167. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State1

1237. Since occidental mind persists in illusion that we can explain things that happen in Laos, I will attempt in this message to reconstruct some sort of explanation for events of past week. I will also speculate somewhat on probable events for next week. However, in general, I feel it unproductive to consider things Laotian in time span much longer than from Sunday to Sunday.

It now seems clear in retrospect that Bounleut action which began January 31 was protest action mounted quite independently of Phoumi-Siho coup effort. Bounleut, who is fairly decent type, but not too bright, had for some time past indicated his desire to break out of vicious circle of power politics and corruption afflicting army-police relationships in Vientiane (ARMA CX–13).2 Bounleut, having received much sympathetic [Page 336] attention to his complaints, apparently assumed he had widespread support, and therefore appeared genuinely confused when his effort fizzled.

Phoumi, who had been secretly nurturing his plans for a comeback coup during the past several weeks, saw in Bounleut’s action an opportunity to precipitate his plans. His basic miscalculations were twofold: (1) he did not have adequate forces loyal to him and (2) he underestimated willingness of ability of Ouane-Kouprasith forces to fight when challenged.

Siho, whom Phoumi had been attempting to tease into collaboration over several months, sought continually to maintain an independent position, hoping to move in after Phoumi and Kouprasith forces had exhausted each other or stalemated. He was, however, frustrated in this purpose by fact that Kouprasith, who has long borne unyielding enmity towards Siho, chose to shove Siho’s forces into Phoumi’s arms and take care of both of them simultaneously. Despite callous unconcern for civilian population in which Ouane-Kouprasith forces carried this out, one has to admit that their tactics were sound and their forces surprisingly effective.

Souvanna, ever since April 19, has had to balance himself between Kouprasith’s forces representing the Sananikones and Siho’s forces, representing an unknown and volatile quantity, constantly susceptible to Phoumi’s intrigue. In his actions during late December and January, culminating in military conference at Luang Prabang January 13–14, Souvanna clearly chose to throw in his lot with Ouane and Kouprasith, obviously choosing the devil he knew rather than chance his future in collaboration with Siho. The firmness of the resolve is indicated by the grim tenacity with which Souvanna pursued and directed the annihilation of Phoumi-Siho forces during the fighting February 3.

Immediate military problem now is to assure that organization which Souvanna endorses under leadership Ouane and Kouprasith can indeed assert its authority over FAR officers, most of whom derived their original strength from Phoumi. Even such patriotic professionals as Phasouk and Vang Pao retain sentimental attachment to Phoumi and have expressed reluctance submit themselves “to Kouprasith.” Unless Souvanna can completely isolate Phoumi from contact with these men he will continue to have trouble within his military structure. Most serious kernel of trouble still unresolved on military side is problem of Kham-khong, who with his region II forces in immediate vicinity Vientiane, remains a critical threat to this capital. Souvanna has asked our assist-ance in treating with this problem and we are providing it in low key. A long trip abroad for Khamkhong is one solution under consideration.

Immediate political problem for Souvanna consists of need for reconstituting conservative political wing. This has always been a coalition [Page 337] of families, regions and military forces. Its strength in the south can still be centered on Prince Boun Oum. Its strength in the center is now very largely in the hands of the Sananikones. Souvanna says he will attempt to bring Boun Oum into government. I thoroughly doubt Boun Oum will accept any such subordinate position. However he may designate some representative such as Leuam Insisiengmay to handle his interests and be his spokesman in coalition with the Sananikones. It will be recalled (Embtel 965)3 that Phoui Sananikone gave me his solemn assurance that the Sananikone family would not seek to upset Souvanna Phouma. I therefore believe we can count upon loyal acceptance of ostensibly subordinate role by Sananikones within framework of Souvanna government.

However, early next week I intend call on Phoui Sananikone, remind him of his previous statements and ask that he use his influence with Kouprasith to establish similar moderation in Sananikone dominance of armed forces. Kouprasith is already showing signs that he recognizes need for this moderation, at least tactically and for the time being. Nevertheless, he is an ambitious young man and we will have a constant problem reining in his future ambitions.

As I said at the outset of this message, I do not intend look beyond next Sunday in prognosis for things to come. However, I would venture the estimate that this coming week will be somewhat calmer than the week just past.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 23–9 LAOS. Confidential; Priority. Repeated to Bangkok, Canberra, Hong Kong, London, Moscow, New Delhi, Ottawa, Paris, Phnom Penh, Saigon, and CINCPAC for POLAD.
  2. Dated January 8. (Department of Defense, OSD Historical Office, Secretary of Defense’s Cable Files, Laos, Jan-Mar 1965)
  3. Dated December 29. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 15–1 LAOS)