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The Colonial Era

Following the destruction of Vientiane, Laotian affairs were dominated militarily by Siam, although the Vietnamese also involved themselves over the mountains (see Developments in the Nineteenth Century , ch. 1). It was not until 1884, when France guaranteed Annam the integrity of its territorial domain, that Siamese hegemony over the left bank of the Mekong encountered a new challenge. Using Annam's claims to Laotian territories as a diplomatic pretext, France forced Siam to renounce all claims to territory east of the Mekong and even to islands in the river by successive treaties between 1893 and 1907.

To preserve order in the new administrative structure and to reinforce their security forces, which up to the twentieth century consisted largely of Vietnamese militia, the French formed local Laotian police and military constabulary units and provided them with some modern weapons, equipment, and rudimentary training. The Laotian units, whose salaries were paid for by the royal house of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang), pledged allegiance to the monarchy, establishing a military tradition that ended only in 1975.

Between 1901 and 1907, France's colonial forces in Laos directed their attention to putting down a group of southern mountain Mon-Khmer rebels who had become angered over France's suppressing their customary slave-trading activities. Bandits from China's Yunnan Province also kept the colonial army occupied in the north between 1914 and 1916. The army's final major action--from 1919 to 1921--was led by Pa Chai against the Hmong, who were conducting raids on the Lao and other groups in Houaphan and Xiangkhoang provinces with the aim of expelling the French and establishing an independent Hmong kingdom.

The first entirely Laotian military unit was formed by the French in 1941 and was known as the First Battalion of Chasseurs Laotiens (light infantry). It was used for internal security and did not see action until after the Japanese coup de force of March 9, 1945, when Japan occupied Laos. The unit then went into the mountains, supplied and commanded by Free French agents who had received special jungle training in camps in India and who had parachuted into Laos beginning in December 1944 with the aim of creating a resistance network.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the temporary absence of French authority in the towns, the Lao Issara (Free Laos--see Glossary) government armed itself to defend the Laotian independence it claimed on behalf of the people (see World War II and After , ch. 1). For the most part, effective components of the Lao Issara armed forces consisted of Vietnamese residents of the towns of Laos, who either had received weapons given them by the surrendering Japanese troops--sold by the Chinese Nationalist soldiers who occupied northern Laos under the 1945 Potsdam Conference agreements--or looted from French arsenals. In the Battle of Thakhek (Khammouan) in March 1946 that decided the issue of sovereignty in Laos in favor of the French, the Lao Issara used mortars and light machine guns against French armored vehicles and planes. One of the main preoccupations of the members of the Lao Issara government exiled in Bangkok between 1946 and 1949 was to procure weapons to fight back against the French.

French efforts to train and expand the Royal Lao Army continued during the First Indochina War (1946-54), by which time Laos had a standing army of 15,000 troops (see The Coming of Independence , ch. 1). The French knew the lightly equipped Royal Lao Army was not in a position to defend Laos against Viet Minh (see Glossary) regular forces formed by General Vo Nguyen Giap. To counter Viet Minh invasions of Laos in 1953 and 1954, the French Union High Command diverted regular colonial units from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) into Laos; Giap exploited this weakness to disperse French Union forces. The French originally picked Dien Bien Phu as the site of a major strong point because it blocked a main invasion route into Laos, which they felt they had to defend at all cost in order to preserve their credibility with the king of Louangphrabang, who sought France's protection. Some of the most effective fighters against the Viet Minh were Hmong from Xiangkhoang whom the French recruited and formed into guerrilla units; one of these units, under a sergeant named Vang Pao, was on the march to Dien Bien Phu when the garrison fell in May 1954.

Under the terms of the armistice signed at the Geneva Conference on Indochina on July 20, 1954, by the French Union High Command and the Viet Minh, all Viet Minh troops had to withdraw from Laos within 120 days. Laos was prohibited from having foreign military bases or personnel on its soil and from joining any military alliance. The agreements provided for the regrouping of Pathet Lao (Lao Nation--see Glossary) guerrillas in the provinces of Houaphan and Phôngsali and their integration into the Royal Lao Army. The Pathet Lao, however, taking advantage of their easy access across the border to North Vietnam, immediately began to expand their guerrilla army, the first unit of which, the Latsavong detachment, had been formed in 1949 by Kaysone Phomvihan.

Data as of July 1994

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