VIENTIANE, Laos -- As the aging revolutionaries of Laos celebrate 30 years in power, their country looks less communist and speech is a little more free. It is open to tourists and is warming up to an old enemy: the United States.
But when it comes to real change in one of the five one-party communist states left in the world, the regime's grip is as tight as ever.
The world's backpackers arrive in droves and return home with tales of a welcoming people with genuine smiles, a lifestyle of tropical languor, and only quaint traces of communism, such as hammer-and-sickle T-shirts.
Few glimpse the subsurface realities, of a Utah-sized country whose every neighborhood is under surveillance for dissidents, where most people live on less than $2 a day, and which has not one decent hospital to show for its billions in foreign aid.
As the country moves toward the Chinese model of market-based authoritarianism, low-key preparations were underway last week to mark the anniversary Friday of the formation in 1975 of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
This event, which ended the Vietnam War era, followed the fall of a US-backed government that had succumbed to Pathet Lao guerrillas and their Vietnamese allies in the face of an American blitz that dropped more bombs than the total it unleashed in World War II. Seven months earlier, the American-propped regimes in South Vietnam and Cambodia had also fallen to communist forces.
Now the last of the revolutionaries are passing the torch to a younger generation, some of whom will probably be elevated to high positions at next year's party congress. But analysts say that, as in China, this ''new breed," already in their 50s, will follow their elders' political template while pursuing progress on the economic front.
''It's a one-party state, and they have absolutely no intention of allowing any kind of political activity that might be critical of that one-party rule," says Martin Stuart-Fox, an Australian expert on Laos. ''The next generation coming up has been well schooled in this requirement."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalansy insists the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party is rock-solid and popular. ''The party came from the grass roots ,and it's never forgotten its supreme mission of promoting the interests of the people," he says.
Below the party, which numbers nearly 100,000 privileged members, internal pressure for change has been minimal. Expatriate groups based in the United States and France, the former colonial ruler, have proved ineffectual, although some have claimed responsibility for a spate of bombings in recent years.
Younger, educated people in Vientiane, when promised anonymity, voice sharp criticism of corruption, bureaucratic sloth, and intellectual barrenness. There are small, informal networks of dissidents-in-waiting, but no people-power movement has coalesced and any sign of public protest is swiftly suppressed.
''The intellectual elite in Laos is so small that it can be easily controlled, for the most part by being inducted into the party and bought off by making sure they get a house, a good job, some overseas travel," says Stuart-Fox, author of several books on Laos. ''Those who don't go down that path can get good jobs with the United Nations or other foreign organizations."
The party has realized that Marxist ideology doesn't sit well with a largely rural, conservative, and religious society and has moved to a generally successful embrace of a freer economy, nationalism, traditional values, and Buddhism, says Grant Evans, an anthropologist living in Laos.
Members of the all-powerful Politburo kneel before monks, and party members don yellow robes for temporary stints in the monkhood.
Even the 600-year-old monarchy, abolished in 1975, is back in favor. Statues of kings have gone up and their merits lauded by a regime which sent the last monarch, Savang Vatthana, into an extensive gulag of re-education camps from which The Lord of the Kingdom of Million Elephants and the White Parasol never returned.
Relations between Laos and its one-time archenemy are ''good and getting better," says US Ambassador Patricia M. Haslach. Laos' help in recovering the remains of 197 American servicemen missing from the war and in searching for another 372 is ''the linchpin of our relationship since the 1980s, and we're eternally grateful to them for their cooperation," Haslach said in an interview.
In turn, the United States has normalized trading relations and is funding efforts to remove unexploded wartime explosives. In the pre-1975 era when Washington ran Laos like a fiefdom, the United States dropped nearly 2 million tons of bombs on Laos to stem the advance of the Pathet Lao and its Vietnamese ally.
With such memories, suspicions of the United States are likely to persist, at least until the old revolutionaries, still caught in a Cold War time-warp, march off into history.
Laos, a nation of 6.2 million, is in the dwindling communist club that includes China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea.