Troubled by economic stagnation and a seemingly endless outflow of refugees, the five-year-old communist government of Laos has slowed its efforts to organize the 3.4 million people into a Soviet-style collective society.
Farmers at villages like Through Kang, just outside Vientiane, have largely abandoned communal tilling to work the fields as privately held plots. In the city, free-market trading in fresh food and consumer goods is thriving under relaxed government controls.
"They're stepping back to leap forward," a Western resident here said. The current aproach does appear temporary. Portraits of Marx and Lenin in government offices and continuing "seminars" to introduce political theory to ordinary Laotians leave little doubt that long-term objectives remain the same.
Premier Kayhsone Phomvihan made the new policy offical last December with a lengthy speech outlining the ruling party's "Seventh Resolution." Fear that reconstruction after a quarter of a century of war was faltering appears to have prompted the changes.
Laos remains as dependent on foreign aid as it had been under the U.S. supported government. About $94 million in outside capital was injected into the economy last year, mostly in project aid from Eastern Europe and the United Nations.
War damage and lack of motivation and technicians -- thousands have fled across the Mekong River to Thiailand -- were causing shortages and staggering deficits in foreign trade. Only half of the 80 sawmills operating in 1974 were still functioning in a country where timber and tin are the largest exports.
Drought followed by floods damaged crops and forced the import of $250,000 tons of food in 1977 and 1978. Moreover, many farmers were abandoning thier fields and crossing to Thailand in response to forced collectivization.
Conceding that some cadre had "violated state laws and abused their power by intimidating the people," Kaysone declared in his radio broadcast a year ago Tuesday that things would change.
Creation of new collectives, already slowed, appears now to have stopped completely. Many residents of the 2,500 collectives already formed, accounting for about 17 percent of the rural population, have returned to traditional farming methods.
"Collective tilling is too difficult," declared an elderly farmer helping with the rice harvest in Ee Lye village, 10 miles from Vientiane. "Some people don't show up for work. Some don't know how to do their jobs. We do it the old way here."
Foreign agricultural specialists are optimistic that the rice crop now being cut will be the largest in years, although still not sufficient to feed the country. Water conditions have been just right. Some diplomats also credit the encouragement of private incentive, which they say has brought more land under cultivation.
The Seventh Resolution also eased controls on trading with Thailand and among the largely autonomous provinces. Managers ousted when their companies were nationalized after 1975 have been invited to resume thier old positions.
Police make little effort to stamp out black-market money changing. In an effort to bring illicit dollars to the surface, a well-stocked Vientiane store formerly reserved for foreigners has been opened to any Laotian who presents the requisite foreign currency.
At the same time, however, a state-owned network of retail stores and restaurants is being put inplace eventually, it is hoped, to outsell the private markets. Prices paid to suppliers have risen in an effort to divert goods now entering the private economy.
Traders have been cleared from much of Vientiane's central marketplace to make room for a giant store for government employes, due to open Tuesday to coincide with the national day. The state now sells coffee and soft drinks in a onetime tailor shop of an Indian businessmen.
The state stores remain perpetually short of many basic consumer goods, however.
Although many Vientiane citizens relay on private enterprise for essentials, they are required to study political theory that holds that the institution is inherently inefficient and exploitative.
In the first years, everyone from civil servants to old women chewing betel nut attended repeated polical seminars. Now the sessions are called less frequently, usually to explain new party directives like the Seventh Resolution.
Recently the three-member management committee of Laos' new animal vaccine factory attended five days of political lectures, then returned to give three days's instruction to the rest of the staff. Family heads are routinely called to nighttime seminars in neighborhood schools or temples.
The 1,180 students of Fa Ngoum High School recently took four days off from their regular curriculum for special political study. When a jounalist visited a classroom, students with worn notebooks were divided into study groups, testing one another's grasp of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the place of state stores in a socialist economy.
Seminars and politically oriented outings -- collective labor, for instance -- not suprisingly compromise productivity. A scheduled tour of a handicrafts factory was canceled when it was discovered at the last minute that a seminar had halted work there.
During a visit to the vaccine plant everyone but the directors was found to be absent, away at a farm harvesting rice. Western diplomats report that entire ministries have been shut down for two weeks at a time while the staff members study politics.
The government does its best to make political activities entertaining; collective work teams often include singers and guitar players to perform patriotic songs. Still, effectiveness is placed in question by the continuing crossings to Thailand and people's open talk of discontent.
Translations of Lenin pile up in used-book stalls in the market. "You get a headache trying to read that stuff," remarked a Laotian man."People would rather have publications from Thailand, things with stories and pictures."
The lure of Thailand may in fact have drawn away 50,000 of the estimated 150,000 people living in Vientiane when the Communists took control five years ago. Many who remain talk openly of leaving.
The United States and the wartime prosperity it brought to the city -- though not the countryside -- left their economic traces: lavish residences in the suburbs, a hospital, paved streets, the Triumph Arch -- built, the story goes, with concrete intended to upgrade runways.
Since 1975, the Pathet Lao have attacked what are considered the more glaring disorders of the old society, Prostitution, drug addiction and begging appear to have been cut back substantially, although they continue.
There probably is less official corruption. Wealthy families who once milked tax receipts and owned shares in every major business have fled.
While 40 percent of the adult population was literate five years ago, foreign aid officials now put the figure at 60 percent.
This is not to say that the new government has won the affection of what is left of Vientiane. Large numbers look upon the Pathet Lao soldiers in their midst, most of them youths from remote hill districts, as an army of occupation that treats them as second-class citizens.
Life seems to be more than ever a struggle to match low pay with surprisingly high prices. While second-hand shops are cluttered with heirlooms, radios and watches sold by families to raise extra cash, a store owner complained of slow resales. "If people can possibly get along without something they won't buy it," he said.
No one can do without food, however, and this gives added life to the city's "free" markets. In an alleyway, hundreds of men and women roll out cloths and display fresh vegetables and meat -- some of it, like the trussed frogs, still alive.
People shop frugally, however. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of high-quality meat can cost more than a quarter of an average monthly wage. The enormous profits in such trading have allowed some members of the commercial class who have not fled to Thailand to enjoy many of life's old luxuries.
Members of the Tennis Club de Vientiane drive polished cars to the courts. Their chic tennis whites would be at home in Paris, where many of the players no doubt have relatives.
The civil service remains intractably unproductive. One new reason is that the government workers often desert their desks to hawk wares in the market. Everyone seems to need two jobs, so official duties must not be allowed to take up too much time.