History of Laos
- 1 Early history
- 2 The Kingdom of Lān Xāng
- 3 Siamese domination
- 4 The creation of Laos
- 5 French Laos
- 6 The Crisis of World War II
- 7 The Kingdom of Laos
- 8 Communism in Laos
- 9 Geneva and the First Coalition
- 10 The failure of neutralism
- 11 Laos as battlefield
- 12 Communist Laos
- 13 Post-communist Laos
- 14 Sources
Note: this article follows the system for transliterating Lao names used in Martin Stuart-Fox's History of Laos. It may differ from systems used in other articles.
Today the official history of Laos is traced back to the Kingdom of Lān Xāng, which was founded in 1353. But in reality the Lao share a common history with the Siamese and other people of the Tai language group, and Lān Xāng was only one of a number of Tai kingdoms in a region which had a broad linguistic and cultural unity before the arrival of outside powers. The idea of a separate Lao nationality was formed during the 19th century, when western ideas of national identity reached South-East Asia, and when the Lao-speaking peoples were being squeezed between two expansionist powers, Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. The current borders of Laos were created by France in 1893 and 1904. The Lao state dates only from 1945.
The Tai (also spelled Dai) are a linguistic group originating in southern China, which includes the Lao, the Siamese, the people of the Shan region of north-eastern Burma, the Zhuang people of Guangxi Province in China and the Tho and Nung people of northern Vietnam. Under pressure from the expansion of the Han Chinese, the Tai began to migrate into South-East Asia during the first millennium AD. They displaced earlier peoples (including the iron age culture who made the great stone jars from which the Plain of Jars in central Laos takes its name). The Mekong River, which flows through what is now Laos, was a major migration route, but the strength of the Khmer Empire (Cambodia) prevented the Tai from dominating the Mekong Valley. Instead the main area of Tai settlement was further south in the Chao Phraya Valley, where they formed a series of kingdoms ancestral to modern Siam and Thailand.
During the first millennium AD the Tai peoples were loosely organized in small entities known as muang or mandalas. They were heavily influenced by the more advanced cultures around them: the Khmer to the south-east, and the Hindu cultures of India to the west. Most of the Tai were converted to a form of Hinduism, traces of which can still be seen in Lao religious practice today. Between the 6th and 9th centuries AD Buddhism was introduced into the Tai-speaking lands, probably via Burma, and became the dominant religion. But the Lao retain many animist religious practices from the pre-Buddhist era.
As the Tai peoples became established, they divided into a number of linguistic sub-groups. These included the Tai-Lao, who during the 11th and 12th centuries AD spread along the middle Mekong Valley and across the Khōrāt Plateau (now the Isan region of north-eastern Thailand). Their advance down the Mekong was blocked at Champāsak by the Khmers, who built the great temple at Wat Phū. The Lao in turn divided into further groups, based on where they lived in relation to the river. These were the Lao-Lum (Lao of the valley floor), the Lao-Thoeng (Lao of the mountain slopes) and the Lao-Sūng (Lao of the mountain tops). This latter group included various linguistic minorities only distantly related to the Tai. The Lao-Lum, having the best farming land and the best access to river transport, became the wealthiest of the Tai-Lao peoples. These divisions have haunted Lao history and still exist today, with many Lao-Thoeng and Lao-Sūng people having only a tenuous loyalty to a Lao-Lum dominated state.
The rise and fall of various early Lao states is now recorded only in myth. The earliest historically identifiable Lao leader is Khun Lô, who probably conquered the Luang Phrabāng area from non-Tai people in the 12th century. Because the Mekong is divided into three distinct navigable sections by rapids, between Luang Phrabāng and Viang Chan (Vientiane) and between Viang Chan and Savannakhēt, these three towns became the centres of three distinct Lao-Lum mandalas. This pattern was disrupted by the Mongol invasion of 1253, when part of Kublai Khan's army advanced down the Mekong to attack the Khmers. In the wake of the Mongol withdrawal a new kingdom were founded by the Siamese at Sukhothai, which was later succeeded by a more powerful Siamese state with its capital at Ayutthaya (founded in 1351). The kingdom of Lān Nā, based at Chiang Mai and containing both Siamese and Lao elements, was also founded at this time.
In response, the Tai-Lao rulers of Luang Phrabāng (which was then called Xiang Dong Xiang Thong) formed a new state which, while still nominally subject to the Mongol rulers of China, became the leading force among the Lao peoples. From about 1271 this state was ruled by a dynasty called the Phrayā. In about 1350 a prince of this dynasty, Fā Ngum, fled the court with his father after a dispute and sought refuge with the Khmers at Angkor, where he married a royal princess. In 1353 he returned at the head of an army (presumably with Khmer aid), captured Xiang Dong Xiang Thong and founded a new Lao state which covered the whole Lao-speaking Mekong valley. This was Lān Xāng, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants.
The Kingdom of Lān Xāng
Over the next decade Fā Ngum sought to bring all the Lao under his authority. He conquered most of the Khōrāt Plateau, as well as territory in what is now north-western Vietnam. The Khmer court considered him to be a Khmer vassal, but he succeeded in establishing Lao rule over Champāsak and perhaps as far south as Stung Treng in what is now northern Cambodia. His wife is credited with introducing Theravada Buddhism, which had been brought to Siam by missionaries from Sri Lanka in the 13th century, and from there spread to the Khmer Empire. In 1368, however, Fā Ngum's wife died, and shortly after the Mongol dynasty in China was overthrown. These events broke two key relationships sustaining Fā Ngum's power, and in 1373 he was overthrown as a result of a court intrigue and replaced by his son Unheuan, who took the name Sāmsaentai ("Lord of 300,000 Tai").
Lān Xāng was not a state in the modern sense of the word. The king at Xiang Dong Xiang Thong directly ruled and taxed only the town and surrounding area. The lords of the constituent mandalas raised their own taxes and ruled as they saw fit. Their duties to the king were to pay an agreed tribute, attend the court for major ceremonies, and raise their local forces to support the king when he waged war. Thus Lān Xāng was a loose feudal federation rather than a centralized kingdom. This gave it great flexibility, but also meant that its coherence depended on the personal and religious authority of the king. For half a century after Sāmsaentai's death in 1416 there was a series of weak kings, and the prestige of Lān Xāng declined. By the 15th century all the Tai peoples faced challenges from their increasingly powerful neighbours, the Vietnamese to the east and the Burmese to the west (the Ayutthaya Siamese had extinguished the power of the Khmers in 1431). In 1479, for reasons that are unclear, the Vietnamese under their great king Le Thanh Tong invaded the Lao lands, and sacked Luang Phrabāng.
In response, king Vixun (reigned 1501-20) took two important steps to shore up the throne. First he ordered that the chronicle of royal history known as the Nithān Khun Bôrum (Story of King Bôrum) be written down, providing an important source of legitimacy for the dynasty. Second he brought to Lān Xāng from Angkor a precious gold image of the Buddha, known as the Phra Bāng or Holy Buddha Image. (The traditional belief is that the image was cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD and later presented to the Khmer kings. The current view is that the statue is of Khmer origin and dates from the Khmer Empire period.) These two steps emphasised that the king of Lān Xāng ruled both by hereditary right as the descendent of the legendary King Bôrum, and by his accumulated merit, the key concept in Buddhism.
After Vixun's death, two strong kings, Phōthisālarāt (1520-48) and his son Xētthāthirāt (1548-71) maintained the strength and prestige of the kingdom. In 1558, however, the first of a series of major Burmese invasions took place. The Burmese sacked Chiang Mai, ending the independence of Lān Nā, and devastated the western areas of Lān Xāng. In response, Xētthāthirāt formed an alliance with Ayutthaya, and in 1560 he moved his capital down the river to Viang Chan, which was both more defensible and closer to Siamese aid. Here he built a great new temple, the Ho Phra Kaeo, where he installed the ancient and revered Emerald Buddha (rescued by the Lao from the fall of Chiang Mai) as a new symbol of his reign. The Phra Bāng was left behind at Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to protect the city, which was now renamed Luang Phrabāng ("great Phra Bāng").
In 1569 the Burmese struck again, capturing Ayutthaya and leaving Lān Xāng exposed. The Burmese briefly occupied Viang Chan in 1570, but after a few months Xētthāthirāt was able to drive them out, leaving his prestige higher than ever. But the following year he attempted an invasion of Cambodia, in the course of which he was killed and his army dispersed. This disaster left Lān Xāng defenceless against the Burmese, and for the next 60 years Lān Xāng was a Burmese vassal, sometimes under direct occupation. There were several periods when there was no king at all, and the Lao seemed doomed to be absorbed by the Siamese or the Burmese.
But in 1637 Surinyavongsā, the greatest and last king of Lān Xāng, claimed the throne and re-established the independence of the kingdom. He established cordial relations with the Siamese King Narai at Ayutthaya, and this alliance was strong enough to ward off the Burmese and the Vietnamese for many years. Under his rule the kingdom became increasingly prosperous, and Viang Chan was endowed with many temples and palaces (of which few survive). The city became a great centre of Buddhist scholarship, with monks coming from Siam and Cambodia to study in its wats (schools).
It was during the reign of Surinyavongsā that the first Europeans saw the Lao lands. A Dutch merchant, Gerritt van Wuysthoff arrived by river from Phnom Penh in about 1641. His account attracted the attention of the Jesuits, who were always keen to be the first to claim the souls of newly-discovered peoples. The first missionary, Giovanni-Maria Leria, arrived soon after van Wuysthoff's return, and he stayed for six years, learning the language and studying the religion and customs of the Lao. Most of our knowledge of Lān Xāng in its later years comes from Leria's records. He won few converts to Christianity, but he did succeed in making the outside world aware of the wealth of the Lao kingdom.
Two circumstances combined to bring about the fall of Lān Xāng. Surinyavongsā had only one son, whom he caused to be executed for adultery. On Surinyavongsā's death in 1694, therefore, there was no heir, and a battle for the throne broke out into which Lān Xāng's neighbours were soon drawn. The second factor was the kingdom's isolation. Both the Siamese and the Vietnamese had been in contact with the Europeans much longer than the Lao, and had acquired firearms, while the landlocked Lao could not trade directly with the Europeans. Divided and leaderless, they were no match for the Siamese with their guns and European advisers. Vietnam (under Trinh Can) sent an army into Lān Xāng and so did the Ayutthaya kingdom under king Petratcha. After a decade of warfare and anarchy, Lān Xāng was broken up in 1707 into its three constituent parts, with Siamese vassal kingdoms at Luang Phrabāng, Viang Chan and Champāsak. Viang Chan and Champāsak paid tribute to the Vietnamese as well as the Siamese - a fact of considerable importance later.
Today official Lao historiography describes Lān Xāng as a Lao national state, and thus the direct ancestor of modern Laos. This view needs considerable qualification. There was no real distinction between the Siamese, the Lao and other Tai-speaking people before the 19th century. Their culture and religion were almost identical and their languages closely related. The kings of Lān Xāng were Lao-Lum, but the peoples under their rule spoke a variety of languages, including Siamese, Khmer and various Lao-Thoeng, Lao-Sūng and other minority languages. The Lao-Lum treated the upland Lao not as fellow-countrymen but as inferiors, referring to them as khā (slaves) and maeo (savages). The basis of the kings' authority was dynastic and religious, not ethnic or national. When necessity required, they paid tribute to Siamese, Vietnamese, Burmese or Chinese rulers with equal alacrity. As will be seen, it was only after the fall of Lān Xāng, when the Siamese had absorbed some European ideas of national superiority and imposed a semi-colonial rule on the Viang Chan Lao, that a Lao national consciousness began to appear.
With the fall of Lān Xāng, European interest in the Lao declined, and there were few visitors during the 18th century. Little is known about the internal affairs of the Lao states during this period. In any case they were not left alone for long. In 1763 came the greatest Burmese invasion yet seen. All the Lao lands were conquered, and in 1767 Ayutthaya fell. It appeared once again that the Tai peoples would be subjected to Burmese rule. But the Siamese staged an almost immediate recovery. Taksin, a general of Chinese origin, organised resistance, routed the Burmese and founded a new capital at Bangkok, from where he set out to conquer the Tai world. Taksin attacked the Burmese in the north in 1774 and captured Chiang Mai in 1776, permanently uniting Siam and Lān Nā. Taksin's leading general in this campaign was Thong Duang, known by the title Chaophraya Chakri. In 1778 Chakri led another Siamese army north. This expedition captured Viang Chan, and established Siamese domination over Laos.
The Siamese did not come to Laos as liberators. Viang Chan was thoroughly looted, and its most sacred treasurer, the Emerald Buddha, was taken to Bangkok, where it remains to this day. The King of Viang Chan escaped but died soon after, and thereafter Siamese puppets occupied the throne. Many leading Lao families were deported and forcibly resettled in Siamese lands. Champāsak was also brought under Siamese control, although some of the Lao mandalas in the eastern uplands continued to be tributary to the Vietnamese court at Hué. In 1792 the Siamese occupied Luang Phrabāng, but the ancient capital was treated more kindly than Viang Chan had been. It was not looted, it kept the Phra Bāng, and its king kept his throne after due submission to Siam.
In 1782 Chaophraya Chakri deposed Taksin as King of Siam and became King Rama I, founding the Chakri dynasty which still occupies the Thai throne. Under increasing western influence, the Chakri kings began to convert Siam from a traditional mandala to a modern state, although this was a slow and difficult process which took more than a century. At first the distant Lao kingdoms were little affected. They paid their tributes and made ritual obeisance to Bangkok, and were otherwise left alone.
Thus when King Ānuvong of Viang Chan, who came to the throne in 1804, began to rebuild his kingdom's strength, with covert assistance from Vietnam, Bangkok paid little attention. Ānuvong built the splendid Wat Sisakēt as a symbol of Lao revival. By 1823 he was confident that he could throw off the Siamese yoke. He easily gained control of the Viang Chan area, while his allies seized Champāsak. The Lao armies then crossed the Mekong, hoping to liberate the Lao-speaking Khōrāt Plateau and declare independence from Siam. Ānuvong was the first Lao ruler to put himself forward as a Lao patriot, aspiring to unite and lead all the Lao. But his initial successes were not followed up. The King of Luang Phrabāng sided with the Siamese, Vietnamese aid did not come, and the Siamese King Rama III was able to mobilise and strike back. The Lao were decisively defeated at a battle south of Viang Chan in 1827. The city (apart from some temples) was burned to the ground and its population deported. The following year Ānuvong was captured, and died a prisoner in Bangkok. The Viang Chan kingdom was abolished outright and made a Siamese province: this was a new development in Tai history, reflecting the increasingly strength of European ideas.
The mid 19th century was the lowest point in Lao history. The King of Luang Phrabāng retained a nominal independence by paying tribute to China and Vietnam as well as Siam. The rest of the Lao lands were directly ruled from Bangkok in an increasingly detailed and oppressive way, as Siam developed more of the infrastructure of a modern state. The Lao lands were depopulated by forced resettlement, and the towns filled with Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. If Ānuvong's revolt had showed the beginnings of a genuine sense of Lao nationalism, by the 1860s it seemed as though the Lao would soon disappear as a distinct national entity, becoming just another regional sub-nationality of the Siamese kingdom.
The creation of Laos
What saved the Lao was the arrival of European colonialism in the region. This is a point that the current official history of Laos, with its emphasis on the later anti-colonial struggles, prefers not to mention, but there is no denying that the end of Siamese rule over parts of the Lao lands and creation of a Lao state were the work of the French, and were a by-product of the rivalry between the French and the British colonial empires. Unlike the Dutch and Portuguese, these powers were not content to trade with the states of South-East Asia - they sought territorial control. Burma, which had been the terror of the Tai peoples for centuries, was annexed by British India in stages between 1826 and 1885. Vietnam, the other traditional power in the region, succumbed to the French, with a protectorate established over southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia in 1862 and over the rest of Vietnam in 1883.
These developments spelled trouble for Siam, which found itself caught between two aggressive colonial powers. Under the modernising kings Rama IV (1851-68) and Rama V (1868-1910), Siam sought to make itself a modern state able to defend its independence, but the borders of its ramshackle, multi-ethnic empire were not defensible. The 1883 treaty with the Emperor of Vietnam gave the French the right to control all territories which were or had been tributary to the court of Hué, and not surprisingly they chose to interpret this very broadly. Most of the Lao lands had at one time or another been nominal tributaries of Vietnam, although this had frequently meant nothing in practice. The French imposed a European conception of statehood on these feudal relationships, and from them concocted a territorial claim to all of the former kingdom of Lān Xāng.
The principal French agent in this was Auguste Pavie (1847-1925), who had already spent 17 years in Vietnam and Cambodia furthering French interests when he was appointed French vice-consul in Luang Phrabāng in 1886. Pavie was also a noted explorer and scholar with a genuine affection for the Indochinese peoples, whom he saw as being liberated from ignorance and feudalism by an enlightened France. He regarded the Siamese rulers of the Lao lands as corrupt and oppressive. When Luang Phrabāng was attacked by Tai tribespeople from the hills, and the Siamese representatives fled, it was Pavie who organized the defence of the town and rescued the elderly King Unkham. The king was so grateful that he asked for French protection in place of Siamese rule. Pavie was unable to arrange this, although he did bring about the annexation of the Tai-speaking Sipsông Chu area to French Vietnam. Pavie called his building of French goodwill in Laos the "conquest of hearts," but ultimately it would require force to evict the Siamese.
By 1890 the French authorities in Hanoi, backed by a powerful party in the French Parliament, were determined on the annexation of the whole of Siam, with the detachment of Laos seen only as the first stage. In 1892 Pavie was appointed French Consul-General in Bangkok, and demanded that the Siamese accept French "commercial agents" in the main Lao towns, from Luang Phrabāng to Stung Treng. Pavie argued that France should demand a protectorate over all the Lao lands on both sides of the Mekong. This, he argued, would so weaken Siam that its full annexation could soon follow. Fully aware of what the French were up to, Siam rushed troops and administrators into the Lao lands, but its infrastructure was not well developed enough for it to take a really firm grip on such distant provinces. Furthermore Rama V's belief that the British would support him in any clash with the French proved unfounded.
In July 1893 minor border clashes led to an armed confrontation, with French gunboats sailing up the Chao Phraya to threaten Bangkok. Faced with such threats, Siam capitulated, and France established a protectorate over everything east of the Mekong. In 1904 there was a further clash, largely manufactured by the French. Again the British did not come to Siam's defence, and again Siam was forced to back down, ceding two strips of land west of the Mekong: Xainaburī in the north and Champāsak in the south. At the same time Stung Treng was moved from Laos to Cambodia and some modifications made to the border between Laos and Vietnam. These changes established the Lao borders as they have been ever since.
The French expansionists, urged on by Pavie, now wanted to press on and demand the Lao-speaking lands on the Khōrāt Plateau, but at this point the British intervened. Having gained control of Burma and Malaya, they preferred to maintain Siam as a buffer state between their empire and the French, rather than allow the French to annex all of Siam. By 1909 the situation in Europe had changed, and France decided it needed a British alliance against the rising power of Germany. Paris therefore decided that empire-building in Siam was no longer worth the risks of a clash with British interests.
The aborted French grab for control of all the Lao lands thus created the current Lao borders, which became permanent when Britain opposed any further French advance into Siam. But it also created the predicament which has faced the Lao people ever since. If the French had not interfered at all in Siam's internal affairs, the Lao would probably have been quietly absorbed into a greater Tai-speaking Siamese state. If on the other hand France had succeeded in detaching all the Lao lands from Siam, there might today be a major Lao state, a true reconstruction of Lān Xāng on both banks of the Mekong, with perhaps 20 million people. Instead, the Lao state today has 6 million people, of whom only half speak Lao as their first language. The Isan region of Thailand, meanwhile, contains 15 million Lao-speakers (the language is now officially called "North-East Thai", but it is almost identical to standard Lao). With the recent large migration from Isan to Bangkok, there are now more Lao speakers in Bangkok than in Viang Chan, the Lao capital. The Lao are almost unique in this lack of congruence between their geographical distribution and the borders of what claims to be their nation state.
Having failed in their grand plan to annex Siam, the French lost interest in Laos, and for the next fifty years it remained a backwater of the French empire in Indochina. Officially, the Kingdom of Luang Phrabāng and the Principality of Champāsak remained protectorates with internal autonomy, but in practice they were controlled by French residents. King Sīsavāngvong, who became King of Luang Phrabāng in 1904, remained conspicuously loyal to the French through his 55-year reign. The rest of the country was at first divided into two regions, Upper Laos and Lower Laos, each controlled by a Commandant, based in Luang Phrabāng and Pākxē respectively. Later the country was divided into eleven provinces, each with a French resident. In 1898 all the Lao lands were put under the general supervision of a Resident-Superior, based in Viang Chan (which the French spelled Vientiane) and answerable to the French Governor-General in Hanoi. Security, customs and communications were controlled from Hanoi, and therefore much neglected in the Lao lands, which had a low budget priority. The local authorities handled health, education and justice, and were expected to fund their own operations from local revenue.
The French inherited a territory which was depopulated and demoralised by years of warfare and disorder: in 1910 there were only 600,000 people in Laos, including many Chinese and Vietnamese. To establish order, a local militia, the Garde Indigène, was established, comprising a mixture of Lao and Vietnamese troops under French officers. Banditry was suppressed, slavery abolished, and the Lao-Lum aristocracy's practice of demanding labour service from Lao Theong and Lao Sūng peoples was stopped. Vietnamese clerks were brought in to provide administrative support to the very small number of French officials who ran the country - in 1910 there were only 200 French in the whole country. Vietnamese and Chinese merchants arrived to repopulate the towns (particularly Viang Chan) and revive trade.
The French took over the head tax previously collected by the Siamese, but since French officials were less corrupt than the Siamese had been the amount collected increased. The Lao were also made universally liable for labour service, fixed at ten days per head per year, although exemption could be bought with a cash payment. The Lao-Lum much resented this imposition, seen by them as fit only for upland Lao and slaves. Vietnamese and Chinese were exempt from labour service, but paid a higher head tax in cash. Further revenue was gained by making opium, alcohol and salt state monopolies. Nevertheless the administration in Laos was always short of money, and development, particularly in the uplands, was very slow.
On the whole the Lao found French rule preferable to Siamese rule, and this ensured that for some time there no organised resistance to their presence. In 1901, however, a revolt broke out in the south, led by a Lao Theong called Ong Kaeo, a self-proclaimed phū mī bun (holy man) who led a messianic cult. This revolt was not specifically anti-French or Lao nationalist in character, but attracted wide support and was not effectively suppressed until 1910 when Ong Kaeo was killed. One of Ong Kaeo's lieutenants, Ong Kommadam, however, survived and went on to become a Lao nationalist leader in later years. After the Chinese revolution of 1911, there was also trouble in northern Laos as Chinese warlords and bandits carried their fights across the ill-defined border and as Lao Sūng peoples with links to China were drawn into the conflict. French attempts to regulate the opium trade also provoked resistance in some areas. In 1914-16 there was a Hmong rebellion known as "the madman's revolt" after its leader, a shaman called Pāchai. Later Lao official histories portray all these disturbances as "anti-colonial struggles," but this is an exaggeration.
The favourable comparison between French rule and Siamese rule led to a considerable re-migration of Lao from the Isan area to Laos, boosting the population and reviving trade. The Mekong valley towns such as Viang Chan, Savannakhēt and Paksē began to grow, although they remained majority Vietnamese and Chinese. Agriculture and trade also revived. The French hoped to divert Lao trade down the Mekong to Saigon, but they were unable to compete with the quicker and cheaper trade route through Bangkok, particularly once the Siamese railways reached the Mekong in the late 1920s. This gave Siam a continuing economic importance to Laos even after Siamese political control had ended: a fact which has not changed. The French proposed a railway over the mountains to Vietnam, but capital for this project was never forthcoming from Paris. The French did however build the most important road in Laos, National Route 13 from Viang Chan to Paksē (more recently it has been extended north to Luang Phrabāng). But economic development remained slow. There was some tin-mining and some coffee-growing, but the country's isolation and difficult terrain meant that it never became profitable from a colonialist point of view. More than 90% of the Lao remained subsistence farmers, growing just enough surplus produce to sell for cash to pay their taxes.
Most of the French who came to Laos as officials, settlers or missionaries developed a strong affection for the country and its people, and many devoted decades to what they saw as bettering the lives of the Lao. Some took Lao wives, learned the language, became Buddhists and "went native" - something more acceptable in the French Empire than in the British. With the racial attitudes typical of Europeans at this time, however, they tended to classify the Lao as gentle, amiable, childlike, naive and lazy, regarding them with what one writer called "a mixture of affection and exasperation." They had no belief that the Lao would ever be able to govern themselves, and were slow to establish a system of western education for the Lao. The first secondary school in Viang Chan did not open until 1921, and only in the 1930s did the first Lao students get a higher French education in Hanoi or Paris. Gradually a network of primary schools spread through the lowland areas, and by the 1930s literacy rates among the Lao Lum had increased considerably. But the upland areas, where people spoke either Lao dialects or non-Lao languages, remained untouched.
Among the first Lao to get advanced western educations were three aristocratic brothers, sons (by different mothers) of Chau Bunkhong, the uparāt (hereditary vice-king) of Luang Phrabāng: these were Prince Phetxarāt (1890-1959), Prince Suvannaphūmā (1901-84) and Prince Suphānuvong (1909-95), who were later to dominate Lao politics for many years. Phetxarāt graduated from the École Coloniale in Paris and was the first Lao to study at Oxford University. Both Suvannaphūmā and Suphānuvong graduated in engineering in France. Suvannaphūmā also studied classics and read Latin and Greek as well as Pali: becoming the very model of a French scholar-politician. It is a standard observation of post-colonial history that enlightened colonialism brought about its own demise by creating a class of western-educated intellectuals who then became leaders of anti-colonialist movements. The French education of men like Phetxarāt, Suvannaphūmā and Suphānuvong would seem to confirm this in the case of Laos, but in fact all were essentially Lao aristocrats first and nationalist intellectuals second, even though Suphānuvong eventually became the figurehead leader of the Lao Communists. Laos never produced a figure like Pol Pot, a fully formed French Marxist ideologue.
The real French contribution to Lao nationalism, apart from the creation of the Lao state itself, was made by the oriental specialists of the French School of the Far East (École Française d'Extrême-Orient), who undertook major archaeological works, found and published Lao historical texts, standardised the written Lao language, renovated neglected temples and tombs and in 1931 founded the Independent Lao Buddhist Institute in Viang Chan, where Pali was taught so that the Lao could study their own ancient history. The restoration and preservation of the cultural glories of Luang Phrabāng is a lasting tribute to French scholarship and endeavour.
The French stimulation of Lao culture and historical studies created a new Lao intellectual class, which was soon led by Phetxarāt, a gifted scholar. Phetxarāt is today remembered as a nationalist, but at first he was the leading Lao collaborator with the French. In 1923 he was appointed Indigenous Inspector of Political and Administrative Affairs, making him the highest ranking Lao in the country. He worked to increase the number of Lao in administrative positions and to reduce the role of the Vietnamese, whom the Lao disliked much more than they did the French. Phetxarāt and other leading Lao favoured French rule because it protected them from the Siamese and Vietnamese. It was only when French power and prestige were broken that the Lao elite turned against the French.
The Crisis of World War II
Laos might have drifted along as a pleasant backwater of the French Empire indefinitely had not outside events impacted sharply on the country from 1940 onwards. The fall of France to the Nazi German invasion was a profound shock to Lao faith in France's ability to protect them. The greatest threat to Laos was now Siamese irredentism. In December 1940 Field Marshal Phibun's military regime in Bangkok attacked French Indochina with the covert assistance of the Japanese, seizing western Cambodia, and reclaiming Xainaburī and Champāsak, which been part of French Laos since 1904. The Vichy French authorities allowed Japan to base troops in Indochina, though not at this stage in Laos. The fear of being left exposed to Thailand (as Phibun had renamed Siam) and Japan led to the formation of the first Lao nationalist organisation, the Movement for National Renovation, in January 1941, led by Phetxarāt and supported by local French officials, though not by the Vichy authorities in Hanoi. This group wrote the current Lao national anthem and designed the current Lao flag, while paradoxically pledging support for France.
There matters rested until the liberation of France in 1944, bringing Charles de Gaulle to power. This meant the end of the alliance between Japan and the French administration in Indochina. The Japanese had no intention of allowing the Gaullists to take over, and in late 1944 they staged a military coup in Hanoi. French Gaullist units fled over the mountains to Laos, pursued by the Japanese, who occupied Viang Chan in March 1945 and Luang Phrabāng in April. King Sīsavāngvong was detained by the Japanese, but his son Crown Prince Savāngvatthanā called on all Lao to assist the French, and many Lao died fighting with the French resistance against the Japanese occupiers.
Prince Phetxarāt, however, opposed this position, and thought that Lao independence could be gained by siding with the Japanese, who made him Prime Minister of Luang Phrabāng, though not of Laos as a whole. In practice the country was in chaos and Phetxarāt's government had no real authority. Another Lao group, the Lao Sēri (Free Lao), became agents of the Thais, which also meant supporting the Japanese. A further complication was the arrival of substantial numbers of Vietnamese forces loyal to the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Although the official Communist line at this time was unite all forces against the Japanese, the Vietnamese hated the French and so supported Phetxarāt's government.
In August 1945, just as the country was dissolving into a multi-sided civil war, Japan suddenly surrendered to the Allies. In Laos as in all the newly-liberated capitals of East Asia, there was a scramble to fill the power-vacuum. The main contenders were the Gaullist French, whose guerrilla forces were holding out with Lao assistance in several parts of the country, and a new Lao nationalist group led by Phetxarāt, the Lao Issara (also meaning Free Lao). The nearest Allied army was the Chinese Nationalist army in southern China, and this force was supposed to march south and receive the Japanese surrender. The United States was officially opposed to the re-establishment of French rule in Indochina, and the British could be expected to be unhelpful. But the French had no intention of giving up Indochina without a fight.
The Kingdom of Laos
On 27 August 1945 Prince Phetxarāt took charge of Viang Chan from the Japanese, although as Prime Minister of Luang Phrabāng he had no authority outside the Kingdom's borders. The French were already in control of Luang Phrabāng, and with the support of the Prince of Champāsak they were also regaining control in the south. When it became clear that the King would not budge from his loyalty to France, Phetxarāt (who had no fondness for the King and the Crown Prince) unilaterally declared the unification of the country, nominally under the crown of Luang Phrabāng, and then declared Lao independence. In September the Chinese Army arrived to find that a Lao government of sorts was in command of Viang Chan. Uncertain what to do, the Chinese commander recognised Phetxarāt, and in Luang Phrabāng the Chinese disarmed the French forces. But the Allied governments refused to recognise Phetxarāt's government, and in October de Gaulle advised the King by telegram to dismiss him as Prime Minister of Luang Phrabāng. In retaliation, Phetxarāt declared the King deposed.
Phetxarāt put his younger half-brother Suphānuvong in charge of organising the defence of the new independent Laos with the titles Minister of Defence and Interior. Suphānuvong was married to a Vietnamese and had spent most of the war in Vietnam, where he had become a close supporter and ally of Ho Chi Minh. On his advice Ho's forces supported Phetxarāt's government, but they could spare few forces from the struggle against the French in Vietnam, which was always their first priority. Phetxarāt's brother Suvannaphūmā became Minister for Public Works. Among those who came from Vietnam with Suphānuvong was Kaisôn Phomvihān, half-Vietnamese and a dedicated communist, who in time became the leader of the Lao communists and Vietnam's principal agent in Laos. Thus by the end of 1945 all the leaders of the next 30 years of political conflict were in place.
But the pretentions of the Lao Issara government were largely illusory. Only the presence of the Chinese army in occupation of the northern half of the country was preventing the French was attacking Viang Chan from their base in the south of the country. Thailand and the Allies were suspicious of the apparent role of communists in the government, although in reality this was very slight. In March 1946 the Chinese were finally persuaded to stop plundering the country and go home, and this was the signal for the French to advance to Savannakhēt. Suphānuvong led his motley forces to meet the French before they got to Viang Chan, but at Thākhaek they were routed, and Suphānuvong himself badly wounded. The Lao Issara government fled to Thailand and set up a government in exile in Bangkok. On 24 April the French occupied Viang Chan, and in mid May they arrived in Luang Phrabāng to rescue the grateful King. As a reward for his loyalty, in August the French proclaimed him King of Laos. The Principality of Champāsak was abolished, and Prince Bunūm na Champāsak compensated with the title Inspector-General of the Kingdom.
The French now made a belated effort to give Laos the institutions of a modern state. The Garde Indigène was replaced by a Lao National Guard, and a Lao police force established. Elections for a Constituent Assembly, on the basis of universal male suffrage, were held in December 1946, and in 1947 the Assembly adopted a Constitution confirming the status of Laos as a constitutional monarchy and an "autonomous state" within the French Union. A senior high school was opened in Viang Chan, and new schools opened in Pākxē, Savannakhēt and Luang Phrabāng. New hospitals and clinics were also established, although there was an acute shortage of qualified staff fof them. A crash program to train more Lao civil servants was also instituted. In August 1947 elections were held for the National Assembly, and 35 deputies were elected. A royal relative, Prince Suvannarāt, became Prime Minister of Laos at the head of a Cabinet composed entirely of members of influentual Lao-Lum families. This was to remain a characteristic of Lao politics. Various transient political parties came and went, but the same 20-odd families alternated in office, feuding with each other over the spoils of office.
In 1949, as the French position in Vietnam worsened and the continuing goodwill of the Lao became more important, further concessions were made. Lao ministers took control of all government functions except foreign affairs and defence, although the almost total dependence of the economy on French aid made this new independence more apparent than real. Finally, in February 1950, Laos was formally declared an independent state, and was recognised as such by the United States and Britain. Laos applied to join the United Nations, but its application was vetoed by the Soviet Union. None of these measures disguised the fact that France remained in essential control of the country. Foreign affairs, defence and finance remained under de facto French control, and Justice was only slowly devolved to Lao ministers. Most importantly, the French Army retained the right to operate freely in Laos, and to issue orders to Lao forces without reference to Lao ministers.
Meanwhile, the Lao Issara government-in-exile planned a nationalist revolt against the French and what they saw as their Lao puppets in Viang Chan. For a time the Lao Issara forces, under the command of Suphānuvong, were able to operate from bases in Thailand, and achieved some successes, particularly around Savannakhēt. But in November 1947 a military coup in Bangkok brought Marshal Phibun back to power. Encouraged by the Americans, he sought to repair Thailand's relations with France, and shut down the Lao Issara bases. The Lao Issara could now only mount operations into Laos from territory controlled by the Vietnamese Communists, but this came at a political price which the non-communist Lao Issara leaders, Phetxarāt and Suvannaphūmā, were not prepared to pay.
In January 1949 Lao Communists led by Kaisôn established a new Communist-controlled Lao military force in Vietnam, nominally loyal to the Lao Issara government but in fact answerable to the Indochinese Communist Party. Suphānuvong sided with the Communists over control of this new force, and this led rapidly to a split in the Lao Issara. In July 1949 the non-communist leaders of the Lao Issara declared the government-in-exile dissolved, and most of its members, led by Suvannaphūmā, returned to Laos under an amnesty. Only Phetxarāt remained in exile, but by now he had lost his previous influence. In August 1951, Suvannaphūmā became Prime Minister for the first time, confirming his status as the new leader of the non-communist Lao.
Communism in Laos
The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was founded by Ho Chi Minh and others in Hong Kong in 1930. Its membership was at first entirely Vietnamese, but, as its name indicates, it was given responsibility by the Communist International in Moscow for the whole of French Indochina. During the 1930s it recruited a handful of Lao members, mainly teachers and other middle-ranking civil servants with some western education. But Laos offered few opportunities for communism. It had few wage labourers apart from some in the tin-mining industry. There was no "agrarian question" in Laos: more than 90 percent of Lao were rice-farmers who owned their own land. There were no landlords as in China and no landless rural proletariat. The only grievance the communists could exploit was colonial rule, but, as has been seen, until 1940 most Lao regarded the French as a necessary protection against the Siamese and Vietnamese, and when Lao nationalism did emerge it was under the leadership of aristocrats such as Phetxarāt and Suvannaphūmā. The fact that communism in Laos was closely associated with the Vietnamese did not recommend it to most Lao.
Nevertheless, by the late 1940s the ICP had recruited a core of activists, some of them part-Vietnamese, such as Kaisôn, others married to Vietnamese, such as Nūhak Phumsavan. The discrediting of the French and the failure of the Lao Issara government gave them their opportunity, because after 1949 the struggle against colonial rule could only be carried on from bases in Vietnam and with the support of the Vietnamese communists. In August 1950 the communists established a "front" organisation, the Free Laos Front (Naeo Lao Issara), under the presidency of Suphānuvong. This in turn formed a "Resistance Government of the Lao Homeland." The phrase Pathēt Lao ("Lao Homeland") thus became established as the general name of the Lao communist movement until 1975. The communists shrewdly promoted representatives of the upland ethnic minorities to leadership positions in the Free Laos Front. These included Faidāng Lôbliayao, a leader of the Hmong people of the north, and Sīthon Kommadam, son of the southern rebel Ong Kommadam and a leader of the southern Lao-Thoeng. Since the communist base areas were mainly inhabited by minority peoples, this helped consolidate support in these areas. But the communist leadership remained firmly in Lao-Lum hands. When in 1955 a separate Lao communist party was created (the Lao People's Party or Phak Paxāxon Lao), with Kaisôn as General Secretary and Nūhak as his deputy, all the members of the Politburo were Lao-Lum.
The Lao communist party remained under the supervision of the Vietnamese party, and throughout the following twenty years of warfare the Pathēt Lao was dependent on Vietnam for arms, money and training. A large number of Vietnamese forces fought alongside the Pathēt Lao, and Vietamese "advisers" usually accompanied Pathēt Lao military commanders. The anti-communist Lao government always accused the Pathēt Lao of being Vietnamese puppets, but this was an over-simplification. The Lao and Vietnamese communists were fighting for the same goals - first the eviction of the French, then the establishment of socialism, and the Lao knew they could not achieve either of these objectives on their own. Communist ideology taught that "protetarian internationalism" was a duty of all communists. The Lao communists freely accepted Vietnamese leadership as the quickest and indeed only way to achieve their aims. But the price they paid for this was the hostility of the majority of the Lao-Lum, who disliked the Vietnamese more than they did the French. It was not until the later 1960s that the Pathēt Lao began to gain support in the Lao-Lum areas.
Geneva and the First Coalition
The early 1950s saw continuing instability in the Lao government in Viang Chan. The influx of French forces, accompanied by much French and American aid money, fuelled an economic boom, accompanied by high inflation, in the towns, but this did little to benefit the peasant majority. The diversion of funds to military purposes retarded development of fields like health and education. The government remained weak and faction-ridden, and also increasingly corrupt as leading politicians found ways for themselves and their relatives to profit from the foreign money pouring into the country. Suvannaphūmā remained the leading non-communist politician and retained the confidence of the King, but right-wingers, led by Bunūm na Champāsak, opposed his policy of coalition and reconciliation with the Pathēt Lao. Nevertheless Lao independence, at first a facade for continued French rule, gradually became a reality.
By late 1953 the Pathēt Lao, with Vietnamese aid, had gained control over a large area of territory, albeit thinly populated, in the mountainous areas along the Vietnamese border, and also over some areas in the south, where rule from Viang Chan had never been popular. The deline of French power left the Royal Lao government vulnerable, and Pathēt Lao and Vietnamse forces advanced to within 30km of Luang Phrabāng. As the French became increasingly bogged down in Vietnam, political opposition in France to the Indochina war grew stronger. In May 1954 the Fench suffered a defeat at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam which, while of no great consequence militarily, was a political disaster. The French government resigned and Pierre Mendès-France became Prime Minister on a policy of getting out of Indochina. An international conference on Indochina had already been convened in Geneva, and as it met it was confronted with the new situation following Dien Bien Phu.
Laos was a secondary issue at Geneva, and the decisions made about Laos were dictated by the settlement in Vietnam. Foreign Minister Phuy Xananikôn represented the Lao government and Nūhak represented the Pathēt Lao (as part of the Vietnamese communist delegation), but they were little more than observers of decisions made by the great powers. It was agreed to make Laos an independent, neutral country with a coalition government representing all parties including the Pathēt Lao. A ceasefire was to be concluded, and this was to be followed by the withdrawal of all foreign forces, the disbanding of the Pathēt Lao army, the formation of a coalition government, and free elections. When news of this agreement reached Laos, there was violent anger among anti-communist politicians, which focussed on Phuy for having agreed to these terms. In September a gang funded by right-wing elements attempted to assassinate Phuy. He was slightly wounded, but Defence Minister Ku Vôravong was killed. The resultant crisis forced Suvannaphūmā to resign, and Katāy Don Sasorit formed a new government.
Katāy was a much less subtle figure than Suvannaphūmā, and he found the task of implementing the Geneva agreements beyond him. The essential problem was that although the French forces departed on schedule, the Vietnamese forces supporting the Pathēt Lao in their upland base areas did not, and the Lao government had no means of forcing them to do so. Under the agreements, the Pathēt Lao forces were supposed to assemble in Houaphan and Phongsālī provinces before disbanding. Instead the Pathēt Lao and the Vietnamese continued to treat these provinces as their own "liberated areas," refusing to allow government officials to exercise authority, and also evicting the local Hmong foces which had supported the French and were now loyal to the Lao government. They also maintained their underground forces in the south. After a year of stalemate, the government went ahead with elections in the rest of the country in December 1955. After the elections Katāy's government was defeated in the new National Assembly, and Suvannaphūmā returned to office, still determined to create a neutralist coalition government. Suvannaphūmā always believed that the Lao, if left alone, could settle their own differences, and that he could come to an agreement with his half-brother Suphānuvong.
The United States did not ratify the Geneva agreements, and the Eisenhower administration, particularly the militantly anti-communist Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, shared the views of the right-wing Lao politicians. Under Dulles's influence the U.S. had backed the French war in Vietnam, and now that the French were leaving he was determined that the U.S. would take over France's role of supporting anti-communist forces in Vietnam and preventing Ho Chi Minh's forces taking over southern Vietnam. This, he believed, necessitated maintaining an anti-communist government in Laos and preventing Vietnam using Laos as a transport route to south Vietnam. By 1955 the U.S. was footing the entire cost of keeping the Royal Lao Army in the field, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was providing intelligence and political direction. The U.S. therefore strongly opposed Suvannaphūmā's efforts to bring the Pathēt Lao into the government and to make Laos a neutral country.
The opposition of the U.S. to a coalition government made Suvannaphūmā's task difficult, but in August 1956 he finally reached an agreement with Suphānuvong. He was helped by his elder brother Prince Phetxarāt, who returned to Laos in 1956 after ten years in exile, and played the role of mediator and elder statesman until his death in 1959. A coalition government was formed in which Suphānuvong became Minister for Planning and Reconstruction, and another Pathēt Lao leader, Phūmī Vongvichit (1909-94) was Minister for Religion and Fine Arts. The Pathēt Lao agreed to allow the reintegration of Houaphan and Phongsālī provinces, and to integrate the Pathēt Lao army into the Royal Lao Army. Guarantees were given that Laos would be a neutral country and would not allow its territory to be used as a base for aggression against any of its neighbours. The coalition government formally took office in November, and in May 1958 reasonably free elections were held, at which the Pathēt Lao won nine seats in the National Assembly out of 21 contested. Suphānuvong won the Viang Chan seat with the highest vote of any candidate in the country.
The 1956 agreement was welcomed by France, Britain, the Soviet Union, China and both Vietnamese governments. The U.S. was muted in its opposition, and did not carry out previous threats to cut off aid if the Pathēt Lao joined the government. But behind the scenes the U.S. Embassy continued to encourage anti-communist Lao politicians to undermine the agreement. The Vietnamese and Lao communists also had no intention of honouring the spirit of the 1956 agreement, which they saw in purely tactical terms. Some Pathēt Lao weapons were handed over, and two battalions of Pathēt Lao troops were officially designated as units of the Royal Lao Army. But the bulk of the Pathēt Lao forces, led by Kaisôn, withdrew to bases over the Vietnamese border to await developments. The Vietnamese also continued to use the mountains of the frontier zone as a safe haven and transport route (later known as the Ho Chi Minh trail). Suvannaphūmā turned a blind eye to this rather than risk the unity of his government, but the CIA was of course fully aware of these facts. U.S. aid, directed by the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID), continued at the rate of US$40 million a year (in a country of 3 million people), but deliberately bypassed Suphānuvong's Ministry for Planning and Reconstruction and was channelled to the Army and friendly politicians, serving to undermine the government's authority.
Partly as a result of this, and partly because of the venal and unreliable character of many Lao politicians, Suvannaphūmā's government soon ran into difficulties. The U.S. and other aid donors insisted on currency reform to stem the runaway inflation which they themselves had caused by pumping money into such an underdeveloped economy. Suvannaphūmā resisted, fearing the effect that devaluation would have on the Lao people. Finally in August 1958 the U.S. suspended aid payments, which the anti-coalition and opportunist forces in the Assembly took as a signal to bring down Suvannaphūmā. Following his resignation Phuy Xananikôn, who now had the support of the U.S. Embassy, again became Prime Minister, and the Pathēt Lao ministers were not re-appointed. The new Defence Minister was Phūmī Nôsavan, a right-winger closely aligned with the Americans. Under his command the Army once again became an anti-communist force. The two ex-Pathēt Lao battalions were disbanded, although most of their members escaped to Vietnam. In December Phuy partly suspended the Constitution and began to rule under emergency powers, which he used to purge Pathēt Lao supporters from the civil service, and to arrest Suphānuvong and the other Pathēt Lao leaders in Viang Chan. In July 1959 the Pathēt Lao responded by re-occupying parts of Houaphan and Phongsālī provinces, and fighting soon broke out all over the country. At this juncture the elderly King Sīsavāngvong died and was succeeded by his son Savāngvatthanā, who was as pro-American as his father had been pro-French, and well-known for his prophecy that he would be the last King of Laos.
The failure of neutralism
Despite its repression of the Pathēt Lao, Phuy's government was not anti-communist enough for the right-wingers, and in December Phūmī Nôsavan staged Laos's first military coup. Viang Chan was occupied and Phuy arrested, but Phūmī was forced to back down when the King, at the urging of western ambassadors, refused to appoint him Prime Minister. A compromise was reached whereby a royal relative, Prince Somsanit Vongkotrattana, became nominal Prime Minister while Phūmī remained Defence Minister and became the real power in the government. The new government was at once embarrassed by the dramatic escape of Suphānuvong and the other Pathēt Lao leaders from prison - they had converted their guards, who fled with them to Vietnam. The government was also opposed by elements of the Army which continued to support Suvannaphūmā and his neutralist policies. In August 1960, led by Captain Kông Lae, they staged a second coup, demanding that the National Assenbly meet and reinstate Suvannaphūmā. Faced with an angry mob supporting the coup, the Assembly complied, and Suvannaphūmā formed his third government. In an attempt to neutralise right-wing opposition, Suvannaphūmā offered to include Phūmī Nôsavan in the new government, but instead Phūmī went south to join Bunūm na Champāsak in forming an anti-communist "Revolutionary Committee" with U.S. backing.
Kông's coup split the Army, with some garrisons supporting him and some supporting Phūmī. Since the Americans were paying the Army's bills, however, Kông's units could not sustain themselves for long, and had no choice but to seek an alliance with the Pathēt Lao, a move which Suvannaphūmā supported in dramatic fashion by flying to the Pathēt Lao headquarters at Xam Neua in the mountains to issue a joint appeal with Suphānuvong for Lao unity and neutralism. This was a great propaganda coup for the Pathēt Lao, and led to a renewed Pathēt Lao - Vietnamese advance which soon occupied most of the north and east of the country. For the first time the Pathēt Lao began receiving substantial Soviet military and financial aid, and Soviet advisers appeared in Laos. For the U.S., this was a signal for all-out war. Massive aid was sent to Phūmī and Bunūm in the south, and in October they advanced towards Viang Chan. A quorum of the National Assembly met at Savnannakhēt and declared Suvannaphūmā deposed and replaced by Bunūm. In December the rightist army reached Viang Chan and after three days heavy fighting, in which about 500 people were killed, took the city. Suvannaphūmā fled to Cambodia, while Kông's forces withdrew to the Pathēt Lao areas, which now took in about two-thirds of the country.
At this point the international political climate changed with the end of the Eisenhower Administration and the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy Administration took the view that American interests were best served by ending the Lao conflict through the enforcemet of the Geneva agreements of 1956, a policy Kennedy agreed on at his summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. As a result the Geneva conference reconvened, but both the Americans and the Soviets had some trouble getting their "puppets" to agree to compromise. Phūmī and Bunūm rightly feared that any agreement would rob them of their military victory and bring the despised Suvannaphūmā back to power. It took serious threats from the U.S. Embassy and the Thai military to force their compliance. The Pathēt Lao believed they were on the verge of conquering the whole country, and late 1961 they began an offensive in Luang Namthā province which soon routed Phūmī's forces. But communist discipline held and they agreed to a compromise in which they had no real faith. In June Suvannaphūmā, Suphānuvong and Bunūm met in the Plain of Jars and agreed to a government of eleven neutralists, four rightists and four Pathēt Lao. Bunūm retired from politics, and Suphānuvong and Phūmī became deputy prime ministers in Suvannaphūmā's fourth government, which took office in June 1962 with the support of all the powers.
Even before the Second Coalition government took office, however, its principal sponsors in the U.S. were losing faith in its value. As the Vietnam War began to escalate, the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail as a supply route from North Vietnam to the communist forces in the south increased, and it became obvious that the Vietnamese had no intention of withdrawing their forces from Laos as they had twice agreed at Geneva to do. For North Vietnam, the use of Lao territory was a strategic necessity, and not something on which they could compromise. By late 1962 it was therefore also becoming a necessity for the U.S. to prevent this. The Soviets and Vietnamese continued clandestine aid to the Pathēt Lao, while the U.S. continued to arm and train Hmong irregular forces under Vang Pao in the Plain of Jars. There was no attempt to reintegrate the Pathēt Lao areas with the rest of Laos, and the Pathēt Lao did not even pretend to disarm their forces. The neutralist forces, commanded by Kông, agreed to accept U.S. aid, which caused a split within the neutralist ranks, with some going over to the Pathēt Lao. By April 1963 fighting had broken out again in the Plain of Jars. By the end of the year fighting was widespread, the Pathēt Lao was again advancing, and the neutralists were being squeezed out as a political and military force. In April 1964 there was another attempt at a rightist coup, led by General Kupasit Athai, commander of the Viang Chan garrison and an ally of Phūmī. Suvannaphūmā was briefly arrested, but when the Americans refused support to the coup it collapsed, but the Pathēt Lao ministers left the capital and did not return, effectively ending the Coalition government.
Laos as battlefield
Between 1964 and 1973 Laos effectively ceased to exist as an independent state. It became a battlefield in the war between the United States and North Vietnam, with the forces of the Royal Lao Army and the Hmong militia, on one side, and the Pathēt Lao, on the other, engaged as auxiliary fighters. The country was divided into two zones: one - comprising about two-thirds of Laos but containing only about a quarter of its population - effectively controlled by North Vietnam, and the other - consisting of little more than the Mekong Valley but containing most of the Lao population - effectively controlled by the U.S. The Pathēt Lao, for reasons discussed earlier, were willing collaborators in the Vietnamese control of their zone of operations. They knew that the only way they could hope to take power in Laos was via a communist victory in the war raging in South Vietnam, for which was Laos was a vital supply route. Suvannaphūmā's government, on the other hand, was an unwilling prisoner of events. Suvannaphūmā continued to argue for a neutralised Laos, and both sides paid lip-service to this ideal, but neither was prepared to yield any part of its strategic position to achieve it. Suvannaphūmā remained in office, despite frequent threats to resign, because both the U.S. and the North Vietnamese preferred him to anyone else. The U.S. no longer bothered opposing his neutralist views because, as the paymasters of the Lao army, they could ignore him and conduct the war as they saw fit.
The U.S. objective in Laos was essentially defensive. It sought to prevent the North Vietnamese and Pathēt Lao forces advancing across the Plain of Jars to threaten Viang Chan, and for this it mainly employed Vang Pao's Hmong militia. But its main objective was to block the supply route down the Ho Chi Minh trail, and for this it relied on air power, of which it had a complete monopoly. During these nine years Laos was bombed more heavily than any other country ever has been in history: virtually every town and village in the Pathēt Lao zone was destroyed and most of the population made refugees. Likewise, the North Vietnamese objective was keep the Ho Chi Minh trail open at all costs, and also to prevent the U.S. advancing across Laos to threaten North Vietnam - not that the U.S. had any such plans. The Pathēt Lao understood that their own desire to make gains at the expense of the Royal Lao forces had to be subordinated to the war in Vietnam, so for most of the time the front line remained stable, with the Pathēt Lao advancing during the dry season and retreating during the wet season.
An estimated 200,000 people were killed in Laos is the course of the war, most of them Lao civilians. While the ethnic minorities who mainly populated the mountains of the Pathēt Lao suffered terribly as a result of the U.S. air war, the majority of the Lao-Lum people in the Mekong Valley towns were little effected in a military sense. The influx of U.S. personnel and money (an estimated $US500 million in U.S. aid alone) produced an economic boom in the towns as service industries grew to meet the demands of the war and the large resident American civilian population. Lao generals and politicians, led by Phūmī Nôsavan until his fall from power in 1965, grew rich on corruption, drug dealing, prostitution and smuggling, and large numbers of ordinary Lao moved into the cash economy for the first time, particularly in Viang Chan, which grew rapidly. The war also exposed the Lao to the full force of western popular culture for the first time, with an effect that both the Pathēt Lao and conservative Buddhists regarded as deeply corrupting of Lao tradition and culture.
During these years the Pathēt Lao sought to project an image of moderation both domestically and internationally. Suphānuvong, as head of the Lao Patriotic Front, was the public face of the Pathēt Lao, while the communist party and its leader Kaisôn remained in the background. At its 1968 congress, the Front issued a 12-point program which made no mention of socialism, but called for a Government of National Union and free elections, and promised respect for Buddhism and the monarchy. The fact that Suphānuvong was a royal prince as well as a communist seemed to many Lao a reassurance that the Pathēt Lao in power would pursue a moderate path. In the Pathēt Lao zone, the communists followed conspicuously moderate policies, although there were some attempts at collectivising agriculture where this was possible. The Pathēt Lao were effective providers of basic services, despite the difficulties created by the endless bombing, and also effective at mobilising the upland ethnic minorities, whom they treated with far greater respect than any Lao government had ever done. Most notably, the Pathēt Lao were free from corruption.
In 1969 Richard Nixon became President of the U.S. and began the long process of winding down the Vietnam War and finding a political settlement. But this brought no immediate respite in Laos. The new administration pursued the same goals by the same means, and in fact during 1969 and 1970 the bombing campaign increased in intensity. The extension of the war to Cambodia in 1970, which closed North Vietnam's supply routes through that country, made the Ho Chi Minh trail even more crucial to the course of the Vietnam War. In 1971 the U.S. sponsored an invasion of southern Laos by the South Vietnamese army, with the aim of severing the trail and shoring up the South Vietnamese government as the U.S. withdrew its combat troops. The invasion was bitterly resisted by North Vietnamese and Pathēt Lao forces and was decisively defeated. The Pathēt Lao retaliated by capturing several provincial capitals which it had previously surrounded but not tried to take.
In January 1973, following Nixon's re-election, a peace agreement was announced between North Vietnam and the U.S. Following the pattern which had been established in Geneva in 1954, a peace settlement in Laos was agreed on as a side issue to the Vietnam question. The two sides in Laos had been in informal discussions since the previous July, and once their respective patrons had consented they quickly signed a ceasefire and announced an Agreement on the Restoration of Peace and National Reconciliation. The main provisions were the formation of a third coalition government, with Suvannaphūmā as prime minister and 12 ministers from each side. The National Assembly, which had long lost its political legitimacy, was to be replaced by a Consultative Council of 42 members - 16 from each side plus ten agreed nominees. This body, to be chaired by Suphānuvong, was given equal status with the government, making Suphānuvong in effect co-ruler of the country. There was no mention of the Pathēt Lao giving up de facto control of its zone, or of dissolving its armed forces. These arrangements reflected the vastly strengthened position of the Pathēt Lao since the second coalition government. In recognition of this, the rightists staged a last-gasp attempted coup in Viang Chan in August, but it quickly collapsed. By the end of 1973 many Lao recognised that it was only a matter of time before the Pathēt Lao came to power.
During 1974 and 1975 the balance of power in Laos shifted steadily in favour of the Pathēt Lao as the U.S. disengaged itself from Indochina and became preoccupied with the Watergate scandal, the 1974 energy crisis and other matters. Suvannaphūmā was tired and demoralised, and following a heart attack in mid 1974 he spent some months recuperating in France, after which he announced that he would retire from politics following the elections scheduled for early 1976. The anti-communist forces were thus leaderless, and also divided, discredited and deeply mired in corruption. Suphānuvong, by contast, was confident, popular and a master political tactician, and had behind him the disciplined cadres of the communist party and the Pathēt Lao army, which under the terms of the 1973 agreement were now able to operate freely throughout the country. In May 1974 he put forward an 18-point plan for "National Reconstruction," which was unanimously adopted - a sign of his increasing dominance. The plan was mostly uncontroversial, with renewed promises of free elections, democratic rights and respect for religion, as well as constructive economic policies. But press censorship was introduced in the name of "national unity," making it more difficult for non-communist forces to organise politically in response to the creeping Pathēt Lao takeover. In January 1975 all public meetings and demonstrations were banned. Recognising the trend of events, influential business and political figures began to more their assets, and in some cases themselves, to Thailand, France or the U.S.
In March 1975, confident that the U.S. no longer had the stomach to intervene militarily in Indochina, the North Vietnamese began their final military offensive in South Vietnam, which by the end of April carried them to victory with the fall of Saigon. A few days earlier the Khmer Rouge army had entered Phnom Penh. The Pathēt Lao now knew that victory was within reach, and with the Vietnam war over the North Vietnamese authorised the seizure of power in Laos. Demonstrations broke out in Viang Chan, denouncing the rightists and demanding political change. Rightist ministers resigned from the government and fled the country, followed by senior Royal Lao Army commanders. A Pathēt Lao minister took over the defence portfolio, removing any chance of the Army resisting the Pathēt Lao takeover. Suvannaphūmā, dreading further conflict and apparently trusting Suphānuvong's promises of a moderate policy, gave instructions that the Pathēt Lao were not to be resisted, and the U.S. began to withdraw its advisers and diplomatic personnel. The Pathēt Lao army entered the major towns of southern Laos during May, and in early June occupied Luang Phrabāng. Panic broke out in Viang Chan as most of the business class and many officials, officers and others who had collaborated with the U.S. scrambled to get their families and property across the Mekong to Thailand. Recognising that the cause was lost, Vang Pao led thousands of his Hmong fighters and their families into exile - eventually about a third of all the Lao Hmong left the country. Pathēt Lao forces entered an almost deserted Viang Chan in August.
For a few months the Pathēt Lao appeared to honour their promises of moderation. The shell of the coalition government was preserved, their were no arrests or show-trials, and private property was respected. Diplomatic relations with the U.S. were maintained, despite an immediate cut-off of all U.S. aid. (Other western countries continued to offer aid, and Soviet and eastern European technicians began to arrive to replace the departed Americans.) But in December there was a sharp change in policy. A joint meeting of the government and the Consultative Council was held, at which Suphānuvong demanded immediate change. There was no resistance. On 2 December the King agreed to abdicate, and Suvannaphūmā resigned. The Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed, with Suphānuvong as President. Kaisôn Phomvihān emerged from the shadows to become Prime Minister and the real ruler of the country. No more was heard of elections or political freedoms: non-communist newspapers were closed, and a large-scale purge of the civil service, army and police was launched. Thousands were dispatched for "re-education" in remote parts of the country, where many died and many more were kept for up to ten years. This prompted a renewed flight from the country. Many of the professional and intellectual class, who had initially been willing to work for the new regime, changed their minds and left - a much easier thing to do from Laos than from either Vietnam or Cambodia. By 1977 10 percent of the population had left the country, including most of the business and educated classes.
The leadership group of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party had hardly changed since the party's foundation, and did not change significantly during its first decade in power. Real power in the party rested with four men: General-Secretary Kaisôn, his trusted deputy and economics chief Nuhak Phumsavan (both from humble origins in Savannakhet), planning minister Sālī Vongkhamxao (who died in 1991) and the Army commander and security chief Khamtai Siphandôn. The party's French-educated intellectuals - President Souphanavong and education and propaganda minister Phumi Vongvichit - were more widely seen in public and were Politburo members, but not part of the inner group. All these leaders were Lao-Lum: while the ethnic minorities had provided most of the troops for the Pathet Lao army, their leaders were confined to symbolic roles in front organisations rather than admitted to the inner core of party leadership. In 1975 the party had only 30,000 members in a country of 3.5 million people. Of these, a substantial number were members of ethnic minorities from the former Pathēt Lao zone, who had joined the party for pragmatic or patriotic reasons rather than through a real understanding of communism. The number of committed communists among the Lao-Lum majority of the Lao population was very small.
The policy of the party was to "advance, step by step, to socialism, without going through the stage of capitalist development." This objective, a deviation from orthodox Marxism-Leninism borrowed (without acknowledgement) from Mao Zedong, made a virtue of necessity: there was no chance of Laos having a "stage of capitalist development" while 90 of its population were subsistence farmers, and no chance of an orthodox Marxist path to socialism via a working class revolution in a country which had no industrial working class. But the party leaders, having fought for 30 years to achieve power, now had to confront the question of what "socialism" meant in a country such as Laos, and how it was to be achieved in circumstances of poverty, isolation and an acute shortage of administrative and professional personnel.
For Kaisôn the path to socialism lay in emulating the Soviet and Vietnamese models. "Socialist relations of production" must be introduced, and this, in an agricultural country, meant primarily the collectivisation of agriculture. All land was declared to be state property, and individual farms were merged into large-scale "co-operatives." The means of production - which in Laos meant buffalo and wooden ploughs - were to be owned collectively. By the end of 1978 most of the lowland Lao rice-growers had been subjected to collectivisation. The program was deeply unpopular. The Pathēt Lao had never had much active support in these areas, and the peasants felt no sense of gratitude to the communists for having freed them from oppressive landlords, since there had been none in Laos. As in every country where collectivisation has been attempted, the peasants engaged in passive resistance, including the slaughter of lifestock, and many emigrated to Thailand. The impossibility of controlling the long Lao-Thai border meant that farmers could easily sell their crops on the free market in Thailand.
As a result state food procurements fell sharply, and this, coupled with the cutoff of American aid and the virtual disappearance of imported goods, produced shortages, unemployment and economic hardship in the towns. Matters were made worse in 1979 when the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and subsequent Sino-Vietnamese War, forced the Lao government to break off relations with China, ending another source of foreign assistance. The deteriorating economic situation soon led to active resistance to the communist regime. Incidents of sabotage escalated, particularly in the south, and a shadowy Lao National Revolutionary Front began guerrilla operations from bases in Thailand, just as the communists themselves had done in the 1940s. In 1976 the army seized power again in Thailand, and the anti-communist military regime closed off all exports to Laos, making economic conditions even worse, and actively supported the Lao opposition: shortly afterwards a plot to assassinate Kaisôn, engineered by right-wing exiles with Thai support, was exposed.
As well as economic grievances, the resistance was fuelled by resentment in urban areas over the government's restrictions on freedom of movement, tight censorship and curtailment of "decadent" western cultural activities such as cinema and nightclubs. The exodus of educated people to Thailand led to a partial collapse of the education system, leaving large numbers of idle young people as a ready source of discontent. The Vietnamese, Soviet and eastern European technicians and advisers were not an adequate substitute for the departured Americans, and infrastructure and plant soon deteriorated. Lack of money and skilled personnel, plus the Thai trade embargo, caused interruptions to vital services such as electricity.
Ruptured relations with China and Thailand made Laos increasingly dependent on Vietnam. In 1977 a 25-year treaty of friendship was signed, providing for large numbers of Vietnamese advisers to assist the Lao government, and for 30,000 Vietnamese troops to stay in the country to bolster the Lao security forces. The Vietnamese were as unpopular as ever with the majority of the Lao people, despite a barrage of propaganda designed to encourage "solidarity" between the two countries, and the belief that the communists were allowing the Vietnamese to take over Laos fuelled opposition. During 1978 and 1979 the government became increasingly alarmed about the security situation. Both China and Thailand were supporting insurgencies in different parts of the country, and the resistance of the Hmong in central Laos revived with covert assistance from the exiled Hmong leaders in Thailand and the U.S. One government reaction was to arrest the elderly ex-King, his wife and son, and deport them to a remote location near the Vietnamese border, where they died of neglect and lack of medical attention. For many years the fate of the Lao royal family remained unknown, but in the 1990s the truth leaked out and caused wide resentment in Laos.
In mid 1979 the government, apparently at the urging of Soviet advisers who feared that the communist regime was on the point of collapse, announced a sudden reversal of policy. Kaisôn, a lifelong communist, showed himself to be a more flexible leader than many had expected. In a major speech in December, he admitted that Laos was not ready for socialism. "This policy cannot be successfully implemented in the economic field, and it is suicidal because any party which tries to implement such a policy will only meet with bankruptcy." Citing Lenin's "New Economic Policy" of the 1920s, he conceded that capitalist relations of production would have to be restored if the economic decline of the country was not to continue, and be exploited by "enemies" of the regime. Kaisôn's model was not Lenin, however, but China's Deng Xiaoping, who at this time was starting the free-market reforms that laid the foundation for China's subsequent economic growth. Collectivisation was abandoned, and farmers were told that they were free to leave the "co-operative" farms, which virtually of them promptly did, and to sell their surplus grain on the free market. Other liberalisations followed. Restrictions on internal movement were lifted, and cultural policy relaxed. As in China, however, there was no relaxation of the party's grip on political power.
The abandonment of collectivisation and the relaxation of discipline brought with them new problems, which gew worse the longer the communist party enjoyed a monopoly of power. These included increasing corruption and nepotism (a traditional feature of Lao political life), as ideological commitment faded and self-interest arose to replace it as the major motivation for seeking and holding office. The economic benefits of economic liberalisation were also slow to emerge. Unlike China, Laos did not have the potential for rapid economic growth through the restoration of a free market in agriculture and the fostering of export-driven low-wage manufacturing. This was partly because Laos was a small, poor, landlocked country while China was a geographic and demographic giant, but also because the Lao farmers, most living at little more than subsistence level, could not generate the huge surpluses, even given economic incentives, that the Chinese peasants could and did after Deng's decollectivisation of agriculture. In 1985, on the tenth anniversary of the communist takeover, the regime claimed that gross domestic product had doubled under its rule. This was misleading because the economy had been in a virtual collapse in 1975, making it an unrealistic basis for comparison. A United Nations report estimated that GDP had scarcely changed since 1980, although it had begun to rise in 1984. In any case the country remained very poor, with little industrial development.
The first decade of communist rule did produce some advances in health, education and social development, particularly for the ethnic minority peoples, who were the main beneficiaries of the restoration of peace and the reunification of the country. But in these fields the government was hampered by an acute shortage of trained personnel, resulting from the massive exodus of the educated classes between 1975 and 1978, and also from the loss of American assistance. Cut off from educational opportunities in the west, many young Lao were dispatched for higher education in Vietnam, the Soviet Union or eastern Europe, but even crash education courses took time to produce trained teachers, engineers and doctors. In any case, the standard of training in some cases was not high, and many of the Lao students lacked the language skills to understand what they were being taught. Today many of these Lao regard themselves as a "lost generation" and have had to gain new qualifications at western standards to be able to find employment.
In 1985, recognising the disappointing results of the party's first decade in power, Kaisôn introduced the New Economic Mechanism. Although justified with appropriate socialist phraseology, this policy amounted in effect to abandoning state ownershop and control of the economy. The state bureaucacy was reduced in size and its role in economic management reduced, subsidies to state industries were abolished, managers were told that they should aim to make their enterprises profitable (which inevitably meant shedding employees), and retail prices were deregulated. While long-term benefits were expected from these reforms, in the short term they produced inflation, unemployment among workers from the loss-making state sector, and served mainly to increase resentment and insecurity among the urban population. The reforms thus did little to bolster the standing of the communist regime, particularly since its concessions to capitalism had cost it much of its ideological legitimacy. Fortunately for the party, the opposition forces were too weak and disorganised to take advantage of the party's vulnerable position.
The international position of Laos also remained precarious, with hostile borders with both China and Thailand, and only Vietnam as a reliable ally and source of assistance. By the mid 1980s, however, relations with China had begun to thaw as Chinese anger at Lao support for Vietnam in 1979 faded. By 1986 official ties had been restored, although relations remained cool. Ambassadors were exchanged in 1988, the same year the Vietnam officially withdrew its troops from both Laos and Cambodia (in fact some troops remained in Laos). At the same time, Laos made the first steps to repairing relations with the U.S, co-operating with U.S. efforts to find the remains of American air-crew shot down over Laos during the Indochina war. This restoration of ties was seen as necessary both to enable American aid and investment to resume, and to end covert U.S. support for the low-level anti-communist insurgency which continued to flicker in the south. The government also hoped that the U.S. would use its influence to urge Thailand to ease its economic and political pressure on Laos. In 1984 and again in 1987 there were border clashes between Thai and Lao forces in a disputed territory in Xainyaburī province, and Thai restrictions on trade continued to hurt Laos.
The collapse of communism in eastern Europe which began in 1989 and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 came a profound shock to the Lao communist leaders. Ideologically, it did not suggest to the Lao leaders that there was anything fundamentally wrong with socialism as an idea, but it confirmed for them the wisdom of the concessions in economic policy they had made since 1979. More practically, the Soviet Union had been the largest contributor of foreign aid to Laos, but in 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev told Kaisôn that aid would have to be sharply reduced. In fact aid was cut off completely in 1990, creating a renewed economic crisis. Laos was forced to ask France and Japan for emergency assistance, and also to ask the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for aid. This had further consequences. The international agencies required further economic liberalisation and reform as a precondition for large-scale aid. Laos was also forced to mend its fences with the non-communist countries if it wanted their assistance. Laos was helped in this by the restoration of civilian government in Thailand after 1992, which ended the confrontationist policies of the previous military regimes. Finally, in 1989, Kaisôn visited Beijing to confirm the restoration of friendly relations, and to secure Chinese aid.
In the 1990s the old guard of Lao communism passed from the scene. Suphānuvong retired in 1991 and died in 1995. He was succeeded as President by Kaisôn, while Khamtai Siphandôn became Prime Minister, but Kaisôn in turn died in November 1992, and was succeeded as President by Nuhak Phumsavan and as party leader by Khamtai, who thus emerged as the effective ruler of the country. In 1998 Nuhak retired and Khamtai succeeded him as President, a post he continues to hold in 2006, at 81 the last of the generation of leaders who waged the "thirty-year struggle" for power. General Sīsavāt Kaeobunphan became Prime Minister in 1998, and was succeeded in 2001 by Boungnang Vorachith.
Since the 1990s the dominant factor in the Lao economy has been the spectacular growth in the South-East Asian region, and particularly in Thailand. In 1994 an Australian-funded bridge was opened linking Viang Chan with the Thai city of Nong Khai: this has become the country's most important piece of infrastructure, because it has linked Laos to the booming Thai economy. (Since then another bridge has been built linking Ubon Ratchathani in eastern Thailand with the southern Lao town of Pākxē. A third bridge at Savannakhēt is expected to open in 2006.) To take advantage of this, the Lao government lifted virtually all restrictions on foreign trade and investment, allowing Thai and other foreign firms to set up and trade freely in the country. Lao and Chinese exiles were also encouraged to return to Laos, and to bring their money with them. Many did so - today a member of the former Lao royal family, Princess Manilai, owns a hotel and health resort in Luang Phrabāng, while some of the old Lao elite families, such as the Inthavongs, again operate (if not live) in the country.
Of equal benefit to Laos was the rapid expansion of tourism in South-East Asia, in which again Thailand was a leading participant. The Lao government saw the possibilities of income from tourism in the 1990s, but the almost total lack of tourist infrastructure, the poor transport system, the non-convertability of the Lao currency and fears by some communist officials of political dangers and "cultural pollution" from an influx of foreigners all acted as barriers. The American writer Brett Dakin, who worked as an adviser to the Lao National Tourism Authority, has written an amusing account of the struggles of the Lao bureaucracy to adapt to the demands of the tourism industry. Among his projects was "Visit Laos Year" in 1999-2000, which began the current boom in tourism to Laos. Today Laos is a popular tourist destination, with the cultural and religious glories of Luang Phrabāng (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) being particularly popular. A host of small businesses have grown up to serve the tourist trade, providing welcome employment to thousands of people, while foreign (mainly Thai) airlines, bus companies and hotels have moved in to fill the infrastructure gaps that the Lao government lacks the funds or expertise to provide.
Since the reforms of the 1980s, Laos has achieved sustained growth, averaging six percent a year since 1988, except during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. But subsistence agriculture still accounts for half of GDP and provides 80 percent of total employment. Much of the private sector is controlled by Thai and Chinese companies, and indeed Laos has to some extent become an economic and cultural colony of Thailand, a source of some resentment among Lao. Laos is still heavily dependent on foreign aid, but Thailand's ongoing expansion has increased demand for timber and hydroelectricity, Laos's only major export commodities. Recently Laos has normalised its trade relations with the U.S., but this has yet to produce any major benefits. The European Union has provided funds to enable Laos to meet membership requirements for the World Trade Organisation. A major hurdle is the Lao kip, which is still not a convertible currency.
Like China, but on a smaller scale, Laos is today a "facade communist" country. The communist party retains a monopoly of political power, but leaves the operation of the economy to market forces, and does not interfere in the daily lives of the Lao people provided they do not challenge its rule. Attempts to police the religious, cultural, economic and sexual activities of the people have been largely abandoned, although Christian evangelism is officially discouraged. The media is state controlled, but most Lao have free access to Thai radio and television (Thai and Lao are mutually comprehensible languages), which gives them news from the outside world. Uncensored internet access is available in most towns. Lao are also fairly free to travel to Thailand, and indeed illegal Lao immigration to Thailand is a problem for the Thai government. Those who challenge the communist regime, however, receive harsh treatment. Amnesty International has continued to document illegal detention and torture of political detainees. Various oppsition groups operate in Thailand and the U.S., but there seems little evidence of active opposition inside Laos. For the time being most Lao seem content with the personal freedom and modest prosperity they have enjoyed over the past decade.
The fear of retaliation, retribution, and persecution, combined with alleged forcible reeducation by the postwar socialist government of Laos have forced half of the country's 300,000 Hmong to flee the country since the Secret War ended in 1975. The majority of these Hmong refugees were resettled in the United States. By 2003 they had established a Hmong American community comparable in size with the current Hmong community in Laos. The rest of these Hmong refugees settled in Australia, Argentina, Canada, Germany, France, and French Guiana. Their postwar diasporic experience includes forced dispersion to at least two foreign countries, struggling to maintain a collective memory of their homeland, and maintaining a Hmong ethnic consciousness. Some have experienced difficult relationships with host societies, while others have adapted better and learned to develop a more tolerant attitude toward diversity. Additionally, a small group of Hmong in the West continues to support the resistance movement in Laos, where Hmong ethnic oppression is still said to exist. Uang (2003) explores the Hmong diaspora in the post-Secret War period, focusing on two communities in 2003: the Hmong in Laos and the Hmong in the United States.
- This article is based largely on Martin Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos, 1997
- Yang (2003)