The First Coalition - Renewed Negotiations

The First Coalition - Renewed Negotiations

After the elections, Souvanna Phouma signaled a renewed effort at negotiations, when, presenting his new government to the National Assembly on March 20, 1956, he called the settlement of the Pathet Lao problem "the gravest and most urgent" question before the country. He opened negotiations in Vientiane in August; the Pathet Lao were represented by Souphanouvong. Two joint declarations issued shortly thereafter by the delegations pledged agreement on a foreign policy of peaceful coexistence, a new ceasefire in the two northern provinces, exercise of democratic freedoms, authorization for the Pathet Lao's political party to operate, procedures for the RLG's administration in the two provinces, integration of Pathet Lao units into the Royal Lao Army, the formation of two mixed commissions to work out the abovementioned details, the holding of supplementary elections to an enlarged National Assembly, and the establishment of a coalition government. In preparation for engaging in the politics of the kingdom, the Pathet Lao had formed an organization--to act as a front--the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Lao Patriotic Front LPF) in January 1956, with an innocuous-sounding platform. Souphanouvong and the other Pathet Lao delegates took the oath of allegiance to the king in the presence of Souvanna Phouma and Kou Abhay, president of the King's Council. This round of negotiations concluded in a further series of agreements covering a cease-fire, implementation of a policy of peace and neutrality, and measures guaranteeing civic rights and nondiscrimination against Pathet Lao followers.

In late August, Souvanna Phouma visited Beijing and Hanoi, where he was warmly received. Far from committing Laos to the communist bloc as the United States Department of State feared, these visits formed part of Souvanna Phouma's strategy to neutralize the danger to Laotian independence posed by the Pathet Lao. It was obvious to him that communism held little appeal to the inhabitants of Laos. Although there were communists among the leaders of the Pathet Lao--and Souvanna Phouma refused to believe his half-brother was one of them--the communists depended on the exercise, or at least the threat, of armed force to carry out their "revolution." Souvanna Phouma's strategy was intended to separate the nationalists from the communists in the Pathet Lao. He warned the Pathet Lao's foreign backers that if they provided sanctuary to armed resistance groups--once the Pathet Lao had been reintegrated into the kingdom's political life--they would be going back on their pledges of noninterference.

At the same time, however, Souvanna Phouma's ideas for safeguarding Laotian independence differed radically from Dulles's. Dulles viewed the Pathet Lao as unacceptable coalition partners; in his view they were all simply communists rather than a front comprising a number of nationalists. The United States ambassador in Vientiane, J. Graham Parsons, informed Souvanna Phouma that Washington was implacably opposed to a coalition government. The United States remained unmollified by a secret protocol attached to a November 2, 1956, agreement on a neutral foreign policy that proscribed the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Vietnam and China in the immediate future. On November 22, Parsons was instructed to inform the prime minister that the United States was unable to respond favorably to his appeal for support.

Negotiations with the Pathet Lao resumed in February 1957 but were interrupted when Souvanna Phouma resigned in May over an unfavorable vote in the National Assembly. In the interim, Phetsarath had been persuaded to return from Thailand. Unbowed by age, but no longer keen on a role for himself in politics, he returned in March and took up residence in Louangphrabang where, in a gesture of royal reconciliation, he made his obeisance to the king and received back his old title of viceroy.

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