The Lao prince and political leader Souvanna Phouma (1901-1984) played a political balancing role during the first decade and a half of Lao independence that may have permitted the survival of the badly splintered Southeast Asian nation.
Born on October 7, 1901, in Luang Prabang in then French-ruled Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma was educated as an engineer in France. Highly Frenchified in manner, he subsequently served as an engineer in the public transport department upon his return from France. He supported the 1945 declaration of independence, made by King Sisavangvong with strong Japanese encouragement; and, when French troops returned to reoccupy the country, he joined the national resistance movement (Lao Issara) in neighboring Thailand.
Following French acquiesence in partial independence, Souvanna Phouma served as minister of public transport, minister of planning, and minister of posts and telegraphs in 1950-1951. Premier during the years when Lao independence was finally completely obtained (1951-1954), he fell from office shortly thereafter. He returned as premier in 1956 and successfully negotiated a coalition government with the Pathet Lao, allies of Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh in neighboring Vietnam.
An early advocate of neutralism, Souvanna Phouma fell again as premier in 1958—partly in response to American pressure for a stronger anti-Communist position. The shortsightedness of this pressure was evidenced when the Pathet Lao resumed their armed revolt and air force captain Kong Le staged an initially successful coup (1960). Souvanna Phouma reluctantly supported the Kong Le forces, which further splintered Lao political life.
The Souvanna Phouma-Kong Le neutralists cooperated with the Communist Pathet Lao in the Lao civil war of the early 1960s, partly because the anti-Communists left them with no alternative. Souvanna Phouma played a major role in 1962, at the time of the Geneva Agreement on Laos, in reconciling the three major political factions, which formed a new coalition government.
Souvanna Phouma was premier in the government formed in 1962 and remained in this position throughout the decade. The Communists resumed their revolt in 1963, however, and Souvanna Phouma's neutralists and the rightists subsequently drew closer together. Souvanna Phouma solicited American economic and military aid to preserve Lao independence in the light of increasing intervention by the Communist Vietnamese, whose numbers in Laos by 1970 approximated 60,000.
The tragedy of Souvanna Phouma was that he devotedly pursued a policy of neutrality for his country but ultimately had to call on the United States to assure the survival of his nation. His triumph was that he did this with such skill that the Soviet Union, Communist China, and North Vietnam were not able to mount a convincing propaganda case that Souvanna Phouma had abandoned his neutralists approach. Although most of eastern Laos was in Communist hands throughout the 1960s, the Communist powers continued to recognize his regime as the legitimate government of Laos. Souvanna Phouma did not hold Laos together in the 1960s, but he kept more of it in one piece than probably anybody anticipated.
In 1971 the South Vietnamese government sent troops into Laos in an effort to stop the flow of military supplies from North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Objecting to the influence of the North Vietnamese over the Pathet Lao, Souvanna Phouma began working with the United States government and gave approval to U.S. air raids on Pathet Lao forces. After the United States began to withdraw from Vietnam, the government and the Pathet Lao agreed on a cease fire in 1973, and a coalition government was formed in which he allied himself once again with his brother and the Pathet Lao. With North Vietnam's victory, however, the Pathet Lao moved to dominate the coalition. He was ousted in 1975 when they abolished the monarchy and established the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.
After 1975 Souvanna Phouma was seen at official gatherings and was allowed to attend high-level government meetings. He served as an adviser to the government until his death in 1984.
There was no biographical study of Souvanna Phouma, probably the most important Lao political figure of his times. His importance, however, came through in several excellent studies dealing with various crises in which he was a participant. The best of them was Anatomy of a Crisis: The Laotian Crisis of 1960-1969, the last book by the late Bernard B. Fall, edited and completed by Roger M. Smith (1969). Another excellent book on the same subject was Arthur J. Dommen, Conflict in Laos (1964). An account by a Laotian who himself figured prominently in events in his country was Sisouk Na Champassak, Storm over Laos (1961). An update of the narrative begun in the more specific studies of the major crises in the start of the 1960s was Hugh Toye, Laos: Buffer State or Battleground (1968).
See also Perry Stieglitz, In a Little Kingdom: The Tragedy of Laos, 1960-1980 (M.E. Sharpe, 1990); William Bouarouy, The Roots of the Conflicts in Indochina: With Chronology of Laos History, & Major Successive Political Events in Laos from 1316 Through 1975 (Asian-Americans Research Center & Publishing Agency, 1992); and Timothy Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: United States Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975 (Columbia University Press, 1995).