Pathet Lao

Pathet Lao

Pathet Lao, left-wing nationalist group that was ultimately victorious in the Laotian civil war that began in the mid-1950s. The name was first used in 1950 by Lao forces after the they joined the Viet Minh's revolt against the French, and it became the generic term for the Lao Communists. In 1956 an official party, the Neo Lao Hak Sat (Lao Patriotic Front) was formed. In the 1960s and early 70s, the Pathet Lao fought the U.S.-supported government and finally won control of Laos in 1975.
The Pathet Lao (Lao ປະເທດລາວ, "Land of Laos") was a communist, nationalist political movement and organization in Laos, formed in the mid-20th century. The group was ultimately successful in assuming political power after a civil war, or insurgent revolution, lasting from the 1950s to 1975. The Pathet Lao were always closely associated with Vietnamese communists. During the civil war, it was effectively organized, equipped and even led by the army of North Vietnam.

The Pathet Lao were the Laotian equivalent of the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong of Vietnam. Eventually, the term was the generic name for Laotian communists. The political movement of the Pathet Lao was called first the Lao People's Party (1955-1972) and later the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (1972-present). After the Pathet Lao militarily won power, they were the government, rather than a nationalist insurgency, and the term was dropped. Unlike the Khmer Rouge, they were an extension of the Vietnamese Communist movement. Key Pathet Lao include Prince Souphanouvong, Kaysone Phomvihane, Phoumi Vongvichit, Nouhak Phoumsavanh and Khamtay Siphandone.


The organization under this name first appeared in 1950, when it was adopted by Lao forces under Prince Souphanouvong, who joined the Viet Minh's revolt against the colonial French authorities in Indochina during the First Indochina War.

Left-oriented nationalist group in Laos that took control of the country in 1975. Founded in 1950, the Pathet Lao (Lao Country) movement joined with the Viet Minh, the Communist-oriented Vietnamese nationalist organization, in armed resistance to French rule in Indochina. In 1956 a legal political wing, the Lao Patriotic Front (Neo Lao Hak Xat), was founded and participated in several coalition governments. In the 1960s and early '70s the Pathet Lao fought a civil war against the US-backed Vientiane regime, winning effective control in the north and east. In the spring of 1975 Pathet Lao forces consolidated their power throughout the country. The Vientiane government fell in May 1975, and Pathet Lao leaders formed a new government. In 1953, Pathet Lao fighters accompanied an invasion of Laos from Vietnam led by Viet Minh forces; they established a government at Viengxay in Houaphan province in northeast Laos. The communists began to make incursions into central Laos with the support of the Viet Minh, and a civil war erupted; the Pathet Lao quickly occupied substantial sections of the country.

The 1954 Geneva Conference agreements required the withdrawal of foreign forces, and allowed the Pathet Lao to establish itself as a regime in Laos' two northern provinces. The Viet Minh/North Vietnamese, in spite of the agreement, never really withdrew from the border areas of Laos and the Pathet Lao continued to operate almost as a branch organization of the Viet Minh. Two months after the conference, the Viet Minh/North Vietnam formed the unit Group 100 with headquarters at Ban Nameo. The unit effectively controlled and directed the Pathet Lao movement.

It was formed into an official party, the Lao Patriotic Front (Neo Lao Hak Sat), in 1956. Its stated goal was to wage the communist struggle against capitalism and Western colonialism and imperialism. Unstated was its subordination to Vietnamese socialism. A coalition was established in 1957 between the monarchists and communists, but it collapsed in 1959, bringing about a resumption of fighting.

In December 1958, North Vietnam took over several towns in Laos raising the Vietnamese flag over them and declaring them to be part of Vietnam. While other parties objected to this, the Pathet Lao did not.

By the late 1950s, North Vietnam had occupied areas of eastern Laos. The area was used as a transit route for men and supplies destined for the insurgency in South Vietnam. In September 1959, North Vietnam formed Group 959 in Laos with the aim of building the Pathet Lao into a stronger counterforce against the Lao Royal government. Group 959 openly supplied, trained and militarily supported the Pathet Lao. The typical strategy during this era was for North Vietnamese regulars to attack first but then send in the Pathet Lao at the end of the battle to claim "victory".

In the 1960s, more attempts at neutrality agreements and coalition government were attempted but as North Vietnam had no intention of withdrawing from Laos, these agreements all failed. By the middle 1960s, the country had fallen into proxy warfare between pro-US and pro-Vietnamese irregular military groups.

In 1968, the Army of North Vietnam launched a multi-division invasion of Laos. The Pathet Lao were pushed to the side in the conflict and reduced to the role of an auxiliary force to the North Vietnamese army. Unable to match the heavy Soviet and Chinese weapons in addition to the numerical strength of the Vietnamese forces, the Royal Lao Army took itself out of the conflict after heavy losses.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the communist forces battled the Royal Lao Army, U.S. irregular forces (including Air America and other contract employees and Hmong commandos), and Thai "volunteer" forces in Laos. The government itself was effectively powerless, for the most part, and manipulated by both sides. The Pathet Lao held hundreds of US "detaineess" as prisoners of war during and after the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War).

Shortly after the Paris Peace Accords ended US involvement in the Vietnam war, the Pathet Lao and the government of Laos signed a cease-fire agreement, the Vientiane Treaty, in February 1973.

The coalition government envisaged by the treaty did not long outlast it. The Pathet Lao refused to disarm and the North Vietnamese Army did not leave the country. In 1975, the Pathet Lao with the direct open assistance of the North Vietnamese Army began attacking government strongholds. With the fall of the South Vietnamese government in April 1975 in their minds, the non-communist elements of the national government decided that allowing the Pathet Lao to enter power would be better than to have them take it by force. In November 1975, the Pathet Lao took over Laos, abolishing and exterminating the monarchy and establishing the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Shortly thereafter, the Pathet Lao signed an agreement with Vietnam that allowed Vietnam to station its army in the country and to send political and economic advisors into the country. Vietnam afterward forced Laos to cut any remaining economic ties to its other neighbors. For the next 15 years, the Pathet Lao ran the country almost as a Vietnamese colony. A sytematic program of forcefully removing and exterminating Hmong people was begun within Laos, which resulted in complaints by United Nations member countries of attempted genocide and other human rights abuses by the government of Laos. The Lao government's response has been to label the Hmong people and former Royal Lao Army Major General Vang Pao as "international terrorists".

Expansion of Pathet Lao influence

There were two rival royal governments in Laos from the beginning of 1961, the Boun Oum-Phoumi Nosavan government at Vientiane and the Souvanna Phouma government at Khang Khay. The Pathet Lao, protected by the presence of thousands of North Vietnamese troops, constituted a third faction in what became a rightist-Neutralist-leftist division.

The idea of neutralism had been expressed by Kong Le in his earliest speeches in Vientiane, which described the goals of his coup d'état as stopping the fighting among the Laotians and enacting a policy of friendship with all foreign countries, especially Laos's neighbors. At Khang Khay, Soviet diplomats mingled with officials of missions from Beijing and Hanoi, with which relations had been established on May 5. Kong Le's troops readily adopted the unofficial name Neutralist Armed Forces. Souvanna Phouma seized the opportunity of having a sizeable number of adherents on hand at Khang Khay, including many Lao students returned from abroad, to form the Neutralist Party, (Lao Pen Kang-- known as the Neutralists). He was confident the party would outpoll the Pathet Lao's LPF in a free election.

Although publicly deferring to Souvanna Phouma on matters of government policy, the Pathet Lao secretly extended their influence at the grassroots level, using their proven methods of propaganda and organization. In villages under their control, the Pathet Lao installed their own personnel alongside the existing administration--for example, a khana muang (liberated district) alongside a chao muang (district chief), a khana seng (liberated subdistrict) alongside a pho tasseng (subdistrict chief), and a khana ban (liberated village) alongside a pho ban or nai ban (village chief). Access to the Pathet Lao-administered areas was forbidden to outsiders, even after the formation of the coalition government.

A hierarchy of politico-military participation and responsibility tied the villagers to a chain of command. All resources in villages under Pathet Lao control were mobilized into both a horizontal and a vertical structure that included organizations of women, youth, and monks. Villagers were easily susceptible to Pathet Lao control, making a Pathet Lao village a world unto itself. Children acted as couriers and lookouts; young people joined the village self-defense units, the lowest level of guerrilla organization; adults acted as porters for the regular guerrilla units; and women made clothing, prepared food, and looked after the sick and wounded.

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