The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett


A Fateful Assassination

The sharp bark of a gun shattering the evening quiet of the Laotian capital of Vientiane on September 18, 1954. A man, conveniently placed by his host near the open window, slumped forward clutching his stomach and then collapsed in a spreading pool of blood on the polished floor. His host took a long pull at his cigar and sent for the police. The murdered man was Kou Voravong, Laotian Minister of Defense and head of the Democratic Party of Laos. His "crimes", in the view of those who paid the Thai assassin— and arranged his flight back across the Mekong to Thailand-were manifold. As delegate to the 1954 Geneva Conference, he had signed the ceasefire agreements, as he was instructed by his Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma. Another delegate, his cigar-smoking host that fateful night, had refused to sign. He was Phoui Sananikone, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time of Geneva. Moreover, in the National Assembly Voravong had just revealed that an American agent had paid Sananikone $1,000,000 not to sign, and the money had been deposited in a Swiss bank.

To add to his "crimes," Kou Voravong had denounced plans for a treacherous attack upon the Pathet Lao forces as they regrouped in the two northern provinces under the terms of the Geneva Agreements. Finally, only nine days before, the man who now lay still on the floor of Sananikone's villa had arranged and taken part in the first meeting between the half-brother Princes, Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong, aimed at starting the political negotiations between the Royal government and Pathet Lao, as provided at Geneva.

It took almost eight years to remedy the political effects of the assassination and its implications. In the fury of charges resulting from the assassination, with CIA dollar notes in Vientiane as plentiful as a shower of Wall street ticker tape, the government of Souvanna Phouma was forced to resign. It was replaced by one under Katay Don Sasorith, who had caught the baleful eye of John Foster Dulles with a book, Laos—Ideal Cornerstone in the Anti-Communist Struggle in Southeast Asia. Katay and Sananikone were the two politicians in whom the State Department, not to mention the secret funds department, placed their major investments in Laos.

This is more than a figure of speech. It was literally true. All U.S. dollar "aid" passed through a bank which Katay specially founded for the purpose. Katay, a minor colonial official until John Foster took him under his wing, suddenly burgeoned forth as the leading Laotian capitalist, with heavy investments in any field through which U.S. "aid" could be channeled. There was a saying in Vientiane, when I first visited the capital in 1956: "Where there is Lao Thai, there is also Katay." The "Lao-Thia" bank and the "Lao-Thai" monopoly were private concerns of Katay and his high-placed Thai friends, to skim the cream off the $50,000,000 or so that were to be poured into the country each year.

One of Katay's more modest moves up the economic and social ladder had been to marry the sister of Prince Boun Oum of Champassac, the southernmost of the original three principalities of Laos. Until the Americans began to finance them, most of the treasure of Katay and Boun Oum came from contraband sales of opium, seized from monstrous taxes levied on the Lao Xung and Lao Thenh minorities by Boun Oum's agents. Originally these opium deals had passed through the hands of former Emperor Bao Dai of Vietnam. Later, Katay arranged for them to be funnelled through members of the Ngo Dinh Diem family. But this was small stuff compared to the pickings of a prime minister compradore engaged in selling an entire country.

Sananikone, who developed as the country's second biggest capitalist, had to be content with much smaller pickings, the crumbs in fact which fell from the rich Katay table. This provoked bitter jealousy between the two men, each had his own political party. Despite his having arranged the assassination of Voravong (as was being freely stated in Vientiane), despite having proved himself as faithful an agent of the United States as the most exacting master could demand, he had been pushed almost completely into the shadows by Katay.

Obviously a bill was piling up for Katay to settle after he had salted the first few million dollars away. It was presented personally by Dulles at the end of February 1955. He dropped in on Vientiane after a SEATO meeting in Bangkok. Five weeks later Katay produced the first dividends on the already considerable investments by opening an offensive against the Pathet Lao troops. The latter, having taken part in the resistance war against the French colonialists practically all over the country, had withdrawn to the two northern provinces of Sam Neua and Phong Saly in accordance with the Geneva Agreements, pending a negotiated political settlement between Pathet Lao and the Royal government.

From the beginning, in fact, Katay had accepted the U.S. demand for a "military solution." In April 1955, this must have looked very easy to Katay. A few weeks earlier he had attended the inaugural meeting of SEATO as an "observer." He had heard Dulles boast that the United States "now had a greater military potential in the Pacific than at the height of the war against Japan." Dulles had listed 400 naval vessels, including America's largest aircraft carriers, and 350,000 naval personnel and marines; five army divisions and supporting units totalling 300,000 men "armed with the latest weapons," 30 air squadrons, and all the rest of the "brink of war" paraphernalia.

With all that to back him, with U.S. arms and planes and unlimited dollars already at his disposal inside the country, how could Katay fail to deal with a few hundred Pathet Lao guerillas in a matter of weeks? SEATO was there to back him in case of difficulties. [1]

Things did not develop as Katay, or Dulles, planned. They rarely did. The offensive launched against Sam Neua, seemed at first to go with a swing. After a few weeks Katay's troops had pushed through to capture Muong Peun, about 20 miles south of the provincial capital, and Katay sent in a "governor"—another violation of the Geneva Agreements which placed the two provinces under Pathet Lao administration pending the negotiated settlement. In the months that followed military affairs became more complicated. Offensives bogged down and guerillas harassed the rear of Katay's troops. Battalions of commandos which parachuted from U.S. planes on to mountain peaks and ridges, deep inside Pathet Lao territory, found they could not come down from their peaks and ridges. So they stayed up there and ate the scientifically prepared but unpalatable cold rations that American planes continued to drop them. When things went wrong on the battlefield, Katay was willing to negotiate, until he had regrouped for further attacks—a constant pattern throughout 1955.

When the two princes had met on September 9 of the previous year, they had quickly reached agreement on the site and date of the talks for a political agreement between the Royal government and the Pathet Lao, and on the subjects to be discussed. Talks were set to start on December 30. But with Katay in the saddle, and the launching of the offensive against the Pathet Lao this initial effort to carry out the Geneva Agreements came to naught. A detailed survey of the course of the talks during 1955 makes weary reading. They stopped and started according to the exigencies of Katay's military activities. Before they were finally broken off in November 1955, the Royal delegates had interrupted them seven times by simply walking out and not fixing a date for their return. The Pathet Lao delegates did not once interrupt the talks. Instead they waited patiently until the Royal delegates returned. Each of the five times the talks were broken off on the Plain of Jars, the Pathet Lao delegates were guarded like prisoners. "If we tried to go more than fifty paces from the residence," Nouhak, one of the delegates told me later, "the soldiers cocked their rifles. Even if we had to visit the toilet, we were followed by police."

During the talks the Katay delegates demanded that all Pathet Lao organizations be dissolved, including the armed forces, the Lao Itsala Front, [2] the women and youth organizations. They wanted to revive the iniquitous "tasseng" system of semi-slavery, long abolished in the Pathet Laos areas.

After the talks were shifted to Vientiane, an attempt was made to bribe the Pathet Lao leaders, but this failed. Finally direct talks were arranged by the International Commission between Souphanouvong and Katay in Rangoon, starting October 19, 1955. A ceasefire agreement was reached, but a day later Katay's troops launched a major offensive into the two provinces guaranteed to the Pathet Lao by the Geneva Agreements, Sam Neua and Phong Saly. Within the next five weeks, Katay's forces launched 34 attacks. Prince Souphanouvong told me of the Pathet Lao's reaction to Katay's open violation of the ceasefire agreement in an interview in his jungle headquarters at a later date:

"Everything must have been prepared well in advance and the final touches were given while Katay was signing the ceasefire agreements to lull our vigilance and to pretend to the outside world that he wanted peace. The Royal delegation finally and unilaterally broke off the talks two weeks after the Rangoon agreement. By that time more than half their entire army were already inside our two provinces. They had forced us into the position where the only alternatives were to surrender or to fight. Of course we decided to fight," he said. "And we will fight under the slogan of peace, democracy, and independence. We will fight and we will win," he added with great conviction.

The Futile Offensive

Beginning from late November 1955, the biggest offensives were launched against the Pathet Laos positions, and in December Katay held elections from which the Pathet Lao were excluded. About this time I visited the Pathet Lao area and was able to meet the leaders, cadres, rank and file soldiers, and the people who lived in the regions administered by the Pathet Lao.

According to prisoners captured, U.S. military "advisers" were directing operations from a base just south of Sam Neua province, in Xieng Khouang. They had tried to send troops in by land routes, but these had been blocked off by the guerillas. So planes were used to parachute them in. American strategy was to form a line, running southwest-northeast and hinged at a point about 30 miles from the provincial capital. As soon as the line was formed, it would swing around on its northern axis to engulf the town of Sam Neua. With another swing or two, just like troops on a parade ground, it would clear the province up to the Vietnamese frontier.

Like the Dien Bien Phu operation, it must have looked good on the war maps the Americans are such experts in preparing. At first a platoon was dropped on a mountain peak, and as usual promptly wiped out. Next time two platoons were dropped and eventually a company for each peak. Peaks were occupied triangle fashion and each corner of a triangle absorbed one company, a battalion per triangle. And there were nothing but maintain peaks in Sam Neua and Phong Saly provinces. Worst of all from the U.S.-Katay viewpoint, companies could not establish contact. They could not get down into the valleys to link up their positions. They tried, but were cut to pieces by either guerillas or regular Pathet Lao troops.

By mid-December, a large proportion of the best troops of the Royal army were like the unfortunate hunter who "got up a tree but couldn't get down" because of the tiger at the bottom. Six infantry battalions, one company of parachutists and 15 companies of commandos were sitting on top of a total of 35 peaks in Sam Neua, and there were thousands more to cover. They could not move and they could not link up. Attempts to join up and form a definite line cost them heavy casualties. Pathet Lao fire sent them scuttling back to their trenches on the mountain tops again. They could not move even to requisition food. They had to be supplied by parachute.

But the flanks of the mountains remained in Pathet Lao hands. Behind the ridges, the whole area was held by guerillas. Ahead of them were the regular Pathet Lao forces. When orders were given for the great sweep, a few disjointed parts creaked forward only to run into a hail of fire. Cold, weary, and starving Royal conscripts stumbled down from the mountains with white flags, cursing Katay, cursing the Americans, and asking to surrender. They were welcomed as brothers.

The defeat of Katay's November-December operations could be concealed for a time but not forever. Vientiane hospitals were full of armless and legless victims of the policies Katay was carrying out on behalf of the Americans. Katay tried to disperse the wounded as far as possible in the provinces, and during the campaign for the December 1955 elections, carried out without the participation of the Pathet Lao, he presented his defeat as a great "victory."

As he controlled the electoral machinery, Katay's party won a majority of seats. It was noteworthy, however, that in Vientiane, where voting and counting procedures could be more fairly controlled, the party headed by Thao Bong Souvannavong came out well on top. He had campaigned on the basis of real negotiations with the Pathet Lao to end the civil war. On his initiative, the "National Salvation" group was formed inside the National Assembly, pledged to end the war against the Pathet Lao by negotiations, some members of Katay's own party joining this group. There was a prolonged government crisis at the very time when Sihanouk's stubborn defense of Cambodian neutrality and rejection of SEATO was attracting world—and Laotion—attention. Eventually after almost three months of crisis, Prince Souvanna Phouma succeeded in forming a government. He pledged himself to settle the dispute with Pathet Lao by "diplomatic means," to pursue a policy of neutrality, and to base his foreign policy on the five principles of coexistence.

Katay and Dulles and everything they stood for had been defeated. The fall of Katay was a sign that a settlement with the Pathet Lao could not be achieved by military means. There could be no "liquidation" of the Pathet Lao forces and no military "occupation" of the two northern provinces.

The 1956 Agreement

In July 1956, Prince Souphanouvong, chief of the Pathet Lao armed forces, stepped out of a plane at Vientiane airport. It was the first time he had set foot there for over ten years. Most of the period since the battle of Thakhek in 1946, he had spent in the jungle. But he looked trim and fit. Leading members of the government were there to meet him. As he stepped from the plane, he was clasped in the arms of his brother, Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma with whom he would soon start negotiations. There were other members of the cabinet present who had also taken part in the August 1945 uprising against the French and who had been with Souphanouvong in exile in Thailand. The arrival of the Pathet Lao leader was the result of delicate feelers for some months previously to establish the basis of renewed negotiations. The atmosphere was cordial from the start, as it had been at the September 1954 meeting, before Katay took over.

It was not long before agreement was reached on certain basic principles, on an agenda, and on the form the negotiations should take. These were set forth in Joint Declarations on August 5 and 10. It was decided to set up three commissions, two of them political and the third military, to work out agreement on the various problems at issue. The commissions started work on September 29, and by October 31 full agreement had been reached on the precise details of carrying out the ceasefire. (Since Souvanna Phouma had taken over as Prime Minister, there had been virtually no activity on the battle front.) Two days later, the first political commission reached agreement on "ways and means of applying a policy of peace and neutrality," and fell entirely within the Geneva accord.

The Agreement called for a foreign policy based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence; aid from all countries wishing to help Laos "without any political or economic strings," and the immediate establishment of diplomatic relations with all neighboring countries. It proclaimed that Laos would "not adhere to any military alliance and not permit any country to set up their military bases on Laotian territory apart from those envisaged in the Geneva Agreement."

A third agreement, signed on December 24, guaranteed civil rights for members and supporters of the Pathet Lao forces, and for the former participants of the resistance throughout the country, "in conformity with the spirit of national reconciliation and the unification of the Fatherland and in conformity with the aspirations of the entire people."

Furthermore, the Neo Lao Haksat (United National Lao Front, established in January 1956 as a still broader version of the Lao Itsala Front) and all its affiliates were recognized as legal political organizations. It would be a punishable offense to take any disciplinary or discriminatory measures against Pathet Lao members and supporters or impose any restrictions on their democratic freedoms because of "military, political or administrative activity indulged in from March 9, 1945, to this day." Pathet Lao personnel would be integrated into the various administrative and technical services based on their functions and ranks in the Pathet Lao administration, with the same priorities and privileges as members of the Royal government.

There was joy throughout the land when these three agreements were capped on December 28 by a joint communique issued by Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong announcing the intention to form a government of National Union with Pathet Lao participation.

After the formation of the new government, the Neo Lao Haksat would start functioning as any other political party. As concerns the two northern provinces, the communique continued, "the two princes have agreed that immediately after the formation of the government of National Union, the administration as well as the combat units in the two provinces of Phong Saly and Sam Neua should be placed under the control of the said government.

Laotian St. Bartholomew's Eve

If the agreement of December 1956 on forming the government of national coalition under Souvanna Phouma seems like a bad joke of history in the light of subsequent events, it is still worth remembering in trying to see ahead after the similar agreement in June 1962.

The U.S. Embassy launched a tremendous campaign against the 1956 agreements. Embassy members personally visited every member of the National Assembly to buy votes to prevent ratification. When bribes failed, threats were used that all U.S. aid would be cut the day "Communists" entered a Laotian government, and rice and oil supplies were halted as a warning. I visited Vientiane at the height of the U.S. campaign with a visa valid for a week and promptly extended to two weeks on arrival at the airport. But on specific demands of the U.S. advisers to Katay's police, I was expelled within 24 hours. The Americans wanted no eyewitnesses around at that time. But I managed to meet National Assembly deputies who told me of the huge bribes being offered for a "No" vote on the agreements.

There is not space here to go into all the intrigues and ups and downs that followed. U.S. pressures managed to get formation of a coalition government delayed until August 1957, and a new set of agreements had to be negotiated in October the same year, providing for Royal control over the two provinces and integration of two Pathet Lao battalions into the Royal army. Prince Souvanna Phouma headed the new government, and also held the Defense Ministry. Prince Souphanouvong became minister of Economic Planning and a second Pathet Lao member, Phoumi Vongvichit, was Minister of Education. Ominously Katay became Minister of the Interior, while Sananikone became Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Royal administration took over in Sam Neua and Phong Saly in November 1957. Members of the Pathet Lao went back to their home towns and villages, except for two battalions which were to be integrated, as intact units, in the Royal Army.

The "complementary" elections, due to be held in January 1958, were postponed till May, in order for Katay to have more time for "adequate preparations." These included encircling every bureau of the Neo Lao Haksat with armed guards, arresting anyone who came near, including many Neo Lao Haksat functionaries; preventing any electioneering on the pretext that this was "subversive propaganda." But the elections did take place on May 4, and were a terrible shock to the U.S. State Department. The Neo Lao Haksat only presented ten candidate for the 21 seats—and nine were elected. The Santiphap Pencan, or Peace and Neutrality Party allied with them, won three of four seats contested, in addition to four it already held in the National Assembly. Only four of Katay's 26 candidates (for 21 seats!) were elected, and none at all of Sananikone's. The results created a black panic for Katay and his U.S. backers. Twelve Pathet Lao and allied deputies elected out of 14 presented for 21 seats! And general elections for all 59 National Assembly seats due within a year! One did not need to be a mathematical genius to forecast the results. A month after the May 4 elections, Katay and Sananikone announced they had joined forces to form the "Rally of the Laotian People." It was a poor, patched-up job and the Americans knew it. But there were few other politicians who would take their money at that time. Two days later, something nearer and dearer to the CIA heart was launched. "The Committee for the Defense of National Interests" (CDNI), formed by fascist-minded army officers under "strong man" General Phoumi Nosavan, announced its intention to become the real power in the land.

From then on things were to move quickly, and satisfactorily as far as the United States was concerned. By the simple process of paying $100,000 upwards for each National Assembly vote, the Americans brought down the Souvanna Phouma government on July 22. The Prince was asked by Savang Vatthana, the Crown Prince, next day to form another government. Two weeks later, Souvanna Phouma had to announce that he was unable to form a government because the newly formed Committee of General Nosavan, which did not hold a single seat in the Assembly, was demanding eight of the 12 cabinet posts. Sananikone was then asked to form a government and, the scale of U.S. bribes being so generous by then, that it took a pretty stout patriot to refuse, he received the National Assembly's approval by 27-21 votes with 11 abstentions on August 18, for a government which violated all agreements by excluding the two Neo Lao Haksat ministers. The ministries of Defense and Interior were placed in the hands of Katay, and how he must have rubbed those treacherous hands with glee at that moment. Into them, this time had really been delivered his enemies, by whatever Lord that Katay recognized.

Now he could really strike and take revenge against those humiliating defeats of 1955. And strike he did. In the two northern provinces, repression was especially savage. Every single Pathet Lao cadre that Katay's troops and police could lay hands on was murdered. In Sam Neua, troops were first sent to seal off the frontiers with North Vietnam and then the systematic killing started. In Phong Saly hardly a single cadre escaped. There was little chance to escape. Former Pathet Lao personnel had long been members of the Royal administration, following the agreed integration process. They were killed at their posts. In lower Laos the same thing. In Attopeu province, a former resistance base to which Pathet Lao personnel had returned only after the October 1957 agreements, members at every bureau of the Neo Lao Haksat were murdered. In other provinces the only variations were between the proportion of those killed to those arrested. Decapitated heads were stuck up on stakes in district and provincial centers as proof that the Pathet Lao had physically ceased to exist.

It was a Laotian St. Bartholomew's Eve, but spread over several months. Katay did not have enough troops and police to do the bloody job in one fell blow. The murders and arrests went on through early 1959, as part of the essential preparation for the intended coup de grace against the two battalions and the arrest of the Pathet Lao leadership. This was the background to the May 1959 crisis and the recommencement of the civil war.

Connivance from Abroad

On the international front the reopening of the civil war by the Sananikone government led to frenzied activity. To cover up the illegal importation of U.S. arms, Sananikone alleged (January 17, 1959) that troops of North Vietnam had violated Laotian borders. In his reply, Premier Pham Van Dong of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam denounced the ferocious repression of the Pathet Lao and exposed the wholesale importation of U.S. arms. To examine the charge of intervention from the North, which he denied, he demanded that the ICC should immediately be convened. On February 11, at a press conference, Sananikone announced that as far as his government was concerned the ICC had ceased to exist.

Immediately, the governments of North Vietnam and China, as neighboring countries and participants in the 1954 Geneva Conference, asked the Soviet Union and Britain, as Co-Chairmen of the Geneva meeting, to take action against the Laotian government's unilateral repudiation of the Geneva Agreements. The British government failing to respond, the USSR on March 26, 1959, sent a note to London proposing that the Co-Chairmen should request the ICC to reconvene as soon as possible. On April 20, Nehru also made a similar request.

There was a stony silence from the British government.

Then came the escape of the two Pathet Lao battalions (described in the next chapter). Again on May 30, 1959, the USSR tried to get the British to reconvene the ICC. The British and Soviet foreign ministers met in Geneva (June 4-8) to discuss Laos, and finally on June 9, ten weeks after the original Soviet request, the British government deigned to reply. It "was unable to see" any violation of the Geneva Agreements.

Following resounding defeats for his troops in the northern provinces by the reconstituted Pathet Lao forces, Sananikone again claimed an "invasion" from North Vietnam. On August 4, 1959, he proclaimed a state of emergency in the former Pathet Lao bases of Sam Neua and Phong Saly and three other provinces. At the same time, he appealed to the UN for help, repeating the request a few weeks later, specifically demanding the despatch of a UN "Emergency Force." On August 12, the Chinese government condemned the repression in Laos, accused the United States of stepping up the creation of military bases near the borders of China and North Vietnam, and again demanded the reactivization of the ICC. Five days later the Soviet government again expressed its view that normal conditions could be restored if the Laotian government carried out the 1954 agreements in cooperation with the ICC. On September 5, the North Vietnam government expressed similar views.

At a Security Council meeting held on September 7, 1959, to consider the Laotian complaint. The USSR pointed out that the Sananikone government's campaign of repression had given rise to the civil war and again urged a return to the Geneva Agreements. On September 14, the Soviet government called for an international conference to be attended by the countries that took part in the 1954 Geneva Conference, but this was promptly turned down by the British, and a U.S. State Department spokesman said that such a conference would be "unnecessary and disruptive." Nevertheless, a majority decision in the Security Council resulted in the despatch of a UN observer mission to Laos—which found no evidence of any invasion forces from the North.

1. Quite illegally, at the SEATO meeting, Laos as well as Cambodia and South Vietnam, were placed under SEATO "protection." Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia promptly rejected such "protection" as did Prince Souvanna Phouma for Laos, when he later came to power again.

2. The Lao Itsala Front or Free Laos was created on August 18, 1945, with the proclamation of Laotian independence from France. It was a broad group consisting of most of the elements of the Laotian resistance.