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LAO ISSARA

Also known as the “Promoters” (Khana Kokan), the Lao Issara leadership consisted of patriotic civil servants who had worked in the French colonial administration and a group of Lao patriots like Thao Oun who had been in Thailand during World War II as exiles or in the service of the Bangkok government. A number of them had worked directly with the Seri Thai or Free Thai movement run by Pridi Phanomyong and dominated by ethnic Lao from Isan such as Tieng Serikhan and Thongin Phuriphat. Others came from the Lao offshoot known as the Lao Pen Lao (Laos for the Lao).

Whatever its weaknesses, the Lao Issara government took the first steps to create a postcolonial nation-state in Laos in the wake of World War II. On 8 October, its spokesman informed King Sisavang Vong that its leaders intended to establish a constitutional monarchy. The King refused. On 12 October, the Issara held a ceremony in Vientiane to proclaim the independence and unity of Laos under its national authority. The new government promulgated the nation’s first constitution and on 15 October presented its programme to the provisional National Assembly. On 19 November, the Lao Issara deposed the king.

As was the case in Vietnam, the presence of Chinese troops in Laos did not last for long. In February 1946, the geopolitical situation changed significantly when French and Chinese authorities signed an accord allowing French troops to replace their counterparts above the 16th parallel. On 21 March, the French re-occupied Thakhek in a bloody attack and moved northwards to retake all of Laos by May. They restored Sisavang Vong to his pre-March 1945 positions. In the spring of 1946, Phetsarath and the Lao Issara government crossed the Mekong for exile in Thailand. Under the continued premiership of Khammao, the Lao Issara now operated out of Bangkok, where it was based, and Northeastern Thailand, where its soldiers and guerrillas were stationed. While militarily the Issara never posed a threat on the other side of the Mekong, the presence of many of the best and brightest of the French-trained elite in exile undermined French attempts to legitimate their post-war colonial project in Laos. Throughout the late 1940s, Lao Issara representatives did their best to use Thailand to build regional and international contacts and recognition. Issara delegates met with Thai, American, Vietnamese, and British officials to discuss the course of events in Indochina. As for the French, their main concern was to dissolve the Lao Issara as quickly as possible, bring its members back to Laos, and thereby legitimate their own political project.

The coming of the Cold War, marked by Chinese communist victories and increasing American pressure on the French to decolonize, modified the thrust of this policy. The changing international context effectively pushed the French to sign conventions with each monarchy in 1949, recognizing their national independence within the confines of the French Union. Political strategists led by High Commissioner Léon Pignon used the creation of these Associated States to remove the raison d’être of the Lao Issara (and the Khmer Issarak) and thereby bring its leaders back to Laos. The Franco-Lao convention as signed in Paris on 19 July 1949 followed the one signed with Bao Dai and preceded another one with Norodom Sihanouk.

No sooner had the ink dried on the convention than the French turned to dissolving the Lao Issara. In a remarkable operation, the French opened secret meetings with Issara members that successfully neutralized the movement in Thailand and brought most of its leaders back to Laos. This operation was facilitated by the fact that the Franco-Lao convention creating the Associated State of Laos satisfied the desires of most of the Issara nationalists who had been in Thailand since 1946. On 24 October 1949, three weeks after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, the prime minister of the Provisional Government of Laos, Khammao, proclaimed the official dissolution of the Lao Issara government and movement. Guaranteed amnesty and often posts in the Associated State of Laos, almost all of the major leaders of the movement and government returned to Laos in late 1949 and 1950. The two revealing exceptions were Phetsarath and his half-brother Prince Suphānuvong. See also ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE FOR THE FRONTIER; ASSOCIATED STATES OF INDOCHINA; COMMITTEE FOR EXTERNAL AFFAIRS; COMMITTEE FOR THE EAST, LAO ISSARA; INDOCHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY; INDOCHINESE FEDERATION; KAISÔN PHOMVIHĀN; LAO RESISTANCE GOVERNMENT; PARTY AFFAIRS COMMITTEE.