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A brief history of Laos

The early inhabitants of Southeast Asia date back as far as 8,000 BC, and were simple hunter-gatherers. However, a slow southwestwardly migration of Austronesian (Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian) and Austro-Asiatic (Mon, Khmer, Vietnamese) speaking settlers, from China, gradually pushed out the native Australo-Melanesian speaking inhabitants. These new settlers brought with them Chinese agricultural practices based on intensive rice production, so that by about 4,000 BC rice was being cultivated throughout the region, and from about 3,000 BC metalworking started.

By the 8 th century AD, a gradually migration of Austro-Thai peoples from Southern China and Vietnam brought with it the emergence of numerous agricultural based, feudal kingdoms – mostly centred around river valleys of northern Laos. These small chiefdoms were loosely based on the Thai system of districts (meuang) ruled by a chieftain (jao meuang). In contrast two Mon kingdoms, Muang Sawa and Sri Gotapura, centred around modern day Luang Prabang and Kha Khaek flourished during the 8 th to 12 th century before eventually being absorbed into the expanding Angkor Empire. Southern Laos became a centre for the ocean trading Mon-Khmer kingdoms of Fu-Nan and Chen-La before again giving way to the all-conquering armies of the Angkor Empire.

By the mid 13 th century the Mongol invasion of China, by Kublai Khan, increased the south and westerly migration of Austro-Thai peoples into Laos, Thailand and Burma. Due probably to existing presence of Austro-Thai peoples in the region, the gradual assimilation and displacement of the indigenous Mon-Khmer peoples was a largely peaceful process. An exception to this was Chao Mengrai who, with backing from the newly formed Thai kingdom of Sukhothai, managed to conquer the ancient Mon kingdom at Lamphun. He went on to unite northern Thailand and Laos forming the kingdom of Lan-Na with its new power base at Chiang Mai.

In the 14 th century, with the decline of Lan-Na under pressure from the central Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya and with the aid of Khmer troops from a declining Angkor Empire, the Laos warlord Fa Ngum seized the opportunity to found the kingdom of Lan Xang. Covering northeast Thailand and northern Laos, Lan Xang is considered by many to be the first true Laos nation. Eventually the war obssessed Fa Ngun was forced from power by his own ministers to be replaced by his son Oun Heuan. After marriage to a Thai princess, Oun Heuan shifted alliances from the crumbling Angkor Empire to the newly formed Kingdom of Siam, which helped Lan Xang become an important trading centre.

Upon the death of Oun Heuan in 1421, Lan Xang broke down into disparate warring factions, and this state continued for almost 100 years before Phothisarat took to the throne. During his reign, Phothisarat moved the capital to Wieng Chan (Vientiane) and conquered the waning kingdom of Lan-Na, which he gave to his son Setthathirat. Eventually inheriting the kingship of Lan Xang - after the abrupt, accidental death of his father - Sethathirat also met an untimely end in 1571, probably at the hand of tribal rebels who remained a continuing problem in highlands of northern Laos.

The next 60 years or so saw Lan Xang descend again into warring factions, with intermittent periods of Burmese control, until in 1637 Suriya Vongsa took the throne and ushered in a ‘golden age’ in Laos history. His 57-year rule – the longest reign of any of Laos’s kings – saw an unrivalled expansion of territory, power, wealth and standing.

Suriya Vongsa died in 1694 leaving no heir, and this ultimately led to the break-up of the kingdom as internal power struggles split Lan Xang into three smaller kingdoms centred around Wieng Chan and Luang Prabang to the north, and Champasak to the south. By the middle of the 18 th century the Burmese had overran most of northern Laos, and Siam had captured the southern kingdom of Chapasak. But continued Siamese expansion led to the annexation of Wieng Chan by the end of the 18 th century and also saw Luang Prabang paying tribute to the Siamese. By the end of the 19 th century the Siamese had gained complete control of all territory up to the borders of Vietnam.

By the end of the 19 th century the French drive to create Indochina had turned Vietnam into a French protectorate and Laos was next on their list. A series of treaties with the British influenced Siamese, finally saw Laos become a French protectorate in 1893, and shortly after Laos’s official boundaries, as we know them today, were surveyed and agreed upon by the French. With little in the way of ‘valuable’ resources and, disappointingly for the French, realisation that the Mekong River was not commercially navigable by boat, Laos’s only real importance was as a buffer against British controlled Burma and British influenced Siam.

Direct French rule came to an end during World War II as the Japanese took control of most of Southeast Asia, but was reinstalled again after the end of the war. However, with the mounting pressures on the French from the war with Ho Chi Minh’s communists in neighbouring Vietnam and a growing movement within the country for self-government, Laos finally gained full independence in 1953.

Initially the Laos government was a constitutional monarchy led by French educated elitists, but the rise of the Pathet Lao, backed by the Vietnamese – and its take over of north-eastern provinces after the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu - led to the formation of a coalition government in 1957 between the PL and the US backed Royal Laos Government. Continued differences between the communists and the RLG brought an end to this Government of National Unity and the PL retreated to its strongholds in the northeast.

The PL, with help from the Vietnamese, gained more and more territory, forcing the US to restart aid to Laos, mostly for military use, and also to provide Special Forces to train and advise the RLG. Another coalition government was formed in 1962, due mostly to the danger of a superpower confrontation between the USSR and the US over the now polarised capitalist/communist conflict, but this rapidly broke down and left the country irreconcilably split between rightwing and neutralist on one side and the communist PL on the other.

From 1964 onwards the US war in Vietnam progressively escalated and in turn spilled over into Laos, to such a degree that is holds the unenviable record of being the most bombed country, on a per capita basis, in history. This is mostly as a result of the PL’s continued support for the communist North Vietnamese and the fact that the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail cut through large parts of Laos. As the situation in Vietnam worsened, the US helped form a 10,000 strong army of mostly Hmong tribesmen under the direct command of the Royal Laos Army as a defence against the growing threat from the PL.

In 1973 the Americans started to negotiate their way out of Laos and set up another coalition government between the RLG and PL. The sudden fall of Saigon in 1975 and the fact that the PL held overwhelming popular support led to a clash between the Royal Laos Army and the PL, and resulted in complete victory for the PL and swift take over of the country. A mass exodus followed in which the political and economical elite fled across the Mekong to Thailand.

So in 1975 the Lao People’s Democratic Republic came into existence, led by Kaysone Phomvihane - long time friend and ally of the communist Vietnamese – and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Harsh political and economic policies, along with military actions against its own ethnic minorities – in particular the Hmong who were struggling for a homeland in the highlands around the Phu Bia Plateau – led to thousands more fleeing the country to Thailand. In 1977 the King and his family were arrested and put in prison where they died shortly after from lack of food and medical attention.

During the early 80s, much of the old regime that did not flee the country was subjected to ‘re-education’ by the LPRP. As many as 40,000 are thought to have been held in camps, there subjected to hard labour and forced to follow communist doctrines. Generally the higher your rank in the former regime the longer your stay at one of these camps. Those in higher positions were simply held as political prisoners.

Aided by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the LDRP began a process reform or ‘new thinking’. The camps closed and most of the political prisoners were released. The country began to shake of the Vietnamese yoke and open its doors to the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1995 Laos signed the Chiang Rai Accord, which established a procedure for settling international disputes regarding the use of the Mekong River, and in 1997 became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). A much closer economic relationship with Thailand and a new burgeoning tourist industry should mean that Laos go from strength to strength in the future.

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