The population is ethnically diverse, but a complete classification of all ethnic groups has never been undertaken. 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.
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.
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.
Government policy 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.
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.
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