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2000 BCE - 2023

History of Laos

The history of Laos is marked by a series of significant events that shaped its current form. One of the earliest known civilizations in the area was the Kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in 1353 by Fa Ngum. Lan Xang was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia during its peak and played a crucial role in establishing Laotian identity. However, the kingdom eventually weakened due to internal strife and was divided into three separate territories by the late 17th century: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak.

The late 19th century ushered in a colonial period for Laos when it became a French protectorate in 1893, as part of French Indochina. French rule lasted until World War II, during which Laos was occupied by Japanese forces. After the war, the French attempted to reassert their control, but Laos eventually gained full independence in 1953. The colonial period had a lasting impact on the country, influencing its political, economic, and social systems.

The modern history of Laos has been turbulent, marked by the Laotian Civil War (1959-1975), also known as the Secret War. This period saw the rise of communist forces, backed by the Soviet Union and Vietnam, against the Royal Lao Government supported by the United States. The war culminated in the victory of the Pathet Lao, the communist faction, which led to the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic on December 2, 1975. Since then, the country has been a one-party socialist republic, closely aligned with Vietnam and, more recently, growing in its relations with China.

2000 BCE Jan 1


Plain of Jars, Xiangkhouang. ©Christopher Voitus

The earliest inhabitants of Laos – Australo-Melanesians – were followed by members of the Austro-Asiatic language family. These earliest societies contributed to the ancestral gene pool of the upland Lao ethnicities known collectively as “Lao Theung,” with the largest ethnic groups being the Khamu of northern Laos, and the Brao and Katang in the south.[1]

Wet-rice and millet farming techniques were introduced from the Yangtze River valley in southern China since around 2,000 years BCE. Hunting and gathering remained an important aspect of food provision; particularly in forested and mountainous inland areas.[2] Earliest known copper and bronze production in Southeast Asia has been confirmed at the site of Ban Chiang in modern north-east Thailand and among the Phung Nguyen culture of northern Vietnam since around 2000 BCE.[3]

From the 8th century BCE to as late as the 2nd century CE an inland trading society emerged on the Xieng Khouang Plateau, around the megalithic site called the Plain of Jars. The jars are stone sarcophagi, date from the early Iron Age (500 BCE to 800 CE) and contained evidence of human remains, burial goods and ceramics. Some sites contain more than 250 individual jars. The tallest jars are more than 3 m (9.8 ft) in height. Little is known about the culture which produced and used the jars. The jars and the existence of iron ore in the region suggest that the creators of the site engaged in profitable overland trade.[4]

68 Jan 1 - 900

Early Indianised Kingdoms

Early Indianised Kingdoms
Chenla ©North Korean artists

The first indigenous kingdom to emerge in Indochina was referred to in Chinese histories as the Kingdom of Funan and encompassed an area of modern Cambodia, and the coasts of southern Vietnam and southern Thailand since the 1st century CE. Funan was an Indianised kingdom, that had incorporated central aspects of Indian institutions, religion, statecraft, administration, culture, epigraphy, writing and architecture and engaged in profitable Indian Ocean trade.[5]

By the 2nd century CE, Austronesian settlers had established an Indianised kingdom known as Champa along modern central Vietnam. The Cham people established the first settlements near modern Champasak in Laos. Funan expanded and incorporated the Champasak region by the sixth century CE, when it was replaced by its successor polity Chenla. Chenla occupied large areas of modern-day Laos as it accounts for the earliest kingdom on Laotian soil.[6]

The capital of early Chenla was Shrestapura which was located in the vicinity of Champasak and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wat Phu. Wat Phu is a vast temple complex in southern Laos which combined natural surroundings with ornate sandstone structures, which were maintained and embellished by the Chenla peoples until 900 CE, and were subsequently rediscovered and embellished by the Khmer in the 10th century.

By the 8th century CE Chenla had divided into “Land Chenla” located in Laos, and “Water Chenla” founded by Mahendravarman near Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia. Land Chenla was known to the Chinese as “Po Lou” or “Wen Dan” and dispatched a trade mission to the Tang Dynasty court in 717 CE. Water Chenla, would come under repeated attack from Champa, the Mataram sea kingdoms in Indonesia based in Java, and finally pirates. From the instability the Khmer emerged.[7]

In the area which is modern northern and central Laos, and northeast Thailand the Mon people established their own kingdoms during the 8th century CE, outside the reach of the contracting Chenla kingdoms. By the 6th century in the Chao Phraya River Valley, Mon peoples had coalesced to create the Dvaravati kingdoms. In the north, Haripunjaya (Lamphun) emerged as a rival power to the Dvaravati. By the 8th century the Mon had pushed north to create city states, known as “muang,” in Fa Daet (northeast Thailand), Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong) near modern Tha Khek, Laos, Muang Sua (Luang Prabang), and Chantaburi (Vientiane). In the 8th century CE, Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong) was the strongest of these early city states, and controlled trade throughout the middle Mekong region. The city states were loosely bound politically, but were culturally similar and introduced Therevada Buddhism from Sri Lankan missionaries throughout the region.[8]

700 Jan 1

Tai Migrations

Tai Migrations
The Legend of Khun Borom. ©Maxime Defoulny

There have been many theories proposing the origin of the Tai peoples — of which the Lao are a subgroup. The Chinese Han Dynasty chronicles of the southern military campaigns provide the first written accounts of Tai–Kadai speaking peoples who inhabited the areas of modern Yunnan China and Guangxi.

James R. Chamberlain (2016) proposes that Tai-Kadai (Kra-Dai) language family was formed as early as the 12th century BCE in the middle Yangtze basin, coinciding roughly with the establishment of the Chu and the beginning of the Zhou dynasty.[9] Following the southward migrations of Kra and Hlai (Rei/Li) peoples around the 8th century BCE, the Be-Tai people started to break away to the east coast in the present-day Zhejiang, in the 6th century BCE, forming the state of Yue.[9] After the destruction of the state of Yue by Chu army around 333 BCE, Yue people (Be-Tai) began to migrate southwards along the east coast of China to what are now Guangxi, Guizhou and northern Vietnam, forming Luo Yue (Central-Southwestern Tai) and Xi Ou (Northern Tai).[9] The Tai peoples, from Guangxi and northern Vietnam began moving south – and westwards in the first millennium CE, eventually spreading across the whole of mainland Southeast Asia.[10] Based on layers of Chinese loanwords in proto-Southwestern Tai and other historical evidence, Pittayawat Pittayaporn (2014) proposes that the southwestward migration of Tai-speaking tribes from the modern Guangxi and northern Vietnam to the mainland of Southeast Asia must have taken place sometime between the 8th–10th centuries.[11] Tai speaking tribes migrated southwestward along the rivers and over the lower passes into Southeast Asia, perhaps prompted by the Chinese expansion and suppression. A 2016 mitochondrial genome mapping of Thai and Lao populations supports the idea that both ethnicities originate from the Tai–Kadai (TK) language family.[12]

The Tai, from their new home in Southeast Asia, were influenced by the Khmer and the Mon and most importantly Buddhist India. The Tai Kingdom of Lanna was founded in 1259. The Sukhothai Kingdom was founded in 1279 and expanded eastward to take the city of Chantaburi and renamed it to Vieng Chan Vieng Kham (modern Vientiane) and northward to the city of Muang Sua which was taken in 1271 and renamed the city to Xieng Dong Xieng Thong or "City of Flame Trees beside the River Dong", (modern Luang Prabang, Laos). The Tai peoples had firmly established control in areas to the northeast of the declining Khmer Empire. Following the death of the Sukhothai king Ram Khamhaeng, and internal disputes within the kingdom of Lanna, both Vieng Chan Vieng Kham (Vientiane) and Xieng Dong Xieng Thong (Luang Prabang) were independent city-states until the founding of the kingdom of Lan Xang in 1354.[13]

The history of the Tai migrations into Laos were preserved in myth and legends. The Nithan Khun Borom or "Story of Khun Borom" recalls the origin myths of the Lao, and follows the exploits of his seven sons to found the Tai kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The myths also recorded the laws of Khun Borom, which set the basis of common law and identity among the Lao. Among the Khamu the exploits of their folk hero Thao Hung are recounted in the Thao Hung Thao Cheuang epic, which dramatizes the struggles of the indigenous peoples with the influx of Tai during the migration period. In later centuries the Lao themselves would preserve the legend in written form, becoming one of the great literary treasures of Laos and one of the few depictions of life in Southeast Asia prior to Therevada Buddhism and Tai cultural influence.[14]

1353 - 1707
Lan Xang

Land of a million elephants under the white parasol.

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The traditional court histories of Lan Xang begin in the Year of the Nāga 1316 with the birth of Fa Ngum.[15] Fa Ngum's Grandfather Souvanna Khampong was king of Muang Sua and his father Chao Fa Ngiao was the crown prince. As a youth Fa Ngum was sent to the Khmer Empire to live as a son of King Jayavarman IX, where he was given princess Keo Kang Ya. In 1343 King Souvanna Khampong died, and a succession dispute for Muang Sua took place.[16] In 1349 Fa Ngum was granted an army known as the "Ten Thousand" to take the crown. At the time the Khmer Empire was in decline (possibly from an outbreak of the Black Death and the combined influx of Tai peoples),[16] both Lanna and Sukhothai had been established in what had been Khmer territory, and the Siamese were growing in the area of the Chao Phraya River which would become the Ayutthaya Kingdom.[17] The opportunity for the Khmer was to create a friendly buffer state in an area they could no longer effectively control with only a moderately sized military force.

Fa Ngum's campaign started in southern Laos, taking the towns and cities in the region around Champasak and moving northward through Thakek and Kham Muang along the middle Mekong. From his position on the middle Mekong, Fa Ngum sought assistance and supply from Vientiane in attacking Muang Sua, which they refused. However, Prince Nho of Muang Phuan (Muang Phoueune) offered assistance and vassalage to Fa Ngum for assistance in a succession dispute of his own and help in securing Muang Phuan from Đại Việt. Fa Ngum agreed and quickly moved his army to take Muang Phuan and then on to take Xam Neua and several smaller towns of Đại Việt.[18]

The Vietnamese kingdom of Đại Việt, concerned with their rival Champa to the south sought a clearly defined border with the growing power of Fa Ngum. The result was to use the Annamite Range as both a cultural and territorial barrier between the two kingdoms. Continuing his conquests Fa Ngum turned toward the Sip Song Chau Tai along the Red and Black River valleys, which were heavily populated with Lao. Having secured a sizable force of Lao from each territory under his domain Fa Ngum moved down the Nam Ou to take Muang Sua. Despite three attacks the King of Muang Sua, who was Fa Ngum's uncle, was unable to deter the size of Fa Ngum's army and committed suicide rather than be taken alive.[18]

In 1353 Fa Ngum was crowned,[19] and named his Kingdom Lan Xang Hom Khao "The Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol", Fa Ngum continued his conquests to secure the areas around the Mekong by moving to take Sipsong Panna (modern Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture) and began moving south to the borders of Lanna along the Mekong. King Phayu of Lanna raised an army which Fa Ngum overwhelmed at Chiang Saen, forcing Lanna to cede some its territory and provide valuable gifts in exchange for mutual recognition. Having secured his immediate borders Fa Ngum returned to Muang Sua. [18] By 1357 Fa Ngum had established the mandala for the Kingdom of Lan Xang which extended from the borders of the Sipsong Panna with China[20] south to Sambor below the Mekong rapids at Khong Island, and from the Vietnamese border along the Annamite Range to the western escarpment of the Khorat Plateau.[21] It was thus one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia.

1371 Jan 1

Reign of Samsenthai

Reign of Samsenthai
©Maurice Fievet

Fa Ngum again led Lan Xang to war in the 1360s against Sukhothai, in which Lan Xang was victorious in defense of their territory but gave the competing court factions and the war weary population a justification to depose Fa Ngum in favor of his son Oun Huean. In 1371, Oun Huean was crowned as King Samsenthai (King of 300,000 Tai) a carefully chosen name for the Lao-Khmer prince, which showed preference for the Lao-tai population he governed over the Khmer factions at court. Samenthai consolidated the gains of his father, and fought back Lanna in Chiang Saen during the 1390s. In 1402 he received formal recognition for Lan Xang from the Ming Empire in China.[22] In 1416, at the age of sixty, Samsenthai died and was succeeded by his song Lan Kham Daeng. The Viet Chronicles record that during the reign of Lan Kham Daeng in 1421 the Lam Sơn Uprising took place under Lê Lợi against the Ming, and sought Lan Xang's assistance. An army of 30,000 with 100 elephant cavalry was dispatched, but instead sided with the Chinese.[23]

1421 Jan 1 - 1456

Reign of Queen Maha Devi

Reign of Queen Maha Devi
©Maurice Fievet

The death of Lan Kham Daeng ushered in a period of uncertainty and regicide. From 1428 to 1440 seven kings ruled Lan Xang; all were killed by assassination or intrigue guided by a Queen known only by her title as Maha Devi or as Nang Keo Phimpha "The Cruel". It is possible that from 1440 to 1442 she ruled Lan Xang as the first and only female leader, before being drowned in the Mekong in 1442 as an offering to the naga. In 1440 Vientiane revolted, but despite the years of instability the capital at Muang Sua was able to suppress the rebellion. An interregnum began in 1453 and ended in 1456 with the crowning of King Chakkaphat (1456–1479).[24]

1479 Jan 1 - 1484

Đại Việt–Lan Xang War

Đại Việt–Lan Xang War

In 1448 during the disorder of the Maha Devi, Muang Phuan and some areas along the Black River were annexed by the kingdom of Đại Việt and several skirmishes took place against Lanna Kingdom along the Nan River.[25] In 1471 Emperor Lê Thánh Tông of Đại Việt invaded and destroyed the kingdom of Champa. Also in 1471, Muang Phuan revolted and several Vietnamese were killed. By 1478 preparations were being made for a full-scale invasion of Lan Xang in retribution for the rebellion in Muang Phuan and, more importantly, for supporting the Ming Empire in 1421.[26]

Around the same time, a white elephant had been captured and brought to King Chakkaphat. The elephant was recognized as a symbol of kingship throughout Southeast Asia and Lê Thánh Tông requested the animal's hair to be brought as a gift to the Vietnamese court. The request was seen as an affront, and according to legend, a box filled with dung was sent instead. The pretext having been set, a massive Viet force of 180,000 men marched in five columns to subdue Muang Phuan, and was met with a Lan Xang force of 200,000 infantry and 2,000 elephant cavalry in support which was led by the crown prince and three supporting generals.[27]

The Vietnamese forces won a hard-fought victory and continued north to threaten Muang Sua. King Chakkaphat and the court fled south toward Vientiane along the Mekong. The Vietnamese took the capital of Luang Prabang, and then divided their forces to create a pincer attack. One branch continued west, taking Sipsong Panna and threatening Lanna, and another force headed south along the Mekong toward Vientiane. A contingent of Vietnamese troops managed to reach the upper Irrawaddy River (modern-day Myanmar).[27] King Tilok and Lanna preemptively destroyed the northern army, and the forces around Vientiane rallied under King Chakkaphat's younger son Prince Thaen Kham. The combined forces destroyed the Vietnamese forces, which fled in the direction of Muang Phuan. Although numbering only about 4,000 men, the Vietnamese destroyed the Muang Phuan capital in one last act of vengeance before retreating.[28]

Prince Thaen Kham then offered to restore his father Chakkphat to the throne, but he refused and abdicated in favor of his son who was crowned as Suvanna Balang (The Golden Chair) in 1479. The Vietnamese would not invade the unified Lan Xang for the next 200 years, and Lanna became a close ally to Lan Xang.[29]

1500 Jan 1 - 1520

King Visoun

King Visoun
Wat Visoun, the oldest temple in continuous use in Luang Prabang. ©Louis Delaporte

Through subsequent kings Lan Xang would repair the damage of the war with Đại Việt, which led to a blossoming of culture and trade. King Visoun (1500–1520) was a major patron of the arts and during his reign the classical literature of Lan Xang was first written.[30] The Theravada Buddhist monks and monasteries became centers of learning and the sangha grew in both cultural and political power. The Tripitaka was transcribed from Pali to Lao, and the Lao version of the Ramayana or Pra Lak Pra Lam was also written.[31]

Epic poems were written along with treatises on medicine, astrology and law. Lao court music was also systematized and the classical court orchestra took shape. King Visoun also sponsored several major temples or "wats" throughout the country. He chose the Phra Bang a standing image of the Buddha in the mudra or position of "dispelling fear" to be the palladium of Lan Xang.[31] The Phra Bang had been brought by Fa Ngum's Khmer wife Keo Kang Ya from Angkor as a gift from her father. The image is traditionally believed to have been forged in Ceylon, which was the center of the Therevada Buddhist tradition and was made of thong an alloy of gold and silver.[32] King Visoun, his son Photisarath, his grandson Setthathirath, and his great grandson Nokeo Koumane would provide Lan Xang with a succession of strong leaders who were able to preserve and restore the kingdom despite tremendous international challenges in the years ahead.

1520 Jan 1 - 1548

King Photisarath

Vientiane, Laos
King Photisarath
Emerald Buddha

King Photisarath (1520–1550) was one of the great kings of Lan Xang, he took Nang Yot Kham Tip from Lanna as his queen as well as lesser queens from Ayutthaya, and Longvek.[33] Photisarath was a devout Buddhist, and declared it as the state religion Lan Xang. In 1523 he requested a copy of the Tripiṭaka from King Kaeo in Lanna, and in 1527 he abolished spirit worship throughout the kingdom. In 1533 he moved his court to Vientiane, the commercial capital of Lan Xang which was located on the floodplains of the Mekong below the capital at Luang Prabang. Vientiane was the principal city of Lan Xang, and lay at the confluence of trade routes, but that access also made it the focal point for invasion from which it was difficult to defend. The move allowed Photisarath to better administer the kingdom and to respond to the outlying provinces which bordered the Đại Việt, Ayutthaya and the growing power of Burma.[34]

Lanna had a series of internal succession disputes throughout the 1540s. The weakened kingdom was invaded first by the Burmese and then in 1545 by Ayutthaya. Both attempted invasions were repulsed although significant damage had been done in the surrounding countryside. Lan Xang dispatched reinforcements to support their allies in Lanna. The succession disputes in Lanna continued, but the position of Lanna between the aggressive states of Burma and Ayutthaya necessitated that the kingdom be brought back to order. In recognition for his assistance against Ayutthaya, and his strong familial ties to Lanna, King Photisarath was offered the throne of Lanna for his son Prince Setthathirath, who in 1547 was crowned King in Chiang Mai. Lan Xang was at the height of their political power, with Photisarath as King of Lan Xang and Setthathirath his son as King of Lanna. In 1550 Photisarath returned to Luang Prabang, but was killed in an accident while riding an elephant in front of the fifteen international delegations which were seeking an audience.[35]

1548 Jan 1 - 1571

King Setthathirath

Vientiane, Laos
King Setthathirath
Burmese Invasions ©Anonymous

In 1548 King Setthathirath (as King of Lanna) had taken Chiang Saen as his capital. Chiang Mai still had powerful factions at court, and the threats from Burma and Ayutthaya were growing. Following the untimely death of his father, King Setthathirath left Lanna leaving his wife as regent. Arriving in Lan Xang, Setthathirath was crowned as King of Lan Xang. The departure emboldened the rival factions at court, who in 1551 crowned Chao Mekuti as king of Lanna.[36] In 1553 King Setthathirath sent an army to retake Lanna but was defeated. Again in 1555 King Setthathirath sent an army to retake Lanna at the command of Sen Soulintha, and managed to take Chiang Saen. In 1556 Burma, under King Bayinnaung invaded Lanna. King Mekuti of Lanna surrendered Chiang Mai without a fight, but was reinstated as a Burmese vassal under military occupation.[37]

In 1560, King Setthathirath formally moved the capital of Lan Xang from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, which would remain the capital over the next two hundred and fifty years.[38] The formal movement of the capital followed an expansive building program which included strengthening city defenses, the construction of a massive formal palace and the Haw Phra Kaew to house the Emerald Buddha, and major renovations to That Luang in Vientiane.

The Burmese turned north to depose King Mekuti of Lanna, who had failed to support the Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya in 1563. When Chiang Mai fell to the Burmese, a number of refugees fled to Vientiane and Lan Xang. King Setthathirath, realizing that Vientiane could not be held against a prolonged siege, ordered the city to be evacuated and stripped of supplies. When the Burmese took Vientiane they were forced into the countryside for supplies, where King Setthathirath had organized guerrilla attacks and small raids to harass the Burmese troops. Facing disease, malnutrition and demoralizing guerrilla warfare, King Bayinnaung was forced to retreat in 1565 leaving Lan Xang the only remaining independent Tai kingdom.[39]

1571 Jan 1 - 1593

Lan Xang at the Crossroads

Lan Xang at the Crossroads
Elephant Duel ©Anonymous

In 1571, the Ayutthaya Kingdom and Lan Na were Burmese vassals. Having twice defended Lan Xang from Burmese invasions, King Setthathirath moved south to conduct a campaign against the Khmer Empire. Defeating the Khmer would have greatly strengthened Lan Xang, giving it vital sea access, trade opportunities, and most importantly, European firearms which had been growing use since the early 1500s. The Khmer Chronicles record that armies from Lan Xang invaded in 1571 and 1572, during the second invasion King Barom Reacha I was slain in an elephant duel. The Khmer must have rallied and Lan Xang retreated, Setthathirath went missing near Attapeu. The Burmese and Lao Chronicles record only the presumption that he died in battle.[40]

Setthathirath's general Sen Soulintha returned to Vientiane with the remnants of the Lan Xang expedition. He fell under immediate suspicion, and a civil war raged in Vientiane as a succession dispute took place. In 1573, he emerged as king regent but lacked support. Upon hearing reports of the unrest, Bayinnaung dispatched emissaries demanding the immediate surrender of Lan Xang. Sen Soulintha had the emissaries killed.[41]

Bayinnaung invaded Vientiane in 1574, Sen Soulintha ordered the city to be evacuated but he lacked the support of the people and the army. Vientiane fell to the Burmese. Sen Soulintha was sent as a captive to Burma along with Setthathirath's heir Prince Nokeo Koumane.[42] A Burmese vassal, Chao Tha Heua, was left to administer Vientiane, but he would rule only four years. The First Taungoo Empire (1510–99) was established but faced internal rebellions. In 1580 Sen Soulintha returned as a Burmese vassal, and in 1581 Bayinnaung died with his son King Nanda Bayin in control of the Toungoo Empire. From 1583 to 1591 a civil war took place in Lan Xang.[43]

1593 Jan 1

Lan Xang Restored

Lan Xang Restored
King Naresuan army with war elephants entered an abandoned Bago, Burma in1600. ©Anonymous

Prince Nokeo Koumane had been held in the Taungoo court for sixteen years, and by 1591 was about twenty years old. The sangha in Lan Xang sent a mission to King Nandabayin asking for Nokeo Koumane to be returned to Lan Xang as a vassal king. In 1591 he was crowned in Vientiane, gathered an army and marched to Luang Prabang where he reunited the cities, declared Lan Xang independence and cast off any allegiance to the Toungoo Empire. King Nokeo Koumane then marched toward Muang Phuan and then to the central provinces reuniting all the former territories of Lan Xang.[44]

In 1593 King Nokeo Koumane launched an attack against Lanna and the Taungoo Prince Tharrawaddy Min. Tharrawaddy Min sought assistance from Burma, but rebellions throughout the empire prevented any support. In desperation a request was sent to the Burmese vassal in Ayutthaya King Naresuan. King Naresuan dispatched a large army and turned on Tharrawaddy Min, forcing the Burmese to accept Ayutthaya as independent and Lanna as a vassal kingdom. King Nokeo Koumane realized he was outnumbered by the combined strength of Ayutthaya and Lanna and called off the attack. In 1596, King Nokeo Koumane died suddenly and without an heir. Although he had united Lan Xang, and restored the kingdom to a point that it could repel an outside invasion, a succession dispute took place and a series of weak kings followed until 1637.[44]

1637 Jan 1 - 1694

Golden Age of Lan Xang

Golden Age of Lan Xang

Under the reign of King Sourigna Vongsa (1637–1694) Lan Xang experienced a fifty seven-year period of peace and restoration.[45] During the period the Lan Xang sangha was at the apex of power, drawing monks and nuns for religious study from throughout Southeast Asia. Literature, art, music, court dance experienced a revival. King Sourigna Vongsa revised many of the laws of Lan Xang and established judicial courts. He also concluded a series of treaties which established both trade agreements and boundaries between the surrounding kingdoms.[46]

In 1641, Gerritt van Wuysthoff with the Dutch East India Company made formal trade contacts with Lan Xang. Van Wuysthoff left detailed European accounts of trade goods, and established Company relations with Lan Xang via Longvek and the Mekong.[46]

When Sourigna Vongsa died in 1694, he left two young grandsons (Prince Kingkitsarat and Prince Inthasom) and two daughters (Princess Kumar and Princess Sumangala) with claims to the throne. A succession dispute took place where the king's nephew Prince Sai Ong Hue emerged; Sourigna Vongsa's grandsons fled into exile in Sipsong Panna and Princess Sumangala to Champasak. In 1705, Prince Kingkitsarat took a small force from his uncle in Sipsong Panna and marched toward Luang Prabang. Sai Ong Hue's brother, the governor of Luang Prabang, fled and Kingkitsarat was made crowned as a rival king in Luang Prabang. In 1707 Lan Xang was divided and the kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane emerged.

1707 - 1779
Regional kingdomsornament
Division of Lan Xang Kingdom

Beginning in 1707 the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang was partitioned into regional kingdoms of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and later Champasak (1713). The Kingdom of Vientiane was the strongest of the three, with Vientiane extending influence across the Khorat Plateau (now part of modern Thailand) and conflicting with the Kingdom of Luang Prabang for control of the Xieng Khouang Plateau (on the border of modern Vietnam).

The Kingdom of Luang Prabang was the first of the regional kingdoms to emerge in 1707, when King Xai Ong Hue of Lan Xang was challenged by Kingkitsarat, the grandson of Sourigna Vongsa. Xai Ong Hue and his family had sought asylum in Vietnam when they were exiled during the reign of Sourigna Vongsa. Xai Ong Hue gained the support of the Vietnamese Emperor Le Duy Hiep in exchange for recognition of Vietnamese suzerainty over Lan Xang. At the head of a Vietnamese army Xai Ong Hue attacked Vientiane and executed King Nantharat another claimant to the throne. In response Sourigna Vongsa’s grandson Kingkitsarat rebelled and moved with his own army from the Sipsong Panna toward Luang Prabang. Kingkitsarat then moved south to challenge Xai Ong Hue in Vientiane. Xai Ong Hue then turned toward the Kingdom of Ayutthaya for support, and an army was dispatched which rather than supporting Xai Ong Hue arbitrated the division between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

In 1713, the southern Lao nobility continued the rebellion against Xai Ong Hue under Nokasad, a nephew of Sourigna Vongsa, and the Kingdom of Champasak emerged. The Kingdom of Champasak comprised the area south of the Xe Bang River as far as Stung Treng together with the areas of the lower Mun and Chi rivers on the Khorat Plateau. Although less populous than either Luang Prabang or Vientiane, Champasak occupied an important position for regional power and international trade via the Mekong River.

Throughout the 1760s and 1770s the kingdoms of Siam and Burma competed against each other in a bitter armed rivalry, and sought out alliances with the Lao kingdoms to strengthen their relative positions by adding to their own forces and denying them to their enemy. As a result, the use of competing alliances would further militarize the conflict between the northerly Lao kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Between the two major Lao kingdoms if an alliance with one was sought by either Burma or Siam, the other would tend to support the remaining side. The network of alliances shifted with the political and military landscape throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century.

1778 Dec 1 - 1779 Mar

Siamese Invasion of Laos

Siamese Invasion of Laos
Taksin the Great ©Torboon Theppankulngam

Lao–Siamese War or the Siamese Invasion of Laos (1778–1779) is the military conflict between Thonburi Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) and the Lao kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak. The war resulted in all three Lao kingdoms of Luang Phrabang, Vientiane and Champasak becoming Siamese tributary vassal kingdoms under Siamese suzerainty and domination in Thonburi and the subsequent Rattanakosin Period.

By 1779 General Taksin had driven the Burmese from Siam, had overrun the Lao Kingdoms of Champasak and Vientiane, and forced Luang Prabang to accept vassalage (Luang Prabang had aided Siam during the siege of Vientiane). Traditional power relationships in Southeast Asia followed the Mandala model, warfare was waged to secure population centers for corvee labor, control regional trade, and confirm religious and secular authority by controlling potent Buddhist symbols (white elephants, important stupas, temples, and Buddha images). To legitimize the Thonburi Dynasty, General Taksin seized the Emerald Buddha and Phra Bang images from Vientiane. Taksin also demanded that the ruling elites of the Lao kingdoms and their royal families pledge vassalage to Siam in order to retain their regional autonomy in accordance with the Mandala model. In the traditional Mandala model, vassal kings retained their power to raise tax, discipline their own vassals, inflict capital punishment, and appoint their own officials. Only matters of war, and succession required approval from the suzerain. Vassals were also expected to provide annual tribute of gold and silver (traditionally modeled into trees), provide tax and tax in-kind, raise support armies in time of war, and provide corvee labor for state projects.

1826 Jan 1 - 1828

Lao Rebellion


The Lao Rebellion of 1826–1828 was an attempt by King Anouvong of the Kingdom of Vientiane to end the suzerainty of Siam and recreate the former kingdom of Lan Xang. In January 1827 the Lao armies of the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak moved south and west across the Khorat Plateau, advancing as far as Saraburi, just three days march from the Siamese capital of Bangkok. The Siamese mounted a counterattack to the north and east, forcing the Lao forces to retreat and ultimately taking the capital of Vientiane. Anouvong failed in both his attempt to resist Siamese encroachment, and to check the further political fragmentation among the Lao. The kingdom of Vientiane was abolished, its population was forcibly moved to Siam, and its former territories fell under the direct control of Siamese provincial administration. The kingdoms of Champasak and Lan Na were drawn more closely into the Siamese administrative system. The kingdom of Luang Prabang was weakened but allowed the most regional autonomy. In its expansion into the Lao states, Siam overextended itself. The rebellion was a direct cause of the Siamese-Vietnamese wars in the 1830s and 1840s. The slave raids and forced population transfers conducted by Siam led to a demographic disparity between the areas that would ultimately become Thailand and Laos, and facilitated the "civilizing mission" of the French into Lao areas during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

1865 Jan 1 - 1890

Haw Wars

Haw Wars
A soldier of the Black Flag Army, 1885 ©Charles-Édouard Hocquard

In the 1840s sporadic rebellions, slave raids, and movement of refugees throughout the areas that would become modern Laos left whole regions politically and militarily weak. In China the Qing Dynasty was pushing south to incorporate hill peoples into the central administration, at first floods of refugees and later bands of rebels from the Taiping Rebellion pushed into Lao lands. The rebel groups became known by their banners and included the Yellow (or Striped) Flags, Red Flags and the Black Flags. The bandit groups rampaged throughout the countryside, with little response from Siam.

During the early and mid-nineteenth century the first Lao Sung including the Hmong, Mien, Yao and other Sino-Tibetan groups began settling in the higher elevations of Phongsali province and northeast Laos. The influx of immigration was facilitated by the same political weakness which had given shelter to the Haw bandits and left large depopulated areas throughout Laos.

By the 1860s the first French explorers were pushing north charting the path of the Mekong River, with hope of a navigable waterway to southern China. Among the early French explorers was an expedition led by Francis Garnier, who was killed during an expedition by Haw rebels in Tonkin. The French would increasingly conduct military campaigns against the Haw in both Laos and Vietnam (Tonkin) until the 1880s.[47]

1893 - 1953
Colonial Periodornament
1893 Jul 13

French Conquest of Laos

French Conquest of Laos
Cover page of L'Illustration depicting events of the Paknam Incident.

French colonial interests in Laos began with the exploratory missions of Doudart de Lagree and Francis Garnier during the 1860s. France hoped to utilize the Mekong River as a route to southern China. Although the Mekong is unnavigable due to a number of rapids, the hope was that the river might be tamed with the help of French engineering and a combination of railways. In 1886, Britain secured the right to appoint a representative in Chiang Mai, in northern Siam. To counter British control in Burma and growing influence in Siam, that same year France sought to establish representation in Luang Prabang, and dispatched Auguste Pavie to secure French interests.

Pavie and French auxiliaries arrived in Luang Prabang in 1887 in time to witness an attack on Luang Prabang by Chinese and Tai bandits who hoped to liberate the brothers of their leader Đèo Văn Trị, who were being held prisoner by the Siamese. Pavie prevented the capture of the ailing King Oun Kham by ferrying him away from the burning city to safety. The incident won the gratitude of the king, provided an opportunity for France to gain control of the Sipsong Chu Thai as part of Tonkin in French Indochina, and demonstrated the weakness of the Siamese in Laos. In 1892, Pavie became Resident Minister in Bangkok, where he encouraged a French policy which first sought to deny or ignore Siamese sovereignty over Lao territories on the east bank of the Mekong, and secondly to suppress the slavery of upland Lao Theung and population transfers of Lao Loum by the Siamese as a prelude to establishing a protectorate in Laos. Siam reacted by denying French trading interests, which by 1893 had increasingly involved military posturing and gunboat diplomacy. France and Siam would position troops to deny each other's interests, resulting in a Siamese siege of Khong Island in the south and a series of attacks on French garrisons in the north. The result was the Paknam Incident of 13 July 1893, the Franco-Siamese War (1893) and the ultimate recognition of French territorial claims in Laos.

1893 Aug 1 - 1937

French Protectorate of Laos

French Protectorate of Laos
Local Lao soldiers in the French Colonial guard, c.1900

The French protectorate of Laos was a French protectorate of what is today Laos between 1893 and 1953 — with a brief interregnum as a Japanese puppet state in 1945 — which constituted part of French Indochina. It was established over the Siamese vassal, the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang, following the Franco-Siamese War in 1893. It was integrated into French Indochina and in the following years further Siamese vassals, the Principality of Phuan and Kingdom of Champasak, were annexed into it in 1899 and 1904, respectively. The protectorate of Luang Prabang was nominally under the rule of its King, but actual power lay with a local French Governor-General, who in turn reported to the Governor-General of French Indochina. The later annexed regions of Laos were, however, purely under French rule.

The French Protectorate of Laos established two (and at times three) administrative regions governed from Vietnam in 1893. It was not until 1899 that Laos became centrally administered by a single Resident Superieur based in Savannakhet, and later in Vientiane. The French chose to establish Vientiane as the colonial capital for two reasons, firstly it was more centrally located between the central provinces and Luang Prabang, and secondly the French were aware of the symbolic importance of rebuilding the former capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom which the Siamese had destroyed.

As part of French Indochina both Laos and Cambodia were seen as a source of raw materials and labor for the more important holdings in Vietnam. French colonial presence in Laos was light; the Resident Superieur was responsible for all colonial administration from taxation to justice and public works. The French maintained a military presence in the colonial capital under the Garde Indigene made up of Vietnamese soldiers under a French commander. In important provincial cities like Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakse there would be an assistant resident, police, paymaster, postmaster, schoolteacher and a doctor. Vietnamese filled most upper level and mid-level positions within the bureaucracy, with Lao being employed as junior clerks, translators, kitchen staff and general laborers. Villages remained under the traditional authority of the local headmen or chao muang. Throughout the colonial administration in Laos the French presence never amounted to more than a few thousand Europeans. The French concentrated on the development of infrastructure, the abolition of slavery and indentured servitude (although corvee labor was still in effect), trade including opium production, and most importantly the collection of taxes.

Under the French rule, the Vietnamese were encouraged to migrate to Laos, which was seen by the French colonists as a rational solution to a practical problem within the confines of an Indochina-wide colonial space.[48] By 1943, the Vietnamese population stood at nearly 40,000, forming the majority in the largest cities of Laos and enjoying the right to elect their own leaders.[49] As a result, 53% of the population of Vientiane, 85% of Thakhek and 62% of Pakse were Vietnamese, with only an exception of Luang Phrabang where the population was predominantly Lao.[49] As late as 1945, the French even drew up an ambitious plan to move massive Vietnamese population to three key areas, i.e. the Vientiane Plain, Savannakhet region, Bolaven Plateau, which was only discarded by Japanese invasion of Indochina.[49] Otherwise, according to Martin Stuart-Fox, the Lao might well have lost control over their own country.[49]

The Lao response to French colonialism was mixed, although the French were viewed as preferable to the Siamese by the nobility, the majority of Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Sung were burdened by regressive taxes and demands for corvee labor to establish colonial outposts. In 1914, the Tai Lu king had fled to the Chinese portions of the Sipsong Panna, where he began a two-year guerilla campaign against the French in northern Laos, which required three military expeditions to suppress and resulted in direct French control of Muang Sing.

By 1920 the majority of French Laos was at peace and colonial order had been established. In 1928, the first school for the training of Lao civil servants was established, and allowed for the upward mobility of Lao to fill positions occupied by the Vietnamese. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s France attempted to implement Western, particularly French, education, modern healthcare and medicine, and public works with mixed success. The budget for colonial Laos was secondary to Hanoi, and the worldwide Great Depression further restricted funds. It was also in the 1920s and 1930s that the first strings of Lao nationalist identity emerged due to the work of Prince Phetsarath Rattanavongsa and the French Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient to restore ancient monuments, temples, and conduct general research into Lao history, literature, art and architecture.

1939 Jan 1 - 1945

Laos during World War II


Developing Lao national identity gained importance in 1938 with the rise of the ultranationalist prime minister Phibunsongkhram in Bangkok. Phibunsongkhram renamed Siam to Thailand, a name change which was part of a larger political movement to unify all Tai peoples under the central Thai of Bangkok. The French viewed these developments with alarm, but the Vichy Government was diverted by events in Europe and World War II. Despite a non-aggression treaty signed in June 1940, Thailand took advantage of the French position and initiated the Franco-Thai War. The war concluded unfavorably for Lao interests with the Treaty of Tokyo, and the loss of trans-Mekong territories of Xainyaburi and part of Champasak. The result was Lao distrust of the French and the first overtly national cultural movement in Laos, which was in the odd position of having limited French support. Charles Rochet the French Director of Public Education in Vientiane, and Lao intellectuals led by Nyuy Aphai and Katay Don Sasorith began the Movement for National Renovation.

Yet the wider impact of World War II had little effect on Laos until February 1945, when a detachment from the Japanese Imperial Army moved into Xieng Khouang. The Japanese preempted that the Vichy administration of French Indochina under Admiral Decoux would be replaced by a representative of the Free French loyal to Charles DeGaulle and initiated Operation Meigo ("bright moon"). The Japanese succeeded in the internment of the French living in Vietnam and Cambodia. French control in Laos had been sidelined.

1945 Jan 1 - 1953 Oct 22

Lao Issara & Independence

Lao Issara  & Independence
Captured French soldiers, escorted by Vietnamese troops, walk to a prisoner-of-war camp in Dien Bien Phu.

1945 was a watershed year in the history of Laos. Under Japanese pressure, King Sisavangvong declared independence in April. The move allowed the various independence movements in Laos including the Lao Seri and Lao Pen Lao to coalesce into the Lao Issara or “Free Lao” movement which was led by Prince Phetsarath and opposed the return of Laos to the French. The Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945 emboldened pro-French factions and Prince Phetsarath was dismissed by King Sisavangvong. Undeterred Prince Phetsarath staged a coup in September and placed the royal family in Luang Prabang under house arrest. On 12 October 1945 the Lao Issara government was declared under the civil administration of Prince Phetsarath. In the next six months the French rallied against the Lao Issara and were able to reassert control over Indochina in April 1946. The Lao Issara government fled to Thailand, where they maintained opposition to the French until 1949, when the group split over questions regarding relations with the Vietminh and the communist Pathet Lao was formed. With the Lao Issara in exile, in August 1946 France instituted a constitutional monarchy in Laos headed by King Sisavangvong, and Thailand agreed to return territories seized during the Franco-Thai War in exchange for a representation at the United Nations. The Franco-Lao General Convention of 1949 provided most members of the Lao Issara with a negotiated amnesty and sought appeasement by establishing the Kingdom of Laos a quasi-independent constitutional monarchy within the French Union. In 1950, additional powers were granted to the Royal Lao Government including training and assistance for a national army. On October 22, 1953, the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association transferred remaining French powers to the independent Royal Lao Government. By 1954 the defeat at Dien Bien Phu brought eight years of fighting with the Vietminh, during the First Indochinese War, to an end and France abandoned all claims to the colonies of Indochina.[50]

1959 May 23 - 1975 Dec 2

Laotian Civil War

Laotian Civil War
Anti-aircraft troops of the Laotian Peoples Liberation Army.

The Laotian Civil War (1959–1975) was a civil war in Laos waged between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government from 23 May 1959 to 2 December 1975. It is associated with the Cambodian Civil War and the Vietnam War, with both sides receiving heavy external support in a proxy war between the global Cold War superpowers. It is called the Secret War among the American CIA Special Activities Center, and Hmong and Mien veterans of the conflict.[51] The following years were marked by a rivalry between the neutralists under Prince Souvanna Phouma, the right wing under Prince Boun Oum of Champassak, and the left-wing Lao Patriotic Front under Prince Souphanouvong and half-Vietnamese future Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane. Several attempts were made to establish coalition governments, and a "tri-coalition" government was finally seated in Vientiane.

The fighting in Laos involved the North Vietnamese Army, U.S. troops and Thai forces and South Vietnamese army forces directly and through irregular proxies in a struggle for control over the Laotian Panhandle. The North Vietnamese Army occupied the area to use for its Ho Chi Minh Trail supply corridor and as a staging area for offensives into South Vietnam. There was a second major theater of action on and near the northern Plain of Jars. The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao eventually emerged victorious in 1975 in the slipstream of the victory of the North Vietnamese army and the South Vietnamese Vietcong in the Vietnam War. A total of up to 300,000 people from Laos fled to neighbouring Thailand following the Pathet Lao takeover.[52]

After the communists took power in Laos, Hmong rebels fought the new government. The Hmong were persecuted as traitors and "lackeys" of the Americans, with the government and its Vietnamese allies carrying out human rights abuses against Hmong civilians. The incipient conflict between Vietnam and China also played a role with Hmong rebels being accused of receiving support from China. Over 40,000 people died in the conflict.[53] The Lao royal family were arrested by the Pathet Lao after the war and sent to labor camps, where most of them died in the late 1970s and 1980s, including King Savang Vatthana, Queen Khamphoui and Crown Prince Vong Savang.

1975 - 1991
Communist Laosornament
1975 Jan 1 - 1991

Communist Laos

Communist Laos
Laos leader Kaysone Phomvihane meeting legendary vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap.

In December 1975, there was a sharp change in policy. A joint meeting of the government and the Consultative Council was held, at which Suphānuvong demanded immediate change. There was no resistance. On 2 December the King agreed to abdicate, and Suvannaphūmā resigned. The Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed with Suphānuvong as President. Kaisôn Phomvihān emerged from the shadows to become Prime Minister and the real ruler of the country. Kaisôn immediately began the process of establishing the new republic as a one-party communist state.[54]

No more was heard of elections or political freedoms: non-communist newspapers were closed, and a large-scale purge of the civil service, army and police was launched. Thousands were dispatched for "re-education" in remote parts of the country, where many died and many more were kept for up to ten years. This prompted a renewed flight from the country. Many of the professional and intellectual class, who had initially been willing to work for the new regime, changed their minds and left - a much easier thing to do from Laos than from either Vietnam or Cambodia. By 1977, 10 percent of the population had left the country, including most of the business and educated classes.

The leadership group of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party had hardly changed since the party's foundation, and did not change significantly during its first decade in power. Real power in the party rested with four men: General Secretary Kaisôn, his trusted deputy and economics chief Nuhak Phumsavan (both from humble origins in Savannakhet), planning minister Sālī Vongkhamxao (who died in 1991) and the Army commander and security chief Khamtai Siphandôn. The party's French-educated intellectuals - President Souphanavong and education and propaganda minister Phumi Vongvichit - were more widely seen in public and were Politburo members, but not part of the inner group.

The public policy of the party was to "advance, step by step, to socialism, without going through the stage of capitalist development." This objective made a virtue of necessity: there was no chance of Laos having a "stage of capitalist development" while 90 percent of its population were subsistence farmers, and no chance of an orthodox Marxist path to socialism via a working class revolution in a country which had no industrial working class. The policies of Vietnam led to the economic isolation of Laos from all its neighbours which in turn led to its total dependence on Vietnam.

For Kaisôn the path to socialism lay in emulating first the Vietnamese and then the Soviet models. "Socialist relations of production" must be introduced, and this, in an agricultural country, meant primarily the collectivisation of agriculture. All land was declared to be state property, and individual farms were merged into large-scale "co-operatives." The means of production - which in Laos meant buffalo and wooden ploughs - were to be owned collectively. By the end of 1978 most of the lowland Lao rice-growers had been subjected to collectivisation.

As a result, state food procurements fell sharply, and this, coupled with the cutoff of American aid, postwar cutback of Vietnamese/Soviet aid and the virtual disappearance of imported goods, produced shortages, unemployment and economic hardship in the towns. Matters were made worse in 1979 when the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and subsequent Sino-Vietnamese War, resulted in the Lao government being ordered by Vietnam to break off relations with China, ending another source of foreign assistance and trade.

In mid-1979 the government, apparently at the urging of Soviet advisors who feared that the communist regime was on the point of collapse, announced a sudden reversal of policy. Kaisôn, a lifelong communist, showed himself to be a more flexible leader than many had expected. In a major speech in December, he admitted that Laos was not ready for socialism. Kaisôn's model was not Lenin, however, but China's Deng Xiaoping, who at this time was starting the free-market reforms that laid the foundation for China's subsequent economic growth. Collectivisation was abandoned, and farmers were told that they were free to leave the "co-operative" farms, which virtually all of them promptly did, and to sell their surplus grain on the free market. Other liberalisations followed. Restrictions on internal movement were lifted, and cultural policy relaxed. As in China, however, there was no relaxation of the party's grip on political power.

Laos struck out ahead of Vietnam with its New Economic Mechanism to introduce market mechanisms into its economy.[55] In so doing, Laos has opened the door to rapprochement with Thailand and Russia at some expense to its special dependence on Vietnam.[55] Laos might have reached the same point of normalisation in following Vietnam's economic and diplomatic change, but by moving ahead resolutely and responding to Thai and Russian gestures, Laos has broadened its range of donors, trading partners, and investors independent of Vietnam's attempts to accomplish the same goal.[55] Thus, Vietnam remains in the shadows as a mentor and emergency ally, and the tutelage of Laos has shifted dramatically to development banks and international entrepreneurs.[55]

1991 Jan 1

Contemporary Laos

Contemporary Laos
Today Laos is a popular tourist destination, with the cultural and religious glories of Luang Phrabāng (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) being particularly popular.

The abandonment of agricultural collectivization and the end of totalitarianism brought with them new problems, which grew worse the longer the communist party enjoyed a monopoly of power. These included increasing corruption and nepotism (a traditional feature of Lao political life), as ideological commitment faded and self-interest arose to replace it as the major motivation for seeking and holding office. The economic benefits of economic liberalisation were also slow to emerge.

Unlike China, Laos did not have the potential for rapid economic growth through free market mechanisms in agriculture and the fostering of export-driven low-wage manufacturing. This was partly because Laos was a small, poor, landlocked country while China had the advantage of decades more communist development. As a result, the Lao farmers, most living at little more than subsistence level, could not generate the surpluses, even given economic incentives, that the Chinese peasants could and did after Deng's decollectivisation of agriculture.

Cut off from educational opportunities in the west, many young Lao were dispatched for higher education in Vietnam, the Soviet Union or eastern Europe, but even crash education courses took time to produce trained teachers, engineers and doctors. In any case, the standard of training in some cases was not high, and many of the Lao students lacked the language skills to understand what they were being taught. Today many of these Lao regard themselves as a "lost generation" and have had to gain new qualifications at western standards to be able to find employment.

By the mid-1980s relations with China had begun to thaw as Chinese anger at Lao support for Vietnam in 1979 faded and Vietnamese power within Laos diminished. With the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, which began in 1989 and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, came a profound shock to the Lao communist leaders. Ideologically, it did not suggest to the Lao leaders that there was anything fundamentally wrong with socialism as an idea, but it confirmed for them the wisdom of the concessions in economic policy they had made since 1979. Aid was cut off completely in 1990, creating a renewed economic crisis. Laos was forced to ask France and Japan for emergency assistance, and also to ask the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for aid. Finally, in 1989, Kaisôn visited Beijing to confirm the restoration of friendly relations, and to secure Chinese aid. In the 1990s the old guard of Lao communism passed from the scene.

Since the 1990s the dominant factor in the Lao economy has been the spectacular growth in the South-East Asian region, and particularly in Thailand. To take advantage of this, the Lao government lifted virtually all restrictions on foreign trade and investment, allowing Thai and other foreign firms to set up and trade freely in the country. Lao and Chinese exiles were also encouraged to return to Laos, and to bring their money with them. Many did so - today a member of the former Lao royal family, Princess Manilai, owns a hotel and health resort in Luang Phrabāng, while some of the old Lao elite families, such as the Inthavongs, again operate (if not live) in the country.

Since the reforms of the 1980s, Laos has achieved sustained growth, averaging six percent a year since 1988, except during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. But subsistence agriculture still accounts for half of GDP and provides 80 percent of total employment. Much of the private sector is controlled by Thai and Chinese companies, and indeed Laos has to some extent become an economic and cultural colony of Thailand, a source of some resentment among Lao. Laos is still heavily dependent on foreign aid, but Thailand's ongoing expansion has increased demand for timber and hydroelectricity, Laos's only major export commodities. Recently Laos has normalised its trade relations with the US, but this has yet to produce any major benefits. The European Union has provided funds to enable Laos to meet membership requirements for the World Trade Organization. A major hurdle is the Lao kip, which is still not an officially convertible currency.

The communist party retains a monopoly of political power, but leaves the operation of the economy to market forces, and does not interfere in the daily lives of the Lao people provided they do not challenge its rule. Attempts to police the religious, cultural, economic and sexual activities of the people have been largely abandoned, although Christian evangelism is officially discouraged. The media is state controlled, but most Lao have free access to Thai radio and television (Thai and Lao are mutually comprehensible languages), which gives them news from the outside world. Modestly censored Internet access is available in most towns. Lao are also fairly free to travel to Thailand, and indeed illegal Lao immigration to Thailand is a problem for the Thai government. Those who challenge the communist regime, however, receive harsh treatment. For the time being most Lao seem content with the personal freedom and modest prosperity they have enjoyed over the past decade.


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