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, 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. All five Lower Mekong countries have governments based on written constitutions (with Thailand’s most recent constitution signed by the king in April 2017.) Two nations—Cambodia and Thailand—are constitutional monarchies. Laos declares itself a democratic republic,1 Vietnam a socialist republic,2 and Myanmar a republic organized as a federal union of constituent jurisdictions.3

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 (People’s Assembly)
440 seats
5 year term
National Legislative Assembly
220 seats
The military-backed National Legislative Assembly will remain in place until the new National Assembly of Thailand can be formed under the 2017 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.4 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.



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.5 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 party (though all candidates must be approved by the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an organization closely associated with the Communist Party).6

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 Laos, the head of state is the President, who is elected by the National Assembly to serve a five-year term.7 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.8 In Vietnam, the President is elected by the National Assembly, and serves as Head of state.9 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 that focused on municipalities (Thesaban) as the local government sub-divisions.10 Myanmar differs most markedly in that it is organized as a federal government, comprising states and regions that are, to some extent, autonomous.


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.11


The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2017 scored 167 countries against 60 indicators.12 The scale is 0 to 10, where 0 is an authoritarian regime and 10 is full democracy. The global average score is 5.48; all the Lower Mekong States fell well below this:

  • Thailand scored 4.63 – its lowest score in 10 years – ranking it 107 out of the 167 states
  • Myanmar scored 3.83 – a drop from 2015/16 but higher than earlier years. It stood in 120th place
  • Cambodia scored 3.63 – its lowest score in 10 years, placing it in the “authoritarian regime” bracket for the first time. Cambodia stood in 124th place
  • Vietnam scored 3.08 – its lowest score in 5 years,  putting it in 140th place 
  • Laos scored 2.37 – little changed, and ranking it 151st equal out of 167 countries.

Corruption perception

Corruption Perception Index rankings 2017











The table above shows the 2017 rankings (out of 180) for Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) in Lower Mekong countries.13 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. The chart below shows the raw scores for each country from 2012 to 2015.

Source: Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index 2016. 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).14 All Lower Mekong countries have agreed to principles of combating and preventing corruption as part of the ASEAN Economic Community. 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 2005.15

Following the December 2015 election in Myanmar, the outgoing government passed a bill granting immunity from prosecution to former heads of state for any action taken during office.16


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