Can one of the world’s poorest nations join Burma on the march to development?
Although Laos is soon to join the World Trade Organization, it remains very much Southeast Asia’s forgotten country, a landlocked backpacker magnet of unexploded ordnance and bad, winding roads nicely topped off by stunning jungle, river and mountain vistas.
Lying between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand, Communist-ruled Laos has moved off what economists like to call “a low base,” with the country’s economy averaging 7-8 percent gross domestic product growth, built on hydropower development – which has raised the hackles of international environmentalists – and a mining boom.
The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) started opening slowly in the late 1980s, around the same time as neighboring Vietnam’s doi moi or renovation reforms got under way, in which a similar one-party Communist regime slowly liberalized parts of its economy. But despite the parallel paths, Vietnam’s much bigger economy – though recently struggling with slowing growth, graft scandals and inflation – is much more diversified than Laos’s, which remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with annual per capita gross domestic product by purchasing power parity of just US$2,700 per year, ranking it 177th in the world against Vietnam’s US$3,400.