Laos traces its first recorded history and its origins as a unified
state to the emergence of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (literally, "million
elephants") in 1353. Under the rule of King Fa Ngum, the wealthy and mighty
kingdom covered much of what today is Thailand and Laos. His successors,
especially King Setthathirat in the 16th century, helped establish Buddhism
as the predominant religion of the country.
By the 17th century, the kingdom of Lan Xang entered a period of decline
marked by dynastic struggle and conflicts with its neighbors. In the late
18th century, the Siamese (Thai) established hegemony over much of what
is now Laos. The region was divided into principalities centered on Luang
Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south.
Following their colonization of Vietnam, the French supplanted the Siamese
and began to integrate all of Laos into the French empire. The Franco-Siamese
treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, including
Laos. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang was induced to declare independence
from France in 1945, just prior to Japan's surrender. During this period,
nationalist sentiment grew. In September 1945, Vientiane and Champassak
united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free
Laos (Lao Issara) banner. The movement, however, was short-lived. By early
1946, French troops reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy
on Laos following elections for a constituent assembly.
During the first Indochina war between France and the communist movement
in Vietnam, Prince Souphanouvong formed the Pathet Lao (Land of Laos) resistance
organization committed to the communist struggle against colonialism. Laos
was not granted full sovereignty until the French defeat by the Vietnamese
and the subsequent Geneva peace conference in 1954. Elections were held
in 1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma,
was formed in 1957. The coalition government collapsed in 1958, amidst
increased polarization of the political process. Rightist forces took over
In 1960, Kong Le, a paratroop captain, seized Vientiane in a coup and
demanded the formation of a neutralist government to end the fighting.
The neutralist government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not successful
in holding power. Rightist forces under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan drove it from
power later that same year. Subsequently, the neutralists allied themselves
with the communist insurgents and began to receive support from the Soviet
Union. Phoumi Nosavan's rightist regime received support from the U.S.
A second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for the independence
and neutrality of Laos. Soon after accord was reached, the signatories
accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement, and with superpower
support on both sides, the civil war soon resumed. Although it was to be
neutral, a growing American and North Vietnamese military presence in the
country increasingly drew Laos into the second Indochina war (1954-75).
For nearly a decade, Laos was subjected to extremely heavy bombing as the
U.S. sought to destroy the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed
through eastern Laos.
In 1972, the communist People's Party renamed itself the Lao People's
Revolutionary Party (LPRP). It joined a new coalition government in Laos
soon after the Vientiane cease-fire agreement in 1973. Nonetheless, the
political struggle between communists, neutralists, and rightists continued.
The fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to communist forces in April 1975 hastened
the decline of the coalition in Laos. Months after these communist victories,
the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane. On December 2, 1975, the king abdicated
his throne in the constitutional monarchy, and the communist Lao People's
Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.
The new communist government imposed centralized economic decision-making
and broad security measures, including control of the media and the arrest
and incarceration of many members of the previous government and military
in "re-education camps." These draconian policies and deteriorating economic
conditions, along with government efforts to enforce political control,
prompted an exodus of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. About 10%
of the Lao population sought refugee status after 1975, many of whom resettled
in third countries, including the United States. From 1975 to 1996, the
U.S. resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000
Over time, the Lao Government closed the re-education camps and released
most political prisoners. By the end of 1999, more than 28,900 Hmong and
lowland Lao had voluntarily repatriated to Laos--3,500 from China and the
rest from Thailand. Through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM),
and non-governmental organizations, the U.S. has supported a variety of
reintegration assistance programs throughout Laos. UNHCR monitored returnees
for a number of years and reported no evidence of systemic persecution
or discrimination against returnees per se. UNHCR closed its Laos office
at the end of 2001.