Kaysone Phomvihane: the Life of a Revolutionary

Date: 06 March 2023

Author: Michael C. 

Tags: Asia-Pacific, Internationalism 


The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), established 02 December 1975, stands alongside the Republic of Cuba, People’s Republic of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as one of the only still-existing socialist countries in the world today; the brave and heroic few who, even in the face of the Soviet collapse of 1991, and unrelenting imperialist aggression, have been able to maintained the Communist path to build socialism in the new era. Even among the five actually-existing socialist (AES) countries of the world, Laos is generally the least-understood and least-studied.

The country known today as the Lao PDR had become a colony of France following a brief war with Thailand in 1893. Prior to colonization, Laos had, at times, existed as powerful and independent kingdoms, such as Lan Xang, and at other times as vassalized petty kingdoms under the Burmese, Thai, and others; rising and falling with the ebb and flow of feudal politics in southeast Asia. European colonizers, however, sought to establish a more permanent arrangement: to subjugate the whole world to the whims of the white capitalist elite, and to completely wipe away any vestiges of independence and prosperity from their colonies. As the 20th century dawned in Indochina, a generation of men and women were born who would break the back of colonialism, and face decades of genocidal war against imperialism, to secure their freedom and independence once and for all. One such man would rise from the south of Laos, from humble origins, to become one of the most consequential revolutionaries of the century—not only in Laos, but in the world. His name lives on in the hearts of Lao people from the lush forests of Attapeu, to the caves of Houaphan, and in the nightmares of imperialists around the world: Kaysone Phomvihane

Young Kaysone Phomvihane (2nd from the left)


Kaysone Phomvihane (ໄກສອນ ພົມວິຫານ) was born Nguyễn Cai Song on 13 December 1920 in the village of Na Seng, Savannakhet province. His father, Nguyễn Trí Loan, was ethnic Vietnamese, and worked as a translator for the provincial government. His mother, Ms. Dok, was an ethnic Lao local from Na Seng. The oldest of three, having two younger sisters, Kaysone was born into a progressive family that had high hopes for their son—hopes that did not involve politics. An extremely bright young man, Kaysone excelled in his studies in both Lao and French—so much so that in 1934, at only age 13, he would be sent from his home in Savannakhet to study at the Lyceé du Protectorat in Hanoi. As nazi guns bore down on Europe, the war likely seemed a distant and irrelevant affair to the young Kaysone. In 1940, with the surrender of France, colonial administration of Indochina was transferred to the collaborationist regime in Vichy; nothing fundamentally changed. Kaysone would have been present in Hanoi however when, despite their nominal alliance, Japanese forces would briefly invade northern Vietnam in September of that year. Although Japan would apologize for the incident, it would force the Vichy administration to allow the stationing of Japanese forces in Indochina—forces that would, in 1941, begin a program of ravenous expansion throughout the Pacific region. 

The following year, in 1942, Kaysone, age 21, would remain in Hanoi. True to his reputation as an excellent student and devoted son, as per his father’s wishes he would begin studying medicine at the University of Hanoi. A rare break would come, however, as he would change his course of study to law: a course in which he would be brought more intimately to see the horrific exploitation and inequality underpinning the colonial system, and the depravity being waged against the people of Indochina. Whether spurned by this reality, or the growing pressures of a world at war, or a combination of both, in 1944 Kaysone Phomvihane would officially become a member of the youth league of the Communist Party of Indochina—at age 23, Comrade Kaysone Phomvihane the revolutionary was born.

Kaysone Phomvihane leading Pathet Lao forces in the field

The Lao Issara

As the Pacific theater of the Second World War saw European colonizers pitted against invading fascists, many of the oppressed peoples saw it as an opportunity to further their own cause; to strike back against both imperialism and colonialism, and finally achieve freedom. No greater example of this phenomena exists than in Laos. Only one year after Comrade Kaysone joined the Communist Youth in early 1945, the invading Japanese Empire committed a coup d’etat against the French colonial administration, and declared the nominal independence of the Kingdom of Luang Phabang in Laos. Comrade Kaysone would immediately leave Hanoi and return to his hometown in Savannakhet—and begin organizing in preparation for what was to come.

In September, with the surrender of Japan to the allies, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Luang Phabang announced that the Kingdom would not be returning to French colonial status, would resist any foreign intervention in the region, and, furthermore, that the Kingdom would be reuniting with its southern provinces to form the Kingdom of Laos as a truly independent and neutral nation. The King, whose interests were secured under French colonialism, would attempt to sack the Prime Minister; in response, the Prime Minister, Prince Phetsarath Ratanavongsa, would officially establish the Free Laos, or Lao Issara movement.

Comrade Kaysone had spent the months between the anti-French coup and the Japanese surrender organizing a pro-independence force in Savannakhet province, southern Laos. The Japanese surrender had been the signal, and his forces immediately sprang into action. Imperial Japanese forces scattered around the Pacific had been ordered to stand down and wait-in-place for local forces to accept their surrender: to disarm them and oversee their repatriation back to Japan. In Indochina, the Communists would be first to the scene. In Savannakhet, Kaysone’s forces would formally accept the surrender of local Japanese forces, including the seizing of their military equipment. On 9 September 1945, French forces would arrive in the province, refusing to accept Lao independence. Nevertheless, the 25-year old Kaysone would succeed in leading his comrades to defend the province. The following month, Kaysone’s forces would support the new Issara government, and the young revolutionary would move north to establish another guerilla area in the vital province of Houaphan, bordering the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) established by Vietnamese Comrades led by President Hồ Chí Minh in the great August Revolution that year. Comrade Kaysone would end 1945 by taking up a position with the Laos-Vietnam Liaison Department, once again returning to Hanoi—that city he knew so well, now the capital of the DRV. While not explicitly stated in the available Lao or Vietnamese archives, it is most likely that all of these actions were coordinated through the Communist Party—a great synchronization and collaboration that would be repeated time and time again in the years to come; feats of incredible leadership and organization that would ultimately achieve historic victory over all invaders seeking to threaten the freedom and independence of the people. 

In late-1945 and early-1946, however, the French colonialists with their European and American supporters would reassert themselves in the region with a fury: in Laos, the Issara government would be ultimately unable to hold out against the French using conventional means. By the end of 1946, the Issara leadership had all been driven underground and into exile; while most had fled to Thailand, where they would remain for some years, others would find themselves in Hanoi—where a young Kaysone Phomvihane carried on the work of revolution. Throughout the 1946-49 period, the primary revolutionary task had been preserving the guerilla areas, strengthening the DRV, and further coalescing their forces. For the Lao Issara, this meant solving a serious question: should they accept an offer of amnesty from the French and work with the new colonial administration, or accept an offer of friendship and cooperation from the Communist Party, and wage revolution? 

For many Issara leaders, offers of amnesty and lucrative positions in the new colonial government would be too good to pass up, and some began to return from exile. The situation appeared to be winding down; it seemed that the French were succeeding. Comrade Kaysone Phomvihane and the revolutionaries would not give up; reorganizing, coalescing, and preparing. As Vladimir Lenin said, there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen: the latter months of 1949 would mark a seismic shift in the situation. On 01 October, Chairman Mao Zedong officially announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing; the Communist Party of Indochina, directed by Hồ Chí Minh, would immediately send a request for aid. Thirteen days later, on the 14th, the Lao Issara would formally dissolve; the revolutionary faction, refusing to bow to French colonialism, would move to join the Communist Party. Among the revolutionaries would be Comrade Kaysone Phomvihane, and one Prince Souphanouvong—former Minister of Defense of the Issara government, later known popularly as the Red Prince for his decision to join the Communist Party. At the urging of Secretary Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao succeeded in lobbying for the PRC to begin providing aid—in both material and manpower—to the revolutionary forces of Indochina.

Kaysone Phomvihane with Hồ Chí Minh of the Communist Party of Vietnam

The Pathet Lao

By 1950, the reorganizing of Lao forces, now coalesced behind the Communist-aligned Comrade Kaysone and the Red Prince, with support from the PRC and DRV, were ready to take the next step: in August the First Congress of People’s Representatives of Laos would be held in the DRV, and the Lao People’s Liberation Army, popularly known as the Pathet Lao (lit. “Lao Nation”), would be established. The Red Prince was elected Prime Minister of the new Pathet Lao resistance government, while Comrade Kaysone, age 29, would be appointed Minister of Defense. With the French pressing hard, and most revolutionary positions still underground, Minister Kaysone’s was no easy task. Nevertheless, he carried on the work of organizing and strengthening the guerilla areas, coalescing, and preparing. 

In 1953, the time came for the Pathet Lao, and 32-year-old Minister Kaysone, to step once more into the fray. Colonial French forces ravaged throughout Indochina, and the forces of the anti-colonial resistance appeared to be on the backfoot. Guerilla tactics had been grinding the French down, but the colonizers believed that a big victory would be enough to bring the “rebels” to the negotiating table. In the spring of that year, a coordinated force with General Võ Nguyên Giáp of the People’s Army of Vietnam, would shatter French dreams of domination for all times: the upper Laos campaign quickly liberated Sam Neua, Xiengkhouang, Kham Mouane, Attapeu, and the Bolovens Plateau—the Pathet Lao asserted their presence to the world with courage and cannonfire, and the leadership of Minister Kaysone saw them swiftly achieve great victories; as French forces retreated, they were waylaid by the advancing revolutionary tide.

Map of Laos, via Mappr

Pathet Lao forces liberating Sam Neua in 1953 

The upper Laos campaign of 1953 had pressed the French hard, who sought to respond by establishing a base in north-western Vietnam in order to strike back—not realizing the precariousness of their position, the colonizers continued to believe that a swift and brutal response would be enough to break the resistance. As the French undertook their response, they accumulated their forces primarily at a base established at Điện Biên Phủ; the Pathet Lao swiftly receded back to the liberated zone, and a noose was quickly tightened around the French headquarters. The ensuing siege and liberation of Điện Biên Phủ so masterfully broke the will of the colonizers that the French government was immediately forced to sign the 1954 Geneva accords—officially ending French domination of the region. 

Nevertheless, as one settler power pulled out, another arrived to take their place: in the name of anti-communism, the imperialist United States entered the region to continue the oppression and persecution of the Indochinese people, ushering in a period of even greater warfare and terror that Kaysone Phomvihane would later recall as “years of struggle against the hypocritical counter-revolutionary strategy of the American imperialists and their henchmen, who, alternating two-faced peaceful actions with undisguised counter-revolutionary violence, tried to smash the achievements of the Lao revolution.

On 22 March 1955, the First Congress of the Lao People’s Party (LPP) was held in Houaphan, formally establishing the Party and electing 34-year-old Defense Minister Kaysone Phomvihane to the post of General Secretary, as well as Commander-in-Chief of the Lao People’s Liberation Army. Of the 19 representatives of the First Congress, 2 are recorded as being workers, 13 as peasants, and 4 as petty bourgeois: they adopted the 9 main strategies of the Party, and the 12-point revolutionary program that would lead them to victory in the coming decades of fierce struggle. In 1972, the Party would officially change its name to the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), which remains today.

As the American imperialists would cynically alternate between faux peace offers with intense armed repression, so too the Pathet Lao adopted a strategy of using the People’s Army—led by Secretary Kaysone—to defend the liberated zones and people’s victories, while using the Patriotic Front—led by the Red Prince—to push for peace, electoral victories, and continued political pressure on the US-backed Lao Royal Government. In this period we likewise see the wisdom of Chairman Mao Zedong, upheld by the Lao revolutionaries, come to truth in real struggle: “that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”

In response to the development of revolutionary forces, and the refusal of the people of Laos to submit to the American imperialist war machine, the US government moved to completely subsidize Royalist forces with American taxpayer dollars, while simultaneously supporting them on the ground with overwhelming airpower—a strategy first utilized in the region by the French. US-backed forces would, with each offensive, find themselves unable to outsmart the strategic genius of the Lao revolutionaries, the great leadership of General Secretary Kaysone Phomvihane and the Red Prince, and the great coordination and friendship of President Hồ Chí Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giáp. With each failed offensive, the political pressure grew—resulting in increasing coup attempts and in-fighting among the imperialists and their lackeys, which further weakened their own camp militarily, resulting in even further defeats. In order to shore up their proxies, the US would increasingly resort to the most rapacious and horrific bombing campaign seen in history, with the CIA within Laos increasingly acting as a force for the training and deployment of guerilla death-squads, child soldiers, and Thai mercenaries. 

Kaysone Phomvihane with Chairman Hua Guofeng of the Communist Party of China 

By 1961, then-40-year-old Secretary Kaysone Phomvihane, in coordination with the People’s Army of Vietnam, successfully oversaw the Pathet Lao’s control of 2/3 of the territory of the Lao nation, accounting for some 1/3 of the total population. Imperialist-backed forces would attempt to break through, but would once again be crushed, forcing them once again to retreat:

“[O]ur armed forces and the people, using every possible means, inflicted a crushing defeat on the enemy, routed the main forces of the puppet army and frustrated the designs of the American imperialists, who, in order to put pressure on us, had concentrated a force of marines along the Thai coast for deployment to Laos if their adventurist plans paid off. Defeated on many fronts, notably at Luang Namtha, and heavily criticized by progressive public opinion throughout the world, the American imperialists and their henchmen were forced to sign the Geneva Agreements on Laos of 23 July 1962, which were signed by 14 countries.”

True to form, the United States refused to uphold the agreements in good faith, and within two years any semblance of peace had again broken down. So disastrous would be the attempted US-backed offensives in 1963, though, that it led to the almost complete destruction of US-proxy Royalist forces: a more direct approach became necessary in order for the imperialists to maintain their offensives against the forces of liberation and freedom.

“[The United States] set up large military units under the command of their henchmen, the fascist clique of Kouprasit-Sananikone, and flooded the country with thousands of their military advisors who actually exercised control over the activity of the Vientiane administration. With a puppet army that was nearly 50,000 strong, dozens of battalions of Thai mercenaries, supported by their own air force, the American imperialists began escalating the war in Laos while at the same time conducting a limited war in South Vietnam, and a war of annihilation in North Vietnam. The ‘special war’ in Laos grew more and more bitter … In view of the new situation, [the Party] decided to raise the banner of struggle for national liberation and against American imperialism.” 

By early-1964, the Pathet Lao were once again on the offensive under the leadership of Kaysone; by that time 43 years old, tried by fire, and determined to see the complete liberation of the Lao nation once and for all from the chains of foreign oppression. The United States would respond in the overall region by engineering the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident, a false-flag designed to justify outright invasion. For the first time since the liberation of Điện Biên Phủ, Euro-settler forces would once again openly invade and attempt to assert their domination. In Laos, US forces would remain covert in nature, but the secret war would be drastically enhanced: US bombings would reach a fever pitch, desperate to support their proxy-forces on the ground and cut off the allied anti-imperialist forces. With each campaign of indiscriminate terror, however, the resolve of the Lao people would only grow firmer. 

By 1972, Pathet Lao forces had succeeded in grinding US-backed proxies to dust. Despite the worst bombing offensives seen in history, campaigns of CIA guerilla terror, child soldiers, rampant heroin trafficking, and repeated internal coups, the US proxies could no longer summon any meaningful offensive capabilities on the ground in Laos. Finally accepting their complete defeat that had been coordinated by revolutionaries across Indochina, the imperialists sued for peace, and, with the Paris accords of 1973, would officially follow in the footsteps of their French forebears—broken and humiliated in the face of the indomitable will of the people. Secretary Kaysone Phomvihane and the Red Prince led the Pathet Lao in forming the final coalition government in Laos. 

In April 1975, with the fall of Phnom Penh in Campuchea, and the fall of Saigon in southern Vietnam, the remaining reactionaries were broken once and for all. Exposed and unable to muster a defense as popular protests and anti-Royalist fervor grew throughout the nation, on 02 December 1975 the King of Laos abdicated. The Royal Lao Government was officially disbanded. The tricolor of the free Lao nation was hoisted over the capital, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was proclaimed. Twenty-five years of Pathet Lao revolutionary struggle had finally achieved the ultimate victory: the monarchy was abolished, people’s democracy was established, and the Lao nation was officially placed on the path of peace, independence, democracy, and unity.

Kaysone Phomvihane with Erich Honecker of the Socialist Unity Party 

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic

The only thing more difficult than waging a successful revolutionary struggle is maintaining it afterwards. The Red Prince was named the first President of the Lao PDR, and Kaysone Phomvihane, then age 54, became its first Prime Minister. They inherited a nation that had been pulverized by war more than any other in world history: over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped throughout the country by the United States—of which around 80 million did not detonate, and continued to kill innocent people, 10% of the overall population had been killed during the war, another 20% had been permanently wounded, and a further over 10% had become refugees abroad. 

With a population of only around 3 million in 1975, and a literacy rate below 25%, it appeared that, if anything, the United States had withdrawn for no other reason than to avoid being responsible for cleaning up the mess it left behind. Making matters worse, the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations, and ensuing split, coupled with remaining hostility from the US and Thailand, meant the young Lao nation was almost immediately driven into isolation. Although Soviet aid would help kickstart the reconstruction process, it would begin declining not long after. Through all the upheaval of the split period, the great friendship of the Lao and Vietnamese peoples would remain an unbreakable bond worthy of emulation by all future generations.

The Party, under the leadership of Kaysone Phomvihane, would not give up, and would not make the mistake of deviating from the science of Marxism-Leninism; the LPRP would instead apply their revolutionary vigor with equal success in further advancing domestic conditions and the welfare of all Lao people. The great revolutionary work had not ended, but had taken on a new character, and so a new approach was necessary. With Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane at the helm, three new great revolutionary undertakings began: the revolution of productive forces, the scientific-technical revolution, and the ideological-cultural revolution. Beginning in 1979, Kaysone led the Party in adopting greater economic reforms, modeled after the New Economic Policy of Vladimir Lenin, with added insight from experiences in neighboring China and Vietnam. In order to build socialism without a period of capitalism, great care and rigorous analysis was necessary—the resulting period of socialist construction and safeguarding of the people’s democratic system, with Marxism-Leninism as the core theory guiding the Party, led to massive, rapid improvements in the livelihood of the people that continue to this day.

Kaysone Phomvihane would serve as Prime Minister until 15 August 1991, at which point he would be elected President following the death of the Red Prince—a position he would hold until 21 November 1992, when, just prior to his 72nd birthday, he too would pass. A revolutionary career spanning nearly five decades, Kaysone Phomvihane is one of the only Communist leaders in history to have both led a successful revolution and overseen the successful implementation of reforms afterwards, all while navigating economic isolation and geopolitical hostility, the bitter Sino-Soviet split, and the horror of the Soviet collapse; this alone makes him a remarkable example worthy of study and emulation, not even to mention the dozens of battles he successfully led throughout the decades of revolutionary struggle against foreign aggression and domestic reaction—all for the Lao people. 

Three Lao People’s Liberation Army soldiers sitting in front of the monument to Kaysone Phomvihane. Kaysone Phomvihane museum, Vientiane, Laos. Photo by the author

Memorial to President Kaysone Phomvihane, Phonsavan, Laos. Photo by the author. 

Remembering a Revolutionary

The modern Lao PDR is by no means perfect, and in many ways is still recovering from the ravages of war—for example, over 8,000 square kilometers of the country are still contaminated by unexploded American bombs, which still kill innocent people every year. While not being perfect, it has held firm to the socialist road, and, under the leadership of the LPRP—which itself was led by Comrade Kaysone Phomvihane until his death in 1992—the Lao nation has more than doubled in population, has achieved a higher literacy rate than the United States, made healthcare widely available for all its people, massively increased life expectancy, begun great undertakings to improve the wellbeing and happiness of the people, secured their independence, unity, and peace, and established a shining beacon of people’s democracy where the aptitude of one’s life is determined not by the status of their birth, but by the content of their heart and quality of their work; where all people, regardless of ethnicity or gender, are equal—equally expected to contribute to the great undertaking of building the People’s Democratic Republic, and equally entitled to reap its benefits. It is not perfect, but it is the nation the Lao people have built, on their own terms, and in their own image. 

In every major city in the Lao PDR today there stands a monument or memorial to President Kaysone Phomvihane. Generally in the form a small bust enshrined under a stupa-like construct in the traditional Lao style, and typically placed in a public park or in front of important government buildings. His image looks out over every city in the nation he helped build—over the children and grandchildren of the people he led to secure their liberation and freedom. Kaysone Phomvihane gave his life as a gift to the people; in return, they give his memory to future generations, and to the world.