Thursday, September 20, 2012
Royal Profile: Prince Phetsarath of Laos
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.
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.
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.