French colonial administration of Laos

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The French colonial administration of Laos took place as part of a larger French administration of French Indochina. The French approach might be viewed as one of 'benign neglect', as compared to the contributions of other colonial rulers to their Southeast Asian colonies.

French Territorial Administration[edit]

The French had originally divided central Laos into two administrative districts, Upper Laos and Lower Laos. In 1899, both districts were integrated into a single administration. In 1904 and 1905, Laos was deprived of the southern plateaus, previously part of its territory. Under the Convention of 13 February 1904 that modified the 3 October 1893 Treaty that concluded the Franco-Siamese War, French Laos gained control of the right-bank section of Luang Phrabang and part of the right-bank territory of Champasak from Siamese King Rama V.

Subsequently, the French reestablished Laos as a political entity in the middle Mekong Valley, extending from southern China to the Khong falls on the Cambodian border. Detachment of the left-bank territorial administration from Annam was based on budgetary necessity in the new French Indochina.

Through their colonial administration of Laos, the French had sponsored the notion of modern nationhood amongst the disparate Lao territories, primarily in an attempt to remove the Lao people from the cultural orbit of neighbouring Siam, which the French suspected to be increasingly aspired of creating a 'Greater Siam' made up of all Tai-speaking territories.

French Civil Administration[edit]

The colonial government was staffed by several hundred French civil servants at any given time, headed by a Résident supérieur based in Vientiane. The résident supérieur had direct authority over the provincial résidents, who were on an equal status with the Lao chao khoueng (provincial governors). The résident supérieur also acted as ambassador of the French state to the king of Luang Prabang and supervised the kingdom’s administration through provincial commissioners.

The affairs of the kingdom were managed by a four-member council headed by the viceroy. Whilst the royal court in Luang Prabang continued to manage its own affairs, the day-to-day running of the territories was entrusted largely to French, Vietnamese and Laotian civil servants in Vientiane, subordinate to the résident supérieur.

Nature of French colonial Laos[edit]

Laos hence became a low-key French protectorate, where an indolent lifestyle prevailed. It was too mountainous for plantations, there was little in the way of mining, and the Mekong was unsuitable for commercial navigation. The French built very few roads – the main colonial route constructed was from Luang Prabang through Vientiane to Savannakhet and the Cambodian frontier.

The French built no higher-education facilities; some half-hearted attempts were made to cultivate rubber and coffee, but the main export under the French was opium. Only a few hundred French resided in Laos. They adopted a dissolute lifestyle with Laotian or Annamite consorts, and left the administration to Vietnamese civil servants. The king was allowed to remain in Luang Prabang, trade was left to the resident Vietnamese and Chinese, and the Laotians carried on farming as they had for hundreds of years.


During the colonial period, administration, health care and education hardly made significant impact or progress at all. Given that there was no industry to speak of and agriculture was barely self-sufficient, there was little money for infrastructural development such as roads, schools and hospitals. The only prominent change for the Laotian people was the repression of the indigenous trade and the more onerous presence of tax collectors, which were a frequent cause of revolts.[1]

In the lowlands, uprisings were harshly repressed, but in the highlands of Xieng Khuang and Bolovens Plateaus, the French found it difficult to deploy their heavy weaponry. At times, a remission of taxes led to pacification of such revolts. The only real growth brought about by the French colonial administration was the monopoly of opium sales, an industry that is still dominant in the Laotian economy.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Murdoch, John B. (1974). "The 1901-1902 Holy Man's Rebellion" (PDF). Journal of the Siam Society (Siam Heritage Trust). JSS Vol.62.1 (digital). Retrieved April 2, 2013. "The "Holy Man's" uprising of 1901-1902 was a large scale popular rebellion involving Northeast Thailand, Southern Laos, and the adjacent portion of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. Scholarship to date has not adequately considered the rebellion's character as transcending present national boundaries, having common leadership, and growing out of common regional causes."