History of Laos As in the rest of the countries of Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia, the history of Laos and the history of the region can not be separated. It was reported nearly 100 years ago, “Laos is the name of a people, not of a political division” (Freeman 1910: 13); while Stuart-Fox (2002) wrote, “the Lao people have a history, Laos does not.” The nations of Laos and Thailand share many qualities and “One wonders why the Thai and the Lao, though two people of different countries speak the same language? Why are both Buddhist? Why do the two people share the same cultural activities?” (Jumsai 2000: 1). In contrast, over a hundred years ago, Curtis (1903: 8) noticed: “Though the Laos and the Siamese are both Shans and have much in common, a stranger would note at once many marked differences in natures, habits, and customs of these two peoples.” Yet, even with a common history, today Laos is an independent country with its own government, and it has a unique place in the world so deserves to be examined in its own right. However, one needs to be aware that Laotian history has recently often been written through a political prism to support Marxist ideology and modern Laotian history, at least what is written in Laos, has had a political agenda with an emphasis on peasant uprisings and has deemphasized the role of royalty and the common cultural connection with the Thais (Gay 2002). It should also be kept in mind that French historians during the colonial era also tended to deemphasize Laos’ connection with the people of Thailand in order to justify the annexation of Laos into French Indochina (Jumsai 2000: 6). A common belief is that the “Tai” people, a linguistic grouping, supposedly originating in the region of southern Guangxi, China, were pressured by an expanding Chinese empire into moving southward. Today members of the Tai linguistic group include a number of “hill tribes” throughout Southeast Asia and Southern China, as well as the lowland majority peoples of the present-day countries of Thailand and Laos (Evans 2002: 2). Legend has it that prior to the coming of the Tai into Laos, giants controlled a kingdom called Sawa in modern day Laos (Phothisane 2002: 83-4). It has often been reported that the Kingdom of Nan Chao, in the present-day Yunnan province of China, was a Tai kingdom (Pholsena 2004: 237; Syamananda 1993: 14). However, the Chinese Chronicles
of the period referred to the people living in Nan Chao as the “Payi” or the “Huans” (Jumsai 2000: 8). The traditional theory of a conquering Tai race emigrating south from China to lay claim to the lands of present-day Laos and Thailand is being challenged, and an alternative explanation is being considered where the origins of the culture and peoples now inhabiting present-day Laos sprang up closer to home in the regions of present-day southern China, northern Vietnam, and upper Laos (Pholsena 2004). Nevertheless, the histories of Thailand and Laos are closely related and “prior to the nineteenth century it makes little sense to use the ethnic terms ‘Lao’ or ‘Thai,’ although it is common for national histories to project such entities into the distant past” (Evans 2002: 2). A legendary figure from Lao mythology is the most famous ruler of Nan Chao, called Khun Borum of Boulom by the Lao and Pilawko by the Chinese, who was reported to have been the ruler from ad 729-49. It has been reported that Khun Borum ruled over a large united kingdom and along with Khun Lo were great kings of Nan Chao. However, subsequent kings were less competent and the kingdom went into steady decline until it was finally crushed during Kublai Khan’s conquest of Yunnan in 1253, causing the inhabitants to scatter into areas previous controlled by the Khmer Empire (Jumsai 2000: 10-26). While much of the early history of the peoples living in what is present-day Laos is mostly unknown, it is known that: “Trade routes in the middle Mekong date from prehistoric times and trans Mekong commercial traffic was by no way new in the seventh century” (Hoshino 2002: 53). Therefore, it appears that for a considerable length of time the peoples living in the area that comprises present-day Laos were not completely isolated and were connected to people from other parts of the region. It could be argued the first great “Lao” kingdom was the Kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao (a million elephants under a white parasol), normally referred to simply as Lan Xang, which was founded by King Fa Ngum, who most likely was of Khmer descent and a vassal of the Kingdom of Angkor (Evans 2002: 9). King Fa Ngum, who ruled from 1352 to 1371, “was considered by the Lao to be one of their greatest kings, He united the country into a powerful state and the extent of his country was probably the biggest known in Lao history” (Jumsai 2000: 98). The Lan Xang Kingdom was a mandala with Luang Prabang at the core. In 1356, King Fa Ngum and his army of around 48,000 men and 500 elephants conquered Vientiane and then later expanded the kingdom as far as the areas surrounding present-day Roi-Et in Thailand (Jumsai 103-5). However, King Fa Ngum fell out of favor and was forced into exile between 1371 and 1374 and died shortly thereafter (Evans 2002: 10; Jumsai 2000: 108). An interesting feature of this era of Laotian history is that Luang Prabang was effectively ruled by a woman, given name Kaeo Phimphen but commonly known as Maha Thewi, from 1428-38 (Phothisane 2002: 77-9) demonstrating the important role of women in Lao society, which was later remarked upon by Freeman in 1910. Possibly the first Europeans to visit the land that now comprises the country of Laos were a group of Portuguese who accompanied a Burmese envoy around 1545. The Europeans who visited the area in the seventeenth century reported
extensive trade and international trade disputes between the kingdoms located in what is today Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. The Europeans in Laos at the same time also commented on the importance of the Theravada Buddhist religion in the lives of the people (Ngaosrivathana and Ngaosrivathana 2002). In 1707, the “Lao” kingdom was divided into two independent monarchies, one in Luang Prabang and one in Vientiane (Phothisane 2002), and later another division came with the creation of the Kingdom of Champasak (Jumsai 2000: 86). In the late eighteenth century, various leaders in Laos took sides in the Vietnamese civil war and, as a result of the Lao-Tay-son alliance, parts of Laos were well connected to international trade routes through Vietnam for a short period of time (Breazeale 2002; Quy 2002). After the fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1776, the Kingdom of Vientiane took advantage of the weakness of Siam and extended its geographical influence. However, beginning in 1778, Taksin, the leader who is often credited with reuniting the Thais and driving out the Burmese, marched on and eventually sacked Vientiane with the help of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang. In the aftermath of the Thai invasion, thousands of families were taken out of Laos and resettled into Thailand in the areas around Saraburi. By 1782, the Chakri Dynasty was established in Bangkok and subsequently the Thais became the dominant power in the region and Lan Xang ceased to exist, although there was a major last stand uprising against the Thai dominance by Chao Anou, the King of Vientiane in 1827 (Evans 2002: 25). The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were an era when European dominance and the instilling of the colonial system overtook much of Southeast Asia. In 1899, the French extended their control over territories in Southeast Asia by adding Laos as one of its five associated regions of Southeast Asia, which also included Cambodia, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. The French justified their control over Laos by using quite vague claims of historical Vietnamese control over the region. Auguste Pavie was the first French governor of Laos. Although French presence in the country (the census of 1907 showed only 189 French in the country) and control over Laos were very light and had little immediate effect on the lives of most of the common people, changes did occur, such as the abolishing of slavery in the 1890s, and in the heavy use of individuals from Vietnam in the country’s administration, which resulted in a major increase in the number of ethnic Vietnamese in the country (Evans 2002: 45-7, 59; Jumsai 2000: 234). Laos, like most of its other colonies, was an economic burden on France and it has been suggested the possession and holding on to colonies may have had more to do with French nationalism and pride instead of economic interests. Although initially there were intentions of integrating Laos into the economy of the rest of Indochina, the reality was the majority of international trade in the region remained in the hands of Chinese merchants and was conducted through Thailand, not Vietnam. Prior to World War II, there were a few minor uprisings against the French but nothing that actually threatened French control over Laos (Evans 2002: 42, 49-59).