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Laos - A Deepening Split
A deepening split
Phoumi enlisted the support of the commanders of four of Laos's five military regions. He also began immediately broadcasting propaganda denouncing Kong Le as a communist and on August 15 proclaimed the establishment of a Counter Coup d'État Committee. He appealed to all military personnel to rally behind him, guaranteed their salaries, and proclaimed his intention to liberate Vientiane from communist hands. Forces loyal to Phoumi seized Pakxan.
The United States considered Souvanna Phouma's return to office bad news. A Department of State cable stated that the United States sought "to bring about an acceptable power balance of non-communist elements which would eliminate Kong Le and restore authority and stability."
Souvanna Phouma, wanting to avoid civil war, with Phoumi's concurrence convoked the National Assembly in Louangphrabang on August 29. A new government with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister and Phoumi as deputy prime minister and minister of interior was sworn in on August 31. Phoumi announced the dissolution of his Counter Coup d'État Committee. This might have defused the crisis, but the same day, Kong Le made a radiobroadcast protesting the presence of Phoumi in the cabinet. Souvanna Phouma convinced him to change his mind, which he did "for the sake of peace and reconciliation" on September 1. Phoumi returned to Savannakhét and waited.
On September 10, Prince Boun Oum, speaking from Savannakhét in the name of the new Revolutionary Committee, announced that the constitution had been abolished, and he and Phoumi were assuming power. In mid-September, two companies of Kong Le's paratroopers routed the two battalions of Phoumi's advance guard from their position at Pakxan and installed a defensive line on the north bank of the Nam Kading. Phoumi made no move to organize his paratroop drop on Vientiane, in spite of the considerable means at his disposal. On the evening of September 21, Sarit made a speech in which he hinted at Thai armed intervention in Laos.
Kong Le's reputation as a giant slayer had by now spread from the capital to the far corners of the kingdom. On September 28, when he dropped a handful of paratroopers near Xam Nua in order to explain the situation to the 1,500-person garrison that in principle was loyal to Souvanna Phouma, rumors that the garrison's officers, some of whom had been in contact with Phoumi, might be cashiered created a panic. The garrison abandoned the town to the Pathet Lao, who were accompanied by their North Vietnamese advisers from Group 959. The withdrawing column surrendered its arms to the Pathet Lao near Muang Peun on October 2.
The Pathet Lao now claimed to be supporting Souvanna Phouma. The coup and Phoumi's resistance with foreign assistance, which the United States and Thailand had difficulty camouflaging, gave the still-secret LPP an unprecedented opportunity to burrow more deeply behind the nationalist mantle, and it lost no time in seizing the occasion. Many Laotians came to see the Pathet Lao as acting to defend the country against United States- and Thai-backed aggression. Even in Vientiane, there was growing resentment of the Thai blockade, which caused a shortage of consumer goods and rising prices. Foreseeing an opening for the Pathet Lao to negotiate with the new government, Radio Hanoi and Radio Beijing broadcast support for Souvanna Phouma.
Although Souvanna Phouma's government was accepted as the legal government of Laos by Britain, France, and the United States, this did not prevent the United States from broadening its support to Phoumi's forces on the grounds that they were fighting the Pathet Lao. In fact, there is no record of their taking any offensive action against the Pathet Lao. Phoumi had ordered the pullback from Xam Nua. Winthrop G. Brown, the new United States ambassador, reported instances where Phoumi refused help to engage the Pathet Lao because it was offered by Vientiane. The only offensive actions taken by Royal Lao Army troops against the Pathet Lao between August and December 1960 were those taken by troops loyal to Souvanna Phouma in Phôngsali and elsewhere.
The "compromise" worked out by the embassy with Souvanna Phouma, in which the prime minister would not object to direct United States military aid to Phoumi as long as this aid was not used against his government, was a sham. Whenever the embassy tried to persuade Phoumi to give up his plan and return to Vientiane, Phoumi pleaded fear for his safety and escalated his demands. In Louangphrabang, King Savang Vatthana temporized, hoping to bring the military leaders together at least in a united stand against the communists and putting off a political solution until later. Failing to achieve his aim, he retreated, saying he was disgusted with all concerned. Brown felt he was waiting for Phoumi's capture of Vientiane to get him off the hook and avoid the necessity of his taking any categoric action.
Brown cabled Washington on October 5 that in the continued absence of an agreement between Phoumi and Souvanna Phouma, United States support of Phoumi would lead to "further disintegration" of the anticommunist forces and would involve the United States in actions that risked internationalizing the conflict in Laos.
At a meeting on October 11 with a visiting United States delegation made up of Parsons, Assistant Secretary of Defense John N. Irwin II, and Vice Admiral Herbert D. Riley, chief of staff to the Commander in Chief Pacific, Souvanna Phouma gave an indictment of the provocative errors committed by his successors after formation of the first coalition. He warned that the only course for Laos was to implement the 1957 agreements before the Pathet Lao--with whom he was in touch and intended to resume negotiations- -presented even more far-reaching demands. The first Soviet ambassador to Laos, Aleksandr N. Abramov, arrived as Parsons was leaving.
After conferring with the king, the Parsons-Irwin-Riley team proceeded to Bangkok. On October 17, Irwin and Riley met with Phoumi in Ubol. Although the Department of State at that point was under the impression that United States policy required that Phoumi dissolve the Revolutionary Committee, both as a gesture of good faith toward Souvanna Phouma in preserving the unity of anticommunist forces in Laos and, more practically, in order to avoid the growing impression abroad that the United States was illegally aiding a rebel movement, no mention of this point was made either in Parsons' instructions to his two colleagues or at the October 17 meeting.
Following the formal conversation, Riley took Phoumi aside and told him that the United States had completely lost confidence in Souvanna Phouma and was backing Phoumi to go back and clean up the situation. Irwin similarly told Phoumi that the United States was only supporting him in building up his defenses for the moment; in the long run, the United States was supporting him all the way. The message was not lost on Phoumi. The effect of these unauthorized remarks was to undercut both Souvanna Phouma's efforts to negotiate a compromise solution with Phoumi and Brown's bona fides with Souvanna Phouma, already strained by the continuing United States aid flowing into Savannakhét in the absence of any matching military action against the Pathet Lao. Phoumi's intransigence in turn led the Department of State to make ever-increasing demands on Souvanna Phouma in the interest of "compromise," beginning with the charge that the prime minister was not exercising sufficient control over Kong Le, the demand that he take appropriate precautions to prevent Kong Le from launching an attack on Savannakhét, and so forth.
Souvanna Phouma began negotiations with the Pathet Lao on October 18. However, his position was much weaker than in 1957 when he faced the same set of Pathet Lao demands. Although nothing substantive would come from these negotiations, they provided fuel for Phoumi's anticommunist propaganda and heightened nervousness in Washington and Bangkok.
Next, Phoumi forced the commander of the Louangphrabang garrison to declare for the Revolutionary Committee. This was an important move, for it placed the king within Phoumi's territory. In Bangkok, Sarit's first reaction on hearing the news was to ask the United States ambassador, U. Alexis Johnson, whether now would be a good time for the Revolutionary Committee to "establish itself as a government." General Ouan Ratikoun quickly defected to Savannakhét. Phoumi captured another general, Amkha Soukhavong, at Xiangkhoang and gained the support of General Sing Ratanassamay. Phoumi's troops had been paid without Brown's having been consulted. Ambassador Johnson, without consulting Brown, assured Sarit that the United States would pay Phoumi's troops, an action that Brown protested.
When Phoumi finally launched his offensive on the Nam Kading on November 21, Souvanna Phouma vainly attempted to contact him. With badly needed supplies to Vientiane, especially fuel, still cut off by the Thai blockade, Souvanna Phouma's forced acceptance of a Soviet offer of aid lent Phoumi's imminent attack "to drive out the communists" a semblance of legitimacy. On December 11, Phoumi led the forty National Assembly deputies who had gathered in Savannahkét over the preceding weeks to vote no confidence in Souvanna Phouma's government. The king accepted the vote as legal the next day when he signed Royal Ordinance No. 282, dismissing Souvanna Phouma's government and giving powers provisionally to the Revolutionary Committee. Royal Ordinance No. 283, approving a provisional government formed by Prince Boun Oum, who acted as front man for Phoumi--the king had scruples about naming a general to be prime minister--was signed on December 14. The Department of State notified its acceptance of the new regime and said it was acting to meet its requests for assistance "to restore peace to the country." At this time, neither the deputies nor the court were free agents--and Souvanna Phouma had not resigned.
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