The Royal Lao Armed Forces (French: Forces Armées du Royaume), best known by its French acronym FAR, were the official armed defense forces of the Kingdom of Laos, a state that existed from 1949 to 1975 in what is now the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The FAR was responsible for the defense of the Kingdom since its independence in October 1953 from France.
The foundations of the Royal Lao Armed Forces were laid on 11 May 1947, when King Sisavang Vong granted a constitution declaring Laos an independent nation (and a Kingdom from 1949) within the colonial framework of French Indochina. This act signalled the creation of a Laotian government capable of building its own administration over the next few years, including the establishment of a national defense force. The new Laotian military was officially created on 1 July 1949 from a collection of pre-existing Lao police and militarized constabulary units, regular colonial indigenous troops, and locally raised irregular auxiliaries. However, the formation process was soon hampered by the developments of the ongoing First Indochina War in neighbouring Vietnam, and it was only in 1952 that the National Laotian Army (French: Armée Nationale Laotiènne or ANL) – the predecessor of the Royal Lao Army – really began to take shape.
By July 1959, it was known as the Laotian Armed Forces (French: Forces Armées Laotiènnes – FAL), and in September 1961, was renamed Royal Armed Forces (French: Forces Armées du Royaume – FAR).
Throughout its existence, the Laotian Armed Forces were plagued by an ineffective leadership, particularly at senior levels, which often led to chain-of-command problems. The earlier colonial ANL units in the French Protectorate of Laos consisted mostly of uneducated Laotian peasant recruits led by French officers and senior NCOs; those few Laotians promoted from the ranks rose no further than the command of a company. After the Kingdom of Laos gained its independence in late 1953, the few Laotian officers with military experience were quickly promoted to much higher command positions than they were accustomed to. To further aggrieve matters, the Laotian Armed Forces command structure became highly politicized in the early 1960s, where the support of key political figures was of paramount importance in promotion to and retention of command positions. This meant that Laotian military upper echelons of command were not immune to political interference, in the form of patronage, cronyism and nepotism, since many officers were also commissioned into senior command posts directly from civilian life; these men owed their positions to family or political connections rather than any military training or ability. The few urban elite families who dominated Laotian society felt it advantageous to have family members or friends in key posts of the military establishment. These politically-appointed officers indulged in political manoeuvres (the 1959, 1960, 1964, 1965, 1966, and 1973 Laotian coups) or involved themselves in profitable illicit activities (bribery, kickbacks, racketeering, gambling, prostitution, gold-smuggling, and the Opium trade), rather than learning their trade. As a result, the FAR officer corps was riven by corruption and inefficiency, exacerbated by political divisions and even personal rivalries at all echelons of command. Both professional and personal jealousy was not unknown amongst Laotian higher Commanders, which resulted in endless internal squabbles, and little effort was made to coordinate their activities, rendering the Command, control and coordination of military operations problematic.
This situation was further complicated by a decentralised command structure, in which the FAR General Staff (French: État-Major Générale – EMG) in Vientiane served primarily an administrative function, exerting little control over the regional commands and local commanders were free to adjust their tactics to the local situation. Laos had a long-standing “warlord” tradition of local power-brokers, and consequently, real power was in the hands of the regional commanders (usually Colonels or Generals) who manned the military districts (or “Military Regions” – MR) in the provinces, which operated like autonomous fiefdoms. With the formation of the Mobile Groups (French: Groupements mobiles – GMs) at each Laotian Military Region in the early 1960s, the MR Commanders’ influence was challenged by the growing power of the GM Commanders (Majors or Lieutenant colonels), who acted as junior “warlords”. In practice, the Military Region’s commanders used the GMs as their private armies to further their own interests, rarely dispatching them outside the Mekong River valley. A high-echelon command position within a Military Region was dependent upon the influence of an urban elite aristocratic family who economically and politically dominated the MR. If a general was not a scion of one of these families, then he had to get their support in some other manner.