Following Japan's expulsion from Laos, the provisional French government, entered Luang Prabang with a French-Lao force and freed French prisoners and Vientiane was later reoccupied. At the same time, Viet Minh forces fighting for Vietnam's independence from France enlisted a number of Lao to resist French rule. Prince Phetsarath, who aligned with the Viet Minh later declared the French protectorate over Laos abolished and supported nationalist independence movements, particularly the Lao Issara. In order to avoid direct war with Laotian forces as in Vietnam, France agreed to proclaim Laos a self-governing state within the French Union in 1949. [Source: Wikipedia +]
In 1950 Laos was granted semi-autonomy as an "associated state" within the French Union. France remained in de facto control until 22 October 1953, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy. Following France's defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Laos was granted independence at the Geneva Conference in September of the same year. +
The political scene in Laos could generally be divided into three camps: the communists, including Prince Souphanouvong, Kaysone Phomvihane, the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese masters; the pro-Western forces including Prince Boun Oum, Phoui Sananikone, General Phoumi Nosavan and the Hmong guerrillas and militia led by General Vang Pao (VP); and the neutralists, which included Prince Souvanna Phouma, Kong Le, and theoretically the Royal Lao Government (RLG). At various times after peace talks three coalition governments were formed but these rarely lasted very long before fighting broke out between rival generals' forces or there was a coup. Fighting between factions within the royalist forces (FAR) diverted the troops from defending the country from attack by the neutralist (FAN), Pathet Lao (PL) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces. Officers on the losing side of a coup would often be imprisoned.
Road to Independence in Laos
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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. *
At an international conference held in Geneva in 1954—after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu—the borders of Southeast Asia were drawn. Laos and Cambodia emerged as full independent nations and Vietnam was divided with a "military demarcation line" at the 17th parallel.
As France had already granted full independence to Cambodia and Laos (in October 1953), it was as representatives of a free and independent country that the Lao delegation attended the conference in Geneva. After months of discussion it was agreed to divide Vietnam into north and south, each with a separate administration, but with the instruction to hold free and fair elections in both zones before the end of 1956. Cambodia was left undivided, but in Laos two northeastern provinces (Hua Phan and Phongsali) were set aside as regroupment areas for Pathet Lao forces. There the Pathet Lao consolidated their political and military organisation, while negotiating with the Royal Lao Government (RLG) to reintegrate the two provinces into a unified Lao state. [Source: Lonely Planet]
Early Communist Activity and Emergence of the Pathet Lao
At the time Laos became independent in 1953, it had been heavily infiltrated by the Chinese Viet Minh from Vietnam. The two northernmost provinces were controlled by Communists. Military aid came across the border from North Vietnam and China. After the defeat of the French by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu, the French were anxious to get out of Indochina completely and the Communist Vietnamese and Chinese found it even easier to exert control in Laos.
With support from the Viet Minh, Lao Communists gained support through the 1950s and 1960s. The Huan Phan Province, a region of Laos that is surrounded on three sides by Vietnam, is where the Viet-Mihn-supported Free Lao Front fought French colonial forces; where the secret Laos Communist party was formed in 1955; and the Pathet Lao established the headquarters for its liberation movement. With hundreds of limestones caves to hide in and a border to escape across, this was the ideal place to set up an insurgent operation.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of Laotians, including Khamtay Siphandone, the first leader of Communist Laos, went to Vietnam to seek the help of the Communists there. The Viet Minh agreed to help and in 1950 they helped establish the Free Lao Front (FLF; Neo Lao Issara), which went through numerous changes and eventually morphed into the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao is the traditional Lao name for Laos. It means “the country of the Lao.”
The architect of the Lao Issara–Viet Minh alliance was Prince Souphanouvong. He returned to Laos from Vietnam in time to take part in both the Lao Issara government (as foreign minister, though he would have preferred defence) and in the anti-French resistance. It was Souphanouvong who organised guerrilla resistance from bases in Thailand. He broke with his Issara-in-exile comrades when his close ties with the Viet Minh began to be questioned. [Source: Lonely Planet =]
In August 1950 Souphanouvong became the public face of the Resistance Government and president of the Free Laos Front (Naeo Lao Issara), successor to the disbanded Lao Issara. Real power lay, however, with two other men, both of whom were members (as Souphanouvong then was not) of the Indochinese Communist Party. They were Kaysone Phomvihane, in charge of defence, and Nouhak Phoumsavan with the portfolio of economy and finance. =
By that time the whole complexion of the First Indochina War had changed with the 1949 victory of communism in China. As Chinese weapons flowed to the Viet Minh, the war widened and the French were forced onto the defensive. In 1953 a Viet Minh force invaded northern Laos heading for Luang Prabang. The French flew in reinforcements, and the Viet Minh withdrew, turning over the whole region to the Pathet Lao. In order to protect Laos from another such invasion, the French established a substantial base in the remote mountain valley of Dien Bien Phu, close to the Lao border. =
There was fought the deciding battle of the First Indochina War. The isolated French garrison was surrounded by Viet Minh forces, which pounded the base with artillery hidden in the hills. Supplied only from the air, the French held out for over two months before surrendering on 7 May. The following day a conference opened in Geneva that eventually brought the war to an end. =
Creation of the Pathet Lao
The decisions of the three princes to go their separate ways divided the Lao Issara. Those members who returned to Laos continued to work for complete Lao independence from France, but within the legal framework. Those who joined the Viet Minh did so in pursuit of an altogether different political goal – expulsion of the French and formation of a Marxist regime. Their movement became known as the Pathet Lao (Land of the Lao), after the title of the Resistance Government of Pathet Lao, set up with Viet Minh support in August 1950. [Source: Lonely Planet =]
Cooperation between the Lao Issara and the Viet Minh went back to 1945, when, acting on Viet Minh instructions, Vietnamese in Laos backed the Lao Issara government. Joint Lao Issara–Viet Minh forces resisted the French reoccupation. Like the Lao Issara leaders, most Viet Minh in Laos fled the country, leaving the Mekong towns to be repeopled by Lao looking for jobs in the new Lao bureaucracy. =
War broke out 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. *
Pathet Lao Gains Strength
The first thing Pathet Lao leaders did was to establish a Lao Marxist political party. Previously Lao communists had been members of the Indochinese Communist Party, but in 1951 the ICP was disbanded and separate parties established for each state. Parties were founded immediately in Vietnam and Cambodia, but there were so few Lao members that it took time to recruit enough to constitute a party. Eventually the Lao People’s Party was formed in 1955. (At its Second Congress in 1972 it was renamed the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, LPRP, which is today the ruling party of the Lao PDR.) [Source: Lonely Planet =]
In good Marxist fashion, the LPP in 1956 established a broad political front, called the Lao Patriotic Front (LPF), behind which the Party could operate in secrecy. Souphanouvong was president of the Front, while Kaysone was secretary-general of the Party. Together with other members of the ‘team’ they led the Lao revolution throughout its ‘30-year struggle’ (1945–1975) for power. Over this whole period no factionalism split the movement, which was one of its great strengths compared to the divisions among its opponents. =
The 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. *
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014