During World War II, Laos and French Indochina were occupied by the Japanese through an agreement with the Nazi-supported Vichy regime in France. Laotians offered little resistance or support to the Japanese but in may way they enjoyed more autonomy than they did under the French.

The French military in Indochina were too ill-equipped to contemplate resisting Japan's movement to the south, which by 1940 had become the main focus of Japanese military strategists. On August 30, 1940, the French Vichy government signed the Matsuoka-Henry Pact granting Japan the right to station troops in Indochina and use bases there for movement of forces elsewhere in the region. The agreement, although recognizing Japan's preeminent role in Southeast Asia, preserved France's sovereignty over Indochina. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Towards the end of the war, the France forced the French-installed King Sisavang Vong to declare independence from France. Not trusting the king, the prime minister and viceroy, Prince Phetsarat formed the pro-independence Lao Issara (Free Lao) movement.

Thailand’s Moves on Laos in World War II

The outbreak of war in Europe weakened the French position in Indochina. A new aggressively nationalist government in Bangkok took advantage of this to try to regain territory ‘lost’ 50 years before. It renamed Siam Thailand, and opened hostilities. A Japanese-brokered peace agreement deprived Laos of its territories west of the Mekong, much to Lao anger. [Source: Lonely Planet]

French forces in Indochina were confronted by a threat from Thailand (Siam adopted this name in June 1939), where Pibul Songkram's government was arousing public opinion with inflammatory speeches in Bangkok and radio broadcasts to those he called his brethren across the Mekong. The broadcasts called for an uprising against the French, an endeavor in which Pibul promised help—and for which he had secretly sought Japanese backing. After a series of increasingly serious incidents in the last months of 1940, Thai ground troops attacked French forces in Cambodia in January 1941. The May 9, 1941, Peace Convention Between France and Thailand, under mediation from Japan, was highly favorable to Thailand, which regained the right-bank territories that it had given up in 1904. *

To counter pan-Tai propaganda from Bangkok, the French encouraged Lao nationalism. Under an agreement between Japan and the Vichy French administration in Indochina, French rule continued, though Japanese forces had freedom of movement.

Lao outrage was predictable. King Sisavang Vong of Louangphrabang (r. 1904-59) only had the promises made to his grandfather by Pavie as the basis for France's intentions to treat his kingdom as a protectorate. Worried in this regard, he had obtained in 1932 from Paul Raynaud, the French minister for colonies, written guarantees that France would continue to honor Pavie's promises. Therefore, the French were obliged to explain their giving away part of his kingdom or else offer the king suitable compensation. As a result, the French governor general, Admiral Jean Decoux, offered the king a treaty regularizing the protectorate and enlarging his domain. The Franco-Laotian Treaty of Protectorate between France and the Kingdom of Louangphrabang of August 29, 1941, attached the provinces of Vientiane, Xiangkhoang, and Louang Namtha to Louangphrabang, which already included Phôngsali and Houaphan. *

Japanese Take Control of Laos at the End of World War II

The Japanese were in place, therefore, when in early 1945 they began to suspect the French of shifting their allegiance to the allies. On March 9, 1945, the Japanese carried out a coup de force that overturned the 1940 political agreement and ended French administrative control throughout Indochina. Having the Indochinese rulers renounce their treaties of protectorate with France formed an integral part of Japanese plans, but no steps were taken to prepare the Laotians or others for "independence." The Japanese interned all French military and civilian personnel. Only in Laos did a few French soldiers manage to slip into the jungle to maintain some resistance, along with their Lao allies. [Source: Library of Congress, Lonely Planet]

Japanese troops moved into the towns and quickly imprisoned French officials and their families and confiscated their property. Prince Phetsarath, after ordering Laotian civil servants to continue their duties as usual, left Vientiane for Louangphrabang to be with the king. After being delayed on the roads from Xiangkhoang and Vientiane by the Franco-Laotian guerrillas (of whom the Hmong were particularly effective), two battalions of Japanese troops finally arrived in Louangphrabang on April 7. They found the French gone. A Japanese representative suggested that the king proclaim Laos's independence and send someone to discuss the terms of LaotianJapanese cooperation. Sisavang Vong replied that he would stay with his people and that his attitude toward the French would not change. Laos was too small to be independent, but if he was obliged to accept independence he would do so. At the same time, he reluctantly issued a proclamation on April 8 ending the French protectorate. The king secretly entrusted Prince Kindavong, a younger half-brother of Phetsarath, with the mission of representing him in the Allied councils abroad while he maintained clandestine contact with the Franco-Laotian guerrillas in Laos. He also sent Crown Prince Savang Vatthana to Japanese headquarters in Saigon, where he vigorously protested the Japanese actions. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Phetsarath no doubt saw some good coming from the turn of events. The Japanese had told him that they intended that the king's proclamation of independence apply to all of Laos. Interested in the unity of Laos, he gave the Japanese a proposal for unifying the Laotian civil service. Phetsarath also opened an account of the royal treasury with the Indochinese treasury in Hanoi, which gave the kingdom greater fiscal autonomy. Problems began to appear almost immediately, however. At the end of June, the coffers were empty in spite of an infusion of money brought back from Saigon by the crown prince. Japan, no longer able to provide for the salaries of the Laotian administration, allowed the civil service to languish. *

Beyond this was the Vietnamese problem. In 1943 the six chief towns of Laos counted 30,300 Vietnamese inhabitants out of their total population of 51,150. Vietnamese occupied key positions in the federal civil service, public works, posts and telegraph, treasury, customs, and police. The political dangers to Laos of the Vietnamese presence were demonstrated on April 8 when Vietnamese residents of Khang Khay tried to detach Tran Ninh (Xiangkhoang), an integral part of the territory of the Kingdom of Louangphrabang, from Laos and attach it to Vietnam. *

After their coup de force, the Japanese put prices on the heads of the Franco-Laotian guerrillas and anyone caught helping them. In spite of the danger, the guerrillas sought recruits in the countryside and stepped up their armed attacks against Japanese communications, virtually cutting off several towns. The guerrillas' message to Laotian civil servants: disregard the Japanese-inspired proclamation of independence and carry on your regular duties without helping the Japanese. Chao khoueng (provincial governors) who joined the guerrillas and chao muang (district chiefs) faced the hard decision of leaving behind their colleagues and sometimes their families. Whereas many of the leading Lao and tribal figures supported the Franco-Laotian guerrillas, some families had divided loyalties. *

The Japanese ruled Laos for just six months before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought WWII to an end. During this time they forced King Sisavang Vong to declare Lao independence, and a nationalist resistance movement took shape, known as the Lao Issara (Free Lao).

Nationalist Stirrings in Laos

Although French rule in Laos was punctuated by rebellions among tribal peoples that had to be suppressed by force, the Laotians by and large accepted the French presence. The need to counter the pan-Thai irredentism propagated by the Pibul regime in Bangkok nevertheless led the Decoux administration to foster Laotian nationalism through the Lao Renovation Movement (Lao Nhay). The goals of this movement were to "provide Laos with its own personality with respect to its neighbors and to inculcate the sense of patrie." The first Lao language publications in the style of the modern press, for example, Lao Nhay (New Laos), and Tin Lao (News of Laos) both launched in 1941, resulted from this movement. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

An activist group of teachers and students among the Lao nationalists, however, attempted to stage a coup d'état at the Collège Pavie in Vientiane in July 1940. When the coup failed, they fled across the river and founded a semisecret organization, Laos for the Lao (Lao Pen Lao). Founding members included the Pali teacher and historian Mahasila Viravong, Tham Sayasithena, Thongdy Sounthonvichit, and Oudone Sananikone and his half-brother Oun. *

Beginning in December 1944, with the upswing of Allied fortunes in Europe and the Pacific, General Charles de Gaulle's provisional government in Paris began airdropping French agents into Indochina with the aim of recruiting and training guerrilla forces to harass the Japanese and maintain a French presence. These agents readily found supporters in Laos, and soon Franco-Laotian guerrilla groups were operating from jungle camps scattered from Louang Namtha Province in the north to Champasak Province in the south. *

Events in Laos After the Japanese Surrender in 1945

When the Japanese surrendered on 15 August, the Lao Issara formed an interim government, under the direction of Prince Phetsarat, a cousin of the king. For the first time since the early 18th century, the country was unified. The king, however, promptly repudiated his declaration of independence, in the belief that Laos still needed French protection. So tension quickly developed between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The king dismissed Phetsarat as prime minister, so the provisional National Assembly of 45 prominent nationalists passed a motion deposing the king. [Source: Lonely Planet]

After Japan's surrender, Phetsarath acted on the premise that the king's proclamation of independence was still in force. On August 28, 1945, he sent a telegram to all provincial governors notifying them that the Japanese surrender did not affect independence and warning them to resist any foreign intervention in their administration. Phetsarath also refused to recognize the authority of the French résident supérieur when he was released from prison. Three days earlier, however, Colonel Hans Imfeld, commissioner of the French Republic, had entered Louangphrabang with a party of Franco-Laotian guerrillas and had received assurances from the king that the protectorate was still in force. Japanese troops having withdrawn to the south, a party of Franco-Laotian guerrillas under the command of Major Fabre entered Vientiane peacefully on September 3 to await developments. French civilians released from internment were evacuated. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Vietnamese residents in Vientiane and other towns had already begun spreading anti-French propaganda and making preparations to resist the French. In these actions, they were guided by agents of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), a Marxist-Leninist party founded in 1930 by Ho Chi Minh. The ICP adhered to a Leninist strategy of seizing power by revolutionary action — national liberation followed by the transition to socialism. The ICP had established cells in Laos in the early 1930s made up entirely of Vietnamese. *

The Vietnamese agitation came to a head with a large demonstration in Vientiane on August 23. Phetsarath favored taking advantage of the French difficulties. However, as head of government, his autonomy was restricted not only by the wishes of the king, but also by the 1941 arrangement with the French that had made the crown prince the chairman of the King's Council. The French design had, perhaps intentionally, created an ambiguity that made for conflict. On September 2, Phetsarath sent a message to the king requesting a royal proclamation of the unity of Laos. *

While he was dealing with these matters, Phetsarath received an unsolicited message on September 3 from Prince Souphanouvong, another of his half-brothers. Souphanouvong had spent the previous sixteen years working as an engineer in Vietnam. Souphanouvong flew from Vinh to Hanoi in an aircraft provided by the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to meet with Ho Chi Minh, who had just proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi in the name of the Viet Minh, an ICP front organization. (Although OSS personnel were not authorized to operate in Indochina, the OSS station in Kunming, China, took advantage of a mandate for OSS teams to perform prisoner of war (POW) recovery work to enter Indochina.) Prince Souphanouvong said he was in a position to represent the interests of Laos and asked for instructions. On September 5, he sent another message to Phetsarath saying that he had begun to negotiate with the Vietnamese for aid in the independence struggle and to form "an Indochinese bloc opposing the return of colonialism." Phetsarath rejected Souphanouvong's offer. *

The official United States position, communicated to France, was that there was no question concerning France's sovereignty over Indochina. At the end of August, President Harry S. Truman was personally assured by de Gaulle that Indochina would be granted independence once the status quo before the Japanese aggression had been restored. Meanwhile, United States recognition of French sovereignty was qualified by the proviso that the French claim of support by the Indochinese populations be borne out by future events. Apparently without the knowledge of Washington, however, an OSS team that reached Vientiane in September — escorted by members of the Lao Pen Lao newly returned from Thailand — assured Phetsarath that the French would not be allowed to return. The team advised Phetsarath to await the arrival of the Inter-Allied Commission that was to decide his country's future. This information misled Phetsarath into believing that the international community supported an independent Laos. *

However, on September 7, Phetsarath was informed by the minister of interior that a royal proclamation had continued the French protectorate over the Kingdom of Louangphrabang. On September 15, with the Inter-Allied Commission nowhere in sight, Phetsarath issued a proclamation that unified the Kingdom of Louangphrabang with the four southern provinces of Khammouan, Savannakhét, Champasak, and Saravan (Salavan). Vientiane would be the capital, and the Congress of People's Representatives would soon meet to decide all political, economic, and social questions. *

On September 21, Fabre demanded the dismissal of Xieng Mao (also known as Phaya Khammao, or Khammao Vilay), the provincial governor since 1941, for anti-French activities, and his replacement by Kou Voravong. The next day, an advance guard of the Chinese Nationalist troops responsible for receiving the surrender of the Japanese arrived by boat down the Mekong. They appeared more interested in buying up the opium crop (harvested from late December to early February) than in disarming the already departed Japanese. *

France and Laos’s Road to Independence

Behind these tensions were the French, who were determined to regain their Indochinese empire. After the war’s end Chinese forces moved into Indochina north of the 16th parallel and British Indian troops to the south, to accept the surrender of the Japanese. The British soon handed over to the French, who thus were able to occupy southern Laos.

On October 12, 1945, after the end of the war, the Lao Issara (Free Lao) movement proclaimed the independence of Laos, but the French sent in paratroopers and again quickly seized control and installed King Sisavang Vong as the monarch and drive the Lao Issara into the mountains near Vietnam, where it divided into three factions.

In March 1946, while a truce held in Vietnam between the Viet Minh and the French, French forces struck north to seize control of the rest of Laos. The Lao Issara government was forced to flee to exile in Bangkok, leaving the French to sign a modus vivendi with the king reaffirming the unity of Laos and extending the king’s rule from Luang Prabang to all of Laos. West bank territories seized by Thailand in 1940 were returned to Laos. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

For the next three years the French worked to make up for their previous neglect. The country’s first lycée (high school) was built and services improved. The Kingdom of Laos became a member state of the new Indochinese Federation, with its own government and National Assembly. But the French were still very much in control, and those Lao who collaborated were denounced by the Lao Issara in Bangkok, which continued to support armed resistance. =

At the urging of the United States, France took steps to normalize its relations with Laos. In June 1946, a joint FrancoLaotian commission was established in Vientiane to discuss future relationships. This commission produced a document confirming the existence of a unified Laos under the sovereignty of the king of Louangphrabang. Major political, military, and economic powers remained in French hands. Elections for a Constituent Assembly were to be held within a year. A modus vivendi was signed on August 27. A Franco-Siamese agreement signed in Washington on November 17, 1946, restored the right-bank provinces of Xaignabouri and Champasak to Laos. The multinational conciliation commission that examined Thailand's claims to these territories found in favor of Laos in its report of June 27, 1947. *

By 1949 something of a stalemate had developed between the French and the Viet Minh in the main theatre of war in Vietnam. In order to shore up their position in Laos, the French granted the Lao greater independence. This partial independence was enough for Laos to gain recognition from Britain and the United States. A promise of amnesty for Issara leaders attracted most back to take part in the political process in Laos. Among the returnees was Souvanna Phouma, a younger brother of Phetsarat, who remained in Thailand. Meanwhile Souphanouvong, a half-brother of the two princes, led his followers to join the Viet Minh and keep up the anticolonial struggle. =

In response to nationalist pressures, France granted Laos formal independence within the French Union in July, 1949. meanwhile Laos Issara remnants regrouped in the mountains of the northeast in the early 1950s and fought against the French occupation. In October 1953, with French approval, Laos was granted full sovereignty.

Lao Issara Government

On October 7, 1945 Souphanouvong and a Vietnamese escort arrived in Savannakhét to find that Oun and his partisans, who included Phoumi Nosavan, had crossed the river from Thailand, taken control of the town, and, in a loose alliance with the large Vietnamese population, armed themselves from looted armories of the local militia and arms discarded by the withdrawing Japanese. As a result of negotiations, their forces merged. Souphanouvong became commander in chief and Oun second in command. Souphanouvong and his escort proceeded upriver, first to Thakhek and then to Vientiane, where a provisional revolutionary government had been proclaimed two weeks earlier, taking the name Lao Issara (Free Laos). Moreover, the Committee of Independence, strongly influenced by the Lao Pen Lao, controlled Vientiane. Upon his arrival, Souphanouvong was made minister of foreign affairs and commander in chief. At his urging, a military cooperation convention was signed with Ho Chi Minh's government. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Meanwhile, bolstered by renewed assurances of support from the French, Sisavang Vong had sent messages on October 10 to Vientiane accusing Phetsarath of exceeding his authority and stripping him of his position as prime minister and his title of viceroy. Phetsarath protested but accepted these decisions and, after thanking the Laotian civil servants for their support, immediately announced his withdrawal from public life. His decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that he was married to a sister of Sisavang. *

The royal dismissal of Phetsarath turned Lao Issara leaders against the monarchy, which they saw as hopelessly compromised by the French. In an effort to give their government some semblance of legitimacy, Lao Issara leaders hastily named the People's Committee, consisting of thirty-four members, many of them Lao Pen Lao activists, but also including the governors of several provinces who were not even in Vientiane. Members of the Chamber of People's Representatives were elected — and simply notified after the fact — by the members of the People's Committee in accordance with a provisional constitution adopted on the morning of October 12. *

At the news of the king's deposition and the report that the Lao Issara government had dispatched an armed contingent to Louangphrabang under Sing Ratanassamay's command, the agitation in the royal capital grew rapidly. With Imfeld and his men disarmed and held under house arrest by Chinese troops, the governor, Boungnavath, was free to act, and he had Royal Lao Government (RLG) supporters arrested. On November 10, hours before the arrival of Sing's force, a mob surrounded the royal palace, fired shots in the air, climbed over the walls, and forced entry. Sing and his men had an audience with the king that afternoon. The king declared himself to be a simple citizen, prepared to hand over the phrabang and to vacate the royal palace when the government thought it appropriate. Later that month, the government issued a formal decree that no member of the government would henceforth have any contact with the French. *

Lao Issara, Thao O Anourack and the Franco-Laotians

At the outset of its rule, the authority of the Lao Issara provisional government was extremely limited outside Vientiane. In the north, the towns of Louangphrabang, Phôngsali, and Louang Namtha were occupied by the Chinese. The Franco-Laotian guerrillas, with support from Touby Lyfoung's Hmong, had taken control of the main towns of Xiangkhoang Province at the beginning of September. Their hold on Houaphan was much less solid, in spite of efforts on the part of the provincial governor, Phoumi Vongvichit, to prevent the Chinese from entering the province. Here, because of its proximity to Vietnam, the revolutionary propaganda spread by the Viet Minh was strong but also pro-Viet Minh rather than pro-Lao Issara. Moreover, the main roads leading east were denied to the Franco-Laotian guerrillas by Viet Minh detachments coming from Vietnam. In the center and south, the Lao Issara government controlled the towns of Thakhek and Savannakhét. Most of the remainder of the provinces of Khammouan and Savannakhét was controlled by the Franco-Laotian guerrillas. So were the southernmost provinces of Pakxé and Saravan, which fell largely in the British zone of operation decided upon at the Potsdam Conference and where Prince Boun Oum of Champasak, sympathetic to the French, had 15,000 troops under his command. *

The outlook became more favorable for the Lao Issara as the year ended. France, preoccupied with the situation in Vietnam, was unable to send reinforcements to the Franco-Laotian guerrillas. Fabre and his men were evacuated from Vientiane — eventually to Thailand — under an escort provided by the Chinese. Various events led the Franco-Laotian guerrillas to evacuate Xiangkhoang town and Louang Namtha. While Viet Minh propaganda exploited differences between the Lao and Phuan on the one hand and Touby's Hmong on the other, the Viet Minh were themselves putting together a Hmong guerrilla force under Faydang Lobliayao of the Lo clan. In Louangphrabang, Imfeld and his men had been subjected to all kinds of pressure, culminating in their evacuation across the river under Chinese escort on January 4, 1946. *

In Vientiane, the Lao Issara government was confronted with a growing list of problems. The most serious was how to finance the government because the treasury was empty and there were no funds to pay civil servants. An attempt to tax opium exports was unenforceable because the government did not control opium trade routes. The government even took steps to abolish the Indochinese régie (state monopoly) that regulated the opium trade and make it a Laos monopoly. In desperation, the government appealed to the Thai government for a press on which to print money. Foreign relations and the procurement of military equipment were also problems. *

Beginning in January 1946, with the loss anew of Xiangkhoang, the fortunes of the Lao Issara government began to decline. The Franco-Laotian guerrillas were receiving reinforcements and supplies by air and road from French headquarters in Saigon, which made entry into the towns possible for the first time. Lao Issara appeals to the Viet Minh for assistance went largely unheeded, and the Franco-Laotian guerrillas once again were positioned along the main roads leading from Vietnam. *

After long negotiations in Chongqing, China's wartime capital, the French government obtained China's commitment to withdraw its troops from Indochina. The withddrawal allowed the Franco-Laotian guerrillas to make their entry into Savannakhét against token resistance camouflaged by the Chinese withdrawal. At Thakhek, however, Souphanouvong and his largely Vietnamese force were determined to make the French pay. In a day-long battle on March 21, approximately 700 of the defenders and 300 civilians were killed. *

With the French menacing Vientiane, the first thought of the Lao Issara government was to regularize its relations with the monarchy. On March 23, Xieng Mao, having abandoned Vientiane for Louangphrabang, sent the king a letter asking him to resume his throne. But the king was in no hurry, and it was not until April 23 that the king signaled his acceptance of the constitution and reaffirmed the unity of Laos by a royal ordinance. *

Meanwhile, a strong French column was making its way up the road from Vientiane to Louangphrabang. Simultaneously, Hmong guerrillas moved west to harass Chinese troops in the vicinity of the royal capital. The French column entered Louangphrabang forcing Phetsarath and the Lao Issara ministers to flee Laos. The king welcomed the French by declaring null and void all acts that he had sanctioned under pressure from the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Lao Issara since April 4, 1945. He also promised a democratic constitution. *

The Lao Issara government-in-exile set up its headquarters in Bangkok. Scattered groups of armed partisans mounted raids into Laos from bases along the Mekong and in southern Laos. One group was under the command of Thao O Anourack. After the Japanese takeover, Thao O had refused the Franco-Laotian guerrillas' appeal to join them. When the Lao Issara took over Savannakhét, the provincial governor appointed him commander of liberation forces in Xépôn. Thus, when the Franco-Laotians reoccupied Xépôn in March 1946, Thao O made his way east with some 200 to 300 men to the safety of Lao Bao just across the border of Vietnam. Eventually, he was forced to abandon Laos altogether and to make his way to Hanoi where the Viet Minh put him in touch with Kaysone Phomvihan, a Vietnamese-Lao métis (person of mixed race) from Savannakhét who had been sent to direct Lao Issara radiobroadcasts over Radio Hanoi, and Nouhak Phoumsavan, a Vietnamese from Mukdahan. Neither Kaysone Phomvihan nor Nouhak Phoumsavan had a significant role in the Lao Issara, but both had the confidence of Ho Chi Minh and saw in Ho's government the salvation of an independent Laos. *

The Vietnamese proposed to Thao O—and he accepted—that he form a committee for the liberation of Laos. Nouhak became president of the committee. The enlistment of other small groups from Xiangkhoang and Houaphan brought the effective strength under Thao O's command to 500; he dispatched one company each to Xam Nua, Xiangkhoang, Muang Mo, Napé, and Muang Sen. Thao O soon received secret codes from Phetsarath and Souvanna Phouma in Bangkok that allowed him to communicate with his companies. *

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