28 September 2004

Laos: Minorities

Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in mainland Southeast Asia.... Laos lies between the major states of the region: China on its northern border, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the far south, Thailand to the south and west, and Burma in the northwest. Populations from all of these neighbours overlap into Laos. Unlike these other countries, the lowland, ethnic Lao after whom the country is named, do not constitute an overwhelming majority of the population. The 1995 census shows the Lao making up around 2.4 million of a total population of just over 4.5 million, that is, just over half the population. If, however, an ethnolinguistic classification is used--lumping together all speakers of Tai dialects, of which Lao is one--then the Tai-Lao group rises to just over 3 million, or just over two-thirds of the population. By contrast, in all the neighbouring countries the dominant ethnic group--Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese--make up 80 per cent of the population or more. The balance between the different ethnic groups in Laos is therefore unusual, with political attractions to particular ways of drawing the ethnic map....

For centuries the region was dominated by Theravada Buddhist kingdoms that waxed and waned until the idea of national states took hold in the nineteenth century, largely in response to pressures from European colonial powers.

Culturally the minorities in Laos apparently fall outside the framework of these Theravada Buddhist kingdoms. However, some of them, such as those around Luang Prabang or in Champassak, played a central role in various state rituals presided over by a Theravada Buddhist king or prince. Besides the minorities directly caught up in traditional Lao state ritual there may also be important symbolic congruities between Buddhist polities and some of the upland societies. The overthrow of the monarchy in Laos in 1975, however, gutted the traditional symbolic forms of integration, with only less encompassing symbols of Lao nationalism substituted.

French colonialism (1893-1953) brought with it the trappings of the modern state, which demands much greater control over its citizenry than any premodern state. This often upset traditional arrangements, sometimes causing revolts. These revolts, however, were not 'anti-colonial' in any simple sense. For example, a 1914 revolt by Haw Chinese traders against the French occurred because the latter were trying to enforce their monopoly on the opium trade.

The Hmong were relative newcomers to Laos, their migrations beginning in the early nineteenth century, and therefore their growing presence finally demanded a redistribution of power in the highlands, which the French facilitated. They were also important economically because they grew opium. The centre of Hmong population was Xieng Khoang Province, and a dispute among clans there would ultimately lead one side into the arms of the Lao communists and the others to support the Royal Lao Government (RLG).

As the new Lao state took shape, the administrative integration of this important highland population gathered pace. In 1946 Touby Lyfoung became the assistant governor of the province, while in 1947 his brother Toulia became one of the province's representatives in the new National Assembly. Touby regarded the granting of citizenship to the Hmong in the 1947 Constitution as truly momentous. In 1965 he even became a member of King Sisavang Vatthana's Council. He encouraged Hmong participation in Lao national and annual festivals, and in particular the learning of Lao language and education. While social and cultural change among the Hmong accelerated in the 1950s, including the influence of Christian missionaries, it was not traumatic.

The war that swept through the highlands of Laos in the 1960s, and Xieng Khoang in particular, not only severely upset the highland habitat, but also led to high casualties among the minorities. One Hmong soldier, Vang Pao, rose to the rank of general and he and his multi-ethnic troops, many of them irregulars, spearheaded fighting against the Lao communists, and in particular North Vietnamese regulars sent against them. The military defeat of the RLG by the communists caused hundreds of thousands of minorities to flee as refugees after 1975.
SOURCE: "Laos: Minorities," by Grant Evans, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 210-212

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