In the past, Laos has long had a major influence in the whole complex Indochinese mosaic with kingdoms located in areas crucial to the control of the Mekong and areas considered central to local cultures and the spread of Buddhism. In times like today it is under the constant threat of warlike neighbours, Khmer, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese and Chinese, who have made it even more increasingly difficult to remain a unified power.
An attempt that had to yield to the entry on the regional scene of a European power, France, which since 1887, with the treaty that ended the war with China, gave rise to the Indochinese colony with the inclusion of Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1893, the Franco-Siamese Treaty transferred the Laotian territory east of the Mekong to France, creating a French protectorate over nearly the entire current Lao territory.
French colonization did not actually succeed in changing the structure of society and Laotian tradition, also keeping in place the Monarchy (the Khun Lon dynasty) and most of the pre-existing administrative structures. Economic and technological development was reduced. French studies and the sending of many young local intellectuals to France resulted in being decisive, however, in creating an opposition movement that, similar to the experience of other countries in the region, was to develop into real opposition to the colonial system.
Accelerating this possibility was the Japanese invasion. Effectively abandoned to its fate by the European colonizer, Laos was declared independent (from the European power) by the Japanese in April 1945. With the defeat of the Japanese empire a few months afterwards, petitions for independence proved themselves to be illusory. Some concessions but also new repression were the response of the French on their return to Vientiane, weakened, but determined not to give up the Indochinese colonies. The recognition of the right to independence of the country by the US in 1950, was followed by the proclamation of the Kingdom of Laos under King Souvannaphouma and independence from France, defeated by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu, but also by the lack of agreement with the communist forces who began a guerrilla army backed by Vietnam and co-led by Prince Soupanouvong, half-brother of the king.
The Pathet Lao (country of the Lao) that was founded in 1950, joined forces with the Viet Minh nationalist Vietnamese, with which it shared the communist ideology, to remove the region from European influence. Since 1956, the political wing of the Pathet Lao, the Lao Patriotic Front, became part of the troubled political landscape in coalition governments until the movement took up arms again, this time against the United States and the Laotian government they supported.
Since 1964, this country also became involved in the Vietnam War with what came to be known as the ‘secret war’ conducted by the CIA with the support of the Hmong ethnic group and irregular Thais against the Pathet Lao, but above all against the Vietnamese who had intervened directly in the country.
In 1975, on the abdication of the king, prince Soupanouvong become president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, while Kaysone Phomviane became prime minister. The desire to close out the external world and to repress the internal one isolated the country, which formally joined the Non-Aligned Movement.
With the end of the Indochina conflict, the Pathet Lao consolidated its control at the expense of its pro-Western opponents, but also of sectors of society. There was harsh repression against some ethnic groups – against the Hmong with characteristics of genocide – against the Buddhist community, intellectuals they believed to be hostile and pro-monarchists. The voluntary withdrawal of Prince Soupanouvong in 1986 (the royal dynasty Khun Lon continues to seek a role through Prince Soulivong Savang, in self-imposed exile in Paris), ushered in a period of moderate reforms, accelerated since 1991 under the leadership of Prime Minister Kamthay Siphandone who gradually opened up to tourism, investment and foreign influences. President since 1996, in 2006 Siphandone was replaced in the position of head of state by Souriya Choummaly Sayasone, who according to practice also holds the post of Secretary General of the People’s Revolutionary Party. Inevitably, Thongsing Thammavong, prime minister since 2010, was also let go from the party ranks. The consequences of the Indochinese conflict affected not only the ideological inheritance but also the management of the single party and the marginalization of the losing minorities.
Today Laos is still living the consequences of its sad distinction of being the country in which historically the greatest number of bombs was dropped. It is estimated that American bombers dropped two million tons of bombs (more than on the whole of Europe during the Second World War) on the country in about 600,000 missions, partly unexploded ordinances, perhaps 30% of which remain a threat to the population. The total number of victims at the end of the war was 50,000 and still today a hundred a year dead or wounded. A commitment, that of reclamation, which has cost at least $25 million so far involving in addition to the Lao government, also international organizations, and particularly from cluster bombs, 90% of the bombs defused so far, that due to their size and characteristics remain a threat, especially for children and farmers. A situation which, as Phoukhieo Chanthasomboune, director general of the Laotian Authority for the cleaning up of bombs and defusing mines, pointed out some time ago, could cost the country “centuries of efforts to arrive at a final solution”. Moreover, according to official sources, an 87,000 km square area of territory, more than one third of the total area, is contaminated by chemicals as a result of the conflict, with only 2% of the surface reclaimed so far. (S.V.)