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Pathet Lao Uprising in Laos

The name "Pathet Lao" (Land of Laos) referred to the communist movement that occurred in Laos beginning in the 1950s and was the Laotian equivalent of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and Vietnam's Viet Cong. The movement was formed by Prince Souphanouvong in North Vietnam during the first Indochina War between France and the Vietnamese communists. The Pathet Lao was committed to the communist struggle against colonialism. In 1953, the Pathet Lao guerrillas accompanied a Viet Minh invasion of Laos from Vietnam and established a government at Samneua in northern Laos.

Soon after Laos was granted full sovereignty from France. Civil war followed soon after however, as the Pathet Lao made several attacks on central Laos, making considerable gains. An agreement between the Pathet Lao and royal forces was reached in 1957, but only 2 years later the coalition government collapsed and fighting resumed. Soon a 3-way civil war was upon the country, between the Pathet Lao, the right-wing government who controlled the Royal Laotian Army (this was the force recognized by the United States and other western countries), and the Soviet-recognized so-called neutralist forces of Souvanna Phouma, who had fled to Cambodia.

In 1960 Vientiane was taken in a coup by Kong Le, who demanded the creation of a neutralist government. Kong Le and his supporters were soon driven from power by rightist forces and the neutralists aligned themselves with the Pathet Lao and could now enjoy Soviet support. In 1961 a cease-fire was agreed upon that called for the neutrality of Laos under a unified government with Souvana Phouma as primier. Despite this initial success, failure to integrate the armed forces led to the cease-fire's collapse and the Pathet Lao began to move against neutralist forces.

The US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), whose members were allowed to wear uniforms, was withdrawn in 1962 under the terms of the Geneva Agreement, which was supposed to neutralize Laos . Because the North Vietnamese did not respect the withdrawal requirement, however, the United States stepped up military aid to the RLG, but avoided sending ground troops into Laos, which would have violated the agreement.

As part of this effort, United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel operating from a base at Udon Thani, Thailand, took over the support of 30,000- to 36,000-person irregulars, including Hmong guerrillas who bore the brunt of the fighting in northern Laos. A CIA-chartered airline, Air America, dropped rice and ammunition from its C-46s and C-47s to isolated Hmong outposts, which were sometimes behind enemy lines. A variety of short takeoff and landing aircraft used dirt airstrips carved out of the jungle by the Hmong. The irregulars, who became known as the Secret Army, were instrumental in helping to rescue a large number of United States airmen who were shot down over Laos. By this time, the Hmong leader Vang Pao had risen to the rank of general in the Royal Lao Army and commanded the Second Military Region.

In October 1964, in response to an offensive by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese to expel the Neutralists from the Plain of Jars, the United States began providing air support against Pathet Lao positions and North Vietnamese supply lines. However, it was not until March 1966 at Phoukout, northwest of the Plain of Jars, that the Pathet Lao started to win major battles against the Royal Lao Army. In July 1966, the Pathet Lao won another major battle in the Nambak Valley in northern Louangphrabang Province by overrunning a Royal Lao Army base and inflicting heavy casualties. These victories gave the Pathet Lao new momentum in the war for control of Laos.

Meanwhile, in southern Laos, where the North Vietnamese had been working steadily every dry season to expand the Ho Chi Minh Trail network leading into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the intensity of the air war also grew. The air war in Laos operated under a complicated command and control system that involved the United States embassy in Vientiane, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam in Saigon, Royal Thai air bases in Thailand, the commander in chief Pacific in Honolulu, and sometimes even the White House.

The United States ambassador in Vientiane had the final say on target selection, using criteria that included taking into account the distance of targets from civilian habitations and the types of ordnance to be expended. The ambassador also was to keep the RLG informed so as to avoid, or at least minimize, the latter's embarrassment vis-à-vis the British and Soviet embassies in Vientiane and the heads of the Indian, Canadian, and Polish delegations to the International Control Commission who were jointly responsible for enforcing the 1962 Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos signed in Geneva.

During the June 1969 rainy season, the Pathet Lao and two North Vietnamese battalions, using Soviet tanks, pushed the Royal Lao Army and the Neutralists out of their base at Muang Souy northwest of the Plain of Jars. Fighting continued during the monsoon season. In September 1969, Vang Pao's Hmong, supported by United States bombing, launched a series of surprise attacks against key points on the Plain of Jars. A new North Vietnamese army division joined the battle shortly thereafter and by February 1970 had regained all of the devastated plain.

In 1970, despite eight years of ground offensives by the Royal Lao Army and massive United States air support, the Pathet Lao had grown into an army of 48,000 troops and was prepared to challenge Royal Lao Army forces on their own territory by mounting large offensives in the south engaging an even greater number of North Vietnamese forces. The introduction of Soviet-made long-range 130- mm artillery pieces onto the battlefield in that year allowed the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese to neutralize to some extent the Royal Lao Army's advantage of air superiority.

In February 1971, a major offensive by the South Vietnamese army, with United States logistical and air support, sent two divisions into Laos in the vicinity of Xépôn with the objective of cutting North Vietnamese supply lines. However, once inside Laos, South Vietnamese commanders were separated from their resupply bases by long logistics lines resulting in an early termination of the offensive. By December 1971, the Pathet Lao had taken Paksong on the Bolovens Plateau and had invested the main Hmong base at Longtiang. Communist advances continued into 1972 and encircled Thakhek on the Mekong, and Vientiane.

The cease-fire of February 22, 1973, ended United States bombing and temporarily halted ground offensives. The Pathet Lao, however, following their usual practice, used the cessation of military operations to resupply their forces over the long and exposed roads from North Vietnam. In further fighting in the spring of 1975, the Pathet Lao finally broke the resistance of Vang Pao's Hmong blocking the road junction linking Vientiane, Louangphrabang, and the Plain of Jars. Under the watch of two battalions of Pathet Lao troops, which had been flown into Vientiane and Louangphrabang on Soviet and Chinese planes for neutralizing those towns under the cease-fire agreement, the communists organized demonstrations to support their political and military demands, leading to the final, bloodless seizure of power in the towns that the RLG had held up to then.

Despite American support, the Pathet Lao, with the support of the North Vietnamese, were able to make major gains in Laos, eventually controlling about two thirds of the country. A cease-fire was finally declared in 1973. The new agreement called for a coalition government under Souvanna Phouma, the stationing of equal numbers of government and Pathet Lao troops in the 2 capitals, and a withdrawal of all foreign troops and advisors. After communist forces came to power in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Laotian coalition government collapsed and the Pathet Lao took power in Laos in 1975. The monarchy was abolished, the country became a republic, and Prince Souphanouvong became president. This led to thousands of Laotians fleeing to Thailand and the US.

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