The Laos Under French Indochine











The Driwan’s  Cybermuseum


Dr Iwan Cambodia Cybermuseum

Showroom :

The Laos During French Indochine

A.Chronologic Historic Collections

B.The History Of Laos During French Indochine.

 Establishment of French Indochina

Expansion of French Indochina (in blue).

France obtained control over northern Vietnam following its victory over China in the Sino-French war (1884–1885). French Indochina was formed in October 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (which together form modern Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia; Laos was added after the Franco-Siamese War.

The federation lasted until 1954. In the four protectorates, the French formally left the local rulers in power, who were the Emperors of Vietnam, Kings of Cambodia, and Kings of Luang Prabang, but in fact gathered all powers in their hands, the local rulers acting only as figureheads

Creation of Laos

Wat Sisakēt, Viang Chan, one of the oldest temples in the city which became the capital of Laos

The arrival of European colonialism in the region perpetuated distinct Lao national identity. This is a point that the current official history of Laos, with its emphasis on the later anti-colonial struggles, prefers not to mention, but there is no denying that the end of Siamese rule over parts of the Lao lands and creation of a Lao state were the work of the French, and were a by-product of the rivalry between the French and the British colonial empires. Burma, which had been the terror of the Tai peoples for centuries, was annexed by British India in stages between 1826 and 1885. Vietnam, the other traditional power in the region, succumbed to the French, with a protectorate established over southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia in 1862 and over the rest of Vietnam in 1885.

These developments spelled trouble for Siam, which found itself caught between two aggressive colonial powers. Under the modernising kings Rama IV (1851–68) and Rama V (1868–1910), Siam sought to make itself a modern state able to defend its independence, but the borders of its ramshackle, multi-ethnic empire were not defensible. The 1883 treaty with the Emperor of Vietnam gave the French the right to control all territories which were or had been tributary to the court of Hué, and not surprisingly they chose to interpret this very broadly. Most of the Lao lands had at one time or another been nominal tributaries of Vietnam, although this had frequently meant nothing in practice. The French imposed a European conception of statehood on these feudal relationships, and from them concocted a territorial claim to all of the former kingdom of Lān Xāng.

The principal French agent in this was Auguste Pavie (1847–1925), who had already spent 17 years in Vietnam and Cambodia furthering French interests when he was appointed French vice-consul in Luang Phrabāng in 1886. Pavie was also a noted explorer and scholar with a genuine affection for the Indochinese peoples, whom he saw as being liberated from ignorance and feudalism by an enlightened France. He regarded the Siamese rulers of the Lao lands as corrupt and oppressive. When Luang Phrabāng was attacked by Tai tribespeople from the hills, and the Siamese representatives fled, it was Pavie who organised the defence of the town and rescued the elderly King Unkham. The king was so grateful that he asked for French protection in place of Siamese rule. Pavie was unable to arrange this, although he did bring about the annexation of the Tai-speaking Sipsông Chu area to French Vietnam. Pavie called his building of French goodwill in Laos the “conquest of hearts”, but ultimately it would require force to evict the Siamese.

Laos was carved out of Siam in 1893

By 1890 the French authorities in Hanoi, backed by a powerful party in the French Parliament, were determined on the annexation of the whole of Siam, with the detachment of Laos seen only as the first stage. In 1892 Pavie was appointed French Consul-General in Bangkok, and demanded that the Siamese accept French “commercial agents” in the main Lao towns, from Luang Phrabāng to Stung Treng. Pavie argued that France should demand a protectorate over all the Lao lands on both sides of the Mekong. This, he argued, would so weaken Siam that its full annexation could soon follow. Fully aware of what the French were up to, Siam rushed troops and administrators into the Lao lands, but its infrastructure was not well developed enough for it to take a really firm grip on such distant provinces. Furthermore Rama V’s belief that the British would support him in any clash with the French proved unfounded.

In July 1893 minor border clashes led to an armed confrontation, with French gunboats sailing up the Chao Phraya to threaten Bangkok. Faced with such threats, Siam capitulated, and France established a protectorate over everything east of the Mekong. In 1904 there was a further clash, largely manufactured by the French. Again the British did not come to Siam’s defence, and again Siam was forced to back down, ceding two strips of land west of the Mekong: Xainaburī in the north and Champāsak in the south. At the same time Stung Treng was moved from Laos to Cambodia and some modifications made to the border between Laos and Vietnam. These changes established the Lao borders as they have been ever since.

The French expansionists, urged on by Pavie, now wanted to press on and demand the Lao-speaking lands on the Khōrāt Plateau, but at this point the British intervened. Having gained control of Burma and Malaya, they preferred to maintain Siam as a buffer state between their empire and the French, rather than allow the French to annex all of Siam. By 1909 the situation in Europe had changed, and France decided it needed a British alliance against the rising power of Germany. Paris therefore decided that empire-building in Siam was no longer worth the risks of a clash with British interests.

The aborted French grab for control of all the Lao lands thus created the current Lao borders, which became permanent when Britain opposed any further French advance into Siam. But it also created the predicament which has faced the Lao people ever since. If the French had not interfered at all in Siam’s internal affairs, the Lao would probably have been quietly absorbed into a greater Tai-speaking Siamese state. If on the other hand France had succeeded in detaching all the Lao lands from Siam, there might today be a major Lao state, a true reconstruction of Lān Xāng on both banks of the Mekong, with perhaps 20 million people. Instead, the Lao state today has 6 million people, of whom only half speak Lao as their first language. The Isan region of Thailand, meanwhile, contains 15 million Lao-speakers (the language is now officially called “North-East Thai“, but it is almost identical to standard Lao). With the recent large migration from Isan to Bangkok, there are now more Lao speakers in Bangkok than in Viang Chan, the Lao capital. The Lao are almost unique in this lack of congruence between their geographical distribution and the borders of what claims to be their nation state.

French Laos

A typical example of French colonial architecture (now a health centre) in Luang Phrabāng

Having failed in their grand plan to annex Siam, the French lost interest in Laos, and for the next fifty years it remained a backwater of the French empire in Indochina. Officially, the Kingdom of Luang Phrabāng and the Principality of Champāsak remained protectorates with internal autonomy, but in practice they were controlled by French residents. King Sīsavāngvong, who became King of Luang Phrabāng in 1904, remained conspicuously loyal to the French through his 55-year reign. The rest of the country was at first divided into two regions, Upper Laos and Lower Laos, each controlled by a Commandant, based in Luang Phrabāng and Pākxē respectively. Later the country was divided into eleven provinces, each with a French resident. In 1898 all the Lao lands were put under the general supervision of a Resident-Superior, based in Viang Chan (which the French spelled Vientiane) and answerable to the French Governor-General in Hanoi. Security, customs and communications were controlled from Hanoi, and therefore much neglected in the Lao lands, which had a low budget priority. The local authorities handled health, education and justice, and were expected to fund their own operations from local revenue.

The French inherited a territory which was depopulated and demoralised by years of warfare and disorder: in 1910 there were only 600,000 people in Laos, including many Chinese and Vietnamese. To establish order, a local militia, the Garde Indigène, was established, comprising a mixture of Lao and Vietnamese troops under French officers. Banditry was suppressed, slavery abolished, and the Lao-Lum aristocracy’s practice of demanding labour service from Lao Theong and Lao Sūng peoples was stopped. Vietnamese clerks were brought in to provide administrative support to the very small number of French officials who ran the country – in 1910 there were only 200 French in the whole country. Vietnamese and Chinese merchants arrived to repopulate the towns (particularly Viang Chan) and revive trade.

The French took over the head tax previously collected by the Siamese, but since French officials were less corrupt than the Siamese had been the amount collected increased. The Lao were also made universally liable for labour service, fixed at ten days per head per year, although exemption could be bought with a cash payment. The Lao-Lum much resented this imposition, seen by them as fit only for upland Lao and slaves. Vietnamese and Chinese were exempt from labour service, but paid a higher head tax in cash. Further revenue was gained by making opium, alcohol and salt state monopolies. Nevertheless the administration in Laos was always short of money, and development, particularly in the uplands, was very slow.

On the whole the Lao found French rule preferable to Siamese rule, and this ensured that for some time there no organised resistance to their presence. In 1901, however, a revolt broke out in the south, led by a Lao Theong called Ong Kaeo, a self-proclaimed phū mī bun (holy man) who led a messianic cult. This revolt was not specifically anti-French or Lao nationalist in character, but attracted wide support and was not effectively suppressed until 1910 when Ong Kaeo was killed. One of Ong Kaeo’s lieutenants, Ong Kommadam, however, survived and went on to become a Lao nationalist leader in later years. After the Chinese revolution of 1911, there was also trouble in northern Laos as Chinese warlords and bandits carried their fights across the ill-defined border and as Lao Sūng peoples with links to China were drawn into the conflict. French attempts to regulate the opium trade also provoked resistance in some areas. In 1914-16 there was a Hmong rebellion known as “the madman’s revolt” after its leader, a shaman called Pāchai. Later Lao official histories portray all these disturbances as “anti-colonial struggles”, but this is an exaggeration.

The favourable comparison between French rule and Siamese rule led to a considerable re-migration of Lao from the Isan area to Laos, boosting the population and reviving trade. The Mekong valley towns such as Viang Chan, Savannakhēt and Paksē began to grow, although they remained majority Vietnamese and Chinese. Agriculture and trade also revived. The French hoped to divert Lao trade down the Mekong to Saigon, but they were unable to compete with the quicker and cheaper trade route through Bangkok, particularly once the Siamese railways reached the Mekong in the late 1920s. This gave Siam a continuing economic importance to Laos even after Siamese political control had ended: a fact which has not changed. The French proposed a railway over the mountains to Vietnam, but capital for this project was never forthcoming from Paris. The French did however build the most important road in Laos, National Route 13 from Viang Chan to Paksē (more recently it has been extended north to Luang Phrabāng). But economic development remained slow. There was some tin-mining and some coffee-growing, but the country’s isolation and difficult terrain meant that it never became profitable from a colonialist point of view. More than 90% of the Lao remained subsistence farmers, growing just enough surplus produce to sell for cash to pay their taxes.

Flag of French Laos (1893-1952)

Most of the French who came to Laos as officials, settlers or missionaries developed a strong affection for the country and its people, and many devoted decades to what they saw as bettering the lives of the Lao. Some took Lao wives, learned the language, became Buddhists and “went native” – something more acceptable in the French Empire than in the British. With the racial attitudes typical of Europeans at this time, however, they tended to classify the Lao as gentle, amiable, childlike, naive and lazy, regarding them with what one writer called “a mixture of affection and exasperation.” They had no belief that the Lao would ever be able to govern themselves, and were slow to establish a system of western education for the Lao. The first secondary school in Viang Chan did not open until 1921, and only in the 1930s did the first Lao students get a higher French education in Hanoi or Paris. Gradually a network of primary schools spread through the lowland areas, and by the 1930s literacy rates among the Lao Lum had increased considerably. But the upland areas, where people spoke either Lao dialects or non-Lao languages, remained untouched.

Among the first Lao to get advanced western educations were three aristocratic brothers, sons (by different mothers) of Chau Bunkhong, the uparāt (hereditary vice-king) of Luang Phrabāng: these were Prince Phetxarāt (1890–1959), Prince Suvannaphūmā (1901–84) and Prince Suphānuvong (1909–95), who were later to dominate Lao politics for many years. Phetxarāt graduated from the École Coloniale in Paris and was the first Lao to study at Oxford University. Both Suvannaphūmā and Suphānuvong graduated in engineering in France. Suvannaphūmā also studied classics and read Latin and Greek as well as Pali: becoming the very model of a French scholar-politician. It is a standard observation of post-colonial history that enlightened colonialism brought about its own demise by creating a class of western-educated intellectuals who then became leaders of anti-colonialist movements. The French education of men like Phetxarāt, Suvannaphūmā and Suphānuvong would seem to confirm this in the case of Laos, but in fact all were essentially Lao aristocrats first and nationalist intellectuals second, even though Suphānuvong eventually became the figurehead leader of the Lao Communists. Laos never produced a figure like Pol Pot, a fully formed French Marxist ideologue.

The real French contribution to Lao nationalism, apart from the creation of the Lao state itself, was made by the oriental specialists of the French School of the Far East (École Française d’Extrême-Orient), who undertook major archaeological works, found and published Lao historical texts, standardised the written Lao language, renovated neglected temples and tombs and in 1931 founded the Independent Lao Buddhist Institute in Viang Chan, where Pali was taught so that the Lao could study their own ancient history. The restoration and preservation of the cultural glories of Luang Phrabāng is a lasting tribute to French scholarship and endeavour.

The French stimulation of Lao culture and historical studies created a new Lao intellectual class, which was soon led by Phetxarāt, a gifted scholar. Phetxarāt is today remembered as a nationalist, but at first he was the leading Lao collaborator with the French. In 1923 he was appointed Indigenous Inspector of Political and Administrative Affairs, making him the highest ranking Lao in the country. He worked to increase the number of Lao in administrative positions and to reduce the role of the Vietnamese, whom the Lao disliked much more than they did the French. Phetxarāt and other leading Lao favoured French rule because it protected them from the Siamese and Vietnamese. It was only when French power and prestige were broken that the Lao elite turned against the French.

Crisis of World War II

Statue of Sīsavāngvong, King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46, King of Laos 1946-59 (In the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum, Luang Phrabāng)

Laos might have drifted along as a pleasant backwater of the French Empire indefinitely had not outside events impacted sharply on the country from 1940 onwards. The fall of France to the Nazi German invasion was a profound shock to Lao faith in France’s ability to protect them. The greatest threat to Laos was now Siamese irredentism. In December 1940 Marshall Phibun‘s military regime in Bangkok attacked French Indochina with the covert assistance of the Japanese, seizing western Cambodia, and reclaiming Xainaburī and Champāsak, which been part of French Laos since 1904. The Vichy French authorities allowed Japan to base troops in Indochina, though not at this stage in Laos. The fear of being left exposed to Thailand (as Phibun had renamed Siam) and Japan led to the formation of the first Lao nationalist organization, the Movement for National Renovation, in January 1941, led by Phetxarāt and supported by local French officials, though not by the Vichy authorities in Hanoi. This group wrote the current Lao national anthem and designed the current Lao flag, while paradoxically pledging support for France.

There matters rested until the liberation of France in 1944, bringing Charles de Gaulle to power. This meant the end of the alliance between Japan and the French administration in Indochina. The Japanese had no intention of allowing the Gaullists to take over, and in late 1944 they staged a military coup in Hanoi. French Gaullist units fled over the mountains to Laos, pursued by the Japanese, who occupied Viang Chan in March 1945 and Luang Phrabāng in April. King Sīsavāngvong was detained by the Japanese, but his son Crown Prince Savāngvatthanā called on all Lao to assist the French, and many Lao died fighting with the French resistance against the Japanese occupiers.

Prince Phetxarāt, however, opposed this position, and thought that Lao independence could be gained by siding with the Japanese, who made him Prime Minister of Luang Phrabāng, though not of Laos as a whole. In practice the country was in chaos and Phetxarāt’s government had no real authority. Another Lao group, the Lao Sēri (Free Lao), became agents of the Thais, which also meant supporting the Japanese. A further complication was the arrival of substantial numbers of Vietnamese forces loyal to the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Although the official Communist line at this time was unite all forces against the Japanese, the Vietnamese hated the French and so supported Phetxarāt’s government.

In August 1945, just as the country was dissolving into a multi-sided civil war, Japan suddenly surrendered to the Allies. In Laos as in all the newly-liberated capitals of East Asia, there was a scramble to fill the power-vacuum. The main contenders were the Gaullist French, whose guerilla forces were holding out with Lao assistance in several parts of the country, and a new Lao nationalist group led by Phetxarāt, the Lao Issara (also meaning Free Lao). The nearest Allied army was the Chinese Nationalist army in southern China, and this force was supposed to march south and receive the Japanese surrender. The United States was officially opposed to the re-establishment of French rule in Indochina, and the British could be expected to be unhelpful. But the French had no intention of giving up Indochina without a fight.

Hmong Early History

French Indochina, WWII and the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, and the creation of a united Laos
Mekong River and its watershed rises in Tibet and flows to the South China Sea. Presented by wikipedia.
The last section closed with the French running Indochina and the Hmong having migrated to Laos as well as to northern Vietnam, known in the day as Tonkin.
The French looked at the Mekong River (Mother River in Laotian) at the Vietnam end and along the Laotian border with Thailand, and hoped it would give them an easy river passage up to China through Laos from the South China Sea. They really wanted to get into eastern China. They would find out that the Mekong rose in the mountains of Tibet and ran through Yunnan province in China, through a small section of Burma and then into Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam for its long trip to the South China Sea. The river has many falls and rapids and was not navigable all the way, especially in the Upper Mekong region, and it did not go to those parts of China in which the French were interested.
As a result, the French were not enthusiastic over their Laotian holding. Only a small number of Frenchmen came to Laos, and they brought Vietnamese to help them run their colony. The French allowed the king of Luang Prabang to remain on his throne, but the French remained in charge using lesser Vietnamese officials to administer the colony. This ends up as an important point for future Laos.
French protectorate flag for Laos, now part of French Indochina, 1893-1945, and again 1946-1947. Presented
The French referred to Laos as a protectorate and placed it under the control of the governor general of Indochina in Hanoi. Auguste Pavie, shown here in 1890, was the first French vice-cousul in Luang Prabang in 1886. He took action to protect King Oun Kham’s life from raiders from northwest Vietnam. The king henceforth favored French protection and agreed to the idea of Laos as a French protectorate. Pavie then convinced the governor general in Hanoi to recognize the king. As an aside, the three elephants by this time represented three Lao kingdoms. The French made “Lao” plural, to wit, Laos.
The Presidential Palace in Vientiane, originally built for the French governors, then briefly used by the monarchy after independence. Photo courtesy of Gina Morris. Presented by
The French established Vientiane as the administrative capital of Laos, divided the country into fourteen provinces, each of which was divided into cantons or muong, which in turn were divided into villages called ban. We mention this because village leaders dealt with the French mainly through their Vietnamese assistants.
French in Laos, 1893. Presented
French actions during these early days attempted to divorce Laos from Siamese and Vietnamese claims and establish Laos as its own political entity. Some historians argue that French colonization gave Laos its national form and saved her from extinction.
I’m showing this next map simply to identify some locations for you.
As a general rule of thumb, from the time the French arrived, I think it fair to say that the Laotian king in Luang Prabang favored the French and looked to the French to protect his kingdom, mainly from the Siamese, but to a certain extent from the Vietnamese and Chinese as well. These relationships play a most important role in Laotian evolution in the years ahead.
While the French demonstrated little real interest in developing Laos, they nonetheless imposed taxes on the people of Laos and demanded forced labor from the locals living there. These taxes and the forced labor put a heavy burden on the people. That in turn led to many uprisings and insurrections against the French. The Hmong in particular revolted over French taxes almost from the outset, such as in 1896.
Multi-ethnic people in Laos volunteer for the military to fight against the French colonialists. Presented by Chrissy-Lew.
Some Laotians sided with the French, including the king. Others opposed the French.
This photo shows a young King Sisavangvong with a French official presented by Sisavangvong became king of Luang Prabang at the death of his father in March 1904, at the age of 19. The Laotian king looked to the French for protection, understanding the many outside threats, namely those posed by the Siamese.
While the king allied himself with the French, there were many in Laos who opposed the French and advocated independence from her. This in turn created an opening for the communists, who were also seeking independence from the French for Vietnam and Cambodia. This is a crucial point — the communists in the region played on the people’s desire for independence, at this point from the French. This quest for independence would be a vital factor in the communist movement throughout the region. It can be argued that the communist movement in this region was on its face at least an independence and anti-colonial movement.
It is important to understand that there were Laotians for the French, against the French, and some who wanted to get rid of everyone, including the communists, and obtain some semblance of neutrality. This too would be a hallmark of Laotian policy as time moved forward — communists, anti-communists-neutralists. This point needs further study, but my instinct says that the common theme among most was that they were nationalists.
For their part, like others living in Laos, the Hmong were not monolithic when it came to whom they would support during the period of French colonialism. Indeed, the Hmong, like so many ethnic groups in East Asia, had a history of fighting against each other, whether in China or in Indochina.
The bottom line is the region in and around Laos had a wild political landscape that was volatile and extraordinarily fluid, with many competing interests inside and outside Laos. For much of the time, Laos and people living within her borders were caught in the middle, making it hard to develop a national identity.
Pinning down how many Hmong were in Laos when the French took over is a work in progress. At the time the French took over in Laos in 1893, estimates are there were about 100,000 Hmong in all Indochina. I have not yet found a credible estimate of how many were in Laos. The best estimate I have found is that there were enough for the French to tax and there were enough to revolt against those taxes and give the French a massive headache. Historians seem to agree there were about 300,000 Hmong in Laos in 1954 when the French lost their Indochinese holdings.
Since the Hmong did not take kindly to French taxation, fighting out as early as 1896.
This art, by Cy Thao, shows Hmong rebelling against the French in the Guerre du Fou, “The War of the Insane.” Presented by Cy Thao: The Hmong Genocide and Immigration – Part 2.Editor’s note: Once again, I urge you to go to this web site and view all the art. It is magnificent.
A notable insurrection occurred in 1919, following WWI, when a group of Hmong led by Pa Chay Vue rebelled against the French in what the French called Guerre du Fou, “The War of the Insane” or “Madmen’s war.” This was a ferocious war which engulfed much of northern Indochina. Pa Chay Vue is considered a hero among Hmong nationalists. It’s worth noting that Hmong fought against the French because of the taxes, while other Hmong fought with the French after negotiating with them over the taxes. This is a good example of Hmong against and for the French, and Hmong against Hmong. Indeed, many Hmong in northern Vietnam who fought against the French would later ally with the communist Viet Minh. The Hmong were not the only ethnic group to behave this way, but my focus here is on the Hmong.
Initially the French had problems fighting the elusive Hmong in the jungles and mountains of Laos. The area of battle extended from Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam all the way to Luang Prabang. The French finally prevailed in 1921, in part because they killed the Hmong rebel leaders and destroyed many Hmong and their villages. Those who fought against the French paid a dear price. Those Hmong who fought with them became more closely bonded among themselves and with the French, again demonstrating their capacity to integrate.
Map showing the location of the Plaine des Jarres, Laos. Presented by Air America.
By this time, the French agreed to let the Hmong organize an autonomous region on the eastern edge of the Plaines des Jars, the PDJ.
W.E. Garrett has commented on this Hmong-French war of 1919-1921. He wrote that a Hmong chief told this to a French priest at the time:
“They say we are a people who like to fight, a cruel people, enemy of everybody, always changing our region and being happy nowhere. If you want to know the truth about our people, go ask the bear who is hurt why he defends himself, ask the dog who is kicked why he barks, ask the deer who chased why he changes mountains.”
Dr. Yang Dao, a Hmong educator with a PhD in social science from the Sorbonne, University of Paris, and now a US citizen living in Minnesota, spoke with W.E. Garrett back when Garrett was writing about the Hmong in 1974. At that time, Dr. Dao said:
“We fight when attacked. But we are not cruel, and we move only because we have to. When the Hmong came to Laos, they took to the mountaintops for three reasons. Earlier arrivals had already occupied the plains. The Hmong, few in number, did not want trouble. Besides the cooler climate in the high country was like their temperate homeland. Mountaintops are easier to defend than the fertile plains, and Hmong valued liberty and dignity more than easy living.”
The message here is that while the French and Chinese would characterize the Hmong as warlike and even barbarians, the truth is the Hmong generally fought only when being tread upon and persecuted.
The points raised here and throughout this report demand that we follow the advice ofMai Na M. Lee:
“By examining just a few sources, we can see that Hmong culture, politics, history, and Hmong character represent a complex mosaic that requires cautious assessment.”
Lee further suggests that many myths surround the Hmong, myths that trace back thousands of years, and these still need to be “challenged and addressed diligently.”
Let’s fast forward to the WWII era. The history of Laos and the Hmong will get even more complex as we do this. Remember that as the Japanese made their move into mainland East asia, Indochina was under French rule and France would become occupied by the Germans.
This is what Japan’s Empire looked like by 1942.
The Japanese had long been planning to take over all East Asia, and defeat the United States in a major war effort, not so much to occupy or destroy the US, but instead to assure Japanese dominance in East Asia and most of the Western Pacific. In 1931, the Japanese took Manchuria, and in 1933 took some Chinese territory bordering Manchuria. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China and took control of Beijing. The Japanese struck hard and by 1942 took control over much of eastern China from Manchuria to Hong Kong.
Along with this, a Chinese civil war began between the nationalist and communist Chinese, the former led by Chiang Kai-shek (right), the latter led by Mao Tse-tung (left), a communist.
In Europe, France fell to the Germans in June 1940. A Vichy Government of France formed and collaborated with the Germans to rule those parts of France left to it by the Germans, while the Germans occupied what they wanted to occupy. In opposition were the Free French, whose military forces were led by General Charles de Gaulle.
The French as a people were embroiled in two major wars during this time, one for or against the Germans, and one pitting the Vichy French against the Free French, a civil war within the context of a world war. This civil war extended to France’s colonies worldwide. Indeed, initially, most of the Free French forces were from the colonies, with 65 percent coming from West Africa, largely from Senegal. Cameroon and French Equatorial Africa (except Gabon). Other African colonies sided with the Vichy government. The Foreign Legion included many non-French soldiers. Most Free French forces fought in Europe and Africa, often side-by-side with the British. One mission of the Free French was to free the colonies “loyal” to the Vichy Government. It’s okay to say, “Wow, what a mess!”
Combine that with what you’ve already learned about the history of Indochina and Laos in particular, and you can see why this is at once so complex yet so fascinating. I see the study of all this as a life’s endeavor.
The situation of French Indochina was a bit different from that of the African colonies.
Japanese Conquest of Southeast Asia, 1941-42. Presented by howstuffworks.
This is a marvelous map of Japanese territories already taken by 1941, new conquests during 1941-42, and attack routes. France’s rapid fall to the Germans meant weakened colonial rule in Indochina. Japan saw an opportunity to extend her own empire all the way to Malaysia and into India, and that is what she set out to do.As an overview, shortly after the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack against the Hawaiian Islands, then a US territory, they invaded Thailand and Malaysia. Landings took place in the Philippines, North Borneo, and the Dutch East Indies. On December 26, Hong Kong fell after 18 days under siege. In January 1942, the Japanese occupied Manila and Kuala Lumpur and invaded the Solomon Islands. During the period February through April 1942, the Japanese took Singapore, and landed at Bali, Mindanao, and Dutch New Guinea. This was an incredible Japanese military expedition. By July 1941 the Japanese fully controlled Vietnam. In early 1942, Japan coerced the Vichy government to sign another agreement that ceded all administrative control over all Indochina to the Japanese. France was clearly on its way out. Japan had free rein over everything in Indochina.I want to talk about the Japanese move into Vietnam for a moment.

This does not replicate the route of the railway system connecting Haiphong and Hanoi, Vietnam with Kunming in Yunnan Province, China, but it does reflect the general idea of the distances and terrain involved.Vichy France represented French interests in French Indochina, but her hold weakened significantly as the Japanese moved in. Japan’s initial interest in Indochina was to supply Japanese troops with enormous amounts of rice and corn supplies, and money, and to stop supplies from flowing from Indochina to Chiang Kai-shek’s China, mainly over the Hanoi-Yunan rail and out of Haiphong port. So, for starters, the Japanese had to deal with Vietnam, mainly Tonkin in the north. Making this a difficult task was the geography of the Tonkin-Laos Uplands through which this rail line transited.The day after Vichy France asked Germany for an armistice, June 19, 1940, Japan gave an ultimatum to Charles Arsene-Henry, France’s ambassador in Tokyo, to close the border between Indochina and China and hand over border control to Japanese authorities. The ambassador handed the ultimatum over to General Georges Catroux, the general governor of Indochina, shown here. Catroux complied. He knew his forces were no match for the Japanese and no help could be expected from war-torn France, or from Britain or the US. The Vichy government fired him. Soon thereafter, the general rejected the Vichy government and joined General De Gaulle and the Free French.Catroux was replaced by Admiral Jean Decoux. Decoux couldn’t do much better than Catroux. In August 1940, Japan served the French ambassador another ultimatum. This was resolved diplomatically in what is known as the Matsuoka-Henry Pact of August 30, 1940. Matsuoka was Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and is shown here. In this agreement, Japan recognized Vichy France as sovereign over Indochina in return for Japanese access to military facilities, transit rights, and the right to station troops in northern Vietnam, Tonkin. The Japanese, in reality, had two major objectives. They had to stop the flow of supplies from Vietnam to Chinese Nationalist forces against whom they were fighting in China, and they needed passage and freedom of movement in northern Vietnam to fight the Chinese Nationalists along the border region.

The French reluctantly signed the pact on September 22, 1940. The next day, Japanese troops crossed from China into Dongdang, Vietnam and occupied the nearby railhead at Langson. The Japanese bombed Haiphong port on September 24. Japanese forces then came ashore at Dong Tac, just south of Haiphong. They brought tanks ashore at Haiphong. By September 26 they had the Giam Lam airfield outside Hanoi. The Japanese now had an effective blockade of movement from Vietnam to China, and they owned the border area to fight against the Nationalist Chinese.
Japanese Army entering French Indochina Peninsula, photo taken September 22, 1940. Provided by Mainichi Newspaper. Presented by Japan Center for Asian Historical Records. The French Indochinese Colonial troops and Foreign Legionnaires fought but had to retreat to the south. The Japanese, understanding the Vietnamese desire to be free from the French, urged Vietnamese troops to fight the French during their retreat. Vietnamese communists moved into the region taken by the Japanese and set up an administration. The French put down this communist insurrection and forced the communists to retreat to the mountains. But an important precedent was set: those Indochinese who wanted to be free of the French could join with the Japanese to beat back the French. Some historians argue this Japanese action was the beginning of the end of French colonialism of Indochina.So that’s Vietnam. I’d like to pause for yet another moment to address the Japanese invasion of Thailand, which began a day after the attack against Hawaii, December 8, 1941.

About a year prior to this invasion, Thailand’s dictator had made a quiet deal with the Japanese to support them if they invaded Malaya. Thailand saw Vichy’s weakness as a chance to regain territories in French Indochina that had once belonged to Thailand. Thai Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsonggram, Thailand’s prime minister, shown here, dealt secretly with the Japanese and sought Japanese support to attack French forces in Cambodia and Laos. He essentially made Thailand an ally of the Japanese.The dictator was two-timing the Japanese, however, also dealing with the British and US. The Japanese finally decided to invade Thailand. Thailand called for a cease-fire the same day as the invasion, signed an armistice, allied with Japan, and allowed Japan to use Thai bases from which to attack Malaya and Singapore. Japanese squadrons flew in almost immediately thereafter.

Thai and Japanese officers pose after meeting. Japanese and Thai soldiers meet. This was bad news for Laos and the French. Recall that the Lao king looked to France for protection against Thailand, and now Thailand was allied with Japan and allowing Japan to use her bases. In the winter of 1940-41, Japan urged Thailand to invade Indochina’s western flank, Cambodia and Laos. In response, Thailand urged Laotian uprisings against the French. The Thais invaded Cambodia in January 1941.
On May 9, 1941, France and Thailand signed a Japanese brokered convention that returned territories taken by the French from Siam in 1904 back to Thailand. Knowing the French could not handle the Thais, Japan then “mediated” a peace convention, to which the French had to agree. Thailand regained some territories in western Laos and Cambodia they had lost to the French in 1904.
King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang, shown here, was infuriated by the Matsuoka-Henry Pact and this convention of 1941. He had written promises from the French dating back to 1932 that France would treat Laos as a protectorate. He concluded that the French, therefore, had no right to give away part of his kingdom without providing something in return. he would remain adamant that the French provide his kingdom protection. With that understood, most Laotians also knew that they could no longer count on French protection.Let’s throw in one more monkey to the monkey wrench. There were plenty of nationalists in Indochina seeking to be free of the French, and now they saw opportunities to gain that independence. We’ll get to these in a moment. I do wish to point out, however, that President Roosevelt (FDR) in the US boosted the morale of the nationalists and advocated self-determination for everyone and an end to Western imperialism.

One result of all this was the Franco-Laotian Treaty of Protectorate signed on August 29, 1941. King Sisavang Vong already held Luang Prabang province and the provinces of Phongsali and Houaphin (all outlined in red). This new treaty of 1941 attached the provinces of Vientiane, Xingkhoang, and Louang Namtha (all outlined in green) to Luang Prabang. The net result was the Kingdom of Luang Prabang now included most of present-day northern Laos. The Vichy French still maintained it would protect Laos.Broadly speaking, most of the rest of southern Laos was administered by the French from Vientiane, by the résident supérieur. He also represented France with the Kingdom of Luang Prabang. He employed French, Vietnamese and Lao civil servants.All together, these two sections of Laos were considered by the French to be the Territory of Laos. As a general rule, Laotians accepted these arrangements, still wanting French protection against the Thais. So what you see here is the rough coming together of what is present-day Laos. Frankly, given the enormous tumult throughout the region, it is remarkable that Laos would emerge in this configuration, in principal, united with borders formed.Beginning in December 1944, toward the end of WWII, Free French General Charles de Gaulle sent a force of Free French paratroopers who jumped into the PDJ to prepare for France’s recolonization of Indochina. Please recall that one of de Gaulle’s objectives was to take back the colonies held by the Vichy government for the Free French. There was no intent to give up the colonies.
The Free French missions in the region included recruiting and training guerrilla forces to harass the Japanese and maintain a French presence, given that the Vichy government fell out of power in August 1944. Soon, Franco-Laotian guerrilla groups were operating in Louanh Namtha Province, far to the northwest on the border with Burma and China all the way to the southernmost province of Champasak Province on the border with Cambodia.
In his book, The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Arthur J. Dommen estimated that France had about 90,000 troops in Indochina, of whom 14,500 were European. Whatever their number, the French in Indochina were no match for the Japanese.As might have been expected, the Japanese turned their back on previous agreements with the French and in March 1945 terminated French administrative control over Indochina. The Japanese moved troops quickly to take control. They promptly informed King Sisavangvong that his country was now independent. Prince Phetsarath Rattanavnga, was a “vice-king” of the Kingdom of Laos and its prime minister from 1942 to 1945. E. Murdoch has written an introduction explaining what he believes to be a biography, or autobiography of Prince Phetsarath. Murdoch wrote, “It is a very curious work.” Some portions appear to be written by the prince, while others seem to be written by someone else on his behalf. In any event, there is a very interesting chapter about the Japanese seizure of Laos. This gives you a taste and I recommend you read the whole thing.”Let me briefly relate the events of March 10, 1945, the day the Japanese seized Laos.
No one in Vientiane knew that the army of the Rising Sun had reached the outskirts of the city. French and Lao intelligence officers were unaware that anything was happening. I don’t know how they conducted their investigations, but there were no reports of any incidents. No one reported anything, and anyone who wanted to know what was happening had to investigate for himself. Even a visiting French commander on a routine inspection trip was arranging for a party and had already prepared decorations for the soldiers. At dawn, the soldiers went to target practice and met the Japanese army, which had already captured the target range. The Prince had received an invitation to the party that was being prepared. At seven o’clock in the morning, while waiting for his escort, the Prince heard the sound of guns from the target range. The sound did not seem to be the rhythmical shooting of target practice, and he became suspicious. Just then a pale-faced Prince Souvannaphouma came running in and reported that Saigon radio had announced that Saigon had fallen. The announcer’s voice was that of a crying woman, and the announcement was that French .soldiers should cease fighting. They then realized that the sound of guns from the target range was real fighting. Next some alarmed Vietnamese soldiers came running in to report that French officers had gone to review target practice, had met with Japanese soldiers waiting on the target range, and fighting had ensued.”Quite interestingly, the Japanese arrived in Luang Prabang in April 1945. The French, who were to protect this kingdom, had left. You will recall that Laos never held a high place on the French priority list. A Japanese representative suggested to the king that he proclaim all Laos independent and negotiate the terms of cooperation with Japan. The king preferred the protection of the French, he argued that Laos was too small to be independent, but nonetheless reluctantly proclaimed the termination of the French protectorate, even though quietly maintaining contact with the Franco-Laotian guerrillas. Prince Phetsarath was informed on September 7, 1945 that the king had declared the continuation of the French protectorate over Luang Prabang. Following that, on September 15, he proclaimed that the kingdom would unify with the four southern provinces of Khammouan, Savannakhét, Champasak, and Saravan, with Vientiane as the capital.
The king would ultimately declare independence under pressure from domestic demands.
By this time, the Allies were really putting the heat on the Japanese, so the Japanese declare Vietnam independent and assigned power to Emperor Bao Dai, shown in the photo above.History here gets very complicated.The Laotians had to deal with the Japanese, the French, and Vietnamese living in Laos, and the many clans and their militia spread throughout the region. Furthermore, a very important independence nationalist movement had begun in Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, and communism began to spread.
A group of Viet Minh forces. Photo credit: Shat. Presented by Indo 1945-1954.His guerrilla force, known as the Viet Minh, started to take hold in northern Vietnam and challenged the Franco-Laotian forces in Laotian provinces neighboring northern Vietnam, mainly Houapan and Xiangkhoang. The Viet Minh, a nationalist movement seeking independence for Vietnam from France, managed to recruit Hmong, among others, to oppose the Franco-Laotian guerrilla, but also found themselves up against other Hmong.Ho had fought against the Japanese during the war, and even though he was a known communist, American officials in the region who worked with him urged President Truman to support him. That would not happen because of the post-war focus on the growth and intent of communism.Ho seized Hanoi, threw out Bao Dai, and declared all Vietnam to be the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as an independent nation, on September 2, 1945, the day the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies. The above photo is of Ho making that proclamation.
However, at the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, President Truman, British Prime Minister Churchill and Soviet leader Stalin agreed to divide Vietnam. The Chinese were tasked to occupy northern Vietnam above the 16th parallel and their forces entered Hanoi in September. British forces entered southern Vietnam at about the same time. Both were to take Japan’s surrender. Chinese forces marched into northern Vietnam in August 1945.Then came an interesting turn of events.
French return to Vietnam, 1945. Presented by French Indochina 1945-1954 Au Revoir Colony!In 1946, the British ceded control of the south back to the French based in Saigon. Ho’s government at the time was able to control only certain parts of northern Vietnam, with the French in control of the rest. In principal, the French felt they had regained control of all Vietnam. You will recall this was a Free French objective of Charles de Gaulle.The French made a deal with Ho that an independent Vietnam could be a member of a French Union in return for France maintaining 25,000 troops in northern Vietnam until 1951. Ho accepted, the French balked, the French attacked Haiphong port in November 1946, and the French Indochina war was on.The Americans were now dominant in the Pacific, and Europe for that matter. To the surprise of many in Indochina, the US walked away from FDR’s concept of self-determination and supported resumption of French rule over Indochina.
The idea of an independent and united Laos and the idea that Laos would at the least remain very closely associated with the French were in constant conflict in-country. Those favoring independence looked to Vietnam for help, help to prevent the return of colonialism. For its part, the US position was that France would retain its sovereignty over Indochina following the war, though General de Gaulle had to promise to award independence once everything stabilized following Japanese withdrawal. Despite this US position, a US envoy led the Lao to believe that the US favored their immediate independence. Confusion was so prevalent that the French, pre-occupied with Vietnam, didn’t even return to Laos, Vientiane, until 1946. Upon their return, the French found that one Laotian political faction had taken control of central and northern Laos while another had done so in southern Laos. The leaders of both fled to Thailand once the French returned. The French proclaimed the king to be the ruler over the Kingdom of Laos. In 1947, the Hmong officially became citizens of the kingdom.All kinds of alliances developed that often opposed each other, including the king, and often involved various Vietnamese groups. Many French left, often under Chinese escort, the Franco-Lao guerrillas found it tough going because France was focused on Vietnam and could not supply the guerrillas. This notwithstanding, the French marched into Luang Prabang from Vientiane, and Hmong guerrillas moved west to challenge Chinese troops in the area of the city.
The king was happy to see the French arrive, he cancelled most arrangements made previously by the many parties involved, and during the period December 1946 – November 1947 a constitution was developed under French supervision which declared Laos an independent state within a French Union. That said, many others hastened to Hanoi to seek Ho Chi Minh’s support for independence. Prince Souphanouvong was one of those who had been operating in Laos with a Vietnamese force with allegiances to the Viet Minh. He would go to Vietnam hoping to challenge this whole French Union constitutional arrangement. It was about at this time, the end of 1946, that war broke out between Ho Chi Minh’s forces and the French, known as the First Indochina War. Viet Minh forces began moving into Laos in a serious way in 1946 and had some 17,000 agents there by 1953. Souphanouvong formed a government in exile in Vietnam in 1950, married a Vietnamese woman, and met with Ho Chi Minh. His policy centerpiece was to get rid of the French and build something known as Pathet Lao, a Lao Nation. The Pathet Lao was a communist military-political movement, much like the Viet Minh in Vietnam.
Royal Laotian Army troops preparing for formation. Presented by AmeriLao.All this notwithstanding, the king’s efforts pressed ahead. In 1949, a Royal Lao Army was created and in February 1950 the US and Britain recognized Laos as an Associated State in the French Union. Later in 1950, the US opened a diplomatic legation in Vientiane. In 1951, Prince Souvanna Phouma became prime minister of the Royal Laotian Government.
Pathet Lao soldiers. Presented by Storia.The Pathet Lao immediately formed a resistance. By 1951, the Pathet Lao had enough troops to join with the Viet Minh against the French. Souphanouvong formally formed the Pathet Lao government in northeastern Houaphan Province. The king’s location at Luang Prabang was threatened, and the US warned him to leave, which he did not do.
In 1953-1954, the Viet Minh invaded Laos and fought their way to a Mekong River town, Thakek, in Borikhan Province, across the river from what would later become a major US air base at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, where the Mekong turns from an easterly course to a southerly one.American aircraft began dropping supplies to French forces.
As far as I can tell, at war’s end:
  • Japanese forces and civilians wanted to return to Japan.
  • The Chinese were in the north.
  • The British were in the south returning authority to the French.
  • Ho Chi Minh was leading a Provisional Government of Vietnam, with most of its strength in sectors of the north.
  • The French were firmly in control of the south and began to reestablish control over most of the north.
  • The kings of Laos and Cambodia remained in place with little control over much of anything.
The French Indochina War, known to many as the First Indochina War, lasted nine years. Ho established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and built an army that came to be known as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), while the French established an army in the south that came to be known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). China fell to Mao Tse Tung’s communist rule in 1949, China provided enormous support to Ho, and the Viet Minh persistently attacked French forces in northern Vietnam and along the border with China. Ho’s forces launched massive attacks during 1950 and 1951 but suffered horrendous losses. In April 1953, the Viet Minh invaded northern Laos. In October 1953, France gave Laos her independence within the French Union and promised to defend her.
Then the Viet Minh-Pathet Lao attacked into central Laos, which turned out to be a deception for the main attack planned at Dien Bien Phu.The French decided to defend Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border and Luang Prabang. But the attack against Luang Prabang was not in the Viet Minh’s cards. Instead, the focus was on Dien Bien Phu. The French, with the US providing supplies from the air, held out until 1954 but suffered such high losses that public opinion back home could no longer support the endeavor. Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel, a six-mile wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was set up on the 17th. Following France’s loss at Dien Bien Phu, her forces controlled a small area around Hanoi and limited territory in the South. Of course, Vietnam’s evolution had enormous long-term impact on Laos and the Hmong. While the king in Luang Prabang managed to stay on the throne through all the turbulence surrounding him, Laos was politically fractional and undeveloped. There were many ethnic and a minority population, the country’s terrain, especially in the north, was very difficult, and the country was beset by multiple conflicts in which its people were highly divided. The communists in Laos, partnered with those in Vietnam, grew, became organized, and were confident of gaining power over the country.
The Geneva Convention of 1954, which dealt with the end of French Indochina, allowed the Pathet Lao to regroup temporarily in two northern provinces. This would become their stronghold. The Luang Prabang government remained weak, it was now without French protection, the communist allies of the Pathet Lao took over North Vietnam, and Laos remain fractured politically.Since their migration to Indochina, some Hmong in Vietnam joined up with the Vietnamese nationalists and communists, while others, especially those who had turned to Christianity, sided with the French. Hmong fought on both sides at Dien Bien Phu. With the Viet Minh victory, those who fought for the French fell back to Laos and South Vietnam. This division among the Hmong would continue as the Americans came to the region for the Second Indochina War.There are a few things I do want to say, however, relevant to the Hmong.

For those unfamiliar with him, I want to introduce you to one of the most famous Hmong known to Americans, General Vang Pao. He fought with French commandos at the age of 13, dropping with them into the Plaines des Jars to resist the Japanese. In April 1954, he led 850 Hmong through tough terrain of northern Laos hoping to relieve the French at Dien Bien Phu. At the end of this war, he returned to the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) and took command of the 10th Infantry Battalion posted along the Laotian-North Vietnamese border. He and his followers would become a staunch and fierce combat ally.I had not wanted to go into this second Indochina War in much depth because it deserves its own story. But the Hmong became a valiant ally to the US, along with the Royal Laotian Army, the ground force fighting with US special forces in Laos against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. As a result, I must at least introduce readers to the Hmong role and participation.Let’s move, then, to The Hmong and the US join in the Indochina War (not yet published).


History of Laos

History of Laos
This article is part of a series

Early history of Laos
Lan Xang (1353–1707)
Dark ages of Laos (1707–1893)
Luang Phrabang, Viang Chan, Champasak, Muang Phuan
French Laos (1893–1953)
Lao Issara (1945–49)
Post-Independence Laos (1954–75)
Pathet Lao
North Vietnamese Invasion
Laotian Civil War (1953–75)
Communist Laos (1975–present)
Insurgency in Laos (since 1975)



Earliest known history and the founding of Lan Xang

Southeast Asia c.1400 CE, showing Lan Xang kingdom in teal, Khmer Empire in red, Ayutthaya Kingdom in violet, Sukhothai kingdom in orange, Champa in yellow, Kingdom of Lanna in purple, Dai Viet in blue.

The earliest Laos legal document (and the earliest sociological evidence about the existence of the Lao people) is known as “the laws of Khun Borom” (also spelled “Khun Bulom”), still preserved in manuscript form.[1]

This set of memoriter laws is written in a type of indigenous blank verse, and reflects the state of proto-Lao society as early as the 9th century, possibly prior to their adoption of Theravada Buddhism, and prior to (or coeval with) their southward migration into the territory now comprising modern Laos (from North-Western Vietnam). good

While some Lao people regard Borom/Bulom as a subject of myth only[citation needed], Western scholars regard him as an historical figure, albeit there is very little factually known about him aside from the fact of his bare existence and the description of a very primitive kingdom in his laws.

In general terms, these ancient laws describe an agrarian society in which life revolves around subsistence agriculture with domesticated water-buffaloes (the gayal). The strict punishments set down for stealing or killing a neighbor’s elephant reflect that these were (evidently) an expensive and important possession of the time.

The official History of Laos as introduced in government textbooks, is conventionally traced to the establishment of the kingdom of Lan Xang by Fa Ngum in 1353. This is a relatively conservative date to begin the history of the nation, providing a contrast to the course taken by Thai historiography (which reaches back implausibly far into proto-history). By the 14th century, when this “official history” begins, the speakers of early Lao-related languages had probably developed a reasonable base of population among the prior inhabitants of (what is now) Laos over the prior century or two.

The earlier inhabitation of the land by peoples such as the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati and Proto-Khmer peoples was given a great deal of emphasis in the histories of Laos written during the French colonial period. However, post-colonial historiography has instead sought to represent all peoples of Laos as equally “indigenous”, relating the early history in terms of a complex interaction with the (admittedly more ancient) Cambodian kingdoms to the south, and praising the Proto-Khmer as Lao nationalists for their heroism and modern struggles against the French and Americans (see, e.g., the Ong Keo Rebellion starting circa 1902).

Both French colonial history and post-colonial (Communist) history sought to reverse the obvious racism of earlier, popular accounts that when the Lao migrated into the country, they simply conquered and enslaved the native inhabitants (viz., primarily Proto-Khmer people, described in such a context with the derogatory term “Kha-That”). This traditional view has almost no factual basis, but remains a commonly heard pseudo-history, and a special concern for teachers to address (or redress) in the classroom. Vatthana Pholsena provides a survey of the historiography on this point in Post-War Laos, 2006, Silkworm Books.

It is generally assumed that, as late as the 16th century, King Photisarath helped establish Theravada Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country. However, this aspect of official history may now have to change given recent archaeological discoveries in Cambodia and Vietnam, showing intact Pali inscriptions as early as the 9th century. (See: JPTS, Vol. XXIII, 1997: Peter Skilling, “New Paali Inscriptions from Southeast Asia”)

While there can be no doubt that animism and fragments of Shiva-worship were popular in ancient Laos, evidence increasingly indicates a long, gradual process leading to the ascendancy of Buddhism (rather than a single king converting the country). The reverse also did occur, as with the historical layers of statuary and inscriptions at Wat Phu Champassak; the oldest are in Sanskrit, and worship Shiva, while the later evidence is Buddhist, subsequently reverting to animism (with the most recent statues simply depicting giant elephants and lizards, with no references to the organized religions of India, and neither Sanskrit nor Pali text).

It is significant to note that all of these official histories exclude the (possible and actual) influence of Chinese religion in the region. In fact, the ancient Lao calendar and Thai calendar are both of Chinese origin (adapted from the “Heavenly Stem Branch Calendar“), and do not reflect Indian cosmology. These calendars were both part of the royal religion (preserved in epigraphy) and, apparently, part of popular religion (fortune telling) for centuries.

Before full independence in 1954

Following its occupation of Vietnam, France absorbed Laos into French Indochina via treaties with Siam in 1893 and 1904.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina. When Japan surrendered, Lao nationalists declared Laos independent, but by early 1946, French troops had reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos. During the First Indochina War, the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Pathet Lao resistance organization committed to Lao independence. Laos gained full independence following the French defeat by the Vietnamese communists and the subsequent Geneva peace conference in 1954.

 The period of the Kingdom of Laos

Elections were held in 1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed in 1957. The coalition government collapsed in 1958 under pressure from the United States. In 1960 Captain Kong Le staged a coup when the cabinet was away at the royal capital of Luang Prabang and demanded reformation of a neutralist government. The second coalition government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not successful in holding power. Rightist forces under General Phoumi Nosavan drove out the neutralist government from power later that same year.

A second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos, but the agreement was subverted by both the United States and North Vietnam and the war soon resumed. The government and army of Laos were generally neutral during the conflict. The United States and North Vietnam subverted the agreement by forming private proxy armies. Growing American and North Vietnamese military presence in the country increasingly drew Laos into the Second Indochina War (1954-1975). For nearly a decade, eastern Laos was subjected to the heaviest bombing in the history of warfare [1], as the U.S. sought to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through Laos. The country was also repeatedly invaded by Vietnam.

Shortly after the Paris Peace Accords led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, a ceasefire between the Pathet Lao and the government led to a new coalition government. However, North Vietnam never really withdrew from Laos and the Pathet Lao remained little more than a proxy army for Vietnamese interests. After the fall of South Vietnam to communist forces in April 1975, the Pathet Lao with the backing of North Vietnam were able to take total power with little resistance. On December 2, 1975, the king was forced to abdicate his throne and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established.

The period of the Communist government/contemporary period

The new communist government led by Kaysone Phomvihane imposed centralized economic decision-making and incarcerated many members of the previous government and military in “re-education camps” which also included the Hmongs. While nominally independent, the communist government was for many years effectively little more than a puppet regime run from Vietnam. The government’s policies prompted about 10 percent of the Lao population to leave the country. Laos depended heavily on Soviet aid channeled through Vietnam up until the Soviet collapse in 1991. In the 1990s the communist party gave up centralised management of the economy but still has a monopoly of political power.


the end @ copyright Dr Iwan suwandy


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