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Laos takes life one step at a time

If, as a foreigner, you pick up any local Lao official jargon, it is likely to be the unexciting phrase, "theua la kaaw", which means step by step.

Landlocked, overshadowed by powerful Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai neighbours and small in terms of population, the Laos are not big on taking risks. This is the country that was showered with 6 million American bombs during a the nine-year "secret" war when the US foolishly thought it would bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail to smithereens. The number of bombs dropped, more than fell on Germany during the Second World War, equates to 2 tonnes for every man, woman and child in the country.

So, how did the Laos government respond to the perpetrators of this devastation when the bombing stopped, the old royalist regime was kicked out and the Communists were installed? They invited the US to retain its embassy in Vientiane, and had members of the royal family join the new people's government.

Step by step the Communist hardliners tried imposing a rigid centralised system on the country and step by step, some ten years after assuming control in 1975, the government brought in something called the New Economic Mechanism which set about dismantling the state's all-encompassing control.

The economy is now shedding state control like a bad hangover and the undistinguished streets of the capital buzz to the sound of small Japanese motorcycles, whizzing past shops stacked high with badly made Chinese electronic products.

Unlike Hanoi, the jewel in France's Indo-Chinese colonial crown, Vientiane possesses few signs of the elegance bestowed by the occupying power on its neighbours. Only the baguette and pretty drinkable Lao coffee linger as reminders of the French presence. The Communist Party has relinquished not a drop of power but imposes control with a very light hand. The gates to the presidential palace were wide open when I passed, with not a guard in sight.

There is no Mao Tse-tung or Ho Chi Minh symbolising the Lao revolution. Bulldozers are busy clearing the land for a museum to commemorate the life and times of Kaysone Phomvihane, the former Communist leader who died in 1992, but the memorial for Comrade or "Uncle" Kaysone, like his ideology, is not likely to make much impact on this resolutely non-ideological society.

The hammer and sickle has been quietly removed from the state emblem, and the remnants of Soviet influence have faded with barely a trace. In the centrally located Russian Cultural Centre, once the Soviet Cultural Centre, two men shuffle around a vast empty space, barely occupied by an apologetic display of Russian photographs. One official is watching the French channel on a satellite television station. Asked if he ever watches Russian television, he laughs and says in French that he used to.

A group of young Lao journalists, half of whom had been trained in the former Soviet Union, titter when the subject of Marxism is raised. One asks, "Do you think there's anything in Marxism which is relevant today?"

When the question is thrown back at the questioner, he merely shrugs in reply. Nevertheless, the 177th birthday of Karl Marx was faithfully recorded in the Communist Party daily newspaper, Pasason or People's Daily, which produced a three-column treatise on his achievements.

Officials cheerfully admit that few people pay attention to the state- controlled media. They tune in without hindrance to television and radio in Thailand, whose language is close enough to Lao to be readily understood. The official fear is not of capitalism and other subversive ideas, but of Thai cultural dominance, squeezing out the Lao national identity.

The government's fears are probably exaggerated. Like many small nations overshadowed by powerful neighbours, the Laos cling to their identity, even if the presence of minority people such as the Hmongs makes it difficult to be precise about the exact nature of that identity.

Laos also clings to all the forms of an authoritarian centralised state, but the reality is that the desire for economic progress has made many of these institutions irrelevant.

Sometimes a visitor is taken aback by reminders of how the bureaucracy works. Leaving and entering the country, you are unnecessarily asked to define your race for the benefit of the immigration authorities. The officials seem not to mind if you insert the word "human" in the space provided.

They are quite happy to ask the offensive question, but equally unperturbed to be given a dismissive reply.

Stephen Vines