980s - and further in the 1990s, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the lifting of a 20-year US aid ban, and Laos' admission to ASEAN in 1997.
In 2005, the US established normal trade relations with the Laos. In 2008 Laos became a full member of the World Trade Organization.
Laos has an extensive twentieth century history of war. A series of uprisings against its French overlords began in 1901; there were both Thai and Japanese occupations during World War II; and on the return of the French in 1946, a growing Pathet Lao (communist) insurgency was mounted from the country's northeast against the royal family, and was supported by the Viet Minh. When French withdrawal began after Laotian independence in 1953, there was a North Vietnamese invasion of the northeast, following which the US provided increasing support to the royal government against the Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese ally. The 1960s saw extensive invasion and occupation of the eastern region by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which used the region as a staging ground and supply route in its war against the American military and South Vietnam.
Between 1962 and 1975 Laos was a theatre of the 'secret war' between the US and the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao - part of it an American aerial campaign that rendered Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. 2.4 million tons of ordnance were dropped in this period, killing up to 500,000 civilians, of which an estimated 500,000 tons remained unexploded. The civil war ended in April 1975 with a Pathet Lao victory.
Unexploded bombs take about 300 lives a year. Laos' UXO (unexploded ordnance) will take 50 to 100 years to clear, according to UXO Lao, the principal government organization in mine clearance.
Between 1964 and 1973 it is estimated that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day: 260 million bombs. Sources disagree on how much US ordnance was dropped on Laos relative to other conflicts: double the amount dropped on Germany in WW II (Washington Post); more than was dropped on Germany and Japan in WW II (Le Monde); or more than was dropped in the whole of WW II (Wikipedia).
Many of the bombs dropped did not detonate, leaving much UXO to the present. Again sources vary: for example estimates of unexploded cluster bombs range from 8 million to 80 million. The UXO which remains (most of it has not been found) continues to injure and kill people, and inhibit development and security.
In 2008 the Lao PDR signed the Mine Ban Treaty (or Ottawa Treaty).
Non-government organisations and commercial clearance companies - Handicap International (HI) Belgium, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), BACTEC, Millsearch, and Phoenix Clearance - have been accredited by the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/mine action in Lao PDR (NRA) to do UXO clearance.
Other organisations have implemented mine risk education programs, and provided orthotic devices and mobility training to victims.
Fifteen of the 16 Lao provinces are highly contaminated by UXO and land mines. The need for victim assistance in southern Laos is considerable - thus our decision to establish vocational training there.
Eighty-five percent of Laotians live in rural areas. Most income in rural Laos comes from farming (typically rice and other crop cultivation). Thus physical disablement is a serious barrier to gaining an income and maintaining social respect.
Due to the lack of higher education and technical skills training, most war victims have little hope of gaining employment, and are dependent on their families for support. This loss of autonomy, along with discrimination from society and their own families, often results in mental trauma and decreased self-esteem. A survey Lom Orng did in 2007 revealed that, because there is little assistance or encouragement from government and NGOs, hopelessness is widespread among war victims. In some cases this leads to depression, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, and suicide attempts. Such issues much affect war victims' families, including their children.
At the time of this survey there were two training centres for war victims in Vientiane and one in Champasak. Due to limited resources each of these could train only about 60 trainees a year. Many candidates for these centres sit on waiting lists for so long (some for eight years) that they lose interest, become despondent or traumatized, or simply grow old.
With its fifteen years of experience in the implementation of vocational training for Cambodian land mine victims, Lom Orng has created considerable impact in Laos. Those trained in various skills now number in the thousands. Our training provides much greater opportunity for Lao war victims to become economically self-sustaining, and to regain their self-esteem and dignity.
Note: The Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is commonly known as Laos. The 's' was silent in the French era, though it is now sometimes sounded. The adjective is Lao, which is also the name the people go by. The adjective Laotian is used either to distinguish the nation's people as a whole from the dominant Lao ethnic group, or when the emphasis is on the country's political status - e.g. 'the Laotian Government'.