- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

BANGKOK Having liquidated its last monarch at the end of the Vietnam War, communist Laos has resurrected a 14th-century king to unify peasants and other opponents of the current regime.
By reaching back 650 years to King Fa Ngum, the Laotian government hopes to inspire nationalism in the tiny, landlocked, reclusive country.
Communist officials declared a nationwide holiday Jan. 5 to mark the unveiling of a larger-than-life statue of King Fa Ngum at Three-Headed Elephant Park in Vientiane, the sleepy capital of Laos.
Thousands of people, including saffron-robed Buddhist monks, uniformed officials and ordinary people, flocked to the park where they deposited simple offerings and prayed before the statue.
Raising a statue to the long-dead the king is not expected to result in major policy changes or any role for the deposed monarchy.
During the 1970s, while communist Pathet Lao guerrillas resisted the CIA's "secret war," King Savang Vatthana sat on the throne and was a target of charges that he had sold out to Washington.
The king, crowned in 1959, was arrested with his family in 1977, two years after the communists seized power. They were never seen again and are believed to have died in a rural prison.
Today, some anti-communist Laotians, mostly based overseas, are pushing for enthronement of Prince Soulivong Savang, the eldest grandson of King Savang. Now in his late 30s, the prince favors a constitutional monarchy and has asked the United States to "negotiate a transition to democracy."
Laotian officials, however, have more pressing concerns.
Laos, a country the size of Utah, is one of the poorest nations on earth, rife with illegal opium production and seeded with thousands of unexploded American bombs left from the war that still kill civilians each year.
The intense U.S. aerial bombardment of Laos from 1964 to 1973 was said to be equivalent to the combined total detonations over Europe during World War II.
The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane says it was "some of the heaviest aerial bombardment in world history … more than 2 million tons of ordnance fell on Lao territory."
King Fa Ngum, safely buried in myth-laden history, was perceived by officials as a easy choice to symbolize Laotian pride.
"More than six centuries ago, during the time of King Fa Ngum, our ancestors founded the unified Lane Xang nation and built it into a prosperous land," says the preamble of the Laotian Constitution.
Lane Xang was the fabled "Kingdom of a Million Elephants" that extended south from China to the lower Mekong River, and included parts of what are today Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. But in the early 1700s, its royal family split into rival clans and ultimately ripped the nation apart.
During the last half of the 20th century, Laos' squabbling kings and princes were often encouraged by the United States, France and the communists to lead warring factions. Some of those rivals still lurk behind the empty throne.
Gen. Vang Pao, for example, was the CIA's main warlord during the 1960s and early 1970s, and led minority ethnic Hmong tribesmen against the communist rebels. He has been accused of raising money during the war by smuggling opium on the side, a charge he denies.
Today, Gen. Pao is based in America, but still leads some anti-communists.
"There is an heir to the throne of Laos currently living in France," Gen. Pao has said, referring to Prince Soulivong.
"He should be brought back to be the rightful king, and the royal family would be above politics to better protect all citizens of Laos," Gen. Pao said.
From France, the exiled royal family said it aspires "to fully take part in the change process, which could consist in the reconciliation and unification of all Lao ethnic groups, of the Lao people outside the country and those inside the country, under a regime of peace and freedom."
They said: "The Lao identity has always been linked to the Lao royal family, with its culture and its traditions."
Their offer of royal leadership is widely expected to be ignored by the ruling communists, who seem to be using King Fa Ngum's legacy for their own purposes.
"The king's spirit is being resurrected just in time before Laos's identity further fades into the Thai orbit of cultural supremacy," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai studies lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"The Thai impact has been highly palpable in Lao society, ranging from the prevailing Thai language, Thai television programs and music, and the wide circulation of Thai currency," Mr. Pavin wrote in an analysis published this month.
"Laotians continue to be perceived by the Thais as a backward and culturally retarded people, partly because they lacked a monarchical institution to inspire and hold them together," he wrote.
"This explains why the Lao people pay obeisance to His Majesty the King of Thailand as a substitute for their missing monarch, and why pictures of the [Thai] king adorn many private Lao walls," Mr. Pavin said.
After seeing ubiquitous posters of Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej pasted in the homes and shops of many Laotians, the communists apparently thought it would be a good idea to focus attention on a Lao king.
This month's ceremony was the first time the communist regime celebrated any aspect of the monarchy it toppled in 1975.

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