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Laos - The First Coalition Initial Difficulties
Implementation of the armistice agreement in Laos began on schedule. The Joint Commission, on which the RLG was represented by General Bounphone Maekthepharak and Colonel Sengsouvanh Souvannarath and Colonel Boun Ma, and the Pathet Lao by Singkapo, Sisavath, and Ma Khamphitay, held a number of meetings at Khang Khay to deal with the details. The presence of the International Control Commission (ICC), made up of Canada, India, and Poland, also helped force the two sides to live up to their commitments. However, the insistence of the Pathet Lao that their regroupment areas cover the entire territory of the two provinces, along with a right to exclusive administration of those provinces, raised serious problems almost immediately. Another part of the armistice agreement that caused difficulties was, as noted in an ICC report, the "... glaring differences regarding the number and categories of prisoners of war and civil internees exchanged."
It became clear that higher-level negotiations were needed. Princes Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong met at Khang Khay on September 8. The assassination of the defense minister, Kou Voravong, in Vientiane on September 18, however, demonstrated the fragility of the Laotian political structure. The act seemed to be a settling of old scores, dating probably to Kou's energetic measures as interior minister to suppress banditry perpetrated from across the river. Thailand also seemed to be implicated, but the announcement by Thai police that they had arrested the assassin, who claimed to have been in league with Phoui, only poisoned relations between the Voravong and Sananikone families. Crown Prince Savang wondered aloud whether Phetsarath, with the help of foreigners, was trying to oust the monarchy.
The Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese backers meanwhile took advantage of the cease-fire to launch a vast recruitment campaign. In the cases of numerous recruits who were later interviewed, the offer of schooling or more specialized training in North Vietnam proved decisive to their enlistment, and even those who were initially skeptical were ultimately won over by the attentions of their Vietnamese instructors and the persuasiveness of the political lessons they received. One major consequence of this campaign was that the Pathet Lao ranks were swelled by recruits from the many different hill tribes of Laos. These men were to constitute the initial Pathet Lao units. The immediate goal after regrouping in the two provinces was to form nine battalions, plus independent companies for propaganda missions.
Laos, a member of the United Nations (UN) since December 14, 1955, seemed an unlikely place for a resumption of hostilities. Peaceful coexistence was the dominant mood of the time. A new government under Katay was represented at the Asian-African Conference held in April 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, where he and North Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong spoke of peace and noninterference in each other's affairs. But an initial round of negotiations between the government and the Pathet Lao in Rangoon in October collapsed, dashing hopes of a rapid settlement of the Pathet Lao question. Armed clashes between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao continued sporadically in the two provinces.
The threat to the RLG posed by a combination of internal subversion and outside aggression preoccupied its leaders, none more so than Crown Prince Savang Vatthana. As early as summer 1954, fearing a French deal with the Viet Minh that might be injurious to Laotian sovereignty and territorial integrity, Savang had flown to Paris to make his own soundings of French intentions. He was also anxious to probe United States diplomats for reassurances as to the nature of the support Laos could expect in the event of an attack from its communist neighbors. He told Dulles that Laos was in a "life or death struggle" for survival and that the Laotian people were opposed to communist dictatorship. Dulles replied, "You can count upon our support--moral, political, and material--so long as that support goes to a government vigorously seeking to maintain its own independence."
Washington's immediate concern was that the Royal Lao Army was inadequately trained and equipped because all French troops, except for a small detachment at XÚno in the south, had departed. The Geneva armistice terms prohibited Laos from having foreign military bases and participating in any foreign military alliance, but allowed a small French training mission. Dissatisfied with the French mission and seeing a larger role for itself, the United States established a disguised military mission in Vientiane, the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO). This mission became operational on December 13, 1955, under the command of a general officer, who, like others on his staff, had been removed from Department of Defense rosters of active service personnel. The secrecy stemmed from the Department of State's concern that the PEO's existence might be construed as a violation of the Geneva Agreement of 1954, which United States policy continued to uphold.
The RLG held elections in December 1955 without the Pathet Lao. As a result, the Progressive Party again emerged as the leading party with eighteen seats; the newly formed Independent Party (Phak Seli) of Phoui Sananikone and Leuam secured nine seats, the Democratic Party secured four seats, and the National Union Party won two seats.
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