Friday, May 4, 2012

Monarch Profile: King Savang Vatthana of Laos

Few monarchs of recent times have had to face such a calamitous collection of difficulties as His Majesty Savang Vatthana, the last King of Laos. He was born Samdach Brhat Chao Mavattaha Sri Vitha Lan Xang Hom Khao Phra Rajanachakra Lao Parama Sidha Khattiya Suriya Varman Brhat Maha Sri Savangsa Vadhana on November 13, 1907 at the Royal Palace of Luang Prabang to Their Majesties King Sisavang Vong and Queen Kham-Oun I, the second of five children. During this time Laos was part of the French colonial union of Indochina along with Cambodia and the three regions of old Vietnam (Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina). The new prince’s father, King Sisavang Vong, was very cognizant of the advances France had brought to his country as well as their role in aiding in the unification of the minor Lao kingdoms into a single Kingdom of Laos. He was determined to always maintain friendly relations with France and, like other royals of the time, sent Crown Prince Savang Vatthana to France at the age of 10 to be given a western education and to learn something of the world outside of Laos.

The Crown Prince went to a prestigious private school in Montpellier and later earned a degree in Paris at École Libre des Sciences Politiques, also a prestigious institution where French diplomats were trained. He spent ten years in France learning about history, science, statecraft, diplomacy and so on. As he had left at such an early age, when he returned to Laos traditional royal tutors had to repeat some of the traditional Lao education he had received as a child. It is probably safe to say that Savang Vatthana would be the most well and diversely education monarch that Laos ever had. Not long after his return, on August 7, 1930 he married his future Queen Khamphoui, a girl from Luang Prabang, beginning what would be a devoted and fruitful marriage. In the following years the couple would have seven children. They were always a close-knit family, praying and playing together. Tennis was a very popular sport that had been introduced to the country and the Crown Princely family would play together whenever they had a chance as well as being always eager to take in tournaments when they happened to be traveling abroad.

HRH Savang Vatthana was also a very religious man. As King of Laos he would one day hold a sacred, even semi-divine position, and he took his religious duties very seriously. He poured over Buddhist scriptures, practiced intense self discipline and, of course, served in a monastery as a monk himself as was customary. In time he became an expert on the sangkha, even by the standards of the Buddhist clergy. The Crown Prince was determined that when he came to the throne and inherited the position of chief protector of the Buddhist faith in Laos that he would know it completely and be able to do so. Not just protecting it from attack but also from any who would attempt to subvert its true meaning. It is tragic that a man who was such a sincere and devout Buddhist would face such a horrific succession of conflicts, violence and hatred throughout his life. The first, but unfortunately not the last, was when World War II spread to southeast Asia.

The Empire of Japan, already allied to the Kingdom of Thailand, occupied Indochina and found many willing allies among those who wished to throw off European colonialism and grasp the hope of independence. The Japanese also made it clear that, believing in the imperial system as they did, traditional monarchs were who they preferred to work with. Many in Japan expected the mere offer of independence would be sufficient to enlist Laos on their side in the greater war. That was not to be the case. Crown Prince Savang Vatthana was sent by the King to the Japanese military headquarters in Saigon, Vietnam to relay his position and carry on negotiations as needed. In a very bold move he made it abundantly clear that the Kingdom of Laos was an ally of France and part of the French union and that was not going to change. The Japanese, needless to say, were not pleased and, as a matter of necessity, occupied Laos and allied with the nationalist faction to force a declaration of Laotian independence. Again acting for the King, Crown Prince Savang Vatthana vociferously protested against the Japanese presence in Laos and their actions in the political sphere.

Ultimately, the King was proven to be the more foresighted. In 1945 the Japanese were defeated and evacuated southeast Asia and in 1949 France granted full self-rule to Laos as part of the Union of Indochina. In 1951 the Crown Prince took office as Prime Minister under his father and in 1953 negotiated the treaty by which France recognized the full independence of the Kingdom of Laos as a neutral constitutional monarchy with a new prime minister taking office. In the summer of 1959 as the King become increasingly frail, Savang Vatthana assumed the position of regent. Fighting was still going on in Vietnam between the communist and non-communist factions and the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia were in danger of being dragged into conflict as well. A smooth transition of leadership was essential and only a few months later the old king died and on October 29, 1959 Savang Vatthana became King of Laos. The new monarch, however, decided to delay the grand coronation rites due to the civil war that was raging in his country as a result of the communist insurgency.

King Savang Vatthana stood in a precarious position. His country was essentially divided into three factions. On one side were the communist insurgents, the Pathet Lao, who wanted to take over the country and were supported by the communist North Vietnamese. On the other side were the anti-communist nationalists who wanted to fight the insurgency and the North Vietnamese and were supported by the United States of America. In the middle was the neutral faction which wanted to keep Laos neutral and neither support nor oppose either side in the Cold War that come to Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union originally supported this faction. Making things even more painful for the King was the fact that each faction was led by a royal prince who were his cousins with each claiming to be prime minister and each recognized by their primary foreign supporters, either North Vietnam, Soviet Russia or the United States. King Savang Vatthana therefore went on a worldwide tour in an effort to gain foreign support for an independent Kingdom of Laos and by establishing friendly relations with all to hopefully influence them to withdraw their support for the factions which were dividing his country.

However, try as he might, King Savang Vatthana simply could not stop the escalating conflict in Vietnam from spreading to his country. The North Vietnamese established routes through Laos for moving men and supplies into South Vietnam and the United States (clandestinely) employed forces to attack these routes. Finally, in 1961, the National Assembly reached a slim majority in favor of Prince Boun Oum of Champassack, leader of the anti-communist faction supported by the United States. King Savang Vatthana recognized the new government, which was crucial as he occupied the only position in national government that was beyond dispute. However, he hoped that the factions would form a coalition government to unite the country. Putting all of his political and moral authority behind this cause, the following year in 1962 the King managed to obtain this coalition with all sides claiming to want nothing more than a peaceful, neutral, independent Laos. However, the communists would never go along with any regime that they did not control and the coalition soon fell apart.

There was a succession of coups and coup attempts until finally there was no room for neutrality. The communist Pathet-Lao refused to take part in any talks, elections or compromises and the neutralist and anti-communist factions joined forces against them. For roughly a decade after this a civil war raged in the small, mountainous Kingdom of Laos between the royal government and the communist Pathet-Lao. One side was supported by the communist North Vietnamese, the other by the United States. It was extremely painful for the King who was always a man of peace but circumstances had left no other option. Everything would depend on whose allies sent the most support and that issue was determined in 1975.

It was in that year the last U.S. troops left South Vietnam, pulling out the military and financial support the non-communist forces had come to depend on. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese who were then able to increase their support for the communist insurgents in Laos. They quickly seized power and on December 2, 1975 forced King Savang Vatthana to abdicate. As in the other countries of Indochina, the communists first made a show of reconciliation by appointing the former King advisor to the President but this charade did not last long. The communists did not want to deal with him at all but the King refused to leave the country and abandon his people. Finally, in 1977 the King and Royal Family were arrested by the communists and sent to “Camp Number One” in northern Laos for political prisoners. None of his people would ever see him again. The King passed his 70th year in this prison but finally died, no one is sure even today exactly when or under what circumstances. The Lao Royal Family continues to survive in exile thanks to those who escaped the country and Laos remains little more than a client state of the communist regime in Vietnam. Thankfully, inspired by the example of King Savang Vatthana, the Lao exile community around the world remains defiant, staunchly royalist and determined to one day see the communist tyranny destroyed and the Kingdom of Laos restored to its former glory.


  1. Thanks for this post, MM. Whereas everyone knows the record of marxist regimes in China, Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos has been largely forgotten. The Pathet-Laos has systematically destroyed the Country`s religious and cultural traditions and it is no surprise to learn that the Laos King himself, was a victim of their savagery. Any objective opinion could not help but draw the conclusion that the Pathet-Laos are as bad as (if not worse than) the Khmer rouge of Cambodia.

    1. Laos is very secretive and still largely cut off from the rest of the world. They are also an even more outright puppet of the pinko gang in Hanoi than Cambodia is. It's been reduced to the personal playground of the Vietnamese People's Army to a large extent. However, I am proud to say that the Lao exile community is one of the most staunchly monarchist, even after all these years, that I have ever seen. The people have not forgotten and those outside Laos with the freedom to say so at least, want the communists gone and their kingdom restored.

  2. Unfortunately, current trend dictates that after the fall of an evil communist(authoritarian) "empire" then democratic secularist republic will burgeon.

  3. That is usually the case, but I would be optimistically hopeful about Laos if they could just get the communists out. The expat community is very loyal to the royal legacy and I've heard that many people in Laos keep altars to the King of Thailand in the absence of a monarch of their own so the loyalty may not have been eradicated from Laos itself yet.


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