Burma’s leap from an international pariah to a possible model for other tightly governed nations in Southeast Asia is prompting citizens of neighbor Laos to question the benefits of life under one-party communist rule.
After decades of harsh military rule, Burma has enacted several initial reforms, including dialogue with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, releasing several hundred political prisoners, agreeing to hold talks with armed ethnic groups, talking to the International Monetary Fund on currency reforms and allowing exiles to return.
The reform moves by Burma’s nominally civilian government, which took power in March last year, followed decades of pressure from Western governments which have long maintained diplomatic, political and economic sanctions that have choked off investment in the poverty-stricken country.
Amid the changes, some Laotians are beginning to feel that their government should also initiate democratic reforms that would allow the people to take a larger role in the country’s development.
These people say that their freedoms are too restricted as a result of rule by the communist government since 1975.
One reader, who posted a comment in response to an RFA report this month about Burma emerging from among the world’s worst-ranked countries in a global freedom survey, called on Western governments to put similar pressure on Laos to enact democratic reforms.
“Why can’t the U.S. and EU [put] more pressure on a tiny country such as Laos to do the same as Burma—to release those political prisoners in Laos?” or “to hold a free election [that] other political parties can participate in?,” the reader asked.
“What makes the U.S. and EU so reluctant to engage the Laos government to make these changes? This is 2012, not 1975, and this is the 21st century … We the people do not need authoritarian or dictatorial rules. We need freedom and democracy.”
The government in Laos is based on decisions taken by a dozen politburo members of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, while parliamentarians are elected from among those hand-picked by the ruling party.
There are no plans for any significant reforms to the one-party socialist system but government leaders are moving to attract much-needed investments in a bid to boost the economy of one of the poorest Asian nations.
At least one part of the Lao population feels open debate and other democratic reforms can bring about direct people participation in charting the future of their country.
“If the people have a part—share their thoughts and their views—it’s a good thing, because today the people don’t have any voice,” said one Lao woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
“[Now,] the Party points the way and we follow. They fix things according to their manner,” she said.
“They change their minds and we really don’t know—we don’t have time to be concerned with them. I’m just making sure I take care of myself every day.”
The woman told RFA that previously, most Laotians only had a minimum level of education and therefore could not act for themselves.
“If the state sent down orders, they acted accordingly because they had no way to complain,” she said.
“Now, Laotians are better educated, but they are still unable to express their own thoughts on how to develop the country if they hold views contrary to government policies.”
But there remain defenders of the communist regime who say single-party rule has benefited the country because decisions can be carried out in a timely fashion in the absence of debate.
“It’s good to have a single party—one state. With only one party there are no conflicts, which I think is good,” said a Lao man who did not give his name.
“They rule this way and it’s good, they give the people the chance to speak—to do.”
Starved for development
But while the people of Laos debate their political future, one common goal is to develop the country as quickly as possible.
Resource-starved Laos suffers from high rates of poverty and a lack of viable infrastructure.
In early January, Laos granted Vietnam the right to open its first specific economic zone, just two weeks after granting an earlier concession on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane to Chinese developers.
The Lao government has said it has no plans to stop courting investment from its neighbors, having recently approved the development of five special and specific economic zones in the country.
According to a report from the National Committee for Special and Specific Economic Zone Management Secretariat Office, the Lao government has listed 41 areas as special and specific economic zones, of which 25 will be built over the next 10 years.
The army has forced hundreds of Laotians off of their land to make room for foreign investment in specific economic zones.
A key planned project is the construction of a controversial dam project, which is being led by a consortium of Thai banks and power firms. As much of 95 percent of the electricity generated by the 1,260 megawatt dam would be supplied to Thailand.
But critics of the Xayaburi Dam say it would destroy the river’s ecology and disrupt the livelihood of riparian communities that rely on it for their livelihood.
With plans to build a total of 70 hydropower projects, Lao officials have said the country hopes to become “the battery” of Asia.
Reported by Viengsay Luangkhot for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.