Nouhak Phoumsavanh, former president of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, died of old age on 9 September. He was 94. Along with the late Kaysone Phomvihan and Prince Souphanouvong, both of whom (in reverse order) held the presidency before him, Nouhak was one the three principal leaders of the Lao revolution that succeeded in overthrowing the former Royal Lao regime in December 1975, after 30 years of civil war.
Nouhak was born in Mukdahan on 9 April 1914, but moved to Savannakhet as a young man where he found work as a truck driver. In 1941 he established his own trucking business, operating between Laos and Vietnam, where he was recruited by the Vietminh. After 1945 Nouhak made contact with Souphanouvong, and represented the Lao Issara, the nationalist Free Lao movement, in Hanoi. With the outbreak of the First Indochina War, Nouhak directed guerrilla activities in close coordination with the Vietminh along the mountainous Lao-Vietnamese border.
Nouhak joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1950 prior to the Congress of the Free Laos Front that followed the division and dissolution of the Lao Issara. He was named minister for the economy and finance in the Pathet Lao (Lao country, or nation) Resistance Government elected by the Congress. Nouhak represented the PL at the 1954 Geneva Conference that brought the First Indochina War to an end.
With the founding of the secret Lao People’s Party in 1955, Nouhak was ranked second after Kaysone in the seven-member Politburo. He was also prominent in the Lao Patriotic Front that served as a screen for LPP direction and activities. After the formation of the First Lao Coalition Government in 1957, Nouhak was elected deputy from Sam Neua in the National Assembly. In 1959 he spent ten months in prison in Vientiane accused along with other PL representatives of treason, until escaping with them to carry on the revolutionary struggle.
For the next 15 years, Nouhak, like Kaysone, remained a shadowy figure, providing political direction for the Pathet Lao. At the Second Congress of the LPP in 1972, when the Party changed its name to the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, Nouhak retained his second ranking in the Politburo. He only emerged as a public figure after 1975, when he took charge of the economy portfolio in the first government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
For the next ten years Nouhak enforced the socialist economic policies that first nationalised finance and industry, and then attempted to cooperativise Lao agriculture. As economic conditions deteriorated, the more stringent controls over movement of goods and prices were lifted, and cooperativisation was abandoned. But it was not enough. Under Soviet urging, the LPRP agreed to free up markets, allow foreign investment, and accept more aid from the West. Kaysone championed these reforms, which Nouhak opposed.
Nouhak’s standing as number two in the Party was too great for him to be sidelined. However he did surrender his ministerial position (he was deputy prime minister with oversight of all economic ministries), and in 1989 ran for election to the National Assembly. As Assembly president Nouhak shepherded through the LPDR’s first constitution. When Kaysone died in 1992, Nouhak was the obvious choice to succeed him. He did not, however, become Party leader. That position went to General Khamtay Siphandon.
Nouhak remained president of the LPDR until 1998, when he retired from both the presidency and the Party. Even in old age, however, he retained his influence, and was regularly consulted by the next generation of leaders. He remained in remarkably good health almost to the end of his days, and enjoyed reminiscing about his achievements. Nouhak will be remembered as a tough and dedicated communist who was a leading figure among the small band of Lao revolutionaries who changed the direction of Lao history – even if the current Lao social and economic reality was not what they envisaged.
Martin Stuart-Fox is a retired Professor of History at the University of Queensland