Neutrality for Laos - History

Neutrality for Laos - History

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President John F. Kennedy with Prime Minister of Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma

On July 23, 1962, 14 countries signed an agreement guaranteeing the neutrality of Laos. The agreement was signed after a conference in Geneva that lasted from May 1961 to July 1962.

After the French defeat in the Indochina war, Laos gained its independence in 1960. A civil war developed almost immediately between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Laos. The US supported then Royal Army while the Soviets supported the Pathet Lao. At the suggestion of President Kennedy, a Conference convened with the stated goal of ensuring Laos' neutrality. The conference lasted from May 16, 1961, to July 23, 1962. At its conclusion, an agreement was signed to create a three-part government made up of pro- American, pro-Soviet and neutral groups. The agreement also called on all sides to honor the neutrality of the country and not to interfere in its internal affairs. The signatures on the accord were Burma, Cambodia, Canada, the People's Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, India, Poland, the Republic of Vietnam, Thailand, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

French protectorate of Laos

The French protectorate of Laos was a French protectorate in Southeast Asia of what is today Laos between 1893 and 1953—with a brief interregnum as a Japanese puppet state in 1945—which constituted part of French Indochina. It was established over the Siamese vassal, the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang, following the Franco-Siamese War in 1893. It was integrated into French Indochina and in the following years further Siamese vassals, the Principality of Phuan and Kingdom of Champasak, were annexed into it in 1899 and 1904, respectively.

The protectorate of Luang Phrabang was nominally under the rule of its King, but actual power lay with a local French Governor-General, who in turn reported to the Governor-General of French Indochina. The later annexed regions of Laos were however under pure French rule. During World War II, the protectorate briefly proclaimed independence under Japanese occupation in 1945. After the surrender of Japan shortly thereafter, the restoration of French control over the country was opposed by the newly established Lao Issara government, who ultimately failed by April 1946. The protectorate was reestablished, but not too long after the kingdom was expanded to encompass all Laotian regions and given self-rule within the French Union as the Kingdom of Laos. It achieved full independence after the Franco-Lao Treaty in 1953, during the final stages of the First Indochina War. [1] The final dissolution of French Indochina came with the 1954 Geneva Conference.

Free Lao Kip (1946) Edit

In 1945–1946, the Free Lao government in Vientiane issued a series of paper money in denominations of 10, 20 and 50 att and 100 kip before the French authorities took control of the region.

Royal Kip (1955) Edit

The kip was reintroduced in 1955, replacing the French Indochinese piastre at par. The kip (also called a piastre in French) was sub-divided into 100 att (Lao: ອັດ) or cents (French: Centimes).

Pathet Lao Kip (1976) Edit

The Pathet Lao kip was introduced sometime before 1976 in the areas which were under the control of the Pathet Lao. Banknote denominations of 1, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 kip were issued. The notes were printed in China.

In 1976, the Pathet Lao kip replaced the Royal kip throughout Laos following the Pathet Lao's take over of the country. The exchange rate between the two kip was 1 Pathet Lao kip = 20 royal kip.

Lao PDR Kip (1979) Edit

On 16 December 1979, the former Pathet Lao “Liberation” kip was replaced by the new Lao kip at a rate of 100 to 1. [3]

Coins were issued in denominations of 10, 20 and 50 att or cents with French and Lao inscriptions. All were struck in aluminum and had a hole in the centre, like the Chinese cash coins. The only year of issue was 1952.

Coins Edit

Coins were again issued in Laos for the first time in 28 years in 1980 with denominations of 10, 20 and 50 att, with each being struck in aluminum and depicting the state emblem on the obverse and agricultural themes on the reverse. These were followed by commemorative 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 kip coins issued in 1985 for the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. However, due to the economic toll of the Soviet collapse in 1991 and the persistence of chronic inflation, coins are rarely seen in circulation.

Obverse Reverse Value Obverse Reverse Composition Date of issue
10 att Value, farmer Emblem of Laos (1975-1991 version) Aluminum 1980
20 att Value, man ploughing with Ox Emblem of Laos (1975-1991 version) Aluminum 1980
50 att Value, fish Emblem of Laos (1975-1991 version) Aluminum 1980

In 1953, the Laos branch of the Institut d'Emission des Etats du Cambodge, du Laos et du Vietnam issued notes dual denominated in piastre and kip. At the same time, the two other branches had the similar arrangement with the riel in Cambodia and the đồng in South Vietnam. There were notes for 1, 5, 100 and 100 kip/piastres.

In 1957, the government issued notes denominated solely in kip. The notes were for 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 kip printed by the Security Banknote Company, 100 kip printed by the Banque de France and a commemorative 500 kip printed by Thomas De la Rue. 1 and 5 kip notes printed by Bradbury & Wilkinson, and a 10 kip by De la Rue were introduced by 1962.

In 1963, 20, 50, 200 and 1000 kip notes were added, all printed by De la Rue. These were followed by 100, 500 and 5000 kip notes in 1974–75, again by De La Rue. A 1975 10 kip by Bradbury & Wilkinson and a 1000 kip by De la Rue were printed but not circulated.

Pathet Lao Kip (1976) Edit

In 1979, banknotes were introduced in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 kip. 500 kip notes were added in 1988, followed by 1000 kip in 1992, 2000 and 5000 kip in 1997, 10,000 and 20,000 kip in 2002 and 50,000 kip on January 17, 2006 (although dated 2004). On November 15, 2010 a 100,000 kip banknote was issued to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the founding of the capital, Vientiane, and the 35th anniversary of the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. [4] [5] [6] Kaysone Phomvihane is pictured on the obverse of the 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, and 100,000 kip banknotes.

Kaysone Phomvihane was the leader of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party from 1955 until he died in 1992. Today, his likeness is preserved on all denominations of the Lao Kip currency. His family homes in Savannakhet, Thakhek are preserved points of national pride. There is a museum in his honor in Vientiane. Phomvihane was the Prime Minister of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from 1975 to 1991 and President from 1991 until he died the following year.

Laos History

American bombers dropped more than two million tons of bombs over the country as part of a covert attempt to wrest power from communist forces.

The U.S. bombing of Laos (1964-1973) was part of a covert attempt by the CIA to wrest power from the communist Pathet Lao, a group allied with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War.

The officially neutral country became a battleground in the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, with American bombers dropping over two million tons of cluster bombs over Laos—more than all the bombs dropped during WWII combined. Today, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in history. Here are facts about the so-called secret war in Laos.

Where is Laos?

Laos is a landlocked country bordered by China and Myanmar to the North, Vietnam to the East, Cambodia to the South and Thailand and the Mekong River to the West.

Its proximity to Mao Zedong’s China made it critical to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Domino Theory of keeping communism at bay. “If Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow,” Eisenhower told his National Security Council. On the day of his farewell address in 1961, President Eisenhower approved the CIA’s training of anti-communist forces in the mountains of Laos. Their mission: To disrupt communist supply routes across the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Vietnam.

Eisenhower’s successors in the White House: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, all approved escalating air support for the guerrilla fighters, but not publicly. The 1962 International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos, signed by China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the United States and 10 other countries, forbid signees from directly invading Laos or establishing military bases there. The secret war in Laos had begun.

History of Laos

Long before the Cold War, Laos had a history of interference from its neighbors. Fa Ngum founded the first recorded Lao state of “Lan Xang,” or “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants,” in 1353. From 1353-1371, Fa Ngum went on to conquer most of today’s Laos and parts of what is now Vietnam and Northeast Thailand, bringing Theravada Buddhism and Khmer culture from the kingdom of Angkor (in today’s Cambodia) with him.

Over the centuries, his conquered neighbors fought back, and the Thai people dominated large swaths of Laos from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. What we know as Laos today was built from an assemblage of different ethnic groups with distinct languages and cultures.

Europeans entered the fray in 1893, when France declared Laos part of French Indochina. To the French, having Laos as a protectorate was a means to control the Mekong River, a valuable trade route through Southeast Asia.

France’s grasp on Laos first slipped in 1945, when the Japanese occupied Laos in the closing days of World War II. When atomic bombs fell on Japan, Laos declared its independence under the short-lived Lao Issara (“Free Laos”) government of Prince Phetsarath in 1945. The French regained power the following year.

Laos achieved full independence in 1954 following the victory of communist Việt Minh leader Ho Chi Minh over the French at the bloody Battle of Điện Biên Phủ. The ensuing Geneva Accords split Vietnam into North and South Vietnam and stipulated that the French relinquish their claims in Southeast Asia. The agreement was not signed by the United States, who feared that in the absence of French influence, Southeast Asia would fall to communist forces.

Laos Civil War and the Pathet Lao

The United States watched closely as the Pathet Lao gained popularity in newly-independent Laos. The Pathet Lao was a communist group founded at Viet Minh headquarters in 1950 during the French war. Largely dependent on Vietnamese aid, their leader was Prince Souphanouvong, the “Red Prince.” Born to a prince of Luang Prabang and a commoner, his education in Vietnam led him to become a disciple of Ho Chi Minh and, later, to lead the opposition against his half-brother, Souvanna Phouma, who was Prime Minister of Laos five different times (from 1951-1954, 1957-1958, in 1960 and again from 1962-1972) and preferred a coalition government balancing the Pathet Lao with more conservative forces.

Phouma’s hold on power was tenuous at best. Under his rule, government troops and the Pathet Lao began to clash in the Northeast along the border of Vietnam. Publicly, President Kennedy announced his support for neutralizing Laos—though what neutralization looked like on paper was far different from what it was in practice.

The CIA’s Secret Army

In 1960, the CIA approached Vang Pao, a major general in the Royal Lao Army and a member of the Hmong minority in Laos, to be the chief of their secret army to push back the communist Pathet Lao. The Hmong made up an ethnic group that had originated in China and lived in the remote mountains of Laos, often in extreme poverty, and had a history of evading authority. They had been at odds with the lowland Lao majority for centuries, and the CIA exploited this history of conflict to their benefit.

Charismatic and prone to pacing while he talked, Vang Pao had experience fighting both the French and the Japanese. His followers praised him for his bravery in fighting alongside his men. The CIA’s Operation Momentum armed and trained the Hmong to take on the Pathet Lao in the growing proxy war.

The U.S. Bombing of Laos

A ground war in Laos with U.S. forces was not on the table. President Kennedy wrote as early as 1961 that, “Laos…is a most inhospitable area in which to wage a campaign. Its geography, topography, and climate are built-in liabilities.” Bombing Laos was seen as a safer means of cutting off communist supply lines into Vietnam before they could be used against American troops.

The U.S. Air Force began bombing targets in Laos in 1964, flying planes like AC-130s and B-52s full of cluster bombs on covert missions based out of Thailand. The United States eventually dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years, according to Al Jazeera.

The bombing focused on disrupting communist supply chains on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Sepon (also spelled Xépôn), a village near a former French air base now controlled by North Vietnam. In 1971, Sepon was the target of the failed Operation Lam Son, when the U.S. and South Vietnam attempted to block access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Dave Burns, a member of the U.S. Air Force’s 16 Special Operations Squadron, flew missions over Laos out of Ubon, Thailand. He recalls, “Sepon was the one place in Laos that we did not want to fly into. The village was at a crossroads of three highways leading in from Vietnam: the Mu Gia Pass, the Ban Karai Pass, and the Barthelme Pass. The highways then headed south to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was highly defended with all sorts of anti-aircraft guns. Going there was a guarantee of being hit or being shot down.”

Air America

Air America was the lifeblood of the CIA’s Laos operation, transporting personnel, food and supplies to and from remote bases. As a former CIA officer explained: “We’d negotiate with the tribal groups. If you don’t make a deal with them, give them aid, the communists will do it, and then they’ll join with the communists.” The CIA set up medical facilities with doctors, started schools and offered protection from rivals.

Air America was also transporting more illicit goods. In the 1979 book Air America by Christopher Robbins, later immortalized in the fictional “Air America” movie starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr., Robbins reports on how opium from Lao poppies was transported on American planes.
Laos Bombing Casualties and Legacy

By 1975, one-tenth of the population of Laos, or 200,000 civilians and members of the military, were dead. Twice as many were wounded. Seven hundred and fifty thousand, a full quarter of the population, had become refugees—including General Vang Pao himself. Declassified documents show that 728 Americans died in Laos, most of whom were working for the CIA. The secret war in Laos, or the Laos Civil War to many who lived through it, set a precedent for a more militarized CIA with the power to engage in covert conflicts around the world.

In Laos, the legacy of U.S. bombs continues to wreak havoc. Since 1964, more than 50,000 Lao have been killed or injured by U.S. bombs, 98 percent of them civilians. An estimated 30 percent of the bombs dropped on Laos failed to explode upon impact, and in the years since the bombing ended, 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by the estimated 80 million bombs left behind.

In 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. He pledged an additional $90 million in aid to remove unexploded ordnance on top of the $100 million that had been spent previously. The work of cleaning out unexploded bombs from the soil continues.

Jessica Pearce Rotondi is the author of What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers.

Laos during the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War did not remain within the borders of Vietnam. The conflict expanded into neighbouring countries like Laos and Cambodia, where North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong soldiers moved and operated. As a consequence, the Vietnam War had a profound impact on these countries, facilitating the rise of nationalist-communist groups there.


Laos is a landlocked country, sandwiched between China (north), Cambodia (south), Vietnam (east) and Thailand (west). Much of northern Laos is mountainous, difficult to cross and thinly populated. The majority of Laos’ agricultural and livestock production takes place in the country’s south or along the Mekong River, which forms Laos’ western border.

Prior to the 19th century, Laos was a jigsaw of regional kingdoms and ethnicities, rather than a single state or homogenous society. Its history, trade and culture were shaped by its more powerful neighbours.

Like Vietnam, Laos fell under French colonial control in the late 19th century. Laos lacked the natural resources, labour force and coastline of its neighbouring regions, however, so was never a profitable colony.

As a consequence, Laos was not as closely administered or developed as Vietnam. French colonial authority was concentrated in southern Laos even at the height of the colonial period, there were no more than a few hundred French officials in Laos.

Laotian nationalism

World War II helped stimulate Laotian nationalism, which rose in response to an aggressive Thailand and occupation by Japanese forces.

Laos was not much affected by the war until early 1945, when Japanese troops took control of the Vichy French colonial regime and forced the Lao king, Sisavangvong, to declare independence. The French reasserted control of Laos in 1946, implementing a constitutional monarchy while working to improve infrastructure, particularly in transport and education.

Despite these advances, this period was marked by frustration with foreign interference in Laotian affairs. One nationalist group, the Lao Freedom Front, was formed by Prince Souphanouvong, an admirer of Ho Chi Minh. In 1950 Souphanouvong and his colleagues formed the Pathet Lao (‘Lao Nation’), in effect a Laotian branch of the Viet Minh.

In 1953, the Pathet Lao initiated a civil war in Laos, armed with logistic support, training and supplies from the Viet Minh.

Laos after independence

Laos was granted full independence from France on November 9th 1953 and became a constitutional monarchy. The Pathet Lao occupied large areas in the mountainous north and remained a significant political force.

In 1957, the Pathet Lao was invited to form a coalition government. This coalition collapsed the following year under pressure from the United States, which was suspicious of the Pathet Lao’s communist ties. This helped reignite the Laotian civil war between the US-backed royal government and the Pathet Lao, which was supported and supplied by Hanoi and Moscow.

By the late 1950s, much of northern and eastern Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao. During this period the North Vietnamese military entered Laos to establish the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a remote track for peopling and supplying the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.

An agreement signed in Geneva in 1962 produced another coalition government and a pause in the civil war, though both lasted scarcely a year. During the 1960s, the Pathet Lao, supported by the North Vietnamese, fought for control against the Laotian royal government and the ethnic Hmong, both of whom were backed by the US.

The Vietnam War spills into Laos

America’s growing involvement in Vietnam helped escalate the civil war in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US military began supplying the Laotian government with intelligence, financial aid and military supplies. The US also furnished them with planes and established a training program for Laotian pilots.

Progress was slow, however, so in mid-1964 US Air Force planes began flying reconnaissance missions over Laotian territory. The first American bombs were dropped on Laos on June 9th, in retaliation for the shooting down of an American plane by insurgents.

The aerial bombardment of Laos was intensified in December 1964 with the implementation of Operation Barrel Roll in north-eastern Laos. Flying mostly from Thailand, US planes flew weekly bombing runs over north-eastern Laos, targeting Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese bases. It was later supplemented by Operation Tiger Hound, a three-year campaign that involved some 100,000 bombing runs over eastern Laos.

The Pathet Lao advances

Despite this American involvement, the Pathet Lao continued to make gains. Through 1968, a succession of communist advances scattered the Royal Lao Army, reducing it to barely a thousand men. Much of northern Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao, the NVA and Viet Cong, which used Laotian territory for transporting men and supplies to South Vietnam.

An intensification of US bombing stalled some communist advances – but when the Americans ceased their bombing runs in February 1973, the Pathet Lao, now bolstered by greater numbers and weaponry from Hanoi, began to expand. Within weeks they held more territory than the government, which was confined to the capital Vientiane and the western border regions along the Mekong valley.

A ceasefire was signed and, in April 1973, another coalition government formed. The royalists and the Pathet Lao enjoyed equal representation in this new administration. Between mid-1973 and early 1975, however, the Pathet Lao engaged in a creeping takeover of the national government.

Vientiane falls

In April 1975, as the North Vietnamese were moving towards Saigon, Pathet Lao forces began moving towards Vientiane. Now infiltrated by Pathet Lao officials and supporters, the government offered little meaningful resistance. With the fall of Vientiane imminent, thousands of Americans, foreigners and royalist supporters fled across the border to Thailand.

By August, the Pathet Lao was in virtual control of the country. Its seizure of power was formalised on December 2nd 1975, with the abolition of the government, the abdication of King Savang Vatthana and the formation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

The Pathet Lao’s earlier promises of elections, democratic reforms and liberal freedoms were quickly forgotten, as the new regime moved to silence dissidents and establish a one-party state. Troublesome officials or military officers were sent to remote locations for re-education “seminars” and never seen again. One of these was the ageing former king, who died in a “seminar camp” sometime between 1978 and 1984.

There were also recriminations against the ethnic Hmong, who sided with the royal government and the US during the civil war. As many as one-quarter of Laos’ 400,000 Hmong are believed to have killed by the new regime, while the US has accepted more than 100,000 as refugees.

Post-war Laos

Today, Laos is one of the world’s last remaining socialist states. Its government is dominated by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), the political arm of the Pathet Lao. Other parties and factions are banned.

Significant policies are formulated and approved by the LPRP’s Politburo. There is an elected legislature, the National Assembly, however, only LPRP members are permitted to stand as candidates and elections are probably rigged.

Unlike Hanoi, Laos’ communist regime did not sever ties with the United States. The American embassy in Vientiane continued to operate during and after 1975.

As in Vietnam, the Laotian government began to slowly liberalise during the 1990s. In August 1991, the LPRP approved a new constitution that acknowledges Laos’ ethnic diversity and the individual rights of its citizens.

Economic development has been slower. Laos’ economy is dominated by agriculture, mining and international tourism, which has grown remarkably in the past decade. The people of Laos remain desperately poor, with two million living below the international poverty line and hunger a widespread problem.

A historian’s view:
“CIA operatives, who despaired of the ability of the Royal Lao Army, searched for other allies in the struggle against communism in Laos… and discovered the Hmong. Fiercely independent, the Hmong saw both the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese as threats and readily agreed to join the US and Laotian government forces… By 1961 the CIA had raised and armed a force of over 10,000 Hmong tribesmen in an effort to even the odds… Aided by devastating American air strikes, the Hmong and Royal Lao forces fought the communists to a standstill and the war in Laos proceeded as a bloody stalemate.”
Andrew Wiest

1. Laos is a landlocked country which lies immediately to the north-west of Vietnam. Its northern regions are mountainous and heavily forested, while the population and production are concentrated in the south.

2. Like Vietnam, Laos was colonised by the French in the late 1800s. Before this, it did not really exist as a single state but was a patchwork of kingdoms and ethnic groups.

3. French colonialism and Japanese occupation during World War II fuelled growth in Laotian nationalism. One nationalist group, the Pathet Lao, was formed in 1950 by a supporter of Ho Chi Minh.

4. The US became involved in Laos in the early 1960s, in order to prevent the Viet Cong using Laotian territory for bases and supplies. US planes bombed Laos extensively between 1964 and 1973.

5. The cessation of US bombing in 1973 allowed the Pathet Lao to tighten its grip on Laos. In December 1975 it formed a socialist one-party government, which remains in power today.

His successors helped establish Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country.

Conflicts with Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia

Franco-Siamese treaty that defined the border between Laos and Thailand

Formation of Independent government under Free Laos Banner

France recognized the independence of Laos

paratroop captain seized Vientiane in a coup

Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) joined a new coalition government

The King renounced his throne

In the 18th century Lane Xang entered a period of decline caused by dynastic struggle and conflicts with Burma Siam, now Thailand, Vietnam and the Khmer kingdom. In the 19th century the Siamese established hegemony over much of what is now Laos. The region was divided into principalities centered on Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak. Late in the century the French supplanted the Siamese and integrated all of Laos into the French empire. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.

During World War II the Japanese occupied French Indochina including Laos. In September 1945 Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free Lao banner. In 1946 French troops reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos following elections for a constituent assembly.

France formally recognized the independence of Laos within the French Union in 1949 and Laos remained a member of the Union until 1953. Pro-Western governments held power after the 1954 Geneva peace conference until 1957 when the first coalition government led by Prince Souvanna Phouma was formed. The coalition government collapsed in 1958 amidst increased polarization of the political process. Rightist forces took over the government and a communist insurgency resumed in 1959.

In 1960 a paratroop captain seized Vientiane in a coup and demanded formation of a neutralist government to end the fighting. The neutralist government newly in place was driven from power later that same year by rightist forces. In response, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist insurgents and began to receive support from the Soviet Union. The rightist regime received support from the U.S.

A second Geneva conference was held in 1961-1962 and provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos. Soon after accord was reached the signatories accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement and with superpower support on both sides the civil war soon resumed.

In 1972 the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) joined a new coalition government after the Vientiane agreement of February 21, 1973 went into effect that same year. Nonetheless the political struggle between communist’s neutralists and rightists continued. The collapse of Saigon and Phnom Penh in 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition. On December 1975 the king renounced his throne in the constitutional monarchy and entrusted his power to the Lao people but the LPRP dissolved the coalition cabinet and the communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.

The new communist government imposed centralized economic decision-making and broad security measures including control of the media and the arrest and incarceration of many members of the previous government and military in “re-education camps”. These draconian policies and deteriorating economic conditions along with government efforts to enforce political control prompted an exodus of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. About 10% of the Lao population sought refugee status after 1975. Many have since been resettled in third countries including nearly 250,000 who have come to the United States. The situation of Lao refugees is now nearing its final chapter and many have resettled in their homeland.

Brusilov Offensive begins

On June 4, 1916, the Battle of Lutsk marks the beginning of the Brusilov Offensive, the largest and most successful Allied offensive of World War I.

When the fortress city of Verdun, France, came under siege by the Germans in February 1916, the French pleaded with the other Allies, Britain and Russia, to mount offensives in other areas to force the diversion of German resources and attention from the struggle at Verdun. While the British plotted the offensive they would launch near the Somme River in early July, the first Russian response came more quickly𠅊 failed offensive in March at Lake Narocz, in which Russian troops were slaughtered en masse by the Germans with no significant effect at Verdun. Still, the Russians plotted another diversionary attack in the northern region of the Eastern Front, near Vilna (now in Poland).

While the Vilna offensive was being planned, General Alexei Brusilov𠅊 63-year-old former cavalryman and aristocrat given command of the Southwestern Army (the Russians divided their army into three major groups, Northern, Eastern and Southwestern) in March 1916—pressed his superiors at a meeting in April that he be allowed to attack as well, although no action was planned for the southwestern section of the front. At the very least, Brusilov reasoned, his attacks would draw troops away from the other area and ensure the success of their offensive in the north. Though he was given the go-ahead, the other Russian generals had little confidence in Brusilov’s strategy.

Brusilov’s troops began their attacks on the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army at the city of Lutsk (now in Ukraine), on June 4, 1916, with an impressive bombardment from nearly 2,000 guns along a 200-mile-long front stretching from the Pripet marshes to the Bukovina region to the southwest, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Though the Austrian troops at Lutsk, led by the over-confident Archduke Joseph Ferdinand, outnumbered the Russians�,000 men against 150,000—the success of the barrage obliterated this advantage, along with the Austrian front line, as Brusilov’s troops swept forward, taking 26,000 prisoners in one day.

Within two days, the Russians had broken the 4th Army, advancing 75 kilometers along a 20-kilometer-long front, and effectively ending Joseph Ferdinand’s career. Some 130,000 casualties—plus the capture of over 200,000 prisoners𠅏orced the Austrian commander, Conrad von Hötzendorf, to close down an offensive against Italy in the Trentino region to divert guns and divisions back east. On June 15, Conrad told his German counterpart, Erich von Falkenhayn, that they were facing the greatest crisis of the war so far𠅊 fact that took Falkenhayn, who was optimistic about an imminent French surrender at Verdun, completely by surprise. Confronted with the Austrian panic against Russia, he was forced to release four German divisions from the west, a weakness that allowed a successful French counterattack at Verdun on June 23, just one day before the preliminary British artillery bombardment began at the Somme.

Dubbed The Iron General and respected and beloved by his troops, Brusilov relied on absolute preparedness for battle and on the execution of even the most minute detail of his orders. The June 4 attacks began a string of crushing victories against the Austrian army across the southwestern portion of the Eastern Front, forcing Germany to abandon plans for their own 1916 offensive in France in order to bail out their hapless ally𠅎ven as they confronted a new British offensive at the Somme in July. By September, Russian resources had began to run out, however, and the Brusilov Offensive reached its limits it was shut down on September 20, 1916, having cost the Austro-Hungarian army a staggering total of 1.5 million men (including 400,000 taken prisoner) and some 25,000 square kilometers of territory.

Though turmoil and revolution shattered Russia in 1917, disintegrating its army and leading to its subsequent exit from the war𠅊 fact that caused the success of the Brusilov Offensive to be largely forgotten—the offensive permanently secured more enemy territory than any other Allied offensive on either front. Moreover, a permanently debilitated Austria-Hungary never again played a significant role in the war. Its army was reduced to holding trenches against the weaker Italians, and Germany was left to fight virtually alone for the final two years of World War I.

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The Neutrality Act and the case of Vang Pao

By Matt Ehling | Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008
Historically used infrequently, the Neutrality Act has been employed several times in recent years — particularly in terrorism-related prosecutions.

In November of 2006, retired U.S. military officer Harrison Jack made a telephone call to an Arizona-based defense contractor. According to an indictment filed in federal court, Jack had a very specific request: He wanted to purchase 500 AK-47 automatic assault rifles. Soon after Jack hung up, the contractor reported the conversation to the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Seven months later, a federal grand jury handed down a five-count indictment against Jack and 11 co-defendants, including Hmong military leader Gen. Vang Pao. Their crimes? Among other things, Jack and Vang Pao were charged with preparing to wage war against the government of Laos, in violation of the federal Neutrality Act.

In St. Paul, where Vang Pao has kept a home for many years, the reaction of the Hmong community was mixed. When the charges were announced, Ilean Her, director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, told the Star Tribune that, “Some people have positive feelings about the general, some don’t like him … but this will come as a shock.” Others were explicit in their condemnation of the federal prosecution, seeing the move as a betrayal of a once loyal U.S. ally from the Vietnam War era.

Used infrequently throughout its long history, the Neutrality Act has been employed several times in recent years by the Justice Department — particularly in terrorism-related prosecutions. What, then, does the law consist of? And why are Neutrality Act cases being seen in the federal docket at this time?

A brief history of the act
The origins of today’s Neutrality Act can be found in statutes enacted in the early part of the 20th century. Before World War II, Congress passed a variety of laws aimed at ensuring American neutrality in the face of foreign military hostilities. For instance, from 1935 to 1939, it enacted several discrete neutrality laws that banned the sale of munitions or the provision of financial assistance to any party in an armed conflict. Many of these statutes were repealed in 1941, with the entry of the United States into the war. However, some aspects of previous neutrality laws remained part of the U.S. criminal code. Today, section 960 of that code prohibits hostile actions by American citizens against nations that the United States is at peace with, and bans participation in “military or naval expeditions” against those same countries.

Prosecutions under this law have been relatively rare, but they have occurred on occasion. In the mid 1980s, Neutrality Act violations were charged against a number of Haitian nationals, including Raymond Ramirez and Claude Perpignand. In 1984, Ramirez met with an illegal arms dealer, and sought weapons for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Haiti. As fate would have it, the arms dealer was also a federal informant, who passed Ramirez off to an undercover U.S. Customs agent. The Customs agent negotiated an arms sale for Ramirez, and also arranged training facilities for a core group of fighters that Ramirez had organized. On May 29, 1984, Ramirez, Perpignand and 11 others flew to New Orleans to begin their training regime. All 13 were arrested in Louisiana, and charged with violating the Neutrality Act, as well as with conspiracy to violate the same.

Each of the co-defendants pled guilty, but Ramirez and Perpignand did so conditionally, and later brought an appeal before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In their brief, Ramirez and Perpignand asked the court to dismiss the original indictment on the grounds of selective prosecution. They maintained that the federal government was selectively enforcing the Neutrality Act by allowing private paramilitary groups to stage operations against Cuba and Nicaragua, while they and their Haitian cohorts were subjected to criminal sanctions for similar activities. Ramirez and Perpignand argued that the Cuban and Nicaraguan actions were deliberately overlooked by the Justice Department because they complemented the foreign-policy goals of the Reagan administration. Ultimately, the court rejected the arguments made by the two Haitians, and affirmed the judgments against them. Their case makes an interesting comparison when viewed against the current legal entanglements of Gen. Vang Pao.

Vang Pao’s 2007 grand jury indictment claimed that the general and his co-defendants raised money and purchased weapons for the express purpose of fomenting “the violent overthrow of the sovereign government of the nation of Laos, with which the United States is at peace.” The indictment also alleged that the co-defendants went several steps further, by formulating a military plan, engaging in surveillance, and seeking to employ mercenaries to carry out attacks in the Laotian capital. In a meeting with an undercover ATF agent, Vang Pao is alleged to have selected specific governmental facilities to be destroyed in the opening stages of a campaign known as “Operation Popcorn.” In subsequent communications with the undercover agent, Harrison Jack allegedly ordered a variety of small arms, anti-aircraft missiles, and other weapons.

If proven in court, the alleged paramilitary conduct of Jack and Vang Pao would fit squarely within the parameters of the current Neutrality Act. However, other recent Neutrality Act cases have involved far less conventional activities.

The Virginia ‘Paintball Jihad’
In 2004, federal Judge Leonie Brinkema found three Virginia men guilty of conspiring to aid the Indian terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba. Their convictions marked the end of a case that began with a 2002 indictment for violating the Neutrality Act, among other crimes. In the indictment, the grand jury alleged that a group of 11 co-conspirators in Alexandria, Va., plotted to join a Muslim insurgency against the government of India, and undertook overt acts in furtherance of that plan. These acts included engaging in firearms training, traveling to a Lashkar-i-Taiba camp in Pakistan, and playing paintball in the forests of Virginia. Specifically, the indictment held that “… the defendants and their conspirators practiced marksmanship with AK-47 style rifles … at firing ranges operated by private parties” and “used paint-ball weapons and equipment to practice small-unit military tactics and simulate actual combat in preparation for violent jihad.”

At the time, some attacked the government’s case as overly broad. In a 2004 interview with this author, Washington, D.C.,-area attorney Elaine Cassel maintained that the Virginia Neutrality Act prosecutions simply provided the federal government with a pretext for singling out those who supported Muslim causes.

“A couple of the defendants had traveled to Pakistan and participated in a training camp operated by Lashkar-i-Taiba … so it is not disputed that the two of them came back and talked about the cause,” Cassel said. “Now what is in dispute is that when they played paintball, they were doing those activities as preparation to fight with a terrorist organization against a friend of the United States.” For their part, federal prosecutors argued that the conduct of the defendants clearly violated the terms of the Neutrality Act.

Ultimately, most of the “Virginia 11” never stood trial for violating the Neutrality Act. Many of the co-defendants pled guilty, and those who remained were charged with conspiracy to violate the Neutrality Act in a superseding indictment, as well as with material support for terrorism. Four of the original group ultimately went to trial, and on March 4, 2004, Judge Brinkema found three of them guilty of a variety of offenses, including the conspiracy-related charges.

The Neutrality Act — why now?
Bobby Chesney, a specialist in national security legal affairs at Wake Forest School of Law, does not believe that recent Neutrality Act charges indicate that the Justice Department is giving the law a special focus. Despite the high-profile cases associated with the act, Chesney did not know of statistical evidence that demonstrated an overall increase in the use of the law. He said that the recent cases were largely “a byproduct of a larger focus on international terrorism after 9/11.”

That focus, he said, “naturally leads to more scrutiny of potentially harmful activity that individuals may engage in outside the U.S.,” which in turn may lead to “the occasional discovery of a Neutrality Act violation.”

The state of the Vang Pao case
The legal case against Gen. Vang Pao continues to move forward. Most recently, Vang Pao’s attorneys filed motions to change the terms of his pretrial release, which would modify restrictions on his ability to travel. Hearings on evidentiary matters are expected to occur later this fall.

Attorneys for the general have routinely maintained that the government’s allegations are overblown, and that “Operation Popcorn” — such as it was — had little chance of succeeding. A joint defense brief filed last year dismissed the quality of Vang Pao’s operational plan, and asserted that “this case fits the pattern of many recent so-called “terrorism” prosecutions: it started with a bang, but is destined to end with a whimper when the real facts came to light.”

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott has maintained that the plausibility of plans to violate the Neutrality Act is less important than their intent. “Federal law is without equivocation,” Scott said in a Department of Justice press release. “You cannot conspire to overthrow a foreign government with whom our nation is at peace.” The prosecution contends that evidence introduced at trial will ultimately prove that Vang Pao, Jack, and their associates planned to do just this. Transcripts of conversations between Harrison Jack and an undercover ATF agent reveal that Jack repeatedly cited extensive operational plans, and talked about raiding communications centers and military compounds in Vientanne, Laos. “I’ve been impressed with their planning,” Jack said of his collaborators. “I’ve got one document in my possession that is somewhat of an operations order … when they pull the pin, this thing is going to be a blitz.”

Ultimately, the case may turn on one of the central claims that the defense has put forth in recent months — namely that Jack and Gen. Vang Pao believed that they were operating with the explicit support of the CIA. In surveillance recordings cited in a 2007 defense brief, Jack is quoted as telling an undercover ATF agent that his Hmong colleagues had “met with the CIA” and that a deputy director of the agency had told them that “you need to take care of yourself in the field, and we’ll support you.”

The veracity of this claim has yet to be tested in court, but Vang Pao’s defenders point to it as a source of irony, given the general’s background as a leading covert warrior fighting Communists on behalf of the United States during the Vietnam War. In a 2007 editorial in the Hmong Today newspaper, Chong Jones wrote that, “Vang Pao is a product of U.S. policies. Now U.S. policies will condemn him for his alleged actions.”

Matt Ehling is a freelance television producer and documentary filmmaker based in St. Paul.

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