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Obituary: Phoumi Vongvichit

Phoumi Vongvichit, revolutionary and politician: both Vientiane, Laos 6 April 1909; President of Laos 1985-91; died 7 January 1994.

PHOUMI VONGVICHIT was one of the leading figures in Indochinese Communism. A former revolutionary, he held many party and government posts in Laos, including that of head of state between 1985 and 1991.

Phoumi's career stretched back to the French colonial era. While very much a son of the traditional Laotian elite - his father was governor of Vientiane province - Phoumi was not related to the Lao royal family like his contemporary and fellow revolutionary the 'Red Prince' Souphanouvong. Nevertheless, unusually for a Laotian before the Second World War, he received a high-school education in Hanoi and went on to college in France. On his return to Laos in the 1930s, he embarked on a career in the French colonial administration.

After the war he joined the Lao Issara (Free Laos) revolutionary movement which briefly held power, before France managed to reassert its colonial authority in March 1946. Thereafter he continued to be active in the Lao Issara movement, which increasingly fell under the direct influence of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh. As a trusted lieutenant of the Laotian revolutionary leader, Prince Souphanouvong, he was appointed Minister of the Interior in the 'resistance government' or Pathet Lao established by Souphanouvong with strong Vietminh support in 1951. It is unclear at what stage Phoumi became a Communist, but he was a founding father of the Laotian Communist party or Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) when it was established in 1955. The following year he became the party's secretary-general.

After the Geneva conference of 1954 French involvement came to an end in Laos, as it did in its Indochinese neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia. While Ho Chi Minh established a Communist state in North Vietnam, in the southern part of Vietnam, as in Laos and Cambodia, the Communists were excluded from the new governments. This was to lead later to bitter civil wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. The conflict in Laos was always of a different nature, interspersed as it was by attempts to bring together coalition governments of the various political factions. Phoumi was one of a small group of leaders at the heart of this struggle, alternately in and out of power. He held almost all the important political posts. In 1957 he was appointed Minister of Religion and Fine Arts in the first government of national union presided over by Souphanouvong's half- brother, Souvanna Phouma. In 1962 he led the official Laotian delegation at the Second Geneva conference on Indochina which brought a temporary peace to his country. Thereafter he was Minister of Information and Tourism in a second government of national unity before the civil war resumed in the mid 1960s.

When a third coalition government was formed in 1974, Phoumi was appointed Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister. He retained the post of Vice-Premier, as well as occupying a Politburo seat, after the Communist Party's complete takeover of power in December 1975: by this time both South Vietnam and Cambodia had also fallen to Communist seizures of power.

Thereafter, Phoumi was seen as being second in influence in the country after the party leader and Prime Minister, Kaysone Phomvihane; he was widely regarded as responsible for the suppression of Buddhism. When Prince Souphanouvong retired as head of state in 1986, he was succeeded by Phoumi, who held that post until ill-health forced him in turn to step down. His death removes one of the last of the generation of leaders closely tied, personally and politically, to Vietnam. Ironically, it may well contribute to Laos's expanding its current economic reforms and moving further away frcm its old ally.

(Photograph omitted)