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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Laos: Background and U.S. Relations

Thomas Lum
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The United States and the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) cooperate in important areas despite ideological differences and U.S. concerns about alleged human rights abuses against the ethnic Hmong minority. The U.S. government has gradually upgraded its relations with the communist state, which has strong ties to Vietnam and growing economic linkages with China. Major areas of U.S. assistance and bilateral cooperation include de-mining and counter-narcotics programs, strengthening the country's regulatory framework and trade capacity, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, the recovery of Americans missing in action during the Vietnam War, and military education and training. In 2008, the United States and Laos exchanged defense attachés the first time in over 30 years. The U.S. government has embarked upon a policy of economic engagement with the LPDR as a means of influencing the future direction of Lao policy. 

The Obama Administration and Members of Congress have expressed concerns about the plight of former ethnic Hmong insurgents and their families, who have historical ties to the U.S.-backed Lao-Hmong guerilla army of the Vietnam War period, and efforts by Thai authorities to repatriate over 4,500 Lao-Hmong living in camps in Thailand, many of whom claim that they likely will be persecuted or discriminated against if they return to Laos. In June 2009, 31 Members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to appeal to the Thai government not to forcibly repatriate Hmong asylum seekers. U.S. officials have called upon the Thai and Lao governments for greater transparency in the repatriation and resettlement process. In April 2009, H.Con.Res. 112, "Expressing Support for Designation of a 'National Lao-Hmong Recognition Day,'" was introduced in the House of Representatives. 

Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, has made some notable political, social, and economic progress in recent years. Religious freedom reportedly has improved, particularly in urban areas. In 2009, the LPDR ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and promulgated a legal framework for non-governmental organizations. Opium production and use have dropped dramatically since 1998. Between 1988 and 2008, the economy grew by over 6% per year, with the exception of 1997-1998 due to the Asian Financial Crisis. Meanwhile, U.S.-Laos trade has grown rapidly, albeit from a low base. In 2008, total trade between Laos and the United States was valued at $60 million compared to $15 million in 2006. The government has implemented market-oriented reforms, but progress has been slow. 

Major U.S. policy considerations include urging the Lao government to accept independent, international monitoring of the resettlement of former Lao-Hmong insurgents and Hmong returnees from Thailand; urging the Thai government not to forcibly repatriate Hmong determined to be political refugees; increasing assistance for de-mining activities in Laos; granting trade preferences or tariff relief for Lao products, particularly garments; and developing programs for sustainable management of the Mekong River.

Date of Report: January 4, 2010
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: RL34320
Price: $29.95

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