Coups in the Kremlin
What the History of Russia’s Power Struggles Says About Putin’s Future
The April coup in Vientiane and the subsequent defeat of the neutralists at the Plain of Jars underscored the fact that the 1962 settlement was only a fig leaf, not a solution, for the country's perennial civil war in Laos. The events of the past two years have left the situation there as complex and explosive as before.
Under the hopeful provisions of the 1962 settlement, embodied in the Geneva Accords and the Plain of Jars Agreement, Laos was declared neutral and foreign military intervention was forbidden. The neutralist, right-wing and Communist-controlled Pathet Lao factions were united in a coalition cabinet under the neutralist leader, Prince Souvanna Phouma. His new government was to rule all of Laos and preside over the reintegration of the three factions' respective armies.
The agreements proved ineffective, however. Within less than a year the Pathet Lao withdrew from the coalition, making it meaningless. Civil war broke out again, with Viet Minh soldiers supporting the Pathet Lao and United States military aid backing the anti-Communist coalition formed in Vientiane by the two remaining factions. Laos remained divided: the Pathet Lao administered approximately two-thirds of the country as a hostile, expansionist state, while right-wing generals controlled almost all the rest. Souvanna Phouma presided over the rump government by virtue of foreign support. After the coup, fear of further violence kept Vientiane tense, and still another coup was averted in August. In the same period, when the United States was busy shoring up South Viet Nam, the Laotian situation had come unstuck.
The renewed instability in Laos works to the advantage of the Pathet Lao, since of the three factions they have the best organization and, with their Viet Minh reinforcements, the strongest army. In the past two years they have achieved exclusive control of something less than 8,000 additional square kilometers of territory. Military experts calculate that if it were not for the threat of Western intervention, the Pathet Lao-Viet Minh forces could capture Vientiane in two weeks. Hence the situation poses dangers for United States interests: further Pathet Lao victories would be interpreted by Southeast Asians as an American defeat and would, as much as any Gaullist neutralization proposal, dilute their will to oppose Asian Communist expansionism.
A Communist take-over in Laos would have little direct effect on the military situation in South Viet Nam, since the Pathet Lao already firmly control the Laotian border areas through which North Vietnamese men and matériel reach the Viet Cong territory. But morale in South Viet Nam would sag further, perhaps decisively. The Thai, with their acute sensitivity to their own national interest, would be encouraged to compromise their pro- Western stand. The Burmese would grow more obliging toward Peking. Communist China and North Viet Nam would find their "paper tiger" view of the United States vindicated. And Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia would have further evidence to support his predictions of ultimate Chinese victory in Southeast Asia.
The causes for the dangerous turmoil in Laos lie partly in defects of the 1962 settlement as such and partly in recent changes within the three factions. Finding themselves unable to subvert the coalition, the Pathet Lao adopted a policy of complete belligerence. Their former allies, the neutralists, turned against them and relied on the United States for support. The right wing, on which the United States had pinned its hopes in the past, was brought almost to the point of disintegration by internal feuding.
When United States policy-makers approved the formation of the neutral Laotian government in 1962, it was largely because the Soviet Union had promised to support the new arrangement. On its face, however, the settlement was unpromising. The tripartite cabinet was crippled by a requirement that all important decisions be unanimous. A similar handicap plagued the International Control Commission, whose task was to ensure the withdrawal of all foreign troops, except for a small French training contingent. The Polish I.C.C. commissioner felt, as did the Pathet Lao, that tripartite agreement between him and his Canadian and Indian colleagues must exist before they did any investigating.
Thus the success of the 1962 arrangement depended on coöperation by the Pathet Lao. But when the United States accepted the Soviet assurances, it apparently failed to take into account the speed at which the Sino-Soviet split was developing. Soon it became clear that the Soviets had lost either the ability or the will to influence China, North Viet Nam or the Pathet Lao to uphold the settlement; they may have felt that they had troubles enough with Peking without arguing over Laos.
Outwardly, however, the situation remained relatively calm for a few months after the coalition government was installed, with the titular Pathet Lao leader, Prince Souphanouvong, and the right-wing commander, General Phoumi Nosavan, as deputy premiers under Souvanna Phouma. But friction was growing between the neutralists and their former allies, the Pathet Lao, who were trying to enlist the active support of neutralist officers and men. Most neutralists followed Souvanna Phouma and his military commander, General Kong Le, who remained aloof. A few, however, sided with the Communists, some for ideological reasons, others because they felt the neutralists were being deceived by their new right-wing coalition partners. The most powerful of these pro-Pathet Lao neutralists was Quinim Pholsena, a longtime leftist who had been named foreign minister in the new coalition cabinet.
By late 1962 a clear split had appeared between the bulk of the neutralists on one side and the Pathet Lao with their dissident neutralist supporters on the other. The Pathet Lao had begun to share less and less of their supplies of rice, salt and war matériel with Kong Le's troops, and finally they cut off the aid altogether. Without outside support, the neutralist units could not maintain their positions; Souvanna Phouma was obliged to ask the United States to start flying them supplies. The United States quickly complied with this request, first with non-military provisions, later with military equipment. This aid, an important factor in bringing the neutralists around to their present pro-Western position, infuriated the Pathet Lao. In November 1962, a gunner commanded by Colonel Deuane Sipaseuth, an influential neutralist officer who had gone over to the Pathet Lao, shot down a plane flying American aid to the neutralists. After a brief subsequent reconciliation with Kong Le, Deuane later re-defected to the Pathet Lao and became the leader of what Asian Communists call the "true neutralists," those who have broken with Kong Le and Souvanna Phouma to side with the Pathet Lao. With these "true neutralists" now numbering perhaps 500 on their side, the Pathet Lao feel entitled to control all the areas which, under the 1961 cease-fire, they held jointly with Kong Le's forces.
Meanwhile a conflict had developed in Vientiane between Souvanna Phouma and Quinim, who was constantly working in the interests of the Pathet Lao. He was the Communists' great hope for influencing the coalition government's policies from within. This hope was dashed, however, on April 1, 1963, when, in retaliation for the murder of one of Kong Le's officers, a neutralist guard machine gunned Quinim to death. With Quinim gone, the Pathet Lao felt they had lost their stake in the coalition. They moved quickly. Souphanouvong and the Pathet Lao information minister, Phoumi Vongvichit, withdrew from Vientiane on the ground that Quinim's assassination proved their lives were endangered in the capital. Since then, the Pathet Lao have taken no part in government decisions and accordingly consider its actions invalid under the 1962 agreements. At the same time, they brook no interference by Vientiane in the administration of their own areas.
Pathet Lao and neutralist troops had been skirmishing off and on in their jointly held areas during the months before Quinim was killed. In April 1963, the Pathet Lao launched a full-scale attack and pushed Kong Le's troops out of the eastern Plain of Jars region. Their attack was an ominous foretaste of the May 1964 offensive, when they took the rest of the Plain. Coupled with Souphanouvong's withdrawal, the 1963 assault completed the break between the neutralists and the Pathet Lao.
Souvanna Phouma had little contact with Souphanouvong from then until early 1964, when the two half-brothers met briefly at Sam Neua in Pathet Lao territory. Their rendezvous was friendly, but Souphanouvong still refused to return to fill his cabinet seat in Vientiane. A few days later, the Pathet Lao began a series of successful attacks on right-wing positions in south-central Laos, apparently in revenge for rightist attacks late the previous year.
Depressed by these further setbacks, Souvanna Phouma threatened to resign, and set off on a ten-day trip to Hanoi and Peking to ask the Chinese Communists and North Vietnamese to get the Pathet Lao to take a less belligerent stand. The Chinese gave Souvanna Phouma the impression that they would consider Laos and Viet Nam as two separate problems. This he took to indicate that Communist policy in Laos would be less aggressive, at least until the conflict in South Viet Nam was resolved. He returned home encouraged.
At the same time, however, the Pathet Lao were holding a party congress, their first in eight years, apparently, among other things, to decide what to do if Souvanna Phouma should go through with his threat to resign. His self-advertised weak position apparently influenced the party to take an even harder line. It proclaimed its intent to "struggle against United States imperialists and their followers, the traitors, for a correct implementation of the Geneva accords."
On April 17, the leaders of the three factions finally, with elaborate security arrangements, conferred on the Plain of Jars. Souphanouvong was obdurate. He demanded that Phoumi agree then and there to the detailed provisions of a Pathet Lao proposal that Luang Prabang, the royal capital, be neutralized and demilitarized as a provisional seat for the coalition. When Phoumi insisted on time to study the proposal, the talks broke off. Souvanna Phouma, thunderstruck, announced he would resign.
His announcement prompted two Vientiane generals to stage a coup d'état the following morning. The ringleader was General Siho Lanphouthacoul, then only 28, the commander of the national security police, which includes three highly trained paratroop battalions quartered outside Vientiane. Siho was disgusted at the inefficiency of the coalition government and saw a chance to increase his own influence. He persuaded an older, more powerful general to head the coup: Kouprasith Abhay, a courageous but indecisive aristocrat in command of the right-wing army units in the Vientiane area. Their troops invested the capital and put Souvanna Phouma under arrest. They declared the coalition government suspended.
In their haste, however, the two generals had miscalculated foreign reaction. They assumed the United States would support them as it had backed General Khanh in Saigon after his successful coup. The American Ambassador, Leonard Unger, soon convinced them that United States support for Souvanna Phouma was unchanged; they were forced to back down rather than face the eventual withdrawal of American aid. The coalition government was allowed to continue in operation and Souvanna Phouma was released. Encouraged by the support of the United States and other nations, he resolved to continue as premier.
Nevertheless, the generals' control of the capital remained unchallenged. In the weeks that followed they used their newly demonstrated power to ensure certain governmental changes, some of which worked to the disadvantage of General Phoumi, Siho's former patron, who had remained aloof from the coup. Although Souvanna Phouma held the coalition defense portfolio, Phoumi had remained de facto commander-in-chief of the right- wing army. This state of affairs was changed when Souvanna moved his office into the defense ministry and delegated considerable military authority to the army chief of staff. Monopolies in which Phoumi had an interest were broken up. His political party, the Party of Social Progress, was, theoretically at least, merged with the neutralists. More importantly, the right-wing army was merged at the staff level in Vientiane with Kong Le's neutralist forces.
The coup and its upshots made it easier for the Pathet Lao to repeat their previous year's offensive in the Plain of Jars region. The evidence is that the timing of this year's assault was dictated by the approach of the rainy season, rather than by the coup itself, but the confusion in Vientiane helped the Pathet Lao in their continuing efforts to woo neutralist officers over to "true neutralism." At the Plain of Jars, Kong Le's army was alarmed by rumors that Souvanna Phouma had been killed and the coalition destroyed. Certain officers felt they had been sold out by the merger with their right-wing former enemies. A visit by Souvanna Phouma to Kong Le's headquarters failed to alleviate the situation: the Pathet Lao were already in contact with officers on the north and south flanks of the neutralist defenses. On May 16 the Pathet Lao, with assistance from the Viet Minh and probably from Colonel Deuane's "true neutralists," attacked, striking first at the flanks, which quickly collapsed. Outnumbered and battered by artillery fire, Kong Le's forces gave up the Plain of Jars area, losing almost all their tanks and artillery in the process.
The United States quickly supplied the Lao air force with additional propeller-driven T-28 fighter-bombers to supplement the half-dozen they had already received. The planes were used in combat for the first time, aided by photo-reconnaissance obtained by unarmed American jets which flew over Pathet Lao territory at the formal request of the coalition government. After Pathet Lao artillery shot down a jet on June 6, armed American jet fighters accompanied the reconnaissance missions with orders to return fire from hostile anti-aircraft installations. Later, troops were called out in Vientiane to prevent a right-wing countercoup while seesaw fighting continued between the Pathet Lao and the combined anti-Communist forces, which achieved some encouraging victories.
These events were followed by a flurry of diplomatic activity in which the United States made clear its opposition to the reconvening of the fourteen- nation conference which had produced the Geneva Accords of 1962. It was feared that a full-scale gathering would provide a platform for Communist propagandizing and for discussion of proposals to neutralize South Viet Nam. The United States insisted that the 1962 settlement, so unsatisfactory in the past, was still adequate to meet the situation, despite the changes which the intervening years had brought.
This quick review of events since 1962 shows that of the factions in Laos, the Pathet Lao have had by far the most influence on recent developments there. Their unflagging aggressiveness spurred the neutralists' new pro- Western orientation and heightened the confusion within the right wing. This aggressiveness, unique in Laos, is rooted in the Chinese Communist concept of "national liberation struggle." Peking influences the Pathet Lao directly, through the coördination of propaganda and the strong Chinese presence in the northernmost Laotian province, Phong Saly. The Pathet Lao are also influenced by China indirectly-and more significantly-through the North Vietnamese Communist Party, to which the most important Pathet Lao leaders belong. These outside influences ensure their unswerving adherence to Mao's idea of "struggle" as a purely two-sided affair, with the "progressives" on one side and all non-progressive forces lumped together as their enemy. This view of the East-West conflict leaves no room for "neutralism" in the Western sense. It explains why the Pathet Lao, although they formally accepted the "neutralization" of Laos, were so quick to turn against the majority of neutralists who refused to become "progressives" by actively supporting their cause.
Earlier, the Pathet Lao had been less discriminating about their neutralist associates. After Kong Le's coup of 1960 they had been glad to join forces temporarily with what they considered an anti-imperialist bourgeois movement. By 1962, however, they apparently felt the time had come to demand complete adherence rather than mere partnership from their bourgeois allies. When most neutralists made it clear that they preferred to retain their independence, it became necessary, in Peking's phrase, to divide friend from enemy. By the logic of the "national liberation struggle," Kong Le and Souvanna Phouma were considered part of the un-progressive enemy and thereby lost the right to call themselves neutralists. This view may seem illogical and oversimplified, but it has become Pathet Lao dogma, and it will impede attempts at a new international settlement of the Laos problem.
The problem is complicated further by the fact that the Pathet Lao have established a functioning, cohesive state in their part of the country, with a relatively well-disciplined army. They levy taxes, circulate their own currency and exercise political control down to the village level, which contrasts with the loose administration in the right-wing areas, where the traditional Asian amalgam of central bureaucracy and village autonomy prevails. Capitalizing on this situation, the Pathet Lao have put their own agents into about half the villages in the right-wing areas. Occasionally, Pathet Lao infiltrators requisition rice in right-wing villages and sabotage a truck or bridge as an indication of what might be the next stage of their belligerence, if circumstances require: Viet Cong- type sedition behind the anti-Communist lines.
In contrast to the Pathet Lao, the neutralist faction has never had an ideological underpinning for its policies. Ideally, Souvanna Phouma has hoped to make his country a Southeast Asian Sweden or, failing that, a sort of Finland, retaining as much independence as possible from both East and West despite the proximity of a great Communist power. At the time of Kong Le's coup, the United States opposed this objective, while the Pathet Lao were willing at least to pay it lip service. Now, however, the United States has accepted Souvanna's goal while the Pathet Lao are openly working against it. As a result, he and his followers have made an 180-degree turn from deep suspicion of the United States to their present heavy reliance on it for support.
When he took office as coalition premier in 1962, Souvanna Phouma bore no great love for the United States. He had resented American pressure in the 1950s and he blamed American support for the success of General Phoumi's march on Vientiane in December 1960, which led to the departure of the neutralist government of the time. But as premier in 1962 he welcomed the full support of the United States and its allies. With American aid flowing to the neutralist army, he began to see that United States military support for the right-wing army was not calculated as a means of depriving him of political power.
As Souvanna Phouma's fears of the right wing decreased, his disillusionment with the Pathet Lao grew. For years he had considered Souphanouvong to be merely a royalist who had lapsed into a kind of "salon-leftism." He hoped Souphanouvong's sense of his own Lao nationality would lead him ultimately to reject dictation from Peking and Hanoi and to coöperate in a settlement for Laos. The events of the past months, however, have led him to conclude this hope is no longer possible. He has come to agree with Western experts, who long ago concluded that Souphanouvong does not control the Pathet Lao and that the strong men behind him are dominated by the North Vietnamese, who have no intention of reducing their influence in Laos.
This realization has led Souvanna Phouma to alter his political style. Earlier, he had tried to function as an arbitrator between the Pathet Lao and the right wing, at the expense of his own executive initiative. At the Plain of Jars "summit" he said he would approve whatever agreement Souphanouvong and Phoumi were able to reach. Later, however, he apparently became convinced that mere arbitration was not enough. Accordingly, he has been taking a more leading role in what is left of the coalition, behaving more like a conventional chief of government. In the wake of the coup, he has gained the active support of some influential right wingers who no longer find his views so different from their own.
The factionalism within the right wing, which had long been growing, was merely brought into the open by the coup of April 19. It could explode into violence again at any time. The politicians and generals who control most of the roughly one-third of Laos (and two-thirds of the population) which has escaped Pathet Lao domination are divided into overlapping groups whose borders run along family, party and geographical lines.
The most important rightist leader is still Phoumi, who is the coalition finance minister as well as deputy premier. The power play of the coup leaders and the subsequent changes in the defense ministry greatly reduced Phoumi's military influence, but he still retains the loyalties of certain provincial generals, notably in the area of Savannakhet, seat of the powerful Voravong family, to which he is related. The merger of Phoumi's party with the neutralists is significant only in that it reflects his desire to strengthen his formal ties to the coalition, now that his informal power, through the army and the system of monopolies, has been curtailed. In addition, a rival right-wing element, the powerful Sananikone family, began after the coup to support Souvanna Phouma as a means of indirectly working against Phoumi. The Sananikones, to whom Kouprasith is related, also quietly pressed for government financial inquiries in the apparent hope of revealing corruption in which Phoumi was involved.
Siho and the men who surround him are a new force within the right wing: a coterie of young, highly ambitious officers largely without influential family connections or great personal wealth. Now that they have proved their power, the preservation of peace in Vientiane hinges on the continuation of their alliance with Kouprasith. Together, the coup leaders influence government operations by pressuring officials at the sub-cabinet level, and through a system of inter-ministerial committees established after the coup. Their influence has also led to a series of cabinet changes. Souvanna Phouma's physical safety depends on their whim; at least once since the coup a high American official has been obliged to dissuade a group of officers who were planning to arrest Souvanna all over again. Nevertheless, the influence of the right-wing elements in general is limited by their internal feuding, by the slack system of local administration in the areas they control and by the lack of over-all cohesiveness between the various military commands.
Despite their internal changes, the three Laotian factions have been kept in precarious balance by outside pressures. It is only with support from the Viet Minh that the Pathet Lao have been able to make their advances; most military experts in Vientiane believe the right-wing and neutralist armies, with a combined strength of over 60,000, would be able to push back the less than 20,000 Pathet Lao combat troops if the North Vietnamese withdrew. By the same token, without the threat of Western retaliation, the Pathet Lao-Viet Minh forces would long since have pushed through to the Mekong. And without pressures from the United States, Siho and Kouprasith might well have broken up the coalition government.
This balance of foreign pressures has shifted in recent months. The great change, of course, was the increased activity of the United States. While heavily subsidizing the coalition government and the anti-Communist armies, the United States avoided increasing its commitments before 1964. The 1962 settlement was clearly not working, but with the uncertain situation in South Viet Nam, it seemed wiser not to rock the boat in Laos. The coup and the Plain of Jars offensive, however, posed such grave dangers that the United States was forced to intervene quickly by providing the T-28s, increased military aid and the jet reconnaissance flights, which led by their own operational logic to American fighter jets raiding the Pathet Lao. The Communists did not retaliate by stepping up their own military activities, presumably because of repeated American threats of further intervention if necessary. Meanwhile the other powers occupied themselves with various initially unsuccessful efforts to bring the Laotian leaders and the interested nations together for a meeting, in one form or another.
The success of whatever arrangement emerges from the next conference or conferences will depend in the long run on how firmly the United States can convince Peking and Hanoi that it will retaliate as necessary in the event of further Communist encroachment in Laos. The North Vietnamese gunboat attacks on United States destroyers provided a kind of clear-cut provocation which makes possible a neatly calibrated reprisal. In Laos, however, Communist moves are less crisp; the covert nature of Viet Minh support for the Pathet Lao coupled with complex and unstable relationships between their neutralist and right-wing opponents poses a more delicate policy problem. But unless the United States is prepared to make, and maintain, really convincing long-range commitments against Pathet Lao-Viet Minh advances, it must face the prospect that Laos will come even more unstuck.