Provinces and Districts  



Territorial Organization

This territorial organization highlights the meridian structure of the buffer state formed by Lao PDR, which favors relations to the west with Thailand and to the east with Vietnam, all the way along the respective 1,835 km (1,500 km of which are constituted by the Mekong) and 2,060 km of common borders. There are also transverse sections along this stretch, in the form of three unofficial regions: the North, comprising the seven provinces located north-west of a line that goes from Huaphanh to Xayabury; the Centre, which includes the seven provinces lying between this line and Savannakhet; and the South, which covers the four southern provinces. This division reproduces the three founding territories of Lan Xang, which became separate kingdoms in the 18th century: Luangphrabang, Vientiane and Champassack (M. Stuart- Fox 1997, p. 17). These regions are now highly unequal, with the Centre containing half the population, the North a third and the South a fifth. The province of Savannakhet is  sometimes  attached  to  the  South  to  reduce  this imbalance. This atlas hopes to contribute to the design of new regional divisions, better suited to the needs of economic and social development.

The configuration of a buffer state and territorial management

The importance of Laos in continental South-East Asia stems mainly from its political function as an intermediate space in the heart of the peninsula. This position has preserved it over the centuries, despite a frequently unfavorable balance of power with its neighbors, first to the north and south, then to the west and east. Until the 14thcentury, the Lao principalities separated the successive kingdoms in Yunnan from those centered on the Mekong Delta. Subsequently, the founding of Lan Xang established  an intermediate space between the Burmese and Siamese kingdoms on one side, and the Viet on the other. The political split between Communist and free-market systems in the peninsula cut through the middle of Laotian territory during the war years, at the time of the meridian partition between the zone controlled by the royal government in Vientiane and the zone controlled by the Pathet Lao in Xamneua. This fault line established itself on the Mekong , from the time of the country's reunification in 1975 until Vietnam , Laos , Myanmar and Cambodia joined Thailand as members of ASEAN.

This difficult process of nation-building left Lao PDR with two legacies. First, the country had to repair the damage done by the war, which had displaced a quarter of the 1973 population (730,000 people) within national borders and caused 12% of the 1986 population (414,000   people) to leave the country. Between 1975 and 1979, the return of 550,000 people to their provinces of origin was organized, despite transport difficulties (C. TaiUard, 1989).  

Mine clearance in the territories bordering the roads of the ormer controlled zone of Xamneua will need to continue for any years to make all the farming areas accessible again. Because of its meridian structure, Lao PDR soon discarded the centralized model of territorial management adopted in 1975, as the Siamese and the French had been obliged to do in the past. Indeed, from as early as the 16th century, Fa Ngum,  after having reunited the Laoprincipalities, organized Lan Xang into three entities, with the royal territory in Luangphrabang extended south by two successive territories in the Mekong Valley. On their own scale, these three territories reproduced the concentric spatial model marked by diminishing integration from the core to the periphery, characteristic of Thai political systems. Lao PDR has also sought to achieve the delicate balance that existed between these three territories in the past, and which today governs relations between the central government and the provinces, and between the provincial administrations and the districts.

Since 1975, the territorial organisation of Lao PDR has been redrawn, with the number of provinces increased from 13 to 18. Vientiane province, where 20% of the country's population was located, was divided into three. Luangnamtha and Saravane provinces were split into two because of difficulties travelling between the Mekong Valley and the mountainous hinterland. The special zone of Xaysomboun, located between Xiengkhuang and Vientiane , was also created. Together with Bokeo province in the northern economic development quadrangle— between Laos , Myanmar , Thailand and China 's Yunnan province—studied by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Sekong province east of the Bolovens Plateau, Xaysomboun is a strategic region for development.

Four types of provincial territories can be distinguished in the current administrative organization. The provinces in the Center, the narrowest part of the country, combine a range of natural landscapes and ethnic structures from the Mekong to the Annamese Cordillera. These provinces are highly heterogeneous and open to both Thailand and Vietnam . The provinces of the second type are bordered by the Mekong and Thailand . These become increasingly homogeneous as they move from Bokeo to Vientiane municipality. There is also Champassack province, which includes both banks of the Mekong and borders Thailand and Cambodia . The provinces of the third type are located along the land borders and are open to either two countries—Luangnamtha (Myanmar and China) and Phongsaly (China and Vietnam)—or one—Huaphanh ( Vietnam ). Sekong and Attapeu provinces are isolated, despite the old network of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The provinces of the fourth type are in an intermediate position between the river and mountainous border provinces of the North. They are ecologically more homogeneous, with the Nam Beng basin in Oudomxay, a river junction in Luang phrabang (Nam Ou, Xuang and Khan), and a plateau in Xiengkhuang.     


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