Brigadier General Thao Ma (1931–1973) was a Lao military and political figure of the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War). Thao Ma began his military career as a paratrooper for the French when they administered the Kingdom of Laos. He switched to aviation, first as a transport pilot, then as an attack pilot. From 1959-1966, he was commander of the Royal Lao Air Force. He was noted for his charisma and aggressiveness. However, his dedication to soldierly virtues put him at cross purposes with other Lao generals involved in the drug trade. As a result, he would launch three futile attempts to seize control of the Lao military and Lao government. During the last of these attempted coups, in 1973, he would be executed at age 42.
Thao Ma Manosith was born in 1931 in Salavan, the French Protectorate of Laos, of mixed Lao and Vietnamese heritage. He became a Lao patriot, initially opposed to any foreign intervention in Laos. His views changed as he became involved in the battle for Lao independence.
Thao Ma's original training as an aviator took place under the French. A French military mission began training Lao on 28 January 1955, with the aim of staffing the newly founded Lao Air Force, the Aviation Laotienne. Thao Ma, already trained as a paratrooper, retrained as a transport pilot.
In 1959, Thao Ma rose to command the Aviation Laotienne; the following year, it became the Royal Lao Air Force, with him still in command. Along the way, he mastered flying strike aircraft—first the T-6 Texan, then the North American T-28 Trojan.
In 1964, as the air war in Laos heated up, Thao Ma led the RLAF's T-28s in raids against the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in support of Vang Pao's guerrilla forces in northeast Laos. He also innovated an early version of the AC-47 gunship, by using Douglas C-47 Skytrain transports as weaponry. He improvised removable gun mounts to arm the transports with 50 caliber machine guns. He also had cargo rollers installed leading to the loading door; 250 pound bombs could be thus be rolled out the door while in flight.
Although his personal involvement led to high esprit de corps in the RLAF, Thao Ma came into conflict with other Lao generals, as his whole-hearted commitment of RLAF aircraft to military purposes blocked their plans for opium smuggling. In February 1965, he refused to be bribed by higher-ranking officers, and categorically informed them he would not allow his pilots to be coerced into drug smuggling. The generals' counter was to move the RLAF headquarters to Savannakhet; the T-28 pilots there tended to be Thai rather than Lao. Also in the Summer of 1965, a number of RLAF pilots were bribed to mutiny against their commander. In response, Thao Ma attempted a coup d'état on 4 June 1965. By August 1965, the RLAF had grown to include 27 T-28s, and the aggressive and charismatic Thao Ma had been promoted to brigadier general. Thao Ma had not only greatly increased the T-28s' combat sortie rate, but still personally flew many strike missions.
In the wake of the failed coup, Thao Ma was both pressured to allow drug smuggling in the RLAF C-47s and enticed with bribe offers. He remained intransigent. Finally, in May 1966 the Lao General Staff summoned Thao Ma from RLAF headquarters at Savannakhet to inform him they had split off the transport planes into a separate air command and placed them under Sourith Don Sasorith. Thao Ma was also ordered to move his headquarters to Vientiane, under the General Staff's eye. Instead, he pleaded for a six-month grace period before relocating his headquarters and fled to Luang Prabang. By now, he was fearful of assassination and psychologically deteriorating under stress. As the six month grace period ran, he desperately sought alternatives to the ordered move. He unsuccessfully sought intercession by his King Savang Vatthana, by his American sponsors, and by his friend Kong Le.
On 22 October 1966, Thao Ma attempted a coup via air strike when he led Lao T-28 pilots loyal to him in a sortie directed at Vientiane. An attempt to kill General Kouprasith Abhay with rocket fire aimed at his home failed. Two ammunition dumps at Wattay Airfield outside the city were blown up, and over 30 people on the ground were killed and many more wounded.
The dissident T-28 pilots returned to Savannakhet. Thao Ma was then persuaded by American officials not to fly a follow-up strike. At 01:45 hours 23 October 1966, he and ten pilots loyal to him took off and flew their RLAF T-28s into exile in Thailand. The loss of a third of its T-28 pilots was a serious setback for the RLAF.
Return from exile, and death
On 20 August 1973, as the communists were beginning to triumph in their war to conquer Laos, Thao Ma returned from exile heading a convoy of 60 trucks. The Thao Ma column quickly took over Wattay Air Base. Thao Ma and six other pilots launched a T-28 strike against army headquarters. However, while they were airborne, the Royal Lao Army retook the airfield in a counterattack. Thao Ma was shot down as he was landing. He survived the crash, and was executed after his surrender. He was 42 years of age.
- General Kouprasith Abhay
- General Ouane Rattikone
- General Phoumi Nosavan
- General Siho Lamphouthacoul
- Colonel Bounleuth Saycocie
- Royal Lao Air Force
- Royal Lao Armed Forces
- Laotian Civil War
- Stuart-Fox, p. 343.
- http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_348.shtml Retrieved 29 April 2012. Archived March 31, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- http://www.utdallas.edu/library/collections/speccoll/Leeker/history/Laos3.pdf, pp. 13, 17. Retrieved 29 April 2012.
- Politics of Heroin, p. 294.
- Politics of Heroin, pp. 293-294.
- Politics of Heroin, pp. 294-295.
- http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v28/d268 Retrieved 30 April 2012.
- http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_349.shtml Retrieved 30 April 2012. Archived March 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- Alfred W. McCoy, Cathleen B. Read, and Leonard P. Adams, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Harper Colophon Books, 1973. ISBN 9971-4-7022-5, 9789971470227.
- Martin Stuart-Fox, Historical Dictionary of Laos, Scarecrow Press, 2008. ISBNs 0810864118, 978-0-81086-411-5.