|King Sisavang Vong with French officials
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.
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.
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
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.