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Earliest history

Very little is known about the earliest history of Laos. The first inhabitants of present-day Laos probably belonged to the Hmong people, who settled in the Mekong valley about 10,000 years ago and came from southern China. Later they were joined by various peoples from India and Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and Thailand.

The medieval history of Laos is very similar to that of the surrounding countries. In the 8th century AD, the Chenla empire was split into two warring kingdoms: Land Chenla, which covered large parts of present-day Laos and Thailand, and Water Chenla.

Both countries were attacked by Malay pirates who had made an alliance with a Javanese people. Two Chenla princes were subsequently kidnapped and taken to Java. However, one of them, Jayavarman II, managed to escape and expel the invaders. He then crowned himself king and ruled over large parts of today's Indochina, including South Laos, until 850. This dynasty lasted until the mid-14th century.

The north of present-day Laos was at that time ruled by Thai kings, among others from the famous northern Thai kingdom of Sukhothai. These kings had a great influence on two princes in the north of Laos: the Lao Chao Khun Ngam Muang and the Thai Chao Mengrai. Later, the influence of Thailand was extended to today's Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane, then called Wieng Chan.

14th-16th century

In the first half of the 14th century, Sukhothai's influence declined sharply, which benefited the Laotian prince and army chief Cha Fa Ngum. With the support of Khmer warriors from Cambodia, he conquered Wieng Chan in 1353. He had these Khmer fighters at his disposal because he had a very good relationship with the Khmer king Nang Kaew Kaeng Nya. Fa Ngum also conquered large parts of Laos and part of Thailand. Finally, he also took Luang Prabang, which was ruled by his grandfather. After this he proclaimed himself king of the conquered area and named it Lane Xang Hom Khao. All these events took place in the crucial year of 1353 for Laos.

Although the conquered territory is considered the first Lao nation, it was in fact a Khmer vassal state at the time. Not surprisingly, under Khmer pressure, Theravada Buddhism was declared the national religion.

Fa Ngum, meanwhile, ruled his empire with a very heavy hand and expanded it further and further. His ministers, however, did not agree with his conduct and in 1373 exiled him to an outlying district, where he died in 1378. He was succeeded by his 18-year old son Oun Heuan, who later called himself Phaya Samsenthai (because of the many Thai living in Laos at that time), who introduced a new administrative system with governors in the regions. These regions were given great administrative autonomy and this system lasted until 1975, the year the communists took power in Laos.

Samsenthai died in 1421 and immediately unrest broke out in the region. The surrounding countries tried to reclaim their lost lands, but with the help of the Khmer they managed to avoid it. This changed when the Khmer were defeated by the Thai (then Siamese) in 1431 and Khmer rule came to an end. The Vietnamese also had their eyes on Laos and invaded the kingdom of the then king Sao Tiakaphat and conquered Luang Prabang. This occupation lasted only briefly, however, because Tiakaphat's successor succeeded in driving off the Vietnamese again.

In the 16th century, Luang Prabang expanded rapidly under the reign of King Pothisarat and became an important trading centre in the region. This Lao married a Thai princess from Lanna, today's Chang Mai, and their son Setthathirat claimed the Thai throne after the death of King Ketklao of Thailand in 1545. Setthathirat became one of the most important kings of the Xane Lang dynasty.

In 1556 Lanna was conquered by the Burmese and Luang Prabang also threatened to suffer this fate. Setthathirat then withdrew to Vientiane, which was better defended, and in 1563 proclaimed the city the new capital of Laos. King Setthathirat mysteriously disappeared in 1571 during a military expedition.

After this, Laos became a divided state for a few decades under a number of jester kings from the Lane Xang dynasty and even experienced a period without a king. The Burmese made grateful use of this and Laos was occupied by Burma for a number of years.

It was only in 1591 that King Nokeo Kumman succeeded in driving out the Burmese and starting the restoration of unity in Laos. This restoration of unity was continued under King Thammikarat and completed in 1637 by King Sulinya Vongsa.

The period that followed was one of economic and cultural prosperity. Friendly ties with Vietnam were established through marriage and the first contacts with Europeans were made. The Dutch merchant Gerrit van Wuysthoff was the first European to visit Laos in 1641. What would later break Laos in history was the fact that the army was very neglected in those prosperous times.

Laos divided into three kingdoms

Sulinya Vongsa's reign lasted 57 years and is known as the "golden age" of Laos. After his death in 1694, more than 340 years of the Lane Xang Dynasty came to an end. Around 1715, his empire disintegrated into three small kingdoms that fought each other fiercely. Sulinya Vongsa's grandson ruled Luang Prabang, his nephew ruled Vientiane and a third kingdom arose in the south and was called Champassak. Another kingdom, Xieng Khouang, was indebted to both Annam and Luang Prabang.

Because of these divisions, Laos seemed to become a prey to its neighbours, but they tried to prevent this by forming alliances: Luang Prabang with China, Vientiane with Vietnam and Champassak with Thailand. The Burmese saw this with displeasure and in response invaded Thailand. In 1768 they managed to conquer the then capital Ayuthhaya, but were eventually chased away by the Siamese in 1776.

Encouraged by this great military success, the Siamese immediately went on to try and take King Anouvong's Vientiane, which they actually succeeded in doing in 1778.

The Siamese appointed Anourutha as king and he immediately began to build up the country and tried to establish relations with Luang Prabang. However, when King Rama II of Siam died in 1827, Anourutha saw his chance and started an uprising against Siam. He made an alliance with Vietnam for this purpose, but the attack on Siam was not a resounding success. However, Anourutha's popularity had soared, much to the displeasure of the new Siamese ruler, Rama III.

Meanwhile, the Americans had entered Siam and had gained great influence over politics in Siam. Rama III therefore needed permission for his plan to attack Vientiane, but that was no problem at all. In 1827 Vientiane was overrun, plundered and incorporated into Siam (now Thailand), including Xieng Khouang in 1832. King Anourutha was taken prisoner and died some time later in Bangkok.

In the years that followed, the other Laotian kingdoms were also occupied by Thailand. However, the Thai went much further, because large parts of Laos were depopulated and the inhabitants were deported to Thailand. Laos was in a chaotic state at the time, and all kinds of countries made good use of this, including Annam that occupied the northern province of Xieng Khouang.

After 1855, the pressure from Annam on Xieng Khouang decreased, because the Annamites had to reckon with the French. The Hué Treaties (1884) brought Annam under French protectorate. Thailand now saw an opportunity and invaded Northern Laos. In 1886, Bangkok agreed with the French that they could appoint a consul in Luang Prabang.

Laos becomes a French colony

Like other European powers, France also expanded its influence in South-East Asia. Vietnam was annexed by the French, as was Cambodia. To prevent the British from getting too close to "French" Vietnam, the French wanted to expand their territory even further. The Laotians in Luang Prabang, led by King Chulalongkorn, saw in the French an opportunity to get out of the Thai occupation. This indeed succeeded and the Thai disappeared from Luang Prabang. In 1893 the French invaded Laos and King Chulalongkorn was forced to abdicate. From that time on, Laos, which was hardly a country, was a French colony and part of Indochina.

Subsequently, in consultation with the Thai, the borders of the new country were established. This was arranged between 1893 and 1907 and in this period, the loose Laos was transformed into a clear state.

After this was settled, the French in fact left Laos somewhat to its own devices. Economically, Laos was of no importance whatsoever to France and the country in fact served no more than as a buffer between the great powers of France and Great Britain. It was also significant that civil and administrative services were mainly carried out by Vietnamese.

Laos independant

In 1941, Japan invaded Indochina and also occupied Laos. The Laotians thought it was best because they enjoyed considerable freedom under the Japanese. In March 1945, the French administration passed into Japanese hands and the government of King Sisavang Vong, who was sympathetic to the French, announced the independence of Laos under pressure from Japan. However, the Viceroy of Laos, Prime Minister Phetsarat, did not quite trust it and founded the "Lao Issara" movement, "Free Laos". He was right, because when the French returned to Laos after the war, they stripped Phetsarat of all powers and declared Laos a French protectorate again. Phetsarat, however, remained the leader of the Issara movement.

A People's Committee was now formed and a new constitution was drawn up. Sisavang Vong initially refused to sign the constitution, but after heavy pressure from the National Council, he agreed and signed the document. In April 1946, he was crowned head of state again without the support of the entire population. Within two days, the capital Vientiane had already been taken over by French-supporting guerrillas, both French and Laotian. The Issara faithful were completely crushed and, including Phetsarat, had to flee to Thailand. Phetsarat formed a government in exile in Thailand.

At the initiative of the French, there were talks again at the end of 1946 about a form of self-government. The Issara movement was also involved, but they were totally divided. Phetsarat only wanted to talk about complete independence and a group led by Phesarat's half-brother, Souvanna Phouma, wanted to negotiate on that first. Then there was a third group led by another half-brother of Phetsarat: the communist prince Souphanouvong. He wanted to join the Vietminh and then chase the French out of both Laos and Vietnam.

The French took little notice and in 1949 it was agreed that Laos would be an independent nation under French rule. Eventually, in October 1953, Laos was granted full independence by France.

Under the Geneva Conventions (1954), after fighting, a settlement was reached between the Lao government and the Pathet Lao. Laos was now assigned the role of a neutral state that should be separate from the traditional power blocs in the 'Cold War'.

Pathet Lao

Meanwhile, Prince Souphanouvong had gone to Vietnam to gather support for his idea of turning Laos into a communist state. He was supported by Kaysone Phomvihane, the later general secretary of the Communist Party in Laos. His ideas were widely heard in Eastern Laos, among the mountain peoples. Together they were not afraid to engage in guerrilla warfare and joined forces by founding Neo Lao Issara, the civilian branch of the military organisation Pathet Lao ('Land of the Lao'). Initially, they became part of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), in which the Vietminh in particular advocated communist governments in both Laos and Cambodia. The party that was to realise this in Laos became the Lao People's Party, and the Pathet Lao, of course, wholeheartedly supported this aim. In 1965 the name of the Pathet Lao was changed to Lao People's Liberation Army (LPLA), but would remain known throughout the world by its old name.

The LPLA grew rapidly, to the dismay of the United States, which feared that the whole of South-East Asia would come under communist control. They tried to turn the tide in Laos through an economic aid programme, but this would prove to be in vain. There was still a popular communist underground party active in Laos, the Lao Patriotic Front (LPF) led by Prince Souphanouvong. The international community now began to get involved and during the Geneva Convention in 1957 it was agreed that a coalition would be formed between the government in Vientiane under Prince Souvanna Phouma and the LPF. The LPF was also allowed to sit in government and the Pathet Lao fighters could join the army. However, all this went so chaotically and problematically that the United States stopped its aid to Laos. This plunged Laos almost immediately into a deep economic crisis. The government now decided to exclude all LPF influences from the government, which in turn meant that the Pathet Lao were forced into resistance under the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong. Initially, the crisis was defused by appointing the American-minded Phoui Sananikone as Prime Minister and Prince Souvanna Phouma as Ambassador to France.

In 1960, a military coup by a certain Kong Le followed. Souvanna Phouma was recalled from France and appointed prime minister. The real power, however, was in the hands of General Phoumi Novasan, who was wholeheartedly, also militarily, supported by the Americans. In exchange, the Americans decided that the LPF should not be part of any new government and the CIA prepared elections. Kong Le's armies were disbanded and they joined the troops of Prince Souphanouvong, who in turn was supported by the Soviet Union. The years that followed were marked by many coups and counter-coups.

War in Indochina

Between 1964 and 1973, Laos suffered greatly from the war in Indochina, which was in fact waged by the two superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union. The Pathet Lao had withdrawn to the northern mountainous regions of Laos and to Vietnam during this period. Vietnam was bombed continuously from Thailand, but the east and north of Laos were also hit very hard. Bombs that could not be dropped over Vietnam were also 'simply' dropped over Laos. This made Laos one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. In 1971, China became involved in the war and stationed troops in northern Laos.

In 1973, the war in Indochina ended and this led to a coalition government in Laos in April 1974, led by Souvanna Phouma. The idea was that there would be a Pathet Lao part and a non Pathet Lao part. However, the popularity of the Pathet Lao grew and in 1974 they controlled 11 of the 13 provinces.

Under pressure from the Lao People's Party (LPP), the incumbent ministers resigned and the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was formed. On 23 August 1975, the capital Vientiane was taken, the coalition dissolved and Souvanna Phouma resigned.

Then, on 2 December 1975, the Lao People's Democratic Republic was officially proclaimed. Pathet Lao leader Prince Souphanouvong became president, the actual power was in the hands of the party's general secretary Kaysone Phomvihane and his deputy Nouhak Phoumsavane.

All this meant, in effect, that the more than 600-year-long monarchy came to an end. The king of the day, Savang Vatthana, was forced to abdicate and was given a paper job as the chief advisor to the president.

A group of anti-communists and the Meo tribesmen revolted against this, after which the king and his family were exiled to northern Laos, at least that is the official reading of the government. There are many different stories surrounding the deposition and exile, including one about the murder of the entire royal family.

Lao People's Democratic Republic

Although the take-over of power in 1975 was bloodless, many Laotians (especially Meos), estimated at more than 300,000, fled abroad. Political refugees left for the United States and France, the rest returned to Laos after 1988. People who had not cooperated with the communists were sent to re-education camps. From 1975, all ties with neighbouring Thailand were severed; Buddhism was banned and all Thai were expelled from the country. In 1987, this led to a three-month border conflict in which several people were killed. After that, relations with Thailand improved considerably and in March 1991 the border conflict was settled peacefully. In the 1990s, Thailand started to invest heavily in Laos and all relations returned to normal. This was also made possible by Laos sending the Vietnamese troops and Soviet advisers home.

In the period 1978/1979, a conflict broke out between Vietnam and China, with Laos siding with Vietnam. It was not until the 1980s that relations with China improved and diplomatic relations and mutual trade resumed in 1987. A year earlier, President Souphanouvong had already been replaced by Phoumi Vongvichit due to illness.

In 1989, parliamentary elections were held for the first time. There were 79 seats to be allocated, but only 30% of those seats were reserved for non-Communists. The result, of course, was that all power remained in the hands of the communists. It is noteworthy, however, that from 1990 onwards, relations with the anti-communist United States also improved, which eventually led to the lifting of the economic embargo by the United States in 1995.

In 1992, party leader Kaysone Phomvihane died and was succeeded by General Khamtay. From 1994 onwards, the government implemented economic liberalisation, which made it easier for foreign companies to invest in Laos.

On 1 January 1999, Laos became a full member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and was freed from its economic isolation. In February 1998, President Phomsavan retired. He was succeeded by General Khamtay Siphandon, until then LPRP President and Prime Minister. General Sisavat became Prime Minister and Elder Khattigna Vice-President.

21th century

In 2000, several bloody bomb attacks in Vientiane caused considerable political unrest. It remained unclear who was responsible for the attacks, but it was suspected that it was the northern Hmong, who felt oppressed by the government. Rebels of the mountain people, supported by Vietnamese troops, had clashed with the Laotian government army in early 2000 and again in 2001. Economically, Laos fared badly; inflation rose to 167%, causing, for example, civil servants to lose 80% of their purchasing power. As a result, the economy was only kept going to some extent by foreign development aid. Moreover, bureaucracy and corruption caused a sharp decline in foreign investment. It is remarkable that the World Bank continued to issue loans to pour into this seemingly bottomless pit, because the announced five-year economic plans were not achieved by a long shot.

In March 2001, the seventh Party Congress was held. The ruling President Khamtay Siphandone remained in power and was also re-elected as Party leader. Prime Minister Sisavath Keobounphanh also remained in his post, so there was no prospect of rejuvenation, and therefore perhaps of renewal in terms of content. In 2002, Amnesty International reported continuing human rights abuses, especially against Protestant Christians.

In 2003, the rebel Hmong carried out several attacks on coaches. A total of 26 people were killed, including three foreigners. Some foreign journalists tried to report on the Hmong rebel resistance, but were arrested by the government army. They were given lengthy prison sentences, but were soon released. It was suspected that the Hmong living in the US were behind the resistance against the government and the arrest of the journalists. They were trying to sabotage the normalisation of trade relations between Laos and the United States. In 2003, the economy was still not doing well; tourism, for example, suffered greatly from the continuing unrest in the country. More and more donor countries wondered whether it still made sense to invest a lot of money in Laos.

Laos seems to be moving very slowly towards a more open society. Although political reform is only possible within the one-party system, some progress can be seen in recent years. The National Assembly is gradually gaining influence, and in 2003 an amendment to the constitution made a more independent judiciary possible. The signing of two UN human rights covenants in December 2000 has increased the willingness to discuss human rights issues. Corruption is widespread and officially recognised as a problem. The National Assembly also openly addresses the government on this issue.

In March 2006, the eighth party congress of the LPRP was held. Lieutenant-General Choummaly Sayasone was appointed as the new party leader. Two months later, after approval by the National Assembly, Choummaly was installed as President of Laos. As usual, the March party congress also resulted in a new government composition. In June 2006, 15 new members took office, including Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. In a number of sparsely populated provinces, clashes between the Laotian army and anti-Communist Hmong fighters with aspirations to independence occur from time to time. Although these incidents are a nuisance for the government, they do not pose a threat to the stability of the country. In January 2008, Laos took steps towards becoming a member of the World Trade Organisation. In May 2008, Save the Children announced that approximately 70% of children in Laos did not have access to basic medical care. In March 2009, a railway line connecting Thailand and Laos was opened.

In December 2010, Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh stepped down in favour of Thongsing Thammavong. Choummaly was given a new presidential term in June 2011. Hillary Clinton visited Laos as its first foreign minister in July 2012. In August 2013, the EU expresses concerns over human rights, particularly in the disappearance of dissident Sombath Somphone. In May 2014, a large number of dignitaries are killed in a plane crash in northern Laos. In April 2016, elections were held. The current president is Vrachit and the prime minister is Sisoulit. In September 2017, conservationists warned Laos that they are at the centre of the reprehensible and prohibited trade in ivory. Laos maintains close ties with its two communist neighbours, Vietnam and China, both of which continue to exert significant political and economic influence on the country. China, for example, has provided 70% of the funding for a USD 5.9 billion 400 km railway line between the Chinese border and the capital Vientiane, which is due to come into operation in December 2021. In the 2021 elections, Sisoulit became president instead of prime minister and Vipvahan is now prime minister.


Boon, H. / Laos : mensen, politiek, economie, cultuur, milieu
Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen

Cummings, J. / Laos
Lonely Planet

Te gast in Laos & Cambodja
Informatie Verre Reizen

Waard, P. de / Laos

Zickgraf, R. / Laos
Chelsea House Publishers

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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