HC Deb 15 May 1962 vol 659 cc1146-51
Mr. H. Wilson (by Private Notice)

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he will make a statement about the position in Laos.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

Since my statement on 8th May, Royal Laotian Government forces, who retreated from Nam Tha, have retired in disorder and a large number have entered Thailand. Communist forces are known to have followed them for some 40 miles, but it is not yet clear whether they are pressing this advance.

A dangerous situation has been created by this breach of the cease-fire. Her Majesty's Ambassador in Moscow tried to persuade the Soviet Government to restrain the Communist forces and to agree to immediate action by the International Control Commission to establish the facts of the situation and restore the cease-fire. The Soviet Government have not agreed to such action.

Prince Souvanna Phouma will return to Laos on 19th May to take charge of the situation in the Plain of Jars. I hope that on his return all parties can be persuaded to attend a very early meeting, as proposed by Prince Souvanna Phouma, in order to agree at last on the formation of a national Government.

Mr. H. Wilson

Last week we all deplored the resort to force by the Communist forces. The right hon. Gentleman agreed with us that the build-up of the Royalist forces in the area near Phong Saly and Sam Neva was highly provocative and was undertaken against the strongest advice and pressure of the United States and the United Kingdom. Will the right hon. Gentleman now see that all possible British pressure and, so far as he can influence it, all possible American pressure is put upon Prince Boun Oum and the Government, and all concerned, at long last to accept not merely the position of Prince Souvanna Phouma as head of Government, but also the acceptance of the conditions agreed at Geneva about the allocation of Ministries, so that this very dangerous situation can be brought to an end?

Mr. Heath

Yes, Sir. Her Majesty's Government and, I am certain, the United States Government, wish to find a political solution to this problem, and we shall use all our diplomatic influence to try to achieve that.

Mr. Wilson

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what reaction he has received from the Soviet Government as a result of the appeal which Her Majesty's Government have made to them, as co-chairmen? Is it the fact, as many of us feel, that the Soviet Government themselves are profoundly unhappy about this movement by Communist forces that might not be under their control or sphere of influence? What line are the Russian Government taking?

Mr. Heath

As I said in the second part of my statement, the Government tried to persuade the Soviet Government to take action in this matter. The Soviet Government have not agreed to such action. That is the statement of the public position of the Soviet Government. I hope that, privately, they will be using their influence with the Pathet Lao and their forces in order to restore the cease-fire.

Mr. Harold Davies

Does not the Minister now think that, in view of the menacing situation in the whole of Indo-China, the Government should take the initiative, as Sir Anthony Eden did, in recalling the Geneva Conference, at which China can be present, to discuss this entire matter in Laos and Viet-Nam? In that way and that way only would we have a political possibility of solving the problem.

Mr. Heath

We have had in mind, naturally, the possibility of recalling the Geneva Conference. The position is, however, that the Geneva Conference has reached agreement upon the arrangement which it would like to see in Laos. What is awaited is a political agreement between the three princes on a Government of national union which can then carry out the agreement reached at the Geneva Conference at which the Chinese were present. The other thing which is necessary is to restore the cease-fire. I think that the House agrees that, however impatient we and others may be with the actions of the three princes in their failure to produce a Government, a major breach in the cease-fire is not justifiable.

Mr. A. Henderson

Is there any difference between the Soviet Government and the Western Governments on the facts of the situation? If there is, is there any suggestion that the Commission might send observers into the area to report on the facts?

Mr. Heath

We have suggested to the Soviet Government as the other cochairmen that the International Control Commission should go to the scene of the cease-fire and report on the circumstances and the causes and try to restore the cease-fire, but the Soviet Government have not accepted that suggestion.

Mr. Gaitskell

Will the Minister clear up one sentence in his statement? He said that the Soviet Government had not agreed to the action which we proposed. Does that mean that they have refused it, that they have not made up their mind, that they have turned it down temporarily and that talks are going on—or exactly what is the position?

Mr. Heath

The position is that they have refused to take this action, but, as I have said, I hope that although that is the public position, they will privately he using their influence to restore the cease-fire.

Mr. Mendelson

Has the Minister seen the reliable reports out of Washington that near Nam Tha the forces of General Phoumi have made a number of sorties into the territory of Pathet Lao, that they have done this against the advice of the American administration who urged them time and again not to do this and that the recent move of Pathet Lao forces is a counter-move rather than an offensive? In view of these circumstances, will he not say that the British Government will see, when the cease-fire is restored, that no such further provocative action is taken on either side so that peace may be restored in the area?

Mr. Heath

It is not possible for us to control either side in Laos. It was because it was impossible to decide between the various versions put forward on the incidents leading to the breaking of the cease-fire that the Government suggested to the other co-chairman that the International Control Commission should be entrusted with the responsibility. Unfortunately, as I have said, that suggestion has not been approved.

Mr. Wade

Can the Lord Privy Seal say whether Communist forces have entered Thailand? If so, has he any information whether fighting is taking place in Thailand?

Mr. Heath

No, Sir. I said that Communist forces had pursued the Royal Laotian Army for about 40 miles and that as a result the Royal Laotian Army had retreated in disorder, many of them into Thailand.

Mr. H. Wilson

Since the Minister put the blame for the frustration of the Geneva agreement on the three princes, would he not make it quite clear, as the American Government have made it quite clear, that the responsibility lies upon Prince Boun Oum and General Phoumi for their refusal to act in accordance with the Geneva Agreement? In addition to sending Mr. Malcolm MacDonald to this area, as I believe he has, will he not consider sending a Minister to look into the facts so that we may have a full report in the House and make absolutely clear to those concerned in Laos the feeling of the House about the frustration of the Geneva Agreement and the dangers which have resulted from it?

Mr. Heath

It is impossible for us to apportion blame between three princes who have failed to reach agreement over the past nine months. The United States Administration do not place the blame on General Phoumi. What they said was that they were using all their influence with General Phoumi to try to get him to reach agreement and that they hoped that the Soviet Government would do the same with Prince Souphanouvong.

Mr. MacDonald is in the area because he has been carrying out private visits there and so was able to go to that part of Laos, but I do not think that a Minister would be able to go to the part where the cease-fire has been broken and where there is a dispute about the incidents. It is surely right that the International Control Commission should do that, because that is the right authority to do it, and we shall continue to try to persuade the Soviet Government to support this suggestion from my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Is it not a fact that Prince Boun Oum has been insisting on having the key Ministries of Defence and the Interior against the advice of the American and British Governments? If we arrange a cease-fire should we not also ensure that he no longer frustrates the agreement by this untenable attitude?

Mr. Heath

There has been a long-drawn-out dispute about who should hold the various offices in the Government between the three princes taking part. The United States Government and Her Majesty's Government have used all their influence with Prince Boun Oum and General Phoumi to reach a settlement about that, and there are still further suggestions which could be considered in that respect.