A chanting mob, two thousand-strong, descended on Savannakhet in April 1902, convinced by a holy man that any bullets fired at them would be miraculously transformed into frangipani flowers. Three times they attacked, and each time they were mown down by troops from France’s “Garde Indigène”. The rout, which left 150 dead, marked the climax of the so-called Holy Man’s Revolt, which had its origins with the arrival of the French in 1893 and simmered on for many years afterwards in the highlands of the south.
The French brought with them administrative changes, increased taxation and reshuffled the traditional relationships that had guided life in Laos for generations. At first, resistance was textbook Lao. Villagers avoided direct confrontation, preferring to make their displeasure about the new order known through passive means: villages undercounted their populations, adapted a generally uncooperative attitude, or simply left. The first serious opposition didn’t arise until eight years after the French employed gunboat diplomacy to wrest control of Lao territory from Siam.
When Ong Kaew, an Alak tribesman believed to possess supernatural powers, prophesied that “the end of the world as we know it” was nigh, he found willing listeners among midland tribes living along the plateau, chafing under increased taxes and corvée labour demands instituted by the French commissioner of Salavan. Sensing that Ong Kaew was gaining too much influence, the commissioner ordered the burning of a pagoda erected in the holy man’s honour. This only served to increase support for Ong Kaew, and in April 1901, he and a band of rebels attacked the commissioner and his guard. Soon after, nearly all of the Bolaven region was in revolt.
By 1902, the revolt had spilled across the Mekong and briefly gained the support of older lowland Lao families, who felt threatened by the collapse of the social and economic order to which they were accustomed. After the disastrous march on Savannakhet, Ong Kaew and another Lao Theung leader, Ong Kommadam, whose son would later continue to resist the French and ultimately become a Pathet Lao leader, retreated across the Xe Kong as villages were burned and less fortunate leaders rounded up and executed. But the defeat at Savannakhet and renewed attempts by France to pacify the Bolaven region did little to dispel the holy man’s popularity, and it took a new commissioner at Salavan, Jean Dauplay, to force Ong Kaew to surrender in 1907. Three years later, with the holy man’s influence over the Bolaven inhabitants as strong as ever, Dauplay arrested Ong Kaew, who died “during a jail break” the next day. The revolt was effectively over.
Not all was lost during the insurrection. French authorities were careful to place more of the burden on lowland Lao when they raised taxes in 1914, and Ong Kaew had unwittingly sown the seeds for what the Pathet Lao would later claim to be the stirrings of Lao nationalism.