THE LAO PDR'S CONSTITUTION & CURRENT POLITICAL SITUATION
This article was contributed to Laosfreedom.com
The communist regime in Lao dichotomizes their ruling of the country into two stages. The first stage spans from December 2, 1975, to August 14, 1994; they called these 19 years a period of defending and building the country. The second stage began after December 14, 1994; this is known as the "new era." The Preamble of the Lao Constitution proclaims that this new era is "an era of genuine independence for the country and freedom for the people." However, in the same paragraph, it also states that Lao is under the "leadership of the Indochinese Communist Party." The Indochinese Communist Party consists of communists Vietnam, Cambodia and Lao. Cambodia has reverted to a constitutional monarchy and cannot be considered communist to which the Lao communist regime in Vientiane can look to for support. The remaining fraternal communist is Vietnam to which the Lao communist leadership, either through direct pressure or implicit consent, subsumes the sovereignty of Lao by reciting the country's subservience thereto in Lao's Constitution.
The Lao Constitution contains many provisions which are far contentious and potentially life threatening to the Communist Party in Lao. Had the Communist Party be more literate, more educated and have more foresight, they would have never promulgated the Constitution; or at least not one with the provisions that it now contains. The Constitution of the Lao PDR may provide an understanding of the recent bombings, political infighting, and internal turmoil in Lao.
The power of the Communist regime in Lao lies in the National Assembly. It is here, in the hallow chamber located at the Thatluang Square that political fortune and tragedy took place. The Assembly meets twice a year, and its controlled by a National Assembly Standing Committee, an equivalence of the Politburo in other communist states.
Chapter I of the Constitution recognizes three segments of the people: farmers, workers and intellectuals. This provision in Article 2 has a profound meaning on the political structure and power play in Lao. The People's Liberating Army, an instrument and force that once propelled the communist leadership into power on December 2, 1975, now takes a back seat. The assertion of farmers and workers as the fundamental segments of the population has not much political significance; however, by raising the "intellectual" to a status of a vital segment of the Lao society, the Constitution purports to build unto itself a political time bomb. All other communist countries, such as China, Vietnam, Cambodia under Pol Pot, the Soviet Union prior to Gorbachev, Cuba, and others, have a doctrinal disdain for the intellectuals because political changes come mostly from this class of people. The Lao Constitution, however, guarantees a role for the intellectual class in the political life the country. Hence, we saw several attempts by the Lao intellectuals to stage protest against the current regime.
Another pitfall that the Communist leadership made in its Constitution is found in Article 4 concerning the election of members of the National Assembly. Under Article 4, members of the Assembly are elected "through principles of universal suffrage, equal and direct suffrage, and secret balloting." Thus far, candidates for election had been only members of the Communist Party. The preventing of nonmembers from becoming candidates stands in stark contradiction to Article 4, Chapter I of the Constitution. The present five year terms of the National Assembly is due to expire in the year 2002; the Assembly has 99 seats and each seat is heatedly contested, particularly by the intellectuals nonparty members.
Article 51 guarantees that members of the Assembly are immune from arrest and prosecution when the Assembly is in session. Since the Assembly meets twice a year, it is arguable that the National Assembly is in a perpetual session even when it is seemingly inactive. Therefore, the Lao intellectuals sees the Assembly as a vehicle for change. Advocating for political change may cost a person his liberty, if not his life, outside of the Assembly; however, as a member of the Assembly such an advocacy is immune from prosecution if done so when the Assembly is in session. The prospect of using the Assembly an instrument for change becomes even more attractive when Article 51' s guarantee against arrest is read with Article 61 wherein a mere 1/4 of members may raise a non-confidence vote to replace the government: the President of the State, Prime Minister, etc. It may be Article 61 that will bring down communism in Lao.
The National Assembly meets only twice a year according to Article 43, yet all the political making and shaking emanate from this body. At the helm of the Assembly stands National Assembly Standing Committee. Members of the Committee are elected by the Assembly. Members of the Assembly are recruited from the ranks of the Communist Party. The rationale for the communist leadership, who are used to the idea of central control of all decision making process, is that by mirror the National Assembly under this new Constitution after the communist model of Politburo, as taught by their communist masters, power can still be tightly controlled by the old guards. After all, the Lao National Assembly is a unicameral body empowered to control both the executive and judiciary. Cabinet members which form the government, as well as judges and prosecutors who interpret and enforce the law of the land are appointed by the Assembly, the communist leaders might have reasoned, communism in Lao therefore will reign in perpetuity. However, as many observers and Lao intellectuals see it, the present model of "democratic centralism" is the best formula for a bloodless coup d'etat to overthrow communism overnight.
Presently, the Assembly has 99 members. Article 61 provides that a quorum consists of a bare majority of 51% or 50 members to pass a resolution. Such a resolution may entail anything from promoting or demoting ministers to removal of the President. Out of the 50 members quorum, Article 61 requires only 1/4 of those present or 12 members to forge a vote of no confidence to reconstitute a new government or certain segment of the government. In the worst case scenario, the communist leadership can be overthrown by mere vote of 33 people: 50 to call a quorum, 12 to incite a no confidence vote and 33 of the 50 to carry out the sacking. For those in power who see this potentially explosive situation, the prospect of allowing nonparty members to stand for election to the National Assembly would mean a political suicide. This fear is further heighten when Article 61 is read with provisions of Article 47 which provides that the question concerning the destiny of the country may be submitted for debate during the 2 sessions of the Assembly. The Constitution, as it now stands, permits as little as 50 people and 33 votes of those 50 to determine the life and death of communism in Lao.
The Constitution also has other death trap build into it. Article 45 list other organizations, other than the National Assembly itself as the sole arbiter of legislative matters, to affect legislation. There are 6 organs which have the rights and power to affect legislation in the National Assembly. These organizations include: the President of the State, the National Assembly Standing Committee, the Government, the People Supreme Court, the Public Prosecutor - General and the mass organization at the central level. These six bodies are the closest thing of a multiparty system in communist Lao. Since any of the six bodies can influence the Assembly, each is a potential catalyst for change and each is also a potential faction that can break away from the fold.
The communist leadership in Lao sees December 2, 1975, as a crowning achievement for its struggle against the old regime. It touted the 1994 Constitution as its second great leap forward for it can boast to the world that the country has a Constitution---purportedly the highest law of the land. Like any other countries with constitutions as the guiding light of governance, the world has something more tangible to finger pointing the communist leadership in Lao if there is dereliction in their administration, or refusal or inability in upholding its Constitution.
As the communist leadership experience more pressure from outside and face internal discontent, not so much as from the ranks of party members but from the intellectual class, its grip on power may soon be loosen. August 14, 2000, marks the sixth anniversary of the Lao PDR's Constitution. In its six years of existence, the Constitution remains a dead letter. Article 8 guarantees equality among all ethnic groups, yet the Hmong minority still fights for its equality. Article 9 guarantees freedom of religion, yet some Christians are still being harassed or detained. Article 9 guarantees freedom of political action, yet political dissent is answered with brutal suppression. Article 12 guarantees Lao's independence and neutrality, yet the 1979 Mutual Defense Treaty with Vietnam deprives Lao's ability to defend its sovereignty. Article 15 guarantees ownership of property, yet properties confiscated from those who fled the country remain in the hands of party members. Article 27 guarantees freedom of movement, yet the Lao people are not free to come and go as they please. Article 28 guarantees the right to lodge grievances against the government, yet the first sign of protest is met with brutal intolerance. Article 29 guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure of property and person, yet arbitrary arrest and seizure remain widespread. Article 31 guarantees free speech, yet the only type of speech allowed is one not offensive to those in power. Time, place and manner of speech are tightly regulated; the content of speech is closely scrutinized.
The constitution and a totalitarian regime do not go hand in hand. Those who are now in power in Lao are at a cross road. If the country is to be guided by a constitution, the people will have to become more active in the political life of the country. Political activism under the constitution means that the electoral process must allow universal participation, be it communist or noncommunist, or perhaps communist with different shades of red. If, however, the communist leadership wants to retain the old system of central control, it must abrogate the constitution altogether and rule by arbitrary whim. Whatever the soul searching question and guidance the communist leaders may seek, either at home or from Hanoi or Peking, it is clear and convincing that Lao must go forward. That march forward must take with it the present draft of the Constitution along with its imperfection that only time and patriotism can cure, if not so in this decade perhaps in years to come. If a constitution is the guiding light for the country, Lao must take this guiding light and work with it. It cannot promulgate this guiding "light" and attempt to redefine a new type of "darkness" for the country. If the communist leaders in Lao stumble on their own incompetence, their fall might not be as painful if the soul of the country remains in tack as the last vestige of a totalitarian regime vanquish. With this constitution, the people, who want change and will work for change, sees the light at the end of the tunnel. However, for the communist leaders in Lao, this constitution sheds light on the country and they can now only see a tunnel at the end of the light beam. This might be a case of a "rocket scientist" who will soon get himself torn asunder by his own creation.