The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
LAOS – SPECIAL ISSUES
On this page:
- The Laotian Civil War
- Operation Lam Som 719
- The Hmong and the CIA
- The Most Heavily Bombed Country on Earth
Warning: graphic content.
The Laotian Civil War
In the jittery post-World War II world, remote Laos became the locus of a major Cold War struggle. The proxy war meant both sides received heavy external support from the global opposing superpowers: United States for the Royalist Government and the Soviet Union (USSR) and China directing support to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), Viet Cong, and Communist Pathet Lao. The Laotian Civil War lasted from 9 November 1953 up to 2 December 1975 and constituted a covert theatre among belligerents in the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Indochina Wars. Communists, loyalists, right-wingers, and neutralists all fought for control of Laos. The Vietnam War did not remain within the borders of Vietnam. Instead, the conflict expanded across the Indochina Peninsula into neighbouring countries like Laos and Cambodia where NVA and Viet Cong soldiers moved and operated, having a profound impact on these smaller countries and facilitating the rise of nationalist-communist groups there. Consequently, the conflict is also known as the Secret War, referring to the undeclared, but strong involvement of the U.S. and its intelligence agency – the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). U.S. troops fought alongside the Kingdom of Laos, Thailand, South Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
Though Japan had declared Laos an independent country during their occupation, the French wanted to restore Laos as its protectorate and so prompted the organisation of guerrilla troops. Princes Phetsarath Rattanavongsa, Souvanna Phouma, and Souphanouvong formed a new Laotian government under a movement of Lao Issara. The French troops began their conquest of Laos using paratroopers, artillery, armoured cars, and Spitfire fighter-bombers defeating the Vietnamese troops of the Lao Issara movement, who were forced into exile in Bangkok. The three princes dissolved their movement and joined the various factions of the war. For an introduction of the Laotian Civil War, check out the video by History Hustle.
Despite subsequent advances towards independence from France, the period after World War II was marked by frustration with foreign interference in Laotian affairs. One nationalist group, the Lao Freedom Front, was formed by Prince Souphanouvong, an admirer of Ho Chi Minh. In 1950 Souphanouvong and his colleagues formed the Pathet Lao (‘Lao Nation’), in effect a Laotian branch of the Viet Minh – the national independence coalition in Vietnam. In the broader international climate of de-colonisation, France took further steps toward granting independence to Laos in October 1953 while still retaining control of all military matters in the landlocked Kingdom. The Pathet Lao were not pacified and remained a political force by strengthening its occupation of large areas in the north-eastern mountains. On 9 November 1953, the Pathet Lao initiated a civil war against the Kingdom of Laos, armed with logistic support, training, and supplies from the Viet Minh. The communist insurgents had a firm grip on two of the country's provinces when the peace conference in Geneva brought the First Indochina War to an end. During this period the North Vietnamese military entered Laos to establish the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a remote track for peopling and supplying the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
Several battles were fought in Laos after the civil war began. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu fought from 13 March to 7 May in 1954 was a climactic confrontation between the French Union's colonial Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist revolutionaries. The French's purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighbouring Kingdom of Laos and draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation in order to cripple them. The United States was officially not a party to the war, but it was secretly involved by providing financial and material aid to the French Union, which included CIA contracted American personnel participating in the battle. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was decisive; the French government in Paris resigned, the war ended shortly afterward, and the 1954 Geneva Accords were signed.
The Geneva Accords of 1954 marked the end of French rule in Southeast Asia. The participating countries – including France, Great Britain, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union – at the Geneva Conference agreed that all of Laos should come under the Royal Government and should not undergo partition (as was the plan for Vietnam). The agreements, however, did provide for two 'regroupment zones' in provinces adjacent to what was then North Vietnam to allow the Pathet Lao forces to assemble. This resulted in the de facto control of those areas by the Laotian communists, while the rest of the country was ruled by the central Royal Government. To learn how the pivotal Battle of Dien Bien Phu triggered France’s policy of decolonisation, watch the videos below.
The uneasy peace in Laos was short-lived, as hostilities broke out between leftist and rightist factions in 1959. The NVA launched the second invasion of Laos, constructing the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a supply route for the National Liberation Front (Vietcong) and the NVA to increase the chances of the communist victory. Unresolved disputes between the factions prompted the attack which ended in the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao victory while the Kingdom of Laos lost the battle. This was swiftly followed by neutralists' paratroopers, under Kong Le, staging a coup in 1960 to seize Vientiane, the administrative capital. Kingdom of Lao's General Phoumi began a three-day bombing campaign on Vientiane resulting in the union of the neutralists with the Pathet Lao.
Another conference in Geneva in May 1961 culminated in an agreement in July 1962 that called for the country to become neutral and for a tripartite government to be formed. The new government consisted of factions from the left (the Pathet Lao, who were linked to North Vietnam), the right (linked to Thailand and the United States), and neutrals (led by Prince Souvanna Phouma). Once again, however, the cease-fire was brief. The coalition had split apart by 1964, and the larger war centred in Vietnam subsequently engulfed Laos. In that expanded war Laos, like Cambodia, was viewed by the major protagonists as a sideshow.
The period between 1963 and 1973 saw the massive bombardment of Laos by the United States. Within this time, several battles took place including the Battle of Luang Namtha, the Battle of Lak Sao, and the Battle of Nam Bac.
An agreement negotiated in January 1973 by the United States and North Vietnam at Paris called for a cease-fire in each of the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, but only in Laos was there peace. In February, just a month following the agreement, the Laotian factions signed the Vientiane Agreement, which provided again for a cease-fire and yet another coalition government composed of factions from the left and right, presided over by Souvanna Phouma.
As political control in Vietnam tipped toward the communists following the American departure from that country, the Pathet Lao gained political ascendancy in Laos. When the Vietnamese communists marched into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), and Phnom Penh, Cambodia; the right-wing forces in Laos lost heart and most of their leaders fled, permitting a bloodless takeover by the Laotian communists in mid-1975. Though out of office, Souvanna Phouma remained an adviser to the new regime until his death in 1984. The Laotian communists proclaimed an end to the 600-year-old monarchy and established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) on 2 December 1975. The Laotian Civil War had reached its end.
The 22 years of fighting left landlocked Laos with indelible marks of war: Laos is the most heavily bombed nation on earth in history. Dropped in the United States’ secret air campaign, the bombs were equivalent to a planeload every eight minutes every day for the nine years between 1964 and 1973. The bombing campaign destroyed villages and displaced thousands of civilians. The chaotic war claimed the lives of between 20,000 and 70,000 people. It is important to note, the essential U.S. objective throughout the air campaign was to strike North Vietnamese targets on the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, a mission unrelated to the ground war in Laos. Strikes supporting the Hmong guerrillas or other Laotian forces did not really reflect a military strategy other than keeping them in the field to tie down North Vietnamese troops. For an insight into the Pathet Lao takeover of Vientiane, watch the following video.
Operation Lam Son 719 – Vietnam War
By signalling a go-ahead for the operation, the United States’ President Richard Nixon hoped that that any successes here would in the future improve the confidence and morale of the Republic of Vietnam’s army. Operation Lam Son 719 or 9th Route – Southern Laos Campaign was geared to make the South Vietnamese army be able to effectively defend its nation following any subsequent withdrawal of United States forces. The United States provided aerial, artillery, and logistical support during the entire operation. Washington could not move in ground forces as U.S. law prohibited that kind of entry into Laotian territory. The aviation units supplied were used in transporting the South Vietnamese troops as well as supplies in and out of the Kingdom of Laos throughout the entire operation. Although technically neutral, the Laotian Royal Government allowed the CIA and U.S. Air Force to conduct a covert war against the local guerrilla insurgency that was, in turn, heavily supported by North Vietnamese forces. U.S. operations in Laos and Cambodia were conducted to support American objectives in Vietnam rather than for any achievable benefit for its smaller, weaker neighbours. Since the American public did not know about the air campaign in Laos, there were no rules of engagement on how bombing could be conducted in Laos like there were in Vietnam. For example, U.S. forces were not allowed to bomb within half a kilometre of a temple in the Vietnam theatre, but no regulations existed across the border. This practice is why the U.S. military actions in the Laotian Civil War is called the 'Secret War'. The following video explores the question: why was Laos involved in the Vietnam War?
A ground force of 20,000 South Vietnamese troops were led by General Hoàng Xuân Lãm. They were assisted in the operation by 10,000 American support troops, in addition to Army helicopters and U.S. Air Force aircraft backing them from above. North Vietnamese General Lê Trọng Tấn opposed them, with an effectively evenly matched force of Communist troops. His estimated 30,000 soldiers were comprised by both members of the People’s Army of North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao Marxists in opposition to the rule of the constitutional monarchy governing their Laotian homeland.
Lam Son 719 lasted from the 30 January until the 24 March 1971. The first major objective of the operation was to attack and take over Route 9 to the town of Tchepone, which was located to the south of Laos. The South Vietnamese and the United States military intelligence believed that this town was crucial as it housed many storage locations for ammunition, weapons, food, and logistic supplies to the North Vietnamese army. In addition, this town was used as a training base, refreshment, and replacement for the NVA troops who were involved in battle with the South Vietnamese. The 9th Division of the South Vietnamese army was then to clear Route 7 in Cambodia and engage in offensives against the North Vietnamese.
On 16 March, approximately a week later after the town of Tchepone was overtaken by the South Vietnamese, President Thieu called for troops to be pulled out. This was in contrast to General Abram’s military plea for a more serious offensive expansion so as to inflict more damage to the North Vietnamese. The move to pull out the South Vietnamese was politically motivated as presidential elections were nearing for the Republic of Vietnam. The troop withdrawal was mainly carried out on Route 9 of the battle zone and this lasted from 17th to 24th March.
The operation ended up disastrous for the South Vietnamese, and the Communists emerged triumphant. The casualties figure from operation Lam Son 719 is not exactly known; however, estimates (which are also highly disputed) showed that close to 500 North Vietnamese Army personnel were killed in comparison to the 1,600 personnel whom the Republic of South Vietnam lost. The United States lost a total of 215 military personnel and over 600 helicopters got damaged during the entire operation. Although Lam Son 719 had set back North Vietnamese logistical operations in south-eastern Laos, truck traffic on the trail system increased immediately after the conclusion of the operation. Indeed, the military expansion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the west was quickly accelerated, at the expense of Royal Laotian military forces who were soon withdrawing toward the Mekong River, and a logistical artery 97 kilometres in width was soon expanded to 140 kilometres. To learn more about the Operation, check out the following short video by Vietnam Plus.
The North Vietnamese emerged victorious and the possible explanation for this was that control, command, and coordination of the troops was very poor. In some instances, the operation was highly problematic given that political pressure to engage the North Vietnamese forces in Laos without authority meant an overreliance on airpower, coupled with the inability of United States ground troops to operate in Laos. Also, the individual army units did not get to learn their roles early enough before the beginning of the operation and this brought about many problems regarding coordination. This battle raised key questions for the Americans regarding the vulnerability of helicopter use in high intensity conflict areas. By 1975, Marxists had ousted the authorities within the constitutional monarchy then known as the Kingdom of Laos, to form the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which is still in power. The Royal Government went into exile in Oregon, United States, and continues to operate therein with a very limited sphere of influence to this day.
The Hmong and the CIA
America’s involvement in Laos began in the 1950s, when the United States started providing conventional military assistance to government forces fighting Laotian Communist insurgents who were backed by North Vietnam. Despite U.S. aid, the Royal Laotian military proved ineffective. Early in 1961, the United States turned to a different strategy, arming and directing an irregular force of Hmong tribesmen (then commonly called Meo), a mountain tribe living in the Plain of Jars region in northern Laos. That plan was conceived and organised by Bill Lair, a CIA officer who had been based in Thailand for many years and knew the region well. The guerrillas were commanded by the highest-ranking Hmong officer in the Laotian army named Vang Pao.
The year after the CIA’s initial contacts with the Hmong, a Laotian peace agreement was signed in Geneva, establishing a new and officially neutral coalition government. Despite the agreement, the fighting did not end, and CIA support for Vang Pao’s guerrilla movement continued to grow. Meanwhile, U.S. involvement in Vietnam was also deepening, turning to open war in early 1965 with a full-scale bombing campaign against North Vietnam and the commitment of U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam. From then on, events in Vietnam, not any goals for Laos, were decisive in determining the course of the Laotian Civil War.
The partnership between the Hmong and the CIA worked to a point. Vang Pao's 60,000 troops gained a reputation for being fierce jungle fighters who rescued downed U.S. aircrews, gathered military intelligence, and fought the communists to a stalemate. The effort was for many years the CIA's largest covert operation, until the agency funded the mujahedin against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 1969, Richard Helms, director of the CIA, told U.S. President Richard Nixon that Vang Pao had thousands of troops engaged in active fighting, but casualties were so bad that Vang Pao's forces were using teenagers as young as 13 to fill their lines. This massive effort was hidden from the American public for years. It became known as the Secret War, and the Hmong mercenaries as the secret army. The next video by PBS provides an insight into the Hmong and the CIA.
After Saigon fell, the United States abandoned the secret army. In 1975, as many as 10,000 Hmong were slaughtered at the hands of the ascendant Pathet Lao. Undertaking a war of attrition on the northern mountains against remaining Hmong militias and communities continued. Some stayed, but over one-third of the minority fled to neighbouring Thailand. About 100,000 were eventually resettled in the U.S.
Since the end of the Second Indochina War and the communist takeover, migration from Laos has increased significantly. Indeed, it is estimated that 10% of the Laotians population sought refugee status, with many resettling in France, the United States, and Australia. Some refugees were survivors of the Hmong ‘secret army’, while others were among the country’s educated and professional elite. In the 1990s, about 29,000 Hmong Lao were repatriated from camps in Thailand to Laos. In 2004-2006, the United States accepted 15,000 Hmong refugees who were living at the Wat Tham Krabok temple in central Thailand. In May 2005, Thailand closed its last camp for Hmong refugees. In December 2006, Bangkok announced that it would deport about 6,500 recent Hmong Lao migrants under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some returning Hmong claim that they face persecution in Laos. Many observers argue that although societal discrimination likely persists, the Laotian Government does not engage in systematic persecution of the Hmong minority, and that Hmong returnees have largely reintegrated into society. Yet, allegations of contemporary attacks on the Hmong minority by Laotian authorities persist.
Many Laotians do not like to discuss the Second Indochina War because of its tragic effects on the country’s economy, stability, and the Laotian people. Present-day perceptions of the war and America differ depending on the individual and their experiences. For the most part, the younger generation of Laotian are more accepting towards the United States. The aftermath of the war still directly impacts daily life, and the country continues to rebuild from these events.
It was not until 1997 that Washington officially acknowledged the valour of the Hmong soldiers. A small stone with a copper plaque was placed in their honour between the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame in Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of Hmong live in poverty in Thailand, and a few armed bands still live in the Laotian highlands, refusing to surrender to the Government of Laos. The following investigative report by Al Jazeera contains a rare glimpse of the remaining Hmong communities who are still exiled in the remote Laotian jungle.
Watch the video below to hear an oral history of Bounkeo and Suzanne Sivieng migration to Sydney, Australia in 1979. They reunited with family who had left Laos in the years after the Laotian Civil War.
- US Army Special Operations History | Shoot & Salute: U.S. Army Special Warfare in Laos
- The Diplomat | The CIA’s ‘Secret War'
- NPR - Parallels | How The U.S. War In Laos Was Key To The 'Birth Of A Military CIA'
- NBC News | U.S. funding reintegration program in Laos for Laotian and Hmong refugees
- NBC News | Congress passes law allowing national cemetery burials for 'secret war' veterans
- The Washington Post | Laos: America’s lesser known human and political disaster in Southeast Asia
- Radio Free Asia | Lao Government Troops Launch New Assault Against Hmong at Phou Bia Mountain
The Most Heavily Bombed Country on Earth
From December 1964 to March 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions. Making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
U.S. military leaders proposed, and the Royal Government accepted, Operation Barrel Roll to stop North Vietnamese infiltration of Laos. The U.S. began this covert operation; however, when Operation Barrel Roll did little to halt communist guerrilla rebels from moving through Laos, the U.S. military changed its strategy. The U.S. Air Force increased their airstrike radius and intensity to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail which ran from North Vietnam into Laos and then south to the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. This road was critical to the People's Army of Vietnam because it allowed them to move weapons and supplies to their military efforts in South Vietnam.
Most of the air missions over the country were conducted with high-performance jet-bombers, World War II cargo planes, Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, and AT-28 Trojans. These last two were Korean War-era machines that could be manoeuvred at close range. Cluster bombs were the weapon of choice – hundreds of little bombs packed into canisters. As fighters released these cluster bombs from high above the ground, the canisters would open in the air. This action released hundreds of bombs over a wide radius simultaneously. Estimates suggest that two-thirds of these bombs exploded over the region, taking with them 350,000 casualties across north-eastern Laos. The U.S. government lost 131 aircraft during the operation. Watch the following video to learn more.
Thus, the bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.
Up to a third of Laos remains contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO). UXO are explosive weapons (bombs, bullets, shells, grenades, land mines, naval mines, etc.) that did not explode when they were employed and still pose a risk of detonation, potentially many decades after they were used or discarded.
Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War: up to 80 million did not detonate. Cluster munitions are the small explosive devices released from cluster bombs. Although they are designed to explode on impact, cluster munitions have a significant failure rate (estimated at 30% in Laos during the Vietnam War). They are usually the size of an orange or soup can and can stay buried in the ground indefinitely. As a result, cluster munitions kill more civilians than enemy soldiers and prevent war-torn countries from redeveloping bombed land. Cluster munitions are also known as cluster bomblets, or, among many Laotians, as 'bombies.' The ongoing consequences on Laotians is shown in the following report.
Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased. The most common injuries victims sustain from a UXO explosion include loss of a limb, blindness, hearing loss, shrapnel wounds, and internal shockwave injuries. Each year there are now just under 50 new casualties in Laos, down from 310 in 2008. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children. The impacts of the Second Indochina War remain to this day and encapsulates the entire peninsular. For example, the expansion of land for cultivation has been severely impeded due to large quantities of unexploded ordnance through the country’s potential farmlands. Many cluster bomblets became buried in the earth – waiting for an unsuspecting farmer to place a shovel in the earth or the monsoon rains to uncover them. In turn, many live with a constant sense of uncertainty as to the location of the unexploded bombs. Most farmers in Laos know if their land is contaminated but cannot afford another plot. They simply have no choice but to cultivate their land. Additionally, as a response to a stifled economy with few employment opportunities, some people actually search for these bombs to sell them as scrap metal.
Over the past four decades, fewer than one million of the estimated 80 million cluster munitions that failed to detonate have been cleared. Millions of dollars and Laotian kip have been spent in clean-up efforts, yet only 1% of Laos territory has been officially cleared of bombs. Today the International teams are still cleaning the terrain of unexploded ordinances (UXO) particularly in the region of the province of Houaphan and Xiengkhuang and the Lao people continue to suffer from the consequences of this bombing campaign. To learn more about the clearing of bombs in Laos check out documentary on ‘Vietnam’s Bomb Graveyard’ for an insight into the training of Laotians in UXO disposal and the resources below.
[Warning: graphic content]
- Laos has suffered decades of conflict and suffering due to conflicts conducted by foreign forces. Laos’s recent history is one of peace and general unity, but its economic development has been slow, and it remains one of the poorest nations in the region. Should the superpowers that caused and were involved in the conflicts seek to make reparations in order to help Laotian economic development? What sort of things should be done to help rectify the consequences of the conflicts?
- After the Vietnam War ended, the US abandoned thousands of irregular forces, mostly of Hmong ethnicity, who had for years supported US efforts. As a result, many were slaughtered by other ethnic groups. With the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, is there a risk that the western forces “Phase 5 and 6 Operations” need greater doctrinal work to improve outcomes for indigenous forces? East Timor and Afghanistan could serve as case studies.