The Lao state dates only from 1945. The idea of a separate Lao nationality was formed during the 19th century, when western ideas of national identity reached South-East Asia, and when the Lao-speaking people were being squeezed between two expansionist powers, Siam (Thailand) and Annam (Vietnam). The current borders of Laos were created by France in 1893 and 1904. Today the official history of Laos is traced back to the Kingdom of Lān Xāng, which was founded in 1353. But in reality the Lao share a common history with the Siamese and other people of the Tai language group, and Lān Xāng was only one of a number of Tai kingdoms in a region which had a broad linguistic and cultural unity before the arrival of outside powers.
Early History (1353)
The Tai are a linguistic group originating in southern China, which includes the Lao, the Siamese, the people of the Shan region of north-eastern Burma, the Zhuang people of Guangxi province in China and the Thổ people and Nùng people of northern Vietnam. Under pressure from the expansion of the Han Chinese, the Tai began to migrate into South-East Asia during the first millennium AD. They displaced earlier people (including the iron age culture who made the great stone jars from which the Plain of Jars in central Laos takes its name). The Mekong river, which flows through what is now Laos, was a major migration route, but the strength of the Khmer Empire (Cambodia) prevented the Tai from dominating the Mekong Valley. Instead the main area of Tai settlement was further south in the Chao Phraya Valley, where they formed a series of kingdoms ancestral to modern Siam and Thailand. 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. 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 earliest historically identifiable Lao leader is Khun Lô, who probably conquered the Luang Prabang area from non-Tai people in the 12th century. Because the Mekong is divided into three distinct navigable sections by rapids, between Luang Phrabāng and Viang Chan (Vientiane) and between Viang Chan and Savannakhēt, these three towns became the centres of three distinct Lao-Lum mandalas. This pattern was disrupted by the Mongol invasion of 1253, when part of Kublai Khan’s army advanced down the Mekong to attack the Khmers. In the wake of the Mongol withdrawal, a new kingdom was founded by the Siamese at Sukhothai, which was later succeeded by a more powerful Siamese state with its capital at Ayutthaya (founded in 1351). In response, the Tai-Lao rulers of Luang Prabang (which was then called Xiang Dong Xiang Thong) formed a new state which, while still nominally subject to the Mongol rulers of China, became the leading force among the Lao peoples. From about 1271 this state was ruled by a dynasty called the Phrayā. In about 1350 a prince of this dynasty, Fā Ngum, fled the court with his father after a dispute and sought refuge with the Khmers at Angkor, where he married a royal princess. In 1353 he returned at the head of an army (presumably with Khmer aid), captured Xiang Dong Xiang Thong and founded a new Lao state which covered the whole Lao-speaking Mekong valley. This was Lān Xāng, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants.
Kingdom of Lan Xang (1368 – 1707)
Over the next decade Fā Ngum sought to bring all the Lao under his authority. He conquered most of the Khōrāt Plateau, as well as territory in what is now north-western Vietnam. The Khmer court considered him to be a Khmer vassal, but he succeeded in establishing Lao rule over Champāsak and perhaps as far south as Stung Treng in what is now northern Cambodia. His wife is credited with introducing Theravada Buddhism, which had been brought to Siam by missionaries from Sri Lanka in the 13th century, and from there spread to the Khmer Empire. In 1368, however, Fā Ngum’s wife died, and shortly after the Mongol dynasty in China was overthrown. These events broke two key relationships sustaining Fā Ngum’s power, and in 1373 he was overthrown as a result of a court intrigue and replaced by his son Unheuan, who took the name Sāmsaentai (“Lord of 300,000 Tai”). For half a century after Sāmsaentai’s death in 1416 there was a series of weak kings, and the prestige of Lān Xāng declined. By the 15th century all the Tai peoples faced challenges from their increasingly powerful neighbours, the Vietnamese to the east and the Burmese to the west (the Ayutthaya Siamese had extinguished the power of the Khmers in 1431). In 1478, for reasons that are unclear, the Vietnamese under their great king Lê Thánh Tông invaded the Lao lands, and sacked Luang Phrabāng, then occupied the country for more than 1 year. In response, King Vixun (reigned 1501–20) took two important steps to shore up the throne. First he ordered that the chronicle of royal history known as the Nithān Khun Bôrum (Story of King Bôrum) be written down, providing an important source of legitimacy for the dynasty. Second he brought to Lān Xāng, from Angkor, a precious gold image of the Buddha, known as the Phra Bāng or Holy Buddha Image. The traditional belief is that the image was cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD and later presented to the Khmer kings. The current view is that the statue is of Khmer origin and dates from the Khmer Empire period. These two steps emphasised that the king of Lān Xāng ruled both by hereditary right as the descendent of the legendary King Bôrum, and by his accumulated merit, the key concept in Buddhism. After Vixun’s death, two strong kings, Phōthisālarāt (1520–48) and his son Xētthāthirāt (1548–71) maintained the strength and prestige of the kingdom. In 1558, however, the first of a series of major Burmese invasions took place. The Burmese sacked Chiang Mai, ending the independence of Lān Nā, and devastated the western areas of Lān Xāng. In response, Xētthāthirāt formed an alliance with Ayutthaya, and in 1560 he moved his capital down the river to Viang Chan, which was both more defensible and closer to Siamese aid. Here he built a great new temple, the Ho Phra Kaeo, where he installed the ancient and revered Emerald Buddha (rescued by the Lao from the fall of Chiang Mai) as a new symbol of his reign. The Phra Bāng was left behind at Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to protect the city, which was now renamed Luang Phrabāng (“great Phra Bāng”). In 1569 the Burmese struck again, capturing Ayutthaya and leaving Lān Xāng exposed. The Burmese briefly occupied Viang Chan in 1570, but after a few months Xētthāthirāt was able to drive them out, leaving his prestige higher than ever. But the following year he attempted an invasion of Cambodia, in the course of which he was killed and his army dispersed. This disaster left Lān Xāng defenceless against the Burmese, and for the next 60 years Lān Xāng was a Burmese vassal, sometimes under direct occupation. There were several periods when there was no king at all, and the Lao seemed doomed to be absorbed by the Siamese or the Burmese. But in 1637 Surinyavongsā, the greatest and last king of Lān Xāng, claimed the throne and re-established the independence of the kingdom. He established cordial relations with the Siamese King Narai at Ayutthaya, and this alliance was strong enough to ward off the Burmese and the Vietnamese for many years. Under his rule the kingdom became increasingly prosperous, and Viang Chan was endowed with many temples and palaces (of which few survive). The city became a great centre of Buddhist scholarship, with monks coming from Siam and Cambodia to study in its wats (schools). It was during the reign of Surinyavongsā that the first Europeans saw the Lao lands. A Dutch merchant, Gerritt van Wuysthoff arrived by river from Phnom Penh in about 1641. His account attracted the attention of the Jesuits, who were always keen to be the first to claim the souls of newly-discovered peoples. The first missionary, Giovanni-Maria Leria, arrived soon after van Wuysthoff’s return, and he stayed for six years, learning the language and studying the religion and customs of the Lao. Two circumstances combined to bring about the fall of Lān Xāng. Surinyavongsā had only one son, whom he caused to be executed for adultery. On Surinyavongsā’s death in 1694, therefore, there was no heir, and a battle for the throne broke out into which Lān Xāng’s neighbours were soon drawn. The second factor was the kingdom’s isolation. Both the Siamese and the Vietnamese had been in contact with the Europeans much longer than the Lao, and had acquired firearms, while the landlocked Lao could not trade directly with the Europeans. After a decade of warfare and anarchy, Lān Xāng was broken up in 1707 into its three constituent parts, with Siamese vassal kingdoms at Luang Phrabāng, Viang Chan and Champāsak. Viang Chan and Champāsak paid tribute to the Vietnamese as well as the Siamese – a fact of considerable importance later.
Siamese and Vietnamese dominations (1763 – 1848)
With the fall of Lān Xāng, European interest in the Lao declined, and there were few visitors during the 18th century. Little is known about the internal affairs of the Lao states during this period. In any case they were not left alone for long. In 1763 came the greatest Burmese invasion yet seen. All the Lao lands were conquered, and in 1767 Ayutthaya fell. It appeared once again that the Tai people would be subjected to Burmese rule. But the Siamese staged an almost immediate recovery. Taksin, a general of Chinese origin, organised resistance, routed the Burmese and founded a new capital at Bangkok, from where he set out to conquer the Tai world. Taksin attacked the Burmese in the north in 1774 and captured Chiang Mai in 1776, permanently uniting Siam and Lān Nā. Taksin’s leading general in this campaign was Thong Duang, known by the title Chaophraya Chakri. In 1778 Chakri led another Siamese army north. This expedition captured Viang Chan, and established Siamese domination over Laos. The Siamese did not come to Laos as liberators. Viang Chan was thoroughly looted, and its most sacred treasurer, the Emerald Buddha, was taken to Bangkok, where it remains to this day. The King of Viang Chan escaped but died soon after, and thereafter Siamese puppets occupied the throne. Many leading Lao families were deported and forcibly resettled in Siamese lands. Champāsak was also brought under Siamese control. In 1792 the Siamese occupied Luang Prabang, but the ancient capital was treated more kindly than Viang Chan had been. It was not looted, it kept the Phra Bāng, and its king kept his throne after due submission to Siam. In 1782 Chaophraya Chakri deposed Taksin as King of Siam and became King Rama I, founding the Chakri dynasty which still occupies the Thai throne. Under increasing western influence, the Chakri kings began to convert Siam from a traditional mandala to a modern state, although this was a slow and difficult process which took more than a century. At first the distant Lao kingdoms were little affected. They paid their tributes and made ritual obeisance to Bangkok, and were otherwise left alone. Between 1795 and 1828, the kingdom became a vassal state of Annam (Vietnam). And in 1802, Vietnam devastated the Laotian city of Vientiane, annexed and took control northern Laos. Thus when King Ānuvong of Viang Chan, who came to the throne in 1804, began to rebuild his kingdom’s strength, with covert assistance from Vietnam, Bangkok paid little attention. Ānuvong built the splendid Wat Sisakēt as a symbol of Lao revival. By 1823 he was confident that he could expand his power to the neighbor countries. He easily gained control of the Viang Chan area, while his son had already been a ruler Champāsak (appointed by Siamese King Rama II as a reward that Ānuvong helped Siam in many battles). The Lao armies then crossed the Mekong to capture Siam’s northeast region. At that time, Ānuvong had ambition to even conquer Siam or, if cannot conquer, destroy and loot Bangkok to make sure that Siam would not be able to recover again. The Lao warlord succeeded to capture Korat, the important city of Siam. The King of Luang Phrabāng sided with the Siamese, Vietnamese aid did not come, and the Siamese King Rama III was able to mobilize and strike back. The Lao were decisively defeated at a battle south of Viang Chan in 1827. The city was burned to the ground and its population deported. The following year Ānuvong was captured, and died a prisoner in Bangkok. The Viang Chan kingdom was abolished outright and made a Siamese province. The mid-19th century was the lowest point in Lao history. In 1848, the kingdom was once again restored as a vassal state of Vietnam. The King of Luang Phrabāng retained a nominal independence by paying tribute to China and Vietnam as well as Siam. The rest of the Lao lands were directly ruled from Bangkok in an increasingly detailed and oppressive way, as Siam developed more of the infrastructure of a modern state. The Lao lands were depopulated by forced resettlement, and the towns filled with Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. If Ānuvong’s revolt had showed the beginnings of a genuine sense of Lao nationalism, by the 1860s it seemed as though the Lao would soon disappear as a distinct national entity, becoming just another regional sub-nationality of the Siamese kingdom.
Creation of Laos (1826 AD – 1909)
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 Oun Kham. 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. 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: Sayaboury 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.
French Laos (1893 – 1954)
The principal temple of the Angkorian period Angkor Wat, was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II. Suryavarman ascended to the throne after prevailing in a battle with a rival prince. An inscription says that in the course of combat, Suryavarman leapt onto his rival’s war elephant and killed him; just as the mythical bird-man Garuda slays a serpent. Breaking with the tradition of the Khmer Kings and influenced perhaps by the concurrent rise of Vaisnavism in India, he dedicated Angkor Wat to Vishnu rather than to Shiva. With walls nearly one-half mile long on each side, Angkor Wat grandly portrays the Hindu cosmology. The central towers represented Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls, the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond. Suryavarman had the walls of the temple decorated not only with scenes from mythology, but also from the life of his own imperial court. In one of the scenes, the King himself is portrayed as larger in size than his subjects, sitting cross-legged on an elevated throne and holding court, while a bevy of attendants make him comfortable with the aid of parasols and fans.
Establishment of a protectorate (1886 – 1896)
After the acquirement of Cambodia in 1863, French explorers led by Ernest Doudart de Lagrée went on several expeditions along the Mekong River to find possible trade relations for the territories of French Cambodia and Cochinchina (modern-day Southern Vietnam) to the south. In 1885, a French consulate was established in Luang Prabang, which along with the royal province of Vientiane, was a vassal kingdom to Siam (modern-day Thailand). Siam, led by king Chulalongkorn, soon feared that France was planning to annex Luang Prabang and signed a treaty with the French on May 7, 1886 that recognized Siam’s suzerainty over the Lao kingdoms By the end of 1886, Auguste Pavie was named vice-counsel of Luang Prabang and was in charge of expeditions occurring in Laotian territory, with the possibility of turning Laos into a French territory. In 1888, Chinese forces known as the Black Flags declared war on Siam and its vassal state of Luang Prabang by sacking the city. Pavie and French forces later intervened and evacuated the Lao royal family to safety. Additional French troops from Hanoi later arrived to expel the Black Flags from Luang Prabang. Following his return to the city, King Oun Kham requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. Pavie later sent Oun Kham’s request to the French government in Paris. The bill designating Luang Prabang a protectorate of France was signed on March 27, 1889 between both sides despite a Siamese protest. Later, after several border disputes between France and Siam, an ultimatum was sent by Pavie in August 1892 to Siam, which compelled the kingdom to recognize French control over the eastern side of the Mekong River. Pavie was later named as French ambassador to Siam and continued to support French expeditions in Laotian territory and gave the territory its modern-day name of Laos. Following Siam’s acceptance of the ultimatum, the Protectorate of Laos was officially established and the administrative capital moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. However, Luang Prabang remained the seat of the royal family, whose power was reduced to figureheads while the actual power was transferred over to French officials including the vice consulate and Resident-General. In January 1896, France and the United Kingdom signed an accord recognizing the border between French Laos and British Burma.
Administrative reorganization (1898 – 1907)
In 1898, Laos was fully integrated into the French Indochina union that was created in 1887 by unifying French possessions in Vietnam and Cambodia. A colonial governor was later installed in Vientiane and Laos was reorganized from two provinces (Haut-Laos and Bas-Laos) to ten provinces. The royal seat at Luang Prabang was still seen as the official ruler of the province and a royal court still remained, but it was later to be consisted of French appointed officials. The remaining nine provinces were directly ruled under the French government in Vientiane, with each province having a resident governor and military post. To financially support the colonial government, taxes were introduced and imposed on the population. In 1904, a treaty with Siam forced the kingdom to surrender its remaining lands on the eastern side of the Mekong River, which consisted of the province of Sainyabuli. In 1905, the present border between Laos and Cambodia was established after Siam ceded Preah Vihear Province to the French. French plans to expand the territory of Laos ended in 1907, after Siam began cooperating with the British to control French expansion in Indochina, which the British Empire feared would have eventually led to a French annexation of Siam, upsetting the region’s balance of power.
Colonialism in Laos (1904 – 1931)
Having been unsuccessful in their grand plan to annex Siam and with Laos being the least populated of its Indochinese possessions (the population was estimated to be 470,000 in 1900) and lacking seaports for trade, the French lost much 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 remained a protectorate with internal autonomy, but in practice it was controlled by French residents while the rest of Laos was governed as a colony. King Sisavang Vong, who became King of Luang Phrabāng in 1904, remained conspicuously loyal to the French through his 55-year reign. Economically, the French did not develop Laos to the scale that it had in Vietnam and many Vietnamese were recruited to work in the government in Laos instead of the Laotian people, causing some conflicts between locals and the government. Economic development occurred very slowly in Laos and was initially fueled primarily by rice cultivation and distilleries producing rice alcohol. Nevertheless, the French did not plan to expand the Laotian economy and left commercial activity to the local populations. Geographic isolation also led to Laos being less influenced from France compared to other French colonies and in a 1937 estimate, only 574 French civilians along with a smaller number of government workers lived in Laos, a figure significantly smaller than in Vietnam and Cambodia. Social reforms also occurred under French administration, such as the suppression of banditry, abolishment of slavery, and ending the legal discrimination of the Lao Theung and Lao Soung people by the Lao Loum majority. Vietnamese and Chinese merchants also later arrived to repopulate the towns (particularly Vientiane) and revive trade and some Lao Loum were later allowed to participate in local government. In 1901, a revolt broke out in the south of Laos in the Bolaven Plateau among groups of Lao Theung led by Ong Kaeo, who was a self-proclaimed phū mī bun (holy man) who led a messianic cult. The revolt challenged French control over Laos and was not fully suppressed until 1910, when Ong Kaeo was killed. However, his successor and lieutenant, Ong Kommadam would become an early leader in the Lao nationalist movement. Instability continued in the north of Laos in 1919 when Hmong groups, who were the chief opium producers in Indochina, revolted against French taxation and special status given to the Lao Loum, who were minorities in the highlands, in a conflict known as the War of the Insane. Hmong rebels claimed that both Lao and French officials were treating them as subordinate and “uncivilized” groups and were later defeated in March 1921. After the revolt, the French government granted Hmongs partial autonomy in the Xiangkhouang Province. Despite the unrest among minority hill tribes in the north, the central and southern portions of Laos saw a more favorable comparison under French rule versus Siamese rule and a considerable re-migration of Lao from the Isan area of northeastern Siam to Laos boosted the population and revived trade. Mekong valley cities such as Vientiane and Savannakhet grew considerably and the founding of Pakse fully asserted French rule over southern Laos, although cities still largely contained significant Vietnamese and Chinese minorities. To compete with Siamese trade, the French proposed a railway linking Hanoi with Vientiane but the plans were never approved. Nevertheless, infrastructure did improve for the first time in Laos as French colonists constructed Route nationale 13, linking Vientiane with Pakse and the road continues to remain the most important highway in Laos today. Although tin mining and coffee cultivation began in the 1920s, the country’s isolation and difficult terrain meant that Laos largely remained economically unviable to the French. More than 90% of the Lao remained subsistence farmers, growing just enough surplus produce to sell for cash to pay their taxes. Although the French did impose an assimilation program in Laos as in Vietnam, they were slow to fully enforce it due to the isolation and lack of economic importance in the colony. Schools were found primarily in major cities and it was not until the 1920s that rural areas began to be exposed to French education. By the 1930s, literacy rates among the Lao Loum and populations in the lowlands had increased considerably and Laotian students began to receive higher education in Hanoi or Paris. 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.” 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, 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 Vientiane, where Pali was taught so that the Lao could either study their own ancient history or Buddhist texts.
Laos during World War II (1939 – 1945)
Laos might have drifted along as a pleasant backwater of the French Empire indefinitely had it not been for outside events that impacted nation sharply from 1940 onwards. In 1932, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, prime minister of Siam, overthrew the king and established his own fascist government in the country, which he later renamed Thailand with plans to unify all Tai peoples, including the Lao, under one nation. Following the Fall of France in June 1940, Laos came under the administration of the Axis-puppet Vichy France government along with the rest of French Indochina and the government was under Japanese supervision. In August 1940, an Axis-aligned Thailand attacked the eastern banks of the Mekong between Vientiane and Champassak Province. Both forces would later declare war and despite French victories, the Japanese government mediated a ceasefire and compelled the French colonial government to cede Champassak Province and Xaignabouli in Laos and Battambang Province in Cambodia to Thailand. These provinces would later be returned to their respective nations by Thailand after France threatened to block Thai entry into the United Nations following World War II. Japanese occupation of Laos In 1944, France was liberated and General Charles de Gaulle was brought into power. At the same time, Japanese Empire troops were being largely defeated in the Pacific Front and in a last minute attempt of trying to draw support, Japan dissolved French control over its Indochinese colonies in March 1945. Large numbers of French officials in Laos were then imprisoned by the Japanese as well as king Sisavang Vong, who was forced into declaring Laotian independence and accepting the nation in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. At the same time, remaining French officials and civilians withdrew to the mountains to regroup and join a growing Laotian insurgency against the Japanese, who occupied Vientiane in March 1945. Led by Crown Prince Savang Vatthana, Laotian insurgents challenged Japanese forces by carrying out attacks on Japanese officials and troops in Laos and many Lao died fighting with the French resistance against the Japanese occupiers. Japan continued to directly rule Laos despite constant civil unrest against it until it was forced to withdraw from the nation in August 1945, less than a month before it would fully surrender to the Allies. Independence Following Japan’s expulsion from Laos, Colonel Hans Imfeld of the provisional French government, entered Luang Prabang with a French-Lao force and freed French prisoners and Vientiane was later reoccupied. At the same time, Viet Minh forces fighting for Vietnam’s independence from France enlisted a number of Lao to resist French rule. Prince Phetsarath, who aligned with the Viet Minh later declared the French protectorate over Laos abolished and supported nationalist independence movements, particularly the Lao Issara. In order to avoid direct war with Laotian forces as in Vietnam, France agreed to proclaim Laos a self-governing state within the French Union in 1949. Following France’s defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Laos was granted independence at the Geneva Conference in September of the same year.
The period of the Kingdom of Laos (1955 –1975)
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 meant little in reality and the war soon resumed. Growing North Vietnamese military presence in the country increasingly drew Laos into the Second Indochina War (1954-1975). As a result for nearly a decade, eastern Laos was subjected to the heaviest bombing in the history of warfare, as the U.S. sought to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through Laos and defeat the Communist forces. The North Vietnamese also heavily backed the Pathet Lao and repeatedly invaded Laos. The government and army of Laos were backed by the USA during the conflict and the United States formed and trained irregular forces. 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 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.