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Laos - People

Laos' population for 2012 is estimated at 6.5 million, dispersed unevenly across the country. Most people live in valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. Vientiane prefecture, the capital and largest city, was estimated to have about 853,000 residents in 2012. The country's population density was 27/sq. km.

About half the country's people are ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants as well as the politically and culturally dominant group. The Lao are descended from the Tai people who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium AD. The majority group, the Lao Lum or “Lao of the lowland valleys," are Theravada Buddhist and ethnically identical to people of northeast Thailand. The Lao Lum are the best educated and the most influential people in Laotian societyand government. The royal family was ethnic Lao Lum.

The three other minority groups share common characteristic as animist. The Lao Tai or “Lao of the upper valleys” are tribes who migrated into the area with the same language. The Lao Theung or “Lao of the mountainside” are the slave tribes (Kha) of Laos and descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants displaced by the Lao Lum.

The Lao Soung or “Lao of the mountaintops” are Hmong and Yao tribesmen who migrated from southern China. The Hmong grow opium poppy and are the natural warriors of Laos. Historically, the Lao Tai and Lao Theung were mistreated and discriminated against by the Lao Lum. In contrast, the independent lifestyle and cash from the sale of opium permitted the Hmong to escape the influence of the Lao Lum.

Mountain tribes of Hmong-Yao, and Tibeto-Burman (Kor and Phounoy) as well as Tai ethno-linguistic heritage are found in northern Laos. Until recently, they were known as Lao Sung or highland Lao. In the central and southern mountains, Austro Asiatic (Mon-Khmer and Viet-Muong) tribes, formerly known as Lao Theung or mid-slope Lao, predominate. Some Vietnamese and Chinese minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many left in two waves--after partial independence in the late 1940s and again after 1975.

The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism. Animism is common among the mountain tribes. Buddhism and spirit worship coexist easily. There also are small numbers of Christians and Muslims.

The official and dominant language is Lao, a tonal language of the Tai linguistic group. Minorities speak an assortment of Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Yao, and Tibeto-Burman languages. French, once common in government and commerce, has declined in usage, while knowledge of English--the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--has increased in recent years. The government is encouraging officials and students to learn English. High school students are required to take either French or English; the majority today choose English. The government introduced English at the primary school level in 2010.

The law provides for equal rights for all minority citizens and bars discrimination against them. Nonetheless, some societal discrimination persisted. Moreover, some critics charged that the government’s resettlement program for ending slash-and-burn agriculture and opium production adversely affected many ethnic minority groups, particularly in the North. The program requires that resettled persons adopt paddy rice farming and live in large communities, ignoring the traditional livelihoods and community structures of these minority groups. International observers questioned whether the benefits promoted by the government--access to markets, schools, and medical care for resettled persons--outweighed the negative impact on traditional cultural practices. Some minority groups not involved in resettlement, notably those in remote locations, believed they had little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources from their areas.

Of the 49 official ethnic groups in the country, the Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent. There were a number of Hmong officials in the senior ranks of the government and the LPRP, including one Politburo member and five members of the LPRP Central Committee. However, some Hmong believed their ethnic group could not coexist with ethnic Lao. This belief fanned separatist or irredentist beliefs among some Hmong. The government focused limited assistance projects in Hmong areas to address regional and ethnic disparities in income, which helped ameliorate conditions in the poorest districts.

Although there were no reports of attacks by the few remaining Hmong insurgent groups during the year 2011, the government leadership maintained its suspicion of Hmong political objectives. Residual, small, scattered pockets of insurgents and their families remained in remote jungle areas. The government continued to reduce its efforts to combat them actively and continued to offer “amnesty” to insurgents who surrender, but because of their past activities, amnestied insurgents continued to be the focus of official suspicion and scrutiny. The government continued to refuse most international community offers to assist surrendered insurgents directly but allowed some aid from the UN and international agencies as part of larger assistance programs.





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Page last modified: 03-06-2012 18:54:42 ZULU