The first recorded history of the Lao begins with the unification of Laos in 1353 by King Fa Ngum. King Fa Ngum established his capital at Luang Prabang and ruled a kingdom called Lane Xang (literally, “million elephants”) which covered much of what today is Thailand and Laos. His successors, especially King Setthathirat in the 16th century, helped establish Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country.
In the 18th century, Lane Xang entered a period of decline caused by dynastic struggle and conflicts with Burma, Siam (now Thailand), Vietnam, and the Khmer kingdom.
In the 19th century, the Siamese established hegemony over much of what is now Laos. The region was divided into principalities centered on Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak. Vietnamese influence was felt in Xieng Khouang and northwest Laos. Late in the century, the French supplanted the Siamese. France integrated all of Laos into the French empire as directly ruled provinces, except for Luang Prabang, which was ruled as a protectorate. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, including Laos. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang was induced to declare independence from France in 1945, just prior to Japan’s surrender. In September 1945, Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free Lao (Lao Issara) banner. In 1946, French troops reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos following elections for a constituent assembly.
France formally recognized the independence of Laos within the French Union in 1949, and Laos remained a member of the Union until 1953. Pro-Western governments held power after the 1954 Geneva peace conference until 1957, when the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed. The coalition government collapsed in 1958, amidst increased polarization of the political process. Rightist forces took over the government, and a communist insurgency resumed in 1959.
In 1960, Kong Le, a paratroop captain, seized Vientiane in a coup and demanded formation of a neutralist government to end the fighting. The neutralist government was once again led by Souvanna Phouma but was driven from power later that same year by rightist forces under General Phoumi Nosavan. In response, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist insurgents, and began to receive support from the Soviet Union. Phoumi Nosavan’s rightist regime received support from the U.S.
A second Geneva conference was held in 1961-1962, and provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos. Soon after accord was reached, the signatories accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement, and with superpower support on both sides, the civil war soon resumed.
In 1972, the communist people’s party renamed itself the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), which went on to join a new coalition government in Laos soon after the Vientiane agreement of February 21, 1973 went into effect that same year. Nonetheless, the political struggle between communists, neutralists and rightists continued. The collapse of Saigon and Phnom Penh in 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition. On December 2, 1975, the king renounced his throne in the constitutional monarchy and entrusted his power to the Lao people, but the LPRP dissolved the coalition cabinet and the communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.
The new communist government imposed centralized economic decision-making and broad security measures, including control of the media and the arrest and incarceration of many members of the previous government and military in “re-education camps”. These draconian policies and deteriorating economic conditions, along with government efforts to enforce political control, prompted an exodus of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. About 10% of the Lao population sought refugee status after 1975. Many have since been resettled in third countries, including nearly 250,000 who have come to the United States.