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Sixth Anniversary of the Lao PDR's Constitution
This article was contributed to the
(August 2000)

August 14th, 2000 marks the sixth anniversary of the Lao PDR Constitution. The world must ask what had the Lao people achieved since the promulgation of the Constitution on August 14th, 1994? We are sad to report that despite the glowing promises found in the Constitution, the Lao people still find themselves living under tyranny.
The Constitution speaks of lofty ideals, such as freedom of the press and expression; the ability of the people the lodge grievances against their government; equality among all ethnic groups; freedom of movement; and the people's right to be secured in their persons and houses. These promises remained unfulfilled despite six years have passed. We are compelled to ask whether these promises can ever be fulfilled in the next sixty years under the present regime? If the past is any indication of the future, every person must answer this question in the negative.
     Democracy in Lao must come from the fruit of our effort. All Lao people must work together to achieve that common goal. We have a shared interest in liberating our country and people from the yoke of tyranny. We have done it in the past; surely we can do it again in this century. Don't wait for this ex-general or that ex-minister to lead the way. We, the People, must take the lead.
     We must not only dream to live under the rule of law, but work towards that end. A desire without commitment and an objective without action are nothing more than empty words; much like the promises the Constitution of the Lao PDR made to the people.
If the Communist leaders never intended to enforce the constitution, why did they promulgate in the first place? Such an inquiry is a legitimate question. For the communist leadership to whom Lao is nothing more than the loot of war, the Constitution is another propaganda. It is used to boost their legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Many foreign donors condition their financial aids and developmental assistance on the communist leadership in Vientiane to show a commitment for the rule of law. By promulgating the constitution in 1994, the communist leadership deceived the world into believing that the Vientiane regime is the only legitimate ruler of Lao. To bolster their claim they purposely delayed the promulgation of the constitution for 19 years. Under the facade of educating the public and generating public participation in drafting the constitution, the communists in Lao claim that they earnestly began the drafting of the constitution since 1984. By promulgating it in 1994, the communists in Vientiane deceived the world into believing that they had seriously undertaken a ten years commitment to draft a perfect constitution for the country. However, the Lao people can never be fooled into believing that those ten years were nurtured in peace and harmony. Thousands still fled the country to seek political freedom elsewhere. Thousands more languished in death camps.
     Indeed they had succeeded in deceiving the world for they have mastered the art of deception. Do not think for a second that the Lao PDR's Constitution was an edict sent from Hanoi or Beijing. It was the handy work of constitution law professors and other western scholars from the west. These constitutional scholars were enlisted to work for the Lao PDR at that government's behest. How effective a propaganda ploy it was to have used constitutional scholars from western democracies to draft a constitution for a totalitarian state.
The election of the National Assembly is scheduled for the year 2002. Presently, there are 99 seats in the Assembly. These seats are contested among the party cadres. The Lao people have 2 years to demand for changes in the political structure of Lao. This demand means that the 1994 Lao PDR Constitution has to be dismantled. The first 2 Chapters or the first 20 Articles of the Constitution will have to be deleted if democracy is to be seen in Lao. Chapter 1 of the Constitution speaks of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (Lao Communist Party) as the vanguard of Lao's politics. In order to function as a legitimate regime, political monopoly by the Lao Communist Party must be torn asunder. A multiparty system of politics must be instituted. Politicians must compete for the favors of the people. Chapter 2 speaks of the economic system of the country. By naming the State, i.e., the Lao Communist Party, as the guardian of the Lao economy, corruption among the Lao communist elite is assured. This entire Chapter has to be eliminated. The people must have the power to determine the destiny of their country. The economy of Lao should be governed by market forces. The role of the State should be kept at minimum.
     The rationale for Chapters 1 & 2 in the Constitution is quite clear: to legitimize the monopoly of power by the Lao Communist Party. Chapter 1 guarantees the political power for the Communist Party. To say that the Lao Communist Party is the vanguard of political organ of the State is the same as telling the Lao people that no other political parties will be tolerated. As the Constitution exists now, the Communist Party can eliminate any dissent, even by brute force, and will get away with it. The Communists in Vientiane will point to the fact that the Constitution does not allow any other political parties to participate in the politics of the country. Chapter 1 of the Constitution reserves for the Lao Communist Party a monopoly of political power. Such a power will be difficult to conserve unless there is a system to support it. This foundational support is provided by Chapter 2 of the Lao PDR's Constitution. Chapter 2 guarantees the role of the State, i.e., the Lao Communist Party, to centrally plan the economy. When these two Chapters of the Constitution are read together, it is clear that the Communist regime in Lao is held together by Chapter 1 which guarantees it a political power. Chapter 2 gives it the economic bounty needed to maintain that power.
Many people criticize Lao's State structure for lacking check-and-balance. The criticism is misplaced. Lao is a communist state. A totalitarian state, by definition, is dictatorial. Therefore, the idea of separation of government is nonexistent. Advocating check-and-balance structure of government in communist Lao is absurd. Unless the totalitarian structure is dismantled, there is no use of discussing a multiparty system. Before a multiparty system can come into existence, the monopoly of political power must be wrestled from the hands of the Communist. By dismantling Chapters 1 & 2, political liberalization will be assured.
The problem in Lao is not whether the legislature should be a unicameral or bicameral system. A unicameral system, as it now exists in Lao, will work as well as a bicameral system. It is the constituents of the National Assembly that matters. If the membership of the Assembly includes non-communists, the composition of government---hence the cabinet---will also change to reflect the political persuasion of the Assembly. Therefore, check-and-balance does not come from separation of power as we see in the US, but from balancing political interests of different groups or players in the Assembly. In essence, democracy in Lao would tend to take the form of parliamentary democracy commonly found in Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
     The model above is not a mere mutation of "democratic centralism." It is an entirely different structure. Democratic centralism allows a unicameral system without political dissent among members of the Assembly. A workable Assembly, as conceded above, maintains a unicameral system, but members of the Assembly are drawn from various political factions through an electoral process. Such an Assembly has more institutional integrity than a bicameral system because a parliamentary democracy tends to be controlled and corrupted by special interest groups. A unicameral system will minimize such a corruption because all legislative events are confined to one House. Within that House, the President, the Prime Minister and his cabinet will arise. Only the best and brightest will rise to the top to serve the country and people. The electorate will confine their political participation to the electoral process. In rare instances, the people will voice their opposition to the government through recalls and referendum to express disapproval of the government. This is a check-and-balance less advocated by critics of the Lao government. If this type of governmental structure is propounded, the chance for Lao to become democratic is more realistic. However, to advocate the check-and-balance, based on separation of power between the executive, legislative, and judiciary---effectively taking civic lesson from grade school in America and try to apply it to Lao---the light of democracy will not likely dawn on Lao in this century.
A multiparty politics in a unicameral system will produce two effects. On the one hand, popular democracy will take place among the populace. Members of the Assembly will come directly from the people. The people will control the destiny of the country by carefully selecting their legislative representatives. This is the essence of demos (the people). On the other hand, the unicameral Assembly tends to be ruled and run by a meritocratic system. The President, the Prime Minister, and members of the cabinet will be drawn from the membership roster of the Assembly. Since the Assembly is a single House and its members are bonded to one another by national interests, the government will be constituted with competent candidates. This is the essence of cratos (the rule). The description of this type of government structure can aptly be called meritocratic democracy. This system of government is best suited for a small and demographically diverse nation, such as Lao.
     This model of government is very different from other parliamentary systems found in Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, or Singapore. In pure parliamentary democracy, politics is reduced to power sharing among various interest groups who succeeded in placing their representatives in the Assembly. The cabinet is drawn from the ranks of various parties. The ruling government tends to be a coalition government. Instability comes from dissension among smaller parties who had been left out of the coalition. The working of the coalition government is nothing more than "power sharing;" or honesty among thieves.
Check-and-balance in such a system of government comes from competing interests among parties. Lacking an institutional integrity in check-and-balance, such a system of government tends to be corrupt. The defect of democracy can easily be seen when powerful interest groups can outspend their opponents. Electoral violence and vote buying are also common in such a parliamentary democracy.
     Meritocratic democracy is a workable model for Lao and is the most practicable system compatible with the current political structure in Lao. The Constitution of the Lao PDR can best accommodate this type of government. The people who advocate a multiparty politics can also be accommodated under this Constitution. On this sixth anniversary of the Lao PDR Constitution, we must reflect and analyze how can the Lao people work within the existing power structure in Lao. To reinvent the wheel, i.e., engaging in another war to overthrow the government, will most likely thrown the country into protracted sufferings. At the end, Lao will end up as a proxy for some foreign powers. To have Lao remain in the hands of the Lao people, we must have solution that comes directly from the minds of the Laotians.