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Laos Main Page


Laos History


Modern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th Century under King FA NGUM. For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand. In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam. A gradual, limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws began in 1988. Laos became a member of ASEAN in 1997. In late 2009, Thailand returned to Laos about 3,000 Hmong residing in refugee camps.
Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the 14th century, by a Lao warlord, Fa Ngum, who took over Vientiane with 10,000 Khmer troops. Ngum had been a descendent from a long line of Lao kings, tracking back to Khoun Boulom. He made Theravada Buddhism the state religion and Lan-Xang prospered. Within 20 years of its formation, the kingdom expanded eastward to Champa and along the Annamite mountains in Vietnam. His ministers, unable to tolerate his ruthlessness, forced him into exile to present day Thai province of Nan in 1373, where he later died. Fa Ngum's eldest son, Oun Heuan, (took the title Samsenthai) came to the throne and reigned for 43 years. During his reign, Lan Xang became an important trade centre. After his death in 1421, Lan Xang collapsed into warring factions for the next 100 years.

In 1520, Photisarath came to the throne and moved the capital from Luang Phrabang to Vientiane to avoid Burmese invasion. Setthathirat became king in 1548, after his father was killed, and ordered the construction that would become the symbol of Laos, That Luang. Setthathirat disappeared in the mountains on his way back from a military expedition into Cambodia and Lan Xang became to rapidly decline. It was not until 1637, when Sourigna Vongsa ascended the throne that Lan Xang would further expand its frontiers. Under his reign, it is often regarded as Laos's golden age. When he died, left Lan Xang without an heir, the kingdom was divided into three principalities. Between 1763 and 1769, Burmese armies overran northern Laos and annexed Luang Phrabang, while Champasak eventually came under Siamese suzerainty.

Chao Anouvong was installed as a vassal king of Vientiane by the Siamese. He encouraged a renaissance of Lao fine arts and literature and improved relations with Luang Phrabang. Although he was being pressured to pay tribute to the Vietnamese, he rebelled against the Siamese. It resulted in failure and Vientiane was ransacked, with Anouvong brought to Bangkok as a prisoner, where he later died.

 French Rule of Laos 1893-1954

In the late 19th century, Luang Prabang was ransacked by the Chinese Black Flag and the French managed to rescue King Oun Kham. In desperate need of protection, Luang Phrabang was incorporated into the 'Protectorate' of French Indochina. Shortly after, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were also added to the protectorate. Under the French, King Sisavang Vong of Luang Phrabang, became ruler of a unified Laos and Vientiane once again became the capital. Laos was never important to France, except as a buffer state between British-influenced Thailand and the more economically important Annam and Tonkin.

During their rule, the French introduced the corvee, a system where every male Lao were forced to contribute 10 days of manual labour per year to the colonial government. In spite of Laos producing tin, rubber and coffee, it never accounted for more than 1% of French Indochina's exports. By 1940, only 600 French citizens lived in Laos.

Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II, the country declared its independence in 1945, but the French under Charles de Gaulle re-asserted their control and only in 1950 was Laos granted semi-autonomy as an "associated state" within the French Union. Moreover, the French remained in de facto control until 1954, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy.

Kingdom of Laos and war 1954-1975

Under a special exemption to the Geneva Convention, a French military training mission continued to support the Royal Lao Army. In 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy.

Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War and the eastern parts of the country followed North Vietnam and adopted North Vietnam as a fraternal country. Laos allowed North Vietnam to use its land as a supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The result of these actions were a series of coups d'état and, ultimately, the Laotian Civil War between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao.

In the Civil War, the heavily armed and battle-hardened North Vietnamese Army was the real power behind the Pathet Lao insurgency. In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack to help the communist Pathet Lao to fight against the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing and leaving the conflict to irregular forces raised by the United States and Thailand. The attack resulted in many lost lives.

Massive aerial bombardment was carried out by the United States. The Guardian reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole of the Second World War. Of the 260 million bombs that rained down, particularly on Xiangkhouang Province on the Plain of Jars, 80 million failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy. It holds the distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world. Because it was particularly heavily affected by cluster bombs during this war, Laos was a strong advocate of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the weapons and assist victims, and hosted the First Meeting of States Parties to the convention in November 2010.

In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao, along with Vietnam People's Army and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on 2 December 1975. He later died in captivity.

Communist Laos 1975-Present

After taking control of the country, the Pathet Lao government under Kaysone Phomvihane renamed the country as the "Lao People's Democratic Republic" and signed agreements giving Vietnam the right to station armed forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country. Laos was requested in the late 1970s by Vietnam to end relations with the People's Republic of China, leading to isolation in trade by China, the United States, and other countries. The socialist system has slowly been replaced by the relaxation of economic restrictions in the 1980s and admission into ASEAN in 1997.



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