11. WILFRED BURCHETT

The United States and Laos


     At a little-publicized three-power foreign ministers' meeting in Paris, on 13 July 1954, John Foster Dulles made a last-minute effort to avoid a ceasefire. He urged Mendès-France and Anthony Eden of Great Britain to set up a South-east Asia Treaty Organization for which he had the draft in his briefcase - immediately, {301} and he demanded international intervention instead of talk about a ceasefire. Mendès-France refused and was strongly supported by Eden. But the price the latter two paid was to agree to set up SEATO immediately after a ceasefire.
     As the clock ticked towards midnight on 20 July at Geneva, new difficulties suddenly arose. Details for a ceasefire in Vietnam had been agreed upon - but the Laotian delegation refused to sign the agreement on Laos. Eventually, at the very last minute, one member of the Laotian delegation did sign.
     Just two months later, on 18 September 1954, Kou Voravong, the Laotian Minister of Defence who had signed in Geneva, was shot in the back as he sat at a dinner table in Vientiane, the Laotian capital. His host at dinner was Phoui Sananikone, the other delegate at Geneva, then Minister of Foreign Affairs. Just nine days prior to this murder, Kou Voravong had revealed in the National Assembly that the sum of $1 million had been paid into a Swiss bank for the account of Phoui Sananikone, the fee he received not to sign the Geneva Agreements.
     The other `imprudence' committed by Voravong was that he had arranged, and taken part in, the first meeting for many years between the half-brother princes, Souvanna Phouma, then Prime Minister of the royal government, and Souphanouvong, head of the Pathet Lao. This meeting was aimed at starting political negotiations between the government and the Pathet Lao as provided for under the Geneva Agreements. The murder set the tone for things to come. The crisis it provoked led to Souvanna Phouma's government being replaced by one headed by a pro-American, Katay Don Sasorith. The latter, within a few days of a visit to Laos by John Foster Dulles, repudiated the Geneva Agreements and launched an all-out military attack against the Pathet Lao forces in flagrant violation of the Agreements.
     It took two years and many humiliating defeats on the battlefield before Katay's government fell and was replaced by another under Prince Souvanna Phouma, which was ready to meet again with the head of the Pathet Lao. If ever there was a chance for lasting peace and national unity in Laos, this lay in an agreement between the Neutralist forces, at that stage represented by Souvanna Phouma, and the patriotic forces of the Pathet Lao which had borne the brunt of the armed struggle against the {302} French. But such a meeting and its implications was not to the liking of Washington, as I soon found out.
     Early in 1956, I had interviewed Souvanna Phouma, and as Prince Sihanouk had done for Cambodia, Souvanna Phouma said that Laos had neither sought nor accepted the `protection' that the SEATO powers decided at the first meeting should be accorded Laos and Cambodia. I had also seen Souphanouvong and quickly realized that there were no problems which could not easily be solved in direct negotiations.
     In January 1957, I visited Vientiane again with a valid visa for a two-week stay. At the airport I met an American journalist and we agreed to have lunch next day. Next day, he turned up for a moment to cancel the lunch, explaining that he `could not be seen talking' with me, that the US Embassy was furious about my being in Vientiane and that I was held responsible `for having brought the two princes together again'. Shortly afterwards, I was visited by a Laotian police official who cancelled my visa and told me that a police escort would take me to the airport and put me on the next plane - to Saigon.
     When I protested, he explained that this was not a Laotian decision but one imposed by the American `advisers'. It was only by the intervention of the International Control Commission that I was able to postpone my departure by one day and leave - without a police escort - for Hanoi. The incident was proof enough for me - and for the International Control Commission - that the last thing Washington wanted was `peace and stability' for Laos, as they so often proclaimed.
     There are witnesses here far more competent than myself to relate what happened in all those years from 1954 onwards. The essence was a gradual process from US gross intervention in Laotian affairs, to indirect aggression and finally outright aggression against the Laotian people. There were occasional temporary retreats when the various `strong men' like Katay, Sananikone, Nosavan and others with their US-equipped forces were defeated and temporary accommodations with the various shades of Neutralist governments made.
     Typical is what happened in mid-1960. On 15 August 1960, following a revolt by one of America's most trusted army units, the King of Laos invited Souvanna Phouma to form a government {303} again. With CIA backing, a rival government was set up in the south, at Svannakhet, under a Prince Boun Oum, but in fact dominated by General Nosavan, a sort of Laotian Nguyen Cao Ky. Within ten days, Nosavan had launched military operations to recapture Vientiane, thus starting all-out civil war again, which was in fact a war of indirect aggression by the United States, with US supplies poured in from Thailand and eventually US `advisers' as well. Nosavan's forces, however, were successfully opposed by those of the Pathet Lao and Neutralist forces, then under Kong Le.
     Eventually, on the initiative of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, a new Geneva Conference on Laos was set up on 16 May 1961, but it was only six weeks later - after more battlefield defeats - that Nosavan agreed to send a delegation. It was headed - ominously - by Phoui Sananikone, the same who on American instructions had refused to sign the first Geneva Agreements.
     Talks dragged on intermittently for months while Nosavan, with stepped-up US aid, tried to rebuild his army which had been shattered by repeated defeats at the hands of the Pathet Lao and Neutralist forces. Ceasefire agreements were drafted, some even signed, but they were broken within weeks by Nosavan offensives. A report in The Times from its Washington correspondent on 24 May 1962 summed up one aspect of US interference. Under the banner line: `CIA IS BLAMED FOR LAOS CRISIS', The Times story read as follows:

The Administration is now convinced that the Central Intelligence Agency has been up to its old devices again and must share a large part of the responsibility for the situation in Laos.... Apparently the evidence shows that swarms of CIA agents deliberately oppose the official American objective of trying to establish a neutral government. They are believed to have encouraged General Phoumi Nosavan in the concentration of troops that brought about the swift and disastrous response from the Pathet Lao ...
     The `swift and disastrous response' referred to was the destruction of Nosavan's army in the battle of Nam Tha, a veritable Dien Bien Phu for his `made in US' army. After this defeat, the US government suddenly showed great enthusiasm for a quick conclusion of the Geneva Agreements, agreeing to the setting up of a coalition government, pledged to follow a neutral policy. The {304} attempt to take power by a frontal attack using military force having failed miserably, US tactics changed to a taking power from within. This entailed splitting the Neutralist forces and the physical liquidation of forceful elements within Neutralist ranks which could not be bought.
     The coalition government, on which such hopes were placed, never really worked, nor could it work. Pathet Lao and progressive Neutralist members soon found that the government was physically a prisoner of Nosavan, whose forces surrounded and policed Vientiane where the government was supposed to function. Proposals for joint security forces drawn from Nosavan, Neutralist and Pathet Lao units were rejected. Although Neutralist and Pathet Lao ministers took up their posts, the ministries themselves were staffed with Nosavan's men.
     On 1 April 1963, Quinim Pholsena, Foreign Minister and head of the `Peace and Neutrality' party, a man of outstanding intelligence, integrity and courage and the real leader of the Neutralist forces, was shot to death as he walked up the steps of his Vientiane home after attending a royal reception. His wife, also badly wounded by bullets from the same machine-gun, told me a few days later that she had no doubt the murderer had acted on US orders. She said the Americans were furious with her husband because he had rejected a huge bribe offered a few months before when Pholsena was in Washington. The murder of the Foreign Minister was the signal for the real coup and an attempt to seize the stragetic Plain of Jarres by force. A Nosavan commando group was sent to capture or kill Colonel Deuane, another progressive neutral and second-in-command to Kong Le of the Neutralist armed forces. In a battle that lasted two days, Colonel Deuane's men beat off the attackers. After that the Neutralist forces split, one part under Kong Le eventually throwing in its lot with Nosavan, another under Deuane remaining true to the alliance with the Pathet Lao. Pathet Lao cabinet ministers escaped from Vientiane to territory under their own control immediately after the murder of Pholsena; the armed struggle started up again with the United States moving into it ever more openly.
     Members of the various investigation teams who passed through Vientiane on their way to and from Hanoi, could see US bombers taking off from the Vientiane civil airstrip. Also in plain {305} sight were the supply aircraft of the CIA's private airlines `Air America' and `Air Continental' loading up for air supply missions to the US-trained commando units operating in Pathet Lao-controlled areas.
 

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