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  7. History of Lao country

From the Palaeolithic to 2000 A.D.

According to the latest studies being carried out by Amphai Doré, a Frenchman of Laotian Origin, the people of Laos originally came from China, where there are still about 20 million inhabitants who speak Lao, having the same ethnical structures composed of Lao Loum, Lao Theung and de Lao Soung.

From the Palaeolithic era to the XIIIth century

The first archaeological findings of Man in Laos go back to the Palaeolithic era in the form of sharp or pointed stone artefacts. To the north of the Annamite chain, in the Phou Loi (Tham Pong) chain of mountains, Proto-Australians are supposed to have lived. Even so, the people of Laos are the most ancient people in S.E. Asia.

From the 2nd to the 5th centuries, South Laos came under the control of the Chams (Indianised Malays); and as from then, whilst Indochina was opening sea-routes to India, Middle-Laos was probably colonised by Buddhist Indian Indonesians. This civilisation came into being in southern Burma where it lasted until the 13th century, as well as in Thailand (then called Siam).

Between the 6th and 13th centuries, South Laos (the realm of Champassak) was dominated by the Khmers whose influence reached as far as Thailand and Cambodia. Different ethnical groups were mainly under the pressure of the Chinese in the south, the Khmers, whose power was great at that time, and the Vietnamese, immigrated to Laos and installed themselves mainly on the banks of rivers. They absorbed the local cultures and created several realms to the south of China, from East India to Vietnam. The Thaïs Siam followed by the Thaïs Lao took over to the South of China and founded two realms in the North of Laos having as capital Louang Prabang and Xiang Khouang (now the Jarres Plain).

Up until the middle of the 14th century, most of the principalities depended on the realm of Sukhotai (Siam). But the region was torn by war: Sukhotai ended by breaking up whilst the new realm of Ayuthaya was at war and the Khmer realm collapsed, due to internal problems.

The XIVth century and the beginnings of Laos

Chao Fa Ngum was born at the beginning of the 14th century (1316 - 1373). For the first time, supported by the Khmers, whose king became the adoptive father of Fa Ngum, the young prince conquered the 3 provinces of Muang Seua (actually Louang Prabang), Wieng Chan (Vientiane) on the Khorat plain, so reuniting the 3 realms into one; the realm of Lan Xang "realm of a million elephants and a white parasol" whose capital naturally became Louang Prabang, Fa Ngum’s birthplace. The realm became one of the largest in South Asia, at that time, even though it was relatively unpopulated compared to its neighbours...

During the reign of Laos, the country became bigger, due to its chief, who put the pressure on and was nicknamed "the conqueror". He was finally overthrown by his ministers who wanted to end his megalomania; he was replaced by his son Oun Heuane, who led the country to its present situation.

Up until 1421, the realm was rich, arts were developed; Buddhism gradually replaced animism (even though there are still traces) due to the Khmer’s sending instructors, artists, and bonzes. Security reigned all over the realm which was governed intelligently and efficiently by the person who called himself SamSenThai, the king of 300 000 Thai.

The 16th century, or the second apex

On the death of SamSenThai, the throne was viciously disputed, and it wasn’t until 100 years later, in 1520, that the instability, provoked by the continual changing of kings, was quietened with Phothisarat’s sacrament. The situation up until then had been critical and there were many intrigues. The realm was threatened on all sides, beginning with the capital of that time, Louang Prabang, which was not far from the terrible Burmese. The king had 2 alternatives: play the « Northern » card and unite with the Thai principalities or the «Southern» card by uniting with Vientiane and making an allegiance with the Cambodians.

It was the “Southern” option that was chosen. Photisarat, as from that moment on, rearmed and re-equipped his army, improved security in the country, and made Buddhism the only official religion. At the end of his reign, his son was put at the head of the realm of Lanna and 3 years later he became his father’s successor. In 1560, the pressure from the Burmese was such that the capital, being too exposed to raids, had its administrative and governmental functions transferred to Vientiane. Ventiane was taken over in 1565 by the Burmese who were in turn quickly hunted and beaten in 1569. Two years later, at the time of the sudden death of the young king Setthatirath, the realm finally came under the Burmese yoke for 20 years.

After a period of anarchy under 5 kings, Surya Vongsa came to the throne in 1637 and managed to bring back peace. Buddhism was at its peak, arts were developed and Louang Prabang became the commercial centre of the whole region. During this reign, which was the longest in Lao history, being as it lasted 57 years up until the death of the king in 1694, Laos went through its golden age, its second peak before breaking up, to the advantage of the surrounding stronger realms.

The fall of Lan Xang and the slow decline

At the beginning of the XVIIIth century, the realm of Lan Xang broke up into 3 realms, those of Louang Prabang in the north (under China and Siam), Vientiane (under Annan), and Champassak (under Cambodia and Siam).

In 1764, the Lao’s of Muang Chan appealed to the Burmese of Alaunfra to help them against the Burmese of Muang Prabang. The ancient capital of the “realm of a thousand elephants” was burnt to ashes, whilst the realms of Vientiane and Champassak to the south, ended up in the hands of the Siamese, who brought back from their conquest the two palladiums of Laos: the Phra Bang and the Phra Kéo. Only the Phra Bang finally came back from Bangkok ...

After a failed attempt by king Chao Anou (1805-1830) to take over the sovereignty of Laos, the country sank to a point where it nearly disappeared completely.

The French protectorate

Times are hard for Laos in the XVIIIth century, and it wouldn’t have taken much for them to disappear under the pressure of the large dominating countries that surround them; China, Vietnam, Siam, Burma and Cambodia.

It was at this time that a certain number of Frenchmen discovered the region of Indochina, and brought back treasures from this region that the Europeans loved, especially during the Universal Exhibitions in Paris in 1878, 1889 and 1900. Amongst these "adventurers", was the naturalist Henri Mouhot, who arrived in Louang Prabang in 1861 and died there (his tomb is situated not far from Phon Phau). Between 1866 et 1868, Doudard de Lagrée and Francis Garnier went up the Mekong River and visited Vientiane. In 1867, Auguste Pavie took part in the conflict against Siam and against the Ho plunderers, who ransacked and burnt Louang Prabang in 1887 (see The History of Luong Prabang).

France already possessed 2 Protectorates in the Indochina peninsula : in Cambodia (1863) and Vietnam (1885). In 1893, France signed a treaty with the principality of Louang Prabang whose King wanted to get rid of the Siamese military troops who had come to get rid of the Chinese Black Flag Army.

A final treaty was signed in 1904, with Siam recognising the actual borders of Laos. In the dealings of that time, Laos unfortunately lost the the richest region in Laos, the Khorat plateau, to Siam. This is still a bitter memory, a little like the French with the Alsace and Lorraine district at a certain period.

Even though France had engaged a lot of work in Laos, trying to restore the realm (reconstruction of Vientiane, organisation of schools and the university of Vientiane, development of the road network), we must realise that for France, Laos was not as interesting a country (by that we must understand, exploitable) as its neighbours, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The French police station, situated in Louang Prabang in what is now the Phousi Hotel, was only ever intended as an occasion to prevent the potential accessibility of this territory to the English, who were very much present in the area. Several hundred Frenchmen lived in the country, which was in itself a mixture by its population and its resources, living mainly from the growth and distribution of opium, whose quality was reputed as being the best in the Far East.

The Second World War

All the Indochina colonies came under the yoke of the Japanese, in this period. In Laos, very few Japanese actually lived on the territory. The Japanese said they were anti-imperialists, and openly tried to liberate the people from Western takeover, to expulse the “whites” from the area. Even after being beaten in 1945, they only left the country after having killed or deported some of the French expatriates, and by proclaiming the country’s independence; hoping that his would definitely throw the “whites” out of Laos.

This idea of independence started up a nationalist movement, the Lao Issara. In 1946 the French troops came back to Laos to restore the protectorate. As from that moment, three influences existed : Prince Phetsarath of Louang Prabang, (nicknamed the Blue Prince), he represented the neutral tendency. Prince Souphanouvong (nicknamed the Red Prince) allied with the Viet Minh who founded the Pathet Lao (The Lao Country). He had studied in France and was a former student from the Chartes School. Lastly, Prince Boum Oum, former captain of the Foreign Legion, who had to give up the throne and who was nicknamed the White Prince.

In 1949, France passed a treaty with the Lao royal family, according the country its internal autonomy and its reunion under the control of the king Sisavang Vong of Louang Prabang. Unfortunately, the financial issues of this union were important (especially because of the traffic of opium and arms) and the numerous people involved : 3 Laotian movements, to which must be added the French with their leanings towards the neutral faction, the Americans who were trying to end the protectorate, the Viet-Minh communists, the Siamese...


In 1954, the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu marked the end of the French protectorate in Laos. The arrival of the first Geneva conference in 1957, dates the start of the first combined Government for the national union, headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma. Theoretically, the French, and more globally the West, no longer controlled the country. In reality, a dark war started, including the French, the Americans, the Vietnamese, and even the Chinese and the Russians ...

In 1958, after the partial elections gave victory to the left wing, the right wing leaders organized a coup d’état and asked for American help to get rid of the menace from the Pathlet Lao, which was more and more actively supported by the North Vietnamese.

In 1959, Souphanouvong, the leader of the Pathlet Lao, was incarcerated with a dozen other pro-communist leaders who managed to escape a few months later. Meanwhile, the Americans brought help to the new government, and armed the Hmongs to fight against the communists. So armed, the pro-American forces invaded Vientiane which resulted in forcing the neutrals to join up with the communists, which was the only credible alternative against the Hmongs.

In 1962, a second Geneva conference led to the formation of a second Coalition Government. Laos was more and more implicated in the Vietnamese conflict. This started the secret war which brought the USA to the north of the country, which resulted in enormous bombings especially near the Ho-Chi-Minh road.

The following 10 years saw the elimination of the neutral clan and the development of a communist ideology all over the country. The increase in the fighting between the Viet Minh communists intensified and boiled over into Laos, where the Americans were carrying on a "secret war", which didn’t officially exist, but whose figures today show the enormity. North Laos was under intensive bombings from the American B-52’s (10 tons of bombs per square metre!) of destructive weed killers of the "orange agent" and "yellow rain" type that destroyed nearly all the vegetation, poisoning the water as far down as the groundwater...

In 1973, a cease-fire treaty for Laos was signed between the North Vietnamese and the Americans. A temporary National Union government was proclaimed in April ‘74, reuniting all the political forces under the presidency of Souvanna Phouma, but end ‘75, the right wing completely collapsed, leaving the field clear for the pro-Vietnamese.

On the 1st and 2nd of December ‘75, congress representatives had a meeting, accepted the abdication of the king and proclaimed the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.

The Beginnings of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos

After nearly 30 years of war, this new nation had to face up to serious difficulties. Western help was withdrawn, the kip (local money) collapsed, and there was a food shortage - whilst, for the first time in its contemporary history, the country was going through a period of executive stability. As from 1975 "re-education" camps were opened, notably in Sam Neua, where numerous students and other intellectuals were incarcerated.

This repressive period, in the same trend as Cambodia or Vietnam, was not nearly as severe in Laos as in the neighbouring countries. It was at this time, between 10 and 20% of the population escaped firstly to Thailand, then mainly towards the USA (2 thirds of the refugees), France (15%), Canada and Australia. The consequences of this exodus were catastrophic. It drained the country of many of its tradesmen (especially Chinese), civil servants and the better educated, all afraid of a repression which was mainly carried out on teachers and other qualified people.

Between 1978 and 1982 whilst diplomatic relationships between France and Laos were suspended, close links were formed between Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In many respects, Vietnam with its 80 million inhabitants, having good schools and educated personnel, helped its little brother country by sending men and equipment, accepting and forming the best Laotian scholars. Up until 1988, the Vietnamese put 40 000 soldiers at the Laos’s disposal, to support the regime (in other words as many as the whole Laos army).

The reforming era

In 1986, there were changes with the adoption of the "new economical mechanism" which led Laos to the opening of a market economy. In 1989 the first communist constitution of Laos was born. Laos started a period of negotiation with China, renewed the ties with the West, and in the search for peace, liberated the last political prisoners held in the re-education camps. And so the first economical reforms started, notably the first denationalisations; which was done to revive a bankrupt system.

Finally, at the beginning of the 80’s, Laos distanced themselves from stringent communism, and little by little reintegrated the international scene and in 1991 rejoined the ‘Chaillot’, French speaking countries. In 1997 Laos was admitted to the >ASEAN (Asian Economic Community).

For several years, Laos has truly opened up to the ‘outside’, whether it be tourists whose currencies are very much appreciated, or investors who profit most of the time from different advantages (mainly fiscal) to help them establish themselves in this country which is in desperate need of capital and qualified craftsmen.

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