3.2 There are significant differences in perception and priorities of Lao stakeholders and traditional development partners (3.2.4)

3.2.4        Cleavages within the Lao elite and the Party highlight possible sources of internal division.

Although the Party-State appears as monolithic, with few Lao and virtually no foreigners confident in their ability to identify currents and factions, it is widely believed that there are cleavages within the Lao elite along a range of axes, and that there is an important, albeit largely concealed struggle underway.

The most significant axes of differentiation within the Lao elite are generational gaps, educational/training differences, historical ties and divergent economic/family interests.[3]

The history of Lao PDR within the living memory of its oldest citizens has been extremely tumultuous, with numerous changes of regime and social system.

Before 1975, civil society was emerging in Laos, with the co-existence of five political parties, among which some had young citizens fighting for pro-liberal and pro-US orientations.

When the Lao PDR was established in 1975, Royalist and pro-American currents in civil society were forcibly disbursed, with their members either jailed or going into exile. The Hmong minority, which had tended to support the American side in the Indochinese conflict, was perceived as an unreliable and possibly treacherous community for many years. A very small number of Pathet Lao rebels, massively supported by Vietnam, reconstructed the state and coordinated the post-war economic reconstruction according to new techniques and depending on non-traditional networks of patronage and solidarity.

Among those who did not leave the country, the generational gap is significant, between veterans of the war and those born after the war. There are also generational gaps in the diaspora.

Differences in education and training are of significant influence. Among top level Lao decision-makers, one can find some who benefited from French colonial education, some trained in northern Vietnam during the conflict, and some whose main education was as guerrilla rebels or political cadre during the conflict. Mid-level cadre are mostly trained in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent in the former USSR and the post-Communist Member States of the EU. Younger cadre (and the children of the elite) are mostly educated in Australia, the USA, Thailand and Vietnam. Australia in particular has a generous and relatively meritocratic scholarship system targeting Laos. Long periods of training in Vietnam remain a preferred tool of consolidation and internal selection of the Party-State, and Vietnamese would be the most widely spoken foreign language within the civil service and within the Party-State. Some sources have suggested that all members of the Politbureau speak fluent Vietnamese, since all seem to have spent several years in that country.

One may speculate that those trained in Vietnam, in China and in the West may favour orientations towards those countries, and may appreciate certain elements of the political economy of these countries. However, this is at the level of speculation.



No available studies enable us to identify assess the existence, relative weight and specific priorities of ‘Vietnamese’ and ‘Chinese’ currents within the Lao elite. The available evidence leads us to cautiously conclude that there are no such currents. Instead, we consider the Lao elite to be differentiated by family allegiance, personal and family history, and country of education. Affinities are often asserted to exist between Lao from the South and the North, but these are generally perceived as less important than connections at the provincial level. Since almost all provinces have an external frontier, the elite in each province operates in a distinct environment of local and foreign interests and opportunities.

A recent study suggested that ‘when tensions and fragmentation become acute, the ‘old guard’ or the ‘wise men’ are called back to mediate and avoid implosion of the party.’[4] This would suggest that ‘internal divisions can be deep on certain issues, which provides entry points’[5] for like-minded donors. However, these donors have in general not yet developed the capacity to identify and intervene.

Numerous commentators have suggested that the level of conflict within the Lao elite is escalating in recent years. Some have speculated that the policy reversals or blockage of proposed reforms regarding for example land ownership and usufruct rights reflect high level struggles, or that recent deaths of top officials, officially as a result of accident or sickness, may reflect a violent struggle between elite fractions. However, this remains at the level of speculation.

[3]  See PEA February 2013 for more detail, p.131

[4] PEA February 2013, p.79, ‘The shadow-government: real locus of political power’

[5] PEA February 2013, p.79, ‘The shadow-government: real locus of political power’


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