Laos: Collapse

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The slipping Western position in Laos became a near collapse last week. And it all happened just when the West had presumably at last persuaded Nikita Khrushchev to call for a ceasefire. The ceasefire atmosphere simply gave the Communists a chance to seize what they wanted from the euphoric Laotian government.

In order to get the fighting stopped, the U.S. has abandoned position after position. It has ceased hoping for a neutral government with a few Communists in peripheral posts. It no longer insists on the verification of a ceasefire. The procedures to be adopted by the International Control Commission of India, Canada and Poland remain extremely vague, and there is not even a definition of what constitutes the government of Laos.

Day & Time. On cue from the U.S., pro-Western Premier Boun Oum of Laos eagerly accepted the ceasefire, and even set a day and time for the guns to fall silent. The rampaging Communist-led Pathet Lao agreed to the ceasefire, too, but meanwhile its troops keep right on fighting and advancing. At Vang Vieng, a military headquarters 65 miles north of the capital city of Vientiane, some 400 Pathet Lap launched a dawn attack and chased twice as many government troops 40 miles down the road toward the capital. Among the casualties: three members of a U.S. military mission intended to buck up the battle-bored Royal Laotian Army. A U.S. observer said grimly, "The army is pretty well finished for the time being. Its morale has hit rock bottom."

At midweek, the U.S. State Department called in Russian Ambassador Mikhail Menshikov and declared that the U.S. viewed the continued fighting with "deep concern." The fighting went right on. Red Prince Souphanouvong, leader of the Pathet Lao, boasted: "Our troops and our people are in the position of a victor!" The tiniest Laotian village could read the future. At Ban Sai, barely eight miles from Vientiane, the local chief, who had been begging for U.S. aid to build a market road, last week turned down an offer of $1,000. "Go away and don't come back," he said to a visiting U.S. official. "We don't want your American road."

Home & Abroad. After a chummy meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Russia, "Neutralist" Prince Souvanna Phouma seemed to become more Communist-minded with every new Communist bigwig he met, every big reception they organized for him. In Peking, he was met at the airport by Premier Chou En-lai and, together with his half brother and traveling companion, Red Prince Souphanouvong, was flown to the lakeside resort of Hangchow for a personal chat with Mao Tse-tung. Souvanna emerged warmly telling his Red Chinese hosts: "When we again have peace, it is to you we shall turn for aid in building our economy." In a joint communiqué, Souvanna blamed the U.S. for having "supported rebel elements in Laos" and for what he called interfering in his nation's internal affairs. Souvanna has obviously decided which side to be neutral on.

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