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Historical Dictionary

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PHETXARĀT RATTANAVONGSĀ, (1890–1959)

One of the most important Lao nationalists of the 20th century and an ardent opponent of the restoration of French colonialism to Laos after World War II. Phetxarāt was born into the royal family of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang, the son of the Viceroy Boun Khong. He completed his secondary studies at the Lycée Chasseloup Laubat in Saigon before moving on to Paris in 1905 to study at the Colonial Academy (École coloniale) and at the Parisian Lycées of Lavoisier and Louis Le Grand. As one of the best educated Indochinese at the time, Prince Phetxarāt returned to Laos in 1912 keen on playing an important role in the administration and modernization of his country. In 1914, he joined the colonial civil service as a clerk in the Direction des finances du royaume de Luang Prabang and then in the Bureau de la Résidence supérieure au Laos. In 1919, he was appointed to the cabinet of the résident supérieur of Laos and put in charge of “questions related to the indigenous administration”. In 1923, he was promoted to the post of Inspecteur indigène des Affaires politiques et administratives du Laos, the highest post held by a Lao in the colonial administration at the time. His activities were considerable. Between 1919 and 1930 he served on the Conseil de gouvernement, and on the Grand conseil des intérêts économiques et financiers de l’Indochine in 1932 and 1933. By royal decree, in 1941 the King of Luang Prabang bestowed upon him the title of Tiao Maha Oupahat, the equivalent of viceroy. In 1941, Phetxarāt became prime minister of the Royal Government of Luang Prabang and served as minister of Interior.

However, his relations with the King of Luang Prabang, Sīsāvangvong, and the latter’s French backers, became increasingly strained during the war and differences came into the open following the Japanese overthrow of the French in March 1945. Phetxarāt once remarked in private that though the King may reign, it was he who “ran the place” (c’est moi qui fait marcher la boîte). With the French gone, Phetxarāt asserted his influence in political matters, abrogating unilaterally the French protectorate and proclaiming the unity of Laos in September. As a result, the King of Luang Prabang stripped him of his titles and functions on 10 October.

Phetxarāt now broke openly with the King and the French by lending his name to the Lao Issara government, serving as its president of honor. On 19 November, with Phetxarāt’s backing, the Lao Issara deposed King Sīsāvangvong. In mid-1946, following the French reoccupation of all of Laos, Phetxarāt followed the Lao Issara into exile in Thailand and agreed on 1 December to serve as supreme counselor to the provisional Lao Issara government now based in Bangkok. He effectively served as the acting chief of the government. Phetxarāt was well connected in Thai royal, political, and police circles. Thanks to such ties, Phetxarāt lived in dignity in Thailand and married a Thai.

Following the signing of the Franco-Lao convention in July 1949 creating the Associated State of Laos, Khammao Vilai disbanded the Lao Issara and most of its members returned to join the new government in Laos. Phetxarāt, however, refused to join the French counter-revolutionary project, demanding fuller independence and the return of his titles. King Sīsāvangvong also refused to countenance his return. Phetxarāt simultaneously rebuffed an invitation from Ho Chi Minh to join in building a new Lao Resistance Government to replace the Lao Issara and compete with the Associated State of Laos. The Vietnamese finally decided to work with his half-brother, Prince Suphānuvong. From 1950, Prince Phetxarāt was on his own and was increasingly sidelined from Lao politics. He ultimately returned to Laos in March 1957 and regained his title of Tiao Maha Oupahat. He passed away in October 1959.