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Laos - History

The term "Laos" was, by the early 20th Century, an arbitrary one, being the French spelling of the name of a single tribe of Laos, namely, the Lao tribe. The Laos lived under four flags. On the north they were under Chinese rule, on the west under British in Burma, on the southwest they form a part of the Siamese kingdom, and on the east and southeast under French authority. The Siamese called all the Laos in their kingdom and all in French territory Lao. The term "Laos" was generic and included a large number of branches of Shans which all spoke dialects of a common language and had marked family resemblances, so much so that they can be classed under the common name, Laos Shans.

The original inhabitants of Laos were Austroasiatic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering before the advent of agriculture. Skilled at river navigation using canoes, Laotian traders used routes through the mountains, especially rivers, from earliest times. The most important river route was the Mekong because its many tributaries allowed traders to penetrate deep into the hinterland, where they bought products such as cardamom, gum benzoin, sticklac, and many foods.

A number of princely fiefdoms based on wet rice cultivation and associated with the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang developed in the middle Mekong Valley from the first century A.D. These fiefdoms exercised power over their neighbors, in circumstances of generally sparse populations, through expanding and contracting spheres of influence best described by the term mandala. Commerce, marriage contracts, and warfare served to expand a mandala.

Thus, a plurality of power centers occupied the middle Mekong Valley in early times. Sikhôttabong was a mandala whose capital was located on the left bank of the Mekong at the mouth of the Xé Bangfai and then moved westward as a result of the expansion of Champa, an Indianized state on the coast of Vietnam founded in 192 AD. Cham, descendants of Champa, were present at Champasak (Bassac) in the fifth century. The Mon kingdom of Candapuri, the earliest name of present-day Vientiane, (Viangchan) was another mandala.

The social structure of Sikhôttabong and Candapuri appears to have been strongly hierarchical, with an aristocracy, a commoner class, and a slave class. The fact that some kings came from the commoner class appears to indicate the presence of some sort of consensus in effecting royal succession. At its peak, another important regional power, Funan, had its mandala incorporate parts of central Laos. The smaller but also important Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (through which Theravada Buddhism--see Glossary--reached Laos in the seventh and eighth centuries) was centered in the lower Menam Valley beginning in the fifth century.

The rudimentary structures of a multiethnic state existed before the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the thirteenth century. These prethirteenth-century structures consisted of small confederative communities in river valleys and among the mountain peoples, who found security away from the well-traveled rivers and overland tracks where the institutions and customs of the Laotian people were gradually forged in contact with other peoples of the region. During these centuries, the stirring of migrations as well as religious conflict and syncretism went on more or less continuously. Laos's shortlived vassalage to foreign empires such as the Cham, Khmer, and Sukhothai did nothing to discourage this process of cultural identification and, in fact, favored its shaping.

Laos traces its first recorded history and its origins as a unified state to the emergence of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (literally, "million elephants") in 1353. Under the rule of King Fa Ngum, this powerful and wealthy kingdom held suzerainty over much of what today is Thailand and Laos. His successors, especially King Setthathirat in the 16th century, helped establish Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country.

In the 600-year-old monarchy, the Lao king ruled from Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang), while in other regions there were families with royal pretensions rooted in the royal histories of Champasak (Bassac), Vientiane (Viangchan), and Xiangkhoang (Tran Ninh). They were surrounded by lesser aristocrats from prominent families who in turn became patrons to clients of lower status, thus building a complex network of allegiances. The king reigned from Louangphrabang but did not rule over much of the outlying regions of the country.

By the 17th century, the kingdom of Lan Xang entered a period of decline marked by dynastic struggle and conflicts with its neighbors. In the late 18th century, the Siamese (Thai) established suzerainty over much of what is now Laos. Laos – Lan Xang Hom Khao (The Land of the Million Elephants and White Parasol) – was divided in the 18th and 19th Centuries into the three kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and, in the south, Champassak. The stronger Siamese monarchs maintained suzerainty over these kingdoms.

The last major migration into Laos in the nineteenth century was that of the Hmong. Accustomed to growing crops of dryland rice and maize at the highest elevations in mountainous southern China, where they had lived for centuries, the Hmong practiced a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors at lower elevations. Their major interaction occurred in selling their chief cash crop, opium.

China's mature tributary system was consolicated under the Ming dynasty [1368-1644] and further perfected under the Manchu [1644-1912]. The royal Qing archives indicate that this well-established arrangement laid out a meticulous system of tribute to the Chinese court under which Laos paid tribute once every 10 years [less frequently than other states]. European feudal systems and China's bureaucratic redistributive system were both tributary structures. The Chinese government’s treatment of foreigners was fundamentally no different than its treatment of its own subjects (who were expected to yield “domestic” tribute on many occasions). The traditional pattern of relations between the "Middle Kingdom" and its neighboring "barbarians" like Laos was a hierarchical and unequal tributary system. More than just a relationship between two states, China and the tribute-bearing country, it also at times encompassed satellite tributary relationships – at various points, Vietnam required tribute from Laos.

China had shown little interest in imposing its rule on Laos, but for many centuries it regarded Laos --- like much of the rest ot Southeast Asia -- as being in the Chinese sphere of influence. One reflection of this state of affairs was the relationship between China and the Lao royal court of Luang Prabarng. Until the French intcorporated Laos into their Indochirnese colonial empire, late in the nineteenth century, the kings of Luang Prabang sent tribute to the court of Peking.

Following their colonization of Vietnam, the French supplanted the Siamese and began to integrate all of Laos into the French empire. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, including Laos. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang was induced to declare independence from France in 1945, just prior to Japan's surrender. During this period, nationalist sentiment grew. In September 1945, Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free Laos (Lao Issara) banner. The movement, however, was short-lived. By early 1946, French troops reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos following elections for a constituent assembly.

During the first Indochina war between France and the communist movement in Vietnam, Prince Souphanouvong helped form the Pathet Lao (Land of Laos) resistance organization committed to the communist struggle against colonialism. Laos was not granted full sovereignty until the French defeat by the Vietnamese and the subsequent Geneva peace conference in 1954. Elections were held in 1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed in 1957. The coalition government collapsed in 1958, amidst increased polarization of the political process. Rightist forces took over the government.

In 1960, Kong Le, an army captain, seized Vientiane in a coup and demanded the formation of a neutralist government to end the fighting. The neutralist government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not successful in holding power. Rightist forces under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan supplanted it later that same year. Subsequently, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist insurgents and began to receive support from the Soviet Union. Phoumi Nosavan's rightist regime received support from the United States.

A second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos. Soon after accord was reached, the signatories accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement, and, with superpower support on both sides, the civil war soon resumed. Although Laos was to be neutral, a growing American and North Vietnamese military presence in the country increasingly drew Laos into the second Indochina war (1954-75). For nearly a decade, Laos was subjected to extremely heavy bombing as the U.S. sought to interdict the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through eastern Laos. Unexploded ordnance, particularly cluster munitions, remains a major problem.

In 1972, the communist People's Party renamed itself the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). It joined a new coalition government in Laos soon after the Vientiane cease-fire agreement in 1973. Nonetheless, the political struggle among communists, neutralists, and rightists continued. The fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to communist forces in April 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition in Laos. Several months after these communist victories, the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane. On December 2, 1975, the king abdicated his throne and the communist Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.

The new communist government imposed centralized 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 draconian 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, many of whom resettled in third countries, including the United States. From 1975 to 1996, the U.S. resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000 Hmong. The last major resettlement to the United States of about 15,000 Hmong from the Wat Tham Krabok camp was in 2004.

Over time, the Lao Government closed the re-education camps and released most political prisoners. By the end of 1999, more than 28,900 Hmong and lowland Lao had voluntarily repatriated to Laos--3,500 from China and the rest from Thailand. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitored returnees for a number of years and reported no evidence of systemic persecution or discrimination against returnees per se. UNHCR closed its Laos office at the end of 2001.





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