Laos is a complicated and largely forgotten nation when considering its place on the world stage. It’s often subjected as background material for the Vietnam War, if it’s thought of at all. Its borders appear unnaturally deformed and its society remains woefully underdeveloped even compared to its regional neighbors. Many of these reasons are due to events which had occurred even before French involvement in the 1800s, but the modern decisions perpetuate the poor standards of the past.

Laos is a country much like many others sandwiched between major and minor powers. It is in a constant struggle in order to not only maintain its borders, but to maintain its identity. Kremmer notes an historical saying where Laos has three wives, Vietnam, Thailand and China.1 We can safely claim that in more recently history, just before the arrival of the French, that Laos hadn’t been great in fending off her wives. In fact, they were all nipping at her over the centuries and that’s if we don’t include the multitude of tribes within the region. Before its look west in the 1800s, Vietnam had recently consolidated, China had often been a threat, Thailand was always pressing against the region and the monarchy had constantly struggled to solidify its power within the jungle. Laos was not so much of a nation, as a region of land that had been picked at and insulated, safe only in certain places due to its complexity of travel.

The nation had also been further shaped by the French involvement in Indochina. The French had encouraged the encroachment of more Vietnamese into the country. While there hadn’t been a modern census, it is estimated that Vietnamese numbered roughly 60 percent of the total urban population of Laos in 1940.2 While France’s hold over the region had by most definitions come to an end at the conclusion of World War II, the previous French policies and decades of control had led to this large expansion of Vietnamese into the Laotian demographics.

Even by the mid 1960s when Laos had been somewhat rediscovered by Western media due to the Vietnam War, Laos had been described succinctly. A reporter noted that, “[Laos was] less a nation state than a conglomeration of tribes and languages… less a unified society than a multiplicity of feudal societies.”3 The tribes were varying and different. Even those groups which weren’t tribes were noted, and often foreign such as Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese. While we can’t know exact numbers because the first modern census was taken in 1985, and the previous census was taken in the fifteenth century, there is plenty of proof that for the most part, Laotians were a constant minority in their own nation and cities.

Coming through the 1960s, however, was Laos’ attempt to battle the weak education system within the country. It was still stuck between the past and the pressing moments of modernity. The incredibly violent Communist movement of the Pathet Lao were always threatening power against the other branches of government; turmoil reigned over the country for decades. Once control had been ensured, indoctrination had occurred within these schools as cadre would often watch over the students and their progress.4 One mark of note is that this did aid in taking in orphans who otherwise would’ve been left in the street and it was the beginning of a true construction of a region into a nation whereas in the past it could only be referred to as a nation in name only.

The one thing which often binds a nation together is its religion. Within Laos, Theravada Buddhism is the main religion. Before French involvement, Buddhism was central to the government and helped to validate the monarchy. But by the time of this more modern era, there were only roughly fifty to sixty percent of the people who followed Buddhism and were also ethnic Lao5 which naturally caused problems for the weak monarchy and aided the uprisings in the region. The nation was further divided in that if it wasn’t following a form of Buddhism, it was more than likely following various forms of animism.

Buddhism proved to remain strong even, in the more modern Laos. As the Pathet Lao succeeded in their final push to overthrow the government once the United States had left Vietnam, Phoumi sought to use Buddhsim, or at least their monks. In this way he claimed that the monks would, “help purify and make Buddhism in this country more scientific than in other countries.”6 Instead of using the basic tenants and historical revelations of Buddhism, the new communist government sought to bastardize the belief system to become “more scientific.”

A number of loyal followers of the Lao sangha fled to neighboring regions due to the manipulation of their belief system. Indeed, this also affected the government’s attempt to educate the people as the more educated population, who were believers, took their knowledge with them to other countries through the 1970s and early 1980s.7 Unfortunately for those left behind, this did mean that the state would have more control over those who remained.

Considering the overbearing and violent government of Laos, people were generally fearful of showing any wealth they may have, they were also dissuaded from joining the monkhood and the uncertainty of the future led to people downplaying their attention to religion. By the early to mid 1980s, however, the government began to relax its control over religion and some of the people became more liberated to the idea of freedom of thought when it came to religion. And by 1986 money was finally being sent to repair Buddhist monuments without much fear of retribution.8

It is claimed, by Gellner in particular, that the resurgence and relaxation of views on Buddhism came when a number of politicos in Laos began dying in the late 1970s. While there were services, they were simple and small. However, there was no sense of allowing one to grieve, should one want to. By the time of the death of Prince Souvanna Phouma, there was a proper Buddhist funeral held in 1984.9 There had remained a threat to not be too open or to make too great of spiritual claims. There was one man, Ajaan Phimpo who was arrested in 1987 for speaking of spirits, gods and because people had claimed he could fly. While the authorities had recognized by 1989 that they had made a mistake and had welcomed him back, he rejected these proposals and said, “If people are holy inside then each person is like a vat, and therefore don’t need vats or the sangha.”10 Kaysone Phomvihane, Laos’ communist leader, repeatedly visited Ajaan Phimpo beginning in 1989.

But the initial takeover of Buddhism was more malicious than it had originally seemed. The Communist Party had sought to morph the Sangha to be used as a way to follow the political ideology of the LPRP (Lao People’s Revolutionary Party).11 The following was undermined in an effort to encourage the people to look to the state rather than to religion or a belief system. The government had made many attempts to compare Buddhism to the Communist Lao government; as Martin Stuart-Fox writes, “both taught the equality of all men and women; both renounced individual, but accepted communal ownership of property; both sought to alleviate human suffering.”12 But if such a thing were true, then the Communist government was an unnatural redundancy. The natural excuse was that the government would help to purge the belief system of superstitions and ignorance the bulk of the population retained.

The indoctrination began early. Phoumi Vongvichit, who was a leading figure of the Pathet Lao, spoke to the Buddhist monks that the, “…the policy of this party and government is…to request Buddhist monks to give sermons to teach the people and encourage them to understand that all policies and lines of the party and government are in line with the teachings of the Lord Buddha so that the people will be willing to follow them. Thus, there will be no lazy people, thieves, or liars in our country. “13 These lines read as though they’d been ripped directly from the Soviet playbook, as is appropriate considering the Lao government was closely akin to the Vietnamese who maintained their Stalin statues even while Russia was ripping theirs down.

Any monks who refused to follow the party line and indoctrinate their followers were promptly sent to reeducation seminars. This policy was further deepened as the Sangha was no longer independent and instead became subordinate to the party. No longer could one attain status, prestige or advancement through alternative means. Furthermore, the Lao United Buddhists Association (LUBA) required that all monks, in order to raise in the ranks, must first to approved by the Party.14 The former structure of the Sangha had been demolished.

To further their political control, one of the first actions of the new Laotian government was to conduct a people’s trial in absentia on September 1975 of “right wing” army officers and ministers. In this trial, according to Stuart-Fox, a list of names was submitted, crimes were handed out, a defense wasn’t offered and guilt was handed out whether it be death or imprisonment.15 While previously the French control hadn’t been complete but there was still a code of which one was governed. In this instance, there didn’t seem to be a code. There was simply what the Party demanded. And what the Party had commanded.

Fear had naturally spread. The Laotian government had sent patrols which had conducted arrests at night where no one was assumed to be safe. Anonymous denunciations were enough for someone to be sought out and any threat was taken seriously. This is often what occurs in unstable, revolutionary governments who have yet to either win over or indoctrinate their people. Ought one to rule by love or fear? And if a group of people take power in a violent takeover, fear is the natural tendency. As such, many of those who were arrested were sentenced without trial at all; those who were considered risks were sent off to reeducation camps, work camps or rehabilitation camps. Of those accused or more violent crimes, they may be sent off to the prison of Sam Khe which was undergoing a new addition to house political prisoners.16

Economically, especially int he 1970s, the Lao government had been wrecked. Thailand and Laos had often had territorial disputes and the Vietnam War hadn’t helped. The violent Communist takeover was long and drawn out, US aid had ended in mid-1975 which resulted in Laotian inflation and when Thailand closed their borders on 18 November 1975, the economy further suffered.17 This portion was the further isolation of Laos from the world stage as the government turned inward, as mentioned, subjugating its religious citizens but now consolidating its political power as it struggled to rectify economic hardships. This would also permit them to lay blame against outsiders rather than against their own policies.

Laos had few other places to turn other than to its eastern neighbor, Vietnam. At this point, Laos was often referred to as a Vietnamese colony because of its utter reliance on Vietnam. It could really only turn to Vietnam for economic assistance and aid and in that way, became much in the way, at best, a follower of Vietnamese policy. This belief is further aided by the many Vietnamese troops which went into the subjected nation. And the fragmented history of Laos only aided the Vietnamese to establish deeper control over the weakened Lao.

Within two years the two countries had signed a treaty which would strengthen economic and cultural cooperation. This treaty of Friendship was signed in July 1977 full of pledges and aid and mutual assistance. Vietnam was filling in the vacuum that France and the United States had left behind. By 1985, Vietnam had offered 1.3 billion dong ($146.7 million USD at the time) to rebuild a township and two small towns, repair 300 km of road, provide for 900 specialists and train half of the 10,000 Lao students who would study abroad.18 Some of this cooperation naturally came due to Vietnam’s issues with Cambodia under Pol Pot. At the same time, the Lao government did not aid the Chinese whatsoever in their war against Vietnam in 1979. Not only was the Lao government weak and susceptible to Vietnamese overtures, Vietnam had also stationed tens of thousands of troops in Laos and had purged “right wing” guerrilla groups of Vang Pao’s former “secret army” from the mountains in central Laos.19

In part, what further caused Laos to rely so heavily on Vietnam was that it had once relied even more heavily on Thailand. Before the complete takeover, up to 98 percent of Lao imports came through Thailand in 1973.20 And Thailand received very little in terms of its percentage of trade from Laos and so, it was easy for Thailand to shut down its borders or trade whenever it desired. These actions, and Pathet Lao choices, further subjected, isolated and impoverished the Laotian people.

As mentioned earlier in the initial takeover under religion, many people had fled the new government. Between 1975 through mid-1983, roughly 350,000 Laotians fled the new regime, taking their specialties with them.21 This was initially aided by severe droughts and floods in 1976 and 1978 but also the closure of Thai-Lao trade upon the Communist takeover.

Laos was naturally a poor country. Even now it is largely agrarian and that was certainly no different after the takeover in 1975. In those first years over 80 percent of the Lao population worked in agriculture, utilizing slash-and-burn ancient techniques. Undoubtedly Laos was heavily dependent on the foreign aid they had received in the preceding years much as Vietnam had been during the war. Mirroring their agricultural percentage, Laos received roughly 80 percent of their budget from foreign aid at the end of the war.22 These problems were compounded by the mass exodus due to the revolution.

To provide an idea of the rate of inflation, the government had instituted the Liberation kip at KL200=US$1 in June of 1976. On a parallel market it was originally KL400=US$1 however by the end of July of the same year, the inflation rate had grown to KL1000=US$1.23 The economics were so crushing that Laos’ per capita was a mere US$80-90.24 Laos had been lacking foreign funds and their own isolation had kept them as an incredibly impoverished nation. While some foreign aid from the United States had returned in the proceeding year, Laos was back to the point of neither saving nor losing much money either way.

Compounding the problems of the regular person, the new Lao government was beginning to be as invasive as they had within religion. Agricultural taxes, which affected the poorest of people while government also took advantage of inflation, was fought against by the people. In late December 1976 Vice Premier Phoumi Vongvichit built a strawman argument stating: “Some people have rejected the collection of agricultural taxes. They want the government to pay these taxes and the people not to pay for anything. However, they say the country must be built. If we followed that idea, then the country would have to be dependent on foreign countries and could only ask them for money to carry out construction work. However, it isn’t easy to get other countries to give us as much as we want… After we have found other sources of income then the agricultural tax may be reduced or abolished.”25 Naturally the government wasn’t responsible for all hardships, as noted with the Thai blockade or the severe punishing weather, but to add on to their people’s hardship was risky considering the new leadership and dissatisfaction.

The Government at this time, however, was hardly centralized. Laos wasn’t developed before the Vietnam war and it certainly wasn’t developed afterward. Even road systems were horribly in disrepair or nonexistent. Therefore, regional powers had some control and bartering among one another or across national boundary lines had occurred. Extra funds would then be sent to the centralized state but no doubt this led to a certain amount of predictable corruption, and since the tax system was so unpopular, there were also likely unclaimed losses due to the burdensome tax system.

As the 1980s came, little had changed for Laos economically. Their focus still hadn’t shifted much. In fact, their industrial sector was only 0.8 percent of the workforce. Luckily for the government, and the people, some of the economic woes of the 1970s had been left behind. An entire family, including the contributing children by 1985 would finally be able to create a sufficient income.26 Some of this does come due to stability in the region, finally being able to focus on the country and removing civil war from the threat of the nation.

Laos was simply too heavily centered on their agricultural and timber output. With the lack of money and the aftereffects of the war, there were few other affordable opportunities. There were a number of resources just within reach, however. One such was tin in which before 1975 production sat at 1500 tons whereas in 1977 there were only 600 tons. At the same time, there were other deposits which foreign influences were exploring in tin, iron ore and the like. Considering that a sizable investment would’ve been required, in an unstable and tyrannical government overseeing it, there was little immediate expansion.27 And while one of Laos’ major exports was electricity, it had remained a net importer of energy through the 1970s.

The other alteration which came in the 1980s which aided the government’s standing and the people’s comfort within the nation. Through the 1970s, after the victory, the minorities were roughly treated and their belief systems attacked. This was much more so than how the government had treated Buddhism as a whole throughout the country. However, the tribes within Laos had resisted the efforts to destroy their cultures and people, along with attempts to force them into collective labor gangs.28 At the start of the new decade, this is when the government began to relax its attempts against the more localized tribes and this naturally pacified the threat that the government had created.

To note exactly how unstable the government was, and why it began to back off in the 1980s, Kaysone gave a speech on date 26 December 1979: “We are facing dangerous enemies who maintain a close alliance with various imperialist forces and other reactionaries as well as within the exiled reactionaries and reactionary remnants in the country. The enemies have colluded in implementing many… brutal schemes and tricks in the economic, political, military, cultural ideological and other fields. They have combined schemes of spying… and psychological warfare with schemes aimed at disrupting the unity of the country and at sowing division between Laos, Vietnam and Kampuchea. They have misled and bought off Lao cadres into serving them while infiltrating… our offices, organizations, enterprises and mass organizations with a view to sabotaging, destroying and controlling the economy, creating disturbances, inciting uprisings, carrying out assassinations and subversive activities in the country, putting pressure on and weakening our country in order to proceed to swallowing up our country in the end.”29 It was another amateur threat in order to expand control, threaten and cajole. However, the results in the ensuing years were quite different when the Laotian government discovered that it could not continue berating its people over minute details. They didn’t have the economy nor the power.

In every way, Laos was still reliant on the Vietnamese. This was made apparent when the Vietnamese helped them root out guerrillas and when the Lao government essentially backed Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. Thailand’s General Serm Na Nakorn admitted that the bulk of the 40,000 Vietnamese soldiers who were in Laos had been moved to the Laotian-Cambodian border.30 This was in violation of Laos’ promises to not allow any nation to use their territory in order to invade another country which had been declared only one year before. Of course, upon reflection of the years passing, this was discovered to be geared toward China when China went to war against Vietnam and could not use Laos as a pathway.

These moves further cemented Laos as a Vietnamese colony, puppet or other such suggestions. Laos had positioned itself to become completely reliant on the coastal nation and the Vietnamese took full advantage where advantage was to be found.

While internally the government had liberalized itself in some ways, in others they were quite different. By 1984 Amnesty International claimed that there were 6,000 to 7,000 political prisoners in Laos while the government claimed that those inmates were in the reeducation camps voluntarily. These inmates were not only captured and held, they were also sent to work, unable to see their wives and were forced to join work brigades. In addition, the Lao government attempted to skirt these claims by also stating that these members were in villages, but, these were villages and areas in which the prisoners were not allowed to leave.31 In spite of its outward liberalizing appearance, it was just as brutal as it ever had been in the depths of the jungle.

Education and the lack of it remains a constant problem in this society even now. As noted within Beyond the Revolution, while there are higher levels of literacy in certain areas, even up to 80 percent or more, in others, it is woefully inadequate especially among women, children and the forgotten elderly.32 Without an education at even the most simplest and propagandist level, there can be little growth for a nation or incentive for foreign investment especially when complex machinery or work must be accomplished.

Laos had been at multiple crossroads since the end of the war and had often chosen the incorrect route. This blame largely falls upon the Communist regime of the Pathet Lao but there are asides which can be cast due to an inherited underdeveloped infrastructure and its geographically vulnerable position. However, it would be naive to say that a liberalized open society wouldn’t have allowed foreign investment, nor would it have scared away its most valuable and important educators and educated people immediately after the seizure of the government. Considering this, the fate of Laos likely would not have changed and it would still likely have remained impoverished if compared to the rest of the world, but there were many moves the government could’ve made which would’ve eased the pain of the people. The government chose to not take this route and canceled the encouragement of growth and potential prosperity for the nation and its inhabitants.

Works Cited

1 Bamboo Palace p 242

2 Evans p 62

3 Beyond the Revolution p 136

4 ibid. p 139

5 Evans p 49

6 ibid. p 62

7 ibid. p 62-3

8 ibid. p 63

9 ibid. p 64

10 ibid. p 64

11 Laos: Politics, Economics and Society p 164

12 ibid. p 164

13 ibid. p 165

14 ibid. p 165

15 ibid. p 157-8

16 ibid. p 158-9

17 Red Brotherhood p 67

18 ibid. p 63

19 ibid. 64

20 ibid. p66

21 Apprentice Revolutionaries p 196

22 Laos: Beyond the Revolution p 90

23 ibid. p 90

24 ibid. p 90

25 ibid. p 94

26 Laos: Politics, Economics and Society p 128

27 Apprentice Revolutionaries p 208

28 Laos: Politics, Economics and Society pp 133-4

29 ibid. p 140

30 Red Brotherhood p 74

31 Laos: Politics, Economics and Society p 162

32 Beyond the Revolution p 142

Bibliography

Brown, MacAlister, and Joseph J. Zasloff. Apprentice Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Laos, 1930-1985. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1986.

Evans, Grant, and Kelvin Rowley. Red Brotherhood at War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos since 1975. London: Verso, 1990.

Evans, Grant, ed. Laos: Culture and Society. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2008.

Kremmer, Christopher. Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos. Pymble, N.S.W.: HarperPerennial, 2008.

Stuart-Fox, Martin. Laos: Politics, Economics and Society. London: Pinter, 1989.

Zasloff, Joseph Jermiah, and Leonard Unger, eds. Laos: Beyond the Revolution. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991.

Photos

Header Photo by Dustin Joiner. Copyright 2023.