Country Listing

Laos Table of Contents


Historical Background

Historically, Laos was subject to the will of its stronger neighbors, enforced by military means. By force of circumstances in warding off repeated foreign invasions, Laotians developed battle skills using elephants and compiled a history full of warlike deeds. Lan Xang, or the Kingdom of the Million Elephants, the first state in the recorded history of Laos, maintained a standing army of 150,000 men (see The Founding of Lan Xang , ch. 1). Regiments included cavalry, infantry, and an elephant corps. Prince Fa Ngum, Lan Xang's founder, redeveloped the old Mongol model of an army composed of units of 10,000, which gave rise to the name of the successive reign, Sam Sen Thai, or, 10,000 Thai. The army's strength enabled Fa Ngum to expand Lan Xang's borders to the western escarpment of the Khorat Plateau, the crest of the Annamite Chain in the east, and the northern edge of Khmer and Cham civilizations in the south. To the north and east especially, however, mountain tribes resisted absorption and maintained a degree of independence.

Following Fa Ngum's death, struggles with Siamese and Burmese states in which his successors became embroiled, sapped the strength of the army and led to the decline and eventual splitting up of Lan Xang. In 1778 the capital of the Vientiane kingdom was attacked and destroyed for the first time by a Siamese army. By the 1820s, Laos had reestablished sovereignty over its own borders, enough so that the king of Vientiane launched a disastrous military expedition against Siam (present-day Thailand). Laotian forces were overwhelmed by the superior firepower and strategy of the Siamese army, which attacked and destroyed Vientiane for a second time in 1828.

Data as of July 1994