The first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) arrived in Southeast Asia around 50,000 years ago. Their stone-age technology remained little changed until a new Neolithic culture evolved about 10,000 years ago. This was the Hoabinhian, named after an archaeological site in northern Vietnam. Hoabinhian hunter-gatherers spread throughout much of Southeast Asia, including Laos. Their descendants produced the first pottery in the region, and later bronze metallurgy. In time they supplemented their hunting, fishing and gathering by horticulture and eventually rice cultivation, introduced down the Mekong River valley from southern China. These people were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos.
Other Lao Thoeng tribes live in southern Laos, including the Brao and the Katang. Like their northern cousins, they speak Austro-Asiatic languages, a group which includes Khmer. In fact southern Laos is believed to be the birthplace of the Cambodian people, from where they spread further south to establish the kingdom of Funan by the 2nd century CE. The earliest kingdom in southern Laos was identified in Chinese texts as Chenla, dating from the 5th century. Its capital was close to Champasak, near the later Khmer temple of Wat Phu. A little later Mon people (speaking another Austro-Asiatic language) established kingdoms on the middle Mekong – Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong in Lao) with its capital near Tha Khaek, and Chanthaburi in the vicinity of Viang Chan (Vientiane).
Tai peoples probably began migrating out of southern China about the 8th century. They included the Tai-Lao of Laos, the Tai-Syam and Tai-Yuan of central and northern Thailand, and the Tai-Shan of northeast Burma. They are called Tai to distinguish them from the citizens (Thai) of modern Thailand, though the word is the same. All spoke closely related Tai languages, practised wet-rice cultivation along river valleys, and organised themselves into small principalities, known as meuang, each presided over by an hereditary ruler, or chao meuang (lord of the meuang). The Tai-Lao, or Lao for short, moved slowly down the rivers of northern Laos, like the Nam Ou and the Nam Khan, running roughly from northeast to southwest, until they arrived at the Mekong, the Great River. They worshipped the ngeuk, powerful snake deities believed to inhabit these rivers, which if not propitiated could so easily tip frail canoes and drown their occupants. Most Lao peasants still believe that ngeuk exist.
The early Lao text known as the Nithan (story of) Khun Borom recounts the myth of creation of the Lao peoples, their interaction, and the establishment of the first Lao kingdom in the vicinity of Luang Prabang. The creation myth tells how two great gourds grew at Meuang Thaeng (Dien Bien Phu, now in Vietnam) from inside which sounds could be heard. Divine rulers, known as khun, pierced one of the gourds with a hot poker, and out of the charred hole poured the dark-skinned Lao Thoeng. The khun used a knife to cut a hole in the other gourd, through which escaped the lighter-skinned Tai-Lao (or Lao Loum, Lowland Lao). The gods then sent Khun Borom to rule over both Lao Loum and Lao Thoeng. He had seven sons, whom he sent out to found seven new kingdoms in the regions where Tai peoples settled (in the Tai highlands of Vietnam, the Xishuangbanna of southern China, Shan state in Burma, and in Thailand and Laos). While the youngest son founded the kingdom of Xieng Khuang on the Plain of Jars, the oldest son, Khun Lo, descended the Nam Ou, seized the principality of Meuang Sua from its Lao Thoeng ruler, and named it Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (later renamed Luang Prabang).
The first extended Lao kingdom dates from the mid-14th century. It was established in the context of a century of unprecedented political and social change in mainland Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the 13th century, the great Khmer king Jayavarman VII, who had re-established Cambodian power and built the city of Angkor Thom, sent his armies north to extend the Khmer empire to include all of the middle Mekong region and north-central Thailand. But the empire was overstretched, and by the mid-13th century the Khmer were in retreat. At the same time, the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China lost interest in further conquest in Southeast Asia.
This left a political vacuum in central Thailand, into which stepped Ramkhamhaeng, founder of the Tai-Syam kingdom of Sukhothai. To his north, his ally Mangray founded the Tai-Yuan kingdom of Lanna (meaning ‘a million rice fields’), with his capital at Chiang Mai. Other smaller Tai kingdoms were established at Phayao and Xiang Dong Xiang Thong. In southern Laos and southern Thailand, however, the Khmer still held on to power.
We know that at this time Viang Chan was tributary to Sukhothai, and it may well be that Xiang Dong Xiang Thong was too. As the power of Sukhothai grew, it exerted more pressure on the Khmer. The Cambodian court looked around for an ally, and found one in the form of a young Lao prince, Fa Ngum, who was being educated at Angkor. Fa Ngum’s princely father had been forced to flee Xiang Dong Xiang Thong after he seduced one of his own father’s concubines. So Fa Ngum was in direct line for the throne.
The Khmer gave Fa Ngum a Khmer princess and an army, and sent him north to wrest the middle Mekong from the control of Sukhothai, and so divert and weaken the Tai-Syam kingdom. In this he was successful. Sikhottabong acknowledged Fa Ngum’s suzerainty. So did Xieng Khuang and a number of other Lao meuang. Only Viang Chan held out. Fa Ngum was acclaimed king in Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, then brought Viang Chan into his empire. He named his new kingdom Lan Xang Hom Khao, meaning ‘a million elephants and the white parasol’.
Fa Ngum built a fine capital at Xiang Dong Xiang Thong and set about organising his court and kingdom. He appointed his Khmer generals to positions of power, even though this antagonised the local aristocracy. Tributary rulers had to journey to the capital every three years to renew their vows of fealty and present tribute.
Fa Ngum performed sacrifices to the traditional spirits of the kingdom, and to the ngeuk of the Mekong. But he also acquiesced to his wife’s request to introduce Khmer Theravada Buddhism to Lan Xang. Here, according to the Lao chronicles, he began to run into problems. The Cambodian king despatched a large contingent of monks and craftsmen up the Mekong, but they only got as far as Viang Chan. There the image they were escorting, the famous Pha Bang, magically refused to move, and had to be left behind. Its reason for refusing to go on to the Lao capital was that it knew that Fa Ngum was not morally worthy. And it seems the Pha Bang was right. Fa Ngum began to seduce the wives and daughters of his court nobles, who decided to replace him. Fa Ngum was sent into exile in Nan (now in Thailand), where he died within five years. His legacy, however, stood the test of time. The Kingdom of Lan Xang remained a power in mainland Southeast Asia until early in the 18th century, able to match the power of Siam, Vietnam and Burma.
Fa Ngum was succeeded by his son Un Heuan, who took the throne name Samsenthai, meaning 300,000 Tai, the number of men, his census reported, who could be recruited to serve in the army. He married princesses from the principal Tai kingdoms (Lanna and Ayutthaya, which had replaced Sukhothai), consolidated the kingdom and developed trade. With his wealth he built temples and beautified his capital.
Following Samsenthai’s long and stable reign of 42 years, Lan Xang was shaken by succession disputes, a problem faced by all Southeast Asian mandala (circles of power). A scheming queen, known only as Mahathevi (Great Queen), is said to have set on the throne, and then killed off, a succession of youthful kings before ruling herself. But she was overthrown by the nobility and sacrificed to the ngeuk (by being chained to a rock in the Mekong and drowned). The throne then passed to Samsenthai’s youngest son, who took the throne name Xainya Chakkaphat (Universal Ruler). It was an arrogant claim, but he ruled wisely and well.
Tragedy struck at the end of his reign, when Lan Xang suffered its first major invasion. This was by Vietnam, whose emperor wanted revenge for a perceived insult. The story in the Lao chronicles is that a rare white elephant, a symbol of power and kingship throughout Southeast Asia, was captured and presented to Xainya Chakkaphat. Vietnamese emperor Le Thanh Tong asked for proof of its colour, so hairs were despatched in a fine box. Unfortunately, however, it was sent via Xieng Khuang, whose ruler wanted to thumb his nose at the Vietnamese. So he replaced the hairs with a small piece of dung.
Infuriated, the Vietnamese emperor sent a large invasion force against the Lao. After a bitter battle (recounted at length in the Lao chronicles, which even give the names of the principal war elephants), the Vietnamese captured and sacked Xiang Dong Xiang Thong. Xainya Chakkaphat fled and the Lao mounted a guerrilla campaign. Eventually the Vietnamese were forced to withdraw, their forces decimated by malaria and vowing never to invade Lan Xang again.
The Lao kingdom recovered under one of its greatest rulers, who came to the throne in 1501. This was King Visoun, who had previously been governor of Viang Chan. There he had been an ardent worshipper of the Pha Bang Buddha image, which he brought with him to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to become the palladium of the kingdom. For it he built the magnificent temple known as Wat Wisunarat (Wat Visoun), which though damaged and repaired over the years, still stands in Luang Prabang.
Visoun developed close relations with Chiang Mai, and enticed Lanna monks and craftsmen to his capital. He ordered a new version of the Lao chronicles composed, which he personally edited, and his reign marked a cultural renaissance for Lan Xang. Friendly relations with Lanna continued under Visoun’s successor, his son Phothisarat. His grandson, Setthathirat, married a Lanna princess and briefly ruled over both kingdoms. But Lanna wanted its own king, and Setthathirat had trouble enough shoring up support in Lan Xang.
By then a new power had arisen in mainland Southeast Asia, the kingdom of Burma. It was the threat of Burma that in 1560 convinced Setthathirat to move his capital to Viang Chan. Before he did so, he built the most beautiful Buddhist temple surviving in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong. He also left behind the Pha Bang, and renamed Xiang Dong Xiang Thong Luang Prabang in its honour. With him he took what he believed to be an even more powerful Buddha image, the Pha Kaew, or Emerald Buddha, now in Bangkok. Other reasons for the move included population movements (both the Khorat Plateau and southern Laos were by then Lao) and to seek improved trade links.
Setthathirat was the greatest builder in Lao history. Not only did he construct or refurbish several monasteries in Luang Prabang, besides Wat Xieng Thong, but he also did the same in Viang Chan. His most important building projects, apart from a new palace on the banks of the Mekong, were the great That Luang stupa, a temple for the Emerald Buddha (Wat Pha Kaeo), and endowment of a number of royal temples in the vicinity of the palace. The city was surrounded by a substantial wall and moat, 8km long.
The Burmese threat persisted, however. When a Burmese army approached Viang Chan, Setthathirat abandoned the city to mount guerrilla attacks on Burmese supply lines. When the Burmese were forced to withdraw, he returned to celebrate his victory by building yet another temple (Wat Mixai). Burmese hostility disrupted Lao trade routes, so Setthathirat led an expedition down the Mekong to open a new route through Cambodia. But the Cambodians objected. In a great battle the Lao were defeated, and in their chaotic retreat Setthathirat disappeared.
It was over 60 years before another great Lao king came to the throne, a period of division, succession disputes and intermittent Burmese domination. In 1638 Suriya Vongsa was crowned king. He would rule for 57 years, the longest reign in Lao history and the ‘golden age’ of the kingdom of Lan Xang. During this time, Lan Xang was a powerful kingdom, and Viang Chan was a great centre of Buddhist learning, attracting monks from all over mainland Southeast Asia.
Suriya Vongsa had only been on the throne three years when there arrived in Viang Chan the first European to have left an account of the Lao kingdom. He was a merchant by the name of Gerrit van Wuysthoff, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, who, like Setthathirat, wanted to open a trade route down the Mekong. He and his small party were royally accommodated and entertained during their eight-week stay in the Lao capital.
Van Wuysthoff has more to say about the prices of trade goods than about Lao culture or religion, but he was followed a year later by a much more informative visitor. This was the Jesuit missionary, Giovanni-Maria Leria, who stayed in Viang Chan for five years. During that time he had singularly little success in converting anyone to Christianity, and eventually gave up in disgust. But he liked the Lao people (if not the monks), and has left a wonderful description of the royal palace and the houses of the nobility. He was also much impressed by the power of the king.
Suriya Vongsa must have been stern and unbending in his old age, because he refused to intervene when his son and heir was found guilty of adultery and condemned to death. As a result, when he died in 1695 another succession dispute wracked the kingdom. This time the result was division of Lan Xang. First the ruler of Luang Prabang declared independence from Viang Chan, followed a few years later by Champasak in the south.
The once great kingdom of Lan Xang was thus fatally weakened. In its place were three (four with Xieng Khuang) weak regional kingdoms, none of which was able to withstand the growing power of the Tai-Syam kingdom of Ayutthaya. The Siamese were distracted, however, over the next half century by renewed threats from Burma. In the end Ayutthaya was taken and sacked by a Burmese army. Chiang Mai was already tributary to Burma, and Luang Prabang also paid tribute.
It did not take the Siamese long to recover, however. The inspiring leadership of a young military commander called Taksin, son of a Chinese father and a Siamese mother, rallied the Siamese and drove the Burmese out not just of central Siam, but from the north too. Chiang Mai became tributary to Siam. After organising his kingdom and building a new capital, Taksin sought new fields of conquest. The Lao kingdoms were obvious targets. By 1779 all three had surrendered to Siamese armies and accepted the suzerainty of Siam. The Emerald Buddha was carried off by the Siamese.
His success went to his head, however, and three years later Taksin, suffering delusions of spiritual grandeur, was deposed by his leading general. The new king, founder of the current Thai Chakri dynasty, titled himself Rama I. He too built a new palace and capital at Bangkok, and quickly consolidated his power over tributary rulers. All Lao kings had to be endorsed by their Siamese overlord before they could assume their thrones, and all had to present regular tribute to Bangkok.
The Lao chafed under these conditions. When Chao Anou succeeded his two older brothers on the throne of Viang Chan, he determined to assert Lao independence. First he made merit by endowing Buddhist monasteries and building his own temple (Wat Si Saket). Then in 1826 he made his move, sending three armies down the Mekong and across the Khorat plateau. The Siamese were taken by surprise, but quickly rallied. Siamese armies drove the Lao back and seized Viang Chan. Chao Anou fled, but was captured when he tried to retake the city a year later. This time the Siamese were ruthless. Viang Chan was thoroughly sacked and its population resettled east of the Mekong. Only Wat Si Saket was spared. Chao Anou died a caged prisoner in Bangkok.
For the next 60 years the Lao meuang, from Champasak to Luang Prabang, were tributary to Siam. At first these two remaining small kingdoms retained a degree of independence, but increasingly they were brought under closer Siamese supervision. One reason for this was that Siam itself was threatened by a new power in the region and felt it had to consolidate its empire. The new power was France, which had declared a protectorate over most of Cambodia in 1863.
Four years later a French expedition sent to explore and map the Mekong River arrived in Luang Prabang, then the largest settlement upstream from Phnom Penh. In the 1880s the town became caught up in a struggle that pitted Siamese, French and roving bands of Chinese brigands (known as Haw) against each other. In 1887 Luang Prabang was looted and burned by a mixed force of Upland Tai and Haw. Only Wat Xieng Thong was spared. The king escaped downstream. With him was a French explorer named Auguste Pavie, who offered him the protection of France.
In the end French rule was imposed through gunboat diplomacy. In 1893 a French warship forced its way up the Menam River to Bangkok and trained its guns on the palace. Under duress, the Siamese agreed to transfer all territory east of the Mekong to France. So Laos became a French colony, with the kingdom of Luang Prabang as a protectorate and the rest of the country directly administered.
In 1900 Viang Chan (which the French spelled as Vientiane) was re-established as the administrative capital of Laos, though real power was exercised from Hanoi, the capital of French Indochina. In 1907 a further treaty was signed with Siam adding two territories west of the Mekong to Laos (Sainyabuli province, and part of Champasak). Siem Reap and Battambang provinces were regained by Cambodia at the same time.
French authorities in Saigon had hoped that their Lao territories would become the springboard for further expansion, to include all of what is today northeast Thailand. This whole area had been settled by Lao and ruled from Vientiane. By the early 20th century, however, French attention had shifted from Indochina to Europe, and from competition with Britain to friendship in the lead-up to WWI. This left up to 80% of all Lao still within the borders of Siam, while in French Laos, ethnic Lao comprised less than half the population. The rest were tribal minorities.
Over the next few years the French put into place the apparatus of colonial control. They built a mansion for the résident-supérieur (governor) on the site of the former royal palace, barracks for a small military detachment, a court house, a prison, and housing for interpreters and civil servants, most of whom were Vietnamese. Later came a hospital, covered market and schools. The sites of ancient monasteries were preserved, and in time new temples were constructed by the Lao population. Chinese shopkeepers and Vietnamese artisans arrived, along with a few French merchants. As they took up residence in the downtown area, near the Mekong, Lao villagers were pushed out. Even so, the town grew slowly, and by 1925 the population was still only around 8000.
In other parts of Laos the French presence was less obtrusive. In Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakse town planning and services were slow to be introduced. In time spacious villas were constructed for senior French officials, and the Lao towns were graced by colonial French architecture. A heavily subsidised riverboat service linked the Lao Mekong towns to Phnom Penh and Saigon.
Nevertheless Laos remained a backwater. Despite French plans for economic exploitation, Laos was always a drain on the budget of Indochina. Corvée labour was introduced, particularly to build roads, and taxes were heavy, but the colony never paid its own way. Some timber was floated down the Mekong, and tin was discovered in central Laos, but returns were meagre. Coffee was grown in southern Laos, and opium in the north, most of it smuggled into China. The French tried hard to direct trade down the Mekong to Vietnam, but traditional trade routes across the Khorat Plateau to Bangkok were quicker and less costly.
The French introduced a three-tier system of administration into Laos. Ethnic minorities retained traditional links with local Lao leaders, who were supervised by Vietnamese civil servants, who were answerable to French officials. Taxes had traditionally been paid in the form of forest or agricultural products, but the French demanded cash. This introduced a market economy, but caused resentment. A series of anti-French rebellions broke out, first in the south and then in the north, led by traditional leaders who resented loss of authority. It took the French years of military campaigns to suppress them.
In the interwar years the French cast around for ways to make Laos economically productive. One plan was to connect the Lao Mekong towns to coastal Vietnam, by constructing a railway across the mountains separating the two colonies. The idea was to encourage the migration of industrious Vietnamese peasants into Laos to replace what the French saw as the indolent and easy-going Lao. Eventually Vietnamese would outnumber Lao and produce an economic surplus. The railway was surveyed and construction begun from the Vietnamese side, but the Great Depression intervened, money dried up, and the Vietnamisation of Laos never happened. Even so, in all the Mekong towns, with the exception of Luang Prabang, Vietnamese outnumbered Lao until most fled the country after WWII.
The French population in Laos was still only around 600 by 1940, more than half living in Vientiane. Most were officials for whom a posting in Laos was no more than a step on the ladder of promotion. For many their term of service was tedious, if undemanding. They ‘kept up appearances’, socialised and gossipped. A few succumbed to the charm of the country and made Laos their home.
Nationalism was slower to develop in Laos than in Vietnam. The French justified their colonial rule as protectors of the Lao from aggressive neighbours, particularly the Siamese. Most of the small Lao elite found this interpretation convincing, even though they resented the presence of so many Vietnamese. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930, managed to recruit its first two Lao members only in 1935. Most ICP members in Laos were Vietnamese civil servants or workers in the tin mines.
The outbreak of war in Europe weakened the French position in Indochina. A new aggressively nationalist government in Bangkok took advantage of this to try to regain territory ‘lost’ 50 years before. It renamed Siam Thailand, and opened hostilities. A Japanese-brokered peace agreement deprived Laos of its territories west of the Mekong, much to Lao anger.
To counter pan-Tai propaganda from Bangkok, the French encouraged Lao nationalism. Under an agreement between Japan and the Vichy French administration in Indochina, French rule continued, though Japanese forces had freedom of movement. The Japanese were in place, therefore, when in early 1945 they began to suspect the French of shifting their allegiance to the allies. On 9 March they struck in a lightning coup de force, interning all French military and civilian personnel. Only in Laos did a few French soldiers manage to slip into the jungle to maintain some resistance, along with their Lao allies.
The Japanese ruled Laos for just six months before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought WWII to an end. During this time they forced King Sisavang Vong to declare Lao independence, and a nationalist resistance movement took shape, known as the Lao Issara (Free Lao). When the Japanese surrendered on 15 August, the Lao Issara formed an interim government, under the direction of Prince Phetsarat, a cousin of the king. For the first time since the early 18th century, the country was unified. The king, however, promptly repudiated his declaration of independence, in the belief that Laos still needed French protection. So tension quickly developed between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The king dismissed Phetsarat as prime minister, so the provisional National Assembly of 45 prominent nationalists passed a motion deposing the king.
Behind these tensions were the French, who were determined to regain their Indochinese empire. After the war’s end Chinese forces moved into Indochina north of the 16th parallel and British Indian troops to the south, to accept the surrender of the Japanese. The British soon handed over to the French, who thus were able to occupy southern Laos. In March 1946, while a truce held in Vietnam between the Viet Minh and the French, French forces struck north to seize control of the rest of Laos. The Lao Issara government was forced to flee to exile in Bangkok, leaving the French to sign a modus vivendi with the king reaffirming the unity of Laos and extending the king’s rule from Luang Prabang to all of Laos. West bank territories seized by Thailand in 1940 were returned to Laos.
For the next three years the French worked to make up for their previous neglect. The country’s first lycée (high school) was built and services improved. The Kingdom of Laos became a member state of the new Indochinese Federation, with its own government and National Assembly. But the French were still very much in control, and those Lao who collaborated were denounced by the Lao Issara in Bangkok, which continued to support armed resistance.
By 1949 something of a stalemate had developed between the French and the Viet Minh in the main theatre of war in Vietnam. In order to shore up their position in Laos, the French granted the Lao greater independence. This partial independence was enough for Laos to gain recognition from Britain and the United States. A promise of amnesty for Issara leaders attracted most back to take part in the political process in Laos. Among the returnees was Souvanna Phouma, a younger brother of Phetsarat, who remained in Thailand. Meanwhile Souphanouvong, a half-brother of the two princes, led his followers to join the Viet Minh and keep up the anticolonial struggle.
The decisions of the three princes to go their separate ways divided the Lao Issara. Those members who returned to Laos continued to work for complete Lao independence from France, but within the legal framework. Those who joined the Viet Minh did so in pursuit of an altogether different political goal – expulsion of the French and formation of a Marxist regime. Their movement became known as the Pathet Lao (Land of the Lao), after the title of the Resistance Government of Pathet Lao, set up with Viet Minh support in August 1950.
Cooperation between the Lao Issara and the Viet Minh went back to 1945, when, acting on Viet Minh instructions, Vietnamese in Laos backed the Lao Issara government. Joint Lao Issara–Viet Minh forces resisted the French reoccupation. Like the Lao Issara leaders, most Viet Minh in Laos fled the country, leaving the Mekong towns to be repeopled by Lao looking for jobs in the new Lao bureaucracy.
The architect of the Lao Issara–Viet Minh alliance was Prince Souphanouvong. He returned to Laos from Vietnam in time to take part in both the Lao Issara government (as foreign minister, though he would have preferred defence) and in the anti-French resistance. It was Souphanouvong who organised guerrilla resistance from bases in Thailand. He broke with his Issara-in-exile comrades when his close ties with the Viet Minh began to be questioned.
In August 1950 Souphanouvong became the public face of the Resistance Government and president of the Free Laos Front (Naeo Lao Issara), successor to the disbanded Lao Issara. Real power lay, however, with two other men, both of whom were members (as Souphanouvong then was not) of the Indochinese Communist Party. They were Kaysone Phomvihane, in charge of defence, and Nouhak Phoumsavan with the portfolio of economy and finance.
By that time the whole complexion of the First Indochina War had changed with the 1949 victory of communism in China. As Chinese weapons flowed to the Viet Minh, the war widened and the French were forced onto the defensive. In 1953 a Viet Minh force invaded northern Laos heading for Luang Prabang. The French flew in reinforcements, and the Viet Minh withdrew, turning over the whole region to the Pathet Lao. In order to protect Laos from another such invasion, the French established a substantial base in the remote mountain valley of Dien Bien Phu, close to the Lao border.
There was fought the deciding battle of the First Indochina War. The isolated French garrison was surrounded by Viet Minh forces, which pounded the base with artillery hidden in the hills. Supplied only from the air, the French held out for over two months before surrendering on 7 May. The following day a conference opened in Geneva that eventually brought the war to an end.
As France had already granted full independence to Cambodia and Laos (in October 1953), it was as representatives of a free and independent country that the Lao delegation attended the conference in Geneva. After months of discussion it was agreed to divide Vietnam into north and south, each with a separate administration, but with the instruction to hold free and fair elections in both zones before the end of 1956. Cambodia was left undivided, but in Laos two northeastern provinces (Hua Phan and Phongsali) were set aside as regroupment areas for Pathet Lao forces. There the Pathet Lao consolidated their political and military organisation, while negotiating with the Royal Lao Government (RLG) to reintegrate the two provinces into a unified Lao state.
The first thing Pathet Lao leaders did was to establish a Lao Marxist political party. Previously Lao communists had been members of the Indochinese Communist Party, but in 1951 the ICP was disbanded and separate parties established for each state. Parties were founded immediately in Vietnam and Cambodia, but there were so few Lao members that it took time to recruit enough to constitute a party. Eventually the Lao People’s Party was formed in 1955. (At its Second Congress in 1972 it was renamed the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, LPRP, which is today the ruling party of the Lao PDR.)
In good Marxist fashion, the LPP in 1956 established a broad political front, called the Lao Patriotic Front (LPF), behind which the Party could operate in secrecy. Souphanouvong was president of the Front, while Kaysone was secretary-general of the Party. Together with other members of the ‘team’ they led the Lao revolution throughout its ‘30-year struggle’ (1945–1975) for power. Over this whole period no factionalism split the movement, which was one of its great strengths compared to the divisions among its opponents.
The first priority for the Royal Lao Government was to reunify the country. This required a political solution to which the Pathet Lao would agree. The tragedy for Laos was that when, after two centuries, an independent Lao state was reborn, it was conceived in the nationalism of WW II, nourished during the agony of the First Indochina War, and born into the Cold War. From its inception, the Lao state was torn by ideological division, which the Lao tried mightily to overcome, but which was continuously exacerbated by outside interference.
In its remote base areas, the Pathet Lao was entirely dependent for weapons and most other kinds of assistance on the North Vietnamese, whose own agenda was the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. Meanwhile the Royal Lao Government became increasingly dependent on the United States, which soon took over from France as its principal aid donor. Thus Laos became the cockpit for Cold War enmity.
From the Lao perspective, neutrality was the only realistic path for the country. And the only way to restore national unity was to bring the Pathet Lao into some kind of coalition government. To this the US was strongly opposed, seeing it as the thin end of a wedge that would lead to a communist seizure of power.
The Lao politician with the task of finding a way through both ideological differences and foreign interference was Souvanna Phouma. As prime minister of the RLG he negotiated a deal with his half-brother Souphanouvong which saw two Pathet Lao ministers and two deputy ministers included in a coalition government. The Pathet Lao provinces were returned to the royal administration. Elections were held, in which the LPF did surprisingly well. And the US was furious.
Between 1955 and 1958, the US gave Laos US$120 million, or four times what France had provided over the previous eight years. Laos was almost entirely dependent, therefore, on American largesse to survive. When that aid was withheld, as it was in August 1958 in response to the inclusion of Pathet Lao ministers in the government, Laos was plunged into a financial and political crisis. As a result, the first coalition government collapsed. It had lasted eight months.
With US support a right-wing government was installed in its place, without Pathet Lao representation, and Souvanna Phouma’s neutralism was abandoned. Attempts to integrate Pathet Lao units into the Royal Lao Army collapsed, and the civil war resumed. A threatened military coup brought military strongman General Phoumi Nosavan to the Defence Ministry as deputy prime minister, again with American backing. Meanwhile under Kaysone’s direction the Pathet Lao began building up their forces, recruiting especially from the tribal minorities in the mountainous areas where the Pathet Lao held power.
As guerrilla warfare resumed over large areas, moral objections began to be raised against Lao killing Lao. On 9 August 1960, the diminutive commanding officer of the elite Second Paratroop Batallion of the Royal Lao Army seized power in Vientiane while almost the entire Lao government was in Luang Prabang making arrangements for the funeral of King Sisavang Vong. Captain Kong Le announced to the world that Laos was returning to a policy of neutrality, and demanded that Souvanna Phouma be reinstated as prime minister. King Sisavang Vatthana acquiesced, but General Phoumi refused to take part, and flew to central Laos where he fomented opposition to the new government.
In this, he had the support of the Thai government and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which supplied him with cash and weapons. By December he was ready to march on Vientiane. The battle for the city was spirited, but lopsided. Kong Le withdrew to the Plain of Jars, until then garrisoned by the Royal Lao Army, where he joined forces with Pathet Lao units. The neutralist government still claimed to be the legitimate government of Laos, and as such received arms, via Vietnam, from the Soviet Union. Most of these found their way to the Pathet Lao, however. Throughout the country large areas fell under the control of communist forces. Offensives by the Royal Lao Army led to defeat and disaster. The US sent troops to Thailand, in case communist forces should attempt to cross the Mekong, and it looked for a while as if the major commitment of US troops in Southeast Asia would be to Laos rather than Vietnam.
At this point the new US administration of President John F Kennedy had second thoughts about fighting a war in Laos. In an about-face it decided instead to back Lao neutrality. In May 1961 a new conference on Laos was convened in Geneva. Progress was slow, however, because the three Lao factions could not agree on a political compromise that would allow a second coalition government to be formed. The right under General Phoumi was particularly recalcitrant. It took temporary suspension of US aid and a military defeat in northern Laos to convince the right to cooperate.
Eventually the ‘three princes’ (Souvanna Phouma for the neutralists, Souphanouvong for the Pathet Lao, and Boun Oum, hereditary prince of Champasak and then leader of the right) agreed to the composition of a second coalition government that balanced equal Pathet Lao and rightist representation (with four each), but left the neutralists with a deciding majority (with 11 positions). Delegates of the 14 participating countries reassembled in Geneva in July 1962 to sign the international agreement guaranteeing Lao neutrality and forbidding the presence of all foreign military personnel. In Laos the new coalition government took office buoyed by popular goodwill and hope.
Within months, however, cracks began to appear in the façade of the coalition. The problem was the war in Vietnam. Both the North Vietnamese and the Americans were jockeying for strategic advantage, and neither was going to let Lao neutrality get in the way. Despite the terms of the Geneva Agreements, both continued to provide their respective clients with arms and supplies. But no outside power did the same for the neutralists, who found themselves increasingly squeezed between left and right.
For the Vietnamese, Lao neutrality was designed to maintain existing de facto spheres of military control: the right in the Mekong lowlands; the Pathet Lao in the eastern highlands; with a few neutralist units loyal to Souvanna Phouma in between. Moreover, Hanoi expected the Lao government to turn a blind eye to its use of Lao territory to infiltrate personnel and supplies into South Vietnam along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail – as Cambodia did. For the Americans, Lao neutrality was designed precisely to prevent such infiltration.
For both sides the most strategically important area was the Plain of Jars, and this quickly became the principal battleground. As control of the plain would enable the US to threaten North Vietnam, Hanoi moved to prevent this – first by driving out Kong Le’s neutralists; then by turning their attention to the CIA-trained Hmong ‘secret army’ still supplied by the US in the mountains surrounding the plain.
By the end of 1963, as each side denounced the other for violating the Geneva Agreements, the Second Coalition Government had irrevocably broken down. Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma struggled to keep a façade intact, but Pathet Lao ministers had fled Vientiane, and neutralists had been cowered by the assassination of their foreign minister. It was in the interests of all powers, however, to preserve the façade of Lao neutrality, and international diplomatic support was brought to bear for Souvanna Phouma to prevent rightist generals from seizing power in coups mounted in 1964 and 1965.
In 1964 the US began its air war over Laos, with strafing and bombing of communist positions on the Plain of Jars. As North Vietnamese infiltration picked up along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, bombing was extended the length of Laos. According to official figures, the US dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on 580,944 sorties. The total cost was US$7.2 billion, or US$2 million a day for nine years. No-one knows how many people died, but one-third of the population of 2.1 million became internal refugees.
During the 1960s both the North Vietnamese and the US presence increased exponentially. By 1968 an estimated 40,000 North Vietnamese regular army troops were based in Laos to keep the Ho Chi Minh Trail open and support some 35,000 Pathet Lao forces. The Royal Lao Army then numbered 60,000 (entirely paid for and equipped by the US), Vang Pao’s forces were half that number (still under the direction of the CIA), and Kong Le’s neutralists numbered 10,000. Lao forces on both sides were entirely funded by their foreign backers. For five more years this proxy war dragged on, until the ceasefire of 1973.
The turning point for the war in Vietnam was the 1968 Tet Offensive, which brought home to the American people the realisation that the war was unwinnable by military means, and convinced them of the need for a political solution. The effect in Laos, however, was to intensify both the air war and fighting on the Plain of Jars. When bombing was suspended over North Vietnam, the US Air Force concentrated all its efforts on Laos. The Pathet Lao leadership was forced underground, in the caves of Vieng Xai. Though in much of Laos a ‘tacit agreement’ on spheres of control limited fighting between the two sides, on the Plain of Jars the ground war intensified. Instead of being used in guerrilla operations, units of the ‘secret army’ fought large-scale battles, in which they suffered heavy casualties.
But all the bombing was unable to staunch the flow of North Vietnamese forces down the Ho Chi Minh Trail (or trails). In January 1971 the one attempt by South Vietnamese forces to cut the Trail in southern Laos ended in defeat. The Pathet Lao claimed victory, but North Vietnamese forces did the fighting. Thereafter more of southern Laos fell to the Pathet Lao. By mid-1972, when serious peace moves got underway, some four-fifths of the country was under communist control.
In peace as in war, what happened in Laos depended on what happened in Vietnam. Not until a ceasefire came into effect in Vietnam in January 1973 could the fighting end in Laos. Then the political wrangling began. Not until September was an agreement reached on the composition of the Third Coalition Government and how it would operate; and it took another six months before security arrangements were in place for it to take office. The government reflected the changed balance of political power. Souvanna Phouma as prime minister was the sole neutralist, with other ministries equally divided between left and right.
It soon became clear that the Pathet Lao was unified, coordinated and following a well-thought-out plan, formulated at the 1972 Second Congress of the Lao (LPRP). By contrast, the political right was fragmented and demoralised by the withdrawal of its US backer. This gave the communists the initiative, which they never lost.
In April 1975 first Phnom Penh and then Saigon fell to superior communist forces. Immediately the Pathet Lao brought political pressure to bear on the right in Laos. Escalating street demonstrations forced leading rightist politicians and generals to flee the country. USAID was also targeted and hundreds of Americans began leaving Laos. Throughout the country, town after town was peacefully ‘liberated’ by Pathet Lao forces, culminating with Vientiane in August.
Souvanna Phouma, who could see the writing on the wall, cooperated with the Pathet Lao in order to prevent further bloodshed. Hundreds of senior military officers and civil servants voluntarily flew off to remote camps for ‘political re-education’, in the belief that they would be there only months at most. But Pathet Lao leaders had lied, just as they lied in promising to keep the monarchy. Hundreds of these inmates remained in re-education camps for several years.
With the rightist leadership either imprisoned or in Thailand, the Pathet Lao moved to consolidate power. At all levels of government, people’s committees took administrative control, at the direction of the LPRP. In November an extraordinary meeting of what was left of the Third Coalition Government bowed to the inevitable and demanded formation of a ‘popular democratic regime’. Under pressure, the king agreed to abdicate, and on 2 December a National Congress of People’s Representatives assembled by the Party proclaimed the end of the 650-year-old Lao monarchy and the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR).
Unlike the military victories of communists in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Lao communists took power by ‘quasi-legal’ means. Their path to power had always used such means, by entering into coalition governments and demanding strict adherence to agreements, while continually strengthening their revolutionary forces. This strategy was the brainchild of Kaysone Phomvihane, who in addition to leading the LPRP became prime minister in the new Marxist-Leninist government. Souphanouvong was named state president.
The new regime was organised in accordance with Soviet and North Vietnamese models. The government and bureaucracy were under the strict direction of the Party and its seven-member Politburo. Immediately the Party moved to restrict liberal freedoms of speech and assembly, and to nationalise the economy. People were forced to attend interminable ‘seminars’ to be indoctrinated into the Pathet Lao view of the world. As inflation soared, price controls were introduced. In response, those members of the Chinese and Vietnamese communities who still remained crossed the Mekong to Thailand. Thousands of Lao did the same. Eventually around 10% of the population, including virtually all the educated class, fled as refugees, setting Lao development back at least a generation.
The government faced a daunting task. The economy of the rightist zone, particularly in the Mekong towns, had been entirely dependent on the injection of American aid. When this was terminated, the economy collapsed. The situation was aggravated by government policies and Thai closure of the border; and though Soviet, Eastern European and Vietnamese advisors poured in, levels of aid from the communist bloc were insufficient to replace American spending. A badly planned and executed attempt to cooperativise agriculture made things even worse.
The regime did not persecute Buddhism to anything like the extent the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, but it did curtail Buddhist religious life. Younger monks were encouraged to leave the Sangha (monastic order), while those who remained had to work for a living. The people were told not to waste their wealth on Buddhist festivals. Many monks fled to Thailand. The annual rocket festival, held to encourage a copious monsoon, was cancelled. That year there was a drought. People shrugged: the naga were annoyed. Subsequently the festival was reinstated.
Though thousands of members of the ‘secret army’ and their families fled Laos, those who remained still resisted communist control. The Hmong insurgency dragged on for another 30 years. In 1977, fearing the king might escape his virtual house arrest to lead resistance, the authorities arrested him and his family and sent them to Vieng Xai, the old Pathet Lao wartime HQ. There they were forced to labour in the fields. The king, queen and crown prince all eventually died, probably of malaria and malnutrition, though no official statement of their deaths has ever been made.
By 1979 it was clear that policies had to change. Kaysone announced that people could leave cooperatives and farm their own land, and that private enterprise would be permitted. That year Vietnam invaded Cambodia to dispose of the Khmer Rouge, and China invaded northern Vietnam to teach Hanoi a lesson. Laos sided with Vietnam, and relations with China deteriorated. They were no better with Thailand, which was supporting insurgency against the Vietnamese-installed regime in Cambodia.
Reforms were insufficient to improve the Lao economy. Over the next three years a struggle took place within the Party about what to do. The Soviet Union was getting tired of propping up the Lao regime, and was embarking on its own momentous reforms. Meanwhile Vietnam had Cambodia to worry about. Eventually Kaysone convinced the Party to do what the Chinese were doing: open the economy up to market forces, and the country to foreign aid and investment from the West, while retaining a tight monopoly on political power. The economic reforms were known as the ‘new economic mechanism’, and were enacted in November 1986.
Economic improvement was slow in coming, partly because relations with Thailand remained strained. In August 1987 the two countries fought a brief border war over disputed territory. The following year relations were patched up, and with China too. The first elections for a National Assembly were held, and a constitution at last promulgated. Slowly a legal framework was put into place, and by the early 1990s foreign direct investment was picking up and the economy was on the mend.
In 1992 Kaysone Phomvihane died. He had been the leading figure in Lao communism for more than a quarter of a century. The Party managed the transition to a new leadership with smooth efficiency, much to the disappointment of expatriate Lao communities abroad. General Khamtay Siphandone became both president of the Party and prime minister. Later he relinquished the latter to become state president. His rise signalled control of the Party by the revolutionary generation of military leaders. When Khamtay stepped down in 2006, he was succeeded by his close comrade, General Chummaly Sayasone.
The economic prosperity of the mid-1990s rested on increased investment and foreign aid, on which Laos remained very dependent. The Lao PDR enjoyed friendly relations with all its neighbours. Relations with Vietnam remained particularly close, but were balanced by much improved relations with China. Relations with Bangkok were bumpy at times, but Thailand was a principal source of foreign direct investment. In 1997 Laos joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
The good times came to end with the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s. The collapse of the Thai baht led to inflation of the Lao kip, to which it was largely tied through trading relations. The Lao regime took two lessons from this crisis: one was about the dangers of market capitalism; the other was that its real friends were China and Vietnam, both of which came to its aid with loans and advice.
The economic crisis sparked some political unrest. A small student demonstration calling for an end to the monopoly of political power by the LPRP was ruthlessly crushed and its leaders given long prison sentences. Lao dissidents in Thailand attacked a border customs post, provoking a swift Lao military response. A series of small bombings in Vientiane and southern Laos was also blamed on expatriate Lao dissidents, while Hmong ‘brigands’ attacked transport in the north. The government responded by increasing security, with good effect. By 2004 the Hmong insurgency had all but collapsed.
The outlook for Laos as it moved into the 21st century was relatively positive. Despite dissatisfaction over lack of those freedoms (of expression, association, and the press) essential to the development of civil society and overmounting corruption, the LPRP faces minimal internal challenge to its authority. The Party seems set, therefore, to remain in power indefinitely – or at least for as long as it has the support of communist regimes in China and Vietnam.
The economic outlook has been helped by major investment projects in hydropower (the US$1.1 billion Nam Theun II dam, plus several smaller dams) and mining (gold, copper and, in the future, bauxite) that will bring a steady income into government coffers. Light industry, including textiles, may face a more uncertain future as the Asean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) comes into force and Laos joins the World Trade Organisation (WTO), slated for 2010. Forestry is another important resource, but is largely under the control of the military.
A rapidly growing industry is tourism. In 1995 Luang Prabang was placed on the Unesco World Heritage list, and Wat Phu, the ancient Khmer temple near Champasak, followed. Other parts of the country are opening up to ecotourism, including the Bolaven Plateau in the south, the Plain of Jars, and the far north. An added attraction is that many of the country’s colourful minority tribes live in these regions. Laos now attracts over a million tourists a year (well over half of them Thai), and the figure is likely to rise.
Laos does not suffer severe population pressure, but there is a steady migration into the cities due to increasing disparities between urban and rural living standards. The government has shown little inclination to address this problem, or the abysmally low education standards, or poor health facilities for a rural population faced with endemic diseases such as malaria, and HIV/AIDS. Some NGOs and foreign aid programs are trying to help, but human resources remain poorly developed.
Corruption remains a major problem. Far too much of the country’s limited resources finds its way into the pockets of a small political-economic elite, who pay little or no taxes. Smuggling of timber and wildlife threatens declared ‘bio-diversity areas’ (national parks where some people still live). Laws are flouted because the legal system is not independent, but under the control of the Party.
Reforms and new political will are thus both necessary for the country to prosper. The LPRP is now Marxist-Leninist in nothing but name. Rather it exercises a single-party dictatorship, and is becoming increasingly nationalistic. This may appeal to Lowland Lao, but less to the tribal minorities. Care will be needed to maintain social cohesion. It remains to be seen whether the Party has the resourcefulness to meet the challenges ahead.