The governments of the Lower Mekong countries each face distinct and complex sets of challenges, yet the shared circumstances faced by these nations mean that some common traits can be observed. All are developing Southeast Asian economies, rich in natural resources that often transcend national borders. To varying degrees, they have been shaped by individual histories of colonialism and war. While Thailand was never part of a Western colony,1 Myanmar (then called Burma) was part of the British empire, and Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam made up French-Indochina.

Systems of government

The Lower Mekong has two of the world’s five remaining communist states: Laos and Vietnam. Of the five Lower Mekong countries, all have governments based on written constitutions (although in early 2016, Thailand had an interim, or temporary, constitution following the 2014 coup.) Two nations—Cambodia2 and Thailand3—are constitutional monarchies. Laos declares itself a democratic republic,4 Vietnam a socialist republic,5 and Myanmar a republic organized as a federal union of constituent jurisdictions.6

Structure of legislatures

Each state has a parliament (or legislature) comprised of one or two chambers.

National Assembly
123 seats
5 year term
61 seats
6 year term
National Assembly
132 seats
5 year term
House of Nations
224 seats
5 year term
House of Representatives
440 seats
5 year term
National Legislative Assembly
220 seats
Term unspecified under the interim Constitution
National Assembly
500 seats
5 year term




Selection of legislators (elections)

A common trait across the governments of the Lower Mekong countries is some limitation of choice by the electorate in constituting their legislatures; that is, each of the five states currently has some institutional check on its citizens’ selection of government representatives. This ranges from direct political control by an unelected military in Thailand (which appointed the current members of the National Legislative Assembly), to the manner in which Cambodia’s Senate is elected (several members are appointed, but most representatives are elected indirectly by the National Assembly, and members of commune and village councils). Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam fall between these two poles.

The image below illustrates the size and number of each legislative house across the region.7

Under Myanmar’s Constitution, the military is guaranteed direct appointment of 25 percent of the seats in each house of parliament. Amendments to the Constitution must be supported by more than 75 percent of each house’s votes. While independent candidates (essentially, non-members of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party) can be elected to the legislature in Laos, the 1991 Constitution guarantees the rule of the one party state.8 Vietnam also has a single-party political system, but permits up to ten percent of representatives in the National Assembly to be from outside the party9 (though all candidates must be approved by the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an organization closely associated with the Communist Party).

Executive authority

The two constitutional monarchies, Cambodia and Thailand, have their respective kings as head of state, with prime ministers serving as the heads of government. Cambodia’s Prime Minister is elected by the National Assembly. In Thailand, Section 19 of the 2014 Interim Constitution, provides that the King appoints the Prime Minister based on the resolution of the National Legislative Assembly.

In Laos, the head of state is the President, who is elected by the National Assembly to serve a five-year term.10 The President nominates the Prime Minister, the Head of Government, who is also elected by the National Assembly. The President of Myanmar, who serves as both the head of state and the head of government, is elected indirectly by the parliament.11 In Vietnam, the President is elected by the National Assembly, and serves as Head of state.12 The President appoints the Prime Minister, who serves as head of government.

Local government

The sub-national organization of governments in the Lower Mekong shows some similarities across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, countries that share the common colonial heritage of French Indochina. All three are unitary states that, in varying formulas, exercise substantial central oversight of their hierarchical subdivisions, while allowing for the election of local leaders. Thailand’s system, which is also unitary, bears similarities, but differs in that it adopted a form of decentralized local government in the 1990s (and solidified in the 1997 Constitution) that focused on municipalities (Thesaban) as the local government sub-divisions.13 Myanmar differs most markedly in that it is organized as a federal government, comprised of states and regions that are, to some extent, autonomous.

While the primary government divisions differ in name, number and size, all Lower Mekong countries follow a similar hierarchy where the nation contains divisions, divisions contain subdivisions, and subdivisions contain towns and villages.


Governance definition

The exercise of economic, political, and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises mechanisms, processes, and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations, and mediate their differences. (UNDP. Governance for Sustainable Human Development, 1997)

Good governance in the development sector is most commonly aligned with the UNDP governance definition above, however actual definitions and standards of good governance are influenced by differing views of government. For example, some believe that democracy is fundamental to good governance while others do not believe that is necessary. In general, good governance is thought to result in the effective management of a country’s resources for the good of its citizens. Common standards for good governance include measures of transparency, citizen participation, and equitable, efficient and responsible use of resources. There are several organizations that publish reports in this area, and most have given low scores to Lower Mekong countries on measures of transparency and equity.14

Corruption perception

Corruption Perception Index rankings 2015











The table above shows the 2015 rankings (out of 168) for Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) in Lower Mekong countries.15 The CPI scores and ranks countries based on their perceived level of corruption. In determining those perceptions, they rely on assessments of “independent institutions specializing in governance and business climate analysis” collected over the 24 months preceding the report.16 The chart below shows the raw scores for each country from 2012 to 2015.

Source: Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index 2015. Created by ODI, 26 February 2016. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.


Each country has its own anti-corruption body and law (search in the ODI DataHub). All five countries attend meetings of the South East Asia Parties Against Corruption (SEA-PAC), which was established in 2008, however Myanmar has not yet signed the Memoradum of Understanding (MoU). All Lower Mekong countries have agreed to principles of combating and preventing corruption as part of the ASEAN Economic Community;17 however, Cambodia agreed to the UN Convention Against Corruption by accession in 2007, while the other four states were signatories to the Convention before it came into force in December 2005.18

Following the December 2015 election in Myanmar, the out-going has passed a bill that grants immunity from prosecution to former heads of state for any action taken during office.19

Last updated: 31 March 2016


  • 1. World Public Library. “Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.” Accessed 26 February 2016.
  • 2. Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia (as amended 2008). Accessed 7 July 2015.
  • 3. Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), Buddhist Era 2257 (2014). Accessed 7 July 2015.,_Buddhist_Era_2557_%282014%29
  • 4. Constitution of Lao PDR (2003). Accessed 7 July 2015.
  • 5. Constitution of Vietnam (2013). Accessed 7 July 2015.
  • 6. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2008. Accessed 25 June 2015.
  • 7. IFES, Election Guide, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, undated, accessed 25 June 2015. Myanmar Constitution, 2008, at Section 74,, retrieved June 25, 2015. IFES, Election Guide, Union of Myanmar, undated, accessed 7 July 2015, 2014 Interim Constitution of Thailand, accessed 7 July 2015,,_Buddhist_Era_2557_%282014%29. Inter-Parliamentary Union,
  • 8. The National Assembly of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. “Constitution of Lao PDR: Preamble.” Accessed 10 March 2016.
  • 9. Inter-Parliamentary Union. Accessed 2 July 2015.
  • 10. IFES, Election Guide, Lao PDR. Accessed 7 July 2015.
  • 11. IFES, Election Guide, Union of Myanmar. Accessed 7 July 2015.
  • 12. IFES, Election Guide, Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Accessed 7 July 2015.
  • 13. Fumio Nagai, Tsuruyo Funatsu, Kazuhiro Kagoya. Central-Local Government Relationship in Thailand. In “Local Government in Thailand—Analysis of the Local Administrative Organization Survey.” Edited by Fumio Nagai , Nakharin Mektrairat , Tsuruyo Funatsu. 2008. Accessed 9 March 2016.
  • 14. For example, see Freedom House:; World Bank Governance Indicators:
  • 15. Transparency International. “Corruption Perception Index 2015.” Accessed 26 February 2015.
  • 16. Transparency International. “CPI in detail: FAQ.” Accessed 26 February 2015.
  • 17. ASEAN. “ASEAN Political Security Community Blueprint.” Accessed 22 December 2015.
  • 18. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “United Nations Convention against Corruption: Signature and Ratification Status as of 1 December 2015.” Accessed 10 March 2016.
  • 19. Nyein Nyein. “Presidential protection, immunity bill put forward,” The Irrawaddy, December 21, 2015. Accessed 22 December 2015.
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