Laos - HISTORY
HISTORICAL RESEARCH SHOWS that the rudimentary structures of a multiethnic state existed before the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the thirteenth century. These prethirteenth-century structures consisted of small confederative communities in river valleys and among the mountain peoples, who found security away from the well-traveled rivers and overland tracks where the institutions and customs of the Laotian people were gradually forged in contact with other peoples of the region. During these centuries, the stirring of migrations as well as religious conflict and syncretism went on more or less continuously. Laos's shortlived vassalage to foreign empires such as the Cham, Khmer, and Sukhothai did nothing to discourage this process of cultural identification and, in fact, favored its shaping.
In the thirteenth century--an historically important watershed- -the rulers of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang) constituted a large indigenous kingdom with a hierarchical administration. Even then, migratory and religious crosscurrents never really ceased. The durability of the kingdom itself is attested to by the fact that it lasted within its original borders for almost four centuries. Today, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos) covers only a small portion of the territory of that former kingdom.
Internecine power struggles caused the splitting up of Lan Xang after 1690, and the Lao and the mountain peoples of the middle Mekong Valley came perilously close to absorption by powerful neighboring rivals, namely Vietnam and Siam (present-day Thailand); China never posed a territorial threat. Only the arrival of the French in the second half of the nineteenth century prevented Laos's political disintegration. In a "conquest of the hearts" (in the words of the explorer and colonist Auguste Pavie)--a singular event in the annals of colonialism in that it did not entail the loss of a single Lao life--France ensured by its actions in 1893 that Laos's separate identity would be preserved into modern times. During the colonial interlude, a few French officials administered what their early cartographers labeled, for want of a better name, "le pays des Laos" (the land of the Lao, hence the name Laos), preserving intact local administrations and the royal house of Louangphrabang.
However, Laos's incorporation into French Indochina beginning in 1893 brought with it Vietnamese immigration, which was officially encouraged by the French to staff the middle levels of the civil services and militia. During the few months in 1945 when France's power was momentarily eclipsed, the consequences of this Vietnamese presence nearly proved fatal for the fledgling Lao Issara (Free Laos) government. The issue of Vietnamese dominance over Indochina remained alive into the postindependence period with the armed rebellion of the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation), who proclaimed themselves part of an Indochina-wide revolutionary movement. The Royal Lao Government grappled with this problem for ten years but never quite succeeded in integrating the Pathet Lao rebels peacefully into the national fabric.
By the 1960s, outside powers had come to dominate events in Laos, further weakening the Vientiane government's attempts to maintain neutrality in the Cold War. For one thing, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the most powerful entity left in Indochina by the 1954 Geneva armistice and the exit of France, cast a large shadow over the mountains to the west. Also, the United States, which had exerted strong pressure on France on behalf of the independence of Laos, became involved in a new war against what it regarded as the proxies of the Soviet Union and China. Even then, however, high-level United States officials seemed unsure about Laos's claim to national identity, and Laos became the country where the so-called "secret war" was fought.
In late 1975, months after the fall of Cambodia and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to the communists, the Pathet Lao came to power in Laos, proclaiming that Laos's territorial integrity as well as its independence, sovereignty, and solidarity with other new regimes of Indochina, would be defended. In a demonstration of this determination, Laos fought a border war with Thailand in 1988, and protracted negotiations were necessary to demarcate the border between the two countries. Internally, the regime proved ruthless in stamping out political and armed opposition. Only since the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1986 has the government made some headway in the long and difficult process of bettering the lives of its citizens.
The original inhabitants of Laos were Austroasiatic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering before the advent of agriculture. Skilled at river navigation using canoes, Laotian traders used routes through the mountains, especially rivers, from earliest times. The most important river route was the Mekong because its many tributaries allowed traders to penetrate deep into the hinterland, where they bought products such as cardamom, gum benzoin, sticklac, and many foods.
A number of princely fiefdoms based on wet rice cultivation and associated with the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang developed in the middle Mekong Valley from the first century A.D. These fiefdoms exercised power over their neighbors, in circumstances of generally sparse populations, through expanding and contracting spheres of influence best described by the term mandala. Commerce, marriage contracts, and warfare served to expand a mandala.
Thus, a plurality of power centers occupied the middle Mekong Valley in early times. Sikhôttabong was a mandala whose capital was located on the left bank of the Mekong at the mouth of the Xé Bangfai and then moved westward as a result of the expansion of Champa, an Indianized state on the coast of Vietnam founded in 192 A.D. Cham, descendants of Champa, were present at Champasak (Bassac) in the fifth century. The Mon kingdom of Candapuri, the earliest name of present-day Vientiane, (Viangchan) was another mandala. The social structure of Sikhôttabong and Candapuri appears to have been strongly hierarchical, with an aristocracy, a commoner class, and a slave class. The fact that some kings came from the commoner class appears to indicate the presence of some sort of consensus in effecting royal succession. At its peak, another important regional power, Funan, had its mandala incorporate parts of central Laos. The smaller but also important Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (through which Theravada Buddhism reached Laos in the seventh and eighth centuries) was centered in the lower Menam Valley beginning in the fifth century.
In the seventh century, a northwesterly migration of Thais from their region of origin in northwestern Tonkin brought to the Ta-li region in what is present-day Yunnan, China, a successor state to the Ai Lao kingdom. This new kingdom, Nan-chao, expanded its power by controlling major trading routes, notably the southern Silk Road. Culturally, this polyethnic, hierarchical, and militarized state was to have a great influence on later societies in Indochina, transmitting the Tantric Buddhism of Bengal to Laos, Thailand, and the Shan state, and possibly Cambodia, and the political ideology of the maharaja (protector of Buddhism). Nan-chao was organized administratively into ten prefectures called kien. This term seems to be the origin of place-names keng (for example, Kengtung), chiang (for example, Chiang Mai), and xiang (for example, Xiangkhoang). Moreover, the population and army of Nan-chao were organized in units of 100, 1,000, and 10,000, a form later found in Indochina. Also, the title chao (prince), appears to have been of Nan-chao origin. Another branch of this same migration began at the headwaters of the Nam Ou and followed it downstream to Louangphrabang and continued on through Xaignabouri to Chiang Mai.
As a result of the expansion and contraction of mandala, places of importance were known by more than one name. Muang Sua was the name of Louangphrabang following its conquest in 698 A.D. by a Thai prince, Khun Lo, who seized his opportunity when Nan-chao was engaged elsewhere. Khun Lo had been awarded the town by his father, Khun Borom, who is associated with the Lao legend of the creation of the world, which the Lao share with the Shan and other peoples of the region. Khun Lo established a dynasty whose fifteen rulers reigned over an independent Muang Sua for the better part of a century.
In the second half of the eighth century, Nan-chao intervened frequently in the affairs of the principalities of the middle Mekong Valley, resulting in the occupation of Muang Sua in 709. Nan-chao princes or administrators replaced the aristocracy of Thai overlords. Dates of the occupation are not known, but it probably ended well before the northward expansion of the Khmer Empire under Indravarman I (r. 877-89) and extended as far as the territories of Sipsong Panna on the upper Mekong.
In the meantime, the Khmers founded an outpost at Xay Fong near Vientiane, and Champa expanded again in southern Laos, maintaining its presence on the banks of the Mekong until 1070. Canthaphanit, the local ruler of Xay Fong, moved north to Muang Sua and was accepted peacefully as ruler after the departure of the Nan-chao administrators. Canthaphanit and his son had long reigns, during which the town became known by the Thai name Xieng Dong Xieng Thong. The dynasty eventually became involved in the squabbles of a number of principalities. Khun Cuang, a warlike ruler who may have been a Kammu (alternate spellings include Khamu and Khmu) tribesman, extended his territory as a result of the warring of these principalities and probably ruled from 1128 to 1169. Under Khun Cuang, a single family ruled over a far-flung territory and reinstituted the Siamese administrative system of the seventh century. Muang Sua next became the Kingdom of Sri Sattanak, a name connected with the legend of the naga (mythical snake or water dragon) who was said to have dug the Mekong riverbed. At this time, Theravada Buddhism was subsumed by Mahayana Buddhism.
Muang Sua experienced a brief period of Khmer suzerainty under Jayavarman VII from 1185 to 1191. By 1180 the Sipsong Panna had regained their independence from the Khmers, however, and in 1238 an internal uprising in the Khmer outpost of Sukhodaya expelled the Khmer overlords.
Recent historical research has shown that the Mongols, who destroyed Nan-chao in 1253 and made the area a province of their empire--naming it Yunnan--exercised a decisive political influence in the middle Mekong Valley for the better part of a century. In 1271 Panya Lang, founder of a new dynasty headed by rulers bearing the title panya, began his rule over a fully sovereign Muang Sua. In 1286 Panya Lang's son, Panya Khamphong, was involved in a coup d'état that was probably instigated by the Mongols and that exiled his father. Upon his father's death in 1316, Panya Khamphong assumed his throne.
Ramkhamhaeng, an early ruler of the new Thai dynasty in Sukhothai, made himself the agent of Mongol interests, and in 1282- 84 eliminated the vestiges of Khmer and Cham power in central Laos. Ramkhamhaeng obtained the allegiance of Muang Sua and the mountainous country to the northeast. Between 1286 and 1297, Panya Khamphong's lieutenants, acting for Ramkhamhaeng and the Mongols, pacified vast territories. From 1297 to 1301, Lao troops under Mongol command invaded Dai Viet but were repulsed by the Vietnamese. Troops from Muang Sua conquered Muang Phuan in 1292-97. In 1308 Panya Khamphong seized the ruler of Muang Phuan, and by 1312 this principality was a vassal state of Muang Sua.
Mongol overlordship was unpopular in Muang Sua. Internal conflicts among members of the new dynasty over Mongol intervention in their affairs resulted in continuing family upheavals. Panya Khamphong exiled his son Fa Phi Fa and most likely intended to leave the throne to his younger grandson, Fa Ngieo. Fa Ngieo, involved in various coups and coup attempts, in 1330 sent his two sons to a Buddhist monastery outside the Mongol realm for safety. The brothers were kidnapped in 1335 and taken to Angkor, where they were entrusted to King Jayavarman Paramesvara, whose kingdom had acknowledged Mongol suzerainty since 1285.
It was as a result of these family conflicts that the Kingdom of Lan Xang--the name still carries associations of cultural kinship among the Lao--was established. The younger brother, Fa Ngum, married one of the king's daughters and in 1349 set out from Angkor at the head of a 10,000-member Khmer army. His conquest of the territories to the north of Angkor over the next six years reopened Mongol communications with that place, which had been cut off. Fa Ngum organized the conquered principalities into provinces (muang), and reclaimed Muang Sua from his father and elder brother. Fa Ngum was crowned king of Lan Xang at Vientiane, the site of one of his victories, in June 1354. Lan Xang extended from the border of China to Sambor below the Mekong rapids at Khong Island and from the Vietnamese border to the western escarpment of the Khorat Plateau.
The first few years of Fa Ngum's rule from his capital Muang Sua were uneventful. The next six years (1362-68), however, were troubled by religious conflict between Fa Ngum's lamaistic Buddhism and the region's traditional Theravada Buddhism. He severely repressed popular agitation that had anti-Mongol overtones and had many pagodas torn down. In 1368 Fa Ngum's Khmer wife died. He subsequently married the ruler of Ayuthia's daughter, who seems to have had a pacifying influence. For example, she was instrumental in welcoming a religious and artistic mission that brought with it a statue of the Buddha, the phrabang, which became the palladium of the kingdom. Popular resentment continued to build, however, and in 1373 Fa Ngum withdrew to Muang Nan. His son, Oun Huan, who had been in exile in southern Yunnan, returned to assume the regency of the empire his father had created. Oun Huan ascended to the throne in 1393 when his father died, ending Mongol overlordship of the middle Mekong Valley.
The kingdom, made up of Lao, Thai, and hill tribes, lasted in its approximate borders for another 300 years and briefly reached an even greater extent in the northwest. Fa Ngum's descendants remained on the throne at Muang Sua, renamed Louangphrabang, for almost 600 years after his death, maintaining the independence of Lan Xang to the end of the seventeenth century through a complex network of vassal relations with lesser princes. At the same time, these rulers fought off invasions from Vietnam (1478-79), Siam (1536), and Burma (1571-1621).
In 1690, however, Lan Xang fell prey to a series of rival pretenders to its throne, and, as a result of the ensuing struggles, split into three kingdoms--Louangphrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. Muang Phuan enjoyed a semi-independent status as a result of having been annexed by a Vietnamese army in the fifteenth century, an action that set a precedent for a tributary relationship with the court of Annam at Hué.
Successive Burmese and Siamese interventions involved Vientiane and Louangphrabang in internecine struggles. In 1771 the king of Louangphrabang attacked Vientiane, determined to punish it for what he perceived to be its complicity in a Burmese attack on his capital in 1765. The Siamese captured Vientiane for the first time in 1778-79, when it became a vassal state to Siam. Vientiane was finally destroyed in 1827-28 following an imprudent attempt by its ruler, Chao Anou, to retaliate against perceived Siamese injustices toward the Lao.
The disappearance of the Vientiane kingdom and the weakened condition of Louangphrabang led to a period of direct Siamese presence on the left bank of the Mekong and to the virtual annexation of Xiangkhouang and part of Bolikhamxai by the Vietnamese. The Siamese also soon became more directly involved with the Kingdom of Louangphrabang, whose ruler, Manta Thourath (r. 1817-36), had sought to preserve neutrality in the conflict between Siam and Vientiane. The Siamese intervention was caused by an appeal by King Oun Kham (r. 1872-94) for help in clearing his northeastern territories of the Hô (Haw), bands of armed horsemen who had fled the bloody Manchu campaign to pacify Yunnan.
The last major migration into Laos in the nineteenth century was that of the Hmong. Accustomed to growing crops of dryland rice and maize at the highest elevations in mountainous southern China, where they had lived for centuries, the Hmong practiced a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors at lower elevations. Their major interaction occurred in selling their chief cash crop, opium.
The French, in their early forays into the interior of Indochina, had stuck mainly to the rivers, looking for access routes to China. An April 1867 expedition led by Ernest Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier visited the ruins of Vientiane. In 1869 an expedition led by Rheinart and Mourin d'Arfeuille traveled up the Mekong without penetrating the mountains. Although another explorer, Jules Harmand, a French army physician, reached Attapu on the Xé Kong, these forays provided the French with only a superficial knowledge of the peoples of the interior. What these early French explorers and scientists did find, however, were the Siamese and the Vietnamese already contesting for suzerainty over the territory between the mountains and the Mekong.
This conflict had a long history. At the time of Siam's retributive campaigns against Vientiane in 1827-28, relations between Vientiane and Annam were good. The Vietnamese called Vientiane Van Tuong (the Kingdom of Ten Thousand Elephants). But when Vientiane's ruler, Chao Anou, sought refuge in Hué following Siam's destruction of his capital, it caused serious embarrassment to the Vietnamese. King Rama III of Siam wrote to the Vietnamese emperor, Minh Mang, explaining that Chao Anou had refused obedience to him and had started hostilities. Minh Mang, pursuing a consistently cautious policy toward Rama III, lent Chao Anou two companies of men to escort him back to Vientiane, instructing them to return immediately after accomplishing their mission. Siamese and Vietnamese sources--the Laotian primary sources having for the most part disappeared--give conflicting versions of what happened next. In any event, in mid-October 1828, Chao Anou found himself once again engaged in hostilities with a stronger Siamese force. He again fled to safety, this time to Muang Phuan because a Siamese force was encamped at Nakhon Phanom, blocking the Mekong downstream.
The arrival of Chao Anou on their doorstep with a Siamese army in pursuit confronted the leaders of Muang Phuan with a dilemma. When the Siamese commander issued an ultimatum to surrender Chao Anou under penalty of an attack on Xiangkhoang, the leaders of Muang Phuan quickly accepted. The Siamese took Chao Anou to Bangkok and kept him captive.
What followed was illustrative of the consequences of the constant meddling in each other's affairs that went on among the Laotian principalities. The reigning prince of Muang Phuan was Chao Noi, son of the ruling family. Vientiane had attempted to take advantage of Chao Noi's youth when his father died to install Chao Xan, the head of a rival family from Muang Kasi. The Phuan elders of Xiangkhoang refused to accept this candidate, so power was shared under a compromise arranged with help from Hué. Chao Xan, however, led a delegation to Hué, where he accused Chao Noi and his cousins of bringing dishonor to the emperor by surrendering a vassal prince to another king, of obstructing passage of a tribute mission from Louangphrabang across the territory of Muang Phuan to Hué, and of negotiating to acknowledge Siamese suzerainty.
Chao Noi was accordingly summoned to Hué to explain himself but sent his eldest son, Po. Angered by this flagrant disregard of a direct order, Minh Mang took no action, awaiting news of the fate of Chao Anou, who was the nominal suzerain and ordinarily would have dealt with the Phuan on behalf of Hué. Once word was received that Chao Anou had died, Minh Mang sent a Vietnamese detachment to Muang Phuan and arrested Chao Noi and most of his family. In May 1829, the prisoners were taken to Annam, where Chao Noi and his cousin were executed in January 1830. Chao Noi's young sons and their mothers were kept in exile in Nghe An. The Muang Phuan succession thus fell to Chao Xan. Minh Mang, however, posted a quan phu (commissioner), supported by a garrison of 500 soldiers who were rotated seasonally, to reside permanently at Chiang Kham (Khang Khay), at the headwaters of the Nam Ngum, as a precaution against a recurrence of conflict with the Siamese king.
Rama III sent a further letter to Minh Mang in early 1829 outlining his view of Chao Anou's treachery and thanking the emperor for his presents. But the king failed to provide an explanation for a serious incident at Nakhon Phanom in which three Vietnamese mandarins had been killed. In November 1829, Siamese envoys returned home with a letter from Hué reiterating earlier demands for punishment of those people responsible. When it became obvious that Rama III would not revert to the old arrangement of joint administration, Hué gave administrative control over the entire eastern half of the former kingdom of Vientiane to Vietnamese officials in Annam and Tonkin. The territory was virtually annexed by Hué in 1831 under the name Tran Ninh Phu Tam Vien. The Vietnamese presence at Khang Khay continued until the mid-1850s.
Chao Anou's wars with the Siamese had stirred massive disruptions of villages on the right bank. Terrified Lao fled every which way. When the Siamese arrived at Nakhon Phanom in 1827 they found the town deserted, the officials having fled across the river to Mahaxai. In the aftermath of the war, however, the Siamese established new towns--Chiang Khan, Nong Khai, Mukdahan, and Kemmarat--at key points on the Mekong to serve as administrative centers and as logistical bases for expeditionary forces operating across the river toward the mountains.
On the left bank, where the writ of Siam ran as far south as Stung Treng, the Siamese followed a policy of depopulating the country. This policy had actually been initiated as early as 1779; the first Phuan carried off by the Siamese arrived in Bangkok around 1792, where they were used as workers in the fields of the official classes. By removing people from the left bank, the Siamese deprived any invader from Annam of food supplies, transport, and recruits. Sporadic resistance, however, led for some time by the latsavong (first prince), of the old Vientiane kingdom continued at Mahaxai until 1835, when the leading Lao official there agreed to become governor of Sakon Nakhon on the right bank, and the Siamese resettled there. From 1837 to 1847, the Siamese carried out depopulation raids annually during the dry season in Khamkeut and Khammouan and in the valley of the Xé Banghiang. Entire Lao villages were uprooted.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Houaphan principality, fearing that the example of Muang Phuan might be applied to them, submitted to the suzerainty of Bangkok through the intermediary of Louangphrabang. Events were not going well for the Siamese in Muang Phuan. After the Siamese removed Chao Xan and some of the elders to Bangkok in 1836, the Vietnamese in effect ruled the state directly, appointing local officials as administrators. The depopulation activities the Siamese carried out on the Plain of Jars and elsewhere in Xiangkhoang caused the remaining population to migrate eastward and southward, forming new villages in the upper reaches of the Nam Mat and around the northern extremities of the Nam Kading basin, around Muang Mo, Muang Mok, and Muang Ngan. This expansion of the Phuan state was encouraged by the Vietnamese in their administrative reorganization. Some of the Phuan, however, perhaps enticed by Lao governors acting for the Siamese, moved down the river valleys toward the Mekong. There, new towns such as Bolikhamxai and Pakxan were founded and given satellite status by the Siamese in the 1870s.
Tu Duc, on his accession as Vietnamese emperor at Hué in 1847, allowed the sons of Chao Noi to return home with their families and to reestablish Xiangkhoang as the Phuan capital. They were given administrative responsibilities and the eldest, Prince Po, at last was permitted to replace the commissioner. Meanwhile, King Tiantha Koumane of Louangphrabang (r. 1851-69), one of three sons of Manta Thourath who succeeded to the throne in succession, while in Bangkok to receive the investiture, quickly arranged with the new Siamese king, Rama IV, to become once again the suzerain over the Phuan state. The Vietnamese had no objection to vassal relations of the Phuan with Louangphrabang. But Rama IV was deeply suspicious of the Phuan elders and set as a condition for accepting this arrangement that the Phuan send an annual tribute mission to Louangphrabang. Tiantha Koumane hence was able to reestablish his authority over Muang Phuan.
A new element--the Hô--entered the picture, further complicating the situation in northern Laos. The Hô first appeared in mid-1869 in the upper valley of the Nam Ou, where they made common cause with some Lu dissidents displaced from the Sipsong Panna during a civil war lasting twenty-five years. An army from Louangphrabang attacked these bands and withdrew with prisoners.
The Lao and Siamese were ill prepared to face up to the new danger of anarchy in their domains. Tiantha Koumane was dying of malaria, and the Siamese, preoccupied with preparations for the cremation of their own monarch, Rama IV, demanded that a tribute mission from Louangphrabang arrive in Bangkok in time for the ceremony. Many princes and senior officials had to absent themselves from Louangphrabang at this critical time and had to remain in Bangkok afterward for audiences with the new monarch. Oun Kham, who was already fifty-eight years old, did not receive his crown from the Siamese until 1872.
It was not until 1873 that the Siamese sent an army up the Nam Ou to attack the Hô and drive them out. Some Hô retreated into Houaphan, while others overran the Plain of Jars, where Chao Hung had succeeded his brother Chao Pho as ruler of the Phuan state, which became the main theater of conflict. The Hô camped at Chiang Kham and demanded "tax" payments from the local population, threatening to kill anyone who resisted. Chao Hung raised a small army and led it to assist the beleaguered governor of Chiang Kham in 1874, but a fatal bullet wound prompted the withdrawal of his army. Chao Hung's son, Prince Khanti, appealed to Annam for aid. A joint attack was made on Chiang Kham but was also repulsed.
Early the following year, the Hô began plundering the lowlands along the Mekong as far upriver as Chiang Khan and as far south as Nakhon Phanom, directly threatening Siam's security. The teenage King Rama V was unable to mount an effective response. The governor of Khorat took a force of men across the flooded Mekong at the height of the monsoon and attacked the Hô encamped in the ruins of Vientiane, killing their warlord and forcing the others to retreat to Muang Phuan. A concerted campaign against the Hô in their stronghold was finally put in motion in 1876, but it resulted more in pillaging and looting the inhabitants than in stopping the Hô, who, with their horses, were more than a match for the Siamese and Lao foot soldiers. Rama V blamed the Phuan for having brought trouble on themselves by giving rice, silver, and horses to the Hô, which in fact they had done in a desperate effort to appease them. He rejected further appeals for aid on the grounds that the local leaders would prove incapable of dealing with the situation after the army withdrew.
Meanwhile, the troubles in the upper valley of the Nam Ou continued. Siamese commissioners had to assist Oun Kham in restoring order in 1876 and to prod him into reorganizing the towns under his rule. Affairs remained in a state of flux for the next six years, and when in late 1882 Oun Kham appealed again to Bangkok for help against the Hô, the Siamese sent a major military mission. Subsequently, the Siamese maintained a permanent garrison at Louangphrabang.
The French, meanwhile, had imposed a treaty of protectorate on Annam in 1884. This treaty implied a French interest going beyond exploratory involvement in the affairs of Laos. In June 1885, the French consul general in Bangkok notified the Siamese government that a vice consulate would be established in Louangphrabang under terms of a most-favored-nation clause contained in a Franco-Siamese treaty of 1856. A new Franco-Siamese convention of May 1886 acknowledged the role of Siamese officials in Laos for the conduct of administrative matters but avoided implying French recognition of Siamese claims to sovereignty there.
Auguste Pavie arrived at Louangphrabang in 1887 to assume his post as vice consul. Pavie played a key role in saving Oun Kham's life from raiders from Lai Chau, earning the king's gratitude and a promise that he would place his kingdom under France's protection. Incidents between Siamese and French officials on the left bank, where the French had made themselves advocates of Vietnamese claims to suzerainty, continued in 1887-93. Finally, in March 1893, the French government, acceding to a campaign by the colonial lobby in Paris, decided to send three French commissioners, each with a small armed force, to evict the Siamese from outposts they had established in central and southern Laos. The commissioners had secret orders to avoid exchanges of fire if at all possible; ironically, the Siamese were under identical orders from their government.
The French government dispatched two warships to the Gulf of Siam, and, in what became known as the Paknam incident, forced the passage of a fort at the mouth of the Menam River on July 12 and anchored in the river with their guns trained on the royal palace. On July 20, the French gave an ultimatum to the Siamese government to recognize the rights of Annam to the left bank territories and to meet a list of other demands within forty-eight hours. The Siamese replied on July 22, accepting the first demand in central and southern Laos but rejecting the rest. The French declared a blockade of Bangkok, whereupon the Siamese accepted the rest of the French demands. By terms of the treaty concluded on October 3, 1893, between the Government of the French Republic and the Government of His Majesty the King of Siam, Siam renounced all claims to territories on the left bank and to islands in the river.
The Kingdom of Louangphrabang became a protectorate and was initially placed under the governor general of Indochina in Hanoi. Pavie saw to the officialization in Hanoi of the titles of King Oun Kham, his eldest son who assumed the duties of king under the name Zakarine--also known as Kham Souk (r. 1894-1904)-- and the viceroy, Boun Khong.
The French originally divided central Laos into two administrative districts. By April and May 1894, however, the initial organization was already being modified, and a new plan was put into effect a year later. In 1899 Upper Laos was integrated with Lower Laos under one administrator.
In 1904 and 1905, Laos was deprived of southern plateaus that were previously part of its territory. Under the February 13, 1904, Convention Modifying the Treaty Concluded on October 3, 1893, Siam ceded to France control of the right-bank portion of Louangphrabang (present-day Xaignabouri Province) and part of the right-bank territory of Champasak. The French governor general, by a decree of March 28, 1905, fixed the border between Laos and Cambodia at the Tonle Repou River. Under the March 23, 1907, Treaty Between France and Siam, the French retroceded the territory of Dan Sai, southwest of the "elbow" of the Mekong, to Siam.
The French thus reestablished a political entity in the middle Mekong Valley extending from China to the Khong falls on the Cambodian border that owed allegiance to neither Vietnam nor Siam, thereby eluding Vietnamese claims to Laos, whose historical basis they had verified in the archives in Hué. Detachment of the administration of the left-bank territories from Annam was justified on grounds of budgetary necessity in the new French Indochina.
The French presence in Laos was sufficient to preserve internal peace and cope with sporadic localized revolts among some of the mountain tribes in the years 1900-40. These revolts owed their origin to resistance to paying taxes and supplying corvée labor or to outbreaks of messianic hysteria. However, the French military in Indochina were too ill-equipped to contemplate resisting Japan's movement to the south, which by 1940 had become the main focus of Japanese military strategists. On August 30, 1940, the French Vichy government signed the Matsuoka-Henry Pact granting Japan the right to station troops in Indochina and use bases there for movement of forces elsewhere in the region. The agreement, although recognizing Japan's preeminent role in Southeast Asia, preserved France's sovereignty over Indochina.
To the west, French forces in Indochina were confronted by a threat from Thailand (Siam adopted this name in June 1939), where Pibul Songkram's government was arousing public opinion with inflammatory speeches in Bangkok and radiobroadcasts to those he called his brethren across the Mekong. The broadcasts called for an uprising against the French, an endeavor in which Pibul promised help--and for which he had secretly sought Japanese backing. After a series of increasingly serious incidents in the last months of 1940, Thai ground troops attacked French forces in Cambodia in January 1941. The May 9, 1941, Peace Convention Between France and Thailand, under mediation from Japan, was highly favorable to Thailand, which regained the right-bank territories that it had given up in 1904.
Lao outrage was predictable. King Sisavang Vong of Louangphrabang (r. 1904-59) only had the promises made to his grandfather by Pavie as the basis for France's intentions to treat his kingdom as a protectorate. Worried in this regard, he had obtained in 1932 from Paul Raynaud, the French minister for colonies, written guarantees that France would continue to honor Pavie's promises. Therefore, the French were obliged to explain their giving away part of his kingdom or else offer the king suitable compensation. As a result, the French governor general, Admiral Jean Decoux, offered the king a treaty regularizing the protectorate and enlarging his domain. The Franco-Laotian Treaty of Protectorate between France and the Kingdom of Louangphrabang of August 29, 1941, attached the provinces of Vientiane, Xiangkhoang, and Louang Namtha to Louangphrabang, which already included Phôngsali and Houaphan.
The territory of Laos thus consisted of the Kingdom of Louangphrabang, under French protection, and the provinces south of the Nam Kading, which were administered directly by a résident supérieur in Vientiane. The latter had direct authority over the provincial résidents, who were on an equal footing with the Lao chao khoueng (provincial governors). The résident supérieur also acted as the representative of the French state to the king of Louangphrabang and supervised the administration of the kingdom through provincial commissioners. The affairs of the kingdom were conducted by a four-member council headed by the viceroy. The résident supérieur also coordinated the activities of the public services of the Indochinese Federation, which operated in both the north and the south, and employed French, Vietnamese, and Lao civil servants.
The treaty also reinstituted the position of viceroy, which had been abolished by the French at the death of Boun Khong in 1920. Boun Khong's son, Prince Phetsarath, became one of the major figures of modern Laos. Among his accomplishments were the establishment of the system of ranks and titles of the civil service, promotion and pension plans, the organization of a Laotian consultative assembly consisting of district and province chiefs, the reorganization of the king's Advisory Council along functional lines, and the establishment of a school of law and administration. Phetsarath also reorganized the administrative system of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), and established a system of schools for educating monks in which the language of instruction was Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism.
Although French rule in Laos was punctuated by rebellions among tribal peoples that had to be suppressed by force, the Laotians by and large accepted the French presence. The need to counter the pan-Thai irredentism propagated by the Pibul regime in Bangkok nevertheless led the Decoux administration to foster Laotian nationalism through the Lao Renovation Movement (Lao Nhay). The goals of this movement were to "provide Laos with its own personality with respect to its neighbors and to inculcate the sense of patrie." The first Lao language publications in the style of the modern press, for example, Lao Nhay (New Laos), and Tin Lao (News of Laos) both launched in 1941, resulted from this movement.
An activist group of teachers and students among the Lao nationalists, however, attempted to stage a coup d'état at the Collège Pavie in Vientiane in July 1940. When the coup failed, they fled across the river and founded a semisecret organization, Laos for the Lao (Lao Pen Lao). Founding members included the Pali teacher and historian Mahasila Viravong, Tham Sayasithena, Thongdy Sounthonvichit, and Oudone Sananikone and his half-brother Oun.
Beginning in December 1944, with the upswing of Allied fortunes in Europe and the Pacific, General Charles de Gaulle's provisional government in Paris began airdropping French agents into Indochina with the aim of recruiting and training guerrilla forces to harass the Japanese and maintain a French presence. These agents readily found supporters in Laos, and soon Franco-Laotian guerrilla groups were operating from jungle camps scattered from Louang Namtha Province in the north to Champasak Province in the south. On March 9, 1945, however, the Japanese carried out a coup de force that overturned the 1940 political agreement and ended French administrative control throughout Indochina. Having the Indochinese rulers renounce their treaties of protectorate with France formed an integral part of Japanese plans, but no steps were taken to prepare the Laotians or others for "independence."
Japanese troops moved into the towns and quickly imprisoned French officials and their families and confiscated their property. Prince Phetsarath, after ordering Laotian civil servants to continue their duties as usual, left Vientiane for Louangphrabang to be with the king.
After being delayed on the roads from Xiangkhoang and Vientiane by the Franco-Laotian guerrillas (of whom the Hmong were particularly effective), two battalions of Japanese troops finally arrived in Louangphrabang on April 7. They found the French gone. A Japanese representative suggested that the king proclaim Laos's independence and send someone to discuss the terms of LaotianJapanese cooperation. Sisavang Vong replied that he would stay with his people and that his attitude toward the French would not change. Laos was too small to be independent, but if he was obliged to accept independence he would do so. At the same time, he reluctantly issued a proclamation on April 8 ending the French protectorate. The king secretly entrusted Prince Kindavong, a younger half-brother of Phetsarath, with the mission of representing him in the Allied councils abroad while he maintained clandestine contact with the Franco-Laotian guerrillas in Laos. He also sent Crown Prince Savang Vatthana to Japanese headquarters in Saigon, where he vigorously protested the Japanese actions.
Phetsarath no doubt saw some good coming from the turn of events. The Japanese had told him that they intended that the king's proclamation of independence apply to all of Laos. Interested in the unity of Laos, he gave the Japanese a proposal for unifying the Laotian civil service. Phetsarath also opened an account of the royal treasury with the Indochinese treasury in Hanoi, which gave the kingdom greater fiscal autonomy. Problems began to appear almost immediately, however. At the end of June, the coffers were empty in spite of an infusion of money brought back from Saigon by the crown prince. Japan, no longer able to provide for the salaries of the Laotian administration, allowed the civil service to languish.
Beyond this was the Vietnamese problem. In 1943 the six chief towns of Laos counted 30,300 Vietnamese inhabitants out of their total population of 51,150. Vietnamese occupied key positions in the federal civil service, public works, posts and telegraph, treasury, customs, and police. The political dangers to Laos of the Vietnamese presence were demonstrated on April 8 when Vietnamese residents of Khang Khay tried to detach Tran Ninh (Xiangkhoang), an integral part of the territory of the Kingdom of Louangphrabang, from Laos and attach it to Vietnam.
After their coup de force, the Japanese put prices on the heads of the Franco-Laotian guerrillas and anyone caught helping them. In spite of the danger, the guerrillas sought recruits in the countryside and stepped up their armed attacks against Japanese communications, virtually cutting off several towns. The guerrillas' message to Laotian civil servants: disregard the Japanese-inspired proclamation of independence and carry on your regular duties without helping the Japanese. Chao khoueng (provincial governors) who joined the guerrillas and chao muang (district chiefs) faced the hard decision of leaving behind their colleagues and sometimes their families. Whereas many of the leading Lao and tribal figures supported the Franco-Laotian guerrillas, some families had divided loyalties.
After Japan's surrender, Phetsarath acted on the premise that the king's proclamation of independence was still in force. On August 28, 1945, he sent a telegram to all provincial governors notifying them that the Japanese surrender did not affect independence and warning them to resist any foreign intervention in their administration. Phetsarath also refused to recognize the authority of the French résident supérieur when he was released from prison. Three days earlier, however, Colonel Hans Imfeld, commissioner of the French Republic, had entered Louangphrabang with a party of Franco-Laotian guerrillas and had received assurances from the king that the protectorate was still in force. Japanese troops having withdrawn to the south, a party of Franco-Laotian guerrillas under the command of Major Fabre entered Vientiane peacefully on September 3 to await developments. French civilians released from internment were evacuated.
Vietnamese residents in Vientiane and other towns had already begun spreading anti-French propaganda and making preparations to resist the French. In these actions, they were guided by agents of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), a Marxist-Leninist party founded in 1930 by Ho Chi Minh. The ICP adhered to a Leninist strategy of seizing power by revolutionary action--national liberation followed by the transition to socialism. The ICP had established cells in Laos in the early 1930s made up entirely of Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese agitation came to a head with a large demonstration in Vientiane on August 23. Phetsarath favored taking advantage of the French difficulties. However, as head of government, his autonomy was restricted not only by the wishes of the king, but also by the 1941 arrangement with the French that had made the crown prince the chairman of the King's Council. The French design had, perhaps intentionally, created an ambiguity that made for conflict. On September 2, Phetsarath sent a message to the king requesting a royal proclamation of the unity of Laos.
While he was dealing with these matters, Phetsarath received an unsolicited message on September 3 from Prince Souphanouvong, another of his half-brothers. Souphanouvong had spent the previous sixteen years working as an engineer in Vietnam. Souphanouvong flew from Vinh to Hanoi in an aircraft provided by the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to meet with Ho Chi Minh, who had just proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi in the name of the Viet Minh, an ICP front organization. (Although OSS personnel were not authorized to operate in Indochina, the OSS station in Kunming, China, took advantage of a mandate for OSS teams to perform prisoner of war (POW) recovery work to enter Indochina.) Prince Souphanouvong said he was in a position to represent the interests of Laos and asked for instructions. On September 5, he sent another message to Phetsarath saying that he had begun to negotiate with the Vietnamese for aid in the independence struggle and to form "an Indochinese bloc opposing the return of colonialism." Phetsarath rejected Souphanouvong's offer.
The official United States position, communicated to France, was that there was no question concerning France's sovereignty over Indochina. At the end of August, President Harry S. Truman was personally assured by de Gaulle that Indochina would be granted independence once the status quo before the Japanese aggression had been restored. Meanwhile, United States recognition of French sovereignty was qualified by the proviso that the French claim of support by the Indochinese populations be borne out by future events. Apparently without the knowledge of Washington, however, an OSS team that reached Vientiane in September--escorted by members of the Lao Pen Lao newly returned from Thailand--assured Phetsarath that the French would not be allowed to return. The team advised Phetsarath to await the arrival of the Inter-Allied Commission that was to decide his country's future. This information misled Phetsarath into believing that the international community supported an independent Laos.
However, on September 7, Phetsarath was informed by the minister of interior that a royal proclamation had continued the French protectorate over the Kingdom of Louangphrabang. On September 15, with the Inter-Allied Commission nowhere in sight, Phetsarath issued a proclamation that unified the Kingdom of Louangphrabang with the four southern provinces of Khammouan, Savannakhét, Champasak, and Saravan (Salavan). Vientiane would be the capital, and the Congress of People's Representatives would soon meet to decide all political, economic, and social questions.
On September 21, Fabre demanded the dismissal of Xieng Mao (also known as Phaya Khammao, or Khammao Vilay), the provincial governor since 1941, for anti-French activities, and his replacement by Kou Voravong. The next day, an advance guard of the Chinese Nationalist troops responsible for receiving the surrender of the Japanese arrived by boat down the Mekong. They appeared more interested in buying up the opium crop (harvested from late December to early February) than in disarming the already departed Japanese.
On October 7, Souphanouvong and a Vietnamese escort arrived in Savannakhét to find that Oun and his partisans, who included Phoumi Nosavan, had crossed the river from Thailand, taken control of the town, and, in a loose alliance with the large Vietnamese population, armed themselves from looted armories of the local militia and arms discarded by the withdrawing Japanese. As a result of negotiations, their forces merged. Souphanouvong became commander in chief and Oun second in command. Souphanouvong and his escort proceeded upriver, first to Thakhek and then to Vientiane, where a provisional revolutionary government had been proclaimed two weeks earlier, taking the name Lao Issara (Free Laos). Moreover, the Committee of Independence, strongly influenced by the Lao Pen Lao, controlled Vientiane. Upon his arrival, Souphanouvong was made minister of foreign affairs and commander in chief. At his urging, a military cooperation convention was signed with Ho Chi Minh's government.
Meanwhile, bolstered by renewed assurances of support from the French, Sisavang Vong had sent messages on October 10 to Vientiane accusing Phetsarath of exceeding his authority and stripping him of his position as prime minister and his title of viceroy. Phetsarath protested but accepted these decisions and, after thanking the Laotian civil servants for their support, immediately announced his withdrawal from public life. His decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that he was married to a sister of Sisavang.
The royal dismissal of Phetsarath turned Lao Issara leaders against the monarchy, which they saw as hopelessly compromised by the French. In an effort to give their government some semblance of legitimacy, Lao Issara leaders hastily named the People's Committee, consisting of thirty-four members, many of them Lao Pen Lao activists, but also including the governors of several provinces who were not even in Vientiane. Members of the Chamber of People's Representatives were elected--and simply notified after the fact--by the members of the People's Committee in accordance with a provisional constitution adopted on the morning of October 12.
At the news of the king's deposition and the report that the Lao Issara government had dispatched an armed contingent to Louangphrabang under Sing Ratanassamay's command, the agitation in the royal capital grew rapidly. With Imfeld and his men disarmed and held under house arrest by Chinese troops, the governor, Boungnavath, was free to act, and he had Royal Lao Government (RLG) supporters arrested. On November 10, hours before the arrival of Sing's force, a mob surrounded the royal palace, fired shots in the air, climbed over the walls, and forced entry. Sing and his men had an audience with the king that afternoon. The king declared himself to be a simple citizen, prepared to hand over the phrabang and to vacate the royal palace when the government thought it appropriate. Later that month, the government issued a formal decree that no member of the government would henceforth have any contact with the French.
At the outset of its rule, the authority of the Lao Issara provisional government was extremely limited outside Vientiane. In the north, the towns of Louangphrabang, Phôngsali, and Louang Namtha were occupied by the Chinese. The Franco-Laotian guerrillas, with support from Touby Lyfoung's Hmong, had taken control of the main towns of Xiangkhoang Province at the beginning of September. Their hold on Houaphan was much less solid, in spite of efforts on the part of the provincial governor, Phoumi Vongvichit, to prevent the Chinese from entering the province. Here, because of its proximity to Vietnam, the revolutionary propaganda spread by the Viet Minh was strong but also pro-Viet Minh rather than pro-Lao Issara. Moreover, the main roads leading east were denied to the Franco-Laotian guerrillas by Viet Minh detachments coming from Vietnam. In the center and south, the Lao Issara government controlled the towns of Thakhek and Savannakhét. Most of the remainder of the provinces of Khammouan and Savannakhét was controlled by the Franco-Laotian guerrillas. So were the southernmost provinces of Pakxé and Saravan, which fell largely in the British zone of operation decided upon at the Potsdam Conference and where Prince Boun Oum of Champasak, sympathetic to the French, had 15,000 troops under his command.
The outlook became more favorable for the Lao Issara as the year ended. France, preoccupied with the situation in Vietnam, was unable to send reinforcements to the Franco-Laotian guerrillas. Fabre and his men were evacuated from Vientiane--eventually to Thailand--under an escort provided by the Chinese. Various events led the Franco-Laotian guerrillas to evacuate Xiangkhoang town and Louang Namtha. While Viet Minh propaganda exploited differences between the Lao and Phuan on the one hand and Touby's Hmong on the other, the Viet Minh were themselves putting together a Hmong guerrilla force under Faydang Lobliayao of the Lo clan. In Louangphrabang, Imfeld and his men had been subjected to all kinds of pressure, culminating in their evacuation across the river under Chinese escort on January 4.
In Vientiane, the Lao Issara government was confronted with a growing list of problems. The most serious was how to finance the government because the treasury was empty and there were no funds to pay civil servants. An attempt to tax opium exports was unenforceable because the government did not control opium trade routes. The government even took steps to abolish the Indochinese régie (state monopoly) that regulated the opium trade and make it a Laos monopoly. In desperation, the government appealed to the Thai government for a press on which to print money. Foreign relations and the procurement of military equipment were also problems.
Beginning in January 1946, with the loss anew of Xiangkhoang, the fortunes of the Lao Issara government began to decline. The Franco-Laotian guerrillas were receiving reinforcements and supplies by air and road from French headquarters in Saigon, which made entry into the towns possible for the first time. Lao Issara appeals to the Viet Minh for assistance went largely unheeded, and the Franco-Laotian guerrillas once again were positioned along the main roads leading from Vietnam.
After long negotiations in Chongqing, China's wartime capital, the French government obtained China's commitment to withdraw its troops from Indochina. The withddrawal allowed the Franco-Laotian guerrillas to make their entry into Savannakhét against token resistance camouflaged by the Chinese withdrawal. At Thakhek, however, Souphanouvong and his largely Vietnamese force were determined to make the French pay. In a day-long battle on March 21, approximately 700 of the defenders and 300 civilians were killed.
With the French menacing Vientiane, the first thought of the Lao Issara government was to regularize its relations with the monarchy. On March 23, Xieng Mao, having abandoned Vientiane for Louangphrabang, sent the king a letter asking him to resume his throne. But the king was in no hurry, and it was not until April 23 that the king signaled his acceptance of the constitution and reaffirmed the unity of Laos by a royal ordinance.
Meanwhile, a strong French column was making its way up the road from Vientiane to Louangphrabang. Simultaneously, Hmong guerrillas moved west to harass Chinese troops in the vicinity of the royal capital. The French column entered Louangphrabang forcing Phetsarath and the Lao Issara ministers to flee Laos. The king welcomed the French by declaring null and void all acts that he had sanctioned under pressure from the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Lao Issara since April 4, 1945. He also promised a democratic constitution.
The Lao Issara government-in-exile set up its headquarters in Bangkok. Scattered groups of armed partisans mounted raids into Laos from bases along the Mekong and in southern Laos. One group was under the command of Thao O Anourack. After the Japanese takeover, Thao O had refused the Franco-Laotian guerrillas' appeal to join them. When the Lao Issara took over Savannakhét, the provincial governor appointed him commander of liberation forces in Xépôn. Thus, when the Franco-Laotians reoccupied Xépôn in March 1946, Thao O made his way east with some 200 to 300 men to the safety of Lao Bao just across the border of Vietnam. Eventually, he was forced to abandon Laos altogether and to make his way to Hanoi where the Viet Minh put him in touch with Kaysone Phomvihan, a Vietnamese-Lao métis (person of mixed race) from Savannakhét who had been sent to direct Lao Issara radiobroadcasts over Radio Hanoi, and Nouhak Phoumsavan, a Vietnamese from Mukdahan. Neither Kaysone Phomvihan nor Nouhak Phoumsavan had a significant role in the Lao Issara, but both had the confidence of Ho Chi Minh and saw in Ho's government the salvation of an independent Laos.
The Vietnamese proposed to Thao O--and he accepted--that he form a committee for the liberation of Laos. Nouhak became president of the committee. The enlistment of other small groups from Xiangkhoang and Houaphan brought the effective strength under Thao O's command to 500; he dispatched one company each to Xam Nua, Xiangkhoang, Muang Mo, Napé, and Muang Sen. Thao O soon received secret codes from Phetsarath and Souvanna Phouma in Bangkok that allowed him to communicate with his companies.
At the urging of the United States, France took steps to normalize its relations with Laos. In June 1946, a joint FrancoLaotian commission was established in Vientiane to discuss future relationships. This commission produced a document confirming the existence of a unified Laos under the sovereignty of the king of Louangphrabang. Major political, military, and economic powers remained in French hands. Elections for a Constituent Assembly were to be held within a year. A modus vivendi was signed on August 27. A Franco-Siamese agreement signed in Washington on November 17, 1946, restored the right-bank provinces of Xaignabouri and Champasak to Laos. The multinational conciliation commission that examined Thailand's claims to these territories found in favor of Laos in its report of June 27, 1947.
On December 15, 1946, in the face of guerrilla raids from across the Mekong, forty-four delegates to the Kingdom of Laos's first popularly elected Constituent Assembly were chosen. Under French supervision, the delegates worked on a constitution promulgated by Sisavang Vong on May 11, 1947. This constitution declared Laos an independent state within the French Union. On November 26, 1947, the thirty-three deputies to Laos's first National Assembly invested a government headed by Prince Souvannarath, another half-brother of Phetsarath. By the terms of a confidential protocol of February 25, 1948, Boun Oum was allowed to keep his title of Prince of Champasak but renounced his suzerain rights to this former kingdom. In return he was made inspector general of the kingdom, the third-ranking personage of Laos after the king and crown prince.
Under a successor government headed by Boun Oum, the Franco-Lao General Convention of July 19, 1949, gave Laos greater latitude in foreign affairs. Over the following months, France transferred its remaining powers. A Royal Lao Army was created, which by the end of 1952 comprised seventeen companies, in addition to a battalion entirely commanded by Laotian officers. On February 7, 1950, the United States and Britain recognized Laos. Later that year, the United States opened a legation in Vientiane.
Meanwhile, contacts had been made in Bangkok between the French and moderates in the Lao Issara government-in-exile. A coup d'état in Thailand ushered in a government much less sympathetic to the anti-French resistance in Laos than its predecessor and deprived the hardliners among the Lao Issara of precious support. A conflict developed between Phetsarath and Souphanouvong over the issue of the Lao Issara's ties to the Viet Minh. This conflict led to Souphanouvong's dismissal from the government-in-exile. When France offered an amnesty, the government decreed its own dissolution in October 1949 and returned to Vientiane in a French plane. Phetsarath was left in Thailand. Souphanouvong, vowing to continue to fight, headed for Vietnam. The Lao Issara was a spent force, although it lived on in legend.
War had broken out in the meantime between the French and Ho Chi Minh's government at the end of 1946. Leaving Nouhak in charge of the resistance committee, Thao O set up his base at Con Cuong (Vietnam), from which his men could cross the border into Laos with relative impunity. In January 1949, Kaysone formed the first unit of a new resistance army, the Latsavong detachment, named after the latsavong of Vientiane, who had led resistance against the Siamese in the nineteenth century. To lend the resistance the appearance of authority it lacked in reality, a government headed by Souphanouvong was formed at a congress held in Vietnam in August 1950. This government included Kaysone, Nouhak, Tiao Souk Vongsak, and Phoumi Vongvichit.
The congress created the Free Laos Front (Neo Lao Issara). The basic stance of this front's propaganda was the united struggle against the French without reference to political parties or ideology. Illustrative of this stance was the use henceforth of the name Pathet Lao (Lao Nation). Indicative of the "single battlefield" theme repeated in Viet Minh propaganda were the increasing numbers of Viet Minh agents sent to Laos: 500 to 700 political and military agents at the end of 1946 and the beginning of 1947, approximately 5,000 to 7,000 agents at the end of 1950 and the beginning of 1951, and 17,000 agents in 1953.
In keeping with the united front against the French, Souphanouvong's Pathet Lao government included not only leaders who had developed close ties to the Viet Minh over the previous five years, but also members of the Lao aristocracy (such as Souphanouvong himself) and former officials of the RLG. Significantly, the Pathet Lao government also included two representatives of Laos's tribal groups who were made ministers without portfolio.
By 1950 both Kaysone and Nouhak had become members of the ICP. The party's strategy was to operate clandestinely behind broad national front organizations such as the Viet Minh and the Neo Lao Issara that were capable of mobilizing support from people for whom Marxism-Leninism held no appeal. This strategy applied particularly to Laos, where issues such as land reform and other aspects of class struggle, antithetical to the notion of Buddhist harmony, had almost no appeal. The overthrow of the monarchy, which had figured as a goal in the ICP program since 1932, was also not publicized.
Although the ICP had announced its dissolution in 1945, it continued to operate secretly. In February 1951, at its second congress, the ICP decided to split into separate parties for each of the three countries---Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia--in accordance with the need to mobilize mass support for the anti-French war throughout Indochina. At this time, of 2,091 ICP members in Laos, only thirty-one were Laotians. The Laotian members of the ICP were "transferred" to a new party whose name reflected its Laotian constituency but that was still tied to the two other parties of the ICP in the new triad.
The decision to form a new party led to considerable discussion among noncommunist Pathet Lao supporters unfamiliar with Leninist strategy. In the second half of 1954, an important meeting of Pathet Lao leaders was held near the Houaphan Province border, where the need to establish this new party to ensure success of the struggle in the postwar period was explained. Some participants supported this proposal; others did not. Proponents of the new party met in secret. The Phak Pasason Lao (Lao People's Party--LPP) was formally established on March 22, 1955. The very existence of the party was kept a secret from nonparty people.
By 1951 enough Pathet Lao troops had been recruited and trained to take part in Viet Minh military operations against French Union forces in Laos. In the spring of 1953, the Viet Minh overran almost all of Houaphan Province and portions of Phôngsali, Xiangkhoang, and Louangphrabang provinces. Approximately 300 Pathet Lao accompanied the Viet Minh. On April 19, Souphanouvong formally established the Pathet Lao government in Houaphan Province. A "people's tribunal" presided over by Kaysone condemned the acting province chief to death for having helped organize guerrilla resistance to the invaders.
With Louangphrabang in danger of Viet Minh occupation, Crown Prince Savang Vatthana received a letter from the United States chargé d'affaires in Saigon, Robert McClintock, expressing concern for the king's safety and saying that withdrawal from the capital "would seem the course of wisdom." Savang said that the king intended to stay to bolster morale for the defense of his capital. At the end of 1953 and beginning of 1954, the Viet Minh again invaded Laos, pushing as far as Thakhek and creating considerable difficulties for the French Union defenders. Their appearance seemed timed to coincide with the sale of the opium crop in Houaphan and Xiangkhoang provinces.
In elections to the National Assembly held on August 26, 1951, the National Progressive Party (Phak Xat Kao Na) formed by the returned Lao Issara ministers, Xieng Mao, Souvanna Phouma, and Katay Don Sasorith, won fifteen of thirty-nine seats. The Democratic Party (Praxathipatay) of Kou Voravong and his brotherin -law Major Phoumi Nosavan won four seats; the National Lao Union (Lao Rouam Samphan) of Bong Souvannavong won three; and seventeen seats went to independents that included Phoui Sananikone and Leuam Insixiengmay. Xieng Mao having failed to form a government, Prince Souvanna Phouma headed a government that was invested on November 21. The Franco-Lao Treaty of Amity and Association on October 22, 1953, removed the last strictures on independence.
It was thus as a fully sovereign country that Laos sent a delegation headed by its foreign minister, Phoui Sananikone, to the Geneva Conference on Indochina that put an end to the First Indochina War in July 1954. The armistice agreement for Laos, signed by a French general on behalf of French Union forces and a Viet Minh military official, provided for a cease-fire to take effect at 8:00 A.M. on August 6. Viet Minh forces were to be withdrawn from Laos to North Vietnam within 120 days. The Viet Minh delegation had brought Nouhak and another Pathet Lao member, Ma Khamphitay, with them to Geneva on Viet Minh passports, intending to have a Pathet Lao delegation seated, but they were not recognized by the conference. A provision in the armistice agreement for Laos was nevertheless inserted providing for the "fighting units of Pathet Lao" to be regrouped in Houaphan and Phôngsali provinces pending a political settlement. The RLG pledged to take steps to integrate all Laotian citizens into the political life of the kingdom.
The representatives of the other powers at Geneva signed no conference documents but instead subscribed to the Final Declaration taking note of the armistice agreements. United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles lobbied hard to ensure that the Laotians made no unnecessary concessions to the communists. At the final session, the United States delegation declared that it would refrain from the threat or use of force to disturb the armistice agreements and that it would view any violations of them as a threat to peace and security. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai stressed the advisability of a coalition government to the Laotians, urging an early meeting between princes Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong. He seemed prepared to offer an exchange of diplomats, his main concern being that Laos be free of United States military bases.
Implementation of the armistice agreement in Laos began on schedule. The Joint Commission, on which the RLG was represented by General Bounphone Maekthepharak and Colonel Sengsouvanh Souvannarath and Colonel Boun Ma, and the Pathet Lao by Singkapo, Sisavath, and Ma Khamphitay, held a number of meetings at Khang Khay to deal with the details. The presence of the International Control Commission (ICC), made up of Canada, India, and Poland, also helped force the two sides to live up to their commitments. However, the insistence of the Pathet Lao that their regroupment areas cover the entire territory of the two provinces, along with a right to exclusive administration of those provinces, raised serious problems almost immediately. Another part of the armistice agreement that caused difficulties was, as noted in an ICC report, the "... glaring differences regarding the number and categories of prisoners of war and civil internees exchanged."
It became clear that higher-level negotiations were needed. Princes Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong met at Khang Khay on September 8. The assassination of the defense minister, Kou Voravong, in Vientiane on September 18, however, demonstrated the fragility of the Laotian political structure. The act seemed to be a settling of old scores, dating probably to Kou's energetic measures as interior minister to suppress banditry perpetrated from across the river. Thailand also seemed to be implicated, but the announcement by Thai police that they had arrested the assassin, who claimed to have been in league with Phoui, only poisoned relations between the Voravong and Sananikone families. Crown Prince Savang wondered aloud whether Phetsarath, with the help of foreigners, was trying to oust the monarchy.
The Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese backers meanwhile took advantage of the cease-fire to launch a vast recruitment campaign. In the cases of numerous recruits who were later interviewed, the offer of schooling or more specialized training in North Vietnam proved decisive to their enlistment, and even those who were initially skeptical were ultimately won over by the attentions of their Vietnamese instructors and the persuasiveness of the political lessons they received. One major consequence of this campaign was that the Pathet Lao ranks were swelled by recruits from the many different hill tribes of Laos. These men were to constitute the initial Pathet Lao units. The immediate goal after regrouping in the two provinces was to form nine battalions, plus independent companies for propaganda missions.
Laos, a member of the United Nations (UN) since December 14, 1955, seemed an unlikely place for a resumption of hostilities. Peaceful coexistence was the dominant mood of the time. A new government under Katay was represented at the Asian-African Conference held in April 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, where he and North Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong spoke of peace and noninterference in each other's affairs. But an initial round of negotiations between the government and the Pathet Lao in Rangoon in October collapsed, dashing hopes of a rapid settlement of the Pathet Lao question. Armed clashes between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao continued sporadically in the two provinces.
The threat to the RLG posed by a combination of internal subversion and outside aggression preoccupied its leaders, none more so than Crown Prince Savang Vatthana. As early as summer 1954, fearing a French deal with the Viet Minh that might be injurious to Laotian sovereignty and territorial integrity, Savang had flown to Paris to make his own soundings of French intentions. He was also anxious to probe United States diplomats for reassurances as to the nature of the support Laos could expect in the event of an attack from its communist neighbors. He told Dulles that Laos was in a "life or death struggle" for survival and that the Laotian people were opposed to communist dictatorship. Dulles replied, "You can count upon our support--moral, political, and material--so long as that support goes to a government vigorously seeking to maintain its own independence."
Washington's immediate concern was that the Royal Lao Army was inadequately trained and equipped because all French troops, except for a small detachment at Xéno in the south, had departed. The Geneva armistice terms prohibited Laos from having foreign military bases and participating in any foreign military alliance, but allowed a small French training mission. Dissatisfied with the French mission and seeing a larger role for itself, the United States established a disguised military mission in Vientiane, the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO). This mission became operational on December 13, 1955, under the command of a general officer, who, like others on his staff, had been removed from Department of Defense rosters of active service personnel. The secrecy stemmed from the Department of State's concern that the PEO's existence might be construed as a violation of the Geneva Agreement of 1954, which United States policy continued to uphold.
The RLG held elections in December 1955 without the Pathet Lao. As a result, the Progressive Party again emerged as the leading party with eighteen seats; the newly formed Independent Party (Phak Seli) of Phoui Sananikone and Leuam secured nine seats, the Democratic Party secured four seats, and the National Union Party won two seats.
After the elections, Souvanna Phouma signaled a renewed effort at negotiations, when, presenting his new government to the National Assembly on March 20, 1956, he called the settlement of the Pathet Lao problem "the gravest and most urgent" question before the country. He opened negotiations in Vientiane in August; the Pathet Lao were represented by Souphanouvong. Two joint declarations issued shortly thereafter by the delegations pledged agreement on a foreign policy of peaceful coexistence, a new ceasefire in the two northern provinces, exercise of democratic freedoms, authorization for the Pathet Lao's political party to operate, procedures for the RLG's administration in the two provinces, integration of Pathet Lao units into the Royal Lao Army, the formation of two mixed commissions to work out the abovementioned details, the holding of supplementary elections to an enlarged National Assembly, and the establishment of a coalition government. In preparation for engaging in the politics of the kingdom, the Pathet Lao had formed an organization--to act as a front--the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Lao Patriotic Front LPF) in January 1956, with an innocuous-sounding platform. Souphanouvong and the other Pathet Lao delegates took the oath of allegiance to the king in the presence of Souvanna Phouma and Kou Abhay, president of the King's Council. This round of negotiations concluded in a further series of agreements covering a cease-fire, implementation of a policy of peace and neutrality, and measures guaranteeing civic rights and nondiscrimination against Pathet Lao followers.
In late August, Souvanna Phouma visited Beijing and Hanoi, where he was warmly received. Far from committing Laos to the communist bloc as the United States Department of State feared, these visits formed part of Souvanna Phouma's strategy to neutralize the danger to Laotian independence posed by the Pathet Lao. It was obvious to him that communism held little appeal to the inhabitants of Laos. Although there were communists among the leaders of the Pathet Lao--and Souvanna Phouma refused to believe his half-brother was one of them--the communists depended on the exercise, or at least the threat, of armed force to carry out their "revolution." Souvanna Phouma's strategy was intended to separate the nationalists from the communists in the Pathet Lao. He warned the Pathet Lao's foreign backers that if they provided sanctuary to armed resistance groups--once the Pathet Lao had been reintegrated into the kingdom's political life--they would be going back on their pledges of noninterference.
At the same time, however, Souvanna Phouma's ideas for safeguarding Laotian independence differed radically from Dulles's. Dulles viewed the Pathet Lao as unacceptable coalition partners; in his view they were all simply communists rather than a front comprising a number of nationalists. The United States ambassador in Vientiane, J. Graham Parsons, informed Souvanna Phouma that Washington was implacably opposed to a coalition government. The United States remained unmollified by a secret protocol attached to a November 2, 1956, agreement on a neutral foreign policy that proscribed the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Vietnam and China in the immediate future. On November 22, Parsons was instructed to inform the prime minister that the United States was unable to respond favorably to his appeal for support.
Negotiations with the Pathet Lao resumed in February 1957 but were interrupted when Souvanna Phouma resigned in May over an unfavorable vote in the National Assembly. In the interim, Phetsarath had been persuaded to return from Thailand. Unbowed by age, but no longer keen on a role for himself in politics, he returned in March and took up residence in Louangphrabang where, in a gesture of royal reconciliation, he made his obeisance to the king and received back his old title of viceroy.
Souvanna Phouma returned as prime minister in August 1957 following a cabinet crisis and was charged by the king with forming a new government. He reopened negotiations, and on October 22, a final agreement was reached. This agreement called for reestablishing RLG administration over the two provinces, forming a coalition government, and holding supplementary elections to the National Assembly. The government set elections for May 1958. On November 18, Souphanouvong symbolically returned to RLG authority, represented by Crown Prince Savang, the two provinces, together with all the troops, civil servants, and war matériel belonging to the Pathet Lao. A RLG governor was appointed in Houaphan and a Pathet Lao governor in Phôngsali, each with a deputy of the opposite camp. Mayoral and other provincial official positions were equally divided between the two parties. It was agreed that two Pathet Lao battalions, totaling 1,500 troops, would be integrated into the Royal Lao Army and the remainder would be demobilized and sent home. The National Assembly unanimously approved the coalition government. Souphanouvong became minister of planning, reconstruction, and urbanism, and Phoumi Vongvichit became minister of culture and fine arts.
Souvanna Phouma visited Washington in January 1958 hoping to persuade United States policy makers, who worried about his having accepted Pathet Lao participation in the government in advance of elections, that his strategy for dealing with the Pathet Lao was the best course. However, he left Washington without gaining unqualified support for his strategy.
United States aid failed to blunt the effects of Pathet Lao propaganda and indoctrination in the villages. The Pathet Lao were masters of political persuasion, exploiting popular themes of nationalism, anticorruption, and "anti-big family." There were exceptions, however, to the general negative perception of United States aid. Tom Dooley, a physician from the United States, brought health care to the people who needed it most, those in remote villages. Another American--an Indiana farmer named Edgar "Pop" Buell--devoted the last years of his life to helping the Hmong, including training the first Hmong nurses and opening Hmong schools.
The stunning success of the LPF and its allies in winning thirteen of the twenty-one seats contested in the May 4, 1958, elections to the National Assembly changed the political atmosphere in Vientiane. This success had less to do with the LPF's adroitness than with the ineptness of the old-line nationalists, more intent on advancing their personal interests than on meeting the challenge from the LPF. The two largest parties, the Progressive Party and the Independent Party, could not agree on a list of common candidates in spite of repeated prodding by the United States embassy and so split their votes among dozens of candidates. The LPF and the Peace (Santiphab) Party carefully worked out a strategy of mutual support, which succeeded in winning nearly two-thirds of the seats with barely one-third of the votes cast. Souphanouvong garnered the most votes and became chairman of the National Assembly. The Progressive Party and the Independent Party tardily merged to become the Rally of the Lao People (Lao Rouam Lao).
In the wake of the election fiasco, Washington concentrated on finding alternatives to Souvanna Phouma's strategy of winning over the Pathet Lao and on building up the Royal Lao Army as the only cohesive nationalist force capable of dealing with the communists' united front tactics. On June 10, 1958, a new political grouping called the Committee for the Defense of the National Interests (CDNI) made its appearance. Formed mainly of a younger generation not tied to the big families and as yet untainted by corruption, it announced a program for revitalizing the economy, forming an anticommunist front that excluded the Pathet Lao, suppressing corruption, and creating a national mystique.
Washington, which was paying the entire salary cost of the Royal Lao Army, was enthusiastic about the "young turks" of the CDNI. This enthusiasm was not altogether shared by United States ambassador Horace H. Smith, who asked what right a group untested by any election had to set its sights on cabinet appointments. Whereas Souvanna Phouma tried and failed to form a government, creating a drawn-out cabinet crisis, Phoui Sananikone eventually succeeded and included four CDNI members and Phoumi Nosavan in a subcabinet post.
In foreign and domestic affairs, the atmosphere changed in the summer of 1958. Souvanna Phouma announced that with the holding of elections the RLG had fulfilled the political obligations it had assumed at Geneva, and the ICC adjourned sine die. Phoui, less scrupulous about preserving Laos's neutrality than his predecessor, angered Beijing and Hanoi by admitting diplomats from Taipei and Saigon. China and North Vietnam, already upset by the departure of the ICC, which they had seen as a restraining influence, protested. The United States worked out an agreement with France that reduced the role of the French military mission and enlarged that of the PEO, which embarked on a major strengthening of its staff and functions.
The occupation by North Vietnamese security forces in December 1958 of several villages in Xépôn District near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Vietnam and South Vietnam was an ominous development. The RLG immediately protested the flying of the North Vietnamese flag on Laotian territory. Hanoi claimed the villages had historically been part of Vietnam. With regard to precedent, this was a decidedly modest claim; nonetheless, it represented a unilateral reinterpretation of the French map used by the Truong Gia Armistice Commission in the summer of 1954 to draw the DMZ, and, backed by force of arms, constituted nothing less than aggression. Phoui received extraordinary powers from the National Assembly to deal with the crisis. But the failure to regain their lost territory rankled the Laotian nationalists, who were hoping for a greater degree of United States support.
One of Washington's major preoccupations was the danger that the Royal Lao Army would integrate the Pathet Lao troops without the safeguard of "screening and reindoctrinating" them. The embassy was instructed to tell the government that it would be difficult to obtain congressional approval of aid to Laos with communists in the Royal Lao Army. Before the final integration of 1,500 Pathet Lao troops (two battalions) into the Royal Lao Army could take place as planned in May 1959, the Pathet Lao used a quibble about officer ranks to delay the final ceremony. As monsoon rains swept over the Plain of Jars one night, one of the two battalions slipped away, followed soon after by the other, near Louangphrabang. The event signaled a resumption of hostilities. In July Phoui's government, after protracted cabinet deliberations, ordered the arrest of the LPF deputies in Vientiane--Souphanouvong, Nouhak, Phoumi Vongvichit, Phoun Sipaseut, Sithon Kommadan, Singkapo, and others. Tiao Souk Vongsak evaded arrest.
Fighting broke out all along the border with North Vietnam. North Vietnamese regular army units participated in attacks on July 28-31, 1959. These operations established a pattern of North Vietnamese forces leading the attack on a strong point, then falling back and letting the Pathet Lao remain in place once resistance to the advance had been broken. The tactic had the advantage of concealing from view the North Vietnamese presence. Rumors of North Vietnamese in the vicinity often had a terrifying effect, however. Among the men who heard such rumors in the mountains of Houaphan Province that summer was a young Royal Lao Army captain named Kong Le. Kong Le had two companies of the Second Paratroop Battalion out on patrol almost on the North Vietnamese border. When they returned to Xam Nua without encountering the enemy, they found that the garrison had decamped, leaving the town undefended.
Direct North Vietnamese involvement in Laos began taking another form wherein aggression was difficult to prove. Two months after the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina, the North Vietnamese established a small support group known as Group 100, on the Thanh Hoa-Houaphan border at Ban Namèo. This unit provided logistical and other support to Pathet Lao forces. In view of the reversion to a fighting strategy, the North Vietnamese and Lao parties decided to establish an upgraded unit. The new unit, known as Group 959, headquartered at Na Kai, just inside the Houaphan border, began operating in September 1959. Its establishment coincided with a major effort to expand the hitherto small Pathet Lao forces. According to an official history published after the war, its mission was "serving as specialists for the Military Commission and Supreme Command of the Lao People's Liberation Army, and organizing the supplying of Vietnamese matériel to the Laotian revolution and directly commanding the Vietnamese volunteer units operating in Xam Nua, Xiangkhoang, and Viangchan." These actions were in violation of the obligation Ho Chi Minh's government had assumed as a participant in the 1954 Geneva Conference to refrain from any interference in the internal affairs of Laos.
The Vietnamese party's strategy was by now decided with regard to South Vietnam. At the same time, the party outlined a role for the LPP that was supportive of North Vietnam, in addition to the LPP's role as leader of the revolution in Laos. Hanoi's southern strategy opened the first tracks through the extremely rugged terrain of Xépôn district in mid-1959 of what was to become the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Phetsarath and Sisavang Vong, viceroy and king, died within two weeks of each other in October 1959. Sisavang Vong reigned over Laos for fifty-four turbulent years as a man of honor, and, after his death, his memory was so venerated that when the communists came to power in Vientiane they left his statue standing. His successor, Savang Vatthana, lacked both his father's hold on his people and Phetsarath's charisma. A deeply fatalistic man who foresaw he would be the last king of Laos, Savang Vatthana remained uncrowned for the rest of his reign because a propitious date for the coronation ceremony could not be found.
With the LPF's deputies in prison, the political scene became increasingly chaotic, even lawless. When Phoui's mandate ended in December 1959, Phoumi Nosavan and his CDNI supporters began their move to force the king to grant them power by announcing that the supreme command of the armed forces was "handling current affairs." Their move, however, was too bold and caused the Western ambassadors in Vientiane to present a united front to the king in support of constitutionality. An interim government headed by Kou Abhay was charged with preparing for new elections. Phoumi, temporarily rebuffed, bided his time as minister of defense. The army had entered politics but not quite in the manner Washington had hoped.
In the April 24, 1960, elections, Phoumi found his revenge. By exerting considerable pressure, he had changes made in the electoral law. With financial support from Marshal Sarit Thanarat of Thailand, Phoumi bought off strong or inconvenient candidates and enlisted civil servants as his campaign workers. Election balloting was fraudulent, and the results, giving rightist candidates large majorities, were totally unbelievable. A new government was formed on June 3, ostensibly headed by Somsanith but in fact controlled by Phoumi acting as minister of defense under the aegis of his new political party, the Social Party (Paxa Sangkhom). Souvanna Phouma, elected without fraud, became the president of the National Assembly. The imprisoned LPF deputies had not been allowed to run for the Assembly, but sent word to LPF supporters to vote for any LPF candidates who had dared run or else to vote for Peace Party candidates. However, on May 23, under darkness and with the cooperation of personnel at their prison, the LPF deputies escaped and disappeared into the countryside.
On August 9, Captain Kong Le led the Second Paratroop Battalion in a virtually bloodless coup d'état that changed the history of modern Laos. In taking over Vientiane, the paratroopers had unwittingly chosen a moment when the entire cabinet was in Louangphrabang conferring with the king. They informed their compatriots and the outside world by broadcasting their communiqués on the radio. In a rally at the city football stadium on August 11, Kong Le expanded on his goals: end the fighting in Laos, stem corruption, and establish a policy of peace and neutrality. Recalling the experience of the first coalition when the country was temporarily at peace, Kong Le asked for the nomination of Souvanna Phouma as prime minister.
On August 11, General Ouan Ratikoun, as the cabinet's envoy, arrived in Vientiane from Louangphrabang. After negotiations with Kong Le and Souvanna Phouma as president of the National Assembly, Ouan returned to Louangphrabang with a document in which the coup leaders requested the cabinet to return. They agreed to withdraw their forces to specified points in the city and stipulated that these steps would lead to negotiations on the government's future. Two days later, however, when Ouan returned alone, it became evident that the cabinet was reluctant to return to Vientiane. Once this news spread, demonstrators gathered outside the Presidency of the Council of Ministers demanding Somsanith's immediate resignation; they next marched on the National Assembly, where Souvanna Phouma met them and, startled by their vehemence, attempted to moderate their demands. Inside, the forty-one deputies present voted unanimously to censure the Somsanith government. On August 14, a delegation of the assembly carried the news of this vote to Louangphrabang and asked the king to name Souvanna Phouma to form a new government. Fearing violence in Vientiane, Somsanith resigned, and the king named Souvanna Phouma prime minister. The new government was invested by thirty-four deputies on August 16. The next day, Kong Le declared his coup d'état over and vacated the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.
On receiving word of the coup, Phoumi flew from Louangphrabang to Ubol, where he informed Thai and United States officials of his intention to "straighten things out" in Laos and from where he sent emissaries to Savannakhét and Pakxé. In Bangkok the following day, Phoumi met with Sarit, United States embassy counselor Leonard Unger, and the chief of the United States military mission in Thailand. He outlined plans for a parachute drop to recapture the Vientiane airport and ferry in additional forces by air to oust the rebels. He requested that Thailand and the United States provide air transport, fuel, salaries for his troops, and two radiobroadcasting units. He also asked for a secure channel of communication between his new headquarters at Savannakhét and Bangkok.
These steps, taken in secrecy, received immediate approval in Washington. Orders went out to designate a senior PEO officer as liaison to Phoumi, and a PEO channel was established between Savannakhét and the United States military mission in Bangkok, bypassing the embassy in Vientiane. Aircraft of Civil Air Transport, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) front, were made available to Phoumi, and Laotian troops training at bases in Thailand were to be returned as soon as possible to Savannakhét.
Sarit, Pibul's minister of defense who had come to power in a coup in October 1958, had invested heavily in Phoumi and was not about to let him go. The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, for their part, saw aid to Phoumi as preserving at least part of the anticommunist forces in Laos from the effects of the split in the royal army. But from this point on, much as United States officials tried to separate the two issues, aid to the anticommunists in Laos was inseparable from Sarit's personal commitment to Phoumi. The United States embassy in Bangkok was also alarmed by the possibility that inadequate support for Phoumi might lead Sarit to intervene unilaterally in Laos because he had already imposed a blockade on Vientiane.
Phoumi enlisted the support of the commanders of four of Laos's five military regions. He also began immediately broadcasting propaganda denouncing Kong Le as a communist and on August 15 proclaimed the establishment of a Counter Coup d'État Committee. He appealed to all military personnel to rally behind him, guaranteed their salaries, and proclaimed his intention to liberate Vientiane from communist hands. Forces loyal to Phoumi seized Pakxan.
The United States considered Souvanna Phouma's return to office bad news. A Department of State cable stated that the United States sought "to bring about an acceptable power balance of non-communist elements which would eliminate Kong Le and restore authority and stability."
Souvanna Phouma, wanting to avoid civil war, with Phoumi's concurrence convoked the National Assembly in Louangphrabang on August 29. A new government with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister and Phoumi as deputy prime minister and minister of interior was sworn in on August 31. Phoumi announced the dissolution of his Counter Coup d'État Committee. This might have defused the crisis, but the same day, Kong Le made a radiobroadcast protesting the presence of Phoumi in the cabinet. Souvanna Phouma convinced him to change his mind, which he did "for the sake of peace and reconciliation" on September 1. Phoumi returned to Savannakhét and waited.
On September 10, Prince Boun Oum, speaking from Savannakhét in the name of the new Revolutionary Committee, announced that the constitution had been abolished, and he and Phoumi were assuming power. In mid-September, two companies of Kong Le's paratroopers routed the two battalions of Phoumi's advance guard from their position at Pakxan and installed a defensive line on the north bank of the Nam Kading. Phoumi made no move to organize his paratroop drop on Vientiane, in spite of the considerable means at his disposal. On the evening of September 21, Sarit made a speech in which he hinted at Thai armed intervention in Laos.
Kong Le's reputation as a giant slayer had by now spread from the capital to the far corners of the kingdom. On September 28, when he dropped a handful of paratroopers near Xam Nua in order to explain the situation to the 1,500-person garrison that in principle was loyal to Souvanna Phouma, rumors that the garrison's officers, some of whom had been in contact with Phoumi, might be cashiered created a panic. The garrison abandoned the town to the Pathet Lao, who were accompanied by their North Vietnamese advisers from Group 959. The withdrawing column surrendered its arms to the Pathet Lao near Muang Peun on October 2.
The Pathet Lao now claimed to be supporting Souvanna Phouma. The coup and Phoumi's resistance with foreign assistance, which the United States and Thailand had difficulty camouflaging, gave the still-secret LPP an unprecedented opportunity to burrow more deeply behind the nationalist mantle, and it lost no time in seizing the occasion. Many Laotians came to see the Pathet Lao as acting to defend the country against United States- and Thai-backed aggression. Even in Vientiane, there was growing resentment of the Thai blockade, which caused a shortage of consumer goods and rising prices. Foreseeing an opening for the Pathet Lao to negotiate with the new government, Radio Hanoi and Radio Beijing broadcast support for Souvanna Phouma.
Although Souvanna Phouma's government was accepted as the legal government of Laos by Britain, France, and the United States, this did not prevent the United States from broadening its support to Phoumi's forces on the grounds that they were fighting the Pathet Lao. In fact, there is no record of their taking any offensive action against the Pathet Lao. Phoumi had ordered the pullback from Xam Nua. Winthrop G. Brown, the new United States ambassador, reported instances where Phoumi refused help to engage the Pathet Lao because it was offered by Vientiane. The only offensive actions taken by Royal Lao Army troops against the Pathet Lao between August and December 1960 were those taken by troops loyal to Souvanna Phouma in Phôngsali and elsewhere.
The "compromise" worked out by the embassy with Souvanna Phouma, in which the prime minister would not object to direct United States military aid to Phoumi as long as this aid was not used against his government, was a sham. Whenever the embassy tried to persuade Phoumi to give up his plan and return to Vientiane, Phoumi pleaded fear for his safety and escalated his demands. In Louangphrabang, King Savang Vatthana temporized, hoping to bring the military leaders together at least in a united stand against the communists and putting off a political solution until later. Failing to achieve his aim, he retreated, saying he was disgusted with all concerned. Brown felt he was waiting for Phoumi's capture of Vientiane to get him off the hook and avoid the necessity of his taking any categoric action.
Brown cabled Washington on October 5 that in the continued absence of an agreement between Phoumi and Souvanna Phouma, United States support of Phoumi would lead to "further disintegration" of the anticommunist forces and would involve the United States in actions that risked internationalizing the conflict in Laos.
At a meeting on October 11 with a visiting United States delegation made up of Parsons, Assistant Secretary of Defense John N. Irwin II, and Vice Admiral Herbert D. Riley, chief of staff to the Commander in Chief Pacific, Souvanna Phouma gave an indictment of the provocative errors committed by his successors after formation of the first coalition. He warned that the only course for Laos was to implement the 1957 agreements before the Pathet Lao--with whom he was in touch and intended to resume negotiations- -presented even more far-reaching demands. The first Soviet ambassador to Laos, Aleksandr N. Abramov, arrived as Parsons was leaving.
After conferring with the king, the Parsons-Irwin-Riley team proceeded to Bangkok. On October 17, Irwin and Riley met with Phoumi in Ubol. Although the Department of State at that point was under the impression that United States policy required that Phoumi dissolve the Revolutionary Committee, both as a gesture of good faith toward Souvanna Phouma in preserving the unity of anticommunist forces in Laos and, more practically, in order to avoid the growing impression abroad that the United States was illegally aiding a rebel movement, no mention of this point was made either in Parsons' instructions to his two colleagues or at the October 17 meeting.
Following the formal conversation, Riley took Phoumi aside and told him that the United States had completely lost confidence in Souvanna Phouma and was backing Phoumi to go back and clean up the situation. Irwin similarly told Phoumi that the United States was only supporting him in building up his defenses for the moment; in the long run, the United States was supporting him all the way. The message was not lost on Phoumi. The effect of these unauthorized remarks was to undercut both Souvanna Phouma's efforts to negotiate a compromise solution with Phoumi and Brown's bona fides with Souvanna Phouma, already strained by the continuing United States aid flowing into Savannakhét in the absence of any matching military action against the Pathet Lao. Phoumi's intransigence in turn led the Department of State to make ever-increasing demands on Souvanna Phouma in the interest of "compromise," beginning with the charge that the prime minister was not exercising sufficient control over Kong Le, the demand that he take appropriate precautions to prevent Kong Le from launching an attack on Savannakhét, and so forth.
Souvanna Phouma began negotiations with the Pathet Lao on October 18. However, his position was much weaker than in 1957 when he faced the same set of Pathet Lao demands. Although nothing substantive would come from these negotiations, they provided fuel for Phoumi's anticommunist propaganda and heightened nervousness in Washington and Bangkok.
Next, Phoumi forced the commander of the Louangphrabang garrison to declare for the Revolutionary Committee. This was an important move, for it placed the king within Phoumi's territory. In Bangkok, Sarit's first reaction on hearing the news was to ask the United States ambassador, U. Alexis Johnson, whether now would be a good time for the Revolutionary Committee to "establish itself as a government." General Ouan Ratikoun quickly defected to Savannakhét. Phoumi captured another general, Amkha Soukhavong, at Xiangkhoang and gained the support of General Sing Ratanassamay. Phoumi's troops had been paid without Brown's having been consulted. Ambassador Johnson, without consulting Brown, assured Sarit that the United States would pay Phoumi's troops, an action that Brown protested.
When Phoumi finally launched his offensive on the Nam Kading on November 21, Souvanna Phouma vainly attempted to contact him. With badly needed supplies to Vientiane, especially fuel, still cut off by the Thai blockade, Souvanna Phouma's forced acceptance of a Soviet offer of aid lent Phoumi's imminent attack "to drive out the communists" a semblance of legitimacy. On December 11, Phoumi led the forty National Assembly deputies who had gathered in Savannahkét over the preceding weeks to vote no confidence in Souvanna Phouma's government. The king accepted the vote as legal the next day when he signed Royal Ordinance No. 282, dismissing Souvanna Phouma's government and giving powers provisionally to the Revolutionary Committee. Royal Ordinance No. 283, approving a provisional government formed by Prince Boun Oum, who acted as front man for Phoumi--the king had scruples about naming a general to be prime minister--was signed on December 14. The Department of State notified its acceptance of the new regime and said it was acting to meet its requests for assistance "to restore peace to the country." At this time, neither the deputies nor the court were free agents--and Souvanna Phouma had not resigned.
The capital braced for Phoumi's attack. A last-minute and temporary switch of sides by Colonel Kouprasith Abhay, commander of the Vientiane military region headquartered at Camp Chinaimo on the eastern outskirts, was quickly neutralized by Kong Le, but tension heightened. The Pathet Lao delegation hurriedly left town. More of Souvanna Phouma's ministers disappeared and reappeared. The situation was becoming ungovernable. Souvanna Phouma viewed battle as inevitable, and, accompanied by his ministers Boun Om (Boun Oum's nephew), Tiao Sisoumang Sisaleumsak, and Inpeng Suriyadhay, flew to Phnom Penh on December 9, having delegated his powers to the military. The following morning Quinim Pholsena, the minister of information whom Souvanna Phouma had left behind, flew to Hanoi accompanied by Phoumi Vongvichit, the chief Pathet Lao negotiator, and Lieutenant Deuane Sunnalath, Kong Le's deputy, on a mission to seek Soviet and North Vietnamese military aid, which began arriving the following day on Soviet aircraft.
Phoumi began his attack on December 13. From his command post near the airport, Kong Le had positioned his men at key points on the outskirts, intending merely to fight a delaying action to allow the safe evacuation to the north of his men and their equipment. The regional command post of the Pathet Lao, situated at Na Khang, sixty kilometers north of the capital, disposed of three guerrilla groups but did not take part in the battle of Vientiane. A massive display of firepower by Phoumi's troops resulted in the deaths of 400 to 500 civilians in the town, mostly Vietnamese residents, and the wounding of another 1,000 to 1,500 civilians. Kong Le's troops only lost seventeen killed. Phoumi's armor rolled into town on December 16.
Kong Le retreated slowly northward toward Louangphrabang, while Soviet aircraft parachuted badly needed supplies--rice, salt, sugar, blankets, light arms, ammunition, and radios. With new recruits, his ranks had swelled from 800 to 1,200 men. On December 23, at Phôn Hông, about sixty kilometers north of the capital, Kong Le was visited by Kaysone, who had come to settle the details of distribution of Soviet aid and coordination of Neutralist and Pathet Lao troops in future operations. On January 1, Kong Le's troops took control of the Plain of Jars and Khang Khay after skirmishing with some of the 9,000 Phoumist troops and an equal number of Hmong guerrillas in the vicinity and recovered large quantities of supplies. The following day, the Neutralists occupied Xiangkhoang, and United States advisers and Phoumist troops were evacuated from the Muang Phônsavan airfield.
Quinim and Tiao Sisaleumsak established themselves at Khang Khay and urged Souvanna Phouma, who was in Cambodia, to join them. Souvanna Phouma said that he was still legally prime minister but would resign at once if Phoumi's government were validated in accordance with the constitution. Souvanna Phouma argued that the National Assembly's vote of no confidence on December 11 was not valid because it had taken place in neither the royal capital nor the administrative capital. He regarded the king's dealings with the Revolutionary Committee as beyond the king's authority. When the National Assembly met in Vientiane and voted confidence in the Boun Oum government on January 4, Souvanna Phouma ignored the action.
The Soviet airlift, which continued despite United States protests to Moscow, transformed the Plain of Jars into a vast armed camp, fully resupplying Kong Le. For the first time, the Pathet Lao were equipped with heavy weapons allowing them to play a major role in their military alliance with Kong Le's troops in support of Souvanna Phouma's government. There was, moreover, another and more important factor: the commitment of significant numbers of North Vietnamese troops to the fighting, exactly what Souvanna Phouma and Brown had feared. Kong Le requested four battalions of North Vietnamese troops on January 7. Two of these linked up with his forces on Route 7 and down Route 13. The third was engaged in military action at Tha Thom, a key defense point south of the Plain of Jars. The fourth took up position north of the plain.
In Xiangkhoang, the Hmong once again blew up the bridges on Route 7 in a desperate effort to interfere with North Vietnamese truck convoys rolling westward. The Royal Lao Army had been quietly supplying arms to the Hmong since at least March 1957 to enable them to resist the Pathet Lao, but the North Vietnamese influx created a sudden need for arms far in excess of what the Laotians could supply, even with the help of Thailand. The Hmong, under their military leader Vang Pao, had taken up positions in the mountains surrounding the Plain of Jars and asked to talk to United States officials. Vang Pao requested quick delivery of arms, but United States officials were concerned that the Hmong would not fight, and the arms might fall into communist hands. Vang Pao said all 7,000 volunteers would fight, but they needed the arms in three days or they would have to fall back to less exposed positions. United States airdrops of arms from stocks in Okinawa began three days later, signaling the beginning of a heroic Hmong resistance.
Souvanna Phouma reaffirmed his position that his was the legal government of Laos. In an interview, he spoke bitterly about his nemesis, Parsons, and said that "the Savannakhét group" was committed to the policy of military confrontation that had failed in the past. He believed Laos should conserve its ancient traditions and monarchy and urged a political settlement along the lines negotiated in 1957.
Phoumi's failure to advance on the Plain of Jars made a deep impression on the new administration of United States president John F. Kennedy. If Phoumi had his difficulties with Kong Le's outnumbered battalion, he was no match for the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao counteroffensive that opened in January drove Phoumi's poorly motivated troops and their United States military advisers back--a retreat that irrevocably changed the balance of forces in Laos.
The United States embassy in Vientiane had accurate intelligence of the numbers and movements of North Vietnamese military units in Laos, as opposed to the alarming reports emanating from Phoumi's headquarters. Central Laos and the entire length of the road from the Sala Phou Khoun junction south to Vangviang was in North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao hands by mid-March.
Contact between emissaries of the two sides was finally made by officers under a truce flag at the village of Ban Hin Heup on the Vientiane-Louangphrabang road. Tripartite truce talks opened in the nearby village of Ban Namone, with the ICC, reconvened by the cochairmen of the Geneva Conference, Britain, and the Soviet Union, present. The three negotiators were Nouhak, Pheng Phongsavan, and General Sing Ratanassamay. A cease-fire declared on May 3 did not prevent the Pathet Lao from capturing Xépôn, an important crossroads on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or put an end to the fighting in the Hmong country. As part of the plan to find a settlement, an enlarged Geneva Conference convened on May 16.
There were thus two rival royal governments in Laos from the beginning of 1961, the Boun Oum-Phoumi Nosavan government at Vientiane and the Souvanna Phouma government at Khang Khay. The Pathet Lao, protected by the presence of thousands of North Vietnamese troops, constituted a third faction in what became a rightist-Neutralist-leftist division.
The idea of neutralism had been expressed by Kong Le in his earliest speeches in Vientiane, which described the goals of his coup d'état as stopping the fighting among the Laotians and enacting a policy of friendship with all foreign countries, especially Laos's neighbors. At Khang Khay, Soviet diplomats mingled with officials of missions from Beijing and Hanoi, with which relations had been established on May 5. Kong Le's troops readily adopted the unofficial name Neutralist Armed Forces. Souvanna Phouma seized the opportunity of having a sizeable number of adherents on hand at Khang Khay, including many Lao students returned from abroad, to form the Neutralist Party, (Lao Pen Kang-- known as the Neutralists). He was confident the party would outpoll the Pathet Lao's LPF in a free election.
Although publicly deferring to Souvanna Phouma on matters of government policy, the Pathet Lao secretly extended their influence at the grassroots level, using their proven methods of propaganda and organization. In villages under their control, the Pathet Lao installed their own personnel alongside the existing administration--for example, a khana muang (liberated district) alongside a chao muang (district chief), a khana seng (liberated subdistrict) alongside a pho tasseng (subdistrict chief), and a khana ban (liberated village) alongside a pho ban or nai ban (village chief). Access to the Pathet Lao-administered areas was forbidden to outsiders, even after the formation of the coalition government.
A hierarchy of politico-military participation and responsibility tied the villagers to a chain of command. All resources in villages under Pathet Lao control were mobilized into both a horizontal and a vertical structure that included organizations of women, youth, and monks. Villagers were easily susceptible to Pathet Lao control, making a Pathet Lao village a world unto itself. Children acted as couriers and lookouts; young people joined the village self-defense units, the lowest level of guerrilla organization; adults acted as porters for the regular guerrilla units; and women made clothing, prepared food, and looked after the sick and wounded.
At the reconvened Geneva Conference, the Neutralists were represented by Quinim, the rightists by Phoui Sananikone, and the Pathet Lao by Phoumi Vongvichit. The separate delegations served until they agreed on forming a unified government to sign the final agreement. All Laos's neighbors were represented, as were the three ICC member countries and their cochairmen, and the United States and France.
The summit meeting between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna on June 3-4, 1961, coincided with the crisis over the North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao cease-fire violations at the besieged Hmong outpost of Padong. The Hmong abandoned Padong in early June and established a new base at Long Chieng. Kennedy protested North Vietnam's involvement to Khrushchev and pointed out that the United States was supporting Laos's neutrality. Both leaders agreed that the conflict in Laos should not bring their two countries into confrontation. The idea of neutralizing Laos had been suggested to Kennedy as early as January.
For the next year, an enormous effort of persuasion involving all the great powers went into getting the Laotian parties to agree to form a coalition government. The effort included meetings among princes Souvanna Phouma, Boun Oum, and Souphanouvong in Zurich and Vientiane and protracted diplomatic consultations in Vientiane, Xiangkhoang, Rangoon, Moscow, Paris, and Geneva.
Phoumi finally had to be disabused of the notion that he could count on unqualified United States and Thai support. Sarit favored supporting the negotiation policy. Phoumi favored peace but felt that Souvanna Phouma was the wrong choice to lead a new government. W. Averell Harriman, the intermediary, and a United States delegation held a tense and acrimonious meeting with Phoumi and his cabinet at the general's office in Vientiane. Phoumi repeated his opposition to Souvanna Phouma, and Harriman warned him he was leading his country to disaster. The meeting ended inconclusively. Phoumi further demonstrated his intransigence by building up his forces at Nam Tha, a town in northwestern Laos without strategic importance, thereby inviting attack. When the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao attacked, camouflaging their violation of the cease-fire with the usual propaganda about mutinies in the opposing ranks, the defenders fled toward the Mekong, leaving most of their weapons behind. Phoumi may have hoped the debacle would precipitate Thai or United States armed intervention, but it did not. In the end, he agreed to the coalition.
Souvanna Phouma's new government took office on June 23, 1962, the second coalition in Laos's modern history. In accordance with the principle of tripartism, seven cabinet seats were allocated to the Neutralists, four seats each to the rightists and Pathet Lao, and four to nonparty people. The rapprochement between Souvanna Phouma and Kennedy was manifested by the former's visit to Washington in July at the conclusion of the Geneva Conference. Unlike in 1954, representatives of each of the fourteen participating nations signed the final document, the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos and its Protocol.
The strains imposed on the Neutralists by their alliance of convenience with the Pathet Lao were now manifested. In addition, the presence of the North Vietnamese army that this alliance implied did nothing to support neutralism. As if to confirm their doubts, the Neutralists were subjected to communist propaganda. Deuane Sunnalath, Kong Le's subordinate, allowed himself to be subverted by this political influence and started publishing his own newspaper, Khao Pathan Van (Daily News), full of antiUnited States propaganda. Most of Kong Le's followers remained fiercely loyal, however, and the dissidents, who called themselves Patriotic Neutralists, remained a minority.
On April 1, 1963, less than a year after the Geneva agreement, foreign minister Quinim was assassinated in Vientiane. Protesting the lack of security, Pathet Lao members of the coalition immediately left town. Following a series of incidents in which one of Kong Le's closest aides was assassinated and a United States plane on a supply flight to Kong Le authorized by Souvanna Phouma was shot down by Deuane's troops, fighting broke out in the Neutralist camp. Kong Le pulled his men back from Khang Khay and set up a new command post at Muang Souy on the western edge of the Plain of Jars. Kong Le was running short of supplies, however, because the Soviet airlift had ended, and the North Vietnamese were in a position to block supplies by road.
An estimated 10,000 North Vietnamese were still present in Laos, despite the stipulation their government had signed at Geneva that withdrawal of all foreign troops be completed by October 7. In preparation for a massive escalation of the conflict in South Vietnam, North Vietnam had expanded the Ho Chi Minh Trail through eastern Laos and garrisoned it with support troops. North Vietnamese troops also were present in northern Laos, where they were engaged almost continuously in pressuring the Hmong guerrillas. All United States military advisers had been withdrawn by the deadline, but clandestine operations continued, and supply and reconnaissance flights still were conducted over such heavily contested areas as the Plain of Jars. Antiaircraft fire took its toll on such flights, and as a result, the planes began attacking targets on the ground in Laos beginning in 1964.
United States support of Souvanna Phouma's government in the face of continuing North Vietnamese aggression did not constitute, technically speaking, a violation of the terms of the 1962 Geneva Protocol, as Radio Hanoi and Radio Pathet Lao charged. It did not involve Laos in a military alliance, and there were no United States military bases or ground troops in Laos. Supply flights to RLG outposts were flown by civilian companies under charter to Souvanna Phouma's government. United States military pilots in civilian clothes, their names deleted from Department of Defense rosters, flew forward air control missions over Laos. United States pilots killed or captured in Laos often were officially described as lost "in Southeast Asia." CIA advisers assisted the guerrilla units of General Vang Pao's Hmong army, which, along with irregular forces in the south, was supplied with rice, arms, and pay by CIA operatives based at Udon Thani in Thailand. The total number of CIA personnel involved in this effort never exceeded 225 and included some fifty case officers.
On the periphery of the plenary sessions at Geneva, Harriman and his deputy, William H. Sullivan, had arrived at an informal understanding with Soviet deputy foreign minister Georgi M. Pushkin to the effect that as long as the United States did not technically violate the Geneva Protocol the Soviet Union would not feel compelled, out of consideration of its ally in Hanoi, to respond to United States activities in Laos. The official curtain of secrecy associated with this arrangement gave rise later to statements in Congress that the United States was engaged in a "secret war" in Laos, a perspective that obscured the Ho Chi Minh government of responsibility for its support of the communist-dominated resistance movement in Laos since 1945.
Souvanna Phouma was having problems of his own because of the peculiar nature of the Cold War in Laos. In April 1964, he visited Hanoi and Beijing. Premier Zhou Enlai reiterated China's support for the 1954 and 1962 Geneva agreements and advised Souvanna Phouma to dissociate the Laos question from the Vietnam question, a difficult task. Hanoi seemed to have succeeded in its strategy of making "one battlefield" out of Indochina--Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam--and the Ho Chi Minh Trail now extended through Laos and Cambodia.
After a new tripartite meeting on the embattled Plain of Jars, Souvanna Phouma returned to Vientiane without any result and announced his intention to resign. Two rightist generals took advantage of the situation, staged a coup attempt, and arrested Souvanna Phouma. Only concerted action by Western ambassadors in the capital secured his release. Souvanna Phouma pledged to merge the rightist and Neutralist factions.
There was further infighting among the generals. In February 1965, General Phoumi, whose business dealings had earned him many enemies on the noncommunist side, left for Thailand.
With the formal merger of their faction with the rightists, Neutralist leaders increasingly felt their lives to be in danger. Kong Le eventually took refuge in the Indonesian embassy in Vientiane, leaving Laos soon after for the safety of Paris. He was replaced as commander of Neutralist troops by General Sengsouvanh Souvannarath.
From 1965 to 1973, the civil war seesawed back and forth in northern Laos, characterized by short but often very intense engagements. Because of the large areas contested, even North Vietnamese regular divisions in Laos, such as the 316th, were used in small-unit engagements during the dry season to deny control of territory and population to the other side. Population control was particularly important, because that was where recruitment for military training and transport occurred. The Hmong, in particular, suffered. Aside from the casualties, entire villages periodically had to escape the fighting, disrupting crop growing and livestock tending.
An exception to the rule of small-scale engagements was the major North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao offensive against Vang Pao that began in mid-December 1971 and lasted until the end of April 1972. This battle involved more than twenty North Vietnamese battalions and some 10,000 Hmong irregulars and Royal Lao Army defenders. After blasting the last defensive positions on the Plain of Jars with newly introduced 130-mm guns with a thirty-kilometer range, the North Vietnamese advanced on Longtiang. They captured a number of positions on a ridge dominating the airfield before being driven off with heavy loss of life on both sides. The Hmong halted an attack of T-34 tanks against the airfield by skillfully placing land mines.
Since 1963 Souvanna Phouma had kept vacant the cabinet seats allotted to the LPF, as he had done in the case of Phoumi's seat as interior minister in his August 30, 1960, government. When the National Assembly rejected his budget in debate in September 1966, he obtained a vote in the King's Council to dissolve the assembly and hold elections for a new assembly the following year. Elections were held again on January 2, 1972; forty-one of the fifty-nine deputies elected were new. The LPF boycotted the elections. The prime minister kept up contact with Souphanouvong in his cave headquarters in Houaphan, occasionally using the ICC and Soviet and North Vietnamese ambassadors as messengers.
Powerless to stop the war and acquiescing in the diplomatic fiction that the 1962 Geneva Agreement was still in effect, Souvanna Phouma endured the revilement of Radio Pathet Lao, which called him traitor, a capitulationist, and a tool of United States aggressors. The war drained Laos's manpower resources and pushed Souvanna Phouma into agreeing to introduce Thai artillery units on the royalist side and also helped to identify him with the rightist faction. As a result of the war, a peak number of 378,800 internally displaced persons were being cared for by the RLG in October 1973. Souvanna Phouma never gave up hope of resuming negotiations when conditions became more favorable.
Negotiations in Paris in the autumn of 1972 between the United States and North Vietnam created a favorable environment for reaching a cease-fire agreement in Laos. Negotiations opened in Vientiane on October 17, 1972, and went on inconclusively between Pheng Phongsavan, representing Souvanna Phouma, and Phoumi Vongvichit, representing the Pathet Lao. Souvanna Phouma was hopeful that the United States would keep up the pressure. But the situation had changed drastically during the previous decade. There were now only two sides in the negotiations, and the Pathet Lao insisted that their opponents be referred to as "the Viangchan government side." Moreover, the United States was on its way out of Indochina--whether by its Vietnamization policy or by negotiations with Hanoi. Nonetheless, there was no guarantee that Hanoi would respect the provisions of negotiated agreements on Laos, and the ability of the United States to enforce compliance was not as great as Souvanna Phouma imagined. The pressure grew to conclude the negotiations rapidly.
The two sides signed the peace agreement in Vientiane on February 21, 1973. A new coalition government was to be formed. Vientiane and Louangphrabang were to be neutralized by the arrival of Pathet Lao security contingents. A cease-fire was to take effect from noon on the following day. Unlike in 1962, however, there were no solemn guarantees by fourteen signatories of Laos's neutrality. The agreement was strictly between Laotians, with the ICC more powerless than ever to verify its execution.
By the time of the cease-fire, United States aircraft had dropped almost 2.1 million tons of bombs on Laos, approximately the total tonnage dropped by United States air forces during all of World War II in both European and Pacific theaters. Most bombs were dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which had grown into a major transportation route for the North Vietnamese. The cessation of United States bombing allowed the North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao supply convoys to move with impunity, enabling them to initiate armed actions that they camouflaged with accusations of cease-fire violations by RLG forces. The United States, in protest against some of the most flagrant cease-fire violations, sent its planes back into action on limited missions. This enabled the Pathet Lao to claim that the United States had violated the Vientiane Agreement.
An uneasy lull settled on the Hmong country north of Vientiane. Air power had allowed the Hmong to maintain a tenuous balance of force with their adversaries. However, the air strip at Longtiang was empty, and the Royal Lao Air Force T-28s, on which General Vang Pao had often relied, had been pulled back to Vientiane on orders from Souvanna Phouma. The United States air armada that had operated from bases in Thailand was withdrawn. With the loss of air cover, no area in Hmong territory was safe from artillery bombardment. Although their CIA advisers remained temporarily at Longtiang, the Hmong were beginning to feel deserted. With the war winding down in Vietnam and the military government in Thailand overthrown in a student revolt in October 1973, United States interest in Laos waned.
The unconditional return of prisoners of war (POWs) from all the countries of Indochina was, in the words of Henry A. Kissinger, the chief United States negotiator at Paris, "one of the premises on which the United States based its signature of the Vietnam agreement." Kissinger said he had received "categorical assurances" from the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris that United States POWs captured in Laos would be released in the same time frame as those from North Vietnam and South Vietnam, that is, by March 28, 1973.
Under the provisions of Chapter II, Article 5 of the Vientiane Agreement, the two sides were obligated to repatriate all persons held captive regardless of nationality within sixty days of the formation of the coalition government. When the cease-fire came, it was generally assumed that the Pathet Lao held a large number of United States citizens they or the North Vietnamese had captured in Laos, and the Department of Defense listed some 555 United States personnel as unaccounted for--either as POWs, missing in action (MIA) or killed in action/body not recovered. The Pathet Lao had released a number of United States prisoners after the formation of the 1962 coalition. There was considerable uncertainty surrounding the POW/MIA question, however, because the Pathet Lao had neither provided lists of those who had fallen into their hands nor adhered to international conventions on treatment of POWs, in keeping with their contention that the United States was guilty of an aggressive, undeclared war against Laos. Conditions of detention in jungle prison camps were harsh in the extreme, as attested to by the few who managed to escape. Prisoners had no medicine, and they had to supplement their ration of rice, both meager and dirty, with beetles and rats.
Soth Petrasy, permanent representative of the Pathet Lao delegation in Vientiane, told Phone Chantaraj, editor of the Vientiane newspaper Xat Lao (The Lao Nation), five days prior to the signing of the Vientiane Agreement that the Pathet Lao leadership had a detailed accounting of United States prisoners and the locations where they were being held and that they would be released after the cease-fire. He added: "If they were captured in Laos, they will be returned in Laos." On the day the Vientiane Agreement was signed, the United States chargé d'affaires obtained confirmation from Soth of his previous statements and requested further details. Although Soth proposed to send a message to Xam Nua asking for the number and names of United States citizens held captive, this information was not forthcoming.
The United States embassy began pressing for the release by March 28 of prisoners captured in Laos. The question was whether the Pathet Lao would consider themselves bound by the agreement with its implication that they followed the orders of the North Vietnamese. Resolution of the matter was further complicated by the fact that procedures for prisoner exchanges stipulated in the Vientiane Agreement had still to be negotiated by the two sides in Laos.
On March 26, Soth informed the United States that the Pathet Lao would release eight prisoners in Hanoi on March 28. These prisoners, whose names had previously been given to United States officials by the North Vietnamese in Paris, had been held in North Vietnam for some time. On March 27, the Pathet Lao delivered a note verbale to the United States embassy that stated this fulfilled their POW release obligations and demanded that the United States pressure the Vientiane government to negotiate "seriously" for implementing the political provisions of the agreement. The Pathet Lao rejected subsequent United States requests to dissociate the question of United States POWs from other matters covered by the Vientiane Agreement. The North Vietnamese, for their part, did not respond to Kissinger's requests for clarification of the discrepancy between the number of POWs and MIAs carried by the Department of Defense and the small number of POWs released.
The protocol giving effect to the Vientiane Agreement was signed on September 14, 1973. Paragraph 18 made the two-party Joint Central Commission to Implement the Agreement responsible for implementing provisions for exchanges of prisoners and information. The names of personnel who had died in captivity were to be exchanged within fifteen to thirty days, and all prisoners were to be released within sixty days after formation of the coalition government. However, the only United States citizen released by the Pathet Lao in Laos in accordance with these provisions was a civilian pilot captured after the cease-fire. For the next twenty years, representatives of the new regime would sit at a table and calmly inform visiting United States officials and families of POW/MIAs that they knew nothing about the fate of United States POWs and MIAs in Laos.
The Provisional Government of National Union (PGNU), Laos's third experiment with coalition government, was finally constituted on April 5, 1974, following one last desperate coup attempt by rightist officers in exile against Souvanna Phouma. Cabinet posts were assigned, with a vice premier and five ministers from each side plus two chosen by mutual consent. Under each minister was a vice minister from the other side. The makeup of the National Political Consultative Council, an unelected pseudo-National Assembly, was similarly balanced.
Paragraph 14 of the September 14, 1973, protocol provided for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Laos within sixty days of the PGNU's formation, the same deadline as for prisoner exchanges. Once again the United States met the deadline. Although it terminated the mission of Group 959 after the cease-fire, North Vietnam did not withdraw its estimated 38,500 regular troops from Laos. Among other provisions that occupied the Joint Central Commission to Implement the Agreement was the demarcation of the cease-fire line and the neutralization of the two capitals.
Because of the Pathet Lao ministers' opposition, the PGNU barred the traditional opening of the National Assembly on May 11, Constitution Day. The king voiced his displeasure over the PGNU's decision to circumvent the constitution and not convene the National Assembly, elected in 1972. The dissolution of the National Assembly and the holding of new elections, matters that had not been specifically included in the Vientiane Agreement or its protocol, embroiled the PGNU in endless argument. The king did not attend the session of the National Political Consultative Council in Louangphrabang, which, under the chairmanship of Souphanouvong, adopted a far-ranging eighteen-point political program. One of the points in the National Political Consultative Council's program was a demand that the United States pay reparations for war damages.
On March 27, 1975, North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao forces launched a strong attack against Vang Pao's Hmong defenders. The attackers rapidly captured the Sala Phou Khoun road junction and then drove south along Route 13 as far as Muang Kasi. Souvanna Phouma, wishing to avoid bloodshed, ordered Vang Pao only to defend himself and refused to allow air strikes in his support. The Pathet Lao singled out the Hmong as enemies to be shown no quarter. Pathet Lao radiobroadcasts spoke of "wiping out" these special forces who had stood in their way for fifteen years.
Realizing that the Hmong were being abandoned and the penalty they faced if left to the mercy of the Pathet Lao, Vang Pao requested evacuation for his soldiers and their families to safe haven in Thailand. The CIA station at Udon Thani offered to evacuate families of key officers. Vang Pao requested an airlift for 5,000. Facing an ultimatum, Vang Pao and twelve Hmong leaders signed a treaty on May 10 reminding the United States of the pledges made to them and agreeing to leave Laos and never return. In the next days a motley collection of planes piloted by United States volunteers, Hmong, and Lao flew out a few hundred Hmong. Vang Pao himself left on May 14, eluding the T-28s at Vientiane.
Meanwhile, a campaign of intimidation against rightist members of the PGNU and military officers gathered momentum in Vientiane. Operating under the umbrella of a coalition of twenty-one "organizations standing for peace and national concord," a standard communist tactic, the demonstrators used inflation and other popular grievances to mobilize support for the eighteen-point program of the National Political Consultative Council. Souvanna Phouma tried at first to ban the demonstrations but later gave in and sided with their aims. The May Day holiday provided the pretext for the largest demonstration to date, followed a week later by a demonstration against the rightist army and police. Demonstrators occupied the compound of the United States aid mission, forcing termination of the aid program. Four rightist ministers, including the defense minister, Sisouk na Champasak, fled. Another minister, Boun Om, was assassinated in the capital.
Elsewhere, takeovers of government offices and orchestrated demonstrations led to the entry of Pathet Lao troops into Pakxé, Savannakhét, Thakhek, and other towns during May "to secure their defense." People's revolutionary committees surfaced to seize administrative power from the remnants of the RLG. Officials and military officers who chose not to flee were summoned to "seminars." On August 23, the Pathet Lao completed its seizure of local power with the takeover of the Vientiane city administration by a revolutionary committee. The Pathet Lao announced that military units had requested Pathet Lao "advisers," thereby facilitating the integration of the army.
Throughout this time, the elite communist leaders who were making the decisions remained out of sight. Kaysone Phomvihan, in a speech in Vieng Xay on October 12, declared that "the revolution will speed up." Simultaneously, the National Political Consultative Council established new screening procedures for candidates for election that effectively eliminated all those who had not supported the LPF. Suddenly, in the last week of November, the NPCC convened in Xam Nua. Also in November, elections were held in the "new zone," the former RLG zone. Eligible voters were required to vote for a list of candidates whose names were distributed the evening before. Candidates were local party administrators, whose identities had been kept secret up to then. On November 28, demonstrators demanded the dissolution of the PGNU and the National Political Consultative Council as inappropriate to the situation. The next day, Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong flew to Louangphrabang and persuaded the king to abdicate.
The National Congress of People's Representatives, recreating the mise-en-scène of 1945, met in the auditorium of the former United States community school on December 1. Sisana Sisan delivered the opening speech on behalf of the preliminary committee for convening the National Congress of People's Representatives. So far only the LPF and other front organizations and delegations from the various provinces were listed as attending among the 264 delegates. The preliminary committee thereupon dissolved itself.
Prince Souphanouvong, named to the presidium of the National Congress, said in his speech that the congress would "study" the king's abdication, the dissolution of the PGNU and the National Political Consultative Council, and the political report on abolishing the monarchy and establishing a people's democratic republic. This last item was read by Kaysone, who was also on the congress presidium. For most of the world, it was the first look at the man who, for thirty years, had led the revolution in Laos from behind the scenes in Vietnam and in the caves of Houaphan. Kaysone presided at the December 2 session. He began by reading a motion to establish the Lao People's Democratic Republic, which was passed by acclamation. Kaysone then nominated Souphanouvong to be president of the country. Again, the vote was unanimous. Next, Nouhak took the podium to say it was necessary to elect a Supreme People's Assembly. He proposed Souphanouvong as president of the Supreme People's Assembly and then read a list of forty-four names. This vote was also unanimous.
Officially, the party--which had been renamed the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) at its Second Party Congress in 1972--played no role in the National Congress. But it began making its public appearance immediately thereafter in indirect ways; for example, banners carrying revolutionary slogans and messages of congratulations from North Vietnamese, Soviet, and Chinese leaders began to appear. With power firmly in its grasp, the LPRP no longer had any reason to hide its identity. For the first time, the party publicly identified the seven members of its Political Bureau (Politburo). From this point, the party alone made decisions in the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Gone were the "democratic freedoms" that had been extolled in the National Political Consultative Council's eighteen points. The Neutralist Party and other noncommunist parties disappeared, leaving a oneparty regime. Those who objected could leave. Some 350,000 availed themselves of this opportunity over the next few years, leaving behind their homes and belongings, and, in many cases, even their loved ones.
"Seminar camps," also called reeducation centers, were the centerpiece of the new regime's policy toward the enemies it had defeated. The LPRP's Marxist-Leninist dogma allowed no respite in the class struggle, and those identified as its former enemies were the presumed saboteurs and subversives of the socialist phase of the revolution that was just getting under way. After its victory, the regime made people judged unfit to participate in the new society in their present frame of mind construct a series of camps, known only by their numbers. They included Camp 01 at Sop Hao; Camp 03 near Na Kai, newly given the Pali name Viangxai, meaning "Victorious Town"; Camp 05 near Muang Xamteu; and Camps 04 and 06 near Muang Et, all in Houaphan. A camp was also built at Muang Khoua on the Nam Ou, and others were built in the center and south. There are no official figures on the numbers of people sent for reeducation, because the camp network was kept a secret from the outside world. The only information was brought out by former inmates and their families. Various published estimates have put the number of inmates at 30,000, at 37,600, and at 50,000.
Even before the communist takeover, the first groups of highlevel officials, including provincial governors and district chiefs, had been transported to the camps, arriving in full dress uniform. They had received letters signed by Souvanna Phouma ordering them to attend an important meeting in Vientiane. After an overnight stay in Vientiane, the group was flown to the Plain of Jars, where a festive atmosphere prevailed. The officials, about seventy in all, were feted with food and a movie, and North Vietnamese advisers were present. They were then flown to Houaphan, separated into small groups, and organized into work parties.
In August and September 1977, a group of twenty-six "reactionary" high-ranking officials and military officers in Camp 05 were accused of plotting a coup and arrested. These persons were taken away to Camp 01. They included Pheng Phongsavan, the minister who had signed the Vientiane Agreement; Touby Lyfoung, the Hmong leader; Soukhan Vilaysan, another of Souvanna Phouma's ministers who had been with him in the Lao Issara and had risen to become secretary general of the Neutralists; and Generals Bounphone Maekthepharak and Ouan Ratikoun. All died in Camp 01. Thus, those who played roles in the modern history of Laos were relegated by the regime to the status of nonpersons and their fate placed in the hands of their prison guards. Others, like Tiao Sisoumang Sisaleumsak, a minister in Souvanna Phouma's 1960 government, General Sengsouvanh Souvannarath, commander of the Neutralist forces, Khamchan Pradith, an intellectual and diplomat, and even Sing Chanthakoummane, a lieutenant in the Second Paratroop Battalion in 1960, were held in seminar camps for fifteen years or more before being released. Souvanna Phouma was allowed to live quietly in Vientiane until his death in January 1984.
The new regime feared that ex-King Savang Vatthana, who until March 1977 had lived quietly in the royal palace as a private citizen with the meaningless title of adviser to President Souphanouvong, would become a symbol of popular resistance. As a result, he was suddenly spirited away by helicopter to Houaphan along with Queen Khamboui and Crown Prince Say Vongsavang. Imprisoned in Camp 01, the crown prince died on May 2, 1978, and the king eleven days later of starvation. The queen died on December 12, 1981. According to an eyewitness, all were buried in unmarked graves outside the camp's perimeter. No official announcement was made. More than a decade later, during a visit to France in December 1989, Kaysone confirmed reports of the king's death in an innocuous aside that attributed it to old age.
The party did not dare abolish the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), of which the king had been the supreme patron. It did, however, attempt to reshape the sangha into an instrument of control. In March 1979, the Venerable Thammayano, the eighty-seven-year-old Sangha-raja of Laos, the country's highest-ranking abbott, fled by floating across the Mekong on a raft of inflated car tubes. His secretary, who engineered the escape, reported that the Sangha-raja had been confined to his monastery in Louangphrabang and was forbidden to preach. Ordinary monks were not forbidden to preach, but their sermons were commonly tape recorded and monitored for signs of dissidence. As a result of these pressures, the number of monks in Laos decreased sharply after 1975.
Perhaps more understandable than its brutality toward its own people was the party's hostility toward the formerly large United States aid program, which had been directed at supporting the RLG. Even so, the public humiliations inflicted on the departing aid mission personnel--forced to leave behind everything they could not carry aboard a plane--were excessive by any standard. Aid projects such as the Operation Brotherhood hospital at Longtiang were abandoned overnight. In spite of Souvanna Phouma's assurances to the United States ambassador that the government would provide continuity in medical services, foreign nurses and other technicians were not replaced.
No record exists of any discussion by the United States embassy--staffed at the chargé d'affaires level after the departure in April 1975 of Ambassador Charles S. Whitehouse--of United States "participation" in healing war wounds or of the reconstruction aid mentioned in Article 10c of the Vientiane Agreement. Even had the United States been predisposed to discuss these matters, the conditions of the takeover by the LPRP would have precluded it. Ambassadorial relations resumed in 1992.
Another issue was opium production, which, in Laos as in the rest of the Golden Triangle of Laos-Burma-Thailand, had grown as the demand for the opium derivative heroin grew. Opium production and trade became a source of tension in relations between the two governments. Laos resented official United States pressure as an attempt to shift the blame for the problem.
In spite of the regime's revolutionary rhetoric about selfreliance on the march to socialism, Western aid was simply replaced over the 1970s and 1980s by aid from "fraternal countries" of the Soviet bloc. Living standards declined further. Nongovernmental organizations, including some from the United States, in cooperation with local officials, established a few small-scale aid projects that reached out to real needs in the areas of health, education, and economic development.
Kaysone and his colleagues, following the well-known examples of Soviet and East European party leaders, led carefully protected lives behind the walls of their guarded compounds in the capital, secluded from public scrutiny and shielded from any manifestation of hostility, their movements kept secret. The minister of interior, Somseun Khamphithoun, whose ministry was responsible for the operation of the seminar camps, was never seen publicly in Vientiane. Corruption, widespread in the years of the United States civilian and military aid programs, resumed with the new opportunities presented by the "economic opening" beginning in 1986.
The first Supreme People's Assembly, appointed by the National Congress on December 2, 1975, rapidly faded into obscurity, although its twice-yearly meetings were reported in the controlled press. In 1988, perhaps because the regime wished to give itself some semblance of popular underpinning, it suddenly announced that elections would be held for a new Supreme People's Assembly. Elections were held on June 26, 1988, for 2,410 seats on districtlevel people's councils and on November 20, 1988, for 651 seats on province-level people's councils. On March 26, 1989, elections were held for seventy-nine seats on the Supreme People's Assembly. Candidates in all elections were screened by the party. Sixty-five of the seventy-nine members of the assembly were party members.
In the area of foreign relations, Laos joined the ranks of the "socialist camp" on December 2, 1975. Gone was any pretense of neutrality. In the new state of affairs where "peace" had at long last been achieved and no one paid attention to the presence of "fraternal" foreign troops on Laotian soil, the delegations of the ICC in Laos returned to their respective countries, leaving behind piles of unpaid bills.
In accordance with the organic links between the Vietnamese and Laotian parties that have been acclaimed by the highest party leaders, Laos has been tied more closely to Vietnam than to any other country. The term special relations (in Lao, khan phoua phan yang phiset) to describe the linkage between the two parties and governments had come into use as early as November 1973 when Le Duan, first secretary of the Vietnamese party, visited Viangxai. Thereafter, special relations was the term increasingly emphasized in joint statements. In July 1977, Laos and Vietnam signed the twenty-five-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. They also agreed to redefine their common border, which was demarcated in 1986. In early 1989, the Vietnamese troops that had been stationed in Laos continuously since 1961 were reported to have been withdrawn.
Despite some incidents along their common border, Thailand took an accommodating stand toward the country. Opening the border to trade and eliminating the "sanctuary" problem were affirmed as goals in a 1979 joint communiqué between Kaysone and the Thai prime minister, Kriangsak Chomanand, which was subsequently cited by Laotians as the touchstone of their relations with Thailand. Following a series of shooting incidents in 1984 involving rival claims to three border villages, a major dispute arose in December 1987 over territory claimed by Laos as part of Botèn District in Xaignabouri and by Thailand as part of Chat Trakan District in Phitsanulok Province. The fighting that ensued claimed more than 1,000 lives before a cease-fire was declared on February 19, 1988. The origin of the dispute was the ambiguity of the topographic nomenclature used in the 1907 FrancoSiamese border treaty over the area of the Nam Heung, up which Fa Ngum's army had traveled in the fourteenth century. After 1975 the sanctuary problem also defied solution for a decade, with the Hmong and communist rebels occupying some of the old Lao Issara resistance bases in Thailand. However, a series of working-level meetings between the two sides were arranged that served to defuse the conflict, and relations improved markedly in the late 1980s.
Although official relations between Laos and China were strained by the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, the two countries maintained diplomatic relations, and local trade continued across their common border. The ending of the brief war saw a rapid and steady improvement in mutual ties and exchanges of visits at all levels. Kaysone visited Beijing, and a border demarcation commission completed its work to mutual satisfaction.
Laos seemed at last to have achieved stable relations with its neighbors. Centuries-old conflicts that had repeatedly seen foreign invaders trampling Laotian soil with their elephants or tanks, Laotians conscripted by this or that pretender to the throne, pagodas built and then destroyed, and the countryside laid waste, had receded. Peace brought the prospect of a better life, if not yet participation in a multiparty democracy. It was as if after so much suffering Laotians had turned inward, seeking the fulfillment that had always come from their families, their villages, their sangha, and their pride in the moments of glory in their country's long history.