|King Oun Kham and his court
It was the son of King Zakarine, Prince Sisavang Phoulivong, who presided over the reunification of the country and became King Sisavang Vong of Laos in 1904. The modern history of the country truly began with his reign. He had been educated in Saigon and Paris and his kingship was to be the beginning of a new era of Lao development and Franco-Lao cooperation; something he was totally committed to. The French built the new Royal Palace in Luang Prabang short after he came to the throne, a symbol of the start of a new period of unity and progress. King Sisavang Vong provided steady and moderate leadership, becoming over his many years on the throne one of the most beloved and respected monarchs in Southeast Asia. He was also more fortunate than some other monarchs in Indochina alone as he was left mostly to govern as he wished, at least in the area of Luang Prabang and whereas French colonialism had brought the division of Vietnam into three pieces, it had brought unity to Laos, restoring the one kingdom out of three. King Sisavang Vong saw the lives of his people improve and was genuinely friendly toward France. This friendship was put to the test with the outbreak of World War II.
|King Sisavang Vong
While revolution gripped neighboring Vietnam, the Kingdom of Laos remained peacefully isolated from such chaos and both Laos and Cambodia experienced a period of great prosperity after the end of World War II. King Sisavang Vong was more revered than ever and celebrated his Golden Jubilee in 1954. A few years later his poor health forced him to hand official responsibilities over to his son as regent and he died in 1959, disliked by the xenophobes for his friendship with France but beloved by most people for his thoughtful leadership and establishment of the first constitution in Lao history. He was succeeded by his son, King Savang Vatthana, who was destined to be the last King of Laos. Despite the outward signs of peace and prosperity, there was a cancer growing in the heart of the country which was the Pathet Lao; a communist, revolutionary group born out of the Vietnamese communist movement of Ho Chi Minh. He had first established the Indochinese Communist Party and spread subversive groups into Laos and Cambodia as he intended for the Vietnamese Communist Party to eventually rule all of what was then French Indochina.
|King Savang Vatthana in coronation regalia
For decades this “unofficial” civil war raged across Laos and divided the Royal Family as well as the populace. Prince Souvanna Phouma (who favored neutrality and was supported by the USSR, which did not want the war to spread) was in Vientiane claiming to be Prime Minister. Prince Boun Oum of Champassak was in the south with the anti-communist forces and was recognized as Prime Minister by the United States. Finally there was Prince Souphanouvong, the “Red Prince” who led the communist Pathet Lao and was backed by North Vietnam in also claiming to be Prime Minister. The King was in the middle trying to bring all sides together and he was the only figure that Prince Souvanna Phouma and Prince Boun Oum would both deal with. The Pathet Lao, of course, were reluctant as their aim was the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a communist dictatorship (which would actually be a puppet regime for North Vietnam). King Savang Vatthana wanted all three of the feuding princes to come together in a coalition government in an effort to please all sides and end the killing. Unfortunately, he was only partially successful.
|Prince Boun Oum
Especially after 1973 the United States had started withdrawing from Vietnam. In the next U.S. congressional elections after the Watergate scandal, the Democrats swept to power and immediately cut off funding for the war effort and all aid going to non-communist forces in Indochina. 1975 was the year of total victory for the communist forces of North Vietnam and, by extension, their fellow revolutionaries across Indochina. On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh, starting “Year Zero” and the nightmarish regime of Pol Pot. On April 30, 1975 the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon and the red flag was raised over the Dragon’s Head Palace. The royal government of King Savang Vatthana of Laos was the last to hold out. The Royal Lao Army had been devastated as early as 1968 due to a massive attack by North Vietnamese forces. After the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon, the Pathet Lao were eager to renew their offensive against the royal government, which they did, with North Vietnamese support. King Savang Vatthana tried to organize a defense but many of his ministers and generals were giving up and leaving the country while that was still possible, due to the obviously hopeless position they faced.
In time, the communists stopped fearing the King would stay and started fearing he would leave. They had promised a utopian paradise and instead had delivered only misery, suffering and oppression, backed up by the North Vietnamese. The Pathet Lao became increasingly worried that the King would escape the country and organize a resistance movement against them so, in March of 1977 he, along with the Queen and several other members of the Royal Family, were arrested and thrown into a concentration camp in the north for political prisoners. That was the last time anyone in the public ever saw him. The following year the communist government stated that the King, Queen and Crown Prince had died of malaria. However, there are conflicting accounts about when exactly the last King died and under what circumstances. In any event, his youngest son who had escaped the country continued to lead the opposition to the regime in exile.
|Crown Prince Soulivong Savang