Obituaries:Prince Souphanouvong

Michael Leifer
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:15

Prince Souphanouvong was the first President of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, from its establishment in December 1975 until March 1991, when he left office. Souphanouvong had been a prominent figure in the Laotian revolutionary movemen t fromthe end of the Pacific war, when through an initial association with the Vietnamese Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, he sought to mobilise opposition to the return of French colonial rule.

Souphanouvong was a most unlikely revolutionary. He was born in Luang Prabang in 1909, the youngest of the 22 sons of Prince Boun Khong, the uparat or regent in the royal house. His best-known half-brother was the late Prince Souvanna Phouma, who enjoye d a parallel career until 1975 on the anti-Communist side of Laotian politics. The two half-brothers served as interlocutors for their respective constituencies, holding out the hope during the 1960s and into the early 1970s that their fraternal link migh t provide a basis for political compromise to end the Laotian civil war. Prince Souphanouvong never wavered, however, in his commitment to the Laotian revolutionary movement and to its special relationship with its mentor, the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Souphanouvong was educated first in Hanoi and then in Paris, where he studied civil engineering and was attracted to the politics of the Popular Front. On his return to Laos, he was assigned by the French colonial authorities to the Public Works Department in Nha Trang in Vietnam. He worked as a civil engineer building bridges up to the end of the war and married the daughter of a Vietnamese civil servant, who exercised a strong influence on him. It was during this period that Souphanouvong probably made the judgement that the independence of landlocked Laos could only be achieved through the closest of ties with Vietnam's Communists, who had established the Viet Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

His initial attempt to mobilise Laotian opposition to a return to French rule in association with his royal counterparts ended in failure and he spent the years 1946-49 in exile in Thailand. When his more conservative freedom fighters came to terms with France in 1949, Souphanouvong joined the Viet Minh in the jungles of Vietnam and began a long-standing relationship with the effective leaders of the Laotian revolutionary movement, the late Kaysone Phomvihan and Nouhak Phoumsavan.

In August 1950, Souphanouvong convened the first congress of the Free Laos Front - more generally known as the Pathet Lao - which served as the vehicle for the Communist challenge to French rule. After the formal independence of Laos in 1954, his moveme n t was excluded from a share in power but retained territorial enclaves in two provinces adjoining China and Vietnam. Souphanouvong was involved in 1955 in establishing the Lao People's Party, later the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, which assumed tota l power in 1975.

He was charged with responsibility for negotiations with his half-brother Prince Souvanna Phouma, leading to the formation of a coalition government in 1957 in which he served as Minister of Planning. He was arrested in Vientiane with other Pathet Lao leaders in 1959 but escaped in the following year to the Pathet Lao redoubt in the eastern uplands through which ran the infiltration routes from North to South Vietnam known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

After a coup in 1960 mounted by neutralist forces, Souphanouvong became actively engaged in negotiations resulting in an international conference on Laos in 1961-62, and the formation of another coalition government headed by his half-brother in which healso served. That conference failed to end the civil war in Laos, whose fortunes were linked closely with the more important conflict in neighbouring Vietnam. Souphanouvong continued to be involved in negotiations with his half-brother's adm i nistration, which led eventually to a third coalition government in 1973; it failed to survive the success of revolutionary communism in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.

Souphanouvong never rose higher than third place in the Communist hierarchy and was never regarded as a commanding figure within the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party because of his royal lineage. He ceased to exercise the office of President from 1986 when, on the grounds of his infirmity, an acting president was appointed. But he did not give up his formal politburo position and high office until 1991.

Michael Leifer

Souphanouvong, politician: born Luang Prabang 13 July 1909; President of Laos 1975-86; married Le Thi Ky-Nam; died Vientiane 9 January 1995.

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