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Key Leaders

Kaysone Phomvihan was preeminent leader of both the party and the state until his death in November 1992. Kaysone's unusual career of leadership had taken him through two decades of revolution and almost another two decades of independence. Born in 1920, Kaysone studied at the Faculty of Law at the University of Hanoi where, in 1942, he joined the struggle against the French colonialists, according to his official biography. Kaysone was known in Hanoi by his Vietnamese name Quoc.

For at least a decade after independence, Kaysone avoided contact with the masses, Western diplomats, and journalists, remaining heavily guarded and secretive, in some ways continuing an earlier shadowy revolutionary style. Kaysone's caution may have been influenced by concern for his safety because several attempts had been made on his life during the first few years of his rule. However, during 1989 and 1990, Kaysone moved about more freely in Laos and showed himself more openly to the outside world. For the first time, he made state visits to Japan, China, and Sweden. He gave interviews to Western journalists and was more available to meet with Western officials. His public statements suggested that he was impressed by the level of development he had seen in affluent nations and that he was open to new techniques to bring economic progress to Laos under the leadership of the LPRP.

Although the political careers of most communist leaders in Europe and Asia had been terminated when fundamental new policies were introduced to their regimes, Kaysone continued his leadership without challenge, showing unusual political agility and ideological flexibility. Kaysone had long embraced Marxism- Leninism, following the pattern of his Vietnamese and Soviet mentors. When evidence of change in the communist world began to appear, Kaysone propounded the New Economic Mechanism in 1986, invoking Lenin, but soon moved control of state enterprises to autonomous firms, and by 1989 edged more deliberately toward a market economy (see Industrial Policy , ch. 3). Kaysone appeared to be a pragmatic communist leader, open to the ideas of outsiders and zealous for--although unsuccessful at producing--economic growth.

Upon Kaysone's death, the person who had been second in party Politburo rank as long as Kaysone had been first, Nouhak Phoumsavan, born in 1914, was passed over as party chairman-- presumably for reasons of age and ill health--in favor of the third-ranking member, General Khamtai Siphandon. However, in keeping with the Laotian communist practice of maintaining continuity and honoring seniority, Nouhak was promoted from deputy prime minister to president of state.

The new LPRP chairman, Khamtai, also retains his government post as prime minister, suggesting that he has consolidated his role as the preeminent political leader. Born in 1924 in Champasak Province, Khamtai is the youngest surviving member of the group that founded the Free Laos Front (Neo Lao Issara--see Glossary) in 1950 and the LPP in 1955. He is thought to have spent part of World War II (1939-45) in India and was employed as a postal worker in southern Laos after the war. He joined the Lao Issara (Free Laos-- see Glossary) in 1946 and remained with the Pathet Lao group that split with the Lao Issara in 1949 (see The Coming of Independence , ch. 1). Assigned to military and political functions in the southern Laos sector, Khamtai was elected to the Central Committee of the Free Laos Front in 1950. According to a biography published in the Vietnamese newspaper, Nhan Dan (People) [Hanoi], Khamtai was appointed chief of staff of the Lao People's Liberation Army (LPLA--see Glossary) in 1954, and in 1957 he was elected to membership in the Central Committee of the LPP. He directed the party's propaganda and training functions during 1959 and 1960 and in 1961 was named supreme commander of the LPLA. In 1962 he was appointed to the Standing Committee of the party's Central Committee and named deputy secretary of the General Military Committee.

Khamtai moved steadily forward in the LPRP Politburo to the third ranking position, serving as minister of national defense from 1975 to 1991 and as deputy prime minister before his elevation to the post of prime minister in 1991. Khamtai's background in the military establishment, which has been a conservative force in Laotian politics, is thought to make him particularly sensitive to security concerns. He has a reputation as a hardliner and appears to be more inclined toward secrecy than Kaysone. Before assuming the post of prime minister, he had little exposure to Westerners, although his contacts increased when he took on his new task.

The deputy prime minister for foreign affairs in 1993 was Phoun Sipaseut, a veteran Politburo member who headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for seventeen years. Below him, in the rank of minister of foreign affairs, is Somsavat Lengsavat, who ranked fifty-first in the LPRP Central Committee. In Kaysone's time, an "inner cabinet" of six party leaders carried the major decisionmaking responsibility for the government. Of this group, only three members were living as of mid-1994--Nouhak, Khamtai, and Phoun. It is uncertain whether Kaysone's successors will continue the inner cabinet, but there appears to be some generational conflict. A transition will be required from leaders who were educated by service in the secret revolutionary party to those who may have studied abroad--very likely in France--before 1975 and whose membership in the party came during a more open era. One of the vice ministers of foreign affairs in 1992, for example, studied in the French military academy, Saint Cyr, as did a former minister of external economic relations. The latter was dealing very adroitly in 1991 with foreign donors, and at the Fifth Party Congress, his rank on the Central Committee rose from twenty-sixth to sixteenth. His counterpart in the Ministry of Finance, however, a former provincial governor with more than three decades of service in the revolutionary movement, was propelled from forty-third to tenth in the Central Committee and gained membership in the Politburo.

Data as of July 1994

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