LAO PEOPLE'S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC AND LAOS UNDER THE PATHET LAO AFTER THE VIETNAM WAR

LAO PEOPLE'S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

As the United States was pulling out of Vietnam, the Chinese moved into Laos. The Chinese maintained as many as 16,000 road workers during the war. By 1971 they were supported by a defense force of 6000 to 7000 men, most of them concentrated along the “Chinese Road” in northern Laos.

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. *

In 1973, while the United States was still negotiating with North Vietnam in Paris, a cease-fire agreement was signed by the Pathet Lao and the non-Pathet Lao forces that gave the Pathet Lao control of 11 of Laos’s 13 provinces. In April, 1974, a new government was set with Royalist, neutrals and the Pathet Lao participation. In April 1975 first Phnom Penh and then Saigon fell to superior communist forces and the Pathet Lao took control of Laos soon after.

Vientiane Agreement in Laos

Pathet Lao and the non-Pathet Lao forces 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

Laos Prisoners of War

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *

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. *

Formation of the Third Coalition 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *] 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. *

Pathet Lao Take Over of Laos After the Vietnam War

In April 1975, Phnom Penh and Saigon fell to superior communist forces and the United States pulled out Vietnam, in process leaving Laos to its own devices. Around the same time the Pathet Lao, with Vietnamese help, scored a decisive victory at the strategic crossroads at Meuang Phu Khun, between Vientiane and Luang Prabang and applied political pressure on the right in Laos. In May 1975, military leaders and the political and economic elite began fleeing across the Mekong River to Thailand. The Pathet Lao then easily took the southern capital of Pakse, Campasak and Savannakhet. Escalating street demonstrations forced leading rightist politicians and generals to flee the country. USAID was also targeted and hundreds of Americans began leaving Laos. Throughout the country, town after town was peacefully ‘liberated’ by Pathet Lao forces. Vientiane was taken virtually without a shot in August 1975.

According to Lonely Planet: Souvanna Phouma, who could see the writing on the wall, cooperated with the Pathet Lao in order to prevent further bloodshed. Hundreds of senior military officers and civil servants voluntarily flew off to remote camps for ‘political re-education’, in the belief that they would be there only months at most. But Pathet Lao leaders had lied, just as they lied in promising to keep the monarchy. Hundreds of these inmates remained in re-education camps for several years. [Source: Lonely Planet = ]

With the rightist leadership either imprisoned or in Thailand, the Pathet Lao moved to consolidate power. At all levels of government, people’s committees took administrative control, at the direction of the LPRP. In November an extraordinary meeting of what was left of the Third Coalition Government bowed to the inevitable and demanded formation of a ‘popular democratic regime’. Under pressure, the king agreed to abdicate, and on 2 December a National Congress of People’s Representatives assembled by the Party proclaimed the end of the 650-year-old Lao monarchy and the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). =

With the war over, Laos was largely forgotten by the west. When the Americans left so too did American money and decadent nighttime indulges. See Mines. See MIAs

Pathet Lao’s Drive to Capture Vientiane in 1975

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. *

Pathet Lao Takes Power

In December 1975, the Pathet Lao formally seized power in a bloodless coup and abolished the monarchy, threw out the rightist coalition and gave Laos a new name: Lao's People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). The take over marked the end of the civil was but was such a mellow event the American embassy was only closed for one day.

Unlike the military victories of communists in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Lao communists took power by ‘quasi-legal’ means. Their path to power had always used such means, by entering into coalition governments and demanding strict adherence to agreements, while continually strengthening their revolutionary forces. This strategy was the brainchild of Kaysone Phomvihane, who in addition to leading the LPRP became prime minister in the new Marxist-Leninist government. Souphanouvong was named state president. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Kaysone Phomviahne

Kaysone Phomviahne (13 December 1920 – 21 November 1992) was Laos’s first Prime Minister and regarded in Laos founding father of the Lao Revolution. Born to a Lao mother and Vietnamese father in Savannakhet in 1920, he studied law in Hanoi, spoke six languages (Lao, Vietnamese, French, English, Shan and Thai) and helped found the Lao Issara movement in the 1940s with Viet Minh support.

Phomvihane was the leader of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party from 1955, though Souphanouvong served in a figurehead role. He served as the first Prime Minister of the Lao People's Democratic Republic from 1975 to 1991 and then as President from 1991 until his death a year later, in 1992.

Phomvihane was was born in Na Seng village, Khanthabouli district (now Kaysone Phomvihane District, Savannakhet Province), Laos. He attended law school at Hanoi University in Hanoi, Vietnam, with Nouhak Phoumsavan. He dropped out of law school to fight the French colonialists who were in Vietnam. Later, he joined Lao nation, which was also fighting the French colonialists. He became an active revolutionary while studying in the Indochinese capital of Hanoi during the 1940s. Lao People's Liberation Army (LPLA) was established by Kaysone Phomvihane on January 20, 1949. He was minister of defence of Resistance Government (of the Neo Lao Issara) the from 1950. In 1955 he was instrumental in setting up the LPRP at Sam Neua in northern Laos, and subsequently served as the Pathet Lao leader, with Souphanouvong as its figurehead. In the years which followed, he led communist forces against the Kingdom of Laos and U.S. forces. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Phomviahne was considered a pragmatic leader who made his share of mistakes but also began the reform process. displayed expert skills in handling relations with Vietnam. The demarcation process started in 1977 and just finished in 2007. According to western journalist the Lao/Viet borderline is "very close" to the 1945 border between Laos and Tonkin and Annam, respectively. According to Vatthana Pholsena, assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and author of the book "Post-war Laos", Kaysone Phomvihane was the top policy maker in LPDR, and a strongman. He created Sekong province to honour the southern minority for their support in the war effort. +

Phomviahne died and in November 1992. Since his death he has become the object of a low key personality cult. He has been honored with a gold-plated $8 million museum financed in part by Vietnam that opened in 2001 and 20 or so busts made by North Korean sculptors that have been placed in public memorial squares.

Creation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic

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. [Source: Library of Congress *]

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. *

Fate of the Lao Royal Family After the Pathet Lao Takes Power

In 1977, fearing the king might escape his virtual house arrest to lead resistance, the authorities arrested him and his family and sent them to Vieng Xai, the old Pathet Lao wartime HQ. There they were forced to labour in the fields. The king, queen and crown prince all eventually died, probably of malaria and malnutrition, though no official statement of their death was ever released. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Initially King Savang Vatthana was kept as a figural leader and “Supreme Advisor to the President.” In 1977 he was arrested along with the queen, the crown prince and five other family members, allegedly for participating in a small uprising. They were sent to a jungle camp in Huan Phan province for re-education and never heard from again. The king reportedly died of malaria in the late 1970s in a cave prison. The others presumably also died in similar circumstances from lack of food and disease. A dynasty that had endured for 600 years was snuffed out just like that.

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. [Source: Library of Congress]

The surviving members of the family were stripped of their money and possessions and had to learn to grow their own rice to survive. Prince Soulivong Savang, the grandson of King Savang Vatthana and the current heir to the throne, was allowed to remain with his mother, Princess Manilay Khamane Panya, in Luang Prabang. The government oversaw his education and made sure he received his share measure of Communist indoctrination.

When he was 18 Prince Soulivong Savang was able to slip out of the country by sailing a small boat across the Mekong River to Thailand, accompanied by his nanny and brother, Prince Sauryavong Savang. He made the move after realizing he had to do something after watching his friends disappear from school to be sent to re-education camps. The day he commandeered the boat he faked an allergic reaction and said he said needed urgent medical treatment in Vientiane . By the time his minders got wind of what happened he was in Thailand

Internally Displaced People in Laos

During the Second Indochina War (1954-75), particularly between 1960 and 1973, large numbers of Laotians were displaced from their villages, either to escape frequent bombings or as a result of forced relocations by one side or the other seeking to consolidate control over an area. In the eastern zone controlled by the Pathet Lao, many villages were abandoned, and the inhabitants either lived in caves, fled across the border to Vietnam (where, despite the massive United States aerial war, the bombing was less intense than in the areas to which they moved), or moved to refugee villages or camps in Royal Lao Government (RLG) areas. These villages were established along Route 13 from Savannakhét to Pakxan and continued north of Vientiane. In addition, many Hmong and Mien villages that had allied with the RLG were frequently forced to move as a result of the changing battle lines and were regularly supplied by the RLG and United States. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

At the end, an estimated 700,000 persons, or about 25 percent of the population, were in some way displaced from their original homes. Many of these refugees began to return to their villages, or at least to the same general area, after the cease-fire of 1973, emptying many of the refugee villages along Route 13. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR provided some assistance in transportation and initial rice supplies, and after 1975 the government also assisted to the extent possible with its meager resources. Hmong who sided with the RLG were forced to flee after 1975. *

Not all internal refugees returned to their home districts, however. Some chose to remain in more populated areas near the Mekong and the larger towns, continuing to farm land that they had cleared during the war. Even without the circumstances of war, Laotian villagers traditionally have moved in search of better prospects. Because of the overall low population density, if farmland near a village became scarce or its quality declined, part or all of a village might decide to relocate where there was more potential. This pattern occurs more frequently among upland semimigratory peoples where there is a regular pattern of movement linked to the use of swidden fields, but even the lowland Lao have a history of village fragmentation in search of new lands although their investment in household or village infrastructure has tended to stabilize the population. Since the mid-1980s, the government has encouraged or compelled a number of upland villages farming swidden rice to resettle in lowland environments--a pattern also used by the RLG to more easily control villagers. In some instances, assistance in relocation and initial land clearing has been provided, while in others people have been left to fend for themselves in their new locations. *

Refugees from Laos

The fall of the RLG and increased control by government cadres over daily activities in the villages also caused many villagers to flee the country, ending up in refugee camps in Thailand. The outmigration occurred in three phases. An initial flight of RLG officials and Westernized elite began in 1975. A second period of departures by many more ordinary villagers occurred between 1977 and 1981, responding as much to economic hardship caused by poor weather and government mismanagement of the agricultural sector than to political control measures. A later period of less rapid departure lasted through the late 1980s. In all, more than 360,000 Laotians--about 10 percent or more of the population--fled the country between 1975 and 1992. This group included nearly all Western-educated Laotians, and, as political scientist Martin Stuart-Fox has noted, the loss of the intelligentsia may have set the country back an entire generation. Some upland minorities who had supported the RLG and the United States military effort also fled immediately, while other groups continued a guerrilla insurgency, which was not brought under control until after about 1979. [Source: Library of Congress]

By the end of 1992, approximately 305,000 Laotian refugees had been permanently resettled in third countries, most commonly in the United States and France. Forty thousand Laotians--mostly Hmong-- remained in refugee camps in Thailand, and 12,000 refugees had been voluntarily repatriated to Laos under the supervision and with the assistance of the UNHCR. International agreements mandated the resettlement or repatriation of all remaining refugees in Thailand by the end of 1994. *

Pathet Lao as the Leaders of Laos

According to Lonely Planet: The new regime was organised in accordance with Soviet and North Vietnamese models. The government and bureaucracy were under the strict direction of the Party and its seven-member Politburo. Immediately the Party moved to restrict liberal freedoms of speech and assembly, and to nationalise the economy. People were forced to attend interminable ‘seminars’ to be indoctrinated into the Pathet Lao view of the world. As inflation soared, price controls were introduced. In response, those members of the Chinese and Vietnamese communities who still remained crossed the Mekong to Thailand. Thousands of Lao did the same. Eventually around 10 percent of the population, including virtually all the educated class, fled as refugees, setting Lao development back at least a generation. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

The government faced a daunting task. The economy of the rightist zone, particularly in the Mekong towns, had been entirely dependent on the injection of American aid. When this was terminated, the economy collapsed. The situation was aggravated by government policies and Thai closure of the border; and though Soviet, Eastern European and Vietnamese advisors poured in, levels of aid from the communist bloc were insufficient to replace American spending. A badly planned and executed attempt to cooperativise agriculture made things even worse. =

The Pathet Lao has had close ties with Vietnam but has maintained its own identity. Vietnam has exerted great political influence over Laos. Many of its leaders were trained or educated in Vietnam or by Vietnamese. For many years the president of Laos was Nouhak Phoumsvan (born April 9, 1914). For a while he was the world's oldest head of state.

In 1977 the Pathet Lao signed a treaty with Hanoi authorizing the Vietnamese to provide “advisors” which basically meant their taking over of the Lao army as well as the right to garrison 30,000 Vietnamese troops in Laos.

Laos Under the Pathet Lao

Early Communist rule was characterized by aggressive revolutionary changes, reorganization and consolidation. The Pathet Lao set up a Marxist-Leninist government modeled after the one in Vietnam. They established social benefits including 90-day maternity leave and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, or nationality. The practice of Buddhism and other religions and anything have to do with Thailand and Thai culture was banned or at least discouraged

Lao village life continued but was modified by government efforts to establish collective work groups and village-wide agricultural cooperatives and bring education and bureaucracy to rural areas. The efforts were largely futile in terms of improving the standard of living.

The early years of the revolution were quite harsh and many thousands of people fled the country. By one estimate 10 percent of the population (300,000 people) settled abroad after 1975. Many settled into refugee camps or blended in with the largely Lao population of northeast Thailand. In addition, the government launched a full scale offensive again the ethnic minorities that fought with the United States (See Hmong, Hill Tribes).

The regime did not persecute Buddhism to anything like the extent the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, but it did curtail Buddhist religious life. Younger monks were encouraged to leave the Sangha (monastic order), while those who remained had to work for a living. The people were told not to waste their wealth on Buddhist festivals. Many monks fled to Thailand. The annual rocket festival, held to encourage a copious monsoon, was cancelled. That year there was a drought. People shrugged: the naga were annoyed. Subsequently the festival was reinstated. [Source: Lonely Planet]

List of Presidents of Laos (1975–present, No, Name, (Birth–Death), (Title), Term start, Term end, Political Party; 1) Souphanouvong, (1909–1995), President, December 1975 to August 1991, Lao People's Revolutionary Party, — Phoumi Vongvichit, (1909–1994), Acting President, October 1986 to August 1991, Lao People's Revolutionary Party; 2) Kaysone Phomvihane, (1920–1992), President, August 1991 to November 1992, Lao People's Revolutionary Party; 3) Nouhak Phoumsavanh, (1910–2008), President, November 1992 to February 1998, Lao People's Revolutionary Party; 4) Khamtai Siphandon, (1924– ), President, February 1998 to June 2006, Lao People's Revolutionary Party; 5) Choummaly Sayasone, (1936– ), President, June 2006, Incumbent, Lao People's Revolutionary Party.

Repression and Reeducation Under the Pathet Lao

Shortly after the Pathet Lao came to power they shut down the bars, brothels and nightclubs in Vientiane. Marijuana and opium were banned. A midnight-to-6:00am curfew was put in effect. In Nam Ngum Lake in Vientiane there are three islands named Peace Island, Boy Island and Girl Island. When author Peter White asked they got those names a Laotian official answered, "After Liberation, prostitutes, robbers, hippies, young city delinquents infected with foreign ideas were rounded up in Vientiane and brought here for reeducation." The males were put on one island and the girls on another. When they were freed the fled to Thailand. Some of the inmates stayed on Nam Ngum Lake islands for 15 years of re-education. They were not released until 1990. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1987]

By one estimate 40,000 people nationwide were sent to re-education camps, 30,000 were imprisoned for “political crimes” and a total of 160,000 people were imprisoned. In many cases the higher ranking a person was in the pre-revolutionary government the longer the sentence they served. In the reeducation camps, detainees spent most of their time doing hard labor and enduring indoctrination session of Communist propaganda. The camps were closed by the late 1980s but repression endured and some political prisoners were kept imprisoned after that. As of the early 2000s, security men filled hotel lobbies and the press was still repressed.

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. *

Seminar Camps in Laos

"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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

Laos’s Postwar Relations with the United States

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. At that time Washington and Vientiane spoke a new era of cooperation and there was some discussion that some major political changes might occur as well. *

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. *

Laotian Politics and Soviet Influence on Laos

In spite of the regime's revolutionary rhetoric about self-reliance 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

Laos’s Relations with Its Neighbors After 1975

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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