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On 23 July 2018, part of a dam system in the Laotian province of Champasak (around 45km away from the country's southern border with Cambodia), under construction at the time, collapsed – killing at least 40 and displacing over 6,000 nearby residents. While the long-term impact of the tragedy remains unknown, in the immediate aftermath approvals by the government in Vientiane for new hydroelectric projects along the Mekong river have ceased, putting on hold plans to turn the country into the 'Battery of Southeast Asia'.

The dam collapse highlighted a number of complex issues for law firms operating in the country – most notably the absence of formalised compensation law. In the context of the disaster, hydro power investment is set to decline in 2019 and the government could focus on developing other sectors, such as industrial manufacturing (clothing being a sector of note) and agriculture.

Concession activity in the mining and forestry sectors continues to represent a trend in the market, while tourism and hospitality are growing areas of interest, thanks in part to mainland Chinese investment in the sector and related infrastructure. In this respect, there are currently plans to upgrade Vientiane airport and for the construction of the Lao-Sino Highspeed Railway, which aims to connect Vientiane to Yuxi in China's Yunnan province.

From a legal perspective, there were a number of amendments to intellectual property (IP) law in 2018 aimed at diversifying the economy and encouraging trade and investment from other ASEAN countries. These reforms boost protection mechanisms, for example allowing for the existing IP owners to oppose new marks. In addition, the new measures provide a legal framework for customs officials; making explicit powers to seize IP infringing goods.

Separately, the monthly minimum wage was increased to ₭1.1m and a new regulatory framework was introduced for special economic zones; providing greater tax relief for potential investors. Combined, the raft of new laws represent an attempt to modernise the Laotian economy; which is of even greater import in the wake of the Champasak disaster.

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