Laos, formally the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a socialist republic and Southeast Asia's only landlocked country. Laos is located in the core of the Indochina Peninsula, surrounded to the northwest by Myanmar and China, to the east by Vietnam, to the southeast by Cambodia, and to the west and southwest by Thailand. Vientiane is the country's capital and biggest city.
Laos' history and cultural identity may be traced back to Lan Xang, which flourished as one of Southeast Asia's major kingdoms from the 14th through the 18th centuries. Because of its central position in Southeast Asia, the kingdom became a center for overland commerce and grew economically and culturally. Lan Xang was divided into three kingdoms during a period of internal conflict: Luang Phrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. In 1893, the three regions were unified under French rule to establish what is today known as Laos. It temporarily recovered independence following Japanese occupation in 1945 but was re-colonized by France until 1949. Laos gained independence in 1953 and established a constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong. A post-independence civil war ensued, with the communist resistance, backed by the Soviet Union, fighting against the monarchy, which eventually fell under the sway of military governments backed by the US. Following the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975, the communist Pathet Lao took control, thereby ending the civil war. Laos was therefore reliant on the Soviet Union's military and economic help until its disintegration in 1991.
Laos is a signatory to the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement, ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, and La Francophonie. Laos sought full membership in the World Trade Organization in 1997 and was awarded full membership on February 2, 2013. It is a one-party socialist republic that adheres to Marxism–Leninism and is governed by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, which has routinely characterized the country's human rights record as poor, citing repeated abuses such as torture, restrictions on civil liberties, and persecution of minorities.
The politically and culturally dominant Lao people account for 53.2 percent of the population, with the majority living in the lowlands. The foothills and mountains are home to Mon-Khmer communities, the Hmong, and other indigenous hill tribes. Laos' development strategies are based on generating electricity from rivers and selling it to its neighbors, specifically Thailand, China, and Vietnam, as well as its initiative to become a "land-linked" nation, as evidenced by the construction of four new railways connecting Laos and its neighbors. The World Bank has named Laos as one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with annual GDP growth averaging 7.4 percent since 2009.