Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Laos in World War II

The Kingdom of Laos was in a very unique position during the Second World War. The reasons behind this are due mostly to the position Laos had in the French colonial empire. For most of their history, the people of Laos had been divided into a number of small and shifting kingdoms or what were effectively city-states, traditionally dominated much of the time by the Kingdom of Thailand. There were also periods of Burmese invasions and extended raids by the Chinese and some Lao rulers occasionally had to pay court to the Vietnamese but the region remained essentially divided into at least three city-states. Then, one fateful day, the French arrived. When the King of Luang Prabang was driven out by Chinese renegades, the French (who were already established in Vietnam) came to his rescue and established a protectorate over the region. In quick order the states of Champasak and Vientiane became protectorates as well as the French united them all into the Kingdom of Laos under the ruler of Luang Prabang, King Sisavang Vong. This was a man who showed great integrity and never forgot that, when he was at his lowest point, had lost his kingdom and been driven from his throne, that it was the French who helped him get it all back and more.

King Sisavang Vong with French officials
Within French Indochina, Laos was treated with relatively benign neglect. There were, of course, occasions of resistance to the French presence but, on the whole, the French treated the Lao people more like charming simpletons who had to be cared for rather than property to be exploited (that was done elsewhere). The French also seemed unassailable; they had taken control of the whole of Vietnam, rested Cambodia from Thailand and suppressed every challenge to their authority. All of that changed with the outbreak of World War II, the conquest of France by Germany and the subsequent attack on French Indochina by the Kingdom of Thailand. The Royal Thai Army overran most of Laos in quick order and though the subsequent treaty, brokered by Japan, saw French authority restored, Laos did lose several provinces in the south to Thailand and all of French Indochina was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. What was very worrisome to Laos was that the dictator of Thailand, who was soon to become an official ally of Japan, Marshal Phibun, had declared his intention to re-unite all Thai peoples under his rule and by “all Thai peoples” he meant the people of Laos as well.

Since Laos was not considered very strategically important, the Japanese garrison was rather small and while the Japanese allowed the French colonial regime to remain in power, there was no love lost between the two sides. The Japanese leadership had stressed that this was a racial war, a pan-Asian movement to eradicate the ‘white skinned devils’ and the French never expected the peace to be indefinite. In those parts of Indochina where French colonial rule was most unpopular, this was a significant threat. The Japanese enjoyed forcing the French to bow and scrape to them and, in Vietnam for example, the locals liked seeing it as well and many Vietnamese began peppering their speech with Japanese phrases, a clear sign of who was really in charge. The French Governor-General of Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux was not willing to do nothing while this was happening and to do what he could to strengthen the French position in areas where resistance had been the least active. French attitudes themselves had also changed with the establishment of the Vichy regime and this played a part as well.

Prince Phetsarath
Admiral Decoux gave his support to the cause of Lao nationalism, backing the “Movement for National Renovation” which advocated Lao unity, cooperation with France and a not-so-subtle opposition to Japan. There was also an anti-French resistance movement but, during most of the war years, it gained little traction. This situation prevailed throughout most of the war, no outright confrontations but with considerable tension between the French and the Japanese. The centerpiece for Japanese efforts to win public support was the pan-Asian movement of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” but this did not gain widespread acceptance in Laos. There were those who sympathized of course but there were also those who looked at the basic fact that it was the French who had made Laos a united country whereas it was the Japanese who had backed Thailand in taking territory from them. For King Sisavang Vong there was no doubt that his loyalties remained with the French. They had aided him in his hour of need and he was not about to abandon them. Yet, as respected as the King was, the Japanese had a powerful potential ally in one of the most dynamic royal figures of that time and place. That figure was Prince Phetsarath Rattanavongsa.

The Prince was a nationalist and opposed to the French colonial regime. He argued that by giving up territory to Thailand, the French had failed to protect Laos which meant that the protectorate treaty was invalidated and that Laos should align itself with Japan and oppose France. King Sisavang Vong, however, argued in turn that it hardly made sense to hold France responsible for this loss while allying with those that had actually taken Lao territory. The French had, he reasoned, at least tried to defend Laos whereas Japan had backed Thailand which had attacked them. This difference of opinion reached the boiling point in 1945 when, clearly losing the war, Japan launched a surprise attack on the French, seizing control of Indochina and then urging the leaders of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to declare independence and join the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in solidarity with Japan. In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk did so, proclaiming the independence of the Kingdom of Kampuchea and, likewise, in Annam the Emperor Bao Dai declared the independence of the Empire of Vietnam in cooperation with Japan. The Kingdom of Laos, however, was to be a different story. Despite the fact that, for the moment, the Japanese still held the upper hand, King Sisavang Vong refused to cooperate and plainly asserted that this era of Japanese dominance was a temporary anomaly and that he supported keeping faith with France and having Laos resume its place in the French colonial union when the war was over.

Prince Phetsarath
Japan had taken this action when the Allies had pushed the Germans out of France, doing away with the Vichy regime which allowed the pro-Allied “Free French” resistance to claim power. Since the Japanese presence in Laos was minimal, all sides had greater freedom to fight for their vision of the future for Laos. In October, the King was sidelined and Japan backed Prince Phetsarath as the real power in the country with his own Lao resistance movement called the “Lao Issara” or ‘Free Laos’. They took control of the local government and while their flag was later adopted by the communist Pathet Lao (and is the national flag of Laos today) these were anti-communist nationalists who had rallied around Prince Phetsarath to oppose the French and cooperate with Japan. However, the Japanese had little strength in the area and the Lao Issara were woefully short of funds, weapons, training and supplies of every kind.

Meanwhile, at the time of the Japanese takeover, the French in Laos had fled to the jungles and mountains to form a pro-Allied, anti-Japanese resistance. King Sisavang Vong supported this group and his son and heir, Crown Prince Savang Vatthana was the leader of the Lao insurgents who fought against the Japanese occupation, with the Free French, on the Allied side. These Franco-Lao forces were, like the faction of Prince Phetsarath, short of heavy weapons but they did receive some support from the Allies and were able to take control of several rural areas and hold them. French and British special forces infiltrated the region to aid in the fight but they still lacked the firepower for major offensive operations. Nonetheless, they were able to be a considerable problem for the Japanese whose authority was mostly confined to the urban areas where Lao Issara under Prince Phetsarath was struggling to run an effective government with nothing to work with. Eventually, they began to cooperate with the anti-French and anti-Japanese forces of the VietMinh, which posed as a nationalist group but was really led by the communists under the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. This was also an example of how the Allies had very different agendas. The French and the British, anxious to maintain their empires, backed the pro-French forces of Crown Prince Savang Vatthana while the United States, which opposed the reestablishment of colonial empires, gave support to the VietMinh which opposed the French as well as the Japanese. It would take quite a few years but this American policy would ultimately prove detrimental to all and most costly to the United States itself.

King Sisavang Vong
As far as all of these different factions went, the one led by Prince Phetsarath probably had the edge in terms of public sympathy. He was a zealous patriot, close to the people and much beloved. However, his cause depended on that of Japan and by the time the Japanese allowed for his cause to have a chance, their own was already lost and it was only a matter of months before Japan was forced to surrender. When that time came, the Lao Issara had nothing to do but simply wait for the inevitable French return. France had prepared a special force to participate in the war against Japan, the French East Asian Expeditionary Corps, but Japan surrendered before they arrived. Instead, they would be used in the reestablishment of French colonial authority, the suppression of dissident elements and later in the First Indochina War against the communist North Vietnamese. In 1946 the French formally returned to Vientiane and King Sisavang Vong was restored to his throne. The leadership of Lao Issara was forced to flee into exile in Thailand, including Prince Phetsarath. He would return later when Laos was starting to fall victim to communist subversion and almost certainly would have been the ideal man to defeat them, having patched things up with the King and still being extremely popular, but he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1959. He is still revered in Laos to this day, considered by some to be of almost godlike status.

King Sisavang Vong still ended up presiding over the independence of the Kingdom of Laos. The French were quick to grant Laos complete autonomy within the French union in recognition of the King’s loyalty but later they agreed to complete independence in the hope that this would save Laos from the communist contagion that was infecting Vietnam. Like his one-time prime minister Prince Phetsarath, King Sisavang Vong died in 1959, perhaps not so beloved but certainly respected by his people who had greater affection for him as time went on and so many of his predictions were proven correct. He was succeeded by his son King Savang Vatthana who would preside over a civil war in his country fought by three factions, a conflict that spilled over from the communist struggle to dominate Vietnam. When the United States pulled out of the region the communists quickly took power across Indochina and in Laos the King was deposed, replaced by a socialist dictatorship subservient to Hanoi and would die years later in a communist concentration camp.

The Kingdom of Laos emerged from World War II more unscathed than others. They came away as an independent monarchy still on very friendly terms with the former colonial power and enjoying a, sadly temporary, period of unity and peace. The two dominant royal figures of the period, the King and Prince Phetsarath, though for a time on opposite sides, were both good men who wanted the best for their country and they were ultimately reconciled. Laos was unique in that they had gained more than others from the colonial period and so looked at the war in a different way than, for example, many of their neighbors in Vietnam. Unlike Laos, Vietnam had been a united and well established independent country before the French arrived and so while the outbreak of war caused many Vietnamese to see it in terms of what they could gain, many in Laos, and certainly the King, saw it in terms of what they could lose. The misfortune of Laos was that they were at the mercy of powers far removed and beyond their control. The King was correct in judging the period of Japanese power to be only temporary but ultimately the fate of Laos would depend on the fate of the anti-communist forces fighting in Vietnam, first the French and later the Americans. They came away from World War II as a united, independent kingdom and that kingdom, while today only a memory, remains the precious dream of the Lao exile community and all those opposed to the existing communist dictatorship.

33 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. We? You have a frog in your pocket? Kidding aside, I didn't think anyone had noticed. Explaining seems unnecessary at this point.

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    2. Well I for one sir have found much wisdom and even comfort in these days from what you have written and what you have believed. Before discovering you and your readers, I thought I was quite alone. I am not, and neither are you. I am humbly requesting that you carry on the good fight, in your manner and way, so as to help strengthen, enlighten, and encourage us who read your work to carry on our good fight. Thank you and God Bless

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    3. Although I have been patiently awaiting further content on this blog, my pocket tortoise has been especially impatient. Please come back. We do miss your posts!

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  2. Well....I miss you! I hope that counts for something. I hope you are well!

    I really do enjoy reading your histories you put on here.

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  3. Any chance of you returning? Hope all is well.

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  4. I check in every day. I share what I learn with our middle schoolers. You are responsible for some very inspiring conversations! I hope you are well!

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  5. Be assurd, I noticed your absence! I hope you are doing fine and one day will return - just like our king...

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  6. Slightly OT here but it would be remiss of me not to mention of HM Queen Elizabeth II's latest milestone of becoming the longest reigning Queen in recorded history, surpassing her Great-Great-Grandmother HIM Queen Victoria.

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  7. Hope you are OK! I, for one, miss your interesting posts!

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  8. I hope you're not abandoning this wonderful blog you've had going and that you're doing ok. The blog has been awfully quiet for a long time. In any case God bless you.

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    1. I agree, but in any case God bless.

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    2. Yes, I do wish you the best. However, we need a voice like yours at this difficult time for our civilization.

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    3. Agree with Ponocrates. Since you've left the blog, the world have gone more mad than ever (seriously). I wish to read again your wonderful articles and I hope you are healthy and everything is OK. I do read your posts in Twitter, I must say this makes me feel better.God bless you.

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  9. Really miss you. Hope everything is fine.

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  10. Hey, Is everything fine, you haven't posted in a while...

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  11. Missing your posts. Please come back.

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  12. Come back soon. It would be great to see some new posts. Hope all is going well!

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  13. Indeed there are very few blogs like this one and it would be a shame to lose you.

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  14. Good sir, I would be greatly joy-filled if you were to post a Politically Incorrect Truth on Francoist Spain on your Youtube channel.

    In fact I would greatly enjoy it if more video content like that series were posted.
    Thank you and may we live to see an end to this era of cultural destruction.

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  15. Well, you are either a cherished blogger who is now dead, or you're not.

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  16. Your blog has been one of the best I have ever had the opportunity to read. I have been reading here since I was teenager. Your words are truly inspiring. Even if you should not return Im going to archive your blog. You let us know that we weren't crazy and in fact there are others who share our views. God Bless You for your hard work on this blog.

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  17. Been awhile since you've posted. Hope you are doing well😊

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  18. MM,thank you for making such an awesome blog and I hope you come back sone!


    From a romanian mad monarchist
    P.S
    Could you please do a monarch profile on king Carol the first of Romania?

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    Replies
    1. I am also a Romanian mad monarchist, and who also hopes that MM will eventually return to this blog as I am also a lover of history and politics so naturally I love this blog as it combines history, politics, and supports Monarchism.

      P.S.

      I noticed that this blog has two entries on Romania, so if it helps you may find something on King Carol I there.

      By the way, just as friendly question:

      Who do you think was a better King, Carol I or Ferdinand I?

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    2. Carol I was better,because he always did his duty to his country even when it was against him.I also admire him for his courage as he personaly took commaned of his own troops on the battlefield against the turks.

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    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  19. A blessed and happy Christmas to you! It would be a wonderful 2016 if you returned with new posts! I miss them!

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  20. A blessed and happy Christmas to you! It would make a wonderful 2016 if you returned!

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  21. hope you return, you converted me to being a die-hard monarchist and colonialist even though I am an American and have no Monarch of my own to support

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