Throughout most of its history, Laos was caught between larger neighbors, competing empires, and shifting political alliances. Because of its strategic location between China and Thailand, Laos frequently came under attack from a variety of conquerors, most notably the Siamese, the French, and the United States each of whom had an interest in gaining control of the country.
Additionally, it was a significant center of agriculture and trade.But the country was also vulnerable, which made it susceptible to colonization. How did Laos come to be a one-party communist regime given its lengthy political and governmental history?
There are few reliable records of Laos’ early history. Archaeological data indicates that people lived in what is now Laos at least 46,000 years ago, and a sophisticated agricultural society was in place by 4,000 BCE. Bronze-producing societies emerged around 1,500 BCE, and these societies had elaborate funeral traditions that included using burial jars like those found on the Plain of Jars.
Throughout the 1st millennium BCE, groups of Austro-Asiatic and Tai-Kadai speaking peoples migrated southward into Southeast Asia, bringing with them their culture and techniques of wet rice cultivation
People in what is now Laos were producing iron tools by 700 BCE, and they were also interacting with Chinese and Indian people on a cultural and commercial level. On the Mekong River’s banks, people grouped together to form Muang, walled cities, or tiny kingdoms, between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. Leaders of the Muang paid homage to neighboring, more powerful nations. The proto-Khmer peoples, as well as the ancestors of the “mountain tribes” and the Mon peoples of the Dvaravati kingdom, were among the populations.
Animism and Hinduism gradually blended or gave way to Theravada Buddhism throughout this time. Arriving in the 1200s CE, the Tai ethnic group established a number of minor tribal republics ruled by rulers who possessed semi-divine qualities. The current nation of Laos was united in 1354 by the Lan Xang dynasty, which ruled there until its division into three parts in 1707. The successor states, all of which were dependent on Siam, were Champasak, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang. Also honoring Vietnam was Vientiane. The Burmese invaded Laos and took control of Ayutthaya in 1763 (in Siam).
After routing the Burmese in 1778, Taksin’s Siamese army more directly ruled what is now Laos. However, Annam (Vietnam) acquired control of Laos in 1795 and retained that position as a vassal state until 1828. The Siamese-Vietnamese War of 1831–1834 was fought between Laos’s two strong neighbors over sovereignty of the realm. The local authorities in Laos were required to pay tribute to Siam, China, and Vietnam by 1850, albeit Siam had the most sway.
The French were used to the European Westphalian system of nation-states with definite borders, so this complex network of tributary connections did not suit them. The French sought to capture Siam after already taking over Vietnam. They first seized Laos in 1890 with the intention of moving on to Bangkok, using the country’s relationship with Vietnam as a pretext.
The British colony of Burma was separated from French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) by Siam, which the British sought to keep intact as a buffer (Myanmar). While Laos was colonized by France, Siam maintained its independence. The French Protectorate of Laos existed from its official founding in 1893 until 1950, when France awarded it nominal freedom but not actual independence. When France left in 1954 following its humiliating loss to the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu, the country finally achieved true independence. During the colonial era, France mostly ignored Laos in favor of the more accessible colonies of Vietnam and Cambodia.
The delegates of the Laotian government and the Pathet Lao, the country’s communist army, were more observers than participants in the 1954 Geneva Conference. As a sort of afterthought, Laos has been designated a neutral nation with a coalition government made up of members of the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao was expected to dissolve as a military group, but it resisted doing so. Also disturbing was the US refusal to ratify the Geneva Convention out of concern that communist regimes in Southeast Asia would disprove the domino theory of communism’s expansion.
Between the country’s independence and 1975 (the American War), Laos was involved in a civil war that ran concurrently with the Vietnam War. Laos was traversed by the renowned Ho Chi Minh Trail, which served as a crucial North Vietnamese supply route. When the US war effort in Vietnam stumbled and collapsed, the Pathet Lao gained an advantage over its non-communist adversaries.
In August 1975, it took over command of the whole nation. Since that time, Laos has been a communist country with close links to China and, to a lesser extent, its neighbor Vietnam. The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is the sole officially recognized political party in Laos, which is governed under a single-party communist system. All national laws and policies are made by a 61-member Central Committee and an eleven-member Politburo. Since 1992, an elected National Assembly with 132 members, all of whom are LPRP members, has ratified these principles. Choummaly Sayasone, the general secretary and president of Laos, is the country’s head of state. Thongsing Thammavong is the head of state. He is also the prime minister.
From the start of its revolutionary period in 1975 until 1990, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party held absolute power, enabling it to direct all facets of life. The administration of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic adhered to a strict version of Communism and saw limited economic development after its formation in December 1975. But as Soviet aid began to dwindle, it realized it needed to make up for it by gradually opening up to private investment and by imitating Vietnam by demanding greater levels of international aid. A number of joint ventures with Laotian partners were established as a result of the subsequent influx of businesspeople, mostly from the adjacent Thai region of the pre-and post-Communist elite.