Sidebar 10 – Kong Le: Super Hero or Super Villain?

Kong Le is probably the least understood and most misunderstood character of the Laotian Civil War. As a Captain in the Royal Laotian Army, he led a coup d’état against the Royal Laotian Government. When a counter-coup “ousted” him, he took his forces and joined with the Pathet Lao… only to flip-flopped sides, and rejoined forces with the Royal Laotian Army… all within a period of about three years.

Kong Le – The Asian Napoleon? – A Super-Hero or Super Villan

Kong Le was born to a farmer. His father was a “Kha,” and his mother was Lao. The Kha were an ethnic minority and, at the time, considered the lowest on the “totem pole.” (Kha means slave.) Kong Le took over the “family business” when his father died… he was only six years old… or perhaps ten, depending on the source.

At 17, he joined the French Army to fight against the Viet Minh. After the French were defeated, he transferred to the Royal Lao Army. There he caught the attention of American advisors. He showed promise as a leader and was sent to Ranger school in the Philipines. He excelled at ambush and guerilla operations.

Back in Laos, Kong Le was promoted and became a leader of a “crack” Parachute Battalion. His battalion was used in an attempt to curb the Pathet Lao’s activity. The battalion was under-supplied, under-armed, and rarely paid. The United States was sending in arms, munitions supplies, and money for the Royal Lao Army. That US support should have been available to Kong Le and his troops. But corruption was rampant within the government. Military generals and government leaders were using foreign aid to line their own pockets.

Finally, Kong Le and his troops had enough. On 10 Aug 60, Kong Le let his parachute battalion into Vientiane and seized power. It was a nearly bloodless coup d’état. Only six were killed. It’s important to note that the arms Kong Le’s forces used were US weapons.

Kong Le, 1960. Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma in the background. The strings tied around Kong Le’s right wrist were to protect him from “spirits” and prevent him from harm.

Kong Le was a “neutralist.” He wanted all foreign interference and the corruption it brought gone from Laos. He believed the ongoing Civil War was caused by foreign intervention and wanted to stop all the “infighting.”. He especially blamed the United States “aid” because of the corruption it was causing and wanted the United States out. As a Neutralist, Kong Le proclaimed:

“I am for Laos and the Lao people, for honesty and purity, and against corruption”

“This fratricidal fighting among Laotians must cease!” 

Kong Le as reported in Time, 22 Aug 60

Kong Le accused that the Prime Minister at the time, Somsanith Vongkotrattana, had “exchanged our country for American Money” and wanted the U.S. military training mission out of the country. He also wanted the North Vietnamese out of the country’s affairs.

Kong Le wasn’t wrong. The government was corrupt, and outside interests were fueling the civil war. The United States supported the Royal Laotian Government to block Communist expansion while North Vietnam, along with their benefactors China, and Russia, supported the Pathet Lao to further their own interests.

When the coup succeeded, Kong Le did not name himself as the leader of the country. Instead, Souvanna Phouma was again installed as Prime Minister. Souvanna, who was in and out as prime minister four separate times from 1951-1975, was himself a Neutralist. Souvanna thought he could bring together a coalition government and, therefore, peace to Laos. He wanted to unify the country by “neutralizing” the government. This would mean that the Pathet Lao would have “a seat at the table.”

The U.S. Government (CIA, State Department, etc.) was concerned that with Souvanna as Prime Minister and the Pathet Lao allowed into the government, Laos would be lost to the “Reds.” Keep in mind, the “red scare” was still a great concern in the United States. (By today’s rhetoric, maybe it still is.)

Soon after Kong Le’s coup d’état, a sort of shadow government was formed in Savannakhet (Southern Laos) by General Phoumi Nosavan. General Phoumi, who had been the head of the Royal Lao Army at the time of the coup, was right-wing pro-western, and pro-American. The United States, still under President Eisenhower, immediately began to supply General Phoumi with arms and munitions to counter the new government. General Phoumi organized the “Committee Against the Coup d’état” and vowed to remove Kong Le from Vientiane. Note that General Phoumi had been Kong Le’s “boss” at the time of the coup, and Phoumi was not a happy general.

Interestingly, a 6 Dec 60, a CIA secret analysis of the situation predicted, “If Souvanna were to lose out and the anti-Pathet Lao government takes over, Kong Le would probably join the Pathet Lao.” The analysis suggested that a quick counter-coup victory was unlikely and that Laos was headed toward civil war.

However… a successful counter-coup a few days later is exactly what happened.

Having seen the “writing on the wall,” Prime Minister Souvanna fled to Cambodia on 9 Dec. On the next day, one of Souvanna’s ministers flew to Hanoi to conclude an agreement with the USSR to provide arms and supplies to Kong Le. All was arranged with the agreement that Kong Le would join forces with the Pathet Lao.

I don’t know if Kong Le himself had knowledge or agreed to this at the time. In any case, on 11 Dec, Russian aircraft landed at Watty airport with arms, munitions, supplies, and… six 105mm Howitzers. None in Kong Le’s nor the Pathet Lao’s soldiers knew how to operate the cannons, so they were manned by North Vietnamese troops. The Soviet Aircraft continued the build-up over the next days.

On 13 Dec, General Phoumi launched the counter-coup. After a short but fierce battle for the Capital of Vientiane, Kong Le and his forces withdrew to the Plain of Jars (PDJ). Between 15 Dec and 2 Jan, the Soviets made 184 airlifts to the PDJ in support of Kong Le. During this time, the Pathet Lao claimed to support the Neutralists against the “Right-Wing American stooges.”

Souvanna was out, and a new Prime Minister was in. General Phoumi was made head of the new armed forces.

Most sources agree that while Kong Le likely had Laos’s interests at heart, he was naive to the realities of the larger world. The Communists duped him into believing that they too wanted a neutral Laos. Not realizing that they were telling him what he wanted to hear, he joined forces with the Pathet Lao.

Laos continued in turmoil and intermittent fighting until another Geneva conference established a “new” “Neutralist” government, taking over in July 1962. The United States was one of fourteen nations signatory to the agreement. Once again, Right-wing General Phoumi was out, and Neutralist Souvanna was back in.

In November, Souvanna appointed Kong Le as head of the Neutralist Army. For the time being, the forces of all three factions (Right-wing, Neutralist, & Pathet Lao) were merged into one army. However, there were right-leaning Neutralists and left-leaning Neutralists. There was a series of assassinations in the early spring of 1963. Kong Le’s deputy was one of those killed. Other assignations followed. The Pathet Lao government ministers feared for their lives, causing them to flee Vientiane.

Sources seem to be all over the place on exactly when Kong Le split with the Pathet Lao and again sided with the Royal Laotian Government’s Right-Wing arm. New York Times or “Time” articles use weasel words like “before long” to describe the time frame when things happened. In this case, “before long” means sometime between July 1962 and March 1963.

So… “before long,” Kong Le made agreements for his Neutralist forces to be supplied by the United States. And “before long,” the left-leaning Neurtalists left Kong Le and joined forces with the Pathet Lao. And “before long,” Kong Le once again aligned with General Phoumi. And “before long,” the Pathet Lao / North Vietnamese began attacking Kong Le’s positions. Vang Pao’s forces were brought in to support Kong Le. In fact, the only thing that saved Kong Le’s position was the support provided by Vang Pao’s Hmong forces.

Kong Le (left) and Vang Pao (right) early 1960s

Pewwwwww! Like everything in Laos, turmoil prevailed throughout. Changing loyalties and infighting continued until outright civil war broke out again in 1963.

Somehow, by 1964 Kong Le emerged as some kind of superhero to the Lao people. His position of neutrality, demand to get rid of foreign interference, and anti-corruption stance brought him widespread support. Realizing he had been tricked into supporting the Pathet Lao, he also became staunchly anti-communist and anti-North Vietnam. At the time, he was quoted as saying:

The pro-Communist lackeys of North Vietnam evil policy is to make the Kingdom of Laos a new kind of colony of international Communism

May 23, 1964 New York Times Article, Man in the News; Key Laotian General; Kong Le

Many Laotians believed he was the return of the legendary (mythical) King Setthathirath. The belief was that when Vientiane was in trouble, King Setthathirath would return to save the day. The May 23, 1964, issue of the New York Times article said, “To them, Kong Le is 10 feet tall, rides a great white horse and is indefatigable, unbeatable and immortal.”

That New York Times article concluded with, “… he appears destined to play a major role for years to come.”

Some have likened Kong Le to an “Asian Napolean.” With many of the Lao people seeing him as Setthathirath, he likely saw himself as the Napolean for his country. He believed it was his destiny, and the spirits were giving him signs. He told of being given confidence when he saw an omen: it was raining lightly and unexpectedly saw a frog swallow a snake! Perhaps he believed it meant he was the frog and the snake was the corruption and foreign interference he sought to eliminate. Personally, I suspect it was opium… the one cash crop of Laos.

Despite his notoriety and popularity in 1964, his successes were short-lived. While he was an excellent small unit field commander, he didn’t fare well as a self-appointed General at the head of the “Neutralist” army. When things were going well, he was upfront, “leading the charge.” When battles weren’t going well, he would excuse himself with migraine headaches. There were also occasions where he “retired” from battles to serve as a Buddhist monk.

His shortcomings as a General led to distrust and discontent among his subordinate commanders. The “Neutralist” army began to divide into pro-Pather Lao and pro-Right Wing supporters. Four battalions broke off, calling themselves the Patriotic Neutralists, and joined forces with the Pathet Lao.

As things degenerated, battalions began to mutiny in protest to Kong Le’s leadership. By late summer, 1966, he had lost the confidence and support of most of his officers. After some infighting, three of his officers rose to the top and took control of the remnants of Kong Le’s Neutralist army. Kong Le fearing his life was in danger, took refuge in the Indonesian embassy in Vientiane. On 17 October 1966, he left Laos. He spent the rest of his life in exile, living in the United States for a while and then France.

I think there is no doubt that Kong Le truly had Laos’s best interests at the core of his beliefs. Unfortunately, he was an idealist. His lack of political savvy in the government and lack of effective leadership at the military’s highest levels failed to bring about his dream of a Laos free from foreign intervention.

kongle-portrait

Upon his death, in January 2014, an article in New Mandala said of him,

“Kong Le went from soldiering to politics, only to discover that he was no politician; being a patriot was not enough to save his country from itself.

The spirit and the dream continued while history took another path. May his spirit rest in peace while his dream lives on.”

New Mandala- The colonel from Savannakhet – 24 Jan 2014

So… was Kong Le a Super-Hero or Super-Viillain ? You be the judge.

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