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Chapter 1. Historical Setting


Detail from a door of Wat Ba Khe in Louangphrabang shows courtier blowing conch shell.

HISTORICAL RESEARCH SHOWS that the rudimentary structures of a multiethnic state existed before the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the thirteenth century. These prethirteenth-century structures consisted of small confederative communities in river valleys and among the mountain peoples, who found security away from the well-traveled rivers and overland tracks where the institutions and customs of the Laotian people were gradually forged in contact with other peoples of the region. During these centuries, the stirring of migrations as well as religious conflict and syncretism went on more or less continuously. Laos's shortlived vassalage to foreign empires such as the Cham, Khmer, and Sukhothai did nothing to discourage this process of cultural identification and, in fact, favored its shaping.

In the thirteenth century--an historically important watershed- -the rulers of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang) constituted a large indigenous kingdom with a hierarchical administration. Even then, migratory and religious crosscurrents never really ceased. The durability of the kingdom itself is attested to by the fact that it lasted within its original borders for almost four centuries. Today, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos) covers only a small portion of the territory of that former kingdom.

Internecine power struggles caused the splitting up of Lan Xang after 1690, and the Lao and the mountain peoples of the middle Mekong Valley came perilously close to absorption by powerful neighboring rivals, namely Vietnam and Siam (present-day Thailand); China never posed a territorial threat. Only the arrival of the French in the second half of the nineteenth century prevented Laos's political disintegration. In a "conquest of the hearts" (in the words of the explorer and colonist Auguste Pavie)--a singular event in the annals of colonialism in that it did not entail the loss of a single Lao life--France ensured by its actions in 1893 that Laos's separate identity would be preserved into modern times. During the colonial interlude, a few French officials administered what their early cartographers labeled, for want of a better name, "le pays des Laos" (the land of the Lao, hence the name Laos), preserving intact local administrations and the royal house of Louangphrabang.

However, Laos's incorporation into French Indochina beginning in 1893 brought with it Vietnamese immigration, which was officially encouraged by the French to staff the middle levels of the civil services and militia. During the few months in 1945 when France's power was momentarily eclipsed, the consequences of this Vietnamese presence nearly proved fatal for the fledgling Lao Issara (Free Laos) government. The issue of Vietnamese dominance over Indochina remained alive into the postindependence period with the armed rebellion of the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation), who proclaimed themselves part of an Indochina-wide revolutionary movement. The Royal Lao Government grappled with this problem for ten years but never quite succeeded in integrating the Pathet Lao rebels peacefully into the national fabric.

By the 1960s, outside powers had come to dominate events in Laos, further weakening the Vientiane government's attempts to maintain neutrality in the Cold War. For one thing, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the most powerful entity left in Indochina by the 1954 Geneva armistice and the exit of France, cast a large shadow over the mountains to the west. Also, the United States, which had exerted strong pressure on France on behalf of the independence of Laos, became involved in a new war against what it regarded as the proxies of the Soviet Union and China. Even then, however, high-level United States officials seemed unsure about Laos's claim to national identity, and Laos became the country where the so-called "secret war" was fought.

In late 1975, months after the fall of Cambodia and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to the communists, the Pathet Lao came to power in Laos, proclaiming that Laos's territorial integrity as well as its independence, sovereignty, and solidarity with other new regimes of Indochina, would be defended (see fig. 1). In a demonstration of this determination, Laos fought a border war with Thailand in 1988, and protracted negotiations were necessary to demarcate the border between the two countries. Internally, the regime proved ruthless in stamping out political and armed opposition. Only since the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1986 has the government made some headway in the long and difficult process of bettering the lives of its citizens.

Data as of July 1994

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