History of Laos

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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 borders of the modern state of Laos were established by the French colonial government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


In 2009 an ancient skull was recovered from Tam Pa Ling cave in the Annamite Range of northern Laos which is at least 46,000 years old, making it the oldest modern human fossil found to date in Southeast Asia.[1] A study conducted in the Ngeubhinh Mouxeu rock shelter of Luang Namtha Province, although unconfirmed, might provide evidence for the area being inhabited possibly as far back as 56,000 BP.[2]

Archeological evidence suggests agriculturist society developed during the 4th millennium BC jar burials and other kinds of tombs suggest a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 BC, and iron tools were known from 700 BC. The proto-historic period is characterized by contact with Chinese culture and the civilizations of Greater India. From the fourth to the eighth century, communities along the Mekong began to form into mueang or "city-states".[3]

Early history[edit]

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, Lanna in purple and Đại Việt in blue.

The known history of the region follows from the southward migration Tai peoples. In the 13th century, the Tai peoples constructed their first states in the region, drawing together different tribal communities under rulers claiming quasi-divine authority and kingly status.

The earlier inhabitation of the land by Austroasiatic speakers like the Mon of Dvaravati and the proto-Khmer 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". See Khmu people and McCarthy's account of Lan Xang's origins). 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.

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.[4]

This set of memoriter laws is composed 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. 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.

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 Shaivism 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 Vat Phou in modern Champasak Province; 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 folk religion in the region. In fact, the ancient Lao and Thai lunar calendars are both of Chinese origin (adapted from the 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 1953[edit]

In the 17th century Lan Xang entered a period of decline and the late 18th century Siam (now Thailand) established control over much of what is now Laos. The region was divided into three dependent states centered on Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south. The Vientiane Lao rebelled in 1828 but were defeated, and the area was incorporated into Siam. 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 on 22 October 1953.

The period of the Kingdom of Laos[edit]

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. 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. The North Vietnamese invaded Laos between 1958–1959 to create the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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 some of 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 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.


The Military Regions Laos was divided into five military regions:

Military Region I at Luang Prabang was dominated by the royal family and the former commander in Chief of the Royal Laos Army, General Oune Rathikul. The region commander was Brigadier General Tiao Say~vong, a half brother of the king. The region was located in northwest Laos and covered four provinces: Phong Saly,Houa Khong, Sayaboury and Luang Prabang.

Military Region II, in the northeastern section of Laos, was under Major General Vang P.ao, the Meo guertilla war hero of Laos. It covered two provinces: Houa Phan (Samneua), and Xieng Khouang. The headquarters was at Long Cheng, northwest of the Plain of Jars.

Military Region III in central Laos was headquartered at Savannakhet and covered two provinces; Khammouane(Thakitek) and Savannakhet. This region was commanded by General Bounpon and later by Brigadier General Nouphet Dao Heuang, in July 1971. The real power in this region was the Insixiengmay family led by Minister Leuam Insixiengmay, Vice Premier and Minister of Education.( his wife is elder sister of Mom bouanphan who is a wife of Chao Boun oum na champasack)

Military Region IV, with headquarters at Pakse, included the six provinces of southern Laos: Saravane, Attopeu, Champassak, Sedone,Khong Sedone, and Sithandone (Khong Island). It was dominated by the Nachampassak family led by Prince Boun Oum Nachampassak. The commander of Military Region IV was Major General Phasouk S. Rassaphak, a member of the Champassak family. He commanded this area for almost a decade and a half until finally replaced by the author, Brigadier General Soutchay Vongsavanh, in July 1971.

Military Region V contained Borikhane and Vientiane Provinces, the capital province of Laos, was headquartered at Chinaimo Army Camp and was led by Major General Kouprasith Abhay until he was replaced by Brigadier General Thongligh Chokbeng Boun in July 1971.

The period of the Communist government/contemporary period (1945-)[edit]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Demeter F., et al. (2012) Anatomically modern human in Southeast Asia (Laos) by 46 ka. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109(36):14375–14380.
  2. ^ Zeitoun V, Forestier H, Pierret A, Chiemsisouraj C, Lorvankham M, Latthagnot A, Chanthamoungkhoun T and Norkhamsomphou S 2012. Multi-millennial occupation in northwestern Laos: Preliminary results of excavations at the Ngeubhinh Mouxeu rock-shelter. Comptes Rendus Palevol 11(4)
  3. ^ "Facts on Laos". Laos National Tourism Association. Retrieved 24 December 2011. 
  4. ^ Traditional Lao Literature

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