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Laos is a small, poor, landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Historically it has been divided ethnically and regionally much more often than it has been united. Laos has been buffeted by its larger neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, with which it shares long borders, and it was subjected toFrench colonialism as a sidelight to French control of Vietnam. More recently it was a focus of international intrigue and great power competition involving the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China. Laos was unwillingly caught up in the Vietnam War as the Vietnamese occupied the eastern part of the country and developed the Ho Chi Minh trail to move men and equipment to the south. The United States bombed the country intensively, mostly from air bases in Thailand. In 1975 a Communist government took control and over the next few years about 10% of the population fled the country, including most of the educated elite. The government of Laos cooperates fairly closely with the government of Vietnam. The current aging leaders of Laos are linked to Vietnam by ties of kinship, marriage, education, and political beliefs.

The government stresses the multiethnic character of the country and has made an effort to extend education, health care, and other government services to previously ignored ethnic minorities, who make up about one third of the population. There are well over 40 different ethnic groups loosely classified into lowland, midland, and upland Lao.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union and changes in Eastern Europe, Laos has lost its leading sources of foreign aid. It has loosened control of the economy and ended collectivization and cooperative farming. At the same time it has tried to increase control over minority populations, sometimes forcibly resettling them in lowland areas. This is probably the first government to have general control throughout the country.

Major issues facing the country involve nation-building, development of resources and infrastructure, extension and improvement of education, health, and other government services, greater agricultural productivity, deforestation, establishment of a legal system, leadership succession, human rights, and continuing problems from unexploded bombs and mines.