The Pathet Lao

The Pathet Lao

War had broken out in the meantime between the French and Ho Chi Minh's government at the end of 1946. Leaving Nouhak in charge of the resistance committee, Thao O set up his base at Con Cuong (Vietnam), from which his men could cross the border into Laos with relative impunity. In January 1949, Kaysone formed the first unit of a new resistance army, the Latsavong detachment, named after the latsavong of Vientiane, who had led resistance against the Siamese in the nineteenth century. To lend the resistance the appearance of authority it lacked in reality, a government headed by Souphanouvong was formed at a congress held in Vietnam in August 1950. This government included Kaysone, Nouhak, Tiao Souk Vongsak, and Phoumi Vongvichit.

The congress created the Free Laos Front (Neo Lao Issara). The basic stance of this front's propaganda was the united struggle against the French without reference to political parties or ideology. Illustrative of this stance was the use henceforth of the name Pathet Lao (Lao Nation). Indicative of the "single battlefield" theme repeated in Viet Minh propaganda were the increasing numbers of Viet Minh agents sent to Laos: 500 to 700 political and military agents at the end of 1946 and the beginning of 1947, approximately 5,000 to 7,000 agents at the end of 1950 and the beginning of 1951, and 17,000 agents in 1953.

In keeping with the united front against the French, Souphanouvong's Pathet Lao government included not only leaders who had developed close ties to the Viet Minh over the previous five years, but also members of the Lao aristocracy (such as Souphanouvong himself) and former officials of the RLG. Significantly, the Pathet Lao government also included two representatives of Laos's tribal groups who were made ministers without portfolio.

By 1950 both Kaysone and Nouhak had become members of the ICP. The party's strategy was to operate clandestinely behind broad national front organizations such as the Viet Minh and the Neo Lao Issara that were capable of mobilizing support from people for whom Marxism-Leninism held no appeal. This strategy applied particularly to Laos, where issues such as land reform and other aspects of class struggle, antithetical to the notion of Buddhist harmony, had almost no appeal. The overthrow of the monarchy, which had figured as a goal in the ICP program since 1932, was also not publicized.

Although the ICP had announced its dissolution in 1945, it continued to operate secretly. In February 1951, at its second congress, the ICP decided to split into separate parties for each of the three countries---Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia--in accordance with the need to mobilize mass support for the anti-French war throughout Indochina. At this time, of 2,091 ICP members in Laos, only thirty-one were Laotians. The Laotian members of the ICP were "transferred" to a new party whose name reflected its Laotian constituency but that was still tied to the two other parties of the ICP in the new triad.

The decision to form a new party led to considerable discussion among noncommunist Pathet Lao supporters unfamiliar with Leninist strategy. In the second half of 1954, an important meeting of Pathet Lao leaders was held near the Houaphan Province border, where the need to establish this new party to ensure success of the struggle in the postwar period was explained. Some participants supported this proposal; others did not. Proponents of the new party met in secret. The Phak Pasason Lao (Lao People's Party--LPP) was formally established on March 22, 1955. The very existence of the party was kept a secret from nonparty people.

By 1951 enough Pathet Lao troops had been recruited and trained to take part in Viet Minh military operations against French Union forces in Laos. In the spring of 1953, the Viet Minh overran almost all of Houaphan Province and portions of Phôngsali, Xiangkhoang, and Louangphrabang provinces. Approximately 300 Pathet Lao accompanied the Viet Minh. On April 19, Souphanouvong formally established the Pathet Lao government in Houaphan Province. A "people's tribunal" presided over by Kaysone condemned the acting province chief to death for having helped organize guerrilla resistance to the invaders.

With Louangphrabang in danger of Viet Minh occupation, Crown Prince Savang Vatthana received a letter from the United States chargé d'affaires in Saigon, Robert McClintock, expressing concern for the king's safety and saying that withdrawal from the capital "would seem the course of wisdom." Savang said that the king intended to stay to bolster morale for the defense of his capital. At the end of 1953 and beginning of 1954, the Viet Minh again invaded Laos, pushing as far as Thakhek and creating considerable difficulties for the French Union defenders. Their appearance seemed timed to coincide with the sale of the opium crop in Houaphan and Xiangkhoang provinces.

In elections to the National Assembly held on August 26, 1951, the National Progressive Party (Phak Xat Kao Na) formed by the returned Lao Issara ministers, Xieng Mao, Souvanna Phouma, and Katay Don Sasorith, won fifteen of thirty-nine seats. The Democratic Party (Praxathipatay) of Kou Voravong and his brotherin -law Major Phoumi Nosavan won four seats; the National Lao Union (Lao Rouam Samphan) of Bong Souvannavong won three; and seventeen seats went to independents that included Phoui Sananikone and Leuam Insixiengmay. Xieng Mao having failed to form a government, Prince Souvanna Phouma headed a government that was invested on November 21. The Franco-Lao Treaty of Amity and Association on October 22, 1953, removed the last strictures on independence.


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