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Last updated : Nov 2009
Laos History
Laos History - TravelPuppy.com
The Chinese from the north occupied Laos in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. It was subject to strong laosian influence from the 8th century and beyond and subsequently adopted Buddhism. Laos was part of the Khmer Angkor Empire for over 200 years from the beginning of the 11th century. It was during that time that the Laotian, who originated in Thailand, took over the area and replaced the dominant Chinese. However, some evidence exists that the Mongol empire had some influence over what happened in the region in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, likely in alliance with the Angkor kingdom.

After the fall of the Khmer empire, the uncontrolled kingdom of Lan Xang, which dates back to 1349, was set up as a single entity bordered by China to the north, Siam (Thailand) to the south, Vietnam and the Mekong river, invading almost the same territory as modern-day Laos.

Populated by a mixture of ethnic Laos, Thais and varied hill tribes, the Lan Xang Empire lasted for three hundred years while defending against successive invasions from Vietnam, Siam (Thailand) and Burma. Its neighbours took advantage of internal power struggles in the 18th century, specifically Siam, which finally took control of Vientiane in 1779.

The Siamese later crushed the city and the remains of Lan Xang were absorbed by Siam. The 19th century was a time of political strife in which rival powers with shifting alliances battled for dominance of the territory. The Siamese were in power until the French arrived, who had previously established a stronghold in neighbouring Vietnam, in the 1870s. Laos subsequently became part of French Indo-China, which lasted until the 1950s, with the exception of a short period of occupation by the Japanese during World War II.

Complete independence was achieved in 1953 under the control of King Sisavang Vong. The monarchy was opposed by the former nationalist guerrillas who formed the Laotian Patriotic Front (LPF) whose soldiers, the Pathet Lao, built an alliance with the Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) nationalists in Vietnam, to oust the residual French, and later to oppose US influence in the region and the regimes they supported.

In spite of continued efforts, both before and after the communist takeover in 1975, the Chinese could not exert any real influence over the country. Actually, following 1975, Laos relied on military and economic support from Vietnam, China’s enemy. In the late 1980s however, tension between China and Laos finally began to subside: diplomatic relations (which had been cut off in the late 1970s) were restored in December 1987, and cultural and bilateral trade agreements signed.

Continuous improvement has been retained since then. Relations with the West and with Thailand have steadily improved. Since 1988, there has been a significant increase in commercial contact between Laos and Thailand and the political relationship has improved.

The dominant politicians in Laos since it gained independence have been the veteran General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (the LPRP, whose armed wing is the Pathet Lao), Kaysone Phomvihane, and Prince Souphanouvong (the ‘Red Prince’).

The actions of the country’s major opposition movements, the right-wing pro-royalist United Lao National Liberation Front and the United Front for the National Liberation of the Lao People, have been only minor armed uprisings from bases among the northern hill tribes (the cause of several minor bombings in Vientiane during 2000 has yet to be discovered).

Souphanouvong resigned from all his posts in March 1991, leading to a period of main economic and political reform. A new constitution was fostered in August 1991 under which elections for a new National Assembly were held in December 1992. Economic reform started as Laos strived to emulate the changes effected by its larger neighbours. The country’s relative isolation and shortage of resources has made this difficult.

Several regional economic co-operation agreements have been coordinated with Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, Laos has been admitted to the Association of South East Asian Nations, the former anti-communist regional bloc, which has since become an economic organization.

In 1995, the USA eased their aid embargo, which began during the 1975 revolution. These developments were sadly offset by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which brought about a decline in the value of the kip.

But Laos has not achieved much political evolution and the LPRP maintains tight control. In 1998, changes in the higher echelons of the regime promoted Khamtay Siphandone, among a few remaining veterans of the original Pathet Lao leadership, to the position of president and leader of the LPRP politburo replacing the retiring Phoumsavanh.

Elections to the National Assembly were held in February 2002: all candidates were members of the LPRP except one (who was, nonetheless, government-approved). This didn't help the government’s main internal problem: the rising insurgency by the Hmong people, a neglected ethnic minority living in the north of the country. The Hmong have launched continuous streams of violent attacks over the last three years.