- Britain and the Neutralisation of Laos
Exactly 50 years ago the second Geneva conference to settle the political crisis and civil war in Laos was concluded and an agreement signed in July 1962. The 15-month-long conference which began in May 1961 was co-chaired by Britain and the Soviet Union, also the co-chairmen of the first Geneva conference on the Indochina crisis in 1954. Twelve other nations were represented at this conference: US, France, PRC, India, Canada, Poland, Democratic Republic of Vietnam/North Vietnam(DRV), Republic of Vietnam/South Vietnam(RV), Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.
Laos in the early 1960s was in the eyes of most participating powers at the Geneva conference a hopeless case: economically poor and underdeveloped, militarily weak and corrupt, and politically divisive without a genuine sense of nationhood among its multi-faction elite. In other words, Laos remained trapped in its own feudal and colonial past. Its geographical location—sandwiched between DRV and PRC of the Communist bloc on the one hand and RV and Thailand backed by the US on the other—made its viability as an independent, neutral state more difficult, even impossible, during this tensest decade of the Cold War in Southeast Asia.
Looking back, Laos has indeed come a long way from those days. Now, Lao PDR, a member of ASEAN since 1997, is recognized as one of the region's promising and fastest growing economies. After almost four decades in power, the socialist regime of Laos has not only changed Laos tremendously but has also maintained a political stability that none could have foreseen half a century or so ago. It has also enjoyed respect from, and friendly relations with, its neighbours, something quite unthinkable during the 1960s-1980s. However, when the idea of a new international conference to solve the crisis in Laos and to evade an unnecessary, and potentially disastrous, international armed conflict on mainland Southeast Asia was first conceived and proposed early in 1961, the best that the British could hope for was five years at most of peace in Laos and, possibly, the emergence of Laos as a viable state whose independence, integrity and neutrality would be respected by other powers. Such optimism was not shared by others, however. The French political magazine Combat made the following comment in their issue of 16 May 1961, the very day that the conference was convened: 'Laos is a funny country; it has [End Page 114] got a funny King and a funny cease-fire; and there are funny negotiations going on at Geneva. And, tomorrow, if peace were to come from them, it would be a funny peace.' (A funny peace certainly it was not; rather, it was a tragedy!) A prospect of genuine peace and a neutral Laos was also doubtful after the signing of the agreement. Indeed, within months of the conclusion of the conference, the newly formed coalition government of Laos led by the 'centrist' Suvanna Phuma collapsed, followed by a series of coups and counter-coups, and eventually a civil war. Against all the efforts of the US and its allies, Thailand in particular, through the infamous 'secret war in Laos' to prevent the takeover by the Communists, Laos was eventually 'liberated' in December 1975, following Cambodia and Vietnam and became a socialist state.
Drawing mainly upon the British archival materials, Britain and the Neutralisation of Laos by Professor Nicholas Tarling is a study of the role, and anxiety, of the British in the making of the second Geneva conference of 1961-2 on the Laos crisis from its inception to its conclusion. It gives a detailed account of the conflicting political interests and agenda, hence conflicting stances and attitudes, of all major and lesser powers concerned; the almost impossible task of the negotiations for a coalition government of Laos which was a pre-condition of the conference agreement; the almost day-to-day reports of lobbying, arguing, and debating on major and minor points among the powers during the conference sessions, and outside: in London...