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Local government in South East Asia
South East Asian countries eradicate influence of
dominant neighbours and former colonial powers

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

12 February 2006: Since the early nineties, South East Asian countries have been developing their own political and economic identities. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have all opened their economies to international market forces, even though the latter two countries are still governed by communist parties. Vietnam has joined the club of ‘tiger economies’ and is much fêted by western countries including its former foe, the United States.

| Cambodia | Laos | Vietnam |

Though Cambodia’s recent history is synonymous with the state-sponsored genocide of Pol Pot’s regime following French vacation of its colonial presence in the region in 1953, the country once dominated the Indochinese peninsula as the Khmer Empire. Today it is a constitutional monarchy with a liberal democratic parliamentary system of government in place since 1993. At the sub-national level it is governed by 20 provinces and four municipalities.

Upon the restoration of the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1993, the King’s powers were denoted as strictly ceremonial. Furthermore, succession to the throne is not regarded as a hereditary right, with a Council of the Throne convened from national political and religious figures on the monarch’s death to appoint a successor from within the royal family. However, King Sihanouk’s gravitas derived from his influence of guiding the nation back into liberal democracy saw his power take hold over institutions and mediation abilities strengthened. Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 in favour of his son, the King Sihamoni, whose youth and lack of grounding in Cambodian affairs of state have seen the monarchy’s influence curbed substantially.  Sihanouk retains an official status within Cambodia’s constitution however, leading some to remark that he remains de facto head of state. Cambodia’s legislature is constituted of a bicameral parliament, the 123 seat National Assembly (wholly elected) and the 61 member Senate (mostly elected, part appointed). The National Assembly enjoys primacy in legislative affairs.

The country is divided into 20 provinces (or khet), with four designated municipalities of provincial competence for major metropolitan areas (krong). Provinces are further divided into districts (krok) and then into communes (khum). In the metropolitan municipalities, subdivisions are known as sections (khan), which are further divided into quarters (sangkat). Islands are known as koh. The capital Phnom Penh is governed by one of the four municipalities and has 7 krok and 76 khum.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is one the world’s remaining nominally Communist regimes, bordered by the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as well as the Kingdoms of Cambodia and Thailand. As with Cambodia and Vietnam, the withdrawal of the French colonial regime after the second world war plunged the country into drawn-out civil war and eventual victory by Communist insurgents. The Lao People’s Republic was proclaimed following the collapse of the Kingdom of Laos in 1975 and remains in place today, though some economic liberalisation has taken place since the 1980s and membership of ASEAN was obtained in 1997.

Laos remains a one party state, with only the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party permitted to organise and contest elections. Under the 1991 constitution, legislative affairs are governed by the unicameral National Assembly, which although elected by universal suffrage is bound by government executive decrees.

The country is divided, for administrative purposes, into 16 provinces (khoueng), one prefecture (khampheng nakhon) and one special administrative area (khetphiset). As per neighbouring countries, the provinces are further divided into districts (muang) and villages (bann). The prefecture was created in 1989 by the secession of the ancient capital Vientiane from the province also bearing its name, while the khetphiset was carved out of remaining neighbouring portions of that province in 1994. Vientiane is further divided into five muang.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam emerged as the unified state in 1976 following the end of the United States’ military campaign to prevent North Vietnam’s invasion of its southern counterpart. As with other Communist regimes in the former French Indochina, the People’s Republic of China retains strong links with the regime, which has introduced some economic reforms but remains a one party state governed by the Communist Party of Vietnam.

The most recent constitution, approved in 1992, proclaims Vietnam as a one party state with the Communist Party supreme in national affairs. In recent years the supremacy of the executive branch, vested in the president as political and military figurehead, has been called into question by the unicameral National Assembly, which consists of 450 seats elected to by universal suffrage.

Vietnam is sub-divided into 59 provinces (tinh) and five municipalities of provincial competence (thanh pho). The provinces are each governed by a People’s Council, elected to from vetted party candidates, but in reality this body is subordinate to both the appointed executive branch and the direction of national government. The capital Ho Chi Minh City is one of the five unitary municipalities. Formed from the old capital Saigon with the addition of some neighbouring districts of other provinces, it is headed by the People’s Council Chairman, who in theory acts as the first citizen, though this role is actually played out by the city’s Communist Party Committee Secretary. The city is further divided into a complex array of units which, depending on rural or urban character, are denoted by either an old name or simply a number.

World Mayor 2023