The French first arrived in Indo-China in the 1860s, and found a weakened and divided Laotian kingdom which had fallen under the control of Thailand. After a series of clashes with Thailand, Laos became a French protectorate in 1893. Colonial rule was consolidated in 1907.
In early 1942 the country was invaded by Japan, who then used the existing French Vichy administration to control the country. In March 1945 Laos declared independence from France, with Japanese encouragement. The French returned in 1946 and quickly regained control, although the king was allowed to remain as a constitutional monarch. Laos was granted self-government within the French Union on 19 July 1949. In 1950 the communist-backed Laos Patriotic Front (LPF) was established to oppose French rule. An armed wing, the Pathet Lao was created a year later. Backed by the Viet Minh, the Pathet Lao gained control of the northeast of the country during 1953. On 23 October 1953 Laos achieved independence as a constitutional monarchy. Following a conference in Geneva regarding the occupied northern provinces, full sovereignty was gained on 29 December 1954.
From 1954 to 1958 a broad coalition government including Pathet Lao elements was in control, but elections in 1958 shattered the frail unity achieved so far. Factional rivalry between communists, neutralists and the US-backed right-wing government escalated into civil war. During 1961 and 1962 attempts were made to re-establish the broad coalition, but they failed to achieve lasting success.
In 1964 the United States commenced bombing attacks on North Vietnamese bases in Laos, followed by a prolonged campaign against the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the eastern part of the country. Despite support from the CIA, Laotian government forces continued to lose ground, and in 1970 the Plain of Jars to the south of Luang Prabang was captured by North Vietnamese troops. Between January and March 1971 South Vietnamese troops also staged an invasion of Southern Laos with US air support.
On 21 February 1973 a ceasefire was agreed between Pathet Lao and government forces. Negotiations led to a political and military settlement on 29 July 1973. A government of national unity was inaugurated in April 1974. In late 1975, after communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Pathet Lao seized control of Laos. On 2 December 1975, the monarchy was abolished and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic proclaimed. A Vietnamese-style communist regime was introduced. In 1977 a 25-year friendship treaty was signed with Vietnam.
During 1979 Vietnamese and Laotian forces invaded Cambodia from Laos to otherthrow the murderous Pol Pot regime. By 1980 the Laotian Government had realised that it’s attempt to introduce communist reforms had seriously damaged the economy. Consequently, the programme of collectivising farms was abandoned and efforts to promote private enterprise initiated. At the same time, increasing popular resentment over the dominant role that Vietnam continued to play in the running of the country lead to large-scale arrests. On 15 September 1980 an anti-Vietnamese group, the Lao People’s National Liberation Front was formed, and over the last 25 years this group has been blamed for sporadic guerrilla raids and terrorist bomb attacks within the country.
Between December 1987 and February 1988 Laos and Thailand wee involved in a series of border clashes over disputed territory. A formal ceasefire ended the fighting. During 1988 the substational contingent of Vietnamese troops based in Laos was sharply reduced. The first elections since 1975 were held during 1989, although all candidates had to be approved by the ruling communist party.
In 1997 Laos joined ASEAN – the Association of South East Asian Nations. In February 2002 fresh parliamentary elections were held, with the communists winning all but one seat.
Sporadic fighting has taken place with anti-government forces – principally the Lao Citizens Movement for Democracy, which proclaimed an ‘uprising’ in June 2003. Government army units have staged several counter-offensives, backed by air support.
Laos is now one of the last remaining communist states in the world. It is still extremely poor, with many people outside the capital living without electricity or basic facilities. Observers believe that there is currently a power struggle going on between the ageing politburo, which wants closer ties with Vietnam, and the younger part members, who see close ties with the booming Chinese economy as the future.