The highest position in the Lao government is the President, who is elected every five years by the National Assembly. This head of state also acts as the Commander in Chief of the country's armed forces. The highest executive organ in the Lao government is the Council of Ministers, this is headed by a Chairman, who also acts as Prime Minister, with Vice Chairmen overseeing the work of government ministers.
The country's 16 provinces (khoueng) are further divided into districts (muang) and villages (baan). Vientiane contains its own municipality - or kampheng nakhon - and the special zone of Xaisomboun, in the northeast of the province, was established in June 1994. A further special zone was set up in mid-1992 with the integration of two districts of Xaignabouri.
Heavily reliant on foreign aid - mainly from Sweden, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Australia - the Lao economy had been making remarkable progress up until 1997. Economic reforms, introduced by the government in 1986, had spurred growth to an average of 7% a year between 1988 and 1996. However, when Thailand - it's chief trading partner - was brought low by the 1997 economic crisis, Laos was also badly hit, with growth rates dropping to just 1.5%.
A member of both the Asian Development Bank and the Colombo Plan, which promotes economic and social development in Asia and the Pacific, Laos still struggles with a very basic infrastructure. Many roads are impassable during the monsoon and there are no railways. Only large urban areas have access to regular power supplies, while telecommunications are still very basic.
Were it not for the persistent problems of regional flooding, drought and insect infestation, Laos would be permanently self-sufficient in food. 80% of the country's workforce is involved in subsistence agriculture, which makes up about half of the GDP, with glutinous rice the country's main agricultural produce. Also grown for local use are maize, cassava, pulses, groundnuts, fruits, sugar cane, and tobacco, while main exports include timber and wood products, garments, coffee, and tin, mainly to France, Germany, Thailand and Vietnam.
Laos also has, largely untapped, reserves of tin, lead and zinc, as well as iron ore, coal and timber.