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The Origins of the War

Red Princes, Opium Farmers and Elephants

Danny O'Hara

Aristocratic Communists, Opium Farmers and Elephants

Laos, perhaps the most "backward" of the Indochinese provinces, is the only landlocked state within what was French Indochina. Bordered by Tonkin, Annam, Cambodia, Thailand, China and Burma, the area now known as Laos had fragmented from the dynamic "Kingdom of a Million Elephants" (Muang Lan-Xang) of the Fourteenth Century into a group of petty kingdoms by the Nineteenth Century. These were fought over and controlled by the Thais, Annamese and Burmese, and when France established the Protectorate of Laos ("Many Lao") in 1887 the main kingdoms of Champassak, Vientiane and Luang Prabang (together with smaller states such as Xiang Khuang) were effectively reunited. A French administration was formed at Vientiane, from where (in 1940) some 600 French officials supervised the country. While there was a complex system of Royal Families, and pretenders to various of the Lao kingships, only the King of Luang Prabang remained in place as a head of state. With the country being largely mountainous and heavily forested, with poor internal communications, and the economy unlikely to develop rapidly, the French left the Lao government systems largely untouched. In the main, the French authorities restricted themselves to developing the education system, running the legal machinery, monitoring tax collection by the native governors, and encouraging the hill-tribes to produce more opium! (A French monopoly on opium trade was declared in 1899 - the opium trade grew rapidly to become the backbone of the fragile Laotian economy). 

Geography and Ethnic Groups

Laos is largely mountainous and thickly forested. There are plains along the Mekong and other major rivers. It has probably the lowest population density in Indochina. 

The people belong to several ethnic groups. The dominant group is the Lao (or Lao loum - "lowland Lao"), which account for around half the population. Other significant groups include the "tribal" Thai, Hmong and Khmu. The Lao arrived (probably from Southern China) in around the Thirteenth Century AD, and are closest related to the Thai. They are the lowland people of Laos, cultivating rice in the plains and valleys (particularly along the Mekong). Due to conquests and enforced population movements in the Nineteenth Century there are probably more Lao in Thailand than Laos! There are various other Thai groups in Laos, who have migrated in from Thailand or Southern China, including the Thai dam ("Black Thai") of the Tonkin border region. Both Lao and Thai groups speak and write dialects of Thai. 

The Khmu (or Lao theung - "highland Lao") are an aboriginal hill-people, while the Hmong (or Lao soung - "mountain Lao") migrated from Tonkin or Southern China in the mid-Nineteenth Century. The Khmu were hunter/gatherers, living on the hill and mountain slopes, while the Hmong hill-tribes are "slash and burn" farmers, who live by a mixture of subsistence farming (millett and dry rice), hunting and opium cultivation. The Lao tend to look down upon the hill-tribes as Meo (savages), and the Hmong have similarly tended to view the more "primitive" Khmu as beneath them. Periodic rebellions have broken out through the years by the Hmong and/or Khmu against their Thai, Lao or French oppressors. Some of these conflicts left divisions (even amongst individual clans) which caused Hmong or Khmu groups to side with either French/RLG or LI/PL factions in the Indochina Wars. A major example of this was Touby Li Foung, a French-educated Hmong who returned to Laos in 1939 and was given the position of Tasseng (Administrator) for the Nong Het District. This position had previously been held by his cousin, Chong Tou, who was removed when he defaulted on his tax payments. There was already bad-blood between the two branches of the family, and so Chong Tou's brother Fay Dang contested the appointment of Touby. 

When the Japanese invaded Laos in 1945, Fay Dang sided with them and helped to hunt down both French troops and Laotian partisans. Touby was arrested for his pro-French views, but escaped to hide in the forests near Phu Son (Muong Kham District). Touby organised an Hmong anti-Japanese militia, which included a young Vang Pao (who later became the first Hmong general in the RLA, in 1964). When the Japanese surrendered, Fay Dang was left without support, while Touby was a valued ally of the returning French. Touby's Hmong militia were involved in the recapture of Xieng Kouang on 26th January 1946. As allies of the LI, VM troops had infiltrated north-east Laos during 1945, and began aggressive campaigning there in 1953. Touby's militia managed to counter some of these VM infiltrations, and had already forced Fay Dang to flee into Tonkin (where he contacted the VM and became part of the communist movement). For his actions, Touby was made Governor for the Hmong in Xieng Khouang (the highest position ever held by an Hmong at that time), and was also contacted by General Salan and asked to form more Hmong militia units in French service (as part of the GCMA programme). Unfortunately, however, the French imposed an increased Opium Tax on the Hmong, which drove many of them to join Fay Dang and his Resistance League... 

Chronology 1945-54

  • 9 March Japanese seize control of Indochina
  • 8 April Japan gives independence to Laos
  • ? Formation of the nationalist secret society "Lao Pen Lao" by the "Seri Thai" (Free Thai) movement, which has Anglo-American backing.
  • 14 August Japanese capitulation
  • 8 October Souphanouvong creates the ALDL and Comité Laos Issara at Thakhek
  • 9 October Creation of the Comité de l'Indépendance du peuple Lao by the Lao Pen Lao at Vientiane
  • 12 October Declaration of Independance at Vientiane
  • 14 October Provisional Government of Lao Issara
  • 30 October Military Convention with Vietnam
  • 21 March French recapture Thakhek 
  • 25 April French take Vientiane 
  • 13 May French recapture Luang Prabang 
  • ? Lao Issara government flee to Thailand 
  • 27 August "Modus vivendi" signed between Laos and France, granting Laos autonomous status within the French Union 
  • 11 May Constitution of the Kingdom of Laos declared 
  • 25 Nov. Chao Souvannarath becomes head of the RLG 
  • No major operations
  • 18 March Boun Oum becomes Prime Minister at Vientiane 
  • 19 July Franco-Lao Convention 
  • 14 Sept. Revised Constitution announced 
  • ? Amnesty for Lao Issara members 
  • 24 Sept. Lao Issara Government-in-exile at Bangkok dissolved 
  • 27 Feb Phoui Sananikone named Prime Minister at Vientiane 
  • 22 March Creation of RLA 
  • 13-15 Aug Creation of Neo Lao Issara (NLI) and the Resistance Government 
  • 10 March Consultative Conference between VM, NLI and the Front Issarak (Cambodian) 
  • 28th February 1er CCPL attack and destroy a VM camp at Nathane (para drop)
  • 8th-23rd April Operation Avril - 1er CCPL carry out an airborne attack on VM camps around Na Luang, Muong Phuong and Ban Done, destroying them
  • Mar-Apr. Joint PL and VM offensive in North Laos (including 308. 312 & 316 VM Divs). The French use their air transport assets to build up fortified positions at Xiang Khuang (in the Plain of Jars) and at Luang Prabang. With PL support, the VM 316 Div advances on Sam Neua, the 308 up the Nam Seng valley, and the 312 from Dien Bien Phu to Luang Prabang. 
  • 14 April Fall of Sam Neua (Salan ordered an evacuation - the VM caught up with the retreating column and inflicted severe losses on its rearguard). The Communist forces press on - the French make their main base at Xiang Khuang to cover Luang Prabang. Despite a strong (and successful) defense by the French garrison at Muong Khoua, the VM 308 and 312 Divs meet up, then separate again to approach both Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Salan orders the evacuation of Xiang Khuang, and by the end of April both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are invested by the Communist forces. 
  • 7 May Giap orders 312 and 316 Divs to return to Tonkin. 308 Div is left with the PL forces to establish bases and supply systems, preparatory to the next major effort in Laos. 
  • 24 July Tacit approval by the National Defense Committee for Navarre's plan for the security of Laos (bases along Lao-Viet border) 
  • 22 Oct Franco-Laotian Mutual Defense Treaty 
  • 24 Dec Capture of Thakhek (Attapu and Boloven also captured in December) 
  • Jan.-Feb. Giap sends further detachments into Laos, including regiments of the 320 Div. Surprise VM attack on the garrison town of Seno in the third week of January - the relief column ambushed and overwhelmed by VM and PL forces. In late January, Muong Khoua falls and a reinforced Communist force (including elements of the 316 Div) presses on Luang Prabang in early February. Navarre reinforces Luang Prabang with 5 battalions. 
  • 23 Feb 316 Div withdraws with local opium crop. 
  • 20 July The Unités Combattantes Pathet Lao (UCPL) recognised by the Geneva Accords 

The Political and Military History of Laos, 1945-54

WW2 and the Lao Issara

The Laotian section of the PCI (Indochinese Communist Party) was formed in 1936, but in fact the main impetus to Lao independance came via "traditional" court politics within the petty kingdoms and their Royal Families. 

With the Fall of France in 1940, French control of Laos began to slip. There were probing attacks by Thai forces in the Franco-Thai War of 1940-41 around Pakse, and the provinces of Champassak and Sayaburi were given to Thailand in the peace deal. This caused some disturbance amongst the usually pro-French Lao élite, as no Lao representation was involved in this hand-over. 

Increasing Japanese influence in Laos encouraged nationalist sentiment - at Vientiane in 1941 Charles Rochet and a group of Lao intelligensia set up a journal called Lao Nhay ("Great Laos") which spread nationalist ideas. Under the leadership of Pramoj Seni (the Thai Ambassador to Washington, who had refused to present the Thai declaration of war on the US!), the American OSS (fore-runner of the CIA) had set up an anti-Japanese movement known as "Seri Thai" (Free Thai). Airdrops of arms and equipment were made to this body, which formed a partisan system in Thailand. However, there were many members of Lao origin who were as much anti-Bangkok as anti-Japanese. Their real aim was to use the turmoil of the Japanese defeat to form a "Greater Laos" state, merging the Lao provinces of French Indochina and Thailand into a united Laos. They appear, at least at first, to have had US backing. Breaking away from the Seri Thai, they formed the Lao Pen Lao (LPL - "Laos for Lao") movement, and gained many adherents amongst the educated princes and mandarins of French Laos, particularly those in the south who feared domination by Luang Prabang in the north. In February 1945, the LPL formed an association of anti-colonialists known as the Sannibat lao ekkalat, or Lao Independance League. 

When the Japanese took full control of Indochina in 1945 an independent Kingdom of Luang Prabang was declared by King Sisavong Vong and Prince Chao Phetsarat (the Viceroy) in April of that year. While Phetsarat was a member of LPL, the King was still pro-French and apparently made the declaration only under duress. With the Japanese surrender, Phetsarat declared a reunified Laos and attempted to get recognition from the Allies. Since 1941 Phetsarat had been building up the Civic Guard of Vientiane (the French Commissioner was aware of this, but powerless to act). On their surrender, the Japanese in Laos handed over their weaponry to Phetsarat's forces on 27th August 1945, and the Viceroy decided to call in his half-brother Prince Chao Souphanouvong, who was in Vietnam (having met Ho Chi Minh - the OSS had provided an aircraft to take him from his residence in Vinh to meet Uncle Ho in Hanoi!), to take command of the nationalist armed forces. Souphanouvong arrived in Savannakhet on 6th October 1945, and found that the southern branch of LPL had armed men installed here, under the command of Oun Sananikone (who had served as an officer in the Thai Army during the French-Thai War) and Phoumi Nosavan (previously Secretary to the Sureté). On the 8th October at Thakhek, Souphanouvong formed the Armée de libération et de défense lao (ALDL) from his personal guard, the troops under Sananikone and Nosavan, the Garde Indochinoise (native militia) of Thakhek , and the Civic Guard of Vientiane. The prince became Commander-in-Chief, with Sananikone as his AdC and Nosavan as Chief of Staff. 

The southern LPL members had formed a Committee to take control of the area on 8th October, and on the 9th a similar body was founded in Vientian. These agreed to amalgamate under Phetsarat, who declared Laos to be independant under a new government termed the Lao Issara ("Free Lao" - sometimes given as Lao Itsala), and this Provisional Government (under Khammao Vilay, prefect of Vientiane) published a provisional constitution on 16th October 1945. The new administration included nationalists of various persuasions - right-wing, left-wing and centrist. It declared all treaties with France to be null and void, and adopted a new National Anthem and flag (which became the Pathet Lao flag, and then the official Laos flag after the communist take-over in 1975). Souphanouvong was made Defence Minister. 

Matters were complicated when, by the Potsdam Agreement of July 1945, Nationalist Chinese troops from the 93rd Division moved into Laos to disarm the Japanese garrison. Finding that the Japanese had already left, the Chinese set about looting the country, and particularly captured as much opium as possible. On the whole, the Chinese were fairly neutral in Laos, and only acted against bodies which threatened them. The LI were generally careful to avoid provoking the Chinese. 

However, Colonel Imfeld (the French Commissioner) with a group of recently freed French military arrived in Luang Prabang on 2nd September 1945 (just ahead of the Chinese occupation) and received an audience with the King. They demanded that Phetsarat be dismissed, and that the state return to French protectorship. The King agreed, at which point Phetsarat and the LI deposed him for his collaboration with the French, and the Viceroy was declared head of state. The Chinese arrived in Luang Prabang and disarmed Imfeld's men on the 23rd September (and he was then imprisoned by the LI government). The Chinese did not leave Laos until March 1946 

On 30th October 1945 the Provisional Government signed a treaty and alliance with the Viet Minh, but in January 1946 a force of 600 French paratroops with over 4,000 local partisans began campaigning against the Lao Issara, with the airfield at Paksane as their main supply base. Despite appeals by the LI government, the Chinese stood back and watched the struggle for control of Laos. Two of the most active partisan groups were the Hmong of Touby Li Foung, and the Lao under his old classmate Tiao Saykham (a member of the Xieng Khouang royal family). These two groups, with limited French support, besieged the city of Xieng Khouang (in the Plain of Jars) for two weeks before it fell on the morning of 27th January. 

The Hmong in particular were of most use to the returning French military by "bottling up" the ALDL troops in the towns and cities, cutting off or defeating the various village "self-defence" units. The French forces (including SAS, and lightly-equipped "commandos" with jeeps and trucks - including elements of the 5e RIC and the Conus Commando) began to isolate these urban strongholds during February 1946, and by the end of this month the ALDL were besieged in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Savannakhet and Thakhek in particular. The VM signed a cease-fire with the French on 6th March 1946, but the LI government in Vientiane declared its resolve to continue the struggle on 12th March. 

The French reoccupied Muang Phine on the 14th March 1946, then Savannakhet on the 17th, Thakhek on the 21st, Sépone on the 23rd, and Napé on th 11th April. During April 1946, all of south and central Laos came under French control. Vientiane fell on the 24th April, forcing the LI government to flee into Thailand, forming a "government in exile" in Bangkok under Phetsarat. 

While militarily unsuccessful, the LI and ALDL actions had raised the profile of Lao nationalism. The main mistake of the ALDL had been in, unlike their VM colleagues, trying to fight positional warfare with the French. The French easily isolated and overcame the various garrisons - which, despite fighting bravely (particularly at Ban Keun, Thakhek and Savannakhet), were no match for the professional soldiers of France. Souphanouvong himself was seriously injured at Thakhek, and was hospitalised for some time in Thailand. After their defeats, sporadic skirmishes between the CFEO and ALDL remnants continued until September. By this point, the majority of the hard-line nationalists were either killed, imprisoned or in exile. The ALDL remnants were now split between forces on the Thai border and those on the Vietnamese border. With the removal of these nationalists (termed lao-viêt by the French), a "modus vivendi" was negotiated between the French, Lao loyalists and moderate nationalists. By this, King Sisavong Vong and his son, Crown Prince Savang Vathana (who was not particularly Francophile), were to set up a new administration. Part of the discussions resulted in the claimant to the throne of Champasak (Prince Boun Oum) renouncing his claim in favour of Sisavong Vong, and thus paving the way to a unified Laos under a single king. The accordat was signed by Savang Vathana and French Commissioner de Raymond on the 27th August. Elections were held for the new government on the 11th October 1946, resulting in the provisional government of Prince Kindavong (half-brother of Phetsarat). This administration became known as the Royal Lao Government (RLG), and ruled in one form or another until 1975. The Lao provinces which had been annexed by Thailand in 1941 were returned to Laos on the 7th December 1946. 

The Royal Lao Government

France declared Laos an autonomous state within the French Union in 1946 and a constitution proclaimed on 11th May 1947 gave Laos a parlimentary government with an elected National Assembly. The Royal (or National) Lao Army (RLA) was formed with a French cadre on the 23rd March 1949, and the Franco-Lao Convention of 19th July 1949 made Laos an independent state (at least in name). 

In February 1950, France began to scale down its administrative and military presence in Laos, the sovereignty of which was recognised by Great Britain and the USA. A treaty with France in 1954 made Laos a completely independent state, and all French officials and military (other than a training mission) left the country. By the Geneva agreements of 1954, Laos was to be administered by the RLG, but the PL were to be brought into the regime after free elections. 

The Rise of the Neo Lao Issara and the Pathet Lao

While the ALDL forces on the Thai border maintained a "traditional" nationalist stance, and were eventually integrated into the RLA, those on the Vietnamese border became increasingly influenced by the VM. 

The LI Government-in-exile, in Bangkok, was headed by the ultra-nationalist Phetsarat, and comprised various factions which co-existed only grudgingly. Their very existance relied on a friendly Thai state, and in the post-WW2 chaos with a Seri Thai dominated regime this was the case. However, in 1947 the military took power again, with the previous dictator (Phibul Songgram) back in power with tacit US backing. He was anti-communist, and pressed the LI to seek rapprochement with the French. Thus, in 1949, Prince Souvanna Phouma began negotiations with Vientiane, leading to an amnesty declaration by the King. On the 25th October 1949, the LI in Bangkok dissolved their Government despite the protestations of Phetsarat and others. The right-wing and centrist members of the defunct LI (including Prince Souvanna Phouma, Khammao Vilay and Prince Phoui Sananikone) flew back to Vientiane and rejoined the Lao political system. The ALDL forces on the Thai-Laotian border rejoined the Lao armed forces, and became part of the new RLA. 

However, the dissidents (Phetsarat, Souphanouvong, Kaysone Phomvihane and others) refused to accept the amnesty, and denounced their ex-colleagues as traitors. Nouhak Phoumsavanh, leader of the ALDL on the Vietnamese border, similarly refused to give up and rejoin the regular army. With Bangkok increasingly hostile, the exiled nationalist politicians travelled back to north-east Laos to take charge of the renewed struggle. 

On 20th January 1949, the ALDL troops in the north-east had renamed themselves as the "Popular Liberation Army". Directives were issued in the name of the Pathet Lao (Lao State) and so this force, under the command of Kaysone Phomivane, became better known as the Pathet Lao (PL). When the left-wing dissidents from the defunct LI came back to the nort-east, they formed the Neo Lao Issara (NLI - "Lao Liberation Front") at the "Lao National Congress" held at Sam Neua on the 13th-15th August 1950, with 150 delegates (from all over Laos) in attendance. They codified the "12 political points of national resistence", and set up a new Government in opposition to the RLG, with Chao Souphanouvong at its' head. Following the VM model, they set about building a support base in the mountain areas by a mixture of education, military prowess, and threat. On 10th March 1951, a joint congress was held between the VM, NLI and the Front Issarak of Cambodia. This declared a unity of purpose between the vietnamese, lao and khmer revolutionaries. 

The PL guerrillas and the NLI politicians acted in concert. Initially as small gangs of guerrillas and travelling propaganda units, they covered the mountain area which was dotted with rebel strongholds. As their numbers and confidence grew, the PL became more of an army, and the NLI could begin to re-organise the land under their control by collectivisation, removal of political opponents, formation of trade unions, etc. Meanwhile, to combat them, the RLG begged aid from the French, raised higher taxes and conscripted peasants. Such treatment drove the Lao people increasingly into the hands of the NLI... 

Pathet Lao on the Offensive

Late in 1952, with their position in north-east Laos increasingly secure, and with heavy support from VM troops, the PL launched a general offensive aimed at capturing Sam Neua Province, together with parts of Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang. Sam Neua fell on the 13th April 1953, together with Phong Saly. Luang Prabang was besieged, and the offensive pushed on into the south and east. By the end of the year, the towns of Tha Khek (which fell on 24th December) and Savannakhet were encircled, as was the French air-land base at Seno. RC 9 was cut, and Attapu Province was captured, together with the Boloven Plateau. At the time of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, the NLI and PL were in control of a large part of Laos, and had a battle-hardened army. They were recognised by the Geneva Accords, and the RLG was forced to agree to joint elections to re-unify Laos (to be held in 1955). 

Pathet Lao Forces

The PL were formed under the aegis of the VM, and thus followed VM organisations. They were not as heavily, nor well, equipped. The ALDL and early PL would have been equipped with a mixture of French, Japanese and (possibly) American weapons. Supplies increasingly came from the VM, so Chinese patterns may have increased towards the end of the War. Typical dress would be as for the VM - a mixture of European and local civilian clothing, with pieces of military origin (webbing, etc.). Headgear would most likely be a headscarf wound into a form of turban, pith-helmets, or bush hats. 

Royal Lao Army

As the French withdrew their military presence from Laos, the RLG formed its own army to fight the PL and VM. This was the French-trained Royal Lao Army (RLA) which rose from 4,000 men in 1951 to 10,000 in 1952 and then 15,000 during 1953. In 1954, as the French pulled out of Laos, the RLA gained a strength of 25,000 effectives. 

The RLA was equipped, trained, armed and officered by the French. Their weaponry was mostly of British manufacture (ex-CFEO), with the bush hat worn with a British/Commonwealth uniform. As Lao troops were classed as "Chasseurs", i.e. light infantry, their equipment was of "light" patterns, i.e. 60mm mortar instead of 81mm and 0.30" MG rather than 0.50". The RLA tended to be dispersed in company-sized units manning positions scattered across the country, with the GCMA working the land between. For major operations they would be reinforced by CFEO, typically building an air-land base (as at Seno). 

A Note on Spellings

Spelling irregularities are a constant problem when dealing with Indochina, and this is especially so with Laos. As many of the names have come through various languages (French, Vietnamese, Thai) before reaching English, there are some great variations. I have attempted to be at least consistent in spelling, but do not be surprised if you find different ones used by other sources! (D.O'H). 

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