VIENTIANE - The feeling of lethargy still lingers in the streets of old Vientiane. Things, however, are beginning to change: the time for indolence is over.
The capital of Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River, is brushing off its image as a sleepy, colonial market town by hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) this week. Vientiane, a city of 500,000 residents, is now discovering the symptoms of modernization that are recurrent in the "emerging" economies of Asia: traffic jams, a property boom, the growth of the middle class and the nouveaux riches who have unashamedly risen to wealth.
In the suburbs, “new towns” are sprouting up like mushrooms, with incredible, monstrous houses complete with Doric columns that support large domes, and where statues of eagles with outstretched wings sit enthroned. In the streets, it is not uncommon to pass a Porsche or a Ferrari.
"The Chinese are pouring colossal amounts of money into Laos," explains Ravansith Thammarangsy, a French architect originally from Laos. "Within the government, the pro-Chinese politicians have the wind in their sails," he says.
"We'll end up being swallowed up by China," fears Viengsanith Phattanasinh. She has just opened an antiques shop in the center of Vientiane.
For Laos, a landlocked country of nearly 6.5 million habitants, geography has never been a straightforward matter: The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), in power since communists overtook the royalist Lao government in December 1975, relies heavily on its Vietnamese "brother" to the east. It supported the country, both in terms of politics and the military, during the Vietnam War with the U.S. and is still one of the country's biggest investors. To the north there is China: a monster that carries enormous weight in the country whilst trying to remodel itself.
Laos' government has based its development strategy on this neighbor: no political freedom, a closely monitored freedom of expression and soaring economic liberalization. The figures back up the country's economic "emergence," with a growth rate expected at 8.3% in 2012 and an annual GDP of $1,200 dollars per person, compared to $300 some 10 years ago. The country has gone from one of the poorest in the world to a lower-middle-income country. It is set to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the end of the year, despite the alarming disparities between Vientiane and the rest of the country -- poor, mountainous and isolated.
The communist façade
The red flags and their hammers and sickles that adorn every public building do nothing to hide the fact that communism has been nothing more than a mere façade for a long time now. However, "the implementation of a "new economic mechanism" has reinforced its influence, rather than being denounced by the ruling elite who have been brought up on Marxist-Leninist doctrine," say Vanina Bouté and Vatthana Pholsena in their book Laos: sociétés et pouvoirs (Laos: Societies and Power).
With their ties to the Party, a new class of entrepreneurs have become rich, leaving in their wake a Party hierarchy similar to those in China and Vietnam. However, for the sake of the public, corruption is denounced by the press and jeered by the members of the Central Committee.
A certain liberty to criticize the government is now emerging -- on the condition that it cannot get out of hand. Not long ago, a deputy, Khampheuy Panemalaythong, dared to appeal against the democratic reforms during a parliamentary session. Sources indicate that he was a victim of a government purge.
Modernization has been met with both satisfaction and perplexity: "Individualism is on the rise; the divorce rate is getting out of hand," says Douangmala Phommavong, vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
"We were lagging behind many other countries in the region," explains Viengkao Inthavong, a 22-year-old blues singer. "The Internet, Facebook... modernization is bringing a better quality of life for us young people."
Unla, a 23-year-old hip-hop dancer and the embodiment of an unseemly modernization, remains a little skeptical: "I support technology and modernization, but I get the feeling that things are sometimes developing too quickly."
Twenty-nine-year-old film director Anysay Keola pointed out some home truths in his film Plai Tang (On the Horizon), which highlighted some of the country's problems: the accumulation of wealth and poverty; power and success; and the spoilt brats of the Party. It is a violent film noir with an unambiguous message: "My film reflects the reality of a modern Laos, torn between the people who think of nothing but money and those who cannot afford to buy themselves the luxury products that are now advertised everywhere," says Anysay, the frontrunner of Laos's nouvelle vague. "In terms of politics, the system makes me think of some sort of monarchy."