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History, The Kingdom of Laos

bombing of Laos, Geneva Accords, Pathet Lao, secret army, French Union

By 1954 the Communist and non-Communist blocs of the Cold War era had begun to take shape. The United States, as the leader of the non-Communist countries, was particularly concerned with limiting the advances of Communism in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, France wished to maintain the power of the Lao elite who had cooperated with the French colonial government. Under the terms of the Geneva Accords, the Pathet Lao and the territories they controlled were to be integrated into the rest of the country under the rule of the royal Lao government. The accords declared a cease-fire between the forces of the French Union and those of the Pathet Lao, and called for the Pathet Lao to withdraw their forces to the two northern provinces under their control. An International Control Commission was set up to monitor the truce. Meanwhile, negotiations were begun to include the Pathet Lao in the political life of the country. In November 1957 the neutralist prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma, at last reached an agreement with his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, to form a coalition government that would include two Pathet Lao ministers. The two Pathet Lao provinces were returned to royal government administration. By this time French influence in Laos was waning, and the United States, opposed to any accommodation of the pro-Communist Pathet Lao, backed a right-wing, anti-Communist group that ousted Souvanna Phouma’s government and rigged new elections. The ouster led the Pathet Lao to resume guerrilla warfare in 1959.

In the renewed fighting, the Pathet Lao enjoyed the support of Communist bloc countries, while the United States supplied military aid to the right-wing forces. As the political situation deteriorated, a Lao army paratroop commander in the neutralist camp, Captain Konglae, overthrew the U.S.-backed government and brought Souvanna Phouma back to power. The United States encouraged a rightist Lao military strongman, General Phoumi Nosavan, to drive Konglae’s forces out of Vientiane and establish a rival government. Konglae thereupon allied with the Pathet Lao, and together the neutralists and Communists soon gained control of more than half the country. Faced with this catastrophe, U.S. president John F. Kennedy agreed to accept the neutralization of Laos. A cease-fire was arranged, and a new 14-nation conference convened at Geneva in 1961. After prolonged negotiations the leaders of the three main Lao political factions (Pathet Lao, neutralist, and pro-Western) agreed to form a second coalition government led by Souvanna Phouma. The coalition government took power in 1962.

During the next two years Souvanna Phouma’s government came under increasing pressure from both the left and the right. Consequently, the neutralists themselves split, left-wing ministers left the government, and by 1965 the country had returned to civil war. As the war in Vietnam escalated, Laos became increasingly important to both North Vietnam and the United States. Both sides violated the neutrality of Laos: the North Vietnamese by infiltrating troops and supplies down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail through eastern and southern Laos; and the United States by secretly bombing the trail and by recruiting, financing, and training a mercenary force of Hmong tribesmen to fight the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. As the war dragged on, the bombing of Laos became heavier and the Hmong "secret army" sustained terrible casualties and had to be reinforced by Thai mercenaries. Both North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces also suffered terrible losses.

As the United States sought a way to end the Vietnam War, the Pathet Lao strengthened their position in Laos and negotiations began for a cease-fire. Early in 1973 the Lao political factions agreed to a cease-fire and, in April 1974, formed a third coalition government, this time with equal representation from the right and left. Soon, however, the Pathet Lao gained political dominance. After Cambodia and South Vietnam fell to Communist forces in April 1975, the Pathet Lao used the opportunity to seize power in Laos.

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