The Democratic People's Republic ofLaos
Most important events in Southeast Asian history, in the end, relate back to China and/or India. In the case of Laos, the signal event, the migration of the lowland Lao, corresponds to events in China. The Thais originated, ironically, enough in Vietnam, falling under the influence of China. In the 7th century, a period of Chinese weakness allowed them to migrate into the Yunnan Peninsula, where they set up the strong state of Nanchao. Prinicipalities of the Thai, sometimes under Nanchao control, and sometimes independent, pushed southward, that process accelerated by the Mongol destruction of Nanchao. Thai-speaking people moved into southeast Asia. The Thai moved into northern Thailand, the Shans into northern Myanamar, and the Lao into today's Laos. The Lao clearly got the short end of this deal as Laos remained a wooded, backwards area under Khmer rule. Further, the Lao inherited hostile, aggressive neighbors, the Vietnamese, who also wanted the Khmer territory. The geography of Laos, further, made for a typically weaker state, due to the greater power of the hill tribes. In Vietnam and Thailand, the dominant lowlanders absorbed or contained these slash-and-burn agriculturalists. In Laos, however, a much greater part of the country consisted in hills, meaning that the lowlanders had to pay far more attention to the needs of their highland neighbors, peoples alien to them in culture and beliefs. Despite this, the Lao tried, like the northern Thai to dominate the area of Southeast Asia. A single Lao dynasty conquered and united all of present-day Thailand with assistance from the Khmers. This greater Laos lasted some 300 years and included Shans, Lao, and northern Thais. In 1690, Laos split into three parts, and the growth of rivals Thailand and Vietnam led to invasions by both and even the Burmese as these states fell to one side or another. Laos became a buffer state caught between the rising powers. The Thai and Vietnamese both intrigued to try to conquer and control the area. The Vietnamese enjoyed, probably, the easier invasion route, but the Lao shared a language and culture with the Thai. Further, like the Thai, the Lao converted to Thervada Buddhism. In the end, geography and the rivalry prevented either country from ever getting control. The sheer vastness of the woods and mountains meant that either nation would have to exert massive resources for a pretty small gain, a fact that would figure later in the eventual Vietnamese withdrawal. The arrival of the colonial France changed this relationship only somewhat. While Thailand never became a colony, the French conquered Laos, but did relatively little with it, concentrating their efforts on Vietnam. They did, however, converted many of the highlanders, whom they called "Montagnards," (i.e. "mountaineers") to Christianity. When the French left Vietnam, they left Laos as well under a Laotian king.
When John F. Kennedy prepared to take office in 1960, the outgoing president, Eisenhower, spent hours briefing him on Laos and only minutes on Vietnam. Even in 1960, Laos seemed a ripe target for Southeast Asian Communism. Yet it would take 15 years to fall. The Laotian Communist Party, the Pathet Lao, took its inspiration and funding from Vietnam's Viet Minh. Interestingly enough, the Pathet Lao drew their support from those in the economic heartland of Laos, the lowlands, the exact reverse of the position in Vietnam and Cambodia. The highlands, again in contrast to Vietnam, remained loyal to first the French and later the Americans. The Vietnamese Communists, after the departure of the French from North Vietnam, used Laos as part of the Ho Chi Minh trail that stretched from Northen Vietnam all the way to the South, through two "neutral countries" Cambodia and Laos, to supply Vietnamese fighting the South Vietnamese government and the USA. Laos did what one might expect; it simply ignored the Vietnamese, while pledging many things to both sides. At one point the Lao even incorporated the Communists into a joint government. Prior experience with the Thais-Vietnam rivalry had taught the Lao how to survive. This led the United States to intensify its efforts in Laos. The US bombed parts of Laos in use by the Trail. The US aided a coup which kicked the Communists out of the government. The US armed the Montangnards and some tribes, particularly the Hmong, fought enthusiastically on the American side against the Vietnamese and the lowland Lao. The fall of South Vietnam in 1975, accordingly, led to the fall of the American-sponsored Laotian government. The Pathet Lao quickly installed their own style of government, and sent many of its own to "re-education camps." Further, the Vietnamese sent troops and aid to bolster that regime. The US, for its part, helped evacuate at least some of the Montagnards, including the Hmong who migrated to Southern California in some numbers. This didn't, however, make for a happy ending. Laos remained pathetically poor. The Vietnamese finally realized (as suggested above), as in Cambodia, that they simply couldn't afford to garrison and support Laos and took their troops out. The highlanders remained unreconciled, at least privately, to the rule of the lowlanders. Actually, however, the Pathet Lao can truthfully do relatively little to assert any control over the hinterland anyway. The chief crop of the highlands remains, as Mel Gibson's Air America portrays, opium poppies. Efforts of various governments have never changed the fact that the mountain people can get more money selling the poppies than growing any alternative crop.
Laos seemed relatively adrift. While the Communists remained in control, it seemed a relatively benign government, more searching for money than ideology. The people's lives, at my observation, seemed very traditional and a far cry from any of the socialistic experiments attempted in China or Vietnam. To return to a familiar dichotomy, the Vietnamese influence seemed to fade as the Thai influence increased. I only saw a dozen Vietnamese in the city. On the other hand, the stores and banks now accepted Thai baht along with the dollar and (worthless) Lao money. The television stations played Thai channels, and most of the visitors came from across the river in Thailand. The Pathet Lao, perhaps wisely, left the Lao Sanghra (Buddist priests) relatively untouched. As in Thailand, they continued to exert a major influence on Lao life. I could far more easily imagine a lowland Lao devoting his life to reading scriptures than reading Communists tracts. The Lao themselves possess all of the good manners and quietness of the Thai. You can add to that, also, the relatively unspoiled nature of Laos in comparison to Thailand. Just a look across the river, and one can see entire deforested areas in Thailand, not so in Laos. For more about this, of course, you should read The Thin Red Line. Also you can click here to simply cross the river into Northern Thailand. Perhaps the epitome of Laos, to me, seems the long black skirts with a slash of color that all the women wear. Certainly, they see Thai fashion, which tends towards tight mini-skirts, but they don't seem to have any ambition to show any more flash, or any more flesh, than the modest display that their traditional clothing allows. Beyond that, the Lao make the skirts themselves, so they cost very little.
This triumphal arch symbolizes the brief period of Lao history when (after the Burmese had thrashed and trashed neighoring Thai states) Laos ruled a northern Thai-speaking empire.
..this main temple of Lao Buddhism. Each level inspires the devout worshipper to differing contemplations.
Note the long black skirts with the flash of color worn by almost all Lao women.
Sink deeper into Communism with the North(ern) Vietnam tour
Return to democracy with the Northern Thailand tour
Read The Thin Red Line
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