Sidebar 1: The Pathet Lao

Who were these Pathet Lao guys?

The answer to “who were these guys” has filled many CHECO papers, war college graduate thesis’ of many military officers, and several books written on the subject. I’m not sure anyone of those works has completely answered the questions. So… it make perfect sense that I’m going to try to give at least a little understanding in a 1,000 words or less. (I hated those 1,000 word essays back in school, didn’t you. Now I’m writing them.)

It starts out like some kind of fairy tale;

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Laos there were three young princes. Each prince wanted to take control of his domain, known as The Land of a Million Elephants. Each prince had his own plan for the country.

Really… there were three princes that wanted to run the country. Here’s where the confusion begins… there was a King. Actually there were two kings. The first king sorta ruled from 1904 to 1959… and the second from 1959 till the Pathet Lao took over in 1975. I say, “sorta ruled” because as you will see, he really didn’t have much power.

The first king was quite a lover. He had a harem of wives… maybe 15. They bore him over 50 children. Yes indeed, quite a lover. After his death, his first son by his first wife became the second king. With me so far?

Then there were the three princes. I’m not sure where these princes came from… probably other sons by other wives. Much of the confusion for us Westerners comes from the phonetic spelling of their names. There are differing spellings, they end up long, often look quite similar, and are hard to pronounce. The main princes involved were named: Prince Souphanouvong, Prince Souvanna Phouma, and Prince Boun Oum Na Champasak. To make it just a little more complicated, there was a fourth prince involved early on; Prince Chao Maha Oupahat Petsarath Ratanavongsa.

I have a headache from trying to read all that. And I’ll never get the spelling right as I go along. So… meaning no disrespect, I’m going to use a little short hand.

  • Prince Souphanouvong  = Soup
  • Prince Souvanna Phouma = Savana
  • Prince Boun Oum Na Champasak = Champ
  • Prince Chao Maha Oupahat Petsarath Ratanavongsa = Ravioli
  • King 1904 – 1959, Sisavang Vong = Vong
  • King Oct ’59 – Dec ’75 Sisavang Vatthana  = Hana

A couple of notes here. Laotian names are family name first and given name second. If that holds for all the princes, they all had different family names. Second, King Vong was only the King of Laos from Oct 1949 on. Before that he was King of Luang Phrabang, one of the three Kingdoms that made up the country of Laos. There were several other princes that came in and out, but they were minor players so I’m leaving them out at least for now.

It’s already muddy, and I’ve barely begun.

The problems started long before World War II, but that’s where I’m going to start for brevity. Before the war, the French, allowed the figurehead King to remain, but they really ran the place until the Japanese invaded. (Remember the Bridge over the River Kwai).

The Japanese allowed the king to remain, but they then ruled by brutality and intimidation until the end of WWII. They publicly tortured and killed the existing leaders or anyone who opposed them. They even imprisoned King Vong for a while. Although King Vong was a strong supporter of the French (after all, they installed him on the throne), the Japanese forced the him to denounce French rule.

I’m pretty sure Soup was taking notes on the Japanese brutality… notes and lessons he would take with him in the Civil War to come.

Following the end of WWII, the French came back to reclaim their “protectorate”… all of Indochina. King Vong welcomed the French back. However, the princes (Soup, Savana, Champ and Ravioli) formed the “Lao Issara” (Free Laos). The group was made up of mostly princes and educated elite of the country. Their goal of was freedom from France. Free Laos proclaimed itself to be the “official” government of Laos in late 1945.

Getting rid of France was about the only thing members of Free Laos agreed on. They soon fell apart, the French came back to assume control, and most Free Laos members went back to the existing government. Depending on who is telling the story, before the Free Laos dissolved, Prince Soup was either expelled, or left on his own over disagreements. Soup wanted to collaborate with the Vietnamese Communist Vietminh and was a strong supporter of Uncle Ho.

Soup & Uncle Ho
Soup and Uncle Ho.

Soup went to Vietnam along with a few dozen followers who were all dissatisfied with the developments in Laos. They were given training and support by the Vietminh. By 1950 Soup and his followers formed as the “Pathet Lao.” They were dedicated to fighting against French Imperialism. At the time, Soup along with others who formed the Pathet Lao, wanted to get rid of the monarchy.

Later, when the Pathet Lao fully was established, Soup announced it was his goal for Laos to become a Communist country. Based on his collaboration with Uncle Ho, I suspect it had always been his goal. 

I should note here that a few sources (including places on Wikipedia) indicate the “Laos Issara” group was the basis of the formation of the Pathet Lao. I’m reasonably sure this is not correct. It was Soup and his small band of followers that formed the Pathet Lao.

Early on, the Pathet Lao weren’t much of a force. They fought minor skirmishes against the French along the border between Vietnam and Laos.But that was about it. It wasn’t until 1953 when the Vietnamese army (Vietminh) and the Pathet Lao attacked into Laos. They took over the town of Sam Neua and the surrounding province of Houaphen.  Sam Neua and the province became the headquarters of the Pathet Lao and remained so until they took over the country on 2 Dec 1975.

I should mention here, that there were very few Pathet Lao in the force that took over Sam Neua and Houaphen. It was primarily the Vietminh that provided the fighting army. The Vietminh, subsequently the NVA, would provide the majority of the fighting force for the Pathet Lao all they way to 2 Dec 1975.

From the early beginnings, the Pathet Lao (always with large NVA support), waged the Civil War for the next two decades… first against the Royal Laotian forces and then against the forces backed by the CIA and US Military. They showed a dedication and ruthlessness like the Japanese had demonstrated during World War II.

Ultimately, when the US withdrew their CIA, Air America and Military support of the Royal Laotians, the Pathet Lao achieved all of their goals