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 ordinance 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 ordinance 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]

The Vientiane Lao rebelled in 1828 but were defeated, and the area was incorporated into Siam.

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

Auguste Pavie, First Governor-General of the French Protectorate of Laos

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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