History of Laos
Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
260Trip End Ongoing
Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. And like Bolivia in South America, it's poor. International aid accounts for 40 to 50 percent of its annual income.
Historically, Laos has been dominated by its stronger neighbors: China to the north, Vietnam to the east, and Siam (Thailand) to the south. In the late 19th century, the French took control of Vietnam. By 1907, the French essentially forced Bangkok to give up all lands east of the Mekong, making what is now Laos, part of French Indochina.
Recent history is a bit complicated. WWII and the defeat of the French caused a great deal of change in the territory, with Laos declaring independence. But by 1945, the French had once again taken control. While they declared Laos an "Independent Associate State," many in the country still wanted true independence, and this is when the Pathet Lao was formed. This is when Lao history gets tied up with ours and may become a little more familiar.
The Pathet Lao was a Communist movement with close ties to North Vietnam. France, caught up with their war with the Viet Minh, paid little attention to Laos. So in 1953 Laos was granted full sovereignty and became a constitutional monarchy known as the Kingdom of Laos. It was after the French withdrew completely from Indochina in 1954 that the United States began to play a role in Lao affairs. Eager to counter rising Communist influence in Laos, the U.S. began to heavily fund the Royal Lao Government. Despite this assistance, the Pathet Lao grew in strength and established secure bases in northeastern Laos (near the Vietnam border).
The Secret War:
Between 1953 and 1973 Laos was the arena for a "Secret War." Under the Geneva Accord of 1962 Laos was officially recognized as a neutral state. This meant that no foreign military personelle could be stationed in the country. However, North Vietnam, through their ties with the Pathet Lao, had more than 75,000 troops in the northeast by 1970. The entire eastern portion of the country is home to the famous (infamous for Americans) Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was used for moving supplies south for the war against the United States.
The United States also violated Lao neutrality as early as 1959 when "technicians" were sent in to arm and train the Royal Lao Army. This may sound similar to recent history. We did some training in Afghanistan in an effort to fight Communism. I can't remember how that turned out.
The Secret War is also the reason Laos has the dubious honor of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. In an effort to disrupt the supply line on the Ho Chi Minh Trail (it didn't work), the U.S. began a thorough bombing campaign of eastern Loas. Keep in mind these areas were populated not just by leftist forces, but by hill tribes and neutral Lao. By 1973 the United States had flown 600,000 missions over Laos, "dropping an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years." By the end of the war almost three million tons of bombs had been dropped on the tiny country - about half a ton of explosives for every person in Laos. It has also been said that while returning to Thai bases from bombing runs in North Vietnam, pilots would drop their remaining bombs on civilian territories in Laos in order to comply with orders to return with bomb bays empty.
But the bombing campaign was unsuccessful. The supply line to the south was never more than temporarily altered or delayed, and both South Vietnam and Laos fell to Communist forces.
The legacy of this conflict is still strongly felt in this war torn country. The landscape is pockmarked with thousands of craters. About 30% of ordnance never exploded. Much of the country can only be traversed on well-traveled paths. The largest building in Ponsavahn, one of the target areas for U.S. bombing, is an orphanage with 800 residents, their parents casualties of explosives in what were thought to be clear paddies.
You think this is depressing? Just wait until we get to Cambodia!
So, since 1975 the country has been ruled by the Pathet Lao and is called the Lao PDR (People's Democratic Republic). It is officially a Communist State. However, these are both misnomers. Putting the word democracy in the name doesn't make it one (see: Congo). But it's not really communist either. It's a Marxist state. It's a regime. I mention this because people constantly want to create a false dichotomy and simplify the world into: Democracy = good, Communism = bad. It's not that easy. Judging right and wrong and picking sides takes a little effort and knowledge of the situation. Sorry.
But there are other legacies as well, some of them even pleasant. French colonialism has left its culinary mark. Food here is different than anywhere else in Southeast Asia and it's quite good. The cities also have an architecturally European feel to them. The Lao people, like people all over the world who have suffered atrocities, are constantly making the best of their situation. In the parts of the country devastated by bombing, bomb canisters and other debris have been used for buildings and souvenirs. Today, tourism is providing a great deal of income and employment. Things are looking up. And if you've read all of this, you'd see that things pretty much had to.