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Rare Lao Political Memoir by Phoui Sananikone, Prime Minister of Laos, Donated to the Library of Congress

(The following post is by Ryan Wolfson-Ford, Southeast Asian reference librarian in the Asian Division)

The Asian Division recently received a donation of a unique manuscript containing the handwritten political memoir of a former prime minister of Laos, Phoui Sananikone (1903-1983).

note pages with hand-writings.

Handwritten manuscript made by Phoui’s secretary. “Phoui Sananikone memoir and related material.” [Between 1949 and circa 1975]. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Phoui was a major political figure of his time and held many positions in the Royal Lao Government, including minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs, and a long tenure as president of the National Assembly, the legislative body of Laos (1963-1975). During the Geneva Conference of 1954, Phoui appeared to some observers as a statesmen for his impassioned, eloquent speeches on behalf of his country, the Kingdom of Laos. Phoui himself came from a family that was important in Laos before 1975, the Sananikones. This rare work complements significant holdings on 20th-century Laos at the Library of Congress like the private diaries of another prime minister of Laos, Souvanna Phouma, which are accessible in the Manuscript Reading Room. It will be an important resource for researchers for years to come. The history of Laos, which became a major battlefield in the Cold War as it was crisscrossed by the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War), continues to be an active field of scholarly enquiry.

Phoui Sananikone was prime minister of Laos not once, but twice. The first time was in 1950-1951 during a delicate time when the country was transitioning to independence from France. Laos had been part of the colony of French Indochina since 1893. Nationalist movements had emerged to challenge French colonial rule, as well as the Lao monarchy, during the Second World War (1939-1945). On his way to the post of prime minister, Phoui had risen through the ranks of the colonial administration to become provincial governor of Hua Khong (present day Sayabouri province) in 1942-45. While Phoui remained loyal to France and King Sisavangvong (in power 1904-1959), his brother Oun was one of the founders of the Issara, the Lao independence movement. In October 1949, the Issara returned from exile to make peace as the country transitioned to independence and many of the Issara’s demands had been met. At this delicate time Phoui ensured a peaceful transition.

A color map with Laos

Map of Laos. United States Central Intelligence Agency. “Laos,” 2003. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

When Phoui returned to office as prime minister in 1958-1959 the threat of conflict with the Pathet Lao loomed large. The Pathet Lao had been fighting against the Royal Lao Government since 1950 to establish a socialist state, which they ultimately did in 1975. Not long after Phoui took office he declared a state of emergency in January 1959 and closed the National Assembly in response to a border incursion by North Vietnam (as it was then known). On the night of May 18, 1959 fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao on the Plain of Jars, in Xieng Khouang province, leading the country into what became the Second Indochina War in Laos (1959-1973). In December, as questions emerged about how to hold an election during war, Phoui was ousted in a short-lived, six-day military coup.

A black & white photo with six men, two of whom shaking hands.

Averell Harriman (left) shakinghands with Lao economy minister NgonSananikone at a conference in Geneva,Switzerland. “Official greeting.” 1961. Library of Congress Prints & Photograph Division.

A black & white photo showing soldiers drilling.

Pathet Lao troops in 1959, the year fighting resumed with the Royal Lao Government. “[Communist troops during military exercise in Laos, small mortar launches in foreground.]” 1959. Library of Congress Prints & Photograph Division.

Phoui’s manuscript is a memoir of his experiences during all of these events, and more, covering a dramatic period in Lao history from 1949 to 1975. While Phoui had previously published a memoir in 1967, it only covered the events in his life up to 1949. Phoui’s manuscript is especially important given how few works there are like it for Laos. During the 1950s and 1960s memoirs and biographies were a totally new genre in an emerging modern Lao literature. Phoui joined others in introducing the genre, including Prince Phetsarath and Phoui’s own brother, Oun. Even today, not many Lao memoirs have been written, even by political leaders who played leading roles in the major historical events of their times. The newly discovered manuscript addresses an important lacuna from which scholars and researchers can draw new insights for years to come.

a note page with handwritings.

Handwritten notes in Phoui’s own hand. “Phoui Sananikone memoir and related material.” [Between 1949 and circa 1975]. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Phoui’s manuscript was donated to the Asian Division by his daughter Viengsay Sananikone Luangkhot. Viengsay also took it upon herself to publish a printed version of the manuscript to disseminate the text more widely and for ease of reading. She is no stranger to telling the story herself as she previously worked for Radio Free Asia, heading up the service’s reporting on Laos. Indeed, she recently presented an oral account of Phoui’s memoirs for the RFA Lao service. Prany Sananikone, Phoui’s nephew, has also been active in efforts to document the Sananikone history, and he, too, donated a unique work on Phoui’s brother Ngon, also a government minister, which is likewise part of the Sananikone collection.

book cover with a symbol and Laotian title against black ground.

Printed version of the manuscript. Phoui Sananikone memoir and related material. (2020) Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

More broadly, there has been a larger effort in recent times to acquire and preserve the history of Lao Americans. The Library of Congress has recently accepted donations of works by several Lao American authors. These include donations by two Lao American authors: Čhao Khamlūang Nō̜kham, who is a member of the Phouan royal family, and Manīvong Phīakǣo whose writings represent 17 years of scholarly publications. Čhao Khamlūang Nō̜kham wrote a unique history of the Phuan kingdom – whose domain historically encompassed the famous Plain of Jars in Laos. One of Manīvong Phīakǣo many works was an adaption of the 16th-century epic poem “Sang Sinsai,” rendered into modern Lao. These works collectively speak to the educated Lao who left their homeland in 1975, but have continued to produce intellectually significant works in the Lao language in the diaspora. Because they are printed in small numbers and not widely distributed, these works tend to be highly ephemeral. They are at risk of being lost if special effort is not made to preserve them. As such, they immeasurably enhance the Southeast Asian collection by addressing gaps in the collection.

For questions about the Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, please visit the Southeast Asian collection research guide. You may also contact a Southeast Asian reference librarian directly with your questions using the Ask-a-Librarian service.

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