09 February, 2009
Prince Souvanna Phouma
Prince Souvanna Phouma was the leader of the neutralist faction and prime minister of the Kingdom of Laos several times, from 1951-1952, 1956-1958, 1960 and 1962-1975.
Souvanna Phouma was the son of Bounkhong, the last vice-king of Luang Prabang and a nephew of King Sisavang Vong of Laos, given a French education in Hanoi, Paris and Grenoble, where he obtained his degree in architecture and engineering. He returned to his homeland in 1931, marrying Aline Claire Allard, the daughter of a French father and a Lao mother.
Souvanna Phouma, together with his brother, Prince Phetsarath Rattanavongsa (1891-1959) and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong (1909-1995), became involved in Laotian politics at around the end of World War II, at which time the Lao Issara was established to counter the French occupation.
He married Aline Claire Allard, and had a daughter, Princess Moune, who married Perry J. Stieglitz, cultural-affairs attache of the U.S. embassy.
In 1951 Souvanna became Prime Minister of Laos with a landslide victory. 7th Premier of Laos known for having sought, throughout several terms in office, to maintain Laotian neutrality in Southeast Asian affairs. Souvanna was the nephew of King Sisavangvong of Laos. He studied architectural engineering in France and then entered the Public Works Service of French Indochina on returning to his country in 1931. When his uncle welcomed the return of French rule after the defeat of the Japanese, who had occupied Laos at the end of World War II, Souvanna and his half brother Souphanouvong joined the Lao Issara (Free Laos) movement and its provisional Vientiane government (1945–46). When the French reoccupied Laos, Souvanna fled to exile in Bangkok, but returned to Laos in 1949 as France began conceding autonomy to Laos. In 1951 he was elected premier and held that office until 1954. He returned to the premiership in 1956 as the head of a coalition government that included both rightist representatives and members of the Communist Pathet Lao, which Souphanouvong headed. The coalition collapsed in 1958, and civil war broke out between the two groups. Souvanna served briefly as premier in 1960 and again returned during a brief truce in 1962. During the 1960s and early 1970s Souvanna struggled to retain a neutral position; with the proximity of the war in Vietnam, his efforts were in vain, and he came to depend upon U.S. military assistance. After the United States began to withdraw from that struggle, however, the Vientiane government and the Pathet Lao agreed on a cease-fire (February 1973), and in April 1974 a coalition government was formed. Souvanna retained the premiership until December 1975, when the People's Democratic Republic of Laos was established. He remained an adviser to the government until his death.
After elections in December 1955, Souvanna Phouma returned to the prime ministership on a platform of national reconciliation. In August 1956 Souvanna and the Pathet Lao leadership agreed on broad proposals for a ‘government of national union’. Elections for 21 extra assembly seats were finally held in May 1958, with parties aligned with the Pathet Lao acquiring 13. Souphanouvong entered the government as Economic Minister. Another Pathet Lao leader, Phoumi Vongvichit, also acquired a Ministry. The United States considered Souvanna Phouma's return to office bad news.
In June 1958 Souvanna was again forced to resign by the rightists. The king accepted the vote as legal the next day when he signed Royal Ordinance No. 282, dismissing Souvanna Phouma's government and giving powers provisionally to the Revolutionary Committee. Royal Ordinance No. 283, approved a provisional government formed by Prince Boun Oum, who acted as front man for Phoui Sananikone. The king had scruples about naming a general to be prime minister. The conflict in the 1960s was intensifying and Kong Le captured Vientiane and asked for a restoration of neutrality. Souvanna Phouma returned as Prime Minister, and subsequently reached an agreement with Souphanouvong on behalf of the Pathet Lao. In December 1960, however, Royal Lao troops under rightist command stormed Vientiane. Kong Le, his troops and Souvanna fled to the Pathet Lao-controlled Plain of Jars. The communist world and some non-aligned nations like India now upheld Souvanna as Lao rightful Prime Minister. The United States and the West recognised a new military-controlled Vientiane government, technically under another prince, Boun Oum, as Prime Minister.
Despite American intrigue in Laos up to this point, the incoming United States President in January 1961, John F Kennedy, concluded that a neutral Laos was desirable. In May 1961 another Geneva Conference called once more for the neutralisation of Laos. In June the three Lao princes, Boun Oum, Souvanna Phouma, and Souphanouvong agreed to a second attempt at a coalition government.
The new government came into existence in July 1962 with Souvanna as Prime Minister. The coalition led a tenuous existence, beset by tension, provocation and assassination until mid-1964 when its Pathet Lao component effectively abandoned it, later dismissing it as a ‘United States puppet’. Souvanna held on as Prime Minister, but he and other neutralists were now reduced to irrelevance. Laos was becoming one of the key theatres of war in the sharply escalating conflict in Vietnam. In 1975 he was removed from office by the new communist government.