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LAOS: Time to Reconcile

3 minute read

In a mildewed villa in Laos’ capital city of Vientiane sits a bland, tired-eyed Premier named Prince Souvanna Phouma. He says his neutralist government wants to make peace with everybody, including the Communists. He has the support of two crack paratroop battalions, one of them under command of Captain Kong Le, whose coup last August brought Souvanna Phouma to power.

Down in the south is the country’s top soldier, General Phoumi Nosavan, 40, who does not like Communists and says that the prince in Vientiane cannot tell a Red from a banyan tree. Several leaders of Laos’ 28,000-man army — armed, trained and paid by U.S. aid—support Phoumi’s right-wing rebellion. Also working for the general is the fact that he has had help from Marshal Sarit, strongman of the neighboring kingdom of Thailand, whom he calls uncle (actually, he is a first cousin once removed). Vientiane gets all its fuel and most of its food from Thailand, and Sarit has in effect imposed a blockade simply by closing the border across the Mekong River from Vientiane.

Up in the north and behind quite a few trees lurk the guerrillas of Pathet Lao, the military arm of the Laotian Communist Party. Pathet Lao bands are armed, trained and directed by Communist North Viet Nam, but their official leader is Prince Souphanouvong, the Premier’s half brother.

Test for the Right. Last week the SEATO powers led by the U.S. were trying to end this three-way war by bringing pressure to reconcile Premier Souvanna and General Phoumi. Their argument: the only side winning in the fight is the Communist Pathet Lao. At first Phoumi proved stubborn, ignoring four telegrams from the King asking him to meet with the Premier’s military representatives at the royal palace in Luangprabang. But the new month was approaching, bringing pay day for his troops, and U.S. aid, which normally covers the army’s wages, goes only to the legal government, i.e., Premier Souvanna.

Furthermore, Phoumi’s troops had disastrously flunked their first real military test. Some 1,200 strong, they moved through the river town of Paksane toward Vientiane, boasting that they would dine in the capital that evening. But then they encountered about 500 of Captain Kong Le’s paratroopers on a muddy road. Phoumi’s men fled, leaving weapons, ammunition and trucks. Last week General Phoumi meekly flew to Luangprabang, accepted a ceasefire, and began negotiations to get some of his own men into the Cabinet.

Drift to the Left. At week’s end, Premier Souvanna announced that a garrison of Phoumi’s men at Samneua had fallen to the Pathet Lao. Not so, said Captain Kong Le. His own men, aided by Pathet Lao and local villagers, had taken Samneua. “I don’t care about the ceasefire,” added Kong Le, who apparently commands the only really effective fighting force in all Laos, and likes to see things done his way. “We will keep fighting until all the Phoumi men surrender.”

Looking very harassed, Premier Souvanna replied that the captain “has no say in military decisions.” At week’s end the U.S. suspended military aid to Laos, because, said General Williston B. Palmer, director of military assistance, “the situation is so confused we have not been sure who is responsible for anything.”

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