History of Laos to 1945
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|History of Laos|
|Dark ages of Laos|
|History of Isan|
|Peopling of Laos|
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 peoples (Dialect of Dai - see below) 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.
- 1 Early history
- 2 Kingdom of Lān Xāng
- 3 Siamese and Vietnamese dominations
- 4 Creation of Laos
- 5 French Laos
- 6 Sources
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The Tai (also spelled Dai) 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 the Nùng people of northern Vietnam and the 'colored' Tai; Red, Black & White. 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 peoples (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 (Dai - Mae Nahm Kong)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 earliest Lao 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.
This set of memoriter laws is written in a type of indigenous blank verse, and reflects the state of proto-Lao & Proto Thai 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 (from North-Western Vietnam).
While most Lao people regard Borom/Bulom as a subject of myth only, Western scholars regard him as an historical figure, albeit there is very little factually known about him aside from the fact of his bare existence and the description of a very primitive kingdom in his laws.
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.
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. However, it is worthy to note that when Fa Ngumceded the throne to his half Siamese son, the new King took the name Sam Sen Thai (300,000 Thai), reflecting the belief of royalty that the inhabitants were Thai. Likewise, the Laos flag was a near copy of the Siamese flag, a red banner with a white elephant in the center.
The earlier inhabitation of the land by peoples such as the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati and Proto-Khmer peoples 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 n 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"). 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.
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 Shiva-worship 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 Wat Phu Champassak; 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 religion in the region. In fact, the ancient Lao calendar and Thai calendar are both of Chinese origin (adapted from the "Heavenly 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.
During the first millennium AD the Tai peoples were loosely organised in small entities known as muang or mandalas. They were heavily influenced by the more advanced cultures around them: the Khmer to the south-east, and the Hindu cultures of India to the west. Most of the Tai were converted to a form of Hinduism, traces of which can still be seen in Lao religious practice today. Between the 6th and 9th centuries AD Buddhism was introduced into the Tai-speaking lands, probably via Burma, and became the dominant religion. But the Lao retain many animist religious practices from the pre-Buddhist era.
As the Tai peoples became established, they divided into a number of linguistic sub-groups. These included the Tai-Lao, who during the 11th and 12th centuries AD spread along the middle Mekong Valley and across the Khōrāt Plateau (now the Isan region of north-eastern Thailand). Their advance down the Mekong was blocked at Champāsak by the Khmers, who built the great temple at Wat Phū. The Lao in turn divided into further groups, based on where they lived in relation to the river. These were the Lao-Lum (Lao of the valley floor), the Lao-Thoeng (Lao of the mountain slopes) and the Lao-Sūng (Lao of the mountain tops). This latter group included various linguistic minorities only distantly related to the Tai. The Lao-Lum, having the best farming land and the best access to river transport, became the wealthiest of the Tai-Lao peoples. These divisions have haunted Lao history and still exist today, with many Lao-Thoeng and Lao-Sūng people having only a tenuous loyalty to a Lao-Lum dominated state.
The rise and fall of various early Lao states is now recorded only in myth. The earliest historically identifiable Lao leader is Khun Lô, who probably conquered the Luang Phrabāng 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 were founded by the Siamese at Sukhothai, which was later succeeded by a more powerful Siamese state with its capital at Ayutthaya (founded in 1351). The kingdom of Lān Nā, based at Chiang Mai and containing both Siamese and Lao elements, was also founded at this time.
In response, the Tai-Lao rulers of Luang Phrabāng (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 Lān Xāng
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").
Lān Xāng was not a state in the modern sense of the word. The king at Xiang Dong Xiang Thong directly ruled and taxed only the town and surrounding area. The lords of the constituent mandalas raised their own taxes and ruled as they saw fit. Their duties to the king were to pay an agreed tribute, attend the court for major ceremonies, and raise their local forces to support the king when he waged war. Thus Lān Xāng was a loose feudal federation rather than a centralised kingdom. This gave it great flexibility, but also meant that its coherence depended on the personal and religious authority of the king. 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. Most of our knowledge of Lān Xāng in its later years comes from Leria's records. He won few converts to Christianity, but he did succeed in making the outside world aware of the wealth of the Lao kingdom.
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. Divided and leaderless, they were no match for the Siamese with their guns and European advisers. Vietnam (under Trịnh Căn) sent an army into Lān Xāng and so did the Ayutthaya kingdom under king Petratcha. 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.
Today official Lao historiography describes Lān Xāng as a Lao national state, and thus the direct ancestor of modern Laos. This view needs considerable qualification. There was no real distinction between the Siamese, the Lao and other Tai-speaking people before the 19th century. Their culture and religion were almost identical and their languages closely related. The kings of Lān Xāng were Lao-Lum, but the peoples under their rule spoke a variety of languages, including Siamese, Khmer and various Lao-Thoeng, Lao-Sūng and other minority languages. The Lao-Lum treated the upland Lao not as fellow-countrymen but as inferiors, referring to them as khā (slaves) and maeo (savages). The basis of the kings' authority was dynastic and religious, not ethnic or national. When necessity required, they paid tribute to Siamese, Vietnamese, Burmese or Chinese rulers with equal alacrity. As will be seen, it was only after the fall of Lān Xāng, when the Siamese had absorbed some European ideas of national superiority and imposed a semi-colonial rule on the Viang Chan Lao, that a Lao national consciousness began to appear.
Siamese and Vietnamese dominations
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 peoples 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, although some of the Lao mandalas in the eastern uplands continued to be tributary to the Vietnamese court at Hué. In 1792 the Siamese occupied Luang Phrabāng, 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.
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. However, the Korat's people bravely rebelled against Lao armies and reclaimed independence in a short period. After that, the Ānuvong's luck seemed to turn down. 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 (apart from some temples) 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: this was a new development in Tai history, reflecting the increasingly strength of European ideas.
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
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. French demanded the Siamese king in Bangkok to follow: 1) all lands east of the Mekong River be ceded to French control. 2) a 25 km "buffer zone" be established on the Mekong's west bank. 3) extraterritorial claims be extended to "French subjects" in Siam 
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. The Lao are almost unique in this lack of congruence between their geographical distribution and the borders of what claims to be their nation state.
Protectorat français du Laos
|Monarchy, Protectorate of France, constituent of French Indochina|
|Capital||Vientiane (official), Luang Prabang (ceremonial)|
|Languages||French (official), Lao|
|Religion||Theravada Buddhism, Roman Catholicism|
|Political structure||Monarchy, Protectorate of France, constituent of French Indochina|
|-||1868-1895||Oun Kham (first)|
|-||1904-1954||Sisavang Vong (last)|
|Historical era||New Imperialism|
|-||Independence||21 July 1954|
The French Protectorate of Laos was a French protectorate forming part of the French Colonial Empire in Southeast Asia. It consisted of much of the territory of the former kingdom of Lan Xang and was part of French Indochina from 1893 until it was granted self-rule within the French Union in 1946. Under the Geneva Conference following France's withdrawal from Indochina after the First Indochina War, Laos was granted independence in 1954.
Establishment of a protectorate
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.
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
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. Despite these social reforms, many minority groups, especially the hill tribes of the Lao Soung, did not benefit from French rule and were not, if at all, influenced by French culture.
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.
Between 1899 to 1910, political unrest in the northern Phôngsali Province occurred as local hill tribe chiefs challenged French rule and assimilation policies being carried out in the highlands. At the height of the revolt, the unrest spread to the highlands of Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and was largely concentrated among the minority groups of the Khmu and Hmong. Although the revolt initially started as a resistance against French influence and tightening of administration, it later changed objective into stopping the French suppression of the opium trade.
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. In 1923, a law school opened in Vientiane to train local Laotians interested in participating in the government, however a large portion of students at the school were Vietnamese, who continued to dominate political offices.
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. However, progress was stagnant in the highlands, where hill tribes were either too isolated to reach or refused to adopt the education system that was based on the foreign French language. 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 (École Française d'Extrême-Orient), 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
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.
In order to maintain support and expel both the Japanese and Thai, colonial governor Jean Decoux encouraged the rise of the Lao nationalist movement, the Movement for National Renovation, which sought to defend Lao territory while paradoxically, acknowledging French rule and support. The group also published a propaganda newspaper, Grand Laos, slamming Thai and Japanese policies over the Lao people and the ceded lands. In the south of the country, the Lao-Seri movement was formed in 1944 which unlike the Movement for National Renovation, was not supportive of the French and declared a "Laos for Laotians" policy aimed at achieving outright independence.
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.
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 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 197l
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