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The 16th century That Luang temple in Viang Chan, symbol of the Lao state and the continuity of Lao history

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 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.


Early history

The ruins of the Khmer temple at Wat Phū, near Champasak in southern Laos

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 Tho and Nung people of northern Vietnam. 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 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.[1]

This set of memoriter laws is written in a type of indigenous blank verse, and reflects the state of proto-Lao 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.

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

Idealised image of Fā Ngum, founder of the Kingdom of Lān Xāng (National History Museum, Viang Chan)

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 Le Thanh Tong 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 Trinh Can) 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

The Haw Phra Kaew temple in Viang Chan, former home of the Emerald Buddha, which was taken to Bangkok by the Siamese in 1779

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.

Between 1795 and 1828, the kingdom became a vassal state of Annam (Vietnam). And in 1802, Vietnam devastated the Laotian city of Vientiane, annexed and took control northern Laos.

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

Wat Sisakēt, Viang Chan, one of the oldest temples in the city which became the capital of Laos

What saved the Lao was the arrival of European colonialism in the region. 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 Unkham. 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.

Laos was carved out of Siam in 1893

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. 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: Xainaburī 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.

French Laos

A typical example of French colonial architecture (now a health centre) in Luang Phrabāng

Having failed in their grand plan to annex Siam, the French lost 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 and the Principality of Champāsak remained protectorates with internal autonomy, but in practice they were controlled by French residents. King Sīsavāngvong, who became King of Luang Phrabāng in 1904, remained conspicuously loyal to the French through his 55-year reign. The rest of the country was at first divided into two regions, Upper Laos and Lower Laos, each controlled by a Commandant, based in Luang Phrabāng and Pākxē respectively. Later the country was divided into eleven provinces, each with a French resident. In 1898 all the Lao lands were put under the general supervision of a Resident-Superior, based in Viang Chan (which the French spelled Vientiane) and answerable to the French Governor-General in Hanoi. Security, customs and communications were controlled from Hanoi, and therefore much neglected in the Lao lands, which had a low budget priority. The local authorities handled health, education and justice, and were expected to fund their own operations from local revenue.

The French inherited a territory which was depopulated and demoralised by years of warfare and disorder: in 1910 there were only 600,000 people in Laos, including many Chinese and Vietnamese. To establish order, a local militia, the Garde Indigène, was established, comprising a mixture of Lao and Vietnamese troops under French officers. Banditry was suppressed, slavery abolished, and the Lao-Lum aristocracy's practice of demanding labour service from Lao Theong and Lao Sūng peoples was stopped. Vietnamese clerks were brought in to provide administrative support to the very small number of French officials who ran the country - in 1910 there were only 200 French in the whole country. Vietnamese and Chinese merchants arrived to repopulate the towns (particularly Viang Chan) and revive trade.

The French took over the head tax previously collected by the Siamese, but since French officials were less corrupt than the Siamese had been the amount collected increased. The Lao were also made universally liable for labour service, fixed at ten days per head per year, although exemption could be bought with a cash payment. The Lao-Lum much resented this imposition, seen by them as fit only for upland Lao and slaves. Vietnamese and Chinese were exempt from labour service, but paid a higher head tax in cash. Further revenue was gained by making opium, alcohol and salt state monopolies. Nevertheless the administration in Laos was always short of money, and development, particularly in the uplands, was very slow.

On the whole the Lao found French rule preferable to Siamese rule, and this ensured that for some time there no organised resistance to their presence. In 1901, however, a revolt broke out in the south, led by a Lao Theong called Ong Kaeo, a self-proclaimed phū mī bun (holy man) who led a messianic cult. This revolt was not specifically anti-French or Lao nationalist in character, but attracted wide support and was not effectively suppressed until 1910 when Ong Kaeo was killed. One of Ong Kaeo's lieutenants, Ong Kommadam, however, survived and went on to become a Lao nationalist leader in later years. After the Chinese revolution of 1911, there was also trouble in northern Laos as Chinese warlords and bandits carried their fights across the ill-defined border and as Lao Sūng peoples with links to China were drawn into the conflict. French attempts to regulate the opium trade also provoked resistance in some areas. In 1914-16 there was a Hmong rebellion known as "the madman's revolt" after its leader, a shaman called Pāchai. Later Lao official histories portray all these disturbances as "anti-colonial struggles," but this is an exaggeration.

The favourable comparison between French rule and Siamese rule led to a considerable re-migration of Lao from the Isan area to Laos, boosting the population and reviving trade. The Mekong valley towns such as Viang Chan, Savannakhēt and Paksē began to grow, although they remained majority Vietnamese and Chinese. Agriculture and trade also revived. The French hoped to divert Lao trade down the Mekong to Saigon, but they were unable to compete with the quicker and cheaper trade route through Bangkok, particularly once the Siamese railways reached the Mekong in the late 1920s. This gave Siam a continuing economic importance to Laos even after Siamese political control had ended: a fact which has not changed. The French proposed a railway over the mountains to Vietnam, but capital for this project was never forthcoming from Paris. The French did however build the most important road in Laos, National Route 13 from Viang Chan to Paksē (more recently it has been extended north to Luang Phrabāng). But economic development remained slow. There was some tin-mining and some coffee-growing, but the country's isolation and difficult terrain meant that it never became profitable from a colonialist point of view. More than 90% of the Lao remained subsistence farmers, growing just enough surplus produce to sell for cash to pay their taxes.

Flag of French Laos (1893-1952)

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." They had no belief that the Lao would ever be able to govern themselves, and were slow to establish a system of western education for the Lao. The first secondary school in Viang Chan did not open until 1921, and only in the 1930s did the first Lao students get a higher French education in Hanoi or Paris. Gradually a network of primary schools spread through the lowland areas, and by the 1930s literacy rates among the Lao Lum had increased considerably. But the upland areas, where people spoke either Lao dialects or non-Lao languages, remained untouched.

Among the first Lao to get advanced western educations were three aristocratic brothers, sons (by different mothers) of Chau Bunkhong, the uparāt (hereditary vice-king) of Luang Phrabāng: these were Prince Phetxarāt (1890-1959), Prince Suvannaphūmā (1901-84) and Prince Suphānuvong (1909-95), who were later to dominate Lao politics for many years. Phetxarāt graduated from the École Coloniale in Paris and was the first Lao to study at Oxford University. Both Suvannaphūmā and Suphānuvong graduated in engineering in France. Suvannaphūmā also studied classics and read Latin and Greek as well as Pali: becoming the very model of a French scholar-politician. It is a standard observation of post-colonial history that enlightened colonialism brought about its own demise by creating a class of western-educated intellectuals who then became leaders of anti-colonialist movements. The French education of men like Phetxarāt, Suvannaphūmā and Suphānuvong would seem to confirm this in the case of Laos, but in fact all were essentially Lao aristocrats first and nationalist intellectuals second, even though Suphānuvong eventually became the figurehead leader of the Lao Communists. Laos never produced a figure like Pol Pot, a fully formed French Marxist ideologue.

The real 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 Viang Chan, where Pali was taught so that the Lao could study their own ancient history. The restoration and preservation of the cultural glories of Luang Phrabāng is a lasting tribute to French scholarship and endeavour.

The French stimulation of Lao culture and historical studies created a new Lao intellectual class, which was soon led by Phetxarāt, a gifted scholar. Phetxarāt is today remembered as a nationalist, but at first he was the leading Lao collaborator with the French. In 1923 he was appointed Indigenous Inspector of Political and Administrative Affairs, making him the highest ranking Lao in the country. He worked to increase the number of Lao in administrative positions and to reduce the role of the Vietnamese, whom the Lao disliked much more than they did the French. Phetxarāt and other leading Lao favoured French rule because it protected them from the Siamese and Vietnamese. It was only when French power and prestige were broken that the Lao elite turned against the French.

Crisis of World War II

Statue of Sīsavāngvong, King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46, King of Laos 1946-59 (In the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum, Luang Phrabāng)

Laos might have drifted along as a pleasant backwater of the French Empire indefinitely had not outside events impacted sharply on the country from 1940 onwards. The fall of France to the Nazi German invasion was a profound shock to Lao faith in France's ability to protect them. The greatest threat to Laos was now Siamese irredentism. In December 1940 Marshall Phibun's military regime in Bangkok attacked French Indochina with the covert assistance of the Japanese, seizing western Cambodia, and reclaiming Xainaburī and Champāsak, which been part of French Laos since 1904. The Vichy French authorities allowed Japan to base troops in Indochina, though not at this stage in Laos. The fear of being left exposed to Thailand (as Phibun had renamed Siam) and Japan led to the formation of the first Lao nationalist organisation, the Movement for National Renovation, in January 1941, led by Phetxarāt and supported by local French officials, though not by the Vichy authorities in Hanoi. This group wrote the current Lao national anthem and designed the current Lao flag, while paradoxically pledging support for France.

There matters rested until the liberation of France in 1944, bringing Charles de Gaulle to power. This meant the end of the alliance between Japan and the French administration in Indochina. The Japanese had no intention of allowing the Gaullists to take over, and in late 1944 they staged a military coup in Hanoi. French Gaullist units fled over the mountains to Laos, pursued by the Japanese, who occupied Viang Chan in March 1945 and Luang Phrabāng in April. King Sīsavāngvong was detained by the Japanese, but his son Crown Prince Savāngvatthanā called on all Lao to assist the French, and many Lao died fighting with the French resistance against the Japanese occupiers.

Prince Phetxarāt, however, opposed this position, and thought that Lao independence could be gained by siding with the Japanese, who made him Prime Minister of Luang Phrabāng, though not of Laos as a whole. In practice the country was in chaos and Phetxarāt's government had no real authority. Another Lao group, the Lao Sēri (Free Lao), became agents of the Thais, which also meant supporting the Japanese. A further complication was the arrival of substantial numbers of Vietnamese forces loyal to the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Although the official Communist line at this time was unite all forces against the Japanese, the Vietnamese hated the French and so supported Phetxarāt's government.

In August 1945, just as the country was dissolving into a multi-sided civil war, Japan suddenly surrendered to the Allies. In Laos as in all the newly-liberated capitals of East Asia, there was a scramble to fill the power-vacuum. The main contenders were the Gaullist French, whose guerilla forces were holding out with Lao assistance in several parts of the country, and a new Lao nationalist group led by Phetxarāt, the Lao Issara (also meaning Free Lao). The nearest Allied army was the Chinese Nationalist army in southern China, and this force was supposed to march south and receive the Japanese surrender. The United States was officially opposed to the re-establishment of French rule in Indochina, and the British could be expected to be unhelpful. But the French had no intention of giving up Indochina without a fight.


  • Kenneth Conboy, War in Laos 1954-1975, Squadron/Signal publications 1994
  • Marini, G.F. de. (1998). A New and Interesting Description of the Lao Kingdom (1642-1648). Translated by Walter E. J. Tips and Claudio Bertuccio. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Press.
  • Martin Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos, Cambridge University Press 1997
  • Moppert, François. 1981. Le révolte des Bolovens (1901-1936). In Histoire de l'Asie du Sud-est: Révoltes, Réformes, Révolutions, Pierre Brocheux (ed.), 47-62. Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille.
  • Murdoch, John. 1974. The 1901-1902 "Holy Man's" Rebellion. Journal of the Siam Society 62(1) 47-66.
  • Ngaosrivathana, Mayoury & Breazeale, Kenon (ed). (2002). Breaking New Ground in Lao History: Essays on the Seventh to Twentieth Centuries. Chiangmai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.
  • Phothisane, Souneth. (1996). The Nidan Khun Borom: Annotated Translation and Analysis, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Queensland. [This is a full and literal translation of a Lān Xāng chronicle]


  1. ^ Traditional Lao Literature

External links

Jon Fernquest (2005) "The Flight of Lao War Captives From Burma Back to Laos in 1596: A Comparison of Historical Sources," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 2005, ISSN 1479-8484

See also



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