Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The indigenous peoples comprising the Lao Theung designation mostly belong to the Mon-Khmer language family, residing in middle elevation zones (typically between 300 and 900 metres) between the Lao Loum and the highland Lao Sung.
Largely animist, only a few of these groups have adopted Buddhism. The largest Lao Theung group is the Khmou in northern Laos at 11 per cent of the population. Other main ethnic groups include Sasseng, Loven, So and Bru (Brao) in southern Laos and Alak, Ataouat, Cao, Cheng, Halang, Halang Doan, Katang, Langya, Monom, Ngeh, Ngung Bo, Nha Heun, Noar, Pacoh, P’u Noi, Sapuan, Sayan, Sork, Sou, Thap, The and Ven. Most today live in southern Laos near the Bolovens plateau or in the north near China and Vietnam. The use of metal remains taboo for some of these groups.
The traditional Lao Theung culture evolved around mobile villages which would be located in an elevated clearing. Several families would construct and share long, rectangular stilt homes of wood and bamboo. Fields would be cleared by burning, and then planted with rice, corn and other crops for a few years. The whole village would then move, and the process repeated after the soil had lost its fertility over several years.
The Lao Theung are probably the original inhabitants of Laos, having migrated into this part of South-East Asia in prehistoric times. They were gradually displaced into the uplands by the migrations of the Lao Loum, who began to move from the north about 1,000 years ago. It was after their displacement by the Lao Loum that the Lao Theung were to become referred to as Kha, or slave-servant, as most slaves until the nineteenth century were Lao Theung. The derogatory term can still be heard on occasion.
French colonial rule over the area in the nineteenth century was to see authorities favour the ethnic Lao Loum in terms of access to education and employment in colonial institutions, and contributed to resentment among the Lao Theung, some of whom rebelled in the early 1900s against Lao Loum and French domination. This simmering resentment at the identification of Laos as a mainly Lao Loum state in terms of the languages and cultural traditions being supported by authorities in turn probably contributed to the significant numbers of Lao Theung joining the Pathet Lao in the 1950s, in which they played an important role.
The Pathet Lao’s victory after 1975 – with the support of many ethnic groups, such as those belonging of the Lao Theung – helps explain the high visible support the country’s minorities enjoy, at least in terms of stated policy and constitutional documents. The result from 1975 of this particular historical evolution was to be an increase in the number of Lao Theung entering the national and provincial administrations, though they still remain under-represented despite this improvement.
The Lao Theung generally have a much lower standard of living than the Lao Sung or Lao Tai, and their situation has not changed dramatically in recent years. Though some have a long-standing relationship with the Pathet Lao, their traditional villages and swidden agricultural activities are coming increasingly under pressure from recent land reform programmes aimed at discouraging deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture, and at developing private ownership of land. There are reports suggesting that many of the Lao Theung are being dispossessed and not benefiting from these initiatives, all the while being prevented from continuing their traditional activities.
There are reports that resettlement efforts are leading to the assimilation of Lao Theung minorities into the dominant Lao culture, as they are under pressure to adopt ethnic Lao languages and practices, a similar experience to the groups referred to as Lao Sung.
Updated July 2018