It seems like it’s yesterday once more, as news reports remind us that 50 years ago this month, the Beatles first visited America. The Fab Four played on the hit Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, and graced the covers and front pages of leading newspapers and magazines.
That same year, another figure, who happened to be from Southeast Asia, also landed on the cover of Time magazine. He did not make as big a splash as John, Paul, George and Ringo, but Captain Kong Le, a soldier from Muong Phalan village, just east of Savannakhet in southern Laos, certainly got his 15 minutes of fame.
The saga of this poor ethnic minority kid with no family name, who lost his father when he was 10, but became one of Laos’s most powerful leaders in the 1960s, got some attention in recent weeks, and not just because he died last month at age 80 in France.
Rather, at a time when superpower America and Asian giants China and Japan were vying for clout and allies in the region, Kong Le’s admirable but ultimately doomed attempt to steer Laos toward neutrality amid the all-consuming US-Soviet Cold War, demonstrated just how hard it is to stay on the geopolitical fence between powerful rivals.
Man in the middle
Kong Le still tried to steer Laos into the middle road between warring camps, and that propelled him to prominence among Washington security wonks and American media. Much like newly reforming Myanmar today, ‘neutralist’ Laos assumed importance to America half a century ago, as a bulwark between communist China and North Vietnam and the free world of Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.
The staunchly neutralist Captain Kong Le also supported that view, and hence, albeit briefly, became an American pin-up boy. How did he do it?
Well, after leaving his village, Kong Le joined the army, knuckled down and impressed his superiors. So much so that after fighting in northern Laos against the communist Viet Minh, the North Vietnamese forces seeking to conquer the US-aligned south, Kong Le was sent for officer training to the Philippine Military Academy at Fort Gregorio del Pilar in Baguio City.
Promoted to the rank of captain upon his return home, the PMA graduate became deputy commander of the powerful Second Parachute Battalion. Still, that wasn’t how Kong Le landed on the cover of Time. He had to do one more thing: mount a coup.
At that time, rather like Cambodia and Thailand today, Laos was racked by conflicts between rival political factions, who would not compromise and were backed by rich and powerful interests. Saddened at how his compatriots were decimating one another, Captain Kong Le, then only 26, took decisive action.
From backwater to battleground
On August 9, 1960, when Prime Minister Phoui Sananikone had taken his ministers to the ancient royal capital Luang Prabang for a cabinet meeting, Kong Le led his men in a power grab in the seat of government Vientiane. Sounding a little like a latter day Aung San, Burma’s 1940s army chief-turned-independence leader, the headstrong putschist Kong Le declared: “I am for Laos and the Lao people, for honesty and purity, and against corruption.”
He installed the neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma as prime minister and assumed command of the armed forces himself. But that wasn’t good enough for the Thais and the Americans. They wanted a pro-Western leader in charge in Vientiane. If you’re not with me, you’re against me, or could be so in time.
Washington and Bangkok also viewed Souvanna as a closet communist friendly with the Pathet Lao reds, and were aghast at Kong Le’s coup. They promptly arranged to transfer gold and supplies to the PM’s opponents, led by Colonel Phoumi Nosavan.
After being initially repulsed by Kong Le’s forces, the US-backed Colonel Phoumi eventually prevailed. Souvanna was deposed and a rightwing regime installed. Years later, Christian Chapman, the US diplomat handling Laos at the time, said: “It was one of the more shameful acts of the American government.”
Shameful, and rather stupid, because, like most Lao governments of the day, Souvanna’s rule did not last long. A year later, another ostensibly neutralist regime under Souvanna Phouma took over, and Kong Le, now a general, was reappointed head of the armed forces. And this time, the comeback premier had every reason to link up with the communist Pathet Lao against Thailand and the US, which deposed him the previous year.
Soon afterwards, on June 26, 1964, military chief Kong Le appeared on the cover of Time—no mean feat, since the magazine was relied on around the world at the time for substantive coverage, enjoying huge global sales and influence.
Sad lesson for neutralists
But as often happened, the neutralist coalition Kong Le favored to keep Laos unaligned proved unsustainable. After it collapsed, he endured several assassination attempts. Knowing there was a bullet with his name on it, he wisely fled, first to America, then Paris, where the octogenarian died last month.
The Lao patriot failed in his bid to seek a middle way, a tolerant neutralist position. Today, Laos is governed by the region’s most repressive and undemocratic regime. It is an outcome that the intolerant protesters convulsing Bangkok and Phnom Penh should bear in mind.
And as Asean ponders whether it can ever achieve its decades-old avowed dream to become a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality amid the escalating test of wills between China and America plus Japan, its leaders would do well to remember the failed aspirations of Captain Kong Le.
(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)