Education in Laos (Part II) – Parallel education systems during the Lao Civil War (1954 -1975)

All Posts, Laos

Introduction and historical background

After Part I of the series about education in Laos described the beginning of a formalized school system in Laos, this second background article focuses on the two parallel education systems which were implemented in Laos between the Lao independence from France in 1954 and the Pathet Lao communist coup in 1975.

To understand why two education systems were developed during that time, it is important to take a look at the political and military circumstances in the 1950s and the following decades.

During the Japanese occupation of Laos in World War II, the independence movement Lao Issara (which means “Free Laos”) was established. After the Japanese withdrew in 1945, the movement seized power. But just one year later, early in 1946, the French re-occupied Laos and the Lao Issara was forced to continue its attempts to liberate Laos with underground guerilla actions. As from 1949, the Lao Issara began to be divided on the question of how to deal with the communist Viet Minh in neighbouring Vietnam. Resulting from this dispute, the Pathet Lao (“Lao Nation” or “Land of the Lao”) was founded, a communist resistance group with strong links to the Vietnamese communist groups, while the Lao Issara still continued to exist as the less extreme political movement. By and by, guerilla warfare began to expand between those two groups, whilst both were still fighting against French occupation. By 1953, the Pathet Lao controlled large areas of Laos, and communist forces were also on the rise in Vietnam.

In 1954 an international conference was held in Geneva with all sides involved i.e. the USSR, USA, China, France, the UK, and delegations from what is now Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. The main results of the conference were the full independence of the colony Indochina from France on the one hand and the division of Vietnam into a communist northern part and a right-wing southern part on the other hand. In Laos, power was transferred from the French rulers to the Royal Lao Government (short RLG), which was accepted as the internationally recognized government.

Politically, however, Laos was also divided into two parts – the areas controlled by the Pathet Lao and the RLG. After gaining Lao independence, the Lao Issara had reached its goal – unlike the Pathet Lao, since the country was still a monarchy. This sharpened the political role of Laos as a secondary battlefield between the superpowers of that time: The United States and the Soviet Union. The right-wing RLG was strongly supported by the USA, while the communist Pathet Lao received assistance from the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China. Between 1954 and 1975, both parties, the RLG and the Pathet Lao, had their strongholds countrywide and it was due to this that both parties implemented different education systems.

This period also marks the intensification of the Civil War, mainly influenced by the fighting in Vietnam. This proxy war between the Cold War superpowers is also “known” as the “Secret War” – it went largely unnoticed indeed.

Pathet Lao – Education in the liberated zones

By 1964, the Pathet Lao controlled nearly half of the Lao territory with a third of its population, mainly ethnic minorities in the mountainous and rural areas. With its 49 different ethnic minorities, four linguistic families, and numerous dialects, the Lao language has never served as a first language to the entirety of the people living in Laos. To unify the country, the Pathet Lao made serious efforts to establish Lao as the national language by starting to teach Lao in school.

In 1964, the Pathet Lao authorities reported that over 36,200 children were attending primary schools in the areas controlled by them, which marked a serious improvement compared to the 11,400 primary school pupils in the entire country in 1945. Free schooling, especially for ethnic minorities, led to a growing support of the communist movement by the tribes, as they had been excluded from education by both the French and the Royal Lao government.

International observers noted that the Pathet Lao outperformed the Royal Lao government concerning adult literacy, despite their lack of modern technology in some areas. Due to the strong ties to the communist forces in Vietnam, Vietnamese education philosophy and their education instructors replaced the former French-oriented system. National unity was aspired to by teaching a common language in the schools. Not only the French style of teaching was abandoned, but also the French language:

“They taught us that under the French a French-style of education was taught because they wanted people to love France. But now they taught us that our country was liberated and we have a liberated style of education and education would teach people to love their country. Education was now for everyone, not only for the rich. In the old days education was mainly in the towns and cities. Many villages had no schools. When the Pathet Lao came in they trained many teachers and many more people were educated, though schooling was still not universal.” (Chomsky 2004: 184)

In 1967, the Pathet Lao published the first three-year education plan, which focused on the improvement of primary schooling and adult literacy. Every second village was to have one primary school (grades 1-4) and each province one lower secondary school (grades 5-8). The Pathet Lao aimed to set up a basic education system also for adults, and by 1970, 45 non-formal learning centers had been established.

The second three-year education plan, effective from 1971-1973, built up on these early improvements. After thatthe focus was set on higher education. Before, higher education was only available in Vietnam. By establishing a section for upper secondary teaching at the Teacher Training School in Viengsay, the higher education system was restructured. However, higher education was still dependent on Vietnam, i.e. all textbooks used beyond grade 3 were translations of Vietnamese textbooks.

Although Lao was now the language spoken and written in schools, Vietnamese and Russian were prominent in higher education as foreign languages, as translations were rare and as these were the languages needed to cooperate with the supportive socialist partner states, which also offered scholarships to the communist cadres.

During the Civil War, many Lao from the so-called “liberated zones” studied in the Soviet Union and Vietnam, and military advisors from these countries resided in Laos in order to support the build-up of fighting forces. Some of the Pathet Lao cadres also studied in China or Eastern European states, i.e. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Eastern Germany. Further information on the exchange between the former German Democratic Republic and the Lao PDR can be found in our first article about the Lao-German Technical College, which joined our project a year ago.

Despite the efforts made by the Pathet Lao, the progress in education began to decline again in 1971, due to intensifying aircraft attacks by US warplanes.

With the strategy of the so-called “Vietnamization” policy of Richard Nixon, the US withdrew more and more of their ground-forces from Vietnam, while intensifying the aerial warfare, especially the area bombing. The aim was to hand over the main burden of the war on the ground to the army of South Vietnam, but still with US support from above. Major changes of the US strategy in Vietnam always had its consequences on the Secret War in Laos, as the US area bombing was to stop the supply lines of the Vietnamese forces on the Ho-Chi Minh trail, which used routes through Laos.

Although this strategy never managed to fully stop the supply line, it had a terrible impact on the Lao civilians. A school day in Xiengkhuang province, for instance, lasted only four hours a day, from early morning until 9 o’clock, as everybody had to live in shelter during the day, for nine years. During this period, one quarter to one third of the Lao population turned into refugees, mainly in the Pathet Lao parts of the country. Schools, teaching facilities, and nearly all important infrastructure had to be relocated to less vulnerable places, for example into caves or into the jungle. The former Pathet Lao headquarter in the caves near Vieng Sai in Hua Phan province – which is now a tourist attraction – gave shelter to more than 20,000 people during the “Secret War”.

The necessity of these measures is illustrated by a map of all American air raids between 1965 to 1975, which shows that an air raid took place on average every eight minutes, for 10 years, which turned Laos into the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Despite these adverse circumstances, great achievements in the education sector continued to be made during the war. The Pathet Lao managed to offer basic education to people in those parts of the country which had never been touched by schooling before. As mentioned above, literacy in the Lao language was targeted in primary schools, and community learning centers were established for adults. These achievements indeed led to a community spirit among the different ethnic minorities, to whom Lao was (and still is) not a native language. Between 1964 and 1975, the primary school enrolment rates in the liberated zones nearly tripled, and improvements were also made in lower and upper secondary school enrolment.

 The Royal Lao Government – Education in the official Lao state

The education system in the areas under the control of the RLG was mainly funded, like many other governmental services, by USAID, the official development agency of the USA. As a partner government in the fight against communism, the RLG received huge amounts from USAID, but also from the CIA for the Secret war with Hmong guerilla forces against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops.

France also still had a big impact on education, since the RLG continued the elitist system of French-oriented schooling in Laos. In 1963, 121 out of the 175 Lao citizens from the areas controlled by the RLG who studied abroad were enrolled in French universities. More than 200 teachers from France and only a few Lao ran the eight secondary schools in the areas controlled by the RLG during the mid-1960s, of which three offered the French Baccalauréat as the highest degree. French was still the omnipresent language and culture within the Lao elite, in higher education, and on many levels of administration.

The system implemented by the French colonialists before the Lao independence in 1954 was largely kept up. Only in 1962 a first educational reform aimed to change the schooling system with its underlying philosophy “from an academic institution to a service to the development of the country”. The focus on the French language and culture was accordingly shifted to teaching subjects with relevance to the people’s needs, and in the Lao language, in primary schools, in order to fit education to the needs and lifestyles of the entire Lao population. The RLG now concentrated on the so-called “Laoization” of education, with French textbooks being translated into Lao, supported by USAID. Nevertheless, the entire secondary education system still depended on the French teachers, which is why the RLG were not able to fulfill the Laoization process of education even by the end of the 1970s. The gap between primary and secondary education in the RLG part of the country is outlined in the figure underneath, as the inconsistency of Lao vs. French schooling resulted in enormous dropout rates.

Still progress was made as the rate of adult literacy increased from 10 to 15 % between 1959 and 1965. The gross enrolment rate of the school age population doubled from 15% to 30%. Also, community education was pursued and education programmes in the rural areas aimed to reduce illiteracy. Via a self-help system within the communities, 4,700 classrooms were built until 1973, textbooks were printed and curricula were revised, all supported by USAID. The aim was to provide basic education throughout the RLG part of the country.

However, secondary education still remained low, as indicated in figure 4. As the education system funded by USAID still relied on French structures and support, the USAID agency eventually decided to abolish the elitist French system, because it was unpopular with the broader population, and to follow the role model of the Pathet Lao instead. By building up a new secondary education system with special high schools serving the country’s needs, the USA’s own foothold in Laos was strengthened.

These so-called Fa Ngum high schools were named after prince Chao Fa Ngum, who had united the Lao principalities in the 14th century and was the founder of the Lao kingdom “Lan Xan”. Eight Fa Ngum high schools were built until 1975, focusing on the Laoization of the pupils by teaching in Lao only and by offering courses in agriculture, commerce, home economics, and industrial arts. As in the liberated zones of the Pathet Lao, teacher education and teacher training was also improved, and the subscription rates in teacher training schools rose from 434 in 1958/59 to more than 4,000 in 1972/73.

To sum it up, serious efforts to improve the Lao education system were made within the areas controlled by the RLG and funded by USAID as well. But compared to the Pathet Lao areas, the following difference between these two competitive education systems seems to have made the difference: Trust and political conviction resided on the other side.

Due to the huge amounts of money provided by USAID and the CIA to the RLG and the total dependency of governmental services and wages on this money, corruption increased heavily. A few Lao public servants became considerably wealthy during the war, because they redirected the financial support for the government directly into their own pockets. Since the elitist administration system of the former French colonial rulers was taken over largely by the RLG and the US agencies, Lao society was still divided into two parts: A few wealthy families with Western education in governmental positions on the one hand and a poor majority working as subsistence farmers on the other hand.

During this time, public discontent with the ruling Lao elite and USAID grew likewise. The aid programmes and the military and intelligence actions interdepended, which led to growing Anti-American demonstrations against USAUD throughout the country. In May 1975, the demonstrators occupied the USAID headquarters in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, set the staff under house arrest and urged USAID to leave the country.

The following negotiations led to an agreement between the RLG and USAID, and on the 26th of June 1975, the USAID programmes in Laos ended with the US-American Director leaving the country. Additionally, the total US aid to Laos had been on a decline since 1973, due to the withdrawal from the main battlefield in Vietnam. Thus, wages for civil servants and teachers could not be provided any longer. The RLG was facing a growing shortage of money and trust and was therefore losing their stronghold in Laos.


The late focus on Laoization by USAID was more in line with the Pathet Lao than with the RLG itself. Nevertheless, the lack of trust in the majority of the population, paired with political conviction, and the high dependency on USAID constituted major problems in establishing this alternative education system in Laos. With socialist conviction, the rival education system established by the Pathet Lao, by contrast, was able to motivate the population and the teachers in the liberated zones to directly contribute to the development of the community. Socialist conviction was the main reason why many teachers still worked in public schools even though they did not receive wages, or only fairly small ones, and only irregularly. This conviction held up for a few years after the revolution until everyday life came back after the end of the war, with a vengeance. The people’s needs rose, after years of hardship.

With the seizure of power in a bloodless coup by the Pathet Lao and the proclamation of the “People’s Democratic Republic” on the 2nd of December 1975, the country was reunified – and so was its education system.

The third part of this blog article series will focus on the development of the education system after the 1975 coup. Major challenges needed to be faced, which arose from the heterogeneous conditions throughout Laos. Many civil servants of the former RLG fled the country or were expelled and settled in France, Thailand, the USA and Australia. With them, the learning, skills, and expertise of a highly-trained elite disappeared practically overnight.

Furthermore, the remnants of war, especially the huge number of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), hindered the development: Many areas could not – and cannot up to this day – be used for agriculture, living, or working.

However, following the consolidation of the state in the seventies, some significant efforts and improvements were achieved, resulting in a primary school enrolment rate of 96,8 % in 2012/2013 – schooling for nearly every child in Laos.

And this is where our story begins.

To be continued!


Text by J. Zeck

Pictures: Sources in the captions



CIA World Factbook (2015): “East & Southeast Asia: Laos”. (accessed September 17, 2017)

Chomsky, Noam (2005): At War With Asia. Oakland: AK Press.

Halpern, Joel & Tinsman, Marilyn C. (1966): “Education and Nation Building in Laos”. Comparative Education Review.  10 (3): 499-507. (accessed September 17, 2017)

Noonan, Richard (2011): Education in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic: confluence of history and vision. In: Brock, Colin/Pe Symaco, Lorraine (ed.). Education in South-East Asia, 69-94. Oxford: Symposium Books.

Noonan, Richard (2014): US Aid to Education in Laos, 1955-1975: A Contribution To Historical Comparative Education, Embedded In Time And Space. In: Journal of International and Comparative Education. Vol. 3 Issue 1. P. 153-169 (accessed September 17, 2017)

World Bank (2015): “Lao PDR”. (accessed September 17, 2017)

Zasloff, Joseph J. (1973): The Pathet Lao. Leadership and Organization. Massachusetts: Lexington Books. (accessed September 17, 2017)

Share this: