on the World Today
THE fourteen-nation Geneva Conference on Laos has been notable for its spirit of cooperation and compromise. From the outset the Russians insisted that they wanted nothing more than the creation of a truly neutral, sovereign, and independent kingdom of Laos. Even the Chinese Communists did not allow their attacks on the United States to prejudice the prospects of a settlement.
It is true that the Thais, who had disapproved of the conference, found none of their fears allayed by its deliberations; but the British, French, and Americans, delighted with the progress achieved, spoke in terms which suggested that their negotiations could lead to something even more important than a fruitful peace for a neutral Laos.
Only one significant element was lacking in this accord — Laos itself. For months, progress at Geneva and regress in Laos were approximately equal. To diplomats anxious to extricate their countries from a complicated and dangerous mess, what seemed in Geneva an admirable solution was regarded in Vientiane as no solution at all.
Delay in agreement
The three Lao Princes, Souvanna Phouma, the neutralist; Souphanouvong, his half-brother and leader of the Communist Pathet Lao; and reluctant Boun Oum, the rightist, conducted their own complementary and mostly unfruitful negotiations. In nearly a year they reached full agreement on only one point: that Prince Souvanna Phouma should be named Prime Minister designate. On the composition of the government and the distribution of ministerial portfolios they disagreed violently. Geneva waited patiently, but seemingly in vain, for the arrival of the unified Lao delegation which was to put the seal of national approval on its international efforts.
Communist opportunism was the first cause for delay. The Pathet Lao wanted a cease-fire only when it had seized all the territory it could safely acquire without provoking the timid Southeast Asia Treaty Organization into face-saving action. Later, when Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong had reached accord and all but minor, sporadic military operations had ended, the right wing stubbornly resisted Western pressure to agree to a coalition government in which the rightists would have been an equal minority party with the Communists.
Left to himself, Prince Boun Oum, Prime Minister of the Royal Lao Government, might have acquiesced. He is affable, indolent, and apolitical, the figurehead for the anti-Communist forces. Real power and authority rest, however, with General Phoumi Nosavan, Minister of National Defense, who controls the 55,000-man Royal Lao Army. Unlike the Princes, forty-year-old Phoumi is the Lao equivalent of a self-made man. He was once a river pirate and rose through the ranks of the French colonial army. Lacking any popular or family following, he sees no future either for himself or for the forces of the right if he is divorced from the army in a coalition government.
Under the firmest diplomatic pressure from the combined Western embassies in Vientiane, and several times threatened with the temporary withholding of the U.S. paycheck on which both the Royal Lao Government and Army are dependent. Boun Oum and Phoumi consented reluctantly to meetings with Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong. To get them to the trough was not to make them drink, however. Their minimum demands were that they should hold the defense and interior portfolios, and they wanted to blend Souvanna Phouma’s left-inclined neutralists with some of their own.
One meeting in Vientiane late in December collapsed almost before it began, when the Pathet Lao troops who had escorted Souphanouvong were found to be distributing leaflets urging the Royal Lao forces to revolt. The following month, combined Pathet Lao and neutralist forces in considerable strength attacked the rightist stronghold in the village of Nam Tha, 230 miles northwest of Vientiane.
Fact and fiction are always difficult to separate in Laos, and Phoumi has made a career out of crying wolf. That an attack on Nam Tha took place is established, but whether it was an outright and unprovoked violation of the cease-fire agreement, as Phoumi claimed, or whether it was in retaliation for his own probing actions beyond Nam Tha, as the Communists and neutralists maintained, is unclear.
Ensuing developments followed the longfamiliar and inconclusive Lao pattern. Phoumi called for a cease-fire at Nam Tha. Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong replied that they would stop only if Phoumi’s forces discontinued their attacks elsewhere. Eventually, diplomatic pressures, this time principally through the Russian and British ambassadors working in tandem, brought Souvanna Phouma to Vientiane for yet another series of talks. He left again with the door still slightly open — a typical Lao situation, which the right wing regarded as about the best it could hope for.
Others observed the situation differently. Early in 1961 the alternatives for the United States had seemed clear-cut. It had the choice of direct intervention to save the right wing from the proliferating Communist forces or of negotiating at the Geneva Conference with its Western allies, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Laos’ interested neighbors. With the Russians actively supplying weapons to both the Communist and neutralist forces, the Communist regime in North Vietnam helping out with “technicians,” and Communist China ready to exploit the situation, the military prospects were unfavorable.
Landlocked, without railways, and with the poorest road system in Southeast Asia, Laos posed the most awkward logistical problems. About two thirds of the country, and perhaps half of the population of about two million, had already passed out of the control of the Royal Lao Army, which at no time had exhibited any real interest in fighting. Pathet Lao guerrillas and their political agents were active almost everywhere. The right wing was divided politically. Morale was low. And both Britain and France, the two major allies of the United States involved in SEATO, counseled strongly against a military solution, arguing that it would lead inevitably to the escalation of the war in a region and on terms which offered every advantage to the Communist forces.
Superficially, the alternative seemed more hopeful. the Russians had implied in private talks that a settlement was desirable, if only to keep out the Chinese. Souvanna Phouma was more or less acceptable to all sides. Neither the right wing nor many Americans believed that all his associates were truly neutral, but of the Prince himself the only doubt was that he might not prove tough enough to do the job.
The Communist wing
This view of the situation neglected several important factors. With the right wing divided and Souvanna Phouma just beginning to form the nucleus of a neutralist party, the only significant political force in the country was the Pathet Lao movement and its political wing, the Neo Lao Hak Xat Party, led by Prince Souphanouvong, who takes equal pride in his Greek scholarship and his toughness. Sixteen years ago a French fighter plane raked the boat in which he was crossing the Mekong after Lao nationalist forces had been driven from the river town of Thakhek. Twentynine of Souphanouvong’s companions in the boat were killed.
Souphanouvong, with a bullet through his lungs, survived to create the Pathet Lao and to throw in his lot with North Vietnam’s Communist leader Ho Chi-minh, who is still recognized as the Party leader not merely in North Vietnam but in all the three former Associated States of French Indochina — Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Now aged fifty, Souphanouvong is in robust health. He shares an austere sitting room with Souvanna Phouma in barracks in the hills beyond the Plain of Jars. His guerrillas are spread through the entire country. And since by agreement with Souvanna Phouma he knows he can count on an election within twelve months of the formation of any coalition government, he feels reasonably sure that time will give him power. He is also aware, as is Souvanna Phouma, that he has powerful friends across the northern borders, in North Vietnam and China.
As the situation has developed, it is now clear that the West, in deciding what to do in Laos, had no alternatives, but only Hobson’s choice, between the wrong war in the wrong place and the self-deception that a coalition government would result in enduring Lao neutrality.
Circumstances have forced Prince Souvanna Phouma into much closer association with his Communist brother than he would have wished a year ago. He likes to talk with Western correspondents and others who get permission to make the journey from Vientiane by International Control Commission planes to the Plain of Jars, and these days he gives the impression of being almost ready to wash His hands of the whole business and to return to France, where his daughter has announced her engagement to a French nobleman.
Russian planes have continued to land military supplies on the Plain of Jars and to drop other supplies along the Ho Chi-minh trail, from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, which leads through Communistheld areas of South Vietnam.
Worse still, the Chinese have used the many months of delay to establish themselves in northern Laos. All along their southern borders they are burrowing and bridging their way into South and Southeast Asia. The vast chain of roads they have built through some of the world’s worst terrain includes a main highway running from Tibet into India and through, or along, the boundaries of the Himalayan states of Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim. This road will be crossed by another, linking Katmandu, the Nepalese capital, with Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Further east, the Chinese are building a 236-mile stretch of highway in the Wa states of northeastern Burma. This will link up through southern China with yet another road, connecting the town of Mongla in Yunnan province with Phong Saly in northern Laos. In addition to accepting this road as a Chinese gift, the neutralist-Communist groups in Laos agreed on October 7 last year to exchange consulates general with Communist China. These have been established at Phong Saly and Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
The Chinese Communist consul general is also a major general, formerly commander of Chinese military forces in the Kunming area and one of Peiping’s leading authorities on the border areas. In addition to his entourage, there is a Chinese economic and cultural delegation. Headed by the Chinese ambassador to North Vietnam, it includes a former assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Peiping and a high-ranking Party official.
Defeat for the West
Such faint prospect as may have once existed of an enduring and genuine neutrality for Laos has vanished, and none of the platitudinous protestations of Western statesmen at Geneva can alter this uncomfortable fact. Furthermore, because it bowed to the pressure from its allies, who have been consistently and vehemently opposed to General Phoumi Nosavan, Washington finds itself in disrepute with its own former friends in Laos. To some extent it has repaired its relations with Prince Souvanna Phouma, but it has made no progress with Souphanouvong, the man who really counts.
To the average Laotian, accustomed now to a permanent state of semiwar, none of these developments has involved great change. Bau pinh yanh — “It doesn’t matter” — is a favorite Lao expression. It sums up the normal Lao attitude toward such matters as the appalling incidence of disease, malnutrition (50 percent of the children in Vientiane die before they are ten years old), and Communism.
However, among the neighboring Thais, who wonder whether they arc going to be left sticking out like a sore anti-Communist thumb in Southeast Asia, and the South Vietnamese, who have proof that Laos is being used as a Communist corridor to supply the Viet Cong rebels, such developments are a cause for real concern. The problems of the Thais and the South Vietnamese have been gravely aggravated by what is fundamentally a major Western defeat in Laos.