The largest groups comprising the Lao Sung (‘high mountain Lao’), are the Hmong (9.2 per cent of the population), followed by the Akha (1.8 per cent) and Mien (Yao).
The Hmong are themselves subdivided into four main groups based on the dominating colours of some of their clothing: the White Hmong, Striped Hmong, Red Hmong and Black Hmong). Hmong and Yao are more recent immigrants mainly from southern China who migrated to Laos in the nineteenth century. The Yao live mainly in Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang and Bokeo. Most are animists and continue to practise Chinese ancestor worship, though some are followers of Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity.
Living mainly at altitudes above about 1,000 metres, the Hmong and Yao practise shifting cultivation of dry rice and corn, as well as opium. They also raise a variety of farm animals and conduct a largely barter economy.
Under pressure as the Han Chinese population and conquest expanded into southern parts of what is today China, many Lao Sung increasingly moved southwards. A series of wars with the Qing dynasty during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eventually led to the settlement of hundreds of thousands Hmong and others into the South-East Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand.
There is also a tradition of Hmong and Yao conflict with the Tai and Mon-Khmer, who resided on the lower elevations of the same mountain ranges and who often outnumbered the Lao Sung. During the Vietnam War, Hmong were armed by the US, who used them to fight the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. Hmong continued to fight after the Pathet Lao took control, until they were defeated by North Vietnamese troops, after which many fled to Thailand. Large numbers of Hmong refugees resettled in the United States.
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. By the 1990s, relocation was part of a national plan to eradicate opium production as well. Villagers, who mostly came from the Lao Sung indigenous groups, were encouraged or often coerced to move to ‘focal sites’ that are ‘consolidated’ villages and adopt entirely different means of subsistence, either to paddy
farming or wage labour. Resettlement was shown to increase mortality rates by 70 per cent in some communities, frequently resulted in lack of resources and generated conflict, particularly in over-populated settlements. These programmes were also criticized for ‘Laoiticizing’ indigenous cultures, generating conflict between groups, and importantly, alienating indigenous peoples from their right to their traditional lands and livelihoods.
Indigenous peoples in Laos have low education enrolment rates, due to geographical access, combined with understaffed schools and Lao as the language of instruction. Ethnic minority boarding schools were instituted, but they use national curriculum with a focus on Lao urban culture with Lao speaking teachers and are located in lowland areas far removed from students’ social and cultural environments, resulting in high dropout rates.
Access to healthcare is a primary concern for highland indigenous peoples, where health indicators like mortality, infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are consistently higher in remote northern provinces. Many live in areas with no health services. Malaria is a particular problem in lower altitude relocation sites, while district health centres remain understaffed and poorly equipped.
The government’s anti-drug campaign, implemented with support from the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the United States and the European Union, resulted in a large reduction in opium poppy cultivation. Akha, Hmong and Khmu are among the main growers of opium, and the plant has been traditionally cultivated for medicinal use. Eradication programmes, however, have not adequately addressed the loss of livelihood for indigenous populations, and many remain deeply impoverished. Opium eradication has also been used to justify resettlement of indigenous peoples from the remote highlands to lowlands areas.
Some of the descendants of ethnic Hmong who fled into the jungles after the war still live in hiding in the Laotian jungle, persecuted because of their grandparents’ decision to support the US army. 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, who were then detained in prison-like ‘repatriation camps’. Hmong also reported an increase in attacks by the Laos military in 2016, forcing thousands more into internal displacement, but given the remoteness and strict control on foreign media the reports were difficult to confirm.
Updated July 2018