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Buddhist temple in Vientiane

Recorded history in Laos begins in the 14th century with the establishment of the Kingdom on Lan Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants) under Fa Ngum (r.1354-73) centered on what is today Luang Prabang in the central part of northern Laos. Lan Xang endured for three centuries stretching somewhat beyond the current boundaries of Laos in all directions, but succession struggles led to its disintegration into three separate kingdoms ofLuang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in central Laos, and Champassak in the south. There were also invasions from Vietnam, Siam, and Burma. None of these countries had borders delineated; rather they were often little more than city-states whose spheres of influence in the hinterlands increased and decreased with changing alliances and the fortunes of war. Control of labor was more important than control of land, as much of the area was sparsely populated. There was frequent warfare with neighboring states, and victors in battle would sweep up the population of a defeated area and resettle them in an area under its control. Hence the populations of mainland Southeast Asian countries are often mixed and border areas usually consist of minority peoples pushed into less desirable mountain areas.

In the early 19th century, Siam (the former name of Thailand) held power over much of Laos, and today several times as many Lao people live in Northeast and North Thailand as in Laos.

France, which had established a protectorate in Vietnam, moved to extend its influence to Laos and Cambodia in the late 19th century. Siam was forced to concede all territory on the east bank or the Mekong and parts of the west bank. Although France controlled the whole area of Laos, it was still divided into different kingdoms.

The Japanese occupied Laos in World War II and facing defeat in 1945 demanded that the king of Luang Prabang declare independence. Soon thereafter the Lao Issara (Free Lao) was formed, an independence group seeking the end of French rule and the unity of Vientiane, Champassak, and Luang Prabang. The French reoccupied the country and expelled the Lao Issara but recognized the unity of the country and granted limited autonomy. Various branches of Lao royal families were pro-French, pro-independence, or aligned with the Viet Minh, the Communist independence movement in Vietnam. Independence within the French Union was granted in 1949 and full independence in 1953 on the eve of France's colonial defeat in Vietnam in 1954.

In 1962 at a Geneva conference on Laos, neutralist, Pathet Lao (the Communist group), and right-wing factions agreed on the neutrality of Laos and the formation of a coalition government. However, Laos was increasingly drawn into developments in Vietnam. The Vietnamese increased their hold on eastern Laos as they developed the Ho Chi Minh trail in the area funneling troops and supplies to the south. Fighting escalated between theRoyal Lao Army, supported by the United States and Thailand, and the Pathet Lao army, supported by North Vietnam. The U.S. bombed Laos from 1964 to 1973 when a cease-fire was proclaimed. By then the U.S. had dropped 2.1 million tons of bombs on Laos, about the same amount dropped by the U.S. in all of World War II.

A new coalition government was formed, but fighting soon resumed. The Pathet Lao took control of the country in 1975, establishing the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) with a one-party Marxist government. An exodus of refugees began that ultimately involved about 10% of the population. Those considered enemies of the new regime were sent to "seminars," prison camps for "re-education." Many prisoners, including the former king, died of starvation and disease in these camps. Unknown numbers of people were shot trying to cross the Mekong River to Thailand.

Relations with the United States were strained but never broken. Laos has been drawn more closely to Vietnam with which it has a friendship treaty. The Pathet Lao had based its appeal on an anti-French, anti-American nationalism and a desire to end corruption and the influence of a few powerful families. There is considerable distaste for the current government due to anti-Vietnamese nationalism, governmental corruption, and power held by a small, secretive, aging leadership. However, anti-government forays by refugee groups in the past have proved fruitless. People are sick of war and political mobilization and have turned inward.

In 1986 the government announced the New Economic Mechanism and various subsequent reforms ended the policy of forcing peasants into cooperatives and guaranteed farmers' rights to own land and reintroduced free markets in basic crops, doing away with a hated agricultural tax and low producer prices. This led to a jump in agricultural production and lessened dissatisfaction with the regime. Improved relations with Thailand have led to increased trade and wider availability of goods, especially with the opening of a bridge across the Mekong near the capital of Vientiane. The government worries that the youth of Laos is too influenced by the material culture of Thailand. Thai TV and radio stations are easily received along the Mekong and are extremely popular. The government continues to try to balance reforms with control.