Thursday, September 20, 2012

Royal Profile: Prince Phetsarath of Laos

In the history of the Kingdom of Laos, just prior to its tragic demise, few royals had such a diverse and colorful career as Prince Phetsarath. Holding such positions as prime minister and vice-king and various times in his life, his reputation endured even after his death with the Prince achieving and almost semi-divine status that lingers somewhat even to the present. His Highness Prince Chao Maha Ouphat Phetsarath Rattanavongsa was born in Luang Prabang on January 19, 1890 to Prince Bounkhong (son of Prince Souvanna Phomma) the uparaja of Luang Prabang and his second wife Princess Thongsy. The second son, Prince Phetsarath was the older brother of Prince Souvanna Phouma who would lead the pro-neutrality royalist faction in the later Laotian Civil War. He was also an older half brother of Prince Souphanouvong who would lead the communist faction and become the first President of Laos (Prince Souphanouvong being the son of Prince Bounkhong by his eleventh wife who was a commoner). Coming from such an illustrious family line, Prince Phetsarath was given the best education possible in colonial French Indochina.

After preliminary instruction in the traditional fashion, he was sent to the Lycee Chasseloup Laubat in Saigon (at that time in the French colony of Cochinchine) the “Paris of the Orient” and “Pearl of the Far East”. In 1905 he left Indochina to study in Paris, France at the Lycee Montaigne and later the Ecole coloniale. After finishing his education he returned to Laos in 1912 and the following year married Princess Nhin Kham Venne, his first of three wives. After about a year of working for his father as an interpreter he got a job clerking at the French governor’s office in Vientiane. The Prince proved himself quite adept and within two years was promoted to secretary to the colonial governor. This was during World War I which added new difficulties as the French organized military battalions from Indochina to serve in Europe, sometimes in combat roles but more often in labor battalions, digging trenches and moving men and supplies. In 1919 Prince Phetsarath was honored with the title of Somdeth Chao Ratsaphakhinay, one of the highest in the land, from the King. His father had previously held the same position. He was also appointed Director of Indigenous Affairs of Laos by the French governor.

The next year, on July 26, 1920, Prince Bounkhong died and Prince Phetsarath succeeded his father as the uparaja or ouphat, effectively the Vice-King of Laos, also sometimes westernized to “Viceroy”. In that capacity he worked tirelessly for the development of the country. He reformed or, indeed, instituted in the first place, the Lao Consultative Assembly, streamlined the advisory council of the King, made the civil service more fair and results-driven by establishing a clear system of ranks and requirements for promotion that ended a great deal of corruption. In Laos, “Church and State” went hand-in-hand and Prince Phetsarath also reformed the administrative system of the Buddhist temples and set down new guidelines for the education of Buddhist priests. The first modern legal code in the Kingdom of Laos was the invention of Prince Phetsarath and he founded the Institute of Law and Administration to train competent civil servants who would not owe their position to the granting of special favors. Not only did all of this greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Lao government, but it also displayed to the people of Laos that they themselves were capable of holding positions and making improvements which were previously the domain of the colonial authorities alone. As such, even many who were not ill-disposed toward the French began to see them as being rather unnecessary.

Prince Phetsarath was quickly gaining a golden reputation in Laos among the ordinary people and that grew all the more with the coming of World War II in French Indochina. When France fell to Nazi Germany, and word reached Southeast Asia, people in Laos were shocked. What would happen to them if their “protector” had been conquered? The answer was that the military government in Thailand, supported by Imperial Japan, moved to regain border territories they had lost to Cambodia and Laos after the Franco-Siamese War. This outraged the Lao people and caused a great deal of anger against France as their position in the colonial union of French Indochina was based on the promise of protection which was no longer being delivered. Tensions rose further when the French government (Vichy) allowed Imperial Japanese forces to make use of bases in Vietnam for their campaigns against Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies.

In January of 1941, in reaction to all of this, Prince Phetsarath formed the “Movement for National Renovation” to stand up for Lao territorial integrity. It was not an anti-French organization and some French officials in Laos supported it but these were generally those more in line with the “Free French” loyal to General Charles DeGaulle in London. The French colonial leadership in Hanoi which was loyal to the Vichy government opposed the organization. At one point, in 1944, Prince Phetsarath sent Lao troops to attack Thailand and regain the lost territory but nothing came of the attempted campaign. Laos remained in almost a state of limbo in terms of the wider world war until the liberation of France by the Allies in 1944. With France shifting back to the Allied camp, the Japanese reacted by taking control of Indochina themselves, starting with Vietnam. Some French officials fled to Laos and the Japanese moved in to pursue them and to detain King Sisavang Vong in the hope that he would declare independence from France and join the Japanese-sponsored “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” as the Emperor of Vietnam and King of Cambodia had done or would do. The King and Crown Prince refused to turn against France but Prince Phetsarath took a different view. As he saw it, their relationship with France had been based on the French pledge to protect Laos and as they had failed to do so, Laos should declare independence and if this could only be done with the support of Japan, so be it.

With the King refusing to deal with them, the Japanese naturally moved closer to Prince Phetsarath who was widely revered throughout the country and a determined patriot devoted to the cause of independence. During their occupation they named him Prime Minister of Luang Prabang and Prince Phetsarath formed and led the group called Lao Issara or “Free Laos”. When the King remained obstinate, Prince Phetsarath issued his own declaration of independence, backed up by Japan who were rushing to try to erect friendly Asian governments as an Allied victory loomed on the horizon, and the Prince tried to regain lost ground since the start of the war. Because of his activities during this time, Prince Phetsarath became known as the “Father of Lao Independence” even though the time of this independence was of short duration. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan those governments allied with Japan and occupied by Japanese forces began to come apart. Indochina was no different. In August of 1945 the last Emperor of Vietnam abdicated and a “Democratic People’s Republic” was declared in Hanoi. In Laos, Prince Phetsarath tried to convince the King to declare the unity and independence of Laos at that time, without French or Japanese influences, but the King was convinced that France would be returning and the risk of unrest was too great.

Within days the French were reasserting control over Indochina and Prince Phetsarath was a marked man for his cooperation with the Japanese. Still at the head of his “Free Laos” government, he had no choice but to escape across the border into Thailand in 1946. He was gone but not forgotten and during the more than ten years Prince Phetsarath spent in exile, his reputation grew and grew in Laos until he attained godlike status. People had come to believe that the Prince possessed supernatural powers and would often call on him to bless their villages and drive out evil spirits. After the return of French forces, his reputation as “Father of Independence” took on a new importance among the populace. People said that he could fly and had turned himself into various animals to speed his work in struggling for their freedom. Part of the origins for these beliefs were also the seemingly miraculous way the Prince had survived numerous accidents in his life, and tales of this eventually reached the point where he was considered invincible, a khon kong or half-god, half-royal.

The French, needless to say, were not happy with Prince Phetsarath or his ever-growing legend, but how could they fight a demigod? In 1957 he was finally allowed to return to Laos where he received a huge, rapturous welcome from the ordinary people. He visited King Sisavang Vong who restored all of his old titles to him and by the prestige of his personality brought about a moment of unity amongst the political factions in Laos. Unfortunately, it was not long after that Prince Phetsarath died of a brain hemorrhage on October 14, 1959 in Luang Prabang. His funeral was a massive affair, and rightly so, for his death was a tragedy for the entire country. Had he lived longer, the terrible civil war might never have happened. Yet, even after the civil war, the fall of the Kingdom of Laos and the communist takeover, the memory of Prince Phetsarath has never died. His portrait adorns the walls of shops, homes and restaurants and family altars where people burn incense in his honor and pray for his spirit to watch over them. Even in recent years, people in Laos, young and old, could be found wearing miniature portraits of the Prince as talismans to protect them from harm. In spite of all the years of communist controlled education painting the Royal Family with the worst possible reputation, the faith of the people in their beloved prince remains strong.

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