In this musical-comedy kingdom the West has backed, the wrong prince for the last time. Now the Communists are an easy coup away from taking over, and in the wings the U. S. Marines may be preparing for another Korea

Peter C. Newman December 16 1961


In this musical-comedy kingdom the West has backed, the wrong prince for the last time. Now the Communists are an easy coup away from taking over, and in the wings the U. S. Marines may be preparing for another Korea

Peter C. Newman December 16 1961


IF EVER A world crisis looked absurd and improbable when seen on the spot, it is the war in Laos, as viewed from Vientiane, this pathetic country’s scruffy little capital city, squatting on the northern bank of the muddy Mekong River.

Vientiane resembles nothing so much as a leftover set from a low-budget Tarzan movie. Mothers on the way to market publicly suckle their young, as they stroll among the chickens pecking aimlessly on main streets. The daily bulletin issued in French by the Government's ministry of information carries news of the latest skirmish with the pro-Communist Pathet Lao rebels on the same page as a description of the plats dit jour being served at the local hotel.

It is only at night, when the siesta-wrapped afternoon has been exchanged for an ebony dusk and the packs of resident half-wild dogs begin to roam closer to the open doorways, that the quiet war which is tearing this nation apart takes on even a measure of reality. A few miles out of Vientiane, where the dirt roads narrow into deep-rutted bullock cart tracks, the Communist rebels employ the darkness to lay mines and threaten the villagers. The city itself has about it an air of musky impermanence, like a nest of cats about to erupt into violence.

This atmosphere of barely submerged chaos finds open expression in the conversations of western diplomats stationed here. The measure of their concern for the situation is difficult to overestimate; their faces are creased with worry. To most of these men, it seems all but inevitable that in this small, sleepy Buddhist kingdom, the West is faced with a humiliating

and, to a surprising degree, self-inflicted defeat.

Laos is as militarily indefensible as Berlin, as ungovernable as the Congo. But, for the forward march of world Communism, the winning of its allegiance is an immensely valuable asset. “Laos is far from America, but Laos’ safety runs with the safety of us all,” President Kennedy has said.

Strategically, Laos resembles a thousanddollar bill. It’s worth nothing in itself, but it will buy a great deal. Either a barrier or a highway to the important Asian nations around its borders, it is the vital centrepiece in the “falling domino" analogy, first propounded by President Eisenhower in 1954. According to this theory, the states in the great southeast Asian rice bowl — Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Malaya and Indonesia — are so vulnerable that a successful Communist blow

to one of them would speedily topple the others.

Although the West seems to have lost its dominant position in Laos, it’s still too early to define the actual extent of the Communist victory. During the past eight years of intermittent fighting, the pro-Communist Pathet Lao rebels have swept down from the northern provinces, against pitifully weak opposition from the Royal Laotian Army, to occupy nearly three quarters of the country’s territory. The peace settlement being negotiated in Geneva and Laos itself will probably replace the prowestern government in Vientiane with a socalled neutral administration. It will be headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma, a pipe-puffing patrician who has twice before been forced out of office by American pressure for being "too neutral.” Few experts doubt that once in power, Souvanna Phouma will dilute his neutralism with a strong tendency to favor the Communists.


Ottawa Editor Peter C. Newman, facing page, talks to men of the Royal Laotian Army at Vientiane. Above, at right, is Captain Kong Le, leader of the army uprising that put Souvanna Phouma's neutral administration into power. Le was later driven out and has since joined the Communists. Below, three princes at Geneva: Phouma, left; the U. S.-backed Boun Oum, middle: Communist Prince Souphanouvong.

Two faces of Laos: not much energy, even less fight

continued from page 21

The Red propagandists in Laos have painted the U. S. as a paper tiger. Were they right this time?

Whether or not this arrangement will become dangerous enough to topple the remainder of the southeast Asian "dominoes." it's obvious that the neighbors of Laos consider that country already under the sway of Communism. "The appointment of Souvanna Phouma will be a sign of victory for the Communists," Thailand's Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat has bluntly warned. Cambodia's Chief of State. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, pointed out recently that it's now too late to hope for more than a leftward-leaning neutralism in Laos.

Unlike most cold war trouble spots where we are only casual observers, the Laotian crisis intimately involves Canada. As the western representatives on the International Commission which also includes Poland and India, we now have in Vientiane a team of twenty-five army officers and men. plus three external affairs officials led by Leon Mayrand. one of Canada’s senior diplomats. The army contingent, under the command of Brig. P. S. Cooper of Edmonton, has managed to maintain excellent morale, but it must be the most frustrating assignment they've ever had. Although the Geneva Conference on Laos charged the Commission with controlling the cease-fire between the Pathet Lao rebels and the pro-western government troops "in accordance with the understanding reached by the belligerent parties." no such understanding has ever been reached. As a result, since it arrived here last May, the International Commission has not been able to send out a single inspection team to the front. Despite this paralysis of movement, the Canadian delegation, particularly Commissioner Mayrand. has done a great deal to make the presence of the International Commission a calming influence.

But the over-all political situation is steadily deteriorating and the West's humiliation in Laos, where United States money, influence and prestige have been so heavily invested, could have disastrous political and psychological effects on our position in all of Asia. The Asians respect power. In Laos, the Communists from the beginning have portrayed the United States as a paper tiger, long on promises, short on performance. Viewing the results, an ob-

server is tempted to reach the superficial verdict that for once, the Communist propagandists were right. But such a judgment doesn't take into account the very special characteristics of the Laotian nation.and its people.

Laos is one of the most backward lands on earth. Eight out of ten Laotians are so primitive that they spend their lives entire-

ly outside the money economy. The commerce of their livelihood is conducted on the basis of rice barter. The U. S. Bureau of Social Research recently supervised a public opinion poll involving sixteen sillages near Vientiane. Eighty percent of those questioned believed that the world is flat, and peopled entirely by Laotians.

A former Erench colony. Laos is a

landlocked, mountain-serrated nation about the size of Great Britain, covered almost entirely by monsoon forests that hide elephants. leopards, cobras, pythons and a relatively harmless variety of crocodile. Nearly all of the country's three thousand miles of road are passable only by pack pony. Laos has no railroads, although Savannakhet. the capital of the southern provinces, boasts an unexplained railway station.

No accurate census has been taken, but United Nations estimates place the population at about two million. They are mostly border peoples, minorities of many races whose forefathers spent centuries or at least generations in China during their southward migration. The fourteen main racial groups speak sixty dialects of six mutually unintelligible languages. The American Universities Field Service Report describes Laos as "an anthropological triplecrostic.”

The most important distinction is between the ruling elite, of about twenty historically important families, and the rest of the population. The international machinations that have gone on in Laos since World War II have involved various factions of the country's great families, nearly all of whom are allied to one side or tinother in the cold war. The majority of Laotians, if they know anything til all about what kind of government they have, view it in a passive sense, as something which may be affecting their lives, but in which they themselves are not personally involved.

f he supreme concern of most Laotians is to win the daily contest against starvation and disease. Families shiver and starve through the winter months before harvest time, suffering from malaria, dysentery and body lice. I hree percent of the population is said to have leprosy. T he infant mortality rate is an incredible sixty-five percent.

How can you hope to resolve a serious twentieth-century ideological conflict in a country where wounds are treated with soot-covered spider webs and the poisoned blowpipe remains the main indigenous weapon? One mountain tribe doesn't even bother to grow rice. Its members forage for snails, catch edible insects, and chew tree bark. Even the more civilized Laotians who live in the fertile valleys are unbelievably indolent. They grow only as much rice as they can eat. When the Americans tried to introduce modern food production methods. they were adopted just to the extent that they reduced the work involved in raising the same size of crop as before. I visited the market at Vientiane during the morning rush and found that many stallkeepers had simply gone to sleep behind their counters, leaving a tin cup out for money.

Laos comes close to having no economy at all. There are only three installations in the whole country remotely resembling large scale modern industrial enterprise — a brickyard, a tobacco factory and a small tin mine. Aside from a few elephants and some teak floated down to Thailand, the main export is an estimated annual seventy tons of crude opium, smuggled out illegally to Hong Kong. The chief dollar-earning export last year was words. The Laotian government collected $3()(),0()() at its Vientiane cable office from foreign newsmen filing their coverage of the war.

The country has what must be a unique balance-of-trade problem: last year, exports amounted to exactly one percent of imports. The gap is met almost entirely by American aid. A third of a billion dollars has been spent here since Washington decided in 1955 to transform the little kingdom into "a bulwark against Communism.” Laos has received more American aid per capita than any country in the world. Hut instead of helping the West, this assistance has been so badly administered that it has actually given a solid issue to the Communists. One American congressional investigator commented that there was, about the whole program, “an almost fairy-tale implausibility.” The primitive economy was flooded with goods that couldn't possibly be used, including imitation Laotian sarongs from Japan. Millions of dollars

were spent on highways which disappeared with the first rainy season. In 1954, there were five cars in Vientiane. So many local businessmen have grown rich on the profiteering and corruption which has accompanied the U. S. aid that the city now has something like three hundred MercedesBenz.

Three quarters of the American aid funds have gone into building up a prowestern army in Laos, and this has been the worst bargain of all. On paper, the Vientiane-based Royal Laotian Army looks impressive. It has a total of almost sixty thousand men under arms, compared with less than half that number fielded by the rebels. Hut, despite generous military aid which at $4,500 per man has made the price of maintaining one Laotian soldier twice as high as that of any other nation receiving American assistance, the Royal Laotian Army is the western world’s least effective group of fighting men. "It’s impossible to exaggerate the incompetence— and frequently the cowardice — of the Royal Laotian forces,” I was told by one western military observer in Vientiane.

in eight years of almost steady retreat from an enemy force half their size, the

Royal Laotian troops have inflicted very few casualties, almost all by land mines and artillery barrages fired in the general direction of the enemy. Liven in their only successful engagement — the recapture of Vientiane last year — they refused to do any hand-to-hand fighting. The battle for the city was fought almost entirely by artillery. with so little contact between opposing armies that there were an estimated three hundred civilian casualties, but only seventy-five among the troops. When the Pathet Lao rebels opened up on them with a noisy 85-mm. Russian cannon, just before the recent cease-fire was negotiated in Geneva, the Royal Army infantrymen not only threw away their rifles, but many took off their shoes so they could retreat faster. Earlier this year, when the troops of one Royal Laotian army general put up unusually spirited resistance against the advancing rebels, western military attaches in Vientiane soon discovered the reason: the Communists were trying to occupy an opium plantation in which the Royal Laotian general had a heavy private investment.

The main obstacle faced by the American military advisers who have been training this absurd army is that the Buddhist religion, to which most Laotians belong, specifically prohibits killing another human being. (They dislike the idea of killing so much that no Laotian wants to become a butcher, and all the meat shops in Vientiane are owned by Chinese.) That such religious scruples don’t apply so strictly to the Pathet Lao is due mainly to the fact that the past eight years of jungle living has weeded out all but the determined Communists. One western military observer in Vientiane half-seriously expounded a much simpler theory. "The main difference in the morale between the two armies." he said, “is that the rebels are fighting their way toward the fieshpots of Vientiane, while the Royal Laotian troops must leave them to go into battle.”

The rebels are being aided by North Vietnamese technicians, as well as organized units of "volunteers." Their arms are supplied by a Soviet airlift which this year alone is known to have made at least a thousand sorties, delivering forty-five tons a day to Xieng Khouang. the Communist stronghold in northern Laos. The rebel forces are thought to have at least fifty large field guns and a hundred and fifty vehicles, including armored cars.

But their main asset is the will to fight. Originally the rebels were a nationalistic movement against the French who were the colonial masters of Laos for the first half of this century. The resentment of the Laotians was based on the French policy of maintaining the country as a worthless buffer state between their wealthier colonies of Cambodia and Vietnam on one side and the aspirations of the British in Burma on the other. 1 was told that during fifty years of rule. French schools in Laos turned out just sixty-one high school graduates; elementary education was provided for only one percent of the population. The country was granted full independence from France in 1953. anil its history since then has revolved around the inability of the central government in Vientiane to defeat the Pathet Lao. Goaded on by Communist agitators, the rebels transferred their hostility from France to the United States, because the Americans had jumped in to fill the vacuum left by the sudden withdrawal of the French.

Laos has three princesThey all want to be king

Since France’s departure, the internal battle for control over Laos has involved three main factions, headed by three princes. The Pathet Lao have been commanded by Prince Souphanouvong, scion of a remote branch of the royal family, who studied civil engineering in Paris, then went to Hanoi, married a Communist and helped plot the overthrow of the French Indochina regime. Pic’s a ruthless guerilla lighter determined eventually to take over Laos as a Communist satellite. The prowestern group which opposes Souphanouvong is nominally under Prince Bonn Oum, the premier of the present U. S.-backed government in Vientiane. But he's little more than a pleasant puppet with royal ancestors. The man who has held him in power is General Phoumi Nosavan. a tough professional soldier and a dedicated anti-Communist.

The third and least organized faction is that of the neutralists, headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma. According to the agreement recently reached among the three princes, the present U. S.-backed government of Prince Botin Oum will eventually be replaced by an administration under Souvanna Phouma in which his neutralist followers will have the largest cabinet representation and the other factions a smaller, equal number of portfolios.

In such an arrangement Souvanna’s personality will play a dominant role. He's a charming, Paris-educated gentleman, with an undimmed vision of himself as the only

man who can successfully unite Laos. Fie believes such a unification will require many compromises, but that these can be safely made, as long as he remains at the head of the government to look after the best interests of the country's citizens. He views his relationship to the Laotian people as a kingly one. and if all does not go well despite his assumption of power, he's likely to blame unnamed enemies who create evil illusions.

Souvanna describes his foreign polic\ as "neutrality in neutralism,” a term that he refuses to define, although it certainly won't be the kind of neutralité bienveillante that the Americans would like to see. For one thing, Souvanna has already agreed to holding elections soon after taking office. With three quarters of the country physically occupied by the Pathet Lao rebels, even more or less honest elections would return a Communist parliament. He has also promised to recognize and accept aid from Communist China and agreed to the withdrawal of American military advisers now in the country.

Souvanna has good reason not to trust the Americans. He has been prime minister of Laos six times since his country became independent, and on the last two occasions the Americans drove him out of office, because he wanted genuine neutrality for his country, instead of active alignment with the West. Most of the Laotian experts I interviewed agree that the really neutral Laos which might have been possible under Souvanna's previous governments has now become far less likely.

Only last year, a Souvanna Phouma administration, much less leftist than the next one is bound to be, was put into power at Vientiane by an unusual army mutiny. Captain Kong .Le, a tense and ambitious Royal Laotian Army paratrooper fed up with the corruption of the U. S.-backed Bonn Oum government, led his battalion into Vientiane on August 8, I960, and after a brief skirmish captured the city. He spent his first days in power racing around town in a jeep bearing the emblem Chef de Coup d’Etat. Then he decided to back Souvanna in forming a genuinely neutral government. It’s an open secret in Laos that agents of the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency persuaded General Phoumi Nosavan (the strong man behind Prince Boun Oum) to organize a counterattack

on Vientiane four months later which drove Kong Le and Souvanna into exile. Kong Le (now a lieutenant-general) has since allied his army with the Pathet Lao.

With Souvanna about to resume power, the prospect for Laos remaining friendly to the West appears so dim that some Pentagon generals have been urging massive armed intervention. Two regiments of the Third Marine Division are said to be prepared to fly from Okinawa for an assault on the strategically placed little kingdom. One problem is that no major force can be injected into the Laotian terrain and long remain a great army. It’s a country suitable only to the kind of rugged guerilla warfare that the West is least capable of fighting. An even more serious consideration is that the massive commitment of U. S. troops would almost certainly bring Chinese “volunteers” streaming into the country to reinforce the Pathet Lao, and another Korea or worse would result. “One factor that nearly everyone forgets when dealing with Laos is that China very badly needs this whole peninsida as an interim solution to its food problem, and is willing to take great risks to get it,” one of the best informed men in Vientiane told me.

“We now have only two alternatives here,” 1 was told by another local pundit. “Either we decide to abandon Laos, or we must try to salvage what we can, and support Souvanna’s government with the hope that he may become a little more neutral on our side. After all, American aid has made this country a financial dependency of the U. S., and Souvanna knows well enough that we’d never keep supporting an outright Communist satellite.”

My visit has convinced me that the Laotians, who really ask nothing more than privacy for their own doings, are about to join the lengthening list of victims of the power politics of the cold war. Like most primitive societies, this bleeding little country has reached back into folklore to describe its present plight. In Laos these days they quote an ancient proverb that couldn’t be more appropriate: “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” ^