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Kaysone: the man behind the bamboo curtain

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When Lao prime minister and communist leader Kaysone Phomvihane died in 1992, party leaders commissioned 150 bronze statues of him, which have since been erected in pavilions across the country. Whether these busts are a faithful portrayal of Kaysone remains irrelevant to most Lao, since from 1958 until 1975, the leader of the People’s Revolutionary Party was rarely seen in public. Only now that the state has begun remaking itself in his image is the cloud of secrecy surrounding him dissipating, but the lack of biographical details about his life makes it difficult to discern the private Kaysone from the state-cultivated one.

What is known is that Kaysone was born in Savannakhet in 1920, the only son of a Vietnamese civil servant father and a Lao mother. As a teenager he left for Hanoi, where he studied at a law school under the name of Nguyen Tri Quoc before dropping out to devote himself to the life of a revolutionary. By 1945, he had attracted the attention of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who instructed him to return home and infiltrate a Lao nationalist movement supported by the American Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA.

Later that year, Kaysone and his followers deferred to the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong, whom he followed to Bangkok after the French returned to power in 1946. Soon after, Kaysone joined the newly formed Committee for Resistance in the East, coordinating anti-French guerrilla raids along the Lao–Vietnamese border and responsible for liaisons with the Viet Minh, a tie that was to earn him the trust of the North Vietnamese, who eventually recruited him into the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). After training at the Viet Minh’s military academy, Kaysone became commander of the Latsavong brigade, the guerrilla unit in southeastern Laos that marked the beginnings of the Lao People’s Liberation Army. By 1950, Kaysone had been named defence minister in the Pathet Lao resistance government, where he spent four years recruiting and training members for the Pathet Lao’s fighting force, of which he formally became commander in 1954. When the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party formed in 1955, Kaysone became secretary general – a post he would hold for the next 37 years. His control of the revolutionary movement was further solidified in 1959 when Souphanouvong and other Pathet Lao leaders were jailed in Vientiane. Though Kaysone relinquished his post as commander of the army in 1962, he continued to direct military strategy until the end of the Thirty Year Struggle in 1975.

It was only fitting that Kaysone – a man who disdained the perquisites of military rank, indeed who was never even referred to by rank – should emerge as the first prime minister of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in December 1975. For the next seventeen years, Kaysone firmly held the reins of power in Laos and, among diplomats, earned a reputation as a clever man, eager to learn and willing to acknowledge his mistakes. He earned praise for ditching botched policies and initiating economic reforms, and by the time of his death at the age of 72, Kaysone’s Laos hardly fitted the mould of a typical socialist country at all.

Since his death, the image of Kaysone’s greying hair and full face has been employed by a party reaching out for symbols of nationalism. But more striking than the party’s decision to transform Kaysone into a “man of the people”, who relished simple food, are the pedestals upon which his bust has been placed. Shaded by red and gold pavilions topped by tiered parasols, Kaysone’s monuments exude something of the regal splendour once reserved for the Theravada Buddhist monarchs who ruled over the kingdom of Lane Xang.

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