How Did Laos Become Communist? A Creeping Takeover
The history of Laos is long and complicated. A full understanding of that history requires serious and extensive research and reading. This, however, is an attempt to answer only one question about the history of Laos, that is, how did Laos come to have a communist government?
Modern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th century under King Fa Ngum. For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century, when it became part of French Indochina. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand.
In 1945 the Japanese occupied Laos. They saw that they were losing the war and decided to put pressure on King Sisavang Vong to declare the independence of Laos from the French, which the King did on 8 April 1945.
The Japanese surrendered to Allied Forces on 15 August 1945 thus ending World War II. From this point the French maneuvered to reclaim their influence over Laos
and various Lao groups, often identified as Royalists, Neutralists and Communists, struggled to gain political dominance with the goal of ridding Laos of the French
and establishing an independent country. At many points in the history of Laos Vietnamese communists or native Lao who were heavily influenced by communist North Vietnam worked to pursue not so much a free and independent Laos as an independent Laos dominated by communists.
Elections for a Constituent Assembly, on the basis of universal male suffrage, were held in December 1946, and in 1947 the Assembly adopted a constitution confirming the status of Laos as a constitutional monarchy and an "autonomous state" within the French Union.
In August 1947 elections were held for the National Assembly, and 35 deputies were elected. A royal relative, Prince Souvannarath, became Prime Minister of Laos at the head of a cabinet composed entirely of members of influential Lao-Loum families.
This was to remain a characteristic of Lao politics. Various transient political parties came and went, but the same 20-odd families alternated in office, feuding with each other over the spoils of office.
In 1949, as the French position in Vietnam worsened and the continuing goodwill of the Lao became more important, Lao ministers took control of all government functions
except foreign affairs and defense, although the almost total dependence of the economy on French aid made this new independence more apparent than real. In February 1950, Laos was formally declared an independent state, and was recognized as such by the United States and Great Britain.
France remained in essential control of the country. Foreign affairs, defense and finance remained under de facto French control, and justice was only slowly turned over to Lao ministers. Most importantly, the French Army retained the right to operate freely in Laos, and to issue orders to Lao forces without reference to Lao ministers.
Meanwhile, a Lao Issara government-in-exile planned a nationalist revolt against the French and what they saw as their Lao puppets in Vientiane. For a time the Lao Issara forces were able to operate from bases in Thailand, and achieved some successes, particularly around Savannakhet. But in November 1947 a military coup in
Bangkok brought Marshall Phibun back to power. Encouraged by the Americans, he sought to repair Thailand's relations with France, and shut down the Lao Issara bases. The Lao Issara could now only mount operations into Laos from territory controlled by the Vietnamese Communists, but this came at a political price that the non-communist Lao Issara leaders were not prepared to pay.
In January 1949 Lao Communists established a new Communist-controlled Lao military force in Vietnam, nominally loyal to the Lao Issara government but in fact answerable to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). In July 1949 the non-communist leaders of the Lao Issara declared the government-in-exile dissolved, and most of its
members returned to Laos under an amnesty.
In terms of social structures, Laos offered few opportunities for orthodox communist agitation theory. It had few wage laborers apart from some in the tin-mining
industry. There was no "agrarian question" in Laos as more than 90 percent of Lao were rice-farmers who owned their own land. There were no landlords as in China and no landless rural proletariat.
Nevertheless, by the late 1940s the ICP had recruited a core of activists, some of them part-Vietnamese and others married to Vietnamese. The discrediting of the French and the failure of the Lao Issara government gave them their opportunity, because after 1949 the struggle against colonial rule could only be carried on from bases in Vietnam and with the support of the Vietnamese communists.
In August 1950 the communists established a "front" organisation, the Free Lao Front (Neo Lao Issara). This in turn formed a "Resistance Government of the Lao Homeland." The phrase Pathet Lao ("Lao Homeland") thus became established as the
general name of the Lao communist movement until 1975. The communists shrewdly promoted representatives of the upland ethnic minorities to leadership positions
in the Free Lao Front. These included a northern Hmong leader and a southern Lao Theung leader. Since the communist base areas were mainly inhabited by ethnic minority peoples, this helped consolidate support in these areas. But the communist leadership remained firmly in Lao Loum hands. When in 1955 a separate Lao
communist party was created (the Lao People's Revolutionary Party) all the members of the Politburo were Lao-Loum.
The Lao communist party remained under the supervision of the Vietnamese communist party, and throughout the following twenty years of warfare the Pathet Lao was dependent on North Vietnam for arms, money and training. A large number of North Vietnamese forces fought alongside the Pathet Lao, and North Vietnamese "advisers" usually accompanied Pathet Lao military commanders.
The Lao and Vietnamese communists were fighting for the same goals - first the eviction of the French and then the establishment of socialism, The Lao communists knew they could not achieve either of these objectives on their own. The Lao communists freely accepted Vietnamese communist leadership as the quickest and indeed only way to achieve their aims.
Even after they had overthrown the government, the Pathet Lao depended on Vietnamese soldiers and political advisers to keep control of the country. Their government had a relationship with Vietnam similar to that of the Eastern European Communist governments to the Soviet Union.
In 1953 the country obtained full independence from France, but the Pathet Lao, with Vietnamese aid, had gained control over a large area of territory, albeit thinly populated, in the mountainous areas along the Vietnamese border, and also over some areas in the south, where rule from Vientiane had never been popular. The decline of French power left the Royal Lao government vulnerable, and Pathet Lao and
Vietnamese forces advanced to within 30 km of Luang Prabang.
As the French became increasingly bogged down in Vietnam, political opposition in France to the Indochina war grew stronger. In May 1954 the French suffered a defeat at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam that, while of no great consequence militarily, was a political disaster. An international conference on Indochina had already been convened in Geneva, and as it met it was confronted with the new situation following Dien Bien Phu. Laos was a secondary issue at Geneva, and the decisions made about Laos were dictated by the decisions about Vietnam. It was agreed to make Laos an independent, neutral country with a coalition government representing all parties including the Pathet Lao.
A ceasefire was to be concluded, and this was to be followed by the withdrawal of all foreign forces, the disbanding of the Pathet Lao army, the formation of a coalition government, and free elections. When news of this agreement reached Laos, there was violent anger among anti-communist politicians.
Two months after the Geneva conference, North Vietnam began plotting against the government of Laos. A military organization was created called Group 100. Its purpose was to organize, train, direct and supply the army of the Pathet Lao. North Vietnam had no particular interest in the Geneva Conference or in the creating a neutral Laos other than in their use in strengthening their grip on the eastern portions of the country that
they intended to use to send men and supplies from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.
The essential problem was that although the French forces departed on schedule, the North Vietnamese forces supporting the Pathet Lao in their upland base areas did not, and the Lao government had no means of forcing them to do so. Under the agreements, the Pathet Lao forces were supposed to assemble in Houaphan and Phongsaly provinces before disbanding.
Instead, the Pathet Lao and the Vietnamese continued to treat these provinces as their own "liberated areas," refusing to allow government officials to exercise authority, and also evicting the local Hmong forces that had supported the French and were now loyal to the Lao government. They also maintained their underground forces in the south.
After a year of stalemate, the government went ahead with elections in the rest of the country in December 1955.
The United States did not ratify the Geneva agreements, and the Eisenhower administration, particularly the militantly anti-communist Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, shared the views of the right-wing Lao politicians. Under Dulles's influence the US had backed the French war in Vietnam, and now that the French were leaving he was determined that the US would take over France's role of supporting anti-communist forces in Vietnam and preventing Ho Chi Minh's forces taking over southern Vietnam. This, he believed, necessitated maintaining an anti-communist government in Laos
and preventing Vietnam using Laos as a transport route to South Vietnam.
To get around the prohibitions of the Geneva agreements – which the United States had pledged to honor – the US Department of Defense in December 1955 established a disguised military mission in Vientiane called the Program Evaluation Office (PEO). The PEO became operational on 13 December 1955 and worked under the cover of a civilian aid mission and was staffed by military personnel and headed by a general officer, all of whom wore civilian clothes and had been removed from Department of Defense rosters of active service personnel.
Over the 1955-61 period, the PEO gradually supplanted the French military mission in providing equipment and training to the Royal Lao Army and to the anti-communist Hmong. In this way, the US was footing the entire cost of keeping the Royal Lao Army in the field in the same way that the Soviets and North Vietnamese footed the entire cost of the Pathet Lao, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was providing intelligence and political direction. The US therefore strongly opposed Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma's efforts to bring the Pathet Lao into the government and to make Laos a "neutral" country. What neutrality meant in practice was allowing permanent North Vietnamese occupation of the east of the country and allowing the Pathet Lao to keep their army in the field. Souvanna Phouma's efforts to settle the conflict in Laos always failed due to the refusal of the North Vietnamese to leave and the refusal of the Pathet Lao to disarm.
In August 1956 Souvanna Phouma reached an agreement with Pathet Lao leader
Prince Souphanouvong. A coalition government was formed in which
Souphanouvong became Minister for Planning and Reconstruction, and another Pathet Lao leader was Minister for Religion and Fine Arts. The Pathet Lao agreed to allow
the reintegration of Houaphan and Phongsaly provinces, and to integrate the Pathet Lao army into the Royal Lao Army. Guarantees were given that Laos would be a neutral country and would not allow its territory to be used as a base for aggression against any of its neighbors. The coalition government formally took office in November, and in May 1958 reasonably free elections were held, at which the Pathet Lao won nine seats in the National Assembly out of 21 contested. Souphanouvong won the Vientiane seat with the highest vote of any candidate in the country.
The 1956 agreement was welcomed by France, Britain, the Soviet Union, China and both the North and South Vietnamese governments. The US was muted in its opposition, and did not carry out previous threats to cut off aid if the Pathet Lao joined the government. But behind the scenes the US embassy continued to encourage anti- communist Lao politicians to question the agreement. The Vietnamese and
Lao communists also had no intention of honoring the spirit of the 1956 agreement, which they saw in purely tactical terms.
Some Pathet Lao weapons were handed over, and two battalions of Pathet Lao troops were nominally designated as units of the Royal Lao Army. The bulk of the Pathet Lao forces, withdrew to bases on the Vietnamese border to await developments. The North Vietnamese also continued to use the mountains of the frontier zone between Laos and North Vietnam as a safe haven and transport route (later known as the Ho Chi Minh trail).
Souvanna Phouma turned a blind eye to this rather than risk the unity of his government, but the CIA was fully aware of these facts. US aid, directed by the US Agency for International Aid (USAID), continued at the rate of US$40 million a year (in a country of 3 million people), but deliberately bypassed the Ministry for Planning and Reconstruction and was channeled to the Royal Lao Army and friendly politicians.
In December 1958, North Vietnamese Army units crossed into Laos and took by force several villages in Xepon District. As contrasted to their other occupations, in this instance North Vietnam began flying their flag over the territory and officially announced it was part of Vietnam. Though the government was granted extraordinary powers to deal with the crisis by the National Assembly, it did nothing.
In July 1959, the North Vietnamese Army increased its participation in attacks on government forces. The attacks usually took the form of North Vietnamese regulars attacking a defended position, overcoming most of the resistance and then letting their Pathet Lao allies claim the victory by occupying the position. Two months later, North Vietnam created a new organization known as Group 959 located inside Laos. Group 959 became in effect the Vietnamese supreme command controlling, organizing and equipping the Pathet Lao. The group would continue to exist until 1968 when it was rendered redundant through the takeover by North Vietnam's army of the war inside Laos.
In August 1958 the US suspended aid payments, which the anti-coalition and opportunist forces in the Assembly took as a signal to bring down Souvanna Phouma. Following his resignation Phoui Sananikone, who now had the support of the US Embassy, again became Prime Minister, and the Pathet Lao ministers were not re- appointed. The new Defense Minister was Phoumi Nosavan, a right-winger closely aligned with the Americans. Under his command the Lao army once again became an anti-communist force. The two ex-Pathet Lao battalions in the Royal Lao Army immediately reverted to the Pathet Lao.
In December 1958 Phoui partly suspended the constitution and began to rule under emergency powers, which he used to purge Pathet Lao supporters from the civil service, and to arrest Pathet Lao leaders in Vientiane. In July 1959 fighting soon broke out all over the country. At this juncture the elderly King Sisavang Vong died and was succeeded by his son Savang Vatthana, who was as pro-American as his father had been pro-French.
The occupation by North Vietnamese security forces in December 1958 of several villages in Xepon District near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Vietnam and South Vietnam was an ominous development. The Lao Government immediately protested the flying of the North Vietnamese flag on Lao territory. Hanoi claimed the villages had historically been part of Vietnam and, backed by force of arms, constituted nothing less than aggression.
Fighting broke out all along the border with North Vietnam. North Vietnamese regular army units participated in attacks on 28–31 July 1959. These operations continued a pattern of North Vietnamese forces leading the attack on a strong point, then falling back and letting the Pathet Lao remain in place once resistance to the advance had been broken. The tactic had the advantage of concealing from view the
North Vietnamese presence. Rumors of North Vietnamese in the vicinity often had a terrifying effect, however. Among the men who heard such rumors in the mountains of Houaphan Province that summer was a young Royal Lao Army captain named Kong Le. Kong Le had two companies of the Second Paratroop Battalion out on patrol almost on the North Vietnamese border. When they returned to Sam Neua
without encountering the enemy, they found that the garrison had decamped, leaving the town undefended.
The Vietnamese Communist Party's strategy was by now decided with regard to South Vietnam. At the same time, the party outlined a role for the LPP that was supportive of North Vietnam, in addition to the LPP's role as leader of the revolution in Laos. Hanoi's southern strategy opened the first tracks through the extremely rugged terrain of Xepon district in mid-1959 of what was to become the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
On 9 August 1960, Neutralist Captain Kong Le, staged a lightning coup. Kong's coup split the army, with some garrisons supporting him and some supporting Phoumi. Since the Americans were paying the Royal Lao Army's bills, however, Kong's
units could not sustain themselves for long, and had no choice but to seek an alliance
with the Pathet Lao, a move which Souvanna Phouma supported in dramatic fashion by flying to the Pathet Lao headquarters at Sam Neua in the mountains to issue a joint appeal with Souphanouvong for Lao unity and neutralism. This was a great propaganda coup for the Pathet Lao, and led to a renewed Pathet Lao – North Vietnamese advance that soon occupied most of the north and east of the country.
For the first time the Pathet Lao began receiving substantial Soviet military and financial aid, and Soviet advisors appeared in Laos. For the US, this was a signal for all-out war. Massive aid was sent to Phoumi and Boun Oum in the south, and in October 1960 they advanced towards Vientiane. A quorum of the National Assembly met at Savnannakhēt and declared Souvanna Phouma deposed and replaced by Boun Oum. In December 1960 the rightist army reached Vientiane and after three days heavy fighting, in which about 500 people were killed, took the city. Souvanna Phouma fled to Cambodia,
while Kông's forces withdrew to the Pathet Lao areas, which now took in a large portion of the country.
At this point the international political climate changed with the end of the Eisenhower Administration and the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy Administration took the view that American interests were best served by ending the Lao conflict through the enforcement of the Geneva agreements of 1956, a policy Kennedy agreed on at his summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. As a result, the Geneva conference reconvened, but both the Americans and the Soviets had some trouble getting their "clients" to agree to compromise. Phoumi and Boun Oum
rightly feared that any agreement would rob them of their military victory and bring the despised Souvanna Phouma back to power. It took serious threats from the
US Embassy and the Thai military to force their compliance.
The Pathet Lao believed they were on the verge of conquering the whole country, and late 1961 they began an offensive in Luang Nam Tha province that soon routed Phoumi's forces. Communist discipline held and they agreed to a compromise in which they had no real faith. In June 1962 Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong and Boun Oum met in the Plain of Jars and agreed to a government of eleven neutralists,
four rightists and four Pathet Lao. Boun Oum retired from politics, and Souphanouvong and Phoumi became deputy prime ministers in Souvanna Phouma's fourth government, which took office in June 1962 with the support of all the powers.
Even before the Second Coalition government took office, however, its principal sponsors in the US were losing faith in its value. As the Vietnam War began to escalate, the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail as a supply route from North Vietnam to the communist forces in the south increased, and it became obvious that the North Vietnamese had no intention of withdrawing their forces from Laos as they had twice agreed at Geneva to do.
For North Vietnam, the use of Lao territory was a strategic necessity, and not something on which they would compromise. Agreements meant nothing to them. Further, they had no particular respect for the idea of an independent Laos. By late 1962 it was therefore also becoming a necessity for the US to prevent this. The Soviets and North
Vietnamese continued to openly aid the Pathet Lao, while the US continued to arm and train Hmong irregular forces under Vang Pao in the Plain of Jars, as well as irregular forces in South Laos. There was no attempt to reintegrate the Pathet Lao areas with the rest of Laos, and the Pathet Lao did not even pretend to disarm their forces.
The neutralist forces, commanded by Kong Le agreed to accept US aid, which caused a split within the neutralist ranks, with some going over to the Pathet Lao. By April 1963 fighting had broken out again on the Plain of Jars. By the end of the year fighting was widespread, the Pathet Lao was again advancing, and the neutralists were being squeezed out as a political and military force. In April 1964 there was another attempt at a rightist coup, led by the commander of the Vientiane garrison who was briefly arrested, but when the Americans refused support to the coup it collapsed and the Pathet Lao ministers left the capital and did not return, effectively ending the
Up to this point, it is probably reasonable to consider arguments that since 1945 there has been a civil war in Laos. The argument for designating it a civil war begins to deteriorate after 1959 when the North Vietnamese invaded Laos and planted their flag on Lao territory and claimed it as their own. What follows is a description of
the North Vietnamese continuing invasion and occupation of Laos, at first to continue to use it for their supply line into South Vietnam and later to complete its take over of the country and installation of a communist government.
Between 1964 and 1968 the conflict in Laos was essentially between the US-supported government forces and the Pathet Lao, backed by North Vietnam. The Pathet Lao in these years was not a real threat to the government. The real problem for the government was corruption and warlordism within the national army. Regional army commanders did not cooperate with each other effectively and spent more time
on political maneuvers than on fighting the Pathet Lao. Souvanna Phouma continued to argue for a neutralist Laos, and both sides paid lip service to this ideal, but neither was prepared to yield any part of its strategic position to achieve it. In particular, the North Vietnamese had no intention of withdrawing any part of their army from the areas of
the country it occupied.
Souvanna Phouma remained in office despite frequent threats to resign. The US no longer bothered opposing his neutralist views because, as the paymasters of the Lao army, they could ignore him. The North Vietnamese on the other hand considered Laos an underdeveloped neighbor and continued in their attempts to topple the government.
In 1968 the North Vietnamese army moved the Pathet Lao forces aside and took over the fighting of the war. Now, if nowhere else in the history of war in Laos, there is no longer a civil war and it has become a war of conquest by the North Vietnamese. In January North Vietnam sent its 316th Division forward toward the Nam Bac Valley, where seven of the government's best military units were located. The valley was surrounded and pounded with artillery until the base eventually fell. The battle reduced the role of the Royal Lao Army for the next several years. While the Pathet Lao were an ineffective force, the North Vietnamese army with its Soviet-provided field
artillery and tanks was beyond anything that the Royal Lao regular army could deal with.
Between 1968 and 1973 the war in Laos escalated. It became a battlefield in the war between the United States and North Vietnam. The CIA trained Lao, Lao Theung, Hmong and Thai irregulars plus some Royal Lao army regulars, on the government side, and the North Vietnamese Army with the assistance of the Pathet Lao, on the communist side. The country was divided into two zones: one - comprising about two- thirds of Laos but containing only about a quarter of its population - effectively controlled by North Vietnam and its allies, and the other - consisting of little more than the Mekong Valley but containing most of the Lao population - effectively controlled by
the government backed by the US government.
The Pathet Lao, for reasons discussed earlier, were willing collaborators in the North Vietnamese control of their zone of operations. They knew that the only way they could hope to take power in Laos was via the power of the North Vietnamese. While it is often said that Laos was a vital supply route for North Vietnam, the reality was not quite so tidy. Portions of Southern Laos were useful to North Vietnam, but North Vietnam occupied large sections of the country that had nothing to do with supply routes.
In 1969 Richard Nixon became President of the US and began the long process of winding down the Vietnam War and finding a political settlement. But this brought no immediate draw down in Laos. The new administration pursued the same goals by the same means, and in fact during 1969 and 1970 the bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao increased in intensity. In the spring of 1969 the North Vietnamese attempted to hold the Plain of Jars through the rainy season. This led to a coordinated Lao campaign that lead to a disastrous defeat of the North Vietnamese. Under constant pressure, their resistance collapsed in the Plain of Jars. They abandoned millions of dollars worth of military equipment and were chased almost to the North Vietnamese border. The success however was short-lived. The
North Vietnamese launched a two-division counteroffensive led by a large tank force. All the gains of that year were lost back to the North Vietnamese.
In March 1970 the Cambodian government of Lon Nol ended the policy of ignoring the Vietnamese presence in the country. The port of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, which had effectively been a North Vietnamese Army supply terminal for years, was closed by the government. Cambodia soon collapsed into war. This had the effect of making the supply routes from North Vietnam through Laos even more important to the North Vietnamese. In the spring of 1970 the North Vietnamese Army began advancing westward deeper into Laos than ever before. During the same year, units of Thai irregulars entered the conflict. These so-called Unity Battalions, employing civilians and Thai regular officers and non-commissioned officers, were volunteers.
In 1971 the Royal Lao Army increased its participation in the conflict. The North Vietnamese advance deep into the country destroyed the status quo and prompted the Lao Army back into action. In July, the CIA Lao, Hmong, Lao Theung and Thai irregular forces attempted a repeat of the successful 1969 offensive into the Plain of Jars. But the North Vietnamese had learned from their previous mistakes and withdrew in good order
ahead of the offensive. While much territory was captured, no serious damage was done to the North Vietnamese Army.
The Hmong and Thai irregular forces built a chain of fortifications down the middle of the Plain of Jars. In 1971 the US sponsored an incursion into southern Laos by the South Vietnamese army, with the aim of severing the trail and shoring up the South Vietnamese government as the US withdrew its combat troops. The invasion was bitterly resisted by the North Vietnamese and was decisively defeated. The
North Vietnamese also retaliated by capturing several provincial capitals that it had previously surrounded but not tried to take.
The influx of US money (an estimated $US500 million in US aid alone) produced an economic boom in the towns along the Mekong River and Luang Prabang and Vientiane in the North as service industries grew to meet the demands of the war.
Lao generals and politicians, led by Phoumi Nosavan until his fall from power in 1965, grew rich on corruption, drug dealing, prostitution and smuggling, and large numbers of ordinary Lao moved into the cash economy for the first time, particularly in Vientiane, which grew rapidly. The war also exposed the Lao to the full force of western popular culture for the first time, with an effect that both the Pathet Lao
and conservative Buddhists regarded as deeply corrupting of Lao tradition and culture.
During these years the Pathet Lao sought to project an image of moderation both domestically and internationally. Souphanouvong, as head of the Lao Patriotic Front, was the public face of the Pathet Lao, while the Communist Party and its leader Kaysone remained in the background. At its 1968 congress, the Lao communists issued a 12-point program that made no mention of socialism, but called for a Government
of National Union and free elections, and promised respect for Buddhism and the monarchy. The fact that Souphanouvong was a royal prince as well as a communist seemed to many Lao a reassurance that the Pathet Lao in power would pursue a moderate path.
In the Pathet Lao zone, the communists followed conspicuously moderate policies, although there were some attempts at collectivization of agriculture where this was possible. The Pathet Lao were effective providers of basic services, despite the difficulties created by the endless bombing, and also effective at mobilizing the upland minorities. Most notably, the Pathet Lao were largely free from corruption. On
the negative side, as most Lao knew, their policies were largely controlled by the North Vietnamese.
In January 1973, following Nixon's re-election, a peace agreement was announced between North Vietnam and the US following the pattern which had been established in Geneva in 1954, a peace settlement in Laos was agreed on as a side issue to the Vietnam question. The two sides in Laos had been in informal discussions since the previous July, and once their respective patrons had consented, they quickly signed
a ceasefire and announced an “:Agreement on the Restoration of Peace and National Reconciliation.” The main provisions were the formation of a Third Coalition
government, with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister and 12 ministers from each side. The National Assembly, which had long lost its political legitimacy, was to be replaced by a Consultative Council of 42 members - 16 from each side plus ten agreed nominees. This body, to be chaired by Souphanouvong, was given equal status with the government, making Souphanouvong in effect co-ruler of the country.
There was no mention of the Pathet Lao giving up de facto control of its zone. Its armed forces were to be integrated into the national army in theory, but the timetable was never really certain. While the agreement required the North Vietnamese Army to leave Laos, the Vietnamese never left. The arrangements reflected the vastly strengthened position of the Pathet Lao since the Second Coalition government. In recognition of this, the rightists attempted a last gasp coup in Vientiane in August 1973, but it
quickly collapsed, since by then many Lao recognized that it was only a matter of time before the Pathet Lao took power.
During 1974 and 1975 the balance of power in Laos shifted steadily in favor of the Pathet Lao as the US disengaged itself from Indochina. Souvanna Phouma was tired and demoralized, and following a heart attack in mid-1974 he spent some months recuperating in France, after which he announced that he would retire from politics following the elections scheduled for early 1976. The anti-communist forces were thus leaderless, and also divided and deeply mired in corruption.
Souphanouvong, by contrast, was confident and a master political tactician, and had behind him the disciplined cadres of the communist party and the Pathet Lao forces and the North Vietnamese Army. The end of American aid also meant the mass demobilization of most of the non-Pathet Lao military forces in the country. The Pathet Lao on the other hand continued to be both funded and equipped by North Vietnam.
In May 1974 Souphanouvong put forward an 18-point plan for "National Reconstruction," which was unanimously adopted - a sign of his increasing dominance. The plan was mostly uncontroversial, with renewed promises of free elections, democratic rights and respect for religion, as well as constructive economic policies. But press censorship was introduced in the name of "national unity," making it more difficult for non-communist forces to organize politically in response to the creeping Pathet Lao takeover. In January 1975 all public meetings and demonstrations were banned. Recognizing the trend of events, influential business and political figures began to
move their assets, and in some cases themselves, to Thailand, France or the US.
In 1975, the Pathet Lao forces on the Plain of Jars supported by North Vietnamese heavy artillery and other units began advancing westward. In late April 1975, the Pathet Lao took the government outpost at Sala Phou Khoum crossroads that opened up Route 13 to a Pathet Lao advance toward Muang Kasi. For the non-Pathet Lao elements in the government, compromise seemed better than allowing what
had happened in Cambodia and South Vietnam to happen in Laos. A surrender was thought to be better than a change of power by force.
In March 1975, confident that the US no longer had the wherewithal to intervene
militarily in Indochina, the North Vietnamese began their final military offensive in South Vietnam, which by the end of April 1975 carried them to victory with the fall of Saigon. A few days earlier the Khmer Rouge army had entered Phnom Penh. The Pathet Lao now knew that victory was within reach, and with the war in South Vietnam over the North Vietnamese authorized the seizure of power in Laos.
Demonstrations broke out in Vientiane, denouncing the rightists and demanding political change. Rightist ministers resigned from the government and fled the country, followed by senior Royal Lao Army commanders. A Pathet Lao minister took over the defense portfolio, removing any chance of the Army resisting the Pathet Lao
takeover. Souvanna Phouma, dreading further conflict and apparently trusting Souphanouvong's promises of a moderate policy, gave instructions that the Pathet Lao were not to be resisted, and the US began to withdraw its diplomatic personnel.
The Pathet Lao army entered the major towns of southern Laos during May 1975, and in early June occupied Luang Prabang. Panic broke out in Vientiane as most of the business class and many officials, army officers and others who had collaborated with the US scrambled to get their families and property across the Mekong to Thailand. Recognizing that the cause was lost, Vang Pao led thousands of his Hmong fighters and their families into exile - eventually about a third of all the Lao Hmong left the country. Pathet Lao forces entered an almost deserted Vientiane in August 1975.
For a few months the Pathet Lao appeared to honor their promises of moderation. The shell of the coalition government was preserved, there were no arrests or show-trials, and private property was respected. Diplomatic relations with the US were maintained, despite an immediate cut-off of all US aid. Other western countries continued to offer aid, and Soviet and eastern European technicians began to arrive to replace
the departed Americans.
In December 1975, there was a sharp change in policy. A joint meeting of the government and the Consultative Council was held, at which Souphanouvong demanded immediate change. There was no resistance. On 2 December the King agreed to abdicate, and Souvanna Phouma resigned. The Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed with Souphanouvong as President. Kaysone emerged from the shadows to become Prime Minister and the real ruler of the country.
No more was heard of elections or political freedoms: non-communist newspapers were closed, and a large-scale purge of the civil service, army and police was launched. Thousands were dispatched for "re-education" in remote parts of the country, where many died and many more were kept for up to ten years. This prompted a renewed flight from the country. Many of the professional and intellectual class, who
had initially been willing to work for the new regime, changed their minds and left - a much easier thing to do from Laos than from either Vietnam or Cambodia. By 1977, 10 percent of the population had left the country, including most of the business and educated classes.