Capital : Vientiane
Size: 91 000 sq m Popn: 4 469 000
The original inhabitants of the area were southeast Asian tribal groups and there was a migration of people from China in the C4th and 5th. During the C7-11th, Laos came under Indian influence and adopted the Buddhist religion. From the C11-13th, it was part of the Khmer Empire and there were many artistic and architectural advances. The Lao invaded from Thailand from the C12th, establishing small independent kingdoms and becoming Buddhist. Laos became an independent kingdom in the C14th.
It was first visited by Europeans in the C17th and became a French protectorate from 1893-1945. There was a brief occupation by Japan but France regained control in 1946 despite opposition from the Lao Issara (Free Laos) nationalist movement which had Chinese backing. Laos became semi-autonomous in 1950 as an associated state of the French Union under the constitutional monarchy of the king of Luang Prabang, a Buddhist religious centre on the Mekong River. It gained full independence after the Geneva Agreement of 1954 but civil war broke out between two factions of Lao Issara supporters. The moderate, royalist-neutralists under Prince Souvanna Phouma had supported the French compromise of 1950 and were recognised as the government for most of the country. Much of North Laos was controlled by the more extreme communist group, the Pathet Lao (land of the Lao) led by ex-Prince Souphanouvong, half-brother of Prince Souvanna.
After the 1957 Vientiane Agreement, a coalition government was established but it soon collapsed and in 1960 a third, right-wing force emerged when General Phoumi Nosavan overthrew Souvanna with the backing of the royal army and set up a pro-Western government headed by Prince Boun Gum. A new Geneva Agreement in 1962 established a tripartite government under Prince Souvanna but fighting continued between the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao and the US-backed neutralists and right wing. A massive aerial bombardment by the US ended with a ceasefire established by the 1973 Vientiane Agreement which divided the country along a line from the northwest to southeast. The communists had two thirds of the land but the Souvanna Phouma government controlled two thirds of the population. All foreign forces were to be withdrawn and the two sides were equally represented in the provisional government of 1974.
In 1975, the Pathet Lao, renamed the Lao People's Front, seized power and King Savang Vatthana, who had succeeded in 1959, abdicated. Laos became a People's Democratic Republic with Prince Souphanouvong as president and Kaysone Phomvihane as prime minister and communist party leader. The latter was the real controlling force although Prince Souvanna remained as an 'advisor' to the government. The economy was weak and damaged by war and attempts to set up a socialist system of nationalized industry and collective agriculture led to food shortages. Over 250,000 people fled to Thailand and in 1979, the government modified its approach, introducing production incentives and allowing greater scope for a private sector. After 1985, the prompting of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev led to further liberalization and a new profit-related Socialist Business Accounting System was adopted. In 1986, Phoumi Vongvichit became acting president as Souphanouvong's health failed. Multi-party elections, the first since 1975, were held in 1989 with the communists retaining political control. Kaysone Phomvihane became president in 1991 and called for the faster replacement of agricultural co-operatives with private farms. A new constitution was endorsed by the supreme people's assembly in August and General Khamtay Siphandon, former vice-premier and defence minister, became prime minister.
In its foreign relations, Laos had close ties with the USSR and re-established links with China in 1989 after a ten-year gap. In November 1991, the USA upgraded its diplomatic representative in Laos to ambassador for the first time since the communists came to power. From 1988, when there was a serious border skirmish, relations with Thailand, particularly commercial ties, improved but Laos remained closely linked to Vietnam.
This collection of names was compiled by Kate Monk and is ©1997, Kate Monk.
Copies may be made for personal use only.
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