As is the case with Burma and southern China, Laos is very ethnically diverse. There are 68 to 119 different ethnic groups found in Laos fall, depending on who does the counting, that fall into four broad groupings: 1) The lowland Lao (Lao Lum), which make up 50 percent of the population and are based mainly on the Mekong River and other waterways; 2) the midland and highland Lao (Lao Thueng), which comprise about 20 percent of the population and generally live at elevations from 300 to 1,200 meters and speak a Mon-Khmer language; and 3) and hill tribes (Lao Soung), which make up 15 percent of the population and generally live at elevations above 1,000 meters; and 4) Thais, which make up remaining five to 15 percent (depending on how mixed blood Thais and Lao are counted. Major minority groups include the Lao Theun (Khmu, 5.4 percent) and Phouteng (5.4 percent).

Many ethnic minorities referred to as hill tribes live in remote, mountainous or hill areas that are hours from the nearest poor road. Many of these groups are little studied by anthropologists. They include the Thau Dam, Mon-Khmer people (5.4 percent of the population), Hmomg (or Meo, or Miao, 3.2 percent), Sui, including the Alak (3.2 percent), Yao and Loven.

Hmong (Miao) and Other Large Minorities: See Separate Articles Under the Hill Tribes and Famous Ethnic Groups Category Hill Tribes and Ethnic Groups

A total 49 different ethnic groups were declared as a result of ethnic group reclassification in 2005. Other sources say there are over 100 different ethnic groups in Laos. The majority of Laos’s population is Lao which accounts for 55 percent of the whole population. About 11 percent are Khmou, 8 percent Hmong, and the rest are other ethnic groups including Akha, Singsil, Lue, Lamed, Tai, Katu, Triang and Harak, Oy and Brao (Laos population census 2005, National Statistics Centre).

Specialists are largely in agreement as to the ethnolinguistic classification of the ethnic groups of Laos. For the purposes of the 1995 census, the government of Laos recognized 149 ethnic groups within 47 main ethnicities. whereas the Lao Front for National construction (LFNC) recently revised the list to include 49 ethnicities consisting of over 160 ethnic groups. The term ethnic minorities is used by some to classify the non-Lao ethnic groups, while the term indigenous peoples is not used by the Lao PDR. These 160 ethnic groups speak a total of 82 distinct living languages.

Before the Indochina wars, sources commonly identified more than sixty different groups, whereas the 1985 census listed forty-seven groups, some with populations of only a few hundred persons. Discrepancies in the number of groups resulted from inconsistent definitions of what constitutes an ethnic group as opposed to a subgroup, as well as incomplete knowledge about the groups themselves. The 1985 census distinguished three general ethnic group classifications reflecting common origin and language grouping and noted significant differences among the groups comprising the three families. Because detailed ethnographic information about many groups is lacking--especially for the midland groups--and because the sheer number of ethnicities represented in Laos is so great, the discussion of ethnic groups concentrates on one or two representative examples of each of the three larger groupings; other groups may differ on a number of points. [Source: Library of Congress]

Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)

Multi-Ethnic Laos

Laos is ethnically diverse; the population includes more than forty ethnic groups, which are classified within three general families of Lao Sung (upland Lao), Lao Theung (midland Lao), and Lao Loum (lowland Lao). The country is officially a multiethnic nation, with Lao as the official language, but relationships among the different groups have sometimes been characterized by misunderstandings and competition over natural resources. The different ethnic groups have substantially different residential patterns, agricultural practices, forms of village governance, and religious beliefs. [Source: Library of Congress]

The population of Laos embraces of 49 ethnic groups, in 4 main linguistic groups: 1) The Lao-Tai Family includes eight ethnic groups: Lao, Phouthai, Tai, Lue, Gnouane, Young, Saek and Thai Neua. 2) The Mon-Khmer Family includes 32 ethnic groups: Khmu, Pray, Singmou, Khom, Thene, Idou, Bid, Lamed, Samtao, Katang, Makong, Try, Trieng, Ta-oi, Yeh, Brao, Harak, Katou, Oi, Krieng, Yrou, Souai, Gnaheune, Lavy, Kabkae, Khmer, Toum, Ngouane, Meuang and Kri. 3) The Tibeto-Burmese Family includes seven ethnic groups: Akha, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, Hayi, Lolo and Hor. 4) The Hmong-Loumien category has two main tribes: Hmong and Loumien (Yao).These multi-ethnic people are scattered across the country each with their own unique traditions, culture and language.

The ethnic groups found in Laos are incredibly diverse and for the most part little studied by anthropologists. They include the Khmou (11 percent of the population); Hmong (or Meo, or Miao, 8 percent), Mon-Khmer people (5.4 percent of the population), Sui including Alak (3.2 percent) and other ethnic groups such as the Yao, Thau Dam, Akha and Loven (17 percent). Lao people make up about 55 percent of the population of Laos.

Government Policy Towards Minorities and Ethnic Tensions

Government policy in Laos emphasizes the multiethnic nature of the nation and in many ways works to reduce the discrimination against midland and upland minorities by some lowland Lao. Use of the three general ethnic group classifications emphasizes the commonality of Lao nationality but obscures significant differences among the smaller groups. Most Laotians categorize ethnic groups in terms of these three broad categories, and villagers themselves, when asked their ethnicity by outsiders, are likely to respond Lao Loum, Lao Theung, or Lao Sung, rather than their specific ethnicity. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Although ethnic differences are seldom a direct source of conflict, historical patterns of exploitation and competition for natural resources have led to tensions and occasional overt conflicts, some of which persisted in the early 1990s. For example, lowland Tai-Lao migrants displaced the Lao Theung groups into the uplands beginning a millennium ago, dominated them politically, and exploited them as well. The Lao Theung were frequently referred to as "Kha," a derogatory term meaning slave, which reflected their social, if not necessarily legal, status. (Slave trade did exist in the south of Laos during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, usually involving the Lao Theung.) Rites surrounding the coronation of the Lao king in Louangphrabang, as well as annual ceremonies of renewal, include rituals in which the king makes symbolic payment to Lao Theung representatives for the land, and they in turn acknowledge the legitimacy of the king. *

French colonial rule tended to strengthen the position of lowland Lao, both by granting them access to education and by commonly appointing them as district and provincial governors regardless of the ethnic makeup of a region. In the early 1900s, Lao Theung and Lao Sung groups carried out several rebellions against Lao-Thai as well as French authority but all were eventually suppressed, leaving unresolved tensions. The court, administration, and national symbols continued to be defined in terms of Tai-Lao cultural traditions. During the 1950s, significant numbers of Lao Theung and Lao Sung were recruited by the leftist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) and these groups played an important role in the military struggle. Since 1975 the number of Lao Theung and Lao Sung in the national and provincial administrations have increased, although in 1993 they were still underrepresented. *

National borders have not created significant barriers to the movement and settlement patterns of the different Lao ethnic groups because Laotian villagers have traditionally moved in search of better land for rice farming. About 5 million Hmong lived in southern China in the early 1990s, as opposed to about 200,000 in Vietnam, a similar number in Laos, and about 90,000 in northern Thailand. Kammu settlements existed both in northern Laos and northern Thailand, and many of the midland groups in the center of the country had villages in both Laos and Vietnam. The lowland Lao historically lived on both sides of the Mekong, with early Lao kingdoms encompassing much of the Khorat Plateau in present-day Thailand. Cultural and linguistic differences between the Lao Loum and the Thai Isan--what the Thai call the inhabitants of the Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand--were primarily due to the expansion of the Thai state and influence in that region since 1945. Significant political changes in Laos since 1975 also contributed to a growing cultural distance. *

Minorities and Human Rights in Laos

The law provides for equal rights for all minority citizens, and there is no legal discrimination against them; however, some societal discrimination persisted. Moreover, some critics charged that the government's resettlement program for ending slash-and-burn agriculture and opium production adversely affected many ethnic minority groups, particularly in the North. The program requires that resettled persons adopt paddy rice farming and live in large communities, ignoring the traditional livelihoods and community structures of these minority groups. International observers questioned whether the benefits promoted by the government--access to markets, schools, and medical care for resettled persons--outweighed the negative impact on traditional cultural practices. Some minority groups not involved in resettlement, especially those in remote locations, faced difficulties, believing they had little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources from their areas. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Of the 49 official ethnic groups in the country, the Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent. There were a number of Hmong officials in the senior ranks of the government and the LPRP, including one Politburo member and five members of the LPRP Central Committee. However, some Hmong believed their ethnic group could not coexist with ethnic Lao. This belief fanned separatist or irredentist beliefs among some Hmong. The government focused limited assistance projects in Hmong areas to address regional and ethnic disparities in income, which helped ameliorate conditions in the poorest districts.^^

Although there were no reports of attacks by the few remaining Hmong insurgent groups during the year, the government leadership maintained its suspicion of Hmong political objectives. Although residual, small, scattered pockets of insurgents and their families remained in remote jungle areas, the government reduced efforts from previous years to actively combat the insurgents.^^

The government continued to offer "amnesty" to insurgents who surrender, but it continued to deny international observers permission to visit the estimated more than 2,000 insurgents who have surrendered since 2005--other than a few families in Phalak village. Because of their past activities, amnestied insurgents continued to be the focus of official suspicion and scrutiny.^^

The government generally refused international community offers to assist surrendered insurgents directly but allowed some aid from the UN and international agencies as part of larger assistance programs.^^

Different Ethnic Group and Minority Groups in Laos

Mon-Khmer Minorities: 1) Aheu (Population of approximately 1,770 in Pak Sane Province); 2) Alak (Population of approximately 4,000 in southern Laos); 3) Arem (Population of approximately 500 in Laos); 4) Bo (Population of 2,950 in Laos); 5) Bru (Population of approximately 69,000 in Laos); 6) Chut (Population of 450 in Khammouan Province); 7) Halang Doan (Population of 2,346 in Attopu Province and on the Kasseng Plateau); 8) Hung (Population of 2,000 in Bolikhamsai and Khammouan Provinces); 9) Ir (Population of 4,420 in Saravan Province); 10) Jeh (Population of 8,013 in southern Laos); 11) Jeng (Population of 7,320 in Attopu Province); 12) Kasseng (Population of 6,000 in southern Laos); 13) Katang (Population of 107,350 in Laos); 14) Katu (Population of 14,700 in Laos); 15) Khlor (Population of 6,000 in Laos); 16) Khmer(Population of 10,400 in Laos); 17) Khua (Population of 2,000 in Laos); 18) Kri; 19) Kuy (Population of 51,180 in Laos); 20) Lavae (also referred to as Brao); 21) Lave (Population of 12,750 in Laos); 22) Laven (Population of 40,519 in Laos); 23) Lavi; 24) Maleng (Population of 800 in Laos); 25) Mon; 26) Ngae (Population of 12,189 in Laos); 27) Nguon; 28) Nyaheun; 29) Ong; 30) Oi; 31) Pakoh; 32) Phong; 33) Sadang; 34) Salang; 35) Sapuan; 36) Makong; 37) Sok; 38) Sou; 39) Souei; 40) Taliang; 41) Ta-oi; 42) Thae; 43) Tum; 44) Vietnamese (Population of 76,000 in Laos); 45) Yae.

Palaungic Minorities: 46) Bit (Population of 1,530 in Laos, disputed as to whether Palaungic or Khmuic); 47) Con (Population of 1,000 in Louang Namtha Province); 48) Samtao (Population of 2,359 in Laos); 49) Lamet (Population of 16,740 in Laos); 50) Khmuic; 51) Khmu (Population of 389,694 in Laos); 52) Khuen (Population of approximately 8,000 in Laos); 53) Mal (Population of 23,193 in Laos); 54) Mlabri (Population of 24 in Laos, also known as the Yumbri); 55) O'du; 56) Phai (Population of 15,000 in Laos); 57) Xinh Mul (Population of 3,164 in Laos, including Phong-Kniang and Puoc, also known as the Sing Mun).

Tibeto-Burman Minorities: 58 ) Lolo Ethnicity; 59) Kaw (Population of approximately 58,000 in Laos); 60) Hani (Population of 1,122 in Phongsali Province); 70) Kadu (Population of 5,000 on Laos-China border); 71) Lahu (Population of 8,702 in Laos, also referred to as Museu); 72) Lahu Shi (Population of 3,240 in Laos); 73) Phana; 74) Phunoi; 75) Si La; 76) Kado (Population of 225 in Phongsali Province).

Hmong-Mien Minorities: 77) Hmong Daw (Population of 169,800 in Laos); 78) Hmong Njua (Population of 145,600 in Laos); 79) Iu Mien (Population of 20,250, also called Yao); 80) Kim Mun (Population of 4,500 in Laos).

Tai Minorities: 81) Tai Daeng; 82) Tai Dam; 83) Tai Gapong; 84) Tai He; 85) Tai Khang (Population of 47,636 in Laos); 86) Tay Khang; 87) Tai Kao; 88) Kongsat; 89) Kuan (Population of 2,500 in Laos); 90) Tai Laan; 91) Tai Maen; 92) Lao (Population of 3,000,000 in Laos); 93) Lao Lom; 94) Tai Long; 95) Dai (Population of 134,100 in Laos) including the Lu and Nhuon people)); 96) Northeastern Thai (including the Tai Kaleun and Isan people); 97) Tai Nuea; 98) Nung; 99) Nyaw; 100) Tai Pao; 101) Tai Peung; 102) Phuan (Population of 106,099 in Laos); ) Phutai (Population of 154,400 in Laos); 103) Pu Ko; 104) Rien; 105) Saek; 106) Tai Sam; 107) Tai Yo; 108) Tayten; 109) Yoy; 110) Zhuang (including the Nung people); 111) Shan; 112) Yang.

Chinese: 113) Chinese; Unclassified Minorities: 114) Chere; 115) Jri

Lao Groups in Laos

The Lao Loum, or lowland Lao, constitute the majority of the population--66 percent--and comprise several ethnic groups that began to move from the north into the Southeast Asian peninsula about 1,000 years ago. All Lao Loum speak languages of the Tai-Kadai family--for example Lao, Lue, Tai Dam (Black Tai), and Tai Deng (Red Tai). Lao Loum prefer to live in lowland valley areas and base agricultural production on paddy rice. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The Lao Theung, or midland Lao, are of Austroasiatic origin and are probably the autochthonous inhabitants of Laos, having migrated northward in prehistoric times. Originally paddy rice farmers, they were displaced into the uplands by the migrations of the Lao Loum and in 1993 accounted for about 24 percent of the national population. The cultural and linguistic differences among the many Lao Theung groups are greater than those among the Lao Loum or Lao Sung, or upland Lao. Groups range from the Kammu (alternate spellings include Khamu and Khmu) and Lamet in the north, to the Katang and Makong in the center, to the Loven and Lawae in the far south. *

The Lao Sung make up about 10 percent of the population. These groups are Miao-Yao or Tibeto-Burmese speaking peoples who have continued to migrate into Laos from the north within the last two centuries. In Laos most highland groups live on the tops or upper slopes of the northern mountains, where they grow rice and corn in swidden fields. Some of these villages have been resettled in lowland sites since the 1970s. The Hmong are the most numerous Lao Sung group, with villages spread across the uplands of all the northern provinces. Mien (Yao), Akha, Lahu, and other related groups are considerably smaller in numbers and tend to be located in rather limited areas of the north. *

Lao Lum and Lao Thai

Lao Loum means literally translated "lowland Lao" and encompasses inhabitants of the river valleys and lowlands of Lao PDR, thereby representing around seventy percent of Lao population. They speak the official Lao language. Traditionally their income has been generated by wet-rice cultivation. Furthermore, the areas they are living in do affect housing construction. Lao Loum villages are characterized by wooden posts on which houses are raised to prevent the yearly floodings to destroy people's homes. Furthermore this technique helps to cool houses as well as they offer space to keep livestock under the houses. Lao Loum mostly are Theravada Buddhists, shown by several Wat throughout the country. In Oudomxay town there are two Wat. In Muang La, there is located the Sing Kham Temple, a pilgrimage destination for people of whole Southeast Asia. However, traditional beliefs are a key cornerstone for Lao Loum's daily lifes, too. Most of the information in the articles on Laos refers to the Lao Loum.

The Lao Thai are a Lao subgroup sometimes included in the Lao Lum group, the main Lao group that makes more than half the population. They are regarded as more tribal than mainstream Lao and have traditionally lived in upland valleys rather than the lowlands, cultivated dry-land mountain rice as well as wetland rice and maintained strong links to their animist origins.

Like the hill tribes, the Lao Thai are divided into subgroups defined by the area in which they live which in turn is distinguished from other groups by a particular kind of clothing. Among these groups are the Black Thai (Thai Dam), White Dam (Thai Khao), Red Thai (Thai Daeng), Forest Thai (Thai Pa), Northern Thai (Thai Neua). To distinguish between the Thais of Thailand and Thai groups like those mentioned above some ethnologist refer all the Thai groups as Tais.

The Thai Dam are the largest and most dominant of the Lao Thai groups. As their name indicates they wear black traditional clothes. They live mostly in upland valleys of northern and eastern Laos in Xoeng Khuang and Hua Phan Province. Among the Lao, they are regarded as hardworking and honest and gave a caste system with three main classes: mobility, commoners and priests.

The Thai Lu dominate trade in the Muang Sing district and have managed to hold to their traditions despite pressures from the Lao and Chinese. They practice a mix of Theravada Buddhism and animism and live matrilineal societies in which women enjoy high status they live in villages set up along rivers on homes, known as swan houses, that have sills and unique pong liem widows that allowed residents to see out while people on the outside can’t see in. They perform the baasli string-typing ceremony n deserving water buffalo.

Laau Huay, also known as Lenten, Lene Tene or Laen Taen, is a small group with 5,000 or members that is sometimes lumped with the lowland Lao even though they generally don’t live in the lowlands and have more in common with the Hmong and Mien than they do with the Lao. They have traditionally lived along streams in multi-family longhouses made from palm and thatch, used wood hydraulic pumps to irrigate their fields and cultivate opium for smoking rather than trade. Women have their eyebrows removed at age and wear a coin or coins in their hair. Both sex wear blue or black baggy shorts and matching pants trimmed in red. They combine animism with Taoism and ancestor worship and live mostly in Luang Nam Tha and Bokeo provinces.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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