Small land locked country in the center of Indochina whose history has been continually enmeshed with the territorial ambitions of neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand , and Myanmar. During the fifth century a.d. Laos’s primitive tribal inhabitants came under the influence of the Cambodian Khmer Empire. They were gradually supplanted by settlers from the southwestern Chinese kingdom of Nanchao. During the 12th and 13th centuries Tai immigrants founded the principality of Muong Swa, later known as Luang Prabang. Fa Ngum, an accomplished general who had the aid of the Cambodian Khmers, founded the first Laotian state. From 1353 to 1371 Lan Xang (The Kingdom of a Million Elephants) expand ed under his leadership to cover all of present Laos and most of northern Thailand . Lan Xang prospered quietly until the reign of Photisarath (1520–47) brought it into conflict with both Burma and Siam. After Photisarath’s death, his son moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and fought continuously with the Burmese until his death in 1571. The Burmese then seized the offensive and laid waste to the country. The ensuing anarchy gripped Lan Xang for 60 years. It reestablished itself as an orderly and powerful state with the ascension of Souligna-Vongsa to the throne in 1637. After his death, a nephew accepted the help of a Vietnamese army to seize the throne and attempted to rule as a Vietnamese vassal. Other members of the royal family successfully resisted this move, and Lan Xang disintegrated into three small contending kingdoms. In the north, Luang Prabang and Vientiane declared themselves independent in 1707, and they were followed in 1713 by the southern portion of the now defunct Lan Xang, which declared itself the kingdom of Champassak. Divided into three small feuding states, Laos was unable to maintain its independence in the face of Siamese and Burmese expansion in western Indochina.
Vientiane fell to Siamese forces in 1778 and became a subject state. Luang Prabang was conquered by the Burmese in 1752 but came under Siamese rule in 1778. That same year Champassak was successfully invaded and made a dependency of Siam. Siamese authority was unsuccessfully contested by Chao Anou, who ruled in Vientiane from 1809 to 1824. Siamese forces defeated his armies, sacked his capital, and annexed Vientiane as a Siamese province. Siam moved to consolidate its gains, garrisoning the captured states and pressing Vietnam, now a French colonial possession. France moved aggressively to protect its growing Indochina interests and by 1904 had compelled Siam to grant it control of Laos. France organized its new acquisition as the Protectorate of Laos but exercised little control. In World War II Japan forced the Vichy government to return Laos to Thailand and proclaimed Laotian independence.
After the war France regained major control of Laos, but the country was split into opposing factions with an anti-Japanese group centered on the Luang Prabang court and an anti-French faction in Vientiane. In 1950 the anti-French Pathet Lao was formed and successfully joined the Viet Minh of Vietnam in opposition to French rule. The Geneva Conference ending the Indochina War attempted to set up a neutral Laos as a stabilizing buffer state, but the next 20 years found continual turmoil with a rightist, U.S.- backed government in Vientiane in conflict with the North Vietnamese–supported Pathet Lao. During the Vietnam War eastern Laos supplied North Vietnam with its vital supply route to the S, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Although a coalition government was formed in April 1974, in 1975 the Pathet Lao seized full control of Laos. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic was installed in December 1975, and since then Laos has been economically and philosophically allied with Vietnam. Vietnamese forces used the country as a staging area for their intervention in Kampuchea in 1979, and Laotian troops aided in the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime there.
In the early 1990s Laos instituted economic reforms, aband oning communism for a capitalist market economy, but the Communist Pathet Lao retained tight political control, and political dissent was harshly suppressed. Laos has improved its relations with its neighbors, and in 1997 Laos was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).