Laos, or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a mainly mountainous, landlocked poor country located in South-East Asia, surrounded by Myanmar (Burma), the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The country’s unusual position helps explain the country’s vast ethnic diversity. Its landscape is thickly forested due to Laos’ tropical climate, and much of the country consists of rugged mountains. The Mekong River flows along the western boundary with Thailand.
Main languages: Lao, Mon-Khmer language group
Main religions: Buddhism (65%), animism (32.9%) (CIA World Factbook, 2007)
The country’s total population is 6.5 million (CIA World Factbook, 2007)
Minority Groups: Lao Theung (22%), Lao Sung, including the Hmong and the Yao (9%), ethnic Vietnamese/Chinese (1%) (CIA World Factbook, 2007)
Laos is one of South-East Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries: a somewhat surprising situation given the relatively small size and population of around 6 million, but probably due to its location, mountainous terrain and tropical climate. The numerous ethnic groups are often distinguished into three categories 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: Lao Tai, Mon-Khmer, Chinese-Tibetan and Hmong-Mien.
Officially, the Laos government only recognizes 49 ethnic groups. The actual number 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 (estimates as to their actual share of the population vary hugely, from 30% to 60%) and other smaller groups speaking Tai-Kadai languages represent together perhaps 69 per cent 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 tribes are Buddhists, most remain animists.
The Lao Sung, as their name indicates, live mainly in the mountainous regions of Laos and are divided between numerous groups, mainly though not exclusively belonging to the Chinese-Tibetan and Hmong-Mien language families, and include the Hmong (Miao), Yao (Mien), Tai dumm, Dao, Shan, Lua and Khammu. Together they make up about 10 per cent of the country’s population.
In terms of religious minorities, animism is still common among many of the highland ethnic groups, while a small Christian minority is present in Vientiane, as well as some Muslims in the border region near Myanmar. There are also very small Chinese and Vietnamese minorities, numbering probably only a few thousand.
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 the Second World War 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 tribal 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 tribal 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.
After 1975 Laos entered a period of isolation, maintaining close relations only with Vietnam, until 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.
Groups of Hmong soldiers continued to resist the Pathet Lao after it took control of the country in 1975 and have engaged in armed resistance since then, occasionally with covert American assistance at the early stages. Despite the surrender of a number of them over the years they have continued to suffer attacks against both civilian and military targets.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic remains a one-party state dominated by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. A new constitution in 1991 outlines a system composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but in practice the monopoly of power of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party remains 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 has not loosened the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party’s tight control. Much of Laos’s potential for economic development lies in the areas peopled by tribal minorities. Thus Laotian tribal minorities face similar problems to indigenous peoples elsewhere in the developing 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. In recent years this has led to resettlement plans that particularly affect highland ethnic groups. Presented under the guise of development programmes aiming to suppress the opium trade and 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.
Though in theory the Constitution of Laos protects basic human rights and contains numerous mentions of the rights of ethnic groups, the rule of law and legal institutions are extremely underdeveloped in the country, making the implementation of these rights more theoretical than real, especially for vulnerable groups such as minorities.
The moves in recent years towards the liberalization of the economy have led to an increase in the violation of the rights of ethnic minorities in Laos. The government has embarked on a programme to relocate mainly ethnic Lao Sung farmers to lowland areas as part of an attempt to suppress opium production and end slash-and-burn agriculture by 2010. Reports in 2006 indicate that this has not always occurred voluntarily – though in some cases it has – nor has the promised compensation or other financial support for resettled minorities always been provided. Given that most of the resettled families who have lost their land, resources and livelihood are members of highland ethnic minorities, claims of discrimination have continued to be voiced. The loss of traditional resources and farming areas before alternative economic activities were established has resulted in worsening economic and social conditions for these minorities; it has also disrupted the indigenous hill tribes’ way of life and often left them with insufficient land to earn a living and few of the promised health and education services. This has also had a hugely negative impact on traditional cultural practices of many of these ethnic minorities.
Land reform begun in the early 1990s was designed to stop deforestation and intensify agricultural production through the development of private ownership of land.
Resentment has been strong among some ethnic minorities – particularly in the highlands – who appear to be disadvantaged with respect to land allocations and titles. A 2001 Asian Development Bank report indicates that in three out of four of the country’s regions, this has led to increased poverty. A 2003 report highlights that many ethnic minorities find it difficult to obtain land titles through the Land Titling Project, or are unable to do so.
Ethnic minorities continue to be particularly vulnerable given that the ethnic Lao largely control the Parliament and the upper echelons of government. Despite an official 2004 policy permitting the establishment of local NGOs, these have been slow to emerge and none of those that have begun to operate in the capital Vientiane deal specifically with indigenous or ethnic minorities.
Official government policy has for a long time stated that ethnic minority children have a right to education in their first language, but the practice has never lived up to these aspirations: to a large extent, teaching in most minority languages is simply non-existent, as are even basic materials, such as dictionaries and other reference sources, for most of them. Indications after 2004 seem contrary towards this policy and place a greater emphasis on literacy in the majority Lao language as part of a so-called modernizing drive.
Religious minorities at times continue to experience harassment from local authorities, even resentment of their beliefs, though central government officials usually intervene to stop such practices. Despite a 2002 decree permitting the publication of religious material, Christian and other non-Buddhist groups usually fail to receive the necessary authorization from the government.
According to a March 2007 report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council by the Society for Threatened Peoples ethnic minorities in Laos face limitations of their religious freedom. For instance Lao Christians were arrested for sharing and spreading their beliefs among families and fellow-villagers.
There are also Vietnamese and Chinese minorities in Laos, though their exact number is difficult to ascertain: the ethnic Vietnamese tend to be concentrated along the Laos–Vietnam border areas and in the cities, whereas Chinese presence goes back centuries, tending to be concentrated in the cities of Vientiane and Savannakhet.
Already under construction in 2007, the Nam Theun 2 dam, located in the central Lao provinces of Khammuane and Bolikhamzy, is one of the biggest and most controversial projects in the region, impacting a river system on which 130,000 people depend for their fishing and farming-based livelihoods. According to the International Rivers Network 6,200 Lao Tai villagers have already been forced to move from their ancestral lands in order to make way for the dam's reservoir, which stretches 450 km².