: 237,955 km2
The Lao originated in southern China and moved southward into present-day Laos, forming a kingdom in the Mekong River valley in the fourteenth century and pushing the earlier inhabitants of the area, the Kammu, into more mountainous areas. After three centuries, however, disputes over succession to the throne and foreign invasions split the country into three rival kingdoms in the north, center, and south. Caught between the growing power of the Siamese and the Vietnamese, the Lao lost power and territory so that today most Lao people live in Thailand (formerly Siam). Laos was colonized by the French in the 1890s and treated as the hinterland to their colonies in Vietnam. Laos was unified after World War II and achieved independence within the French Union in 1949 and full independence in 1953. However, regional divisions were replaced by political ones. The Lao were divided into three factions: a right-wing group backed by the United States; a neutralist group in Thailand; and a communist group backed by Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and China. After a devastating civil war fought with heavy American bombing on behalf of the right, and with Vietnamese troops on behalf of the left, the communist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) took control of the country in 1975, abolished the monarchy, and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR). In the political, economic, and social upheavals that followed, about 10 percent of the population fled as refugees, draining the country of skilled and educated people. Although the aging Lao leadership maintains one-party control and continues to assert communist ideology, it has loosened social and economic controls and now invites foreign investment and tourism.