Laos: Commemorating a “National Hero” – The Fading Legacy of Kaysone Phomvihane

2004

Christina Warning

On 13 December 2003, the Lao PDR officially commemorated the 83rd birthday of the late revolutionary leader, Kaysone Phomvihane. Since his death in November 1992, his successors at the helm of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and the state apparatus have tried to make him a national icon, portraying him as the founding father of the modern, liberated Lao nation.

Over the past decade the depiction of his character and achievements has been adjusted to prevailing political premises set by the ruling party. The latest commemoration campaign was clearly dominated by the LPRP’s concern with the growing corruption in the country. In several articles the press therefore created an image of Kaysone as a diligent and modest leader, imbued with a sense of duty, who was said to have ‘earned an honest living without corruption’, (Vientiane Times, December 12 – 5, 2003, Vol. 10, No. 98).

However, despite these efforts, it seems that his compatriots never truly revered him as a great leader and national hero. For many years during the liberation struggle Kaysone remained a secretive figure largely unknown to the broader Lao public. Although elected General Secretary of the Lao communist party in 1955, it was the head of the Lao Patriotic Front, Prince Souphanouvong, who became the ‘public face’ of the independence movement, allowing Kaysone to stay out of the political limelight for two decades. In contrast to the communist party, whose existence was kept secret, the Lao Patriotic Front – a mass organisation fully controlled by the communists – was very much for ‘public consumption’, calling for an independent, neutral and democratic Laos and deliberately avoiding strong revolutionary rhetoric.

When the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed in 1975, Kaysone emerged for the first time to the great surprise of the majority of the population as the ‘real strong man’ behind the liberation movement. Soon after the LPRP took power, the party’s central committee, presided over by Kaysone, adopted (in 1997) the so-called ‘Three-Revolutions Program’, which aimed at the radical, socialist reconstruction of the Lao society, based on the Vietnamese model. It was in fact these early ideological and political experiments that alienated Kaysone from the majority of his rather traditional and conservative compatriots, who did not share his political visions and who, as a consequence, rejected the predominant political and cultural influence of Kaysone’s Vietnamese allies in the Lao PDR.

Another factor that contributed to the lack of Lao identification with the late revolutionary leader relates to his mixed heritage. His father was Vietnamese, working as a secretary to the French colonial resident in Savannakhet. After having finished elementary schooling in his Laotian hometown, his parents sent him for further education to Hanoi, where he spent most of his formative years. He studied law and joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1949.

During the French colonial period, a large number of the mid-level administrative personnel in Laos were Vietnamese. They had been recruited and brought into the country by the French, who preferred to allot these bureaucratic functions to Vietnamese cadres. Many ethnic Lao therefore regarded the Vietnamese with suspicion, as they seemingly aided the French in suppressing the Lao people. As a result, the early Lao nationalism of the 1940s had strong anti-Vietnamese connotations, with its leaders urging the French to curtail Vietnamese immigration into Laos.

WATCHPOINT: Given the steadily decreasing importance of socialist ideology and the diminishing political influence of Vietnamese cadres in the Lao PDR, the LPRP will struggle to convincingly utilize the political vision and memory of the late Kaysone Phomvihane in legitimizing its rule in the Lao PDR.

 

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