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Lao People's Liberation Army (LPLA)

The army, known since October 1965 as the Lao People's Liberation Army (LPLA), was the single most significant Pathet Lao [PL] institution. Historically it had the longest tenure: founded officially on January 20, 1949, it antedated the party, the front, and the government. It was the largest PL organization, with some 35,000 troops in the fall of 1972. Though the party led the revolutionary struggle, the army probably made the largest impact on the life of the inhabitants of the PL-controlled zone. The guerrilla bands of Lao soldiers who were organized to fight against the French in the late 1940s, particularly those in Eastern Laos who were guided by Viet Minh cadres, became the nucleus of the future Lao People's Liberation Army (LPLA).

In 1950, the Laos Communist Party, in close cooperation with North Vietnam, created the Pathet Lao Government and, in 1953, by taking edvantage of the invasion of Laos by the North Vietnamese troops, carried out the anti-French movement and quickly expanded their power. The Pathet Lao Forces were concentrated in the two provinces of Phong Saly and Sam Neua, both adjacent to North Vietnam, in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Armistice Agreements. Prince Souphanouvong, the leader of the Pathet Lao, was a brother of Prince Souvanna Phouma, a political leader of Laos, but the former resisted the Laos Government ever since the conclusion of the Indochina Armistice by consolidating the two provinces of Phong Saly and Sam Neua like an independent country and controlling its political power.

The Laotian guerrilla bands served with Viet Minh units in Laos mostly as propngandists, guides, porters, and local agents. Official LPLA accounts cite a rather more impressive record for the Lao Issara Armed Forces, as they were known before 1954, claiming that they carried out the "task of fighting and ousting the French colonialists .. . [and] overthrowing the puppet traitors." By contrast, a French government study of Laos noted that the number of PL "maquis" did not excced two to three hundred up to 1953. A North Vietnamese cadre's notebook, in an entry acknowledging the contributions of the Viet Minh in the formation of the Lao Issara, stated that the "revolution originated from the outside" and the "armed forces "were also formed from outside."

By the signing of the Geneva Agreements in July 1954, the PL nunbers weere estimated to range from 1,500 to 3,000 troops. A campaign of recruitnlent continued after Geneva, especially in the PL con trolled provinces of Sam Neua and Phong Saly, and by the fall of 1957, when an integration arrangelnent was tentatively agreed on by Prince Souphanouvong and Souvanna Phounla, PL troop strength had reached some 6,000.

Communist pressure in Southeast Asia was abated yet did not cease after the Geneva settlement in 1954. In the small state of Laos the Communist Pathet Lao in the post-Geneva period had established control of several border provinces abutting North Vietnam and China in order to resist attempts of the government to unite the country.

In 1956 the government and the Pathet Lao signed a peaceful coexistence agreement, but efforts to integrate the two forces failed. In 1956, a treaty was concluded with the Laos Government to hand over the control of the two provinces to Laos end to create a coalition government which included the representation from the Pathet Lao. A part of the Pathet Lao forces were to very transferred into the national army, while the rest of the forces were disarmed and demobilized. The Laos Communist Party then became the Neo Lao Hak Sat and became active in politics. However, this friendly atmosphere collapsed in less than two years.

Since the United States provided total support for the 25,000 man Royal Laotian Army [Forces Armees Royales - FAR], the differences between the government and the Pathet Lao became a small part of the larger quarrel between East and West. Open warfare broke out in 1959 in Laos, but neither side could gain the upper hand, despite the military aid given by the Soviet Union and North Vietnam and by the United States.

The integration agreenlent called for two PL battalions to be integrated into the Forces Armees Royales (FAR), the size of which was set at 23,615 men, and the remaining PL troops were to be demobilized. In an atmosphere of political suspicion between the parties, integration was delayed by a dispute over the grades that the top-level PL officers would receive. It appeared that PL officers, who had less formal training than their FAR counterparts, had been rapidly promoted in anticipation of the merger.

In May 1959, the anti-Communist Sananikone Cabinet intensified the oppression of leaders of the Neo Lao Hak Sat and also attempted to disarm the two battalions of former Pathet Lao forces which had been transferred over to the national army. Impatient with the deadlock, the FAR surrounded the two Pathet Lao battalions. One battalion, which was in the Luang Prabang area, surrendered to the government troops by obeying orders and giving up arms [other accounts report that a part of one battalion was captured, but the remainder escaped]. The other battalion, which was in the Xieng Khouvang area, escaped the government troops and fled into the North Vietnam border region.

These troops, together with those who had not been demobilized, regrouped and retrained and then served as cadres who recruited others. In the Summer of 1959 an offensive led by North Vietnamese troops gave impetus to these recruiting activities. At that time the demobilized members of the former Pathet Lao forces in Phong Saly and Sam Neua Provinces were organized into militia units, and it seemed that the battalion which fled from the Xieng Khouvang area into the northern border region had combined with the demobilized former Pathet Lao forces. In August 1959, despite the rainy season, these forces again became active in the two provinces.

By the time of the Kong Le coup in August 1960, the PL armed forces had grown to an estimated 9,000 troops. The coup and the consequent turbulence in the royal army and government provided a windfall to the Pathet Lao, who were given, or seized, arms from the royal anny stocks. When fighting broke out again, following the countercoup of Phoumi Nosavan, the Pathet Lao forces were further strengthened by the Soviet equipment and supplies which began to pour in. The North Vietnamese, who controlled the Soviet assistance. used it principally for themselves, but they also distributed a share to the Pathet Lao forces.

The offensive in the spring of 1961, led by North Vietnanlese shock troops with Pathet Lao and Kong Le participation, spread Commnist domination to new regions in central and southern Laos. Encouraged by the momentum of this success, and with a larger population under their domination, the PL increased their forces to some 16,000 by the ceasefire of May 1961. Following the cease-fire, the PL had expanded their forces to an estililated 19,500 by the conclusion of the Geneva negotiations in July 1962.

With a respite in the hostilities provided by the Geneva Agreements of 1962, the Pathet Lao authori ties, who now controlled more than half the area of the country, had time, and North Vietnamese support, both to consolidate their forces and to continue their recruitment campaign. As of early 1963 the order of battle holdings for Laos included 8,500 neutralist, 19,500 Pathet Lao, and 50,000 conservative forces plus 17,000 Meo guerrillas. North Vietnamese troops in Laos were estimated at 2,000 to 5,000 men, the majority serving as cadres in Pathet Lao units. The major concentration of neutralist forces 3,000 to 4,000 in the Plaine des Jarres, with the remainder scattered in various garrisons about the country. The PL force strength rose steadily, reaching 20,000 in November 1964.

In March 1964, the Pathet Lao overran the Plain of Jars inthe northerin part of Laos, shattering the calm that had settledon the country after the Geneva conference of 1962. In reaction,the Johnson administration transferred some T-28s to theRoyal Laotian Air Force and established an Air Force detach-ment at Udorn in Thailand, some forty-five miles south of Vien-tiane, the administrative capital of Laos, to train Laotian pilotsand maintain their aircraft. After Pathet Lao gunners downedan US Navy reconnaissance jet in June, eight F-100s struck an antiaircraft position on the Plain of Jars, opening a second Air Force war in Southeast Asia.

After 1964 the fighting intensified, and by 1968 it had more or less settled into an annual pattern in which the Pathet Lao advanced onto the Plain of Jars in northern Llaos during the dry season (winter), expanding its forces for attacks that inflicted casualties and hacked away from the supply and communication lines extending from North Vietnam. By the coming of the summer rains, the drive had spent itself, and the initiative passed to the government troops as the cominunists fell back to restock and regroup.

The North Vietnamese in March 1970 drove Royal Lao forces from the Plain of jars in northern Laos and threatened to overrun the Meo heartland. That offensive was conducted by regular North Vietnamese units in flagrant violation of the Geneva Accords concerning the neutrality of Laos. In conjunction with their thrusts into Cambodia, the Communist forces seized two provincial capitals in southern Laos, thus securing a water supply route through Laos to compensate for their loss of the use of the Cambodian seaports of Kampot and Kampong Som (Sihanoukville). For the first time since 1962 the North Vietnamese attacked Royal Laotian forces without the facade of the Pathet Lao.

Total force strength grew to from 25,000 in June 1965 to 33,000 in April 1967; and over 48,000 in 1970, organized in battalions of infantry. armor, artillery, anti-aircraft, and engineers. By the fall of 1972, PL strength had dropped to 35,000, according to US estimates reflecting the intense fighting and accompanying heavy casualties since 1970. The North Vietnamese played a key role in the creation of the PL armed forces and subsequently provided critical guidance and assistance to their growth. On the battlefield the NVA with some 50.000 troops in Laos in 1970 increased to 63,000 in the fall of 1972.

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Page last modified: 03-06-2012 18:54:44 ZULU