Main languages: Lao, Mon-Khmer language group
Main religions: Buddhism, Christian, animism
Minority and indigenous communities: Khmou 708,412 (11.0 per cent), Hmong 595,028 (9.2 per cent), Phouthay 218,108 (3.4 per cent), Tai 201,576 (3.1 per cent), Makong 163,285 (2.5 per cent) Katang 144,255 (2.2 per cent), Lue 126,229 (2.0 per cent), Akha 112,979 (1.8 per cent), others 749,153 (11.6 per cent)
Laos is one of Southeast Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries: a somewhat surprising situation given the relatively small size and population of around 7 million, but probably due to its location, mountainous terrain and tropical climate. The numerous ethnic groups are officially distinguished into three categories by the government according to the geographic areas they occupy: the lowland ethnic groups known as Lao Loum, the midland groups known collectively as the Lao Theung, and the highland groups, Lao Sung. In reality, a more accurate classification would be to divide them according to the four different language families to which they belong: Tai-Kadia, Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Lu Mien and Sino-Tibetan.
Officially, the Laos government only recognizes 49 ethnic groups, with 160 ethnic sub-groups, but does not recognize them as indigenous peoples. The actual number of ethnic groups is thought to be much higher, as high as 237 according to one United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, or even 240 on the basis of the distinct languages within these four language families. Ethnic Lao (estimated in the 2015 census at 53.2 per cent) make up just over half of the total population and tend to be concentrated in the flatlands and valleys. Most people from this group are Theravada Buddhists. The second major grouping, at around 25 per cent of the population, is the Lao Theung. They tend to inhabit mid-level slopes and speak numerous Mon-Khmer languages. Though some communities are Buddhists, most remain animists.
Lao Sung groups live mainly in the mountainous regions of Laos and mainly though not exclusively belong to the Sino-Tibetan and Hmong-Mien language families, and include the Hmong (Miao), Yao (Mien), Tai dumm, Dao, Shan, Lua and Khammu.
The Lao majority is mostly Buddhist, and Buddhism is the unofficial state religion, as many state officials are Buddhist and Buddhism is playing an increasingly prominent role in state functions. Decree 315, passed in 2016, extends state control over religious practice, defended as a means toward religious freedom. This law requires state approval to print religious literature, build religious facilities, travel abroad for religious meetings; religious organizations must be registered. In contrast with the preceding Decree 92 which did not pose such requirements on Buddhist organizations, the current Decree 315 appears to extend registration requirements also to Buddhist groups; whether this is a significant shift in state policy remains to be seen. While many religions are generally practiced freely under government control, practitioners of Protestant Christianity, the majority of whom are ethnic minorities, especially Khmou, Brou and Hmong, have been targeted: arrests, detentions, destruction of churches, forced renunciations and ‘re-education’ are common.
For more than four decades, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has been a one-party state dominated by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Despite some ethnic minority representation in government and official recognition of the ‘multi-ethnic Lao people’, in practice political life remains dominated by the LPRP and its Lao-majority elite. Authoritiarianism, inequality and corruption remain persistent problems, despite a major overhaul of the country’s political elite in early 2016. Despite being ranked consistently as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with much foreign investment concentrated in the hydroelectric sector, the fruits of this impressive growth have largely stayed in the hands of its wealthy party members.
These issues typically have an acute impact on its minority and indigenous communities. In particular, corruption is helping to fuel the large-scale distribution of land concessions to foreign investors in the hydroelectric, extractive and logging industries: these developments have a disproportionate effect on indigenous peoples as the concessions are granted over land they have been residing in for generations. The government has continued to push ahead with dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries in the face of strong opposition from neighbouring countries. Three dams in particular, the Xayaburi, Don Sahong and Pak Beng, have all began construction and are set to uproot thousands of indigenous people. Even though Laos claims that it will properly compensate those affected, recent history suggests otherwise. The Nam Theun 2, completed in 2010, displaced 6,200 indigenous people, who were not properly compensated nor had promises of an adequate livelihood met.
The resettlement process has also reportedly begun for the Nam Tha 1 dam, where there are plans for 8,000 mostly indigenous people to be resettled, largely without their free, prior or informed consent. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that some of the villages are indigenous Khmu or Rmet that previously experienced relocation decades ago, at the behest of government development programmes that required their villages to move from highland areas.
Village resettlement programmes have not had the positive impact that the government claimed. Beginning in 1975, the Lao government began to move villages in highland areas to lowland settlements, in a stated effort toward rural development, increasing access to services and decreasing shifting cultivation – though the practice was also motivated by the government’s desire to monitor and assimilate these communities. By the 1990s, relocation was also part of a national plan to eradicate opium production. Villagers, who mostly came from the Lao Sung indigenous groups, were encouraged or often coerced to move to ‘focal sites’ that were ‘consolidated’ villages and adopt entirely different means of subsistence, either paddy farming or wage labour. Studies on resettlement have found its impact include elevated mortality rates, increased poverty, cultural loss and conflict, particularly in overpopulated settlements. Some estimates suggest that more than half of highland villages have ‘disappeared’ or been relocated.
Buddhism is the unofficial state religion and is playing an increasingly prominent role in state functions. Decree 92, passed in 2002, extended state control over religious practice, requiring registration of organizations, approval to print religious literature, build religious facilities and travel abroad for religious meetings. Buddhism was exempt from Decree 92. A similar text – Decree 315 – replaced Decree 92 in August 2016. Like its predecessor, Decree 315 provides consderable leeway to local authorities to regulate local religious practice, explaining why treatment of minority religious groups can vary widely depending on local official attitudes to inter-faith cooperation and dialogue. A key difference between the two legal documents is that Decree 315 also appears to regulate Buddhist groups, extending registration requirements to them.
While many religions are generally practiced freely under government control, practitioners of Protestant Christianity, the majority of whom are ethnic minorities, especially Khmou, Brou and Hmong, have been targeted: arrests, detentions, destruction of churches, forced renunciations and ‘re-education’ are common. Reports of repression of Protestant minorities are on the increase. In February 2015, five Christians from Savannakhet Province were sentenced to nine months in prison and a significant fine on charges of practising medicine without a permit for praying for a dying woman. They were already detained on charges of holding an illegal church congregation in a building without a permit. In both 2016 and 2017, there were further reports of detentions of Christian converts, as well as the use of detention and other forms of pressure to force Christians to renounce their faith.
Reports of human rights violations, however, can be hard to verify. Laos takes a highly repressive approach to media and civil society and does not tolerate even mild criticism of government policy. A series of new decrees further restrict freedom of speech, limiting the type of information that can be shared online and requiring foreign media to submit articles to the government before publication. Government regulations now also place foreign NGOs under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with further legislation limiting the ability of local NGOs to receive foreign funding. A long history of restrictions on freedom of expression, only increasing over time, have prevented any strong indigenous or minority civil society from developing.
Similarly, the situation of the persecuted Hmong community is difficult to independently verify. Hmong are an indigenous people that have been persecuted by the Lao military for their role in supporting American-led anti-communist campaigns before the current government took control in 1975. In the mid-2000s, many fled to Thailand and reported their experience fleeing from military attacks, remaining isolated and in desperate need for food and medical care. The Thai government forcibly repatriated many Hmong after 2009, and many were detained in prison-like ‘repatriation camps’ in Laos. Since then, there has reportedly been an increase in attacks by the Laos military, forcing thousands more into internal displacement in Xiangkhouang province, but these reports are difficult to verify. In February 2016, international media reported that a new governor had been assigned to Xaysomboun province, owing to the deaths of three soldiers and Chinese nationals linked to mining projects in the provinces, which some have attributed to Hmong resistance forces.
Human presence in today’s Laos goes back thousands of years, as stone tools indicate the existence of settlements from at least 10,000 years ago. From the thirteenth century this region becomes part of modern history, after the ancestors of the Lao Lum started to migrate southward from Yunnan, China. They established the country’s first kingdom, known as Lan Xang, in the fourteenth century and also introduced Buddhism into Laos. This kingdom split in the early eighteenth century into two competing parts: the northern or upper Luang Phabang, and Vientiane in the south. Both parts came under the sway of Siam (now Thailand) at the start of the nineteenth century. The French presence in the region in the nineteenth century brought Thai domination to an end; Siam was forced to recognize a French protectorate over Laos in 1893, leading to its incorporation into French Indochina. Laos was occupied by Japan during World War II and ‘recovered’ by France in 1946.
Laos eventually gained full independence in 1955, but power struggles between the Pathet Lao, a Communist Laotian nationalist movement, and the central government, marred the country for decades. The power struggles took on an ethnic dimension: Western powers supported a royalist faction of the predominant lowland Lao, and also some hill tribe groups, particularly the Hmong, while the North Vietnamese supported another lowland Lao faction, the Pathet Lao.
During the war years, the Pathet Lao promised that all national minorities would be able to preserve their customs and traditional culture and join in the management of the country. The Pathet Lao recruited many minority group members to their party, and, after taking power in 1975, involved tribal leaders in positions of authority, particularly at the provincial and district levels.
However, the communist regime considered that traditional cultures included superstitions and individualistic ways that were inimical to collectivized national economic development. Many ethnic minorities objected to policies of conscription and forced labour, attempted prohibitions on swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture, the collectivization of customary lands and resettlement to lower elevations.
In the early 1970s, huge US bombing campaigns in the areas peopled by ethnic minorities resulted in widespread internal displacement. In 1975, following the communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Pathet Lao took control. This led to a tenth of the population fleeing to Thailand, fearful of the new government’s collectivization schemes, and a large-scale programme of political imprisonment and forced labour.
Groups of Hmong soldiers continued to resist the Pathet Lao after it took control of the country in 1975 and subsequently engaged in armed resistance since then, occasionally with covert American assistance at the early stages. In 2006 more than 400 Hmong who had been in hiding since the end of the conflict handed themselves in to authorities. The next year US prosecutors charged a group of nine people, including a former general Vang Pao, with attempting to launch a coup in Laos, though the charges against Pao were dropped shortly afterwards.
While Laos entered a period of isolation after 1975, maintaining close relations only with Vietnam, economic necessity forced the country to reopen in the early 1990s. From this period onwards Laos started to move away from communism and embrace capitalism. In recent years the country has engaged loans from international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, and developed a significant tourist trade. However, despite the country’s economic growth, poverty has remained widespread with many Laotians lacking access to health care and other essential services. Furthermore, many development programmes have had a negative impact for minorities in Laos: it is predicted that the vast Xayaburi dam, approved by the government in 2012, will cause widespread displacement and devastate the local environment, with ethnic Lao Theung disproportionately affected.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic remains a one-party state dominated by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The 1991 Constitution outlined a system composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but in practice the monopoly of power of the LPRP remained unchanged. This control has extended over all aspects of society, with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the outside generally excluded from entering or operating in the country. This has had the effect of hampering the emergence of an independent civil society outside of governmental control.
Economic liberalization in the 1990s did not loosen the LPRP’s tight control. Much of Laos’s potential for economic development lies in indigenous peoples’ areas. They face similar problems to indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, whose lands and ways of life are being ‘developed’ at the behest, and for the primary benefit of, the lowland majorities and foreign economic interests. Indigenous people are targeted for mass resettlement, largely against their will. Presented under the guise of development programmes aiming to suppress the opium trade and swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture, as well as to improve access to health, education and other social services, resettled ethnic minorities often find that the state in effect expropriates their land and natural resources with inadequate compensation, if any.
The Constitution, as amended in 2003, appeals to the ideal of inter-ethnic solidarity, continually referencing the ‘multi-ethnic Lao people,’ but never directly uses the term ‘ethnic minorities’ or ‘indigenous peoples’. Article 8 asserts that the state will promote ‘unity and equality among all ethnic groups,’ and prohibits all acts that create ‘divisions and discrimination among ethnic groups’; ethnic groups are given the right to ‘protect, preserve and promote the fine customs and cultures of their own tribes and of the nation’; and the state will ‘gradually develop and upgrade the socio-economic levels of all ethnic groups’. Education is guaranteed, especially for ‘ethnic groups’ (Article 22). All citizens are equal ‘irrespective of ethnic group’ (Article 35); citizenship is granted regardless of ethnicity.
The LPRP held its 10th Party Congress in January 2016 since it came to power in 1975. ‘Ethnic minority’ representation in the party increased from 7 to 15 in the 69-member LPRP Central Committee and from 2 to 3 in the 11-member Politburo following Party Congress elections in January 2016. In National Assembly elections held in March 2016, 119 seats of the 149 seats were allocated to the Lao-Tai majority, with the remaining 30 held by ‘ethnic minorities’ (20 Lao Theung and 10 Lao Soung). While these numbers reflect a measure of ethnic representation, it is largely superficial, as all Party members are expected to the tow the official line and do not exercise independent political autonomy.
Updated July 2018
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