The opening of Laos – a background

From experience, I have found that even today in this increasingly small world, when you tell someone you’re going to Laos their first question is “where”? Thereafter follows a convoluted explanation involving such phrases as “left of Vietnam” – and still most of the time your friend is none the wiser.

Laos has no big tourist hotspots, no pyramids or Taj Mahal, and therefore has managed to escape most of the holiday programmes on television – so far. The New York Times gave Laos the top spot in its “list of places to go in 2008” and the number of visitors is gradually increasing.

Most of Laos was originally part of the huge Khmer and Siamese empires, although the Lao people have always had a very distinct and separate culture. For many years, small semi-independent city states were run by their own kings. As the large empires began to fall, so the way was paved for the establishing of a new independent kingdom.

If the stories are to be believed (and there is reason to suspect that some of them are slightly embellished) the kingdom of Lane Xang was founded by a Lao prince who had grown up in the court of Angkor after his father was banished there for having an affair with one of the wives of King Suvarna Kamphong. The prince, Fa Ngum, returned later with an army to confront the king, who then hanged himself, and Fa Ngum was invited to take the throne. A few years later, he marched on Vientaine and then continued, gradually piecing together different principalities to create a single unified kingdom, with its capital in Luang Prabang.

During the years from the late 14th century until the arrival of the French in the late 19th century, the history of Laos was dominated by the struggle to retain the lands it had conquered. Burma, Siam, China and Vietnam all occupied certain key areas at various points in time and the Siamese at one time established their own king in Vientiane. All of this contributed to the gradual destruction of the kingdom of Lane Xang and put Laos at the centre of the colonization power struggle between the British (in Burma) and the French (in Vietnam). In 1886, the French received permission from Siam to post a vice-consul to Luang Prabang, who a year later persuaded the Thais to leave and in 1893 forced them to give up all claims to Laos and recognize the Mekong River as the boundary.

The Chinese opium merchants had some time ago persuaded the Hmong, the highland people who had originally moved to Laos from southern China, to grow opium as a cash crop to counter the British Opium Monopoly in China. Soon after the French arrived, colonial officials began purchasing opium for the Laotian Opium Monopoly, and ordered them to increase production, changing the hill tribe economy from subsistence agriculture to cash crop farming.

The French viewed Laos as purely a subservient part of Vietnam and invested no time or energy in any kind of development of the country. France drafted in Vietnamese to run the Lao civil service – and for 50 years, nothing happened in Laos at all.

Upon the outbreak of World War II, the French initiated a massive effort to increase tribal opium production, in order to fund their covert operations in Vietnam. Lao poppy fields and opium dens in Saigon and Hanoi were linked by French military air transports. From Vietnam much of it was transported to Marseilles, where it was processed into heroin.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Japanese ousted the French administration in a coup in 1945. Their eventual surrender later that year paved the way for the emergence of the Lao independence movement, who prevented the French from regaining power and declared Laos independent in September 1945. Prince Phetsarath, hereditary viceroy and premier of the Luang Prabang kingdom, formed a new Lao government, which the French refused to recognize. Within just a few months, British forces had intervened and handed Laos back to the French – the “rebel” government was forced to flee to Bangkok.

In 1949, in response to mounting pressure, France granted Laos formal independence – but within the framework of the newly constructed French Union. Meanwhile, in Bangkok, the three princes who had headed up the now exiled government now separated – one, Souvanna Phouma, returning to Vientiane where he joined the newly-formed government.

Another of the princes, Souphanouvong, moved to Vietnam and joined the VietMinh, where he is said to have been the moving force behind the declaration of the Democratic Republic of Laos. By 1953, he had managed to move his Pathet Laos headquarters within Laos. The weakening French administration, losing their grip on the Northern provinces, granted the country full independence in 1953 and signed a treaty of friendship and association with the new royalist government.

It’s probably fair to say that most relatively well-read people know about the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia – but how many of you had any idea that Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world? The North Vietnamese forces were channeling arms and ammunition to Southern Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. Whoever controlled this trail controlled the war in South Vietnam. America’s solution was to bomb every last recess in the country with over 2 million tons of bombs, effectively costing the US tax payers 2 million dollars a day for 9 years and costing many thousands of innocent lives in this neutral country.

US interference in the country’s politics, and manipulation of the Lao people for its own ends, marked the next two decades. As the Vietnam War intensified during the 1960’s, the US established bases for their bombers in Thailand – and to achieve their bomb-dropping quota, they emptied their holds over Laos on the way back. The involvement of the C.I.A., from 1961 until 1975, became known as the secret war because, unlike in Vietnam, America’s military involvement in Laos was covert. Instead of sending American ground troops to prevent a Communist takeover, the C.I.A. hired tens of thousands of mercenaries, most of whom were Hmong, a hill-dwelling ethnic minority. As the war progressed, the US government positioned Hmong refugee families directly between the capital and the enemy advance – seen as “encouragement for the soldiers to fight to their best ability”.

In 1972, the communist People’s Party renamed itself the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and joined a new coalition government in Laos. The fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to communist forces in April 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition: on December 2, 1975, the king abdicated his throne in the constitutional monarchy, and the communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.

The Americans gave up and were gone overnight. The promise they made- that they would not leave the Hmong to certain retribution from the victorious communists – was broken. It is thought about 100,000 Hmong – men, women and children – died during the war. Another 50,000 – there are no accurate figures – died in the aftermath.

The new communist government imposed centralised economic decision-making and broad security measures, including control of the media and the arrest and incarceration of many members of the previous government and military in “re-education camps.” These policies and deteriorating economic conditions, along with government efforts to enforce political control, prompted an exodus of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. About 10% of the Lao population sought refugee status after 1975.

The Hmong fared particularly badly during this time. Ten of thousands lived in refugee camps in Thailand – some for up to 20 years. Although many subsequently moved to other countries (including the US, Australia and mainland Europe), in 1997 – 22 years after the war was over – 1,500 Hmong were still in Napho refugee camp in Nakorn Phanom, Thailand. They petitioned the US and the United Nations to be allowed to immigrate to the US as they were about to be forcefully repatriated to Laos. They were told it would be better to go back to Laos.

Over time, the Lao Government closed the re-education camps and released most political prisoners. By the end of 1999, more than 28,900 people had voluntarily repatriated to Laos and more keep returning.

Due to its effective political isolation until the 1990’s, Laos was insulated against many of the negative effects of modernization associated with neighbours such as Thailand and its capital, Vientiane, is affectionately referred to as the “largest village in South East Asia”. A journey through Laos is a unique insight into many aspects: ancient and modern history, ethnicity, nature, wildlife….. Here, altogether in one place, you will find ancient stone temples, caves used as hospitals during the war, thirty different style of traditional dress, waterfalls to take your breath away, and some of the last wild tigers in South East Asia.

Thankfully, the country’s gradual development since its “opening up” to the outside world has not been at the cost of its culture. And the culture is truly an interesting one: a combination of Thai-influenced modernity (women enjoy a drink as much as men, and transgender young people are not an uncommon sight) and devout Buddhist beliefs (the government has outlawed religious missionaries). Over 50 different ethnic minorities – with a range of languages, customs and costumes – live side-by-side. Avoiding psychological stress, and ensuring everything they do has an element of fun in it, is a key factor in the Lao approach to life.

Discreet, self-disciplined and open-minded at the same time: perhaps we can all learn a thing or two?