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Refugees from Laos

Original article based on research on the impact of the Indochina War on Laos conducted in 1971-72, with supplementary field research in refugee camps in Thailand during 1985. The latter was made possible by an Indochina Studies grant from the American Social Science Research Council (NY), which is here gratefully acknowledged.

Revised in 1992, updated 2008.



The only land-locked country in South-East Asia, Laos covers an area of 235,800 square kilometres with an estimated population of 3,600,000 before 1975. It has border with China in the North, Vietnam in the East, Cambodia in the South and Thailand and Burma in the West. As a country with many neighbours, Laos has often witnessed population movements across its borders at different stages of its history. These have usually been in the form of migration by farmers in search of new lands, or refugees fleeing political persecution from countries such as China or Vietnam. In Laos itself, internal migration by farmers and people affected by war or economic recession has also frequently occurred.


However, at no times had these population movements been so massive, involving tens of thousands of people, as has been the case of refugees during the Indochina War which ended with the communist victory in 1975. Modern warfare, continuous antagonism between dissenting political groups, fear of reprisals against those on the losing side of the war and many other factors contributed to make people seek freedom both within and outside Laos. When peace negotiations began in 1973 between the Lao warring factions 750,000 of its 3,000,000 population had become displaced by the war. Since 1975, more than 300,000 Lao had sought asylum in Thai refugee camps. Although 25,000 have been repatriated to Laos, most of these refugees had been resettled in other countries – with an estimated 200,000 in the USA; 25,000 in France; 5,000 in Canada; 1,600 in Australia and smaller numbers in Germany, Argentina, New Zealand, Japan, and other countries, while more than 40,000 remained scattered in different parts of Thailand.


This pattern of population displacement arising from foreign interference, internal power struggles and animosities between neighbouring groups has persisted over the centuries in Laos. An examination of the past may, thus, help us to better understand one of the tragic consequences of this unyielding power play, the country's recurrent refugee problem during the last 30 years.


Early History


The Lao are believed to have migrated from South China sometime in the thirteenth century A.D. and established themselves along the Mekong and Me Nam Rivers where Thailand and Laos stand today. Legend has it that the first Lao King, Khun Borom, descended from heaven and had seven sons, each of whom was given a portion of this occupied territory.


In 1353, Fa Ngum, a Lao prince exiled to the Court of Angkor (Cambodia) and a convert to Buddhism, returned to Laos with a small army and fought his way up the Mekong river. He established his court at Muong Swa on Upper Mekong, which he later named Luang Prabang (city of the Golden Buddha) after the name of a golden Buddha statue, Prabang, brought by Fa Ngum from Angkor. In the following years, he conquered the neighbouring principalities, consolidating them into the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), with Luang Prabang as capital and Buddhism the official religion.


This kingdom extended beyond today's Laos to include the western province of Vietnam and northeast Thailand where Lao place names and Lao-speaking inhabitants can still be found today. Fa Ngum was succeeded in 1373 by his son, Sam Sen Thai, whose reign was marked by the building of many Buddhist temples and the creation of a new system of local governments, under which local administrators were selected by the King or a council of notables, with power being centralized in an army of 150,000 men supported by a supply corps of 20,000 persons (Dommen, 1964:6). After the death of Sam Sen Thai in 1416, the kingdom became prey to internal dissension and foreign incursions. Vietnamese troops invaded Lan Xang in 1478 and captured the capital of Luang Prabang, but were later pushed back. There were also other incursions from the Burmese and the Thai from the West, which forced the capital to be moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in order to avoid capture by Burmese troops.


The first Westerners to arrive in Lan Xang were missionaries and traders, who saw little prospects for commerce or evangelical work during the care-free reign of Souligna Vongsa in the mid-seventeenth century. Souligna Vongsa died in 1694, following which internal dissension brought about a split of the country into three separate kingdoms Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak. Each of the kingdoms were intermittently invaded by neighbouring Siam (Thailand), Burma and Annam (Vietnam). After several years of war, the kingdom of Vientiane became a tributary state to Siam, and was annexed by the latter in 1825 following an unsuccessful uprising by its ruler Chao Anou. As a result, tens of thousands of Lao were forced to move from Laos to settle along the west bank of the Mekong for easier control by the Thai. Today, there are more Lao-speaking people in north eastern Thailand than in Laos. In 1832, Annam annexed the principality of Xieng Khouang in north eastern Laos, and Siam took control of the Kingdom of Champassak in the South. All that was left of Lan Xang was Luang Prabang, which was by then paying tribute to Siam but claimed as a tributary state by Annam.


The French made their first colonial trust into Indochina in 1862, with the armed occupation of the western provinces of Cochin China, today's South Vietnam on the pretext of protecting French missionaries. They pushed towards Cambodia the following year, leaving Laos alone until after their conquest of Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1885, Siam felt threatened by the setting up of French military outposts along the Annamite Mountains overlooking Laos, and decided to send troops to occupy the Plain of Jars in central northern Laos. Thai officials were then dispatched to Luang Prabang to supervise the Kingdom's affairs, whereupon the French sent a warning note from Hanoi to Bangkok and asked for joint supervision of the Luang Prabang Kingdom, claiming that the latter and Xieng Khouang were originally under the sovereignty of the Court of Hue, now a French protectorate. Siam agreed for France to post a vice-consult to Luang Prabang. August Pavie arrived in Luang Prabang in 1887 and, as Wilfred Burchett (1970: 69) put it, "started the long process of intrigues and demonstration of force by which France gradually positioned herself for the complete take-over of Laos." French rule from 1893 to 1949 saw the split of Laos in two: the Kingdom of Luang Prabang and the Kingdom of Champassak.


French Domination


According to a treaty signed by Siam with France on October 1893 all of Laos east of the Mekong was to be ceded to France while that along the west bank remained with Siam. Subsequently certain regions west of the river in the South and on the North were also transferred to France giving Laos its present shape and size. The French established the new colony's administrative centre in Vientiane maintaining Luang Prabang as the royal capital with King Sisavang Vong on the throne and as the Head of all Laos. The French controlled all the Lao principalities and kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Vientiane and Champassak by 1905 thereby giving them the name of Laos or many Lao. French control also put an end to incursions from Siam, Annam and Burma.


Internally the French had to cope with revolts among the tribes sparked by French taxation and interference in tribal affairs. The Kha rebellion in 1901 took six years to stop and was led by a Kha chief in the Bolovem Plateau in southern Laos, Kommadam whose surviving sons later joined the communist Pathet Lao in 1945 (Burchett op. cit.: 70-71). The second insurrection by Tai tribes in Phong Saly Province took place in 1914 and the Hmong started another uprising in Sam Neua in 1919 both of which took two years to settle and cost many lives.


Because Laos was believed to offer little short-term economic gains, the French did not attempt to introduce economic changes to the country. They relied on existing systems of local government and avoided upsetting Lao traditions by manifesting their presence mainly in fiscal control judicial organization and education. French became the accepted language in administration and among the middle and upper classes in Lao society. Most of today's older generation Lao elite received their education in France. By the late 1930's about 600 French officials were looking after the welfare of more than one million natives in Laos (Dommen op. cit.: 12-13).


The French began losing control over Indochina in 1940 when France fell to Germany and agreed for Japan to station troops in Indochina in exchange for the safe return of its resident citizens. This agreement was ruptured by the Japanese in March 1945 after they imprisoned French troops and declared an end to French rule in Indochina. In Laos, the Japanese persuaded King Sisavang Vong and Prince Phetsarat, Premier and Viceroy to proclaim the independence of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang on April 1945.


After the surrender of the Japanese in August, Phetsarat announced the reunification of Luang Prabang and Champassak into one Laos and asked Allied Powers to recognise its independence. However, a handful of French officers managed to return to Luang Prabang and requested the King to dismiss Phetsarat. The former Viceroy then formed a resistance group with other young Lao nationalists known as Lao Issara or the Free Lao movement. This group denounced all treaties with France, deposed the King for his continued submission to French rule and put up Phetsarat as head of a Provisional Government whose Defence Minister was Phetsarat's half-brother Prince Souphanouvong. In October 1945, they further signed a treaty of friendship and alliance with North Vietnam (NV). However French troops re-occupied Laos in early 1946 after defeating small armed resistance units organised by the Lao Issara with NV assistance. Phetsarat and his followers fled to Bangkok, Thailand where they set up a government in exile (Adams, 1970: 100-120).


Supported by French, King Sisavang Vong and his son, Crown Prince Savang Vathana formed a new cabinet known as the Royal Lao Government (RLG). An agreement was signed in August 1946 merging the rest of Laos with Luang Prabang under King Sisavang Vong. A constitution was proclaimed in 1947 to give Laos a parliamentary system of government with a popularity elected National Assembly. By July 1949 Laos was given the status of an independent state within the French Union. Prince Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong's half-brother and 25 other members of the Bangkok government in exile decided to compromise with the French and returned to Laos to join the RLG. Phetsarat and Souphanouvong disagreed on this arrangement and remained in Thailand, preferring complete independence from France even at the expense of a shift to the left in order to fight the French with the support of Ho Chi Minh, the NV communist leader.


In February 1950 France transferred sovereignty to Laos which was by then also recognised by Great Britain and the United States. Another treaty with France in 1954 made Laos a fully independent state. By the end of 1954 all French administrative and military power was relinquished to the Lao authorities.


The Indochina War


In 1950, Souphanouvong left Thailand for northeast Laos where he established a resistance government under the control of his newly formed left-wing political organisation, the Pathet Lao (PL) or Lao State. To broaden support for his resistance activities, he formed alliance with NV and Cambodian liberation groups. With the help of NV troops and tribal leaders already in opposition to the RLG, Souphanouvong was able to expand guerrilla activities along the entire border of Laos and Vietnam, from Phongsaly Province in the north to the Bolovens Plateau in the south.


In March 1953, Vietminh forces swept into northern Laos, and occupied the province capital of Sam Neua, making it henceforth the PL headquarters. Alarmed by the Vietnamese offensive in the direction of the Mekong, Thailand tried to call for United Nations intervention, as happened in South Korea in 1950, but this was not supported by the United States. President Eisenhower, seeking to draw Laos into a military alliance, preferred to press France to give full independence to the country while continuing to assist financially French military activities against Indochinese anti-colonial guerrillas.


The Viet Minh incursion into north and south Laos were stopped by December 1953. In the spring of 1954, however, General Giap's Viet Minh troops moved west again, threatening the town of Luang Prabang and helping the Pathet Lao to enlarge further their liberated zones in the north-east and other areas along the Mekong in Laos (Devillers, 1970: 41).


The advance of the Viet Minh and their PL counterparts allowed the guerrillas to spread propaganda and greatly extend their territories. This situation was made all the more possible by the battle of Dien Bien Phu, North Vietnam which called for France to commit its finest soldiers to defend a position far removed from Laos. The Viet Minh won this most decisive battle and did not, therefore, hesitate to continue their military involvement with the Pathet Lao in north-eastern Laos in order to liberate all of Indochina from foreign domination.


Following the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, an international conference to end the First Indochina War was held in 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland, jointly chaired by Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and attended by the United States, China, Cambodia, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos. Among other things, the Geneva agreements called for an end to hostilities in the Indochinese states, and gave the RLG sovereignty over the whole of Laos. The Pathet Lao were, however, allowed temporary control of two north-eastern provinces, Sam Neua and Phong Saly, to be used for regrouping its forces, pending its integration with the RLG through general elections. All foreign troops were to be withdrawn from the country, except for a small French mission to assist the RLG with its military training. A permanent International Control Commission consisting of Indian, Canadian, and Polish representatives was created and charged with supervising the cease-fire and the neutrality of Laos.


North Vietnamese and American Involvement


In 1950 when France withdrew its troops from Lao, to defend the Viet Minh's attacks from North Vietnam, Laos had to form its own army to counter PL and NV offensives. The Royal Lao Army (RLA) was, thus, organised under French instructions and with funds supplied to France mainly by the US. Since 1949 American policy-makers believing that Chinese communist expansion in Southeast Asia must be stopped, had been helping the French and Indochinese anti-Communist groups in their fight against left-wing guerrillas (Foreign Area Studies 1967: 31).


Despite negotiation attempts by the US, French authorities would only allow direct economic assistance in the form of material grants to Indochina, assuring American negotiators that the war would be brought to a successful conclusion if only the United States furnished France with the wherewithal" (Dommen op. cit.: 35). In September 1951, the US signed an economic assistance agreement with the Pro-French RGL headed by Phoui Sananikone, an agreement which was to remain the basis for American aid to Laos for the years to come.


The cost of fighting the independence war against French colonial rule in Indochina was estimated to be US$ 954 million most off which went to help meet the needs of French military requirements towards the end of the Indochina War. By September 1953, the US was believed to be paying for fully 70 per cent of the cost of the war, mostly in the forms of ammunition, vehicles, naval crafts, planes, and small arms (Dommen, op. cit.: 46). Two hundred American ground personnel were also stationed in Indochina to assist the French with the repair and maintenance of aircraft in January 1954.


Because of this massive support, American leaders were deeply disturbed when French forces were defeated at their last stand in Dien Bien Phu. When the Geneva agreements were signed in July 1954, American military and economic aid worth US$ 25 million was aboard ships bound for Indochina. At the Geneva Conference, John Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, suspicious of the communists not adhering to the agreements, stated that his country did not consider itself bound by them, thus opening the way for further American intervention in the region (Dommen, op. cit.: 56).


The French withdrawal from Indochina after the Geneva cease-fire was seen to leave it and the rest of Southeast Asia unprotected against communist invasions. The US, therefore, stepped in by offering collective security through the formation of the South-East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) in September 1954 with Britain, France, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand as members. The Treaty, signed in Manila, would guarantee South-East Asian countries of speedy SEATO and American intervention in the event of any military threat from China. Despite the fact that Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were declared neutral by the Geneva agreements, SEATO nevertheless extended its protection to the three Indochina states, thereby involving them directly in the cold war between communist and the Free World superpowers.


Soon after SEATO was formed, the Lao cabinet suffered a severe crisis, following the assassination of its Defence Minister who was a strong advocate of the Geneva Accords. The Lao government which was headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma, another advocate of the neutrality of Laos, resigned due to "foreign interference" (Thee, 1970: 129). A new cabinet was formed in November 1954 under Katay Don Sasorith, a SEATO supporter. This was followed by the opening of the United States Operation Mission in Vientiane on 1 January 1955, to channel American aid directly into Laos. American advisers were sent to put in place the necessary arrangement for the US to use its foreign assistance to expand the size of the RLA into 25,000 men. These Lao troops would act as the first line of defence against possible communist incursions long enough to allow intervention by SEATO members (Cousins and McCoy, 1970: 340).


In the meantime, the PL were maintaining a tight grip on the two north-eastern provinces of Sam Neua and Phong Saly, expanding its army with the assistance of NV military and political cadres, who replaced the Viet Minh soldiers fighting in Laos prior to the Geneva Conference. The RLG, with encouragement from American advisers, sent troops into PL zones and frequent military clashes occurred between the two sides (Langer and Zasloff, 1970: 62). Under these circumstances, negotiations for national integration between the RLG and the PL often resulted in dead-lock. The RLG wanted to integrate PL armed forces into the RLA first, while the Pathet Lao insisted on military integration only after a political compromise had been reached.


The general elections for national consolidation scheduled by the Geneva agreements for August 1955 took place in December without the involvement of the PL. The results however showed a strong neutralist majority and Prince Souvanna Phouma the neutralist leader resumed office as Prime Minister in Vientiane. He again tried to negotiate with the PL pledging to work for national unity and friendly relations with all countries including North Vietnam and other communist states.


In July 1956, the Soviet Union formally recognized Laos. After talks between the Royal Lao Government and the newly formed PL Patriotic Front or Neo Lao Hak Sat (NLHS) in August, Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong decided on a Government of National Union with PL representatives. This government would adhere to the five principles of peaceful co-existence, the pursuit of a neutralist foreign policy, the prohibition of military alliances and the withdrawal of foreign troops from Laos. By November 1957, Souphanouvong agreed to transfer the two northern provinces under his control to the Kingdom of Laos, in return for which he and another Pathet Lao member, Phoumi Vongvichit, were admitted as cabinet ministers in the RLG.


Deepening Civil War


At the elections held in May 1958, the Neo Lao Hak Sat and its allies won 13 of the 21 contested seats in the National Assembly. Souphanouvong became Minister of Economic Affairs in the new government. This re-alignment of political power was seen as a threat to the privileged positions of American-supported politicians and the new class of wealthy officials and businessmen. They therefore decided to form a political pressure group, the Committee for the Defence of National Interest (CDNI) reputed to have the backing of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (Ackland 1970:149). The US in turn stopped all payments to the RLG, a hard blow to an economy that had come to rely heavily on American aid.


On July Souvanna Phouma lost a vote of confidence in the National Assembly and was forced to resign. He was succeeded by Phoui Sananikone, who formed a new cabinet with the support of CDNI members. The Pathet Lao were no longer represented in the new pro-American government. After taking up office, Phoui Sananikone and his ministers shifted Lao policy to the right dissolved the National Assembly and denounced the 1954 Geneva truce. Attempts were also made to disperse and neutralize PL soldiers who had been integrated into the RLA a few months earlier. However, the last PL battalion which was still awaiting integration managed to escape and recapture Phong Saly and Sam Neua provinces, their former strongholds.


The elections of April 1960 resulted in all 59 seats in the National Assembly going to right-wing candidates. This was followed by the arrest of Souphanouvong and his deputies but they subsequently escaped from jail a month later and went back to Sam Neua. Civil war was thus resumed between the RLG and the PL with the former charging North Vietnam with aggression against Laos through its military assistance to PL and the latter denouncing supporters of US imperialism. Phoui Sananikone resigned under right-wing military pressure and handed all power to General Phoumi Nosavan, the head of the RLA.


In August 1960, a neutralist Lao army captain Kong Le dissatisfied with this pro-American stance overthrew the Nosavan government and re-instated Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister. Nosavan and his supporters fled to southern Laos to set up their own government in Savannakhet under Prince Boun Oum Na Champassak. Backed by U.S. aid, Nosavan soon launched a military attack on the neutralist government of Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane, forcing the latter to accept aid from the Soviet Union. By the end of 1960, Nosavan forces were able to recapture Vientiane and the right-wing Boun Oum government was transferred there. Kong Le and his neutralist forces retreated north and joined forces with the PL, further exacerbating military clashes between Neutralist-PL forces and Nosavan troops.


In order to settle the conflict an international conference was again convened in Geneva, Switzerland in May 196l. After much negotiations, all three parties (leftist, neutralist and rightist) agreed on the formation of a coalition government with Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister. However, troops of the three factions continued fighting one another, ignoring the directives of the re-activated International Control Commission first set up to supervise the 1954 Geneva agreements. Souvanna Phouma, Boun Oum and Souphanouvong undertook a new series of talks in Laos in June 1962 and again decided to form a coalition government. A Lao delegation with representatives from all three factions was sent to Geneva in July 1962 to attend another International conference on the cease-fire and neutralism in Laos. A neutrality declaration was issued and agreed to by all interested parties, including the US, the Soviet Union, China and Great Britain.


Despite this new progress towards peace, the idea of a neutralist coalition government did not work when Laos continued to be the buffer zone between communist North Vietnam and pro-American Thailand (Toye, 1968). Right-wing politicians on the RLG side were not prepared to cooperate with the Neutralist or the Pathet Lao. Each side maintained its own soldiers in the areas under its control. Relations between the three groups deteriorated and military incidents went on the increase.

In an attempt to reach a compromise in their political differences, the leaders of the three factions met once more in April 1964 on the Plain of Jars which had been under Neutralist forces but now controlled by the PL. The meeting failed to produce the desired result, and Souvanna Phouma resigned as head of the government but was asked to take office again a few months later when no other suitable leader could be found. During August and September, another meeting was held in Paris, but it also failed to bring about national unity to Laos. By then, civil war prevailed throughout the country, with the PL receiving large amount of military aid and troops from North Vietnam while the anti-communist RLA was given substantial financial and material assistance from the United States. The PL and the RLG each now controlled haft of the country with Neutralist forces occupying small pockets of northern Laos.


American Bombing


Between 1955 and 1963, American support for the Royal Lao Government had been limited to development grants (totaling US $8 million), government budget support (US $320 million), and military assistance (US $152 million). According to Dommen (op. cit.: 104-105), this made Laos the biggest foreign aid recipient in the world at the time in terms of number of population (3,000,000). In 1964, this support was extended to include "unarmed" reconnaissance flight by American aircraft based in Udon Thani, Thailand, and in South Vietnam, carried out to see whether NV troops and war materials were sent to Laos.


As American bombing raids on Vietcong supply routes increased in early 1965, North Vietnam began using the Ho Chi Minh trail linking North and South Vietnam through Laos. PL forces sought to extend their control over the areas along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and in doing so clashed with RLA troops, American planes were then diverted to bomb the trail, but the bombing was soon extended to PL controlled areas in northern Laos, involving strikes at enemy supply routes and troop concentrations and offering close tactical air support for RLA troops during ground battles (Branfman, 1970: 231).


This pattern soon formed the normal military engagement in Laos: government troops would move into an area only after it had been cleared of enemy forces by American bombing. The result was that Laos was subject to the most intense aerial bombardment, especially in the northeast where most of the offensives took place. Large areas became depopulated and scarred by bomb craters, and many historical places such the provincial town of Xieng Khouang were forever obliterated. Unexploded ammunitions dropped by American planes and mines planted by soldiers also littered the ground and continue to kill or maim civilian population even today.


In February 1965, General Phoumi Nosavan (Commander of the Royal Lao Army) and General Siho (Head of the Lao National Police) led a coup against the Souvanna government in Vientiane. They were unsuccessful and fled to Thailand for political asylum. Again, without the participation of the PL, new elections were held in July and Souvanna Phouma was returned to head the new government, now consisting of many anti-communist members.


The PL, with the backing of NV troops, attacked many RLA positions in the north and the greatly outnumbered government troops were forced to retreat. With American support, the Royal Lao Air Force was reinforced with old American T-28 bombers and used in co-ordinate ground-air operations against PL and NV forces. The PL announced in October 1965 that it had decided to call its army the Lao People's Liberation Army. They resolved to wage "an unflinching struggle against U.S. imperialism" by launching a series of offensives against RLG positions in southern Laos (FEER, 1966: 215).


In September 1966, Souvanna Phouma's government suffered a budget defeat. The National Assembly was dissolved and new elections were scheduled for early 1967. The situation became further confused by Air Force General Thao Ma, who sent 13 of his pilots to bomb army headquarters in Vientiane after he was dismissed from his post of commander of the Royal Lao Air Force. Thao Ma fled to Thailand for political asylum. Late that year, Kong Le, Commander of the Neutralist forces, also resigned in protest against the integration of his troops into the rightist Royal Lao Army, and left Laos to settle in France.


A new National Assembly was set up, following the new elections of January 1967. Again, Souvanna Phouma was asked to head the new government. Insurgent activities intensified in response to increased American bombing of PL territories, often averaging 100 strikes per day (FEER, 1967: 252). By the end of 1966, U.S. personnel in Laos were estimated to be more than 200, with 30 reported killed or missing. Many of these personnel were attached to the CIA and worked under code names as military advisers in civilian clothes. By August 1967, pilots of the Royal Thai Air Force were also flying bombing missions to Laos against PL and NV positions which now included all of Phong Saly and Sam Neua provinces, the Plain of Jars and areas along the Vietnamese border in the south.


Towards the end of January 1968, RLG positions east and north-west of Luang Prabang, the royal capital, were taken by PL forces. PL offensives were also directed against the town of Lao Ngam on the Bolovens Plateau, Saravane and Attopeu provinces. By July, anti-government forces were estimated at 40,000 NV and 25,000 PL, compared to the Royal Lao Army of some 50,000 men. Seven battalions of Thai mercenaries were also reported to be fighting around the Plain of Jars in support of the Special Forces of about 15,000 local guerrillas supported by the CIA (FEER, 1969: 213-214).


Following President Johnson's announcement of American bombing halt over North Vietnam in October 1968, U.S. aircraft switched their targets to Laos, with between 17,000 to 27,000 sorties a month to the PL zone (Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, 1970: 49). On some days, 800 sorties were flown "dropping napalm, phosphorous and antipersonnel bombs ... on everything, buffaloes, cows, schools, temples, houses and people (Lewallen, 1971: 40). This increased bombing only made the PL more determined to counter-attack on the ground, resulting in many RLG strongholds being lost to them and traffic cut off between many RLG areas along the Mekong River.


Most of these PL victories were, however, reversed in September by U.S. bombing and counter-attacks from the Special forces, which drove communist troops out of Xieng Khouang, the Plain of Jars and Muong Phone on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Pathet Lao military headquarters for southern Laos. Although the North Vietnamese Ambassador to Laos had talks with the Lao King and the Prime Minister, further attempts to arrive at a peaceful settlement of the Lao conflict were dimmed by the escalation of military activities. In America, the US war efforts in Laos which were so far hidden from the world, received wide coverage in the media, leading to many public protests and a US Senate Committee Inquiry in October 1969.


Peace Settlement


During the first two months of 1970, many of the important positions captured by the Special Forces a few months earlier were lost again to the enemy. Pathet Lao leaders then published a plan "for the political solution to the Lao problem proposing the ending of U.S. bombing, the withdrawal of pro-American troops from certain regions of the country and the formation of a provisional coalition government. In July, Souphanouvong, the PL leader, sent a member of the NLHS Central Committee, Prince Souk Vongsak, to hold discussion with Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane. An agreement was then reached for talks to begin officially between representatives of both parties at the Plain of Jars. By September, however, procedural difficulties had halted further negotiations for peace.


On the military front, a new offensive by the Special Forces and the Royal Lao army recaptured the former neutralist base of Moung Soui near the Plain of Jars, while persistent U.S. bombing made Laos the most heavily bombed country in the new Indochina War with more than 300 sorties a day. Early in 1971, a conspiracy in southern Laos to overthrow the Vientiane government on behalf of rightist exiled Phoumi Nosavan was discovered, and the conspiracy leader, Colonel Bounleut Saikosy, fled to Thailand. The following April, the government foiled another attempted coup by junior Lao military officers, allegedly said to have the backing of conservative strongmen in the Thai government.


Incursion by American and South Vietnamese troops into southern Laos to search for NV arm caches in February 1971 drew only a mild protest from Souvanna Phouma. The RLA took advantage of the occasion to proclaim a nation-wide state of emergency. The North Vietnamese retaliated by attacking Long Cheng which served as the base of CIA Special Forces under General Vang Pao, the commander of the RLA Second Military Region. In March, NV troops seized Attapeu in the south of Laos, and harassed Luang Prabang with rockets. By mid-May, NV soldiers had overrun almost the entire southern Laos.


The RLG counter attacked with Vang Pao's Special Forces against the Plain of Jars in the north, and with Lao-Thai troops against the Bolovens plateau in the south, driving most of the enemy from these areas by September. With PL territories largely depopulated, American bombing decreased to about haft of the previous year, although an average of 300 sorties a day was still carried out intermittently from Thailand throughout 1971. In August, the American State Department announced that the United States considered itself "entitled to withhold complete compliance" from the 1962 Geneva agreements because of massive NV violations with close to 60,000 troops engaged in active combats in Laos. It also acknowledged the presence of Thai armed forces in the country but did not mention that they were financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (FEER, 1972: 226-227). Peace negotiations were resumed during the summer of 1972. On the military front, it was a bad year for the RLG: the enemy took more of the initiative, their offensives lasted longer and that fighting was more intense (Zasloff, 1973: 60).


NV troops again forced the Special Forces off the Plain of Jars, after continued fighting throughout most of the dry season. The Vietnamese also seized more than 100 kilometres of highway territory between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. In the south, most of the provinces of Attapeu, Saravane, and Sedone were lost to the communists. Although both sides suffered heavy casualties, the PL and their NV allies had taken more territory than ever before from the RLG. There were also renewed flows of refugees, mostly in the direction of RLG areas, with many of them forcibly evacuated to prevent their control by the PL. The military situation did not improve until the end of October, the date set for the beginning of the Vietnam cease-fire agreed to by Dr Kissinger and Le Duc To in their negotiation talks in Paris. Laos also witnessed a significant political change in 1972 after the January elections brought 41 new members to the National Assembly of 59, drawn mainly from lower socio-economic groups. Voters seemed to prefer new candidates unconnected with those responsible for prolonging the war: an indication of the general dissatisfaction with a self-concerned antiquated leadership of the past prevalent in the educated and politically entrenched upper classes (Zasloft, 1973: 67).


Despite efforts by right-wingers on at least two occasions to topple Souvanna Phouma, he was retained as Prime Minister. The United States, the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, France and Britain made known their preference for the government of Souvanna Phouma as the only "neutralist" force capable of bringing peace to Laos. This neutralist appearance notwithstanding, the RLG continued to survive on foreign aid, particularly from the US which was spending about ten times the Lao national budget on military and economic activities in Laos (Zasloff, 1973: 69).


As North Vietnam and the United States were moving towards accommodation in South Vietnam, negotiations for peace in Laos were resumed in Vientiane on 17 October 1972 with ten representatives on each side. Despite many break-downs, the delegates were able to work out a cease-fire (Brooke, 1973: 49-53). This was to be effective from mid-night 21 February 1973, following which all American bombing and foreign military activities were to stop. However, as in South Vietnam, the cease-fire was not observed. Military clashes continued to occur as a result of post-ceasefire offensives by the PL, necessitating calls for American air strikes in retaliation from Thailand.


The US was, by now tired of the war in Indochina and threatened to reduce aid to the RLG if peace could not be settled quickly with the PL. The RLG was forced to make many concessions to its enemy without reciprocal gains. These concessions included "giving the Pathet Lao equal power in a new coalition government; allowing foreign troops to remain on Laotian soil for 90 days after the ceasefire; referring to American and Thai presence in Laos while not specifically mentioning the North Vietnamese; and agreeing to the neutralisation of both the administrative and royal capitals" (New Leader. 1973: 12).


The war also imposed heavy social and economic burden on the RLG and the US which had to resettle and support 370,000 refugees displaced by military activities in various parts of the country. The Hmong which formed the backbone of the RLG defence in northern Laos, suffered the most casualties. Although numbering about 300,000 at the time, they made up 32% of this total refugee population, and 70% of the 155,000 displaced persons in Xieng Khouang province. More than 12,000 are said to have died fighting against the PL from 1962 to 1975 (Hamilton-Merritt, 1980: 36). This heavy toll was partly the result of military conscription by the RLA in its efforts to maintain military strength against PL and NV troops, and partly voluntary enlistment because the war made it impossible to carry out farming or to find other means of livelihood. Civilian casualties and loss of lives were also high due to sickness, malnutrition and military attacks on villages or refugee camps.


Communist Rule


After the signing of the ceasefire, speculations circulated about a possible coup by right-wing military men, many of whom were dissatisfied with the RLG's handling of peace negotiations with the communists. This coup did occur as predicted on 20 August 1973 when exiled former General Thao Ma and Colonel Bounleut Saykosi returned from Thailand and tried to overthrow Souvanna Phouma. However, RLG troops who were expecting this turn of events, managed to arrest and execute Thao Ma together with many of his 60 collaborators. Again, the RLG was disturbed to learn that Thailand, fearing a communist take-over of Laos, had been behind Thao Ma's move.


A Government of National Union was to be set up 30 days after the cease-fire, but disagreement on portfolio allocations between the two sides delayed this until 14 September, when both finally signed an agreement on a coalition government with 5 portfolios allocated to the RLG, 5 to the PL and 2 to independent candidates. The Provisional Government of National Union (PGNU) was eventually formed in early 1974, along with a National Political Consultative Council (NPCC) to assist in the immediate political integration of the country.


Despite this arrangement, it proved difficult to implement the agreements. The National Assembly, the RLG Parliament in Vientiane, had no left-wing representatives and was not recognised as a legitimate body by the PL. In special circumstances, the King could dissolve the National Assembly, but in such cases new elections must be held within 90 days. However, it was not possible to do this with such short notice when most of the 750,000 persons displaced by the war continued to remain in RLG areas. Repatriation was slowed down by procedural disagreements between the two sides. The PL insisted that these internal refugees should be returned home permanently while the RLG wanted them to have the freedom to choose whether to be repatriated or to stay where they were (Brown and Zasloff, 1975: 179).


While this issue remained, members of the right-wing National Assembly took to the streets to protest the continued presence of North Vietnamese troops in Laos when Thai and American military personnel had withdrawn according to the 1973 cease-fire agreements. This public action prompted the PGNU Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma, to dismiss the National Assembly in July 1974, thus further eroding the political strength of the right-wing faction. At the end of 1974, the Special Forces were disbanded or merged with RLA forces. At the same time, mass student protests by left-wing political groups swept across the country against members of the old RLG.


In March 1975, armed clashes broke out between PL soldiers and Vang Pao's RLA troops guarding the cease-fire line between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, when PL units tried to advance towards Vientiane in violation of the 1973 agreements which prohibited military activities by the parties involved in the conflict. Vang Pao, however, was told to retreat by the Prime Minister who preferred to accommodate to the PL. Knowing that American military aid had been stopped and that no further retreat was possible, Vang Pao resigned his commission. On 14 May 1975, he left for Thailand where a few days previously five members of the PGNU cabinet on the RLG side had sought refuge, after their dismissal by Souvanna Phouma. They were soon joined by two other key RLA generals, Kouprasit Abhay and Thonglith Chokbengboun.


After the escape from Laos of Sisouk Na Champassak, the right-wing Defence Minister, the PL Deputy Minister assumed his post, General Kham Ouane Boupha. Kham Ouane gradually dissolved the mixed RLA and PL police guarding Luang Prabang and Vientiane, slowly opening the way for PL troops to enter areas under the Vientiane side. RLA soldiers were disarmed, and new administrative committees "elected" to replace the old system of village headmen, district chiefs and provincial governors. Even before the PL take-over was complete, indoctrination or "re-education" sessions were conducted for public servants of all levels and for civilians who had not traditionally been under the communists. These compulsory "seminars" and the arbitrary arrests of influential people soon caused thousands of refugees to flee to Thailand. Many refugees belonged to the business community and minority groups, but the majority consisted of RLG senior public servants, army personnel and their families.


Although many Hmong soldiers had discarded their weapons, a few still held on to their positions awaiting more instructions from the new government. In May 1975, Colonel Kham Ai who was the PL commander assigned to the Second Military Region arrived in Long Cheng, Vang Pao's former headquarters. A fortnight later, he called all former right-wing military officers to an assembly and disarmed them because they "no longer had any war to fight and must now participate fully in national reconstruction activities" (Yang Dao, 1978: 1213). In June, they were taken to "re-education" centres in the Plain of Jars and later to Nong Het and Sam Neua where hard labour was the order of the day. Anyone above the rank of lieutenant was considered a major war criminal. They were told that their "seminar" could last 30 days or 30 years, depending on the severity of their crimes. Not only were military officers dispatched to "seminars", but also high ranking public servants and well-known community leaders on the RLG side.


On 2 December 1975, the People's National Congress, formed by the Pathet Lao a few months previously, decided to replace the PGNU and the NPCC with a new Council of Ministers and a People's Supreme Assembly. King Savang Vathana was forced to abdicate and the monarchy abolished. With the advent of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the Government now consisted of 12 ministries, one Committee of Planning, one Committee of the Nationalities, a National Bank and the Prime Minister's Office with four Ministers in charge.


To the surprise of most people, the post of Prime Minister went to Kaysone Phomvihanh who was until then unknown outside the PL central committee. He was allegedly put in power by North Vietnam because he was half-Vietnamese and was thus more trustworthy, although he has proved to be most able and charismatic in his own right. Souphanouvong was made President, a nominal position which carries little decision-making power.


Resistance and Refugees


Fearing retributions from the new regime after the PL control of Laos, many former RLA Hmong soldiers and civilians who could not flee to Thailand went into hiding with their families in inaccessible mountain areas. They were joined by others who were released or who escaped from "seminar" centres. From their jungle hide-outs, small groups of these men first ambushed PL trucks travelling between Vang Vieng and Vientiane in early 1976, but soon included PL troops in their attacks. They repeatedly used arms and ammunitions left hidden by Vang Pao’s supporters in Phu Bia or collected from their dead victims.


Although American diplomats in Laos denied any involvement with these tribal dissidents, reports about their skirmishes filtered through to the outside world throughout 1976. Armed resistance was also reported in Sayaboury where refugees in Thailand were said to return to Laos and carry out their separate campaign against PL and Vietnamese soldiers (FEER, 13l2176: 32). Initial casualties on the Government side were believed to include two Soviet helicopters and crew, in addition to "serious losses" suffered by village militia and local military personnel (FEER, 10/9/76: 13).


The Government decided to send troops to the hills to crush this resistance When they proved ineffective, four regiments of NV soldiers were brought in from other parts of Laos. Many Hmong settlements were burned to the ground, sometimes accompanied by mass execution of their inhabitants. Aerial bombing was carried out along with heavy artillery lifted to the highlands by helicopters. Poisonous chemicals were alleged to have been dropped on civilians hiding in the jungles and defoliants were sprayed on their crops. Those who surrendered themselves to the authorities were taken to "resettlement villages" in the lowlands where their leaders were selected for "seminars", imprisonment or executions, depending on the decisions of the military.


This pattern of resistance and government counter-attacks persists even today, and was one the major causes of the refugee movement to Thailand until the late 1980’s. The resistance has been further fuelled by political groups formed by Lao refugees who have resettled in the West, among which was the United Front for the Liberation of Laos under Vang Pao's leadership. Border Thai intelligence officers had also played an ongoing role in this resistance by supplying small groups of refugees with arms and sending them back to Laos to gather military information, thereby putting into jeopardy the lives of villagers who come into contact with these teams. The only recourse for such villagers is to escape to Thailand with their families in order to avoid persecution by PL officials.


Official estimates put the number of Hmong dissidents killed in the military operations of 1977 at 1,300 and "thousands" captured in "heavy fighting" (Asia Week, 16/12/79: 16). On his part, Vang Pao alleged that 50,000 Hmong died from PL chemical poisoning between 1975 and 1978, while another 45,000 perished "form starvation and diseases or were shot trying to escape to Thailand'' (Hamilton Merritt, op. cit.: 37). Whatever the number of casualties, there is no doubt that the campaign against Hmong and other dissidents had significantly increased the number of people crossing to Thailand. One group of 2,500 Hmong, for instance, arrived in Nong Khai refugee camp in December 1977 (Asia Week, 10/3/78: 38). This was the biggest single escape party which was said to number more than 8,000 members when it first set out from Phu Bia, but several them changed their minds and returned to their jungle hide-outs while many others were captured, died from exhaustion, shot by PL troops along the escape route, or drowned trying to swim across the Mekong river.


Since 1980, some of these refugees have included people who had traditionally aligned with the PL and many families which had been living in the 'new liberated zone'. From the first group of 25,000 Hmong reaching Thailand in May 1975, the number had steadily increased to 60,000 towards the end of 1979 when close to 3,000 persons crossed the Mekong a month. It is estimated that by 1990, more than 90,000 Hmong refugees have gone to live in the United States; 6,000 in France; and 3,000 in Canada, Australia, Argentina and French Guyana. Another 60,000 lowland Lao have also been resettled in the West, mostly in the United States (35,000); France (16,000); Canada (4,000), an Australia (8,600). About 3,000 had voluntarily been repatriated to Laos under UNHCR auspice, but some are known to have escaped to Thailand again.


The total number of Hmong refugees in Thai camps in March 1980 was 48,937 persons with 998 new arrivals during that month. Despite departures for resettlement in other countries, there were still 46,218 Hmong registered for support by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in five camps in Northern Thailand in February 1981 (UNHCR Monthly Statistics, March 1980 and February 1981). About 75,000 Lao refugees were known to be in Thailand in 1987, the largest group of Indochinese refugees under UNHCR protection. Of this number, 54,095 were hill tribe people, mostly Hmong being held at Ban Vinai and Chiang Kham camps (Feith, 1988 32). At the end of 1990, there were still 22, 000 lowland Lao refugees in Ban Napho camp; 40,000 Hmong at Ban Vinai (including 10,000 unregistered new arrivals); 22,000 in Chiang Khan and another 5,000 awaiting to go to third countries in Phanat Nikhom camp.


Although the number of arrivals diminished during the next few years, the reasons for refugees continuing to leave Laos until the closing of all the refugee camps in Thailand in 1999 remained much the same since 1975: persecution against former RLG officials, military offensives directed at resistance groups, heavy rice tax, military and labour conscription, extreme economic deprivation, and arbitrary arrests of people suspected political crimes or disloyalty. Many of the right-wing politicians, army officers and public servants taken to "seminar" centres have been released, with some subsequently escaping to join their families in Thailand and the West. Other internees, including the former King and Queen and the Crown Prince, are known to have died from hard labour and the harsh conditions of the re-education camps, and about 200 remain in detention.

In June 1999, the Thai English language newspaper, the Nation, stated that there were 1,346 Lao in the only remaining camp at Ban Napho, with 1,166 of them classified as non-refugees (Patiyasevi, 1999). With large numbers resettled in countries such as the USA (400,000), France (60,000), Canada (20,000), Australia (12,000) and Argentina (1,200) as well as many repatriated to Laos, only 48 refugees from Laos were reported to be in Thailand by 2003, with 34 of them in Ban Napho camp, northeast Thailand



This does not include many thousands of ethnic Lao refugees who have merged with their relatives living along the Thai side of the Mekong river, and more than 30,000 Hmong refugees who left the former UNHCR camps and “blended” with Thai Hmong villagers in Chiangrai and Tak provinces, including 16,000 who were living at Tham Krabork Buddhist temple in Saraburi province under the protection of its abbot. Under pressure from Lao authorities which accused them of armed liberation activities in Laos, the Tham Krabork Hmong were resettled in the USA (15,300) and Australia (77) by September 2007 ( 




Since the Pathet Lao’s control of Laos in 1975, refugees continued to flow to Thailand, especially the hilltribes, until well into the mid-1980s. This is despite many deterrents put in place by the Thai government such as keeping refugees in closed camps with no access to resettlement in other countries to prevent further flows from Laos; the tightening of the definition of the term "refugee" and classifying most Lao as "economic" rather than political refugees; and forcing people back to Laos after they have crossed into Thailand. Since 1987, there has been a relaxation in the Lao government's policy with family businesses and commercial enterprises being allowed to flourish, more freedom of movements in and out of the country, and more tourism and trade with Thailand. This new policy, however, has been affected by the recent political change in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union which used to be the major aid donors and ideological supporters of the Pathet Lao.

During the second half of 1990, the Lao government decided to return to a stricter rule with many arrests of senior officials suspected of "liberal" thinking, and a tighter control of population movements due to increased insurgency activities by resistance groups across the country. In October 1990, large numbers of refugees still emerged in Ban Vinai camp looking for UNHCR protection because of heavy fighting in Xieng Khouang and Vang Vieng provinces in northern Laos. Since 1992 when Laos signed a border security with Thailand, the two countries had held several high-level meetings to discuss the repatriation of refugees from Laos, as well as the closing of all refugee camps in Thailand to prevent them being used as staging posts to launch armed attacks by refugee political groups on their old homeland. Today, these insurgent activities have stopped. With the final closure of Wat Tham Krabork refugee camp in August 2007, there were officially no longer any refugees from Laos being given refuge in Thailand. 


However, this proves so far not to be the case. As soon as interviews were undertaken with the Wat Tham Krabork refugees for resettlement in the USA in 2005, new groups of Hmong escaped from Laos to seek asylum from alleged political persecution by the Lao government. Seeing no end to this exodus, the Thai authorities have refused permission to the UNHCR and willing third countries to have access to the new arrivals, preferring to repatriate them to Laos as the only way to stem the flow, now that the two countries seem to be at peace with each other. Only charity organizations have permission to visit these refugees. Regardless of this harsh stand by the Thai, Hmong asylum seekers continued to come to Huei Nam Khao (White Water) in Phetchaboon, Thailand. By 2008, more than 7,600 of them are given temporary shelter there, although many are seen as economic rather than political refugees. This is not to deny that some of these Hmong have claim to UNHCR protection as genuine refugees. Given this situation, no one knows what will happen to them. What is certain is that as long as Lao leaders do not learn to accept political dissent but only use armed intervention and arbitrary arrests as solutions to political differences, Lao refugees will be generated and require international assistance.




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Deepening Civil War
American Bombing
Peace Settlement
Communist Rule
Resistance & Refugees
North Viet & American Involvement
The Indochina War
French Domination
Early History
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