Laos is a landlocked country squeezed between China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia; it has a small population of about seven million yet it’s almost the same size as the UK. A 50,000 year old skull was found recently; the oldest evidence of a modern day human in South East Asia.
Proof of an agricultural society dates from over 6000 years ago. 4000 year old bronze tools and iron artefacts dating from 3000 years ago have been found. Laos came together as a nation around the Fourteenth Century when the kingdom had the beautiful name of Million Elephants or Lan Xang. The country expanded to its present borders in the 1600s. King Sourigna Vongsa started with 2 sons, but as intrigue is the norm with royalty; one was executed for adultery, the other fled the country after being caught in bed with his half sister and sentenced to death. The King died in 1694 without an heir and the country split into three parts. Thus weakened; the north was invaded by the Burmese and the south by Siam (Thailand).
As late as 1874 the Siamese conducted cross border slave hunting raids. A few years later the Chinese bandit army the Black Flags invaded. In 1893 France rescued King Oun Kham and added Laos to its Indochina protectorate. The three areas were reunited and Laos was safe again. France left Laos relatively untouched using it as a buffer between British occupied Thailand and its own lands. The French did however enact a law making all adult males do 10 days manual labour a year for them.
During WWII Laos was occupied in turn by six different countries, briefly after the Chinese left in March 1945 it became independent. Then a month later the Japanese invaded. At the end of the war in 1946 the French reoccupied the country until 1953 when France lost the first Indochina war. With the Geneva peace accord signed in 1954’ Laos was again an independent monarchy and America started to financially support the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas.
President Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam had agreed in 1954 not to interfere in Laos but secretly aided the Pathet Lao. From 1958; Soviet backed North Vietnam (NVA) conducted secret night time border attacks, then quickly withdraw leaving the Pathet Lao to control the new territory. This terrified the Royal Laos army and whole units deserted rather than face the ghostly attacks. The NVA then controlled large parts of Laos which they needed to construct the now legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail. This huge project would later enable munitions, fuel, supplies and manpower to travel south from Hanoi once hostilities commenced a few years later. The American Govt department the NSA later called the trail the greatest ever military construction programme of the 20th Century.
By 1968 the Royal Laos army had disappeared and the Americans started recruiting the Hmong Tribe as their secret army against the NVA. Trying to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail; American planes dropped an average of a bomb load every eight minutes on Laos from 1964-73. That’s nine years at $23 million a day. More bombs were dropped on Laos than were used in the whole of WWII. Since then America has donated $53 million towards bomb clearance.
After the Vietnam War finished in 1973 the Hmong tribe helped the CIA defend the Royalist Government. Then in 1975 when the communists took over; the Hmong found themselves attacked in retribution by both the new Laos rulers and the Vietnamese. Hundreds of thousands fled to Thailand to live in refugee camps. In 1989 Laos agreed to repatriate some of them but most refuse to return. Those that have often disappear.
Hillary Clinton’s husband when President back in 1995 refused to help the Hmong people as he denied they were being persecuted. His political opponents stated it was a betrayal of a people who had spilt their blood defending American interests. The Republicans forced him to publically acknowledge the huge secret war in 1997. Then 8 long years later; some Hmong were allowed to resettle as political refugees in America.
The ‘Secret War’ during the wider Vietnam conflict had both the main adversaries infiltrating Laos for their own gains. In the Orient people are renowned for taking the long view; the North Vietnamese began building the Ho chi Minh trail in Laos back in 1958 as they planned to retake the south in the years to come.
North Vietnam defied the 1954 Geneva Accord when they agreed not interfere in Laos by taking over the border areas and then forcing local Laos people to help with the trail’s construction. America for its part recruited the Hmong tribe as their proxy army and used all the technology at their disposal to disrupt the ever growing supply routes from Hanoi in the north. America never officially had any boots on the ground in Laos. On one occasion however a CIA spotter plane ran out of fuel and the crew landed in Laos to refuel. The American Ambassador almost choked on his Ferrero Rocher when he found out.
Over two million tonnes of bombs were used in Laos between 1964 and 1973. Cluster bombs were used extensively by the Americans with 270,000,000 being dropped. Of these an estimated one third failed to explode. That’s 80 million left in rivers and fields or lodged in tree tops and cliff faces. The manufacturers of these ‘bombies,’ designed and painted some of them to look like fresh fruit or drinks cans. Since 1973 over 50,000 people have been killed or maimed by these lethal remnants. 40 years later and still over 100 people are year are blown up.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted in May 2008; countries were invited to sign the treaty on the 3rd December at a conference in Dublin. Laos was one of 94 countries to sign up immediately. The United Kingdom also signed and the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared all Britain’s stockpiles would be destroyed. Many countries refuse to sign the treaty; America and Israel now find themselves as bedfellows with China, Russia, North Korea and Pakistan as countries opposed to the ban. The Pentagon’s policy is that these awful weapons are humane. In 2006 Barack Obama voted to restrict the use of these weapons while Hillary Clinton voted to keep using them. The first CCM meeting was held in Laos in 2010; as recognition of its horrific cluster bomb history.
The charity MAG, have been clearing Laos land since 1994. In the past ten years over 10,000 acres have been returned by MAG to Laotians to farm and nearly 200,000 bombs destroyed. From July to December last year almost 90,000 people were helped by MAG to start farming again. It will take decades more as all 17 provinces were affected with approximately a quarter of the country still contaminated. Another charity POWER set up by Briton Mike Boddington has worked in Laos for 20 years supplying prosthetic limbs. Mike was awarded the MBE in 2010 for his work. In all there are over a dozen humanitarian missions trying to return Laos to normal. Its estimated it would cost $16bn to make Laos safe; at today’s prices America spent $60bn doing the damage in the first place.
Laos is one of only five communist states; yet international markets are opening and a stock exchange is now open. The country has massive water resources and is investing in hydroelectric schemes to sell half its generating capacity to Thailand and Vietnam. Vietnam still has a big influence and it’s alleged that most illegal logging is done by the Vietnamese People’s Army or companies they own.
Tourism is big business growing from 80,000 visitors in 1990 to about 2 million now. Europe named Laos as the world’s best tourist destination in 2013. There are ancient temple complexes, wild tigers and the increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin swims in the Mekong River. Laos’s cuisine is also highly revered and the national beer is Beer Lao with a new brand called Lan Xang launched recently in honour of the original name of Laos – Million Elephants!