History of Laos

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Laos emerged from the French Colonial Empire as an independent country in 1953. Laos exists in truncated form from the thirteenth century Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. Lan Xang existed as a unified kingdom from 1357-1707, divided into the three rival kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak from 1707-1779, fell to Siamese suzerainty from 1779-1893, and was reunified under the French Protectorate of Laos in 1893. The borders of the modern state of Laos were established by the French colonial government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Prehistory in Laos[edit]

Main article: Khamu

The Mekong River valley region is one of the cradles of human civilization. Anatomically modern humans have inhabited the regions around modern Laos since the late Pleistocene to early Holocene eras. In 2009 an ancient skull was recovered from Tam Pa Ling cave in the Annamite Range of northern Laos which was dated between 46,000 and 63,000 years old, making it the oldest fully modern human remains found to date in Southeast Asia.[1] The findings are critical to understanding the migration patterns of early humans, who traveled in successive waves moving west to east following the coastlines, but also moving further inland and further north than previously theorized.

Archaeological exploration in Laos has been limited due to rugged and remote topography, a history of twentieth century conflicts which have left over two million tons of unexploded ordnance throughout the country, and local sensitivities to history which involve the Communist government of Laos, village authorities and rural poverty. The first archaeological explorations of Laos began with French explorers acting under the auspices of the École française d'Extrême-Orient. However, due to the Lao Civil War it is only since the 1990s that serious archaeological efforts have begun in Laos. Since 2005, one such effort, The Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (MMAP) has excavated and surveyed numerous sites along the Mekong and its tributaries around Luang Prabang in northern Laos, with the goal of investigating early human settlement of the Mekong River Valleys.

Archaeological evidence suggests that agriculture and later metallurgy developed in Laos during the Middle Holocene (6000-2000 BCE). During this period the first evidence of ceramics, and farming practices emerged. Hunting and gathering Hoabinhian societies began to settle and rice cultivation was introduced from southern China. The earliest inhabitants of Laos belonged to the Austro-Asiatic Language Family. These earliest societies are the ancestors of the upland Lao ethnicities known collectively as “Lao Theung,” with the largest ethnic groups being the Khamu of northern Laos, and the Brao and Katang in the south.

The Plain of Jars[edit]

From the 8th century BCE to as late as the 2nd century CE an inland trading society emerged on the Xieng Khouang Plateau, near Lao’s most remarkable megalithic remains on a site called the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars was nominated to the tentative list as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, and unexploded ordnance has continued to be removed from the site since 1998. The jars are stone sarcophagi dating from the early Iron Age (500BCE to 800CE) and contained evidence of human remains, burial goods and ceramics. Some sites contain more than 250 individual jars. The tallest jars are more than 3 meters in height. Little is known about the megalithic culture which produced the jars, but the jars and prevalence of iron ore in the region suggest that people who created the site grew wealthy from overland trade routes.

Early Kingdoms[edit]

The first recorded indigenous kingdom to emerge in Southeast Asia was recorded in Chinese histories as the Kingdom of Funan and was located in the area of modern Cambodia, and the coasts of southern Vietnam and southern Thailand during the 1st century CE. Funan was part of Greater India, and was heavily influenced by early Hindu civilization. By the 2nd century CE, Malayo-Polynesian settlers in what is today south Vietnam had established a rival indic kingdom known as Champa. The Cham people established the first settlements near modern Champasak, Laos. Funan forced the Cham people out of the Champasak region by the sixth century CE, where the Chenla a proto-Khmer people would establish the earliest kingdom in Laos.

Lower terrace of the Wat Phu mountain complex, Champasak

The capital of early Chenla was Shrestapura which was located in the vicinity of Champasak and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wat Phu. Wat Phu is a vast temple complex in southern Laos which combined natural surroundings with ornate sandstone structures, which were maintained and embellished by the Chenla peoples until 900 CE, and were subsequently rediscovered and embellished by the Khmer in the 10th century. By the 8th century CE Chenla had divided into “Land Chenla” located in Laos, and “Water Chenla” founded by Mahendravarman near Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia. Land Chenla was known to the Chinese as “Po Lou” or “Wen Dan” and dispatched a trade mission to the Tang Dynasty court in 717 CE. Water Chenla, would come under repeated attack from Champa, the Medang sea kingdoms in Indonesia based in Java, and finally pirates. From the instability the Khmer emerged, and under the king Jayavarman II the Khmer Empire began to take shape in the 9th century CE.

In what is modern northern and central Laos, and northeast Thailand the Mon people established their own kingdoms during the 8th century CE, outside the reach of the contracting Chenla kingdoms. By the 6th century in the Chao Phraya River Valley, Mon peoples had coalesced to create the Dvaravati kingdoms. In the north, Haripunjaya (Lamphun) emerged as a rival power to the Dvaravati. By the 8th century the Mon had pushed north to create city states, known as “muang,” in Fa Daet (northeast Thailand), Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong) near modern Tha Khek, Laos, Muang Sua (Luang Prabang), and Chantaburi (Vientiane). In the 8th century CE, Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong) was the strongest of these early city states, and controlled trade throughout the middle Mekong region. The city states were loosely bound politically, but were culturally similar and introduced Therevada Buddhism from Sri Lankan missionaries throughout the region.

The Tai Migrations[edit]

Southeast Asia 1000 - 1100 CE
Light Green: Haripunchai
Light Blue: Lavo Kingdom
Red: Khmer Empire
Yellow: Champa
Blue: Đại Việt
Pink: Pagan Kingdom

The Chinese Han Dynasty chronicles of the southern military campaigns provide the first written accounts of Tai–Kadai speaking peoples who inhabited the areas of modern Yunnan China and Guangxi. The Lao, are the dominant ethnicity in modern Laos and are a subgroup within the Tai-Kadai family. The Tai peoples (which include Tai-Lao, Tai-Syam or Tai-Thai, Shan, Tai-Daeng, Tai-Dam, Tai-Yai, Tai-Leu, Tai-Phuan and others) began moving south and westward from their ancestral homelands in southern China and northwest Vietnam in the 8th century CE.

In the 750s CE the Kingdom of Nanzhao managed to defeat four invading Chinese armies, creating a buffer state from Chinese expansion into Southeast Asia for approximately 150 years. As a consequence the Tai were able to put pressure on the settled Mon areas, while the Khmer Empire expanded north and westward from Angkor to absorb most of the Indochinese peninsula from the 8th-12th centuries CE. By the 12th century CE the Khmer Empire had reached its zenith, moving as far north as Chandapuri (Vientiane) and had established trading outposts at Xay Fong on the Khorat Plateau.

The Mongol invasions of Yunnan China (1253-1256) led to an influx of Tai peoples into areas of northern Laos, where they had been slowly expanding since the 8th century. The Tai kingdom of Lanna was founded in 1259 (in the north of modern Thailand). The Sukhothai Kingdom was founded in 1279 (in modern Thailand) and expanded eastward to take the city of Chantaburi and renamed it to Vieng Chan Vieng Kham (modern Vientiane) and northward to the city of Muang Sua which was taken in 1271 and renamed the city to Xieng Dong Xieng Thong or “City of Flame Trees beside the River Dong,” (modern Luang Prabang, Laos). The Tai peoples had firmly established control in areas to the northeast of the declining Khmer Empire. Following the death of the Sukhothai king Ram Khamhaeng, and internal disputes within the kingdom of Lanna, both Vieng Chan Vieng Kham (Vientiane) and Xieng Dong Xieng Thong (Luang Prabang) were independent city-states until the founding of Lan Xang in 1354.

The Legend of Khun Borom[edit]

Main article: Literature of Laos

The history of the Tai migrations into Laos were preserved in myth and legends. The Nithan Khun Borom or "Story of Khun Borom" recalls the origin myths of the Lao, and follows the exploits of his seven sons to found the Tai kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The myths also recorded the laws of Khun Borom, which set the basis of common law and identity among the Lao. Among the Khamu the exploits of their folk hero Thao Hung are recounted in the Thao Hung Thao Cheuang epic, which dramatizes the struggles of the indigenous peoples with the influx of Tai during the migration period. In later centuries the Lao themselves would preserve the legend in written form, becoming one of the great literary treasures of Laos and one of the few depictions of life in Southeast Asia prior to Therevada Buddhism and Tai cultural influence.

Lan Xang (1354-1707)[edit]

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

For three and a half centuries, Lan Xang was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. The "million elephants under the white parasol" of the kingdom's name alludes to the power of the kingship and formidable war machine of the early kingdom.

Rival Kingdoms (1707-1779)[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.

Siam and Suzerainty (1779-1893)[edit]

By 1779 General Taksin had driven the Burmese from Siam, had overrun the Lao Kingdoms of Champasak and Vientiane, and forced Luang Prabang to accept vassalage (Luang Prabang had aided Siam during the siege of Vientiane). Traditional power relationships in Southeast Asia followed the Mandala model, warfare was waged to secure population centers for corvee labor, control regional trade, and confirm religious and secular authority by controlling potent Buddhist symbols (white elephants, important stupas, temples, and Buddha images). To legitimize the Thonburi Dynasty, General Taksin seized the Emerald Buddha and Phra Bang images from Vientiane. Taksin also demanded that the ruling elites of the Lao kingdoms and their royal families pledge vassalage to Siam in order to retain their regional autonomy in accordance with the Mandala model. In the traditional Mandala model, vassal kings retained their power to raise tax, discipline their own vassals, inflict capital punishment, and appoint their own officials. Only matters of war, and succession required approval from the suzerain. Vassals were also expected to provide annual tribute of gold and silver (traditionally modeled into trees), provide tax and tax in-kind, raise support armies in time of war, and provide corvee labor for state projects.

However, by 1782 Taksin had been deposed and Rama I was king of Siam, and began a series of reforms which fundamentally altered the traditional Mandala. Many of the reforms took place to more closely administer and assimilate the Khorat Plateau(or Isan) which was traditionally and culturally part of the Lao kingdoms’ tributary networks. In 1778, only Nakhon Ratchasima was a tributary of Siam, yet by the end of the reign of Rama I Sisaket, Ubon, Roi Et, Yasothon, Khon Khaen, and Kalasin paid tribute directly to Bangkok. According to Thai records, by 1826 (less than fifty years) the number of towns and cities in Isan had grown from 13 to 35. Forced population transfers from Lao areas were further reinforced by corvee labor projects and increased taxes. Siam required labor to help rebuild from repeated Burmese invasions, and growing sea trade. Increasing the productivity and population living on the Khorat Plateau provided the labor and material access to strengthen Siam.

Siribunnyasan the last independent king of Vientiane had died by 1780, and his sons Nanthasen, Inthavong, and Anouvong had been taken to Bangkok as prisoners during the sack of Vientiane in 1779. The sons would become successive kings of Vientiane (under Siamese suzerainty), beginning with Nanthasen in 1781. Nanthasen was allowed to return to Vientiane with the Phra Bang, the palladium of Lan Xang, the Emerald Buddha remained in Bangkok and became an important symbol to the Lao of their captivity. One of Nanthasen’s first acts was to seize Chao Somphu a Phuan prince from Xieng Khouang who had entered into a tributary relationship with Vietnam, and released him only when it was agreed that Xieng Khouang would also acknowledge Vientiane as suzerain. In 1791, Anuruttha was confirmed by Rama I as king of Luang Prabang. By 1792 Nanthasen had convinced Rama I that Anuruttha was secretly dealing with the Burmese, and Siam allowed Nanthasen to lead an army and besiege and capture Luang Prabang. Anuruttha was sent to Bangkok as a prisoner, and only through diplomatic exchanges facilitated by China, was Anuruttha released in 1795. Soon after Anuruttha’s release it was alleged that Nanthasen had been plotting with the governor of Nakhon Phanom to rebel against Siam. Rama I ordered the immediate arrest of Nanthasen, and soon after he died in captivity. Inthavong (1795-1804) became the next king of Vientiane, and dispatched armies to aide Siam against Burmese invasions in 1797 and 1802, and to capture the Sipsong Chau Tai (with his brother Anouvong as general).

Anouvong’s Rebellion and Lao Nationalism[edit]

Main article: Chao Anu Rebellion

Anouvong is a symbolic and controversial figure even today, his short lived rebellion against Siam from 1826-1829 ultimately proved futile and led to the total annihilation of Vientiane as a kingdom and a city, yet among the Lao he remains a potent symbol of unyielding defiance and national identity. Thai and Vietnamese histories record that Anouvong rebelled as the result of personal insult suffered at the funeral of Rama II in Bangkok. Yet, the Anouvong Rebellion lasted three years and engulfed the whole of the Khorat Plateau for more complex reasons.

The history of forced population transfers, corvee labor projects, loss of national symbols and prestige (most notably the Emerald Buddha) formed the backdrop to specific actions taken by Rama III to directly annex the Isan region. In 1812 Siam and Vietnam were at odds over the succession of the Cambodian king, the Vietnamese gained the upper hand with their chosen successor and Siam compensated itself by annexing territory on the Dangrek Mountains and along the Mekong River in Stung Treng. As a result Lao international trade along the Mekong was effectively blockaded, and heavy duties were imposed on Lao merchants who were viewed suspiciously by Siam for their trade with both the Cambodians and Vietnamese.

In 1819 a rebellion in Champasak provided Anouvong with opportunity, and he dispatched an army under his son Nyo who managed to suppress the conflict. In exchange Anouvong successfully made the case that his son be crowned as king in Champasak, which was confirmed by Bangkok. Anouvong had successfully expanded his influence throughout Vientiane, Isan, Xieng Khouang and now Champasak. Anouvong dispatched a number of diplomatic missions to Luang Prabang, which were viewed suspiciously in light of his growing regional influence.

By 1825 Rama II had died, and Rama III was consolidating his position against prince Mongkut (Rama IV). In the ensuing power struggle before the accession of Rama III one of Anouvong’s grandsons was killed. When Anouvong arrived for the funerary services, he made several requests of the king Rama III which were dismissed including the return of his sister who had been captured in 1779, and Lao families which had been relocated to Saraburi near Bangkok. Before returning to Vientiane, Anouvong’s son Ngau, the crown prince, was forced to perform manual labor during which he was beaten.

Early in his reign, Rama III ordered a census of all peoples on the Khorat Plateau, the census involved the forced tattooing of each villager’s census number and name of their village. The aim of the policy was to more tightly administer Lao territories from Bangkok and was facilitated by the nobility Siam had installed in the newly created cities throughout the region. Popular resentment against the forced tattooing and increased taxes became casus belli for rebellion.

Toward the end of 1826 Anouvong was making military preparations for armed rebellion. Anouvong’s strategy involved three objectives, first was to repatriate all ethnic Lao living in Siam to the right bank of the Mekong and execute any Siamese engaged in the tattooing of Lao, the second objective was to consolidate Lao power by forging an alliance with Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, the third and final goal was to gain international support from either the Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese or British. In January hostilities commenced, and the Lao armies were sent from Vientiane to capture Nakhon Ratchasima, Kalasin, and Lomsak. From Champasak forces rushed to take Ubon and Suvannaphum, while pursuing a scorched-earth policy ensuring the Lao time to retreat.

Anouvong’s forces pushed south eventually to Saraburi to free the Lao there, but the flood of refugees pushing north slowed the armies’ retreat. Anouvong also severely underestimated the Siamese arms stockpile, which under the terms of Burney Treaty had provided Siam with weaponry from the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. A Lao defense was staged at Nong Bua Lamphu the traditional Lao stronghold in the Isan, but the Siamese emerged victorious and leveled the city. The Siamese pushed north to take Vientiane and Anouvong fled southeast to the border with Vietnam. By 1828 Anouvong had been captured, tortured and sent to Bangkok with his family to die in a cage. Rama III ordered Chao Bodin to return and level the city of Vientiane, and forcibly move the entire population of the former Lao capital to the Isan region.

Aftermath and Vietnamese Intervention[edit]

A soldier of the Black Flag Army, 1885

Following the Anouvong Rebellion Siam and Vietnam were increasingly at odds over control of the Indochinese Peninsula. In 1831 Emperor Minh Mang sent Vietnamese troops to seize Xieng Khouang and annexed the area as the province of Tran Ninh. Also in 1831 and again in 1833 King Mantha Tourath sent a tributary mission to the Vietnamese, which were quietly ignored so as not to antagonize the Siamese further. In 1893 these tributary missions from Luang Prabang were used by the French as part of a legal argument for all the territories on the east bank of the Mekong. In late 1831 Siam and Vietnam had a series of wars (Siamese-Vietnamese War 1831-1834, and Siamese-Vietnamese War 1841-1845) over control of Xieng Khouang and Cambodia.

In the aftermath of Vientiane's destruction the Siamese divided the Lao lands into three administrative regions. In the north, the king of Luang Prabang and a small Siamese garrison controlled Luang Prabang, the Sipsong Panna, and Sipsong Chao Tai. The central region was administered from Nong Khai and extended to the borders of Tran Ninh (Xieng Khouang) and south to Champasak. The southern regions were controlled from Champasak and extended to areas bordering Cochin China and Cambodia. From the 1830s through the 1860s small rebellions took place across Lao lands and the Khorat Plateau, but they lacked both the scale and coordination of the Anouvong Rebellion. Importantly, at the end of each rebellion Siamese troops would return to their administrative centers, and no Lao region was allowed to have a buildup of force which could have been used in rebellion.

The Haw Wars[edit]

Main article: Haw Wars

In the 1840s sporadic rebellions throughout the areas that would become modern Laos left whole regions politically and militarily weak. In China the Qing Dynasty was pushing south to incorporate hill peoples into the central administration, at first floods of refugees and later bands of rebels from the Taiping Rebellion pushed into Lao lands. The rebel groups became known by their banners and included the Yellow (or Striped) Flags, Red Flags and the Black Flags. The bandit groups rampaged throughout the countryside, with little response from Siam. By the 1860s the first French explorers were pushing north charting the path of the Mekong River, with hope of a navigable waterway to southern China.

Colonialism and the French Protectorate of Laos (1893-1953)[edit]

Auguste Pavie, First Governor-General of the French Protectorate of Laos
Territorial claims abandoned by Siam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The result of the Franco-Siamese War was the cession of Laos (dark blue) to France in 1893.

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 Kingdom of Laos and the Lao Civil War (1953-1975)[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 Lao People's Democratic Republic (1975-Present)[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.


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