Laos Government Prepares Eighth Communist Party Congress

The government of Laos is opening the eighth congress its Communist Party, which has led the country since the mid-1970s. Organizers say this congress will enact major reforms, but until now Laos has only pursued cautious, gradual change.

The senior leadership of the Lao Communist Party is meeting in Vientiane. The congress convenes every five years and Lao Spokesman Yong Chantalangsy says the theme this time is growth and renewal.

"The general congress is the most historical event in the political life of the country," he said. "This congress will review the implementation of the renovation policy of the government for the last 20 years."

The spokesman says Laos has had two years of economic growth, indicating that the economy has fully recovered from the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Yong highlights the country's expansion in the energy sector, growth in tourism and the eradication of opium cultivation in the country.

Laos launched limited market reforms after its communist benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991. Professor Milton Osborne, at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, says since then Laos has been seeking to open up to the outside world as a way to support itself.

"We are looking at a transition in Laos, but it is a slow - and I am not even sure if steady is the correct word - a slow and fitful transition," Osborne said.

The Lao government began to allow outside communications - like international telephones and television broadcasts - only a few years ago.

Last year it hosted the summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations - billed as a sign of its emergence on the international stage.

But Osborne says reform does not extend to politics, where the Communist government - that took power at the end of the Vietnam War - is adamantly opposed to abandoning the one-party system.

"The Lao remain concerned to try to find some fashion that will enable them to balance their slow opening up to the outside world with the maintenance of strict party control," he added. "And any signs that have occurred of people questioning party control have been very sharply dealt with."

The party congress is also to elect a new Central Committee, which will choose the 10-member Political Bureau that sets official policy.

A great deal of attention has been focused on whether the senior leaders, now in the 70s and 80s, will step down in favor of younger party leaders.

But experts note that the younger members of the Political Bureau are in their 50s and 60s. As a result, they say any new leaders who emerge are likely to be faces that have been around for quite some time.