When he was just 18 years old, the grandson of the last king of Laos crept on board a bamboo raft with nothing but his wits, his older brother and his personal nanny and set sail from Vientiane to the Thai river port of Nong Khai. The young royal, who had been away from his family at school when his father, grandfather and six other blood relatives were spirited away to the re-education camps of the self-proclaimed Lao People’s Democratic Republic, had been allowed to continue his own education under the watchful gaze of the government. It was not until his school friends began disappearing too that his thoughts turned to escape.
Since that night in 1982, Crown Prince Soulivong Savang has positioned himself within the Laotian diaspora as a figure who can unite the people despite the enduring ethnic and political divides in the landlocked nation. Speaking at a press conference in New York almost 20 years ago, Prince Savang wasted little time in asserting his claim to a throne that had sat empty for decades.
“If I had a chance to go back to Laos, the first thing I bring is freedom,” he announced to the assembled reporters through a translator.
Almost two decades later, that promised freedom remains frustratingly out of reach. Following the death of his uncle, the Prince Regent Sauryavong Savang in January this year, Prince Savang – who declined to be interviewed – has now taken his place as head of the Lao Royal Family, a collection of nobles who managed to escape their homeland to the safety of France. But although the royal family has long been seen by many in the diaspora community as a symbol around which exiles of all ethnic groups could rally, the idea that a hereditary monarchy holds the key to restoring a people’s right to determine their own destiny may have lost some of its lustre in the Lao community.
Ian Baird, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison specialising in post-1975 Lao politics and diaspora communities, told Southeast Asia Globe that despite a strong early role in the exiled pro-democracy movement, the Luang Prabang royal family has been struggling to stay relevant to the demands of an increasingly fractured community-in-exile.
“They have had a lot of relevance in the past, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but more recently they have not had as much of a role,” he said. “The political community of Lao diaspora is so divided that they dare not link themselves to any one group in case they might upset others. They also want to follow the old Lao constitution, which establishes the royals as being ‘above politics’. Soulivong married in Canada and so is not as close to the royal house as he was when he was in France.”
Less involved in public life than his towering uncle Sauryavong, it is unclear if the younger scion of the centuries-old Khun Lo dynasty is eager to step out of the late regent’s shadow. Sauryavong has long been the driving force behind the royals’ political activities, even lending his full-throated support to the disastrous Vang Tao border raid in 2000 that saw 30 armed men, including 16 Lao dissidents, plant the royal flag once again within the borders of their homeland – losing six of their number in the process.
Driven from their homeland by the fall of Vientiane in 1975 to the Vietnamese-backed communist Pathet Lao, the 800,000-strong Laotian diaspora stretches across the globe from Western nations such as France and the US to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia. Joe Rattanakhom, executive director of the Free Laos Campaign pro-democracy group, said that the fragmented nature of the diaspora made it difficult to be certain just what, if any, prestige the royals still enjoyed in the self-exiled Lao community.
“It is hard to say, because the Lao people are scattered across the world and the exiled royal family may be limited in their travels,” he said. “When Laos transitions to a democracy, which I think will happen within ten years, it is up to the Lao people what kind of government they want.”
Khamphoui Sisavatdy, the prime minister of the Royal Lao Government in Exile, a self-professed interim democratic government established in 2003 with the aim of instituting a “constitutional democratic monarchy” in the one-party state, is more strident in his support for a royal restoration.
“I trust that the best form of the government is a constitutional monarchy,” he told the Diplomat in a 2014 interview. “I believe that the Lao people in the 21st century can hope to create the type of administration of their choice. This means the restoration of the monarchy under a new constitution. To unite all the Lao people and to bring them under one umbrella, we need to have a father of the nation, a king, as we have always had.”
After more than 40 years under the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, though, the idea that a warm welcome would be waiting for any attempt to restore the prince to his throne seems somewhat optimistic. Rattanakhom said that the incumbent party had used the Lao Royal Government’s reliance on US military support during the civil war to paint the royal family as little more than lackeys of a foreign power.
“The current communist Lao government has been brainwashing the Lao youth to believe that the monarchy was a tool of American imperialists – when in fact the Lao communist movement was a tool of the North Vietnamese and the current Lao government is a vassal state of Vietnam,” he said.
Although Baird said that it was difficult to gauge public opinion in the notoriously closed-off country, his own experience living in Laos made him sceptical of the monarchy’s enduring support among the people.
“I lived there for many years and did not hear much,” he said. “If any [monarchist feeling] does exist, it would be with older people.”
The existence of rival royal houses to the Luang Prabang family – the Champassak royals from the nation’s south and the Phouan royals from Xieng Khouang – also complicates matters, making it difficult to unite a diaspora already split by sharp ethnic divides between the lowland Lao people and the northern Hmong.
Perhaps more so than their love of the Lao monarchy, the people who fled their war-ravaged nation remain linked by an iron conviction that the present-day Lao government is no government at all, but a puppet regime installed by the Vietnamese to extend the nation’s influence over the states that once comprised French Indochina.
“Most of the founding fathers of the Lao Communist Party were either Vietnamese, ethnic Vietnamese or married to a Vietnamese,” Rattanakhom said. “Due to internet access, the Lao youths and the ones living in Thailand are starting to know the truth about the role of the monarchy and their historical place in Lao society.”
According to Baird, though, the desire for democracy among a new generation of Laotian youth does not rely on the royal seal of approval as it did with their parents.
“The newer generation is not nearly as interested as the older generation,” he said. “[The royal family] is likely to languish and die away, at least to some extent.”
But for self-declared prime-minister-in-exile Sisavatdy, the vision of a Lao king once again seated on the ancient throne in Luang Prabang is one that continues to give him hope for the nation’s future.
“Fulfilling the dream of the Lao people is the sole purpose of my life,” he told the Diplomat. “My own identity and dignity are bound to this quest. Someday soon we shall have our monarchy back.”