Events in 1945

Events in 1945

Japanese troops moved into the towns and quickly imprisoned French officials and their families and confiscated their property. Prince Phetsarath, after ordering Laotian civil servants to continue their duties as usual, left Vientiane for Louangphrabang to be with the king.

After being delayed on the roads from Xiangkhoang and Vientiane by the Franco-Laotian guerrillas (of whom the Hmong were particularly effective), two battalions of Japanese troops finally arrived in Louangphrabang on April 7. They found the French gone. A Japanese representative suggested that the king proclaim Laos's independence and send someone to discuss the terms of LaotianJapanese cooperation. Sisavang Vong replied that he would stay with his people and that his attitude toward the French would not change. Laos was too small to be independent, but if he was obliged to accept independence he would do so. At the same time, he reluctantly issued a proclamation on April 8 ending the French protectorate. The king secretly entrusted Prince Kindavong, a younger half-brother of Phetsarath, with the mission of representing him in the Allied councils abroad while he maintained clandestine contact with the Franco-Laotian guerrillas in Laos. He also sent Crown Prince Savang Vatthana to Japanese headquarters in Saigon, where he vigorously protested the Japanese actions.

Phetsarath no doubt saw some good coming from the turn of events. The Japanese had told him that they intended that the king's proclamation of independence apply to all of Laos. Interested in the unity of Laos, he gave the Japanese a proposal for unifying the Laotian civil service. Phetsarath also opened an account of the royal treasury with the Indochinese treasury in Hanoi, which gave the kingdom greater fiscal autonomy. Problems began to appear almost immediately, however. At the end of June, the coffers were empty in spite of an infusion of money brought back from Saigon by the crown prince. Japan, no longer able to provide for the salaries of the Laotian administration, allowed the civil service to languish.

Beyond this was the Vietnamese problem. In 1943 the six chief towns of Laos counted 30,300 Vietnamese inhabitants out of their total population of 51,150. Vietnamese occupied key positions in the federal civil service, public works, posts and telegraph, treasury, customs, and police. The political dangers to Laos of the Vietnamese presence were demonstrated on April 8 when Vietnamese residents of Khang Khay tried to detach Tran Ninh (Xiangkhoang), an integral part of the territory of the Kingdom of Louangphrabang, from Laos and attach it to Vietnam.

After their coup de force, the Japanese put prices on the heads of the Franco-Laotian guerrillas and anyone caught helping them. In spite of the danger, the guerrillas sought recruits in the countryside and stepped up their armed attacks against Japanese communications, virtually cutting off several towns. The guerrillas' message to Laotian civil servants: disregard the Japanese-inspired proclamation of independence and carry on your regular duties without helping the Japanese. Chao khoueng (provincial governors) who joined the guerrillas and chao muang (district chiefs) faced the hard decision of leaving behind their colleagues and sometimes their families. Whereas many of the leading Lao and tribal figures supported the Franco-Laotian guerrillas, some families had divided loyalties.

After Japan's surrender, Phetsarath acted on the premise that the king's proclamation of independence was still in force. On August 28, 1945, he sent a telegram to all provincial governors notifying them that the Japanese surrender did not affect independence and warning them to resist any foreign intervention in their administration. Phetsarath also refused to recognize the authority of the French résident supérieur when he was released from prison. Three days earlier, however, Colonel Hans Imfeld, commissioner of the French Republic, had entered Louangphrabang with a party of Franco-Laotian guerrillas and had received assurances from the king that the protectorate was still in force. Japanese troops having withdrawn to the south, a party of Franco-Laotian guerrillas under the command of Major Fabre entered Vientiane peacefully on September 3 to await developments. French civilians released from internment were evacuated.

Vietnamese residents in Vientiane and other towns had already begun spreading anti-French propaganda and making preparations to resist the French. In these actions, they were guided by agents of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), a Marxist-Leninist party founded in 1930 by Ho Chi Minh. The ICP adhered to a Leninist strategy of seizing power by revolutionary action--national liberation followed by the transition to socialism. The ICP had established cells in Laos in the early 1930s made up entirely of Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese agitation came to a head with a large demonstration in Vientiane on August 23. Phetsarath favored taking advantage of the French difficulties. However, as head of government, his autonomy was restricted not only by the wishes of the king, but also by the 1941 arrangement with the French that had made the crown prince the chairman of the King's Council. The French design had, perhaps intentionally, created an ambiguity that made for conflict. On September 2, Phetsarath sent a message to the king requesting a royal proclamation of the unity of Laos.

While he was dealing with these matters, Phetsarath received an unsolicited message on September 3 from Prince Souphanouvong, another of his half-brothers. Souphanouvong had spent the previous sixteen years working as an engineer in Vietnam. Souphanouvong flew from Vinh to Hanoi in an aircraft provided by the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to meet with Ho Chi Minh, who had just proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi in the name of the Viet Minh, an ICP front organization. (Although OSS personnel were not authorized to operate in Indochina, the OSS station in Kunming, China, took advantage of a mandate for OSS teams to perform prisoner of war (POW) recovery work to enter Indochina.) Prince Souphanouvong said he was in a position to represent the interests of Laos and asked for instructions. On September 5, he sent another message to Phetsarath saying that he had begun to negotiate with the Vietnamese for aid in the independence struggle and to form "an Indochinese bloc opposing the return of colonialism." Phetsarath rejected Souphanouvong's offer.

The official United States position, communicated to France, was that there was no question concerning France's sovereignty over Indochina. At the end of August, President Harry S. Truman was personally assured by de Gaulle that Indochina would be granted independence once the status quo before the Japanese aggression had been restored. Meanwhile, United States recognition of French sovereignty was qualified by the proviso that the French claim of support by the Indochinese populations be borne out by future events. Apparently without the knowledge of Washington, however, an OSS team that reached Vientiane in September--escorted by members of the Lao Pen Lao newly returned from Thailand--assured Phetsarath that the French would not be allowed to return. The team advised Phetsarath to await the arrival of the Inter-Allied Commission that was to decide his country's future. This information misled Phetsarath into believing that the international community supported an independent Laos.

However, on September 7, Phetsarath was informed by the minister of interior that a royal proclamation had continued the French protectorate over the Kingdom of Louangphrabang. On September 15, with the Inter-Allied Commission nowhere in sight, Phetsarath issued a proclamation that unified the Kingdom of Louangphrabang with the four southern provinces of Khammouan, Savannakhét, Champasak, and Saravan (Salavan). Vientiane would be the capital, and the Congress of People's Representatives would soon meet to decide all political, economic, and social questions.

On September 21, Fabre demanded the dismissal of Xieng Mao (also known as Phaya Khammao, or Khammao Vilay), the provincial governor since 1941, for anti-French activities, and his replacement by Kou Voravong. The next day, an advance guard of the Chinese Nationalist troops responsible for receiving the surrender of the Japanese arrived by boat down the Mekong. They appeared more interested in buying up the opium crop (harvested from late December to early February) than in disarming the already departed Japanese.

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