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LAOS: Kaysone – Big in Life, Bigger in Death

Analysis - Andrew Nette

VIENTIANE, Mar 27 1996 (IPS) - Three years after his death, Kaysone Phomvihane’s portraits still hang on walls of government offices and soup shops in Laos, a sign of the ex-president’s enduring influence on a country that is ever so gradually shedding its Marxist ideology.

Kaysone dominated Lao politics for nearly 40 years. He led the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) from its founding in 1955 until his death in 1992, and was prime minister of Laos until 1991, after which he was elected to the powerful position of state president.

Now the government is trying to mobilise his legacy as part of its drive to replace Marxism with an ideology that promotes Lao culture and can withstand the pressures caused by the country’s rapid integration into the global economy.

The party also wants to use his memory as a unifying force at a time when the government is trying to consolidate its political leadership against potential instability.

Although the LPRP started embracing free market reforms and a more outward-looking foreign policy in its fifth congress 1991, the party in its sixth congress, while not completely reversing course, chose to emphasise the perceived dangers stemming from the open door policy.

At the same time, the draft resolution of the sixth congress held last week, praised Kaysone as the “respected and beloved leader, the initiator of the renovation cause”.

“President Kaysone remains strong in Lao people’s memory,” ran a front-page headline in the ‘Vientiane Times’ on what would have been his 75th birthday last Dec 13. The paper proclaimed him “a statesman, whose revolutionary conduct, invaluable revolutionary experience and work-style were inspiring.”

Kaysone’s works were serialised throughout 1995 in the party daily ‘Pasason’. Also, the government inaugurated a Kaysone museum, shrines to him are being erected throughout the country, and several official biographies are said to be in the works.

“There is a drive to celebrate Kaysone’s life and identify it with the achievements of the current regime,” says Grant Evans, an Australian academic who has written extensively on Laos. “The question is whether it will get off the ground.”

Sisana Sisane, 73, the party’s official historian, elder statesman and close associate of Kaysone said: “He knew how to mix the benefits of private and the collective economics. He understood what was good for the people, and he could get their cooperation…I will tell you the truth. It is very difficult to find people like him in Laos.”

It was on a hot November day when 30,000 people assembled at the capital’s That Luang Square to pay their last respects to Kaysone. Old comrades and political foes gathered for the funeral.

Born in Savannakhet in 1920, his mother was Lao and his father a Vietnamese civil servant. After secondary school he studied law in Hanoi, dropping out in 1945 to return to Laos where he joined the revolutionary forces.

He spent the late 1940s organising southern Laos against French and Japanese occupation forces, during which time he formed links with the Vietminh, and was one of the first Lao recruits to the Indochina Communist Party.

Kaysone, who spent the war directing Pathet Lao forces from caves in the remote northern province of Sam Neua, emerged in public for the first time at a diplomatic reception in Vientiane on December 5, 1975, two days after Laos declared independence.

Even in power, Kaysone remained shrouded in mystery. From 1975 until his death, he lived secluded in the former United States Agency for International Development (USAID) compound in Vientiane.

With the exception of a few trips to France, Japan and Thailand, he rarely travelled outside the former Soviet bloc, and gave few interviews.

Now a museum, the single-storey ranch house which served as Kaysone’s quarters, resembles a small piece of mid-50s America, with its screened-in porches and crew-cut lawn. A tea set, reading glasses and a stack of neatly-filed documents lies on what used to be his desk, along with a row of taped conversations conducted with various experts, and a metal bust of Lenin.

Thelounge has American-inspired furnishings, possibly belonging to its original occupants. Texts on Marxism dominate a large bookshelf, and a grand lacquer portrait of the Lao leader sitting with Ho Chi Minh hangs on one of the walls.

The current push to elevate Kaysone makes little mention of his social politics. The architect of Laos’ disastrous experiment in collectivisation, he remained a staunch revolutionary until his death.

At a meeting of party officials in July 1992, he claimed imperialist forces had waged “a victory without guns” against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and accused them of pursuing “peaceful covert warfare” against the regime in Vientiane.

Yet despite his reputation as a hardliner, Kaysone was above all a pragmatist, a trait characteristic of most of the LPRP leadership. “He was an old-fashioned cultural nationalist..old fashioned and tough,” said Evans.

At a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly at the end of 1979, Kaysone admitted the party had made mistakes and that social transformation had not taken into account Lao conditions. He then engineered a gradual retreat from Marxism and introduced economic reforms, predating similar shifts in Vietnam and the Soviet Union by nearly a decade.

“They had done it that way in the other socialist countries and I thought I understood how it should be done,” said Kaysone of the old policy during a rare interview with Evans. “So we tried it here. It worked in some situations, but not in others. Then (in 1979) we had to slow down and change direction.”

Kaysone, who spoke French and English, in addition to Vietnamese and his native Lao, read widely. “He would actively research his topics, including the lessons of capitalist countries, he read that too,” recalled Sisana.

“Kaysone was an intelligent man,” recalls one foreigner who met him. “He tried to think through issues. He was restricted by a certain Marxist Leninist framework, but at least he was trying to work out what a lot of political and economic changes meant in the Lao context.”

Kaysone was also a shrewd foreign policymaker. Despite his commitment to Laos’ alliance with Hanoi, he tried to steer a middle course through the Sino-Vietnamese conflict which engulfed Indochina after the overthrow of Pol Pot in 1979. He criticised the “narrow-minded nationalism” of the major players, and made several attempts at mediating between the two.

Indeed, that Vientiane never experienced the complete fall-out in relations with Beijing that Hanoi did was largely due to his efforts.

After the withdrawal of the last Vietnamese advisers from Laos in 1987, he quickly made up for lost time by resuming full aid and diplomatic ties with China, engaging in a rapid detente with Thailand and initiating a policy of strengthening bilateral relations with individual states of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Current leaders, who are keen to see Laos become a member of ASEAN next year, may be hoping to use his memory to soften the blow of the economic, if not political reforms, that they began in 1991, but are now seemingly less eager to pursue.

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