In an obituary in Wednesday's editions of The Washington Post about Prince Souvanna Phouma, a former premier of Laos who died Tuesday, his age was incorrect. He was 82.
Prince Souvanna Phouma, 83, a former premier of Laos who struggled for over two decades to remove his country from the violence besetting Southeast Asia, died yesterday, the official Vientiane Radio announced.
The broadcast said that Souvanna had been bedridden for a long time. The cause of death was not reported. In July, 1974, while serving as premier for the last time, he suffered a severe heart attack. For the past eight years he has been listed as adviser to the communist-dominated government of Laos.
In a statement issued after the announcement, the United States, which on occasion differed sharply with Souvanna's vision of Laos' political future, described him as "a leading figure in the history of his country." A spokesman for the State Department said: "During his long tenure as prime minister, many officials of the United States and other countries had the opportunity to work with Souvanna Phouma towards the goal of a united, independent, nonaligned Laos and the peaceful reconciliation of all of Laos' people."
Prince Souvanna Phouma was born Oct. 7, 1901, in the royal capital of Luangprabang, one of 23 children of Prince Bounkhoung, the viceroy of the Kingdom of Laos, then part of the French-controlled Indochinese Union. His branch of the royal family was not in the line of succession to the 600-year-old throne.
The future premier obtained two degrees in France, one in architecture and the other in electrical engineering. In later years, he seemed more comfortable in the finely tailored suits of the European man of affairs than in the silk robes of an oriental nobleman. On his return to Laos in 1931 he joined the department of public works, rising quickly to positions of authority.
At the end of World War II, Souvanna, with two of his half-brothers, organized the Lao Issarak, or Free Laos, movement to block the restoration of French control of their country. The attempt failed and the group's leaders were forced into exile.
By 1949, the French were under pressure from the communist insurgency in neighboring Vietnam to grant greater autonomy to the Indochinese states. Laos became an independent nation within the French Union, a status somewhat short of full independence. Nevertheless, Souvanna returned from exile and joined the cabinet as minister of public works. In 1951, he accepted the additional duties of premier.
Shortly thereafter, he was confronted with a challenge from the North Vietnamese, who had expanded their campaign against the French by moving forces into northeastern Laos in support of the indigenous Lao communist movement. The nominal head of Laotian Marxists was Prince Souphanouvong, Souvanna's half-brother who had several years earlier broken away from the Free Laos movement.
Here was joined the issue that was to dominate Laos for the next 20 years or so. What role, if any, was Laos to play in the struggle for political influence in Southeast Asia between the Communist bloc, then led by the Soviet Union and China, and the Western world?
Souvanna's political fortunes waxed and waned throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Whether in office or not, he worked for the reconciliation of contending factions in his country.
His own political views were rooted in an abiding reverence for its royalist and Buddhist traditions. In regard to Marxism, he once told an interviewer, "I am a good friend to Communists abroad, but I do not like them here at home."
Yet the determining factor for the landlocked nation of 3 million turned out to be not its own traditions but its geographical position. Its neighbor to the north is China, to the east, Vietnam, to the south, Cambodia. Along its western border are Burma and Thailand.
For several years after the United States supplanted France as the predominant western influence in Indochina, Washington did not find Souvanna's neutralist views acceptable. It lent its support to the rightist forces under Prince Boun Oum, which were based in southern Laos.
Despite considerable U.S. aid, those forces proved unable to halt Communist expansion in the northern part of the country. The Pathet Lao, as the Laotian Marxists were called, gradually moved into a position to threaten the administrative capital of Vientiane.
For a time the struggle in the remote Asian country dominated public discussion in the United States. It was said that the largest source of hard currency for Laos amounted to cable charges paid by western news media for dispatches from Vientiane.
In 1962, the Kennedy administration came to the conclusion that Souvanna Phouma might represent a more viable hope for thwarting a complete communist takeover than Boun Oum. After laborious negotiations, a tripartite government, including the communists and the rightists and headed by Souvanna Phouma, was installed.
Souvanna paid a visit to the United States shortly thereafter during which he expressed the hope that Laos "will be able to follow in the footsteps of Austria." He predicted that "in a few years we will see a Laos which will be neutral and ready to do its bit for the peace of the world."
It was not to be. The coalition ruled fitfully, with the Pathet Lao, and to a lesser extent the rightists, withholding a full commitment of support. Fighting was renewed.
In 1974, as the United States was cutting back on its involvement in Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese communists making great strides, a new coalition was formed in Laos. Souvanna remained as premier, but there was no question that the Pathet Lao was the dominant party in the government. Their assimilation of power was hastened with the communist conquest of Vietnam and Cambodia in the spring of 1975.
In December, the monarchy was abolished and Souvanna was ousted from leadership of the cabinet. It is said that since then he spent his days at his villa, with occasional trips to his birth place in Luangprabang.