Laos celebrates 30 years under communist rule

One of the world's last communist nations on Friday celebrated its triumph over a U.S.-backed government 30 years ago with a mass Soviet-style rally almost extinct in the post-Cold War world. More than 25,000 soldiers, government officials and members of state youth organizations were marshaled at dawn on a vast square to hear 81-year-old president and communist party chief Khamtay Siphandone read a 12-page speech.

Flanked on a high reviewing stand by the eight other members of the all-powerful Politburo, Khamtay recalled the revolutionary struggle against the United States but focused largely on the Laos' liberalized economic policy.

"The economy is improving throughout the country. People are experiencing a better standard of living," he said, citing progress in agriculture, mining, tourism and hydropower.

Although still among the world's poorest nations, Laos has registered impressive growth rates over the past decade and the World Bank estimates the economy, fueled by foreign investment and a boost in exports, will grow by 7 percent in 2006. Khamtay said the Lao People's Revolutionary Party would continue to set the course for the country as it has since a 600-year-old monarchy was abolished and the victorious Pathet Lao guerrillas proclaimed Laos a communist state on Dec. 2, 1975.

Backed by the Vietnamese, the Pathet Lao fought a Vientiane government held up by U.S. aid and overcame intense aerial bombardment and a secret, CIA-trained army of ethnic Hmong guerrillas. The government collapsed in mid-1975 following the defeats of similar U.S.-supported governments in South Vietnam and Cambodia.

Aging veterans of the war, many proudly wearing chestfulls of medals, took part in Friday's 1 1/2 hour ceremony at That Luang square, bordered by a socialist-style National Assembly building as well as the country's most sacred Buddhist monastery, the golden-spired Pha That Luang.

Red and gold banners were strung around the square, reading "Long live the Lao People's Democratic Republic" and "Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity, Prosperity." The more than one-kilometer (half mile) -long formation included 900 cheerleaders with pink and white pompoms and little girls with pigtails and bouquets of plastic flowers performing traditional dances before the leaders.

But unlike Soviet and other communist celebrations of the bygone era, there was no display of military might and the only weapons visible were those carried by the honor guard. A lone helicopter flew over the square at the end of the ceremony. Entry was by invitation only with Vientiane's ordinary people and a sprinkling of foreign tourists viewing the proceedings from outside the cordoned off area, reports the AP. I.L.

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