French Protectorate of Laos

Protectorate of France; constituent territory of French Indochina

Flag Royal arms
Capital Vientiane (official), Luang Prabang (ceremonial)
Languages French (official), Lao
Religion Theravada Buddhism, Roman Catholicism
Government Absolute monarchy under colonial administration (1893–1947); Constitutional monarchy under the French Union (1947–1953)
   1868-1895 Oun Kham (first)
  1904-1954 Sisavang Vong (last)
Prime Minister
  1946-1947 Kindavong (first)
  1951-1953 Souvanna Phouma (last)
Historical era New Imperialism
   Protectorate established 1893
  Lao Issara government proclaimed 12 October 1945
  French restoration 24 April 1946
  Kingdom of Laos proclaimed 11 May 1947
   Independence 22 October 1953
  Geneva Conference 21 July 1954
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Luang Phrabang
Champasak Kingdom
Rattanakosin Kingdom
Lao Issara
Kingdom of Laos

The French protectorate of Laos was a French protectorate forming part of the French Colonial Empire in Southeast Asia. It consisted of much of the territory of the former kingdom of Lan Xang and was part of French Indochina from 1893 until it was granted self-rule within the French Union in 1946. The Franco-Lao Treaty of 1953 establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union.[1] Under the Geneva Conference following France's withdrawal from Indochina after the First Indochina War, Laos was granted independence in 1954.

Establishment of a protectorate

A French government official and Lao children in Luang phrabang, 1887

After the acquirement of Cambodia in 1863, French explorers led by Ernest Doudart de Lagrée went on several expeditions along the Mekong River to find possible trade relations for the territories of French Cambodia and Cochinchina (modern-day Southern Vietnam) to the south. In 1885, a French consulate was established in Luang Prabang, which along with the royal province of Vientiane, was a vassal kingdom to Siam (modern-day Thailand). Siam, led by king Chulalongkorn, soon feared that France was planning to annexe Luang Prabang and signed a treaty with the French on 7 May 1886 which recognised Siam's suzerainty over the Lao kingdoms.[2]

By the end of 1886, Auguste Pavie was named vice-consul to Luang Prabang and was in charge of expeditions occurring in Laotian territory, with the possibility of turning Laos into a French territory. In 1888, Chinese forces known as the Black Flags declared war on Siam and its vassal state of Luang Prabang by sacking the city. Pavie and French forces later intervened and evacuated the Lao royal family to safety. Additional French troops from Hanoi later arrived to expel the Black Flags from Luang Prabang. Following his return to the city, King Oun Kham requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. Pavie later sent Oun Kham's request to the French government in Paris. The bill designating Luang Prabang a protectorate of France was signed on 27 March 1889 between both sides despite a Siamese protest.[3]

After an ultimatum was given by Pavie, now resident minister to Siam in Bangkok,[4] in August 1892 to the Siamese government, both countries went to war in 1893, culminating in the Paknam incident when France, contrary to promises it had made to Great Britain, entered Bangkok with warships.[5] The kingdom was forced to recognise French control over the eastern side of the Mekong River. Pavie continued to support French expeditions in Laotian territory and gave the territory its modern-day name of Laos. Following Siam's acceptance of the ultimatum, to cede the lands east of the Mekong including its islands, the Protectorate of Laos was officially established and the administrative capital moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. However, Luang Prabang remained the seat of the royal family, whose power was reduced to figureheads while the actual power was transferred over to French officials including the vice consulate and Resident-General.[6] In January 1896, France and the United Kingdom signed an accord recognising the border between French Laos and British Burma.

Administrative reorganisation

Local Lao soldiers in the French Colonial guard, c.1900
Market in Luang Prabang c.1900

In 1898, Laos was fully integrated into the French Indochina union that was created in 1887 by unifying French possessions in Vietnam and Cambodia.[7] A colonial governor was later installed in Vientiane and Laos was reorganised from two provinces (Haut-Laos and Bas-Laos) to ten provinces. The royal seat at Luang Prabang was still seen as the official ruler of the province and a royal court still remained, but it was later to be consisted of French appointed officials. The remaining nine provinces were directly ruled under the French government in Vientiane, with each province having a resident governor and military post. To financially support the colonial government, taxes were introduced and imposed on the population.[8][9]

In 1904, a treaty with Siam forced the kingdom to also surrender lands on the western side of the Mekong River. These lands now form the province of Sainyabuli and the western half of Champasak Province.[10] In 1905, the present border between Laos and Cambodia was established after Siam ceded Preah Vihear Province to the French. French plans to expand the territory of Laos ended in 1907, after Siam began co-operating with the British to control French expansion in Indochina, which the British Empire feared would have eventually led to a French annexation of Siam, upsetting the region's balance of power.[11]

Colonialism in Laos

A typical example of French colonial architecture (now a health centre) in Luang Phrabāng

Having been unsuccessful in their grand plan to annexe Siam and with Laos being the least populated of its Indochinese possessions (the population was estimated to be 470,000 in 1900) and lacking seaports for trade, the French lost much interest in Laos, and for the next fifty years it remained a backwater of the French empire in Indochina. Officially, the Kingdom of Luang Phrabāng remained a protectorate with internal autonomy, but in practice it was controlled by French residents while the rest of Laos was governed as a colony. King Sisavang Vong, who became King of Luang Phrabāng in 1904, remained conspicuously loyal to the French through his 55-year reign.

Economically, the French did not develop Laos to the scale that it had in Vietnam and many Vietnamese were recruited to work in the government in Laos instead of the Laotian people, causing some conflicts between locals and the government. Economic development occurred very slowly in Laos and was initially fuelled primarily by rice cultivation and distilleries producing rice alcohol. Nevertheless, the French did not plan to expand the Laotian economy and left commercial activity to the local populations. Geographic isolation also led to Laos being less influenced from France compared to other French colonies and in a 1937 estimate, only 574 French civilians along with a smaller number of government workers lived in Laos, a figure significantly smaller than in Vietnam and Cambodia.[12]

Social reforms also occurred under French administration, such as the suppression of banditry, abolishment of slavery, and ending the legal discrimination of the Lao Theung and Lao Soung people by the Lao Loum majority. Vietnamese and Chinese merchants also later arrived to repopulate the towns (particularly Vientiane) and revive trade and some Lao Loum were later allowed to participate in local government. Despite these social reforms, many minority groups, especially the hill tribes of the Lao Soung, did not benefit from French rule and were not, if at all, influenced by French culture.[13]


In 1901, a revolt broke out in the south of Laos in the Bolaven Plateau among groups of Lao Theung led by Ong Kaeo, who was a self-proclaimed phū mī bun (holy man) who led a messianic cult. The revolt challenged French control over Laos and was not fully suppressed until 1910, when Ong Kaeo was killed. However, his successor and lieutenant, Ong Kommadam would become an early leader in the Lao nationalist movement.[14][15]

Between 1899 and 1910, political unrest in the northern Phôngsali Province occurred as local hill tribe chiefs challenged French rule and assimilation policies being carried out in the highlands. At the height of the revolt, the unrest spread to the highlands of Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and was largely concentrated among the minority groups of the Khmu and Hmong. Although the revolt initially started as a resistance against French influence and tightening of administration, it later changed objective into stopping the French suppression of the opium trade.[16]

Instability continued in the north of Laos in 1919 when Hmong groups, who were the chief opium producers in Indochina, revolted against French taxation and special status given to the Lao Loum, who were minorities in the highlands, in a conflict known as the War of the Insane. Hmong rebels claimed that both Lao and French officials were treating them as subordinate and uncivilised groups and were later defeated in March 1921. After the revolt, the French government granted Hmongs partial autonomy in the Xiangkhouang Province.[17]

Despite the unrest among minority hill tribes in the north, the central and southern portions of Laos saw a more favourable comparison under French rule versus Siamese rule and a considerable re-migration of Lao from the Isan area of northeastern Siam to Laos boosted the population and revived trade. Mekong valley cities such as Vientiane and Savannakhet grew considerably and the founding of Pakse fully asserted French rule over southern Laos, although cities still largely contained significant Vietnamese and Chinese minorities.[18]

To compete with Siamese trade, the French proposed a railway linking Hanoi with Vientiane but the plans were never approved. Nevertheless, infrastructure did improve for the first time in Laos as French colonists constructed Route nationale 13, linking Vientiane with Pakse and the road continues to remain the most important highway in Laos today. In 1923, a law school opened in Vientiane to train local Laotians interested in participating in the government, however a large portion of students at the school were Vietnamese, who continued to dominate political offices.[18]

Although tin mining and coffee cultivation began in the 1920s, the country's isolation and difficult terrain meant that Laos largely remained economically unviable to the French. More than 90% of the Lao remained subsistence farmers, growing just enough surplus produce to sell for cash to pay their taxes.

Although the French did impose an assimilation program in Laos as in Vietnam, they were slow to fully enforce it due to the isolation and lack of economic importance in the colony. Schools were found primarily in major cities and it was not until the 1920s that rural areas began to be exposed to French education. By the 1930s, literacy rates among the Lao Loum and populations in the lowlands had increased considerably and Laotian students began to receive higher education in Hanoi or Paris. However, progress was stagnant in the highlands, where hill tribes were either too isolated to reach or refused to adopt the education system that was based on the foreign French language.

Most of the French who came to Laos as officials, settlers or missionaries developed a strong affection for the country and its people, and many devoted decades to what they saw as bettering the lives of the Lao. Some took Lao wives, learned the language, became Buddhists and "went native" - something more acceptable in the French Empire than in the British. With the racial attitudes typical of Europeans at this time, however, they tended to classify the Lao as gentle, amiable, childlike, naive and lazy, regarding them with what one writer called "a mixture of affection and exasperation."

French contribution to Lao nationalism, apart from the creation of the Lao state itself, was made by the oriental specialists of the French School of the Far East (École Française d'Extrême-Orient), who undertook major archaeological works, found and published Lao historical texts, standardised the written Lao language, renovated neglected temples and tombs and in 1931, founded the Independent Lao Buddhist Institute in Vientiane, where Pali was taught so that the Lao could either study their own ancient history or Buddhist texts.

Laos during World War II

Statue of Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabang 1904-46, King of Laos 1946-59 (In the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum, Luang Phrabāng)

Laos might have drifted along as a pleasant backwater of the French Empire indefinitely had it not been for outside events that impacted nation sharply from 1940 onwards. In 1932, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, prime minister of Siam, overthrew the king and established his own fascist government in the country, which he later renamed Thailand with plans to unify all Tai peoples, including the Lao, under one nation. Following the Fall of France in June 1940, Laos came under the administration of the Axis-puppet Vichy France government along with the rest of French Indochina and the government was under Japanese supervision.[19]

In August 1940, an Axis-aligned Thailand attacked the eastern banks of the Mekong between Vientiane and Champassak Province. Both forces would later declare war and despite French victories, the Japanese government mediated a ceasefire and compelled the French colonial government to cede Champassak Province and Xaignabouli in Laos and Battambang Province in Cambodia to Thailand.[19] These provinces would later be returned to their respective nations by Thailand after France threatened to block Thai entry into the United Nations following World War II.

To maintain support and expel both the Japanese and Thai, colonial governor Jean Decoux encouraged the rise of the Lao nationalist movement, the Movement for National Renovation, which sought to defend Lao territory while paradoxically, acknowledging French rule and support. The group also published a propaganda newspaper, Grand Laos, slamming Thai and Japanese policies over the Lao people and the ceded lands.[19] In the south of the country, the Lao-Seri movement was formed in 1944 which unlike the Movement for National Renovation, was not supportive of the French and declared a "Laos for Laotians" policy aimed at achieving outright independence.[20]

Japanese occupation of Laos

In 1944, France was liberated and General Charles de Gaulle was brought into power. At the same time, Japanese Empire troops were being largely defeated in the Pacific Front and in a last-minute attempt of trying to draw support, Japan dissolved French control over its Indochinese colonies in March 1945. Large numbers of French officials in Laos were then imprisoned by the Japanese as well as king Sisavang Vong, who was forced into declaring Laotian independence and accepting the nation in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. At the same time, remaining French officials and civilians withdrew to the mountains to regroup and join a growing Laotian insurgency against the Japanese, who occupied Vientiane in March 1945. Led by Crown Prince Savang Vatthana, Laotian insurgents challenged Japanese forces by carrying out attacks on Japanese officials and troops in Laos and many Lao died fighting with the French resistance against the Japanese occupiers.[21][22] Japan continued to directly rule Laos despite constant civil unrest against it until it was forced to withdraw from the nation in August 1945, less than a month before it would fully surrender to the Allies.


Following Japan's expulsion from Laos, a power vacuum ensued in which a group of Lao nationalist intellectuals (called the Lao Issara) under Prince Phetsarath took control of the government and reaffirmed the country's independence on 12 October 1945. However, the French demanded its restoration of colonial rule. By the end of April 1946, Colonel Hans Imfeld of the provisional French government, entered Vientiane with a French-Lao force, freed French prisoners, and reoccupied the city. Luang Prabang itself was later reoccupied by May. At the same time, Viet Minh forces fighting for Vietnam's independence from France enlisted a number of Lao to resist French rule.[23] Prince Phetsarath, who aligned with the Viet Minh later declared the French protectorate over Laos abolished and supported nationalist independence movements, particularly the Lao Issara. To avoid direct war with Laotian forces as in VIetnam, France agreed to proclaim Laos a self-governing state within the French Union in 1949. Following France's defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Laos was granted independence at the Geneva Conference in September of the same year.[24][25]


Main article: Laotian Civil War

The Military Regions Laos was divided into five military regions:

Military Region I at Luang Prabang was dominated by the royal family and the former commander in Chief of the Royal Laos Army, General Oune Rathikul. The region commander was Brigadier General Tiao Say~vong, a half brother of the king. The region was located in northwest Laos and covered four provinces: Phong Saly,Houa Khong, Sayaboury and Luang Prabang.

Military Region II, in the northeastern section of Laos, was under Major General Vang Pao, the Hmong guerrilla war hero of Laos. It covered two provinces: Houa Phan (Samneua), and Xieng Khouang. The headquarters was at Long Cheng, northwest of the Plain of Jars.

Military Region III in central Laos was headquartered at Savannakhet and covered two provinces; Khammouane(Thakitek) and Savannakhet. This region was commanded by General Bounpon and later by Brigadier General Nouphet Dao Heuang, in July 1971. The real power in this region was the Insixiengmay family led by Minister Leuam Insixiengmay, Vice Premier and Minister of Education.

Military Region IV, with headquarters at Pakse, included the six provinces of southern Laos: Saravane, Attopeu, Champassak, Sedone,Khong Sedone, and Sithandone (Khong Island). It was dominated by the Nachampassak family led by Prince Boun Oum Nachampassak. The commander of Military Region IV was Major General Phasouk S. Rassaphak, a member of the Champassak family. He commanded this area for almost a decade and a half until finally replaced by the author, Brigadier General Soutchay Vongsavanh, in July 1971.

Military Region V contained Borikhane and Vientiane Provinces, the capital province of Laos, was headquartered at Chinaimo Army Camp and was led by Major General Kouprasith Abhay until he was replaced by Brigadier General Thongligh Chokbeng Boun in July 197l

See also


  1. "Brief Chronology, 1959–1963". Foreign Office Files: United States of America, Series Two: Vietnam, 1959–1975 ; Part 2: Laos, 1959–1963. Retrieved 26 April 2014. October 22 Franco-Lao Treaty of Amity and Association
  2. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 60-64
  3. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 66-67
  6. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 67-68
  7. Chronologie du Laos, Clio.
  8. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 69-72
  9. Martin Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos, Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-521-59235-6, p. 30
  10. Pierre Montagnon, La France coloniale, tome 1, Pygmalion-Gérard Watelet, 1988, page 180
  11. Laos under the French, U.S. Library of congress
  12. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 72-76
  13. Paul Lévy, Histoire du Laos, PUF, 1974, p. 83
  14. Stuart-Fox p. 34-36
  15. Paul Lévy, Histoire du Laos, PUF, collection Que sais-je ? 1974, p. 83-85
  16. Stuart-Fox, p. 37-38
  17. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 76-77
  18. 1 2 Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, page 77
  19. 1 2 3 Levy, p.89-90
  20. Pinnith, p.87
  21. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 77-78
  22. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 82-86
  23. Philippe Franchini, Les Guerres d'Indochine, tome 1, Pygmalion-Gérard Watelet, 1988, p. 250
  24. Jean Deuve, Guérilla au Laos, L'Harmattan, 1997 (1ere édition en 1966, sous le nom de Michel Caply), p.226
  25. Carine Hahn, Le Laos, Karthala, 1999, pages 88-89


External links

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