Ethnic minorities and indigenous people

Lao PDR is the most ethnically diverse country in Southeast Asia. Lao people comprise four main ethno-linguistic families: Lao-Tai (62.4 percent), Mon-Khmer (23.7 percent), Hmong-Iu Mien (9.7 percent), and Chine-Tibetan (2.9 percent)1, which are officially divided into 50 ethnic groups2 The 50 ethnic groups in the country can be further broken down into more than 200 ethnic subgroups.3

Chart by: Open Development Laos. Source: (Lao-Tai, Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Iumien, and Chine-Tibetan)

These 50 ethnic groups are geographically dispersed and were historically referenced in terms of three topographic locations: the Lao Loum (lowlands), Lao Theung (mid-lands), and Lao Soung (uplands). These categorizations also implied traditional agricultural production systems, with lowland peoples generally cultivating paddy rice, and midland and upland peoples pursuing shifting cultivation practices.4

As of the 1981 Conference on Ethnic Minorities, the Lao government officially retired these three geographic categorizations previously applied to ethnic groups, in favor of a system dividing Lao people into the four ethno-linguistic families previously mentioned (Lao-Tai, Mon-Khmer, Hmong-lu Mien, and Chine-Tibetan).5 This step was made due to changing agricultural practices and geographies among ethnic groups that made the classifications somewhat inaccurate. Still, despite this change, the terms Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Soung are often used colloquially in present-day conversation.

The Lao-Tai ethnic-linguistic family is composed of eight individual ethnic groups, and generally inhabits lowland areas. The Mon-Khmer family includes 33 individual ethnic groups. There are two ethnic groups belonging to the Hmong-lu Mien ethno-linguistic family, and seven groups belonging to the Chine-Tibetan family. Both Hmong-lu Mien and Chine-Tibetan peoples have traditionally inhabited the uplands of Laos. Buddhism is the most common religion in Lao-Tai groups, while animism is prevalent in non-Lao-Tai groups.6

Chart: Trees of ethno-linguistic groups 2018. Created by: Open Development Laos. Source: Douangtavanh Kongphaly. 2018. “List of all ethnicity in Laos.” License: MIT

Of individual ethnic groups, the Lao ethnic group (Lao-Tai family) is the largest, accounting for 53 percent of the total population of Laos. The Khmou ethnic group (Mon-Khmer family) accounts for 11 percent, with Hmong people (Hmong-lu Mien family) accounting for roughly nine percent.

Chart: Proportions of ethnic groups in Laos. Created by: Open Development Laos. Source: Lao Statistics Bureau. 2016. “Results of Population and Housing Census 2015.” and Lao Statistics Bureau. 2006. “Population Census Lao PDR 2005.

The Lao government does not use the word ‘indigenous’. While the expression ‘ethnic minorities’ is sometimes used, the government officially considers all citizens, including ethnically Lao people, to belong to ‘ethnic groups’, which are not specific to minorities.7 This approach is used mainly because the government wants to promote unity among Lao people, by eliminating differences amongst ethnic groups. In this piece, the term “ethnic minorities” will be used to reference people from groups other than the Lao ethnic group, for the sake of clarity.

Legal and institutional framework around ethnic groups

All ethnic groups in Lao PDR are subject to the same legal and institutional framework. The 1991 Constitution of Lao PDR and current Constitution of 2015 state that “the State pursues the policy of promoting unity and equality among all ethnic groups”, and forbids any act of division and discrimination.8 9 The 1992 Ethnic Minority Policy, or Resolution of the Party Central Organization Concerning Ethnic Minority Affairs in the New Era, was intended to gradually improve ethnic groups’ access to services and eradicate discrimination. The policy also called for reeducating ethnic minorities to abandon ‘backwards’ customs, though, suggesting that efforts to promote unity and equality may result in attempted cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities.10

The Guideline on Ethnic Group Consultation (2012) calls for the engagement of all ethnic groups in any relevant development projects and activities, both in regard to the potential benefits, as well as positive and negative impacts on their livelihood and environment. It requires the provision of opportunities for ethnic groups to discuss their concerns.11 Still, meaningful consultation with ethnic groups (and all citizens more broadly) before development projects begin has been a continuing topic of concern among civil society in Laos.

The Land Law (2003) stipulates that all land in Lao PDR is the property of Lao population as a whole, and that the State must secure long-term rights to land by ensuring protection, use, usufruct, transfer and inheritance rights. However, while the law recognizes permanent and temporary land-use rights for individuals, it does not define or recognize communally held rights. Under communal land use, communities often manage common property, including upland areas, grazing land, and village-use forests. Some ethnic communities also have traditionally recognized certain forest areas as sacred forest sites, or spirit forests, which have meaningful cultural and spiritual significance. All community members are entitled to use communal land, and village authorities may grant similar use rights to those from surrounding villages. Although communal land use is an important part of the cultural, political, social and economic frameworks of many ethnic communities, there is no clear government process for registering communal land.12

In recent years, some government initiatives have shown increased potential for communal rights recognition. Communal land titling has been piloted in a handful of villages, and a communal agricultural land management (CALM) project has been pursued by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, but there are little results to report so far.13 The Land Law is also currently under revision, and recognition of customary and communal land tenure has been a key issue put forth by civil society for inclusion in the law.14

Recent Lao government policies have focused on promoting unity, at times negatively impacting certain ethnic minority groups. For example, the 7th National Socio-Economic Development Plan (NSEDP) 2011–2015 directly called for authorities to integrate smaller villages to ensure better administration and provision of services. Strategies to achieve this included requiring ethnic minority groups to relocate, removing them from traditional livelihood sources. These groups have had to struggle to adapt. Some impacts on the relocated groups originally from highland areas include high rates of malaria and dengue due to increased mosquito exposure after relocation to lowland areas.15

In August 2018, the government built off this policy of ethnic group dislocation by releasing a Law on Resettlement and Vocation, which could have sweeping impact on ethnic groups. The law permits “general resettlement” of communities living in “remote and underdeveloped areas”, which include areas pursuing shifting cultivation and “small scattered villages.”16 The law seems to expand the government’s authority to relocate communities, allowing resettlement not only in the event of development projects, but also to suit the government’s own plans. Under this law, compensation for resettlement is available for people with both formal and customary land tenure, although those with no papers may not receive compensation for their land. . The majority voting system is used for the resettlement of affected groups to new living spaces allocated by the development projects.17

The 8th National Socioeconomic Development Plan (8th NESDP) (2016-2020) focuses on a number of goals related to Laos’ development. Relevant to ethnic groups, it promotes (1) improving infrastructure in remote areas, especially those inhabited by ethnic groups; (2) social welfare policy and poverty reduction to meet specific needs and capabilities of ethnic people; and (3) promoting diverse heritage and cultural values of different ethnicities, to enhance equality and unity among multi-ethnic people.18 One strategy highlighted in the plan for promoting cultural heritage is hosting “ethnic minorities’ cultural fairs” and promoting cultural tourism.19 It is unclear whether the government has done consultation with ethnic groups about these strategies. At the same time as promoting ethnic cultures, the plan also calls for efforts to raise awareness of “the nation’s cultural values” to ethnic peoples in order “to establish a livelihood pattern that is in line with the advanced cultures”.20

Besides the national legal frameworks, the government of Laos has also ratified a number of international instruments to protect the rights of Lao people, which includes all ethnic groups. This includes:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities;
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Specifically on rights for ethnic groups, the government of Laos has ratified the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.21

Several government agencies and mass organizations have responsibility specifically on ethnic affairs. The Ethnic Minorities Committee under the National Assembly is responsible for drafting and evaluating proposed legislation related to ethnic groups. Under the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, the Institute for Cultural Research is responsible for research related to ethnic groups. And the mass organization the Lao Front for National Construction has an Ethnic Affairs Department which is considered to be the leading force for ethnic groups.22 The Department’s mission includes “mobilizing, protecting and promoting the benefits of all ethnic groups” and “relaying the requirements, frustrations and real desires of all Lao people to the higher officials.”23

Because Laos defines itself as a multi-ethnic country, most mass organizations and government agencies do have a mandate to work for all ethnic groups, but not necessarily with specific attention to non-majority ethnic groups. Very few, if any, government documents refer to specific ethnic groups that are in need of support or heightened attention. The result is that, despite the government’s intention to serve “all ethnic groups”, the unique needs of individual ethnic peoples may go unaddressed.

Lives of ethnic minority groups in Laos

Laos’s ethnic groups other than the majority Lao ethnic peoples generally live in more remote and rural areas. Upland peoples continue to practice agriculture using the traditional approach of shifting cultivation. Properly practiced, this method of farming endorses the sustainable use of forestlands. For example, rotational farming with proper management systems, without encroaching on new forestlands, can be environmentally sustainable and even carbon neutral. The Lao government’s land policy discourages shifting agriculture, though, and points to it as one of the contributors to deforestation and poverty.24 There are ongoing discussions around changing perspectives and government policies toward shifting cultivation, as the issue remains debated in Laos.25 26

In addition to discouraging shifting cultivation, the Lao government and international agencies have campaigned for eradication of opium production, which has been historically cultivated in upland (often ethnic) communities. This strategy has included relocating ethnic villages to the lowlands and promoting cash crops as alternatives to opium production. The strategy has had limited success, as many villages previously reliant on opium have not found stable livelihoods and still face persistent poverty.27

Because the lands that ethnic minority groups live on and have a connection to are generally in remote and rural areas, ethnic minorities lack access to basic services, such as education and healthcare. If there are schools or health centers, they lack instructors, staff, and supplies. This results in lower education enrollment rates and higher illiteracy among ethnic minorities, and particularly among ethnic women. It also impacts infant and maternal mortality rates: these are consistently higher in remote northern provinces where road access and electricity are limited. Furthermore, education is generally provided in the official Lao language, rather than the spoken languages of different ethnic groups, which can cause ethnic students to struggle. While the Lao government seems to view learning Lao language as a way to reduce educational inequalities, many civil society organizations see promotion of Lao language instruction as a barrier to ethnic children’s education in itself.28 29

Ethnic minority groups primarily operate under traditional and customary land law, and little legal information is generally available in their languages (as many ethnic groups do not have their written scripts). As a result, there is limited understanding of land rights under the Lao government’s statutory laws, even if there is a full understanding of their traditional claim to the land. Ethnic minorities often lack the tools to challenge land seizures, which have increased as foreign investment in Laos grows. This contributes to the continuing inequalities between the majority Lao ethnic group and the minority ethnic groups.30

Tensions between the government and certain ethnic minority individuals exist. The Hmong ethnic group, for instance, has a violent history with the Lao government. The Hmong fought with the United States government, against the Lao revolutionaries, in the 1960s and 70s in America’s ‘secret war’ in Indochina. When the Lao revolutionaries won the war, many Hmong people, and other ethnic groups that fought with the Americans, were persecuted. Those that were able fled, creating a Hmong diaspora across the world. Ongoing conflict between the government and Hmong people still remains, particularly in the jungles of Saysomboun province, where Hmong soldiers and communities hide. Some international human rights organizations point to this conflict as a sign that some Hmong individuals are still targeted by the Lao government today. 31 32

Women from the Hmong ethnic group. Source:

Recent initiatives to support ethnic groups

The Lao government currently primarily works with international donors to fund more general development projects that also have an impact on ethnic minority groups. Projects funded by large international donors, including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, often include analyses of how project activities will either benefit or adversely affect ethnic minority groups, although ethnic people are usually not the sole target beneficiaries.

One example of such a development project is the Greater Mekong Region Health Security Project, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ABD). The project dedicated US$12.6 million to capacity-building for health services. The project is centered on health issues most common among rural ethnic groups, such as misuse of antibiotics, and centered in provinces where ethnic groups have a significant presence.33

The World Bank’s Lao Road Sector Project 2 provided US$47.40 million for infrastructure in Laos, while making provision for the ways the project interacts with and protects ethnic groups. The project provides for compensation and resettlement for any lands taken for road projects. The provinces selected for the first stage were remote provinces with large ethnic group communities.34

The Lao government has also previously received funding from the World Bank for community-level development programs. $2.86 million was allocated under the Mobilizing Ethnic Communities for Improved Livelihoods and Wellbeing Project. The program was implemented by the Lao government and helped to reach 85 villages, all predominantly ethnic minorities, with seventy percent reporting improved livelihoods.35

Several other efforts have been undertaken to highlight traditional practices and cultures in Laos’ many ethnic groups. The Lao Women initiative, for instance, documented the lives of nine rural Hmong women in Xieng Khouang province across 2017 and 2018 in a series of videos highlighting their daily lives.36 The retail shop Her Works, based in Vientiane, has a goal to feature and preserve the unique handicraft practices of Laos’ ethnic groups. The business’s website and Facebook page highlight cultural practices and handicraft traditions of several of the groups which with the business works.37 The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, located in Luang Prabang, is a social enterprise which includes a museum and fair-trade handicraft store that promote the diverse cultural heritage of Laos. Exhibitions have included highlights of traditional instruments, carving practices in the Katu ethnic group, and basket weaving in the Khmou ethnic group.38

In general, because of Laos’ emphasis on creating a multi-ethnic nation (where multiple ethnic groups live together in a certain community), , specific initiatives targeting the individual needs of certain ethnic groups are limited. Civil society space for ethnic people is also limited, and there are no government-recognized civil society organizations which work specifically for the needs of ethnic groups.

Last update: 22 March 2019.


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