Fifteen years ago Laos lodged its application for membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO). It then embarked on a process of sometimes painful economic reforms, designed to make a one-party communist state feel a little more acceptable for the overwhelmingly capitalist classes who founded and run the world trading bloc.
Vientiane followed a path chartered by the likes of China, Vietnam and to a much lesser extent Cambodia. Their work is about to pay off and Laos is expected to become the last member of ASEAN to join the 157-member WTO at meeting slated for later this month.
Industry and Commerce Minister Nam Viyaketh has described the process as long and tedious, but necessary if his country is to push itself beyond the ranks of the world’s least developed by 2020.
Membership should also provide some sense of relief for the rest of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) whose 10 members remain hopeful that their cherished dream of forging a fully integrated economic community will be achieved by 2015.
Landlocked Laos remains dirt poor, but has managed to pull together more than seven percent annual growth over recent years, which for a least developed country is reasonable, but still a far cry from the dizzying double digit growth that some countries had recorded over the past decade.
But whether Laos can maximize its potential through the WTO will not be solely driven by economic growth. Much will depend on enforcing the rules and as increased foreign investment arrives at its door, keeping corruption to a minimum will become increasingly important.
Laws governing investment, intellectual property, food safety and animal health and trade have been introduced while the government has been leaning on the bureaucracy to improve efficiency and raise standards amid claims it remains bloated and stuck in outdated communist traditions.
Corruption is an issue that countries with a similar communist past in the region have struggled to deal with. On the Corruptions Perception Index, compiled by Transparency International last year, China is ranked 75th, Vietnam is 112th and Cambodia is a lowly 164th. Laos held the 154th spot.
The Laos Package will go before the WTO General Council for approval on October 26, and was expected to be approved by the Laos Parliament in December. In November, Vientiane will host the ASEM summit of Asian and European leaders, a meeting held every two years.
The ASEM meeting will be the biggest diplomatic event staged by Laos since the communist takeover in 1975 and with WTO membership all but approved the region could see a very different country emerging going into the New Year.