Although archaeological evidence indicates that settlers along the Mekong had learned agriculture, metallurgy, and pottery making by 3000 BC , little is known about the early history of the land that today bears the name of Laos. The lowland Lao are believed to be the descendants of Thai tribes that were pushed southward in the 8th century. According to tradition, the kingdom called Lan Xang ("a million elephants") was established in 756 by King Thao Khoun Lo. In 1353, it was reunified by Fa-Ngoum, who had been raised at the court of Angkor in Kampuchea and returned with a force of Khmer troops. He is also credited with the introduction of Hinayana Buddhism into Laos. Lan Xang waged intermittent wars with the Khmers, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai and developed an effective administrative system, an elaborate military organization, and an active commerce with neighboring countries. In 1707, internal dissensions brought about a split of Lan Xang into two kingdoms, Luangphrabang in the north (present-day upper Laos) and Vientiane in the south (lower Laos). Strong neighboring states took advantage of this split to invade the region. Vientiane was overrun and annexed by Siam (Thailand) in 1828, while Luangphrabang became a vassal of both the Chinese and the Vietnamese. In 1893, France, which had already established a protectorate over what is now central and northern Vietnam, extended its control to both Vientiane and Luangphrabang, and Laos was ruled by France as part of Indochina. Although French control over Luangphrabang took the nominal form of a protectorate, the French colonial administration directly ruled the rest of Laos, legal justification being ultimately provided in the Lao-French convention of 1917.
During World War II, Laos was occupied by Japan. After the Japanese proclaimed on 10 March 1945 that "the colonial status of Indochina has ended," the king of Luangphrabang, Sisavang Vong, was compelled to issue a declaration of independence. The nationalist Free Lao (Lao Issarak) movement deposed the monarch soon after, but French forces reoccupied Laos, and on 27 August 1946, France concluded an agreement establishing him as king of Laos and reimposing French domination over the country. In May 1947, the king established a constitution providing for a democratic government. On 19 July 1949, Laos nominally became an independent sovereign state within the French Union. Additional conventions transferring full sovereignty to Laos were signed on 6 February 1950 and on 22 October 1953. All special economic ties with France and the other Indochinese states were abolished by the Paris pacts of 29 December 1954. In the meantime, Vietnamese Communist (Viet-Minh) forces had invaded Laos in the spring of 1953. A Laotian Communist movement, the Pathet Lao (Lao State), created on 13 August 1950 and led by Prince Souphanouvong, collaborated with the Viet-Minh during its Laotian offensive. Under the Geneva cease-fire of 21 July 1954, all Viet-Minh and most French troops were to withdraw, and the Pathet Lao was to pull back to two northern provinces, pending reunification talks with the national government under the leadership of Souvanna Phouma (Souphanouvong's half-brother). The negotiations were completed on 2 November 1957, and the Pathet Lao transformed itself into a legal political party called the National Political Front (Neo Lao Hak Xat). However, a political swing to the right that led to the ouster of Souvanna Phouma as prime minister, coupled with the refusal of the Pathet Lao forces to integrate into the Royal Lao Army, led to a renewal of fighting in May 1959.
A bloodless right-wing coup in January 1960 was answered in August by a coup led by paratroops, under the command of Capt. Kong Le; in the ensuing turmoil, Souvanna Phouma returned to power. After a three-day artillery battle that destroyed much of Vientiane, right-wing military elements under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan and Prince Boun Oum occupied the capital on 11 December. A new right-wing government under Prince Boun Oum was established, but further military reverses, despite a heavy influx of US aid and advisers, caused the government to ask for a cease-fire in May 1961. An international conference assembled in Geneva to guarantee the cease-fire. All three Laotian political factions agreed on 11 June 1962 to accept a coalition government, with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister. On 23 July, the powers assembled at Geneva signed an agreement on the independence and neutrality of Laos, which provided for the evacuation of all foreign forces by 7 October. The United States announced full compliance, under supervision of the International Control Commission (ICC), set up in 1954. Communist forces were not withdrawn. Fighting resumed in the spring of 1963, and Laos was steadily drawn into the role of a main theater in the escalating Vietnam war. The Laotian segment of the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail emerged as a vital route for troops and supplies moving south from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), also known as North Vietnam, and was the target for heavy and persistent US bombing raids. While the Vientiane government was heavily bolstered by US military and economic support, the Pathet Lao received key support from the DRV, which was reported to have 20,000 troops stationed in Laos by 1974. Efforts to negotiate a settlement in Laos resumed with US backing in 1971, but a settlement was not concluded until February 1973, a month after a Vietnam peace agreement was signed in Paris. On 5 April 1974, a new coalition government was set up, with equal representation for Pathet Lao and non-Communist elements. Souvanna Phouma, 73 years old and in failing health, stayed on as prime minister, while Prince Souphanouvong was brought closer to the center of political authority as head of the newly created Joint National Political Council.
The Pathet Lao had by this time asserted its control over three-fourths of the national territory. Following the fall of the US-backed regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia in April 1975, the Laotian Communists embarked on a campaign to achieve complete military and political supremacy in Laos. On 23 August, Vientiane was declared "liberated" by the Pathet Lao, whose effective control of Laos was thereby secured. On 2 December 1975, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established, with Prince Souphanouvong as president and Kaysone Phomvihan as prime minister. King Savang Vatthana abdicated his throne, ending the monarchy that had survived in Laos for 622 years. Elections for a new National Assembly were called for April 1976; however, voting was put off indefinitely, amid reports of civil unrest and sabotage. A Supreme People's Council was convened, meanwhile, with Prince Souphanouvong as chairman, and was charged with the task of drafting a new constitution.
During the late 1970s, the Communists moved to consolidate their control and socialize the economy. Private trade was banned, factories were nationalized, and forcible collectivization of agriculture was initiated. "Reeducation" camps for an estimated 40,000 former royalists and military leaders were established in remote areas; as of 1986, the government maintained that almost all the inmates had been released, but Amnesty International claimed that about 5,000 remained. A 25-year friendship treaty with Vietnam, signed in July 1977, led to closer relations with that country (already signaled by the continued presence in Laos of Vietnamese troops) and with the former USSR, and also to the subsequent dismissal from Laos of all Chinese technicians and advisers. China, for its part, began to give support and training to several small antigovernment guerrilla groups. With the economy in 1979 near collapse, in part because of severe drought in 1977 and flooding in 1978, the Laotian government slowed the process of socialization and announced a return to private enterprise and a readiness to accept aid from the non-Communist world. Throughout the 1980s armed opposition to the government persisted, particularly from the Hmong hill tribe rebels. At the Fourth Party Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), in December 1986, a "new economic management mechanism" (NEM) was set up, aiming at granting increased autonomy in the management of formerly state-run enterprises to the private sector.
In 1988 the Lao national legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), adopted new election laws and the first elections since the formation of the LPDR in 1975 were held. Local and provincial elections were held in 1988, and on 27 March 1989 national elections took place for an enlarged Supreme People's Assembly. In March 1991 the Fifth Party Congress of the LPRP changed Kaysone Phomvihan's title from prime minister to president, elected a new 11-member politburo, pledged to continue economic reforms in line with free-market principles while denying the need for political pluralism, and changed the national motto by substituting the words "democracy and prosperity" for "socialism." The newly elected SPA drafted a constitution adopted on 14 August 1991. The constitution provided for a national assembly functioning on principles of "democratic centralism," established the LPRP as the political system's "leading organ," created a presidency with executive powers, and mandated a market-oriented economy with rights of private ownership.
President Kaysone Phomvihan, longtime LPRP leader, died on 21 November 1992. A special session of parliament on 24 November 1992 elected hard-line Communist Nouhak Phoumsavan as the next president. Gen. Khamtai Suphandon, who had been prime minister since 15 August 1991, remained in that post. National Assembly elections were held in December 1992. One day before these elections, three former officials who called for a multiparty democracy and had been detained in 1990 were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. The National Assembly convened in February 1993 and approved government reorganization designed to improve public administration. On 9 January 1995, longtime leader Prince Souphanouvong died, unofficially marking an end to Laos' long dalliance with hard-line Marxism. Although the NEM had initiated an opening up to international investment and improved relations with the rest of the world, there remained elements of the old guard in positions of power. With the death of Souphanouvong, the only old-time hard-line Marxist still in power as of 1996 was the country's president, Nouhak Phoumsavan. Khamtai Siphandon, prime minister and party chief, was more powerful than Nouhak and is largely credited with exerting a moderating influence on the hardliner. Nonetheless, there remains a strongly conservative mindset among the politboro members that still pulls the government back from economic flexibility or any hint of political liberalization.
Laos has actively improved its already "special relations" with Vietnam and Cambodia, while always seeking to improve relations with Thailand, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the United States. Periodic meetings are held to promote the cooperative development of the Mekong River region by Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Laos and the People's Republic of China restored full diplomatic relations in 1989 and are now full-fledged trading partners. Mutual suspicions, characterizing the relationship between Laos and Thailand, improved with agreements to withdraw troops and resolve border disputes, and agreements between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to repatriate or resettle nearly 60,000 Lao refugees in Thailand. Laos has cooperated with the United States in recovering the remains of US soldiers missing in action in Laos since the Vietnam War and in efforts to suppress drug-trafficking. The US Department of State objects to Laos' restrictions on free speech, freedom of assembly and religious freedom. US Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth commented in March 2000 that Laos is unlikely to gain Most Favored Nation trading status unless it accounts for the fate of two naturalized US citizens, Hmong activists who disappeared in Laos during 1999. The debate over whether to grant Laos normal trade relations status was ongoing as of early 2003.
On 26 February 1998, Khamtai Siphandon was elected president, and he was reelected in March 2001. Beginning in 2000, Vientiane was hit by a series of bomb blasts, attributed to anti-government groups based abroad. Beginning in the late 1990s, tensions emerged between rival groups of ethnic Hmong in the highlands. Triggered by Thailand's closing of refugee camps on its side of the Laos-Thai border, tens of thousands of exiles were forced to return home. Most were expected to be jailed or executed for their anti-government activities, but instead, the government encouraged their peaceful settlement among the lowland population. Certain right-wing guerrilla factions among the Hmong, long fighting the Pathet Lao, subsequently reacted violently to the government's pacification efforts to integrate moderate Hmong villagers. On 6 February 2003 near Vang Vieng, a bus and 2 Western bicyclers were attacked by gunmen, who killed twelve people. Militant Hmong were blamed for the attack.
On 24 February 2002, parliamentary elections were held, but all but one of the 166 candidates were from the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The LPRP won 108 of 109 seats in the National Assembly.