FIRST COALITION OF LAOS
Following Japan's expulsion from Laos at the end of World War II, the provisional French government, entered Luang Prabang with a French-Lao force and later reoccupied Vientiane. 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. 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.
After independence in 1953, 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 Viet Minh forces were to be withdrawn from Laos to North Vietnam within 120 days.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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. *
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. The history of the war in Laos is summarised in the Chronology. Initial Difficulties of the First Coalition of Laos
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." [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. *
First Coalition of Laos Efforts to Accommodate the Pathet Lao
The first priority for the Royal Lao Government was to reunify the country. This required a political solution to which the Pathet Lao would agree. The tragedy for Laos was that when, after two centuries, an independent Lao state was reborn, it was conceived in the nationalism of WW II, nourished during the agony of the First Indochina War, and born into the Cold War. From its inception, the Lao state was torn by ideological division, which the Lao tried mightily to overcome, but which was continuously exacerbated by outside interference. [Source: Lonely Planet =]
In its remote base areas, the Pathet Lao was entirely dependent for weapons and most other kinds of assistance on the North Vietnamese, whose own agenda was the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. Meanwhile the Royal Lao Government became increasingly dependent on the United States, which soon took over from France as its principal aid donor. Thus Laos became the cockpit for Cold War enmity. =
From the Lao perspective, neutrality was the only realistic path for the country. And the only way to restore national unity was to bring the Pathet Lao into some kind of coalition government. To this the US was strongly opposed, seeing it as the thin end of a wedge that would lead to a communist seizure of power. The Lao politician with the task of finding a way through both ideological differences and foreign interference was Souvanna Phouma. As prime minister of the RLG he negotiated a deal with his half-brother Souphanouvong which saw two Pathet Lao ministers and two deputy ministers included in a coalition government. The Pathet Lao provinces were returned to the royal administration. Elections were held, in which the LPF did surprisingly well. And the US was furious. =
Renewed Negotiations Under the First Coalition of Laos
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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. *
Civil War in Laos
After independence in 1953, Laos became a constitutional monarchy ruled by a French-educated elite with a strong resistance movement in the mountains. After the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the resistance movement gained confidence and the Communists began exerting more influence. In 1957, a coalition government was set up involving the Communists (the Lao Patriotic Front, or LPF, a stage of the developing Pathet Lao) and the royalists (Royal Lao Government, RLG), who were supported by the United States, who was worried about the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.
The coalition began unraveling in a dispute over the LPF and RLG contributions to the military. After an election in 1958 in which the Lao Patriotic Front (LPF or Pathet Lao) gained 13 of 21 seats in the national assembly. The U.S. contributed to the total break down of the coalition government and put its support behind a right wing faction made up of military officers and French-educated elite.
The break down of the coalition government exacerbated a low intensity war that already been going on. The result was a civil war, sometimes seen as part of the Second Indochina War that included the Vietnam War (the first was in Vietnam against the French) that lasted from 1956 to 1975. In Laos: On one side were royalists and the right wing government in Vientiane. On the side were the Communists, namely the Pathet Lao.
In 1959, heavy fighting broke out between the Communists and the royalist on the Plain of Jars. The Royal Laotian Army on their own was largely ineffective slowing advances by the Pathet Lao. Over time the Pathet Lao gained control of large portions of the mountainous countryside. By 1961, they controlled much of the country. An attempt to establish a cease fire and get all the foreign troops out of Laos in 1962 failed. Rival factions refused to cooperate. There were political assassinations and attempted coups. The Pathet Lao refused to participate in elections in 1965 and consolidated its power over northeastern Laos.
U.S. Support of the Right-Wing Laotian Government
In “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975", Martin Best wrote: “The United States had been supplying economic and military aid to Laos under an agreement signed in 1950. Following the Geneva Conference of 1954, Washington decided to expand this programme and in January 1955, it established the United States Operations Mission (USOM) in Vientiane to administer economic assistance. A PEO was later set up within USOM to handle military aid. CAT soon became involved in USOM's aid programme. In July 1955, USOM officials learned that a rice failure threatened famine in several provinces in Laos. Because a number of these areas were in remote, mountainous regions, airdrops were the only feasible means to deliver essential supplies of rice and salt. [Source: “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975" Martin Best]
Between 1955 and 1958, the US gave Laos US$120 million, or four times what France had provided over the previous eight years. Laos was almost entirely dependent, therefore, on American largesse to survive. When that aid was withheld, as it was in August 1958 in response to the inclusion of Pathet Lao ministers in the government, Laos was plunged into a financial and political crisis. As a result, the first coalition government collapsed. It had lasted eight months. [Source: Lonely Planet =]
With US support a right-wing government was installed in its place, without Pathet Lao representation, and Souvanna Phouma’s neutralism was abandoned. Attempts to integrate Pathet Lao units into the Royal Lao Army collapsed, and the civil war resumed. A threatened military coup brought military strongman General Phoumi Nosavan to the Defence Ministry as deputy prime minister, again with American backing. Meanwhile under Kaysone’s direction the Pathet Lao began building up their forces, recruiting especially from the tribal minorities in the mountainous areas where the Pathet Lao held power. =
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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. *
1958 Elections in Laos
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). [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. * North Vietnamese Invasion of Laos in 1958
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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
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. *
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