About  |   Contact  |  Mongabay on Facebook  |  Mongabay on Twitter  |  Subscribe
Rainforests | Tropical fish | Environmental news | For kids | Madagascar | Photos


Laos - The Society


LAOS IS A RURAL COUNTRY whose relatively low population density has allowed the continuation of a village society reliant on subsistence agriculture. The lack of a national government infrastructure and effective transportation networks has also contributed to the relative independence and autonomy of most villages. Residence in a village thus has been an important aspect of social identity, particularly for lowland Lao ethnic groups. For many upland ethnic groups, clan membership is a more important point of social identification. For all groups, the village community has a kinship nexus, although structures differ. Rice is the staple food for all Laotians, and most families and villages are able to produce enough or nearly enough each year for their own consumption.

Laos is ethnically diverse; the population includes more than forty ethnic groups, which are classified within three general families of Lao Sung (upland Lao), Lao Theung (midland Lao), and Lao Loum (lowland Lao). The country is officially a multiethnic nation, with Lao as the official language, but relationships among the different groups have sometimes been characterized by misunderstandings and competition over natural resources. The different ethnic groups have substantially different residential patterns, agricultural practices, forms of village governance, and religious beliefs.

Only the national capital of Vientiane and a few other provincial capitals can be considered urban. These small cities are market and administrative centers that attract trading and communications activity, but they have developed very little manufacturing or industrial capacity. Daily and seasonal life in all sectors of the society is affected by the monsoon. Rice production determines periods of heavy and slack work, which are mirrored in school vacations, religious festivals, and government activity.

Most lowland Lao and some midland groups practice Theravada Buddhism, but also believe in spirits of places or of deceased persons. Upland and most midland ethnic groups are animist, with religious practices oriented toward protective or guardian spirits commonly associated with places or with a family or clan. Shamans or other spirit practitioners are recognized and respected for their divinatory and healing powers among most ethnic groups, whether Buddhist or not.

Education and social services remain rudimentary at best but are improving. In lowland villages traditional education was provided to boys and young men through the Buddhist temples. Although this practice continues in some areas, in general it has been supplanted by a national education system which, unfortunately, is hampered by limited financial resources and a lack of trained teachers. Western medical care is seldom available outside provincial or a few district centers and even then is very limited. Child and infant mortality is high, and life expectancy is the lowest in Southeast Asia; the population, however, is increasing at a rapid rate. Since the end of World War II significant differences in education, health, and demographic conditions have prevailed among the ethnic groups and between rural and urban populations.


Laos - Population


The first comprehensive national population census of Laos was taken in 1985; it recorded a population of 3.57 million. Annual population growth was estimated at between 2.6 and 3.0 percent, and the 1991 population was estimated at 4.25 million. The national crude birth rate was estimated at about forty-five per 1,000, while the crude death rate was about sixteen per 1,000. Fertility rates were consistently high from ages twenty through forty, reflecting a lack of contraceptive use. Each woman bore an average of 6.8 children.

Birth control techniques were not generally available to the population before the late 1980s, although there was limited use of oral contraceptives from the late 1960s through 1975. The government took a pronatalist stance, believing that the country was underpopulated. The overall population density was only eighteen persons per square kilometer, and in many districts, the density was fewer than ten persons per square kilometer. Population density per cultivated hectare was considerably higher, however, ranging from 3.3 to 7.8 persons per hectare. Because high fertility and poor nutrition contributed to the poor health of women and high infant and child mortality, the Federation of Women's Union since the late 1980s has advocated a policy of birth spacing to improve the health of women and their children. Official prohibitions on contraceptive technology were relaxed, but use of contraception was still low as of mid-1994 and virtually nonexistent in villages distant from provincial capitals or the Thai border. Regional differences in birth rates as of late 1988--forty per 1,000 in Vientiane and Bolikhamxai provinces versus forty-eight per 1,000 in other provinces--reflected uneven access to contraception.

<>Ethnic Diversity
<>The Refugee Population
<>Rural-Urban Distribution

Updated population figures for Laos.


Laos - Ethnic Diversity


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.



Laos - The Refugee Population


During the Second Indochina War (1954-75), particularly between 1960 and 1973, large numbers of Laotians were displaced from their villages, either to escape frequent bombings or as a result of forced relocations by one side or the other seeking to consolidate control over an area. In the eastern zone controlled by the Pathet Lao, many villages were abandoned, and the inhabitants either lived in caves, fled across the border to Vietnam (where, despite the massive United States aerial war, the bombing was less intense than in the areas to which they moved), or moved to refugee villages or camps in Royal Lao Government (RLG) areas. These villages were established along Route 13 from Savannakhét to Pakxan and continued north of Vientiane. In addition, many Hmong and Mien villages that had allied with the RLG were frequently forced to move as a result of the changing battle lines and were regularly supplied by the RLG and United States.

At the end, an estimated 700,000 persons, or about 25 percent of the population, were in some way displaced from their original homes. Many of these refugees began to return to their villages, or at least to the same general area, after the cease-fire of 1973, emptying many of the refugee villages along Route 13. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR provided some assistance in transportation and initial rice supplies, and after 1975 the government also assisted to the extent possible with its meager resources. Hmong who sided with the RLG were forced to flee after 1975.

Not all internal refugees returned to their home districts, however. Some chose to remain in more populated areas near the Mekong and the larger towns, continuing to farm land that they had cleared during the war. The fall of the RLG and increased control by government cadres over daily activities in the villages also caused many villagers to flee the country, ending up in refugee camps in Thailand. The outmigration occurred in three phases. An initial flight of RLG officials and Westernized elite began in 1975. A second period of departures by many more ordinary villagers occurred between 1977 and 1981, responding as much to economic hardship caused by poor weather and government mismanagement of the agricultural sector than to political control measures. A later period of less rapid departure lasted through the late 1980s. In all, more than 360,000 Laotians--about 10 percent or more of the population--fled the country between 1975 and 1992. This group included nearly all Western-educated Laotians, and, as political scientist Martin Stuart-Fox has noted, the loss of the intelligentsia may have set the country back an entire generation. Some upland minorities who had supported the RLG and the United States military effort also fled immediately, while other groups continued a guerrilla insurgency, which was not brought under control until after about 1979.

By the end of 1992, approximately 305,000 Laotian refugees had been permanently resettled in third countries, most commonly in the United States and France. Forty thousand Laotians--mostly Hmong-- remained in refugee camps in Thailand, and 12,000 refugees had been voluntarily repatriated to Laos under the supervision and with the assistance of the UNHCR. International agreements mandated the resettlement or repatriation of all remaining refugees in Thailand by the end of 1994.

Even without the circumstances of war, Laotian villagers traditionally have moved in search of better prospects. Because of the overall low population density, if farmland near a village became scarce or its quality declined, part or all of a village might decide to relocate where there was more potential. This pattern occurs more frequently among upland semimigratory peoples where there is a regular pattern of movement linked to the use of swidden fields, but even the lowland Lao have a history of village fragmentation in search of new lands although their investment in household or village infrastructure has tended to stabilize the population. Since the mid-1980s, the government has encouraged or compelled a number of upland villages farming swidden rice to resettle in lowland environments--a pattern also used by the RLG to more easily control villagers. In some instances, assistance in relocation and initial land clearing has been provided, while in others people have been left to fend for themselves in their new locations.



Laos - Rural-Urban Distribution


In the early 1990s, over 85 percent of the Laotian population was rural, typically living in villages ranging from ten to 200 households, or up to about 1,200 persons. Towns grew during the Second Indochina War as villagers fled to escape United States bombing. After 1975 many rural migrants returned to farming. Most of the sixteen province capitals or centers can be considered towns, although a few, such as Phôngsali, Attapu, and Xiangkhoang, are not much more than market centers with populations well under 5,000 surrounded by a somewhat denser network of neighboring villages. In 1985 Vientiane had a population estimated at about 250,000, with municipal water and electricity systems, a variety of housing, and more developed educational and health facilities than were available elsewhere in the country.

The major provincial centers are Louangphrabang--the former royal capital--Savannakhét, and Pakxé, with populations ranging from 20,000 to 109,000 and a range of services and urban amenities. The other provincial capitals are distinguished by several government buildings, a regular market--although not always daily-- at least one hotel and restaurant, and occasional air service. Towns are primarily administrative and market centers, with little or no industrial manufacturing outside of Vientiane. Aside from Vientiane and a few other provincial towns, growth was limited, and the general pattern of existence held over many generations. Most of the 121 district centers were little more than large villages with the addition of a middle school and a few score officials.





Laotian society is above all else characterized by semiindependent rural villages engaged in subsistence agricultural production. Ethnic, geographic, and ecological differences create variations in the pattern of village life from one part of the country to another, but the common threads of village selfreliance , limited regional trade and communication, and identification with one's village and ethnic group persist regardless of the setting. Rural trade networks, however, have been a part of life since the 1950s. Except near the larger towns and in the rich agricultural plains of Vientiane and Savannakhét, villages are spaced at least several kilometers apart and the intervening land variously developed as rice paddy and swidden fields or maintained as buffer forest for gathering wild plants and animals, fuelwood, and occasional timber harvest.

Ethnicity differentiates the villages but is usually not a source of conflict or antagonism. Nearly all villages are ethnically homogeneous, although a few include two or more distinct groups. Ethnic mixing often has resulted from different groups migrating to a new settlement site at about the same time, or a larger village at a crossroads or river transit point developing into a minor trading center. Ethnic identity is never absolutely immutable. Some minority Laotian individuals have adopted lowland Lao behavior and dress patterns, or intermarried with lowland Lao, and have effectively acculturated to lowland society. In some units, military service has also brought together Laotians of different ethnic groups, both before and after 1975.

Only since 1975 has there been any sense of national unity among most rural villagers. Precolonial governments depended more on a system of control at the district level with the chao muang (district chief) maintaining his own allegiance and tribute to the state. Administrative practices under the French and during the post-World War II period was confined primarily to provincial and a few district centers. The government was able to extract taxes with some facility but had little impact on the daily lives or thoughts of most villagers. However, since 1975, the government has expended considerable energy and resources on national unification, so that even isolated villages recognize the role of local government and consider themselves at some level to be part of a Laotian state.

<>Lowland Lao Society
<>Midland Lao Society
<>Upland Lao Society
<>The Pattern of Rural Life


Laos - Lowland Lao Society


Lao Loum (Laotian of the valley), have been the dominant group- -numerically, politically, and economically--since the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the fourteenth century. The Lao of the Lao Loum ethnic group comprise just over 50 percent of the total population. Other related lowland groups include the Lue and Phu Thai, who together make up an additional 15 percent of the population. Groups such as the Tai Dam and Tai Deng are included by government statistics in the general category Phu Thai despite linguistic and cultural differences from other lowland groups. Variations occur regionally and among different ethnic subgroups, but the general patterns are relatively uniform. Most officials in the RLG were Lao Loum, and despite increases in the number of minority officials in the government, the lowland Lao held a clear majority in the early 1990s. Lowland cultural patterns are frequently considered the norm in designing policy or setting development priorities.

Lao Loum traditionally live in stable independent villages situated near lowland rivers or streams. At higher elevations, villages are located in valley areas that give as much access as possible to land suitable for paddy rice cultivation. Villages are self-contained and range from around twenty to over 200 households, although they typically contain forty or fifty houses and 200 to 300 people. Usually, villages are separated by rice fields or unused land. In rural areas, there might be five kilometers or more between villages, whereas in more densely populated areas only one kilometer or less separates the settlements. Most villages have grown in population over time, and if good land becomes scarce in the vicinity, it is not uncommon for some families to migrate to another area, either individually or as a group. Individual households usually move to another village where the family has kin or friends, but larger groups have often migrated to unsettled areas. Such village fission or relocation continued into the early 1990s, although migrants had to obtain permission from the district administration before settling in a new site.

The traditional independence and relative isolation of lowland villages has been reduced since the late 1980s. Although commerce in forest products--for example, sticklac--dates to colonial times, as roads have improved and marketing networks expanded, the government has encouraged commercial production for trade and export. As long as the open economic policies of the New Economic Mechanism are operating, the process of integrating lowland villages into a national socioeconomic system will likely continue.

Lao Loum houses are built on wooden piles with the floor from one to two-and one-half meters above the ground. This style keeps the living area above the mud of the rainy season, provides a shady area under the house to work or rest during the day, and allows the house to catch breezes for natural cooling. Depending on the wealth and resources of the family, the walls and floor may be made of woven split bamboo or sawn wood; the roof is constructed from grass thatch, bamboo, wood shingles, or corrugated steel roofing sheet. Some older houses in well-off villages are roofed with clay tiles, but this style was no longer common in the early 1990s. A separate rice granary is built in the house compound, also on posts using similar construction. Livestock is sometimes kept under the house.

Houses commonly range from five by seven meters to eight by twelve meters, with the smallest size typical of a newly established household or a family that has recently moved. Most houses are built with a porch on the long side that is used for visiting and as a public area. The interior is divided into one or two sleeping rooms, a common room for visiting and eating, and a separate kitchen area or side porch. Household furnishings are simple: mats or mattresses and blankets for sleeping on the floor, a low woven bamboo and rattan table for eating, and a few pots and dishes for cooking and eating. Lao Loum sit on the floor and eat from common bowls of soup or other dishes. Steamed rice is distributed among two or three common baskets placed around the edge of the table.

Lao Loum households average between six and eight persons, but may reach twelve or so in exceptional cases. The family structure is typically nuclear or stem: a married couple and their unmarried children, or an older married couple together with one married child and his or her spouse plus unmarried children and grandchildren. Because kinship is reckoned bilaterally and flexibly, Lao Loum may maintain close social relationships with kin who are only distantly related by blood. Terms of address for persons in an older generation distinguish whether the relationship is through the father's or mother's side and elder from younger siblings.

Marriage occurs through a blend of traditional and modern practices. In earlier generations, marriages may have been arranged by the families, but at least since the 1960s, most couples usually have made their own choice, which is communicated to the parents. A bride-price is negotiated, which often defrays the expenses of the wedding. The wedding takes place at the home of the bride's family, with whom the couple initially resides either in the same house or nearby. The groom helps with farming in the bride's family for several years until the couple feels they are economically ready to establish a separate household. Even then, they may continue to farm jointly with the older generation and either divide the harvest or eat from a common granary. A bride may sometimes move into her husband's household, but uxorilocal residence is somewhat more common. Initial uxorilocal residence combined with the sequential establishment of separate households by each older sibling frequently leaves the youngest daughter and her husband to care for the aged parents and ultimately to inherit the house. All the children divide lands and other valuables.

Polygyny is traditionally allowed but uncommon since the LPDR government outlawed it shortly after coming to power. Further, having multiple wives generally was restricted to the elite because it required the ability to maintain a larger household. However, many men have mistresses. Divorce may be initiated by either party. If a couple encounters domestic difficulties, the two families usually address the problem first. If necessary, the village elders join the attempt to resolve the couple's differences and achieve a reconciliation. After a divorce, both husband and wife may return to their families of birth, unless either can make a living other than from farming. Children of divorce may remain with either parent. In the case of a spouse's death, the widow or widower may return to their natal household but more commonly maintain an independent household or remarry. The choice often hinges on the ages of children; if none are old enough to help in the fields, the family has a difficult time surviving without extra help.

The lowland Lao village economy is centered on paddy rice cultivation, and most village activities and daily life revolve around rice production. Glutinous, or sticky rice is the staple food; because it has a high starch content, sticky rice must be steamed rather than boiled. It is eaten with the fingers and dipped in soup or a vegetable or meat dish. Most Lao Loum villages are self-sufficient in rice production, although the production of individual households within a village varies. Household work centers on paddy production from the beginning of the rains in May through December when all the rice has been brought to storage. Periods of intense work occur at the time of transplanting and harvesting, and cooperative work groups are often organized among several families to help get the tasks completed in a timely manner.

Where level terrain is inadequate, lowland Lao also practice swidden rice farming. This method is less efficient than paddy rice cultivation, which provides higher and more stable yields for less work. In certain villages, swidden rice is grown only in some years as a supplement to paddy rice production, whereas in others it is planted regularly in small quantities. Some Lao Loum villages have no land suitable for rice paddies and are completely dependent on swidden rice production. Newly established villages may first clear fields and plant swidden rice for a year or two before plowing and bunding the fields to convert them to paddies.

In addition to paddy rice, most households also have a small vegetable garden and some fruit trees, either in the house compound or near a stream or other water source. Other crops include cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane, but they are usually planted only in small quantities for personal use. Villagers also raise chickens, ducks, and pigs, as well as a buffalo or two for plowing the fields and perhaps a pair of cattle for pulling a cart. In general, rural households are largely self-sufficient, growing their own food, making their own tools and clothes, and trading any surplus for soap, kerosene, medicines, and kitchen or household goods.

Hunting, fishing, and gathering traditionally play an important role in the household economy, although as the population has increased and wild areas have been degraded, access to these resources has gradually deteriorated. Homemade rifles are used to hunt small deer, wild pigs, and small game such as squirrels and birds; fish are caught with a variety of nets, traps, or hooks. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, fruit, medicinal or culinary roots, and leaves are gathered in the forest according to the season. Men hunt and fish with throw nets and hooks, while women fish with dip nets and baskets and collect roots and wild vegetables.

Household tasks are typically divided according to gender, but the divisions are not rigid, and men and women often perform tasks interchangeably. For example, both sexes cut and carry firewood. Women and children traditionally carry water for household use and to cultivate kitchen gardens. Women do most of the cooking, household cleaning, and washing and serve as primary caretakers for small children. They are the main marketers of surplus household food and other petty production, and women are usually the commercial marketers for vegetables, fruit, fish, poultry, and basic household dry goods. Men typically market cattle, buffalo, or pigs and are responsible for the purchase of any mechanical items. Intrafamily decision making usually requires discussions between husband and wife, but the husband usually acts as the family representative in village meetings or other official functions. In farming work, men traditionally plow and harrow the rice fields, while women uproot the seedlings before transplanting them. Both sexes transplant, harvest, thresh, and carry rice.

Occupational specialization in the village is low; virtually everyone is a rice farmer first. Some villagers may have special skills in weaving, blacksmithing, or religious knowledge, but these skills are supplementary to the fundamental task of growing enough rice and vegetables for the family. Social and economic stratification tends to be low within any one village, although villages may differ substantially one from another. Status accrues to age, wealth, skill in specific tasks, and religious knowledge. Factions based on kinship or political alliance may exist in a village but usually do not obstruct overall village cooperation and governance.

Traditionally, lowland Lao villages are led by a village chief (pho ban or nai ban) and one or two assistants who are elected by the villagers, although district or province officials sometimes use their positions to influence the results. Respected elders, including women, form an advisory group that deliberates intravillage disputes. Since 1975 villages have been governed by an administrative committee headed by a village president (pathan ban) and several other persons with responsibilities for such specific areas as economic and population records, self-defense militia, agriculture, women's affairs, and youth affairs. All members are in principle elected by popular vote, although for about a decade after 1975, party cadres at the village level were supposed to have taken an active role to ensure that acceptable candidates were selected.

Even under the present political system, however, village leaders have little or no formal authority and govern through consensus and the use of social pressure to ensure conformity. Village meetings are held infrequently but are usually well attended with different viewpoints on issues expressed openly. If a consensus on an issue is not reached, leaders will delay decisions to allow further discussion outside the meeting with all members of the community. Typical issues might include whether to build or expand a village school or dig a community well, or how to organize the annual ceremony for the village protective spirit. Historically, religious and ceremonial activities and ties with the Buddhist temple or monastery (wat) have been very important in village life and a focus of considerable time and expenditure.

Each family contributes equal amounts of labor, material, and money to village projects. Once a decision is made to undertake a project, a committee is appointed to manage the details and keep track of the contributions to ensure that everyone does his or her share. Systems of rotating labor groups for village projects are common; for example, groups of ten households may supply one worker per household every three to seven days, depending on the number of groups, until the project is finished. Some large projects, such as building a school, may continue for several years, with work taking place during the dry season when farming tasks are not heavy or when funds are available to purchase materials.

Households also cooperate informally, especially in agricultural work. Labor exchange occurs for almost every task associated with rice farming, although it is most common for transplanting, harvesting, and threshing. There are two different patterns of farm exchange. In central and southern Laos, villagers call on many other households, sometimes the entire village, for one day's help to complete a specific task such as transplanting. No specific repayment is required, but the family is obligated to help others in the village if they are unable to finish work in time. In northern villages, mutual assistance is organized on the basis of exchanges between families that should even out over the year; a day's work transplanting may be repaid by a day's work threshing. The contributions of men, women, and children over sixteen are considered equal, regardless of the task.

Houses are typically built by hand using local materials, and once the householder has collected enough wood, bamboo, and/or thatching grass, he will ask his neighbors and relatives to assist in the house raising. It usually takes twenty people a day or two to assemble the frame and raise the heavy timbers. Once the heavy work is completed, the owners finish construction over the ensuing weeks. In this work as well as farm labor exchange, the host family provides a meal to all those coming to help. For common farmwork, the meal is relatively simple and usually includes a chicken or duck and a bottle of local rice liquor. For a house raising, the meal is more elaborate--a pig or small ox and considerably more liquor after the task is done. Illness, death, or other household emergencies also elicit help from one's neighbors.

Lowland Lao are almost all Buddhists, and most villages have a wat, which serves as both a social and religious center. Whereas small villages may have only one or two monks in residence plus a few novice monks, larger villages may have up six monks plus novices. Many villagers assemble at the wat for prayers on the days of each lunar quarter; on days of major religious festivals, they carry out more elaborate ceremonies and may organize a boun (religious fair) at the wat. Before the development of a national education system, boys and young men received basic religious and secular education at the wat. The wat is frequently used as a place for village meetings, because the hall is often the only building large enough to accommodate everyone at once. Most villages have a small wat committee to oversee the maintenance of the building, organization of the fair, and the general welfare of the monks and novices. The committee members are selected by consensus on the basis of their morality and religious sincerity and usually have been monks at some time in their lives.

Although they are Buddhists, Lao Loum also respect the power of phi (spirits), which may be associated with a place or a deceased person. More important for village organization is the cult of a village protective deity, or phi ban, which is typically celebrated yearly. Many villages have abandoned this practice in the face of increased modernization and official discouragement by the government. However, some villages continued through the early 1990s to offer an annual sacrifice to the phi ban in a ceremony that both reaffirmed the importance of the village as a unique social unit and aimed to secure the continued good fortune of the village and its inhabitants.


Laos - Midland Lao Society


Lao Theung (Laotian of the mountain slopes), make up about 24 percent of the population and consist of at least thirty-seven different ethnic groups ranging in population from nearly 400,000-- the Kammu--to fewer than 100--the Numbri. Many of the groups have additional members in Thailand or Vietnam. Of the three main ethnic classifications, the differences among the Lao Theung groups are greater than among the Lao Loum or Lao Sung. Little is known about many of these groups, and reasonably complete ethnographic accounts are available only for a few. Most Lao Theung groups reside in a relatively limited geographic area; for example, the Nyaheun, Sedang, and Lavae mostly live in the far southern provinces of Attapu and Saravan (Salavan), whereas the Lamet reside near the border between Bokeo, Oudômxai, and Louang Namtha provinces. The Kammu live scattered throughout the north, from Xiangkhoang to Bokeo.

The Lao Theung speak languages of the Austroasiatic family, and although some languages are closely related, such as Kammu, Lamet, and Sam Tao, others are mutually incomprehensible. None of the languages has developed a written script. The geographer Christian Taillard has suggested that the Lao Theung were originally paddy rice farmers displaced by Tai migrants into the hills and mountains and forced to turn to swidden rice production. However, Karl Gustav Izikowitz's ethnography of the Lamet reports that historically they had been swidden farmers and did not cultivate paddy rice even in areas where suitable land was available. Certainly within the last two centuries, all the Lao Theung have been characterized as swidden farmers and as semimigratory because they have occasionally relocated their villages as swidden areas were exhausted. The Kammu and Lamet, who are found in northern Laos, have different social organization and agricultural ecology than the ethnic groups in southern Laos.

Most Lao Theung villages (based primarily on descriptions of the Kammu) are located on mountain slopes but not at the peaks or ridges--the name Lao Theung means roughly "the Lao up there." Since the 1950s, however, a growing number of villages have been established at lower elevations near rivers or roads, which occurred as roads were beginning to be rebuilt and expanded. Sometimes these villages were founded by people fleeing the war, and sometimes they arose out of a desire to be closer to transportation, markets, and social services. After 1975 many Hmong and some Kammu were driven out by the Pathet Lao and the Lao People's Army. Since the 1980s, the government has encouraged upland swidden farming minorities to relocate to lowland areas in order to reduce upland swidden farming and forest clearing. Kammu and Lamet villages, as well as those of some other midland groups, are relatively permanent, some remaining over fifty years in a location. Traditionally, villages managed the rotation of swidden fields in such a way as to sustain agricultural production over long periods. Individual households might move from a village to another location, or villages might merge with a second village being established a short distance away; however, the usual pattern was sedentary. Midland groups inhabiting central Laos generally have been more mobile, with villages relocated after a decade or so. However, it is not clear whether this is a long- standing pattern or a response to the unsettled conditions during the Second Indochina War.

Lao Theung villages are usually somewhat smaller than most Lao Loum villages, commonly ranging between twenty and thirty households, but sites with fifty households and 300 or more inhabitants have been reported. Houses in Lamet and Kammu villages are clustered without apparent organization or orientation, but individual sites are selected with the advice of a village spirit practitioner. Lamet villages are commonly divided into two segments by the men's common house located in the middle of the village, but a similar practice has not been recorded for the Kammu. Traditionally, in Kammu households, there is a separate common house for adolescent boys and strangers, but this practice has not been continued in many new settlements established after 1975.

The houses are built on wooden or bamboo piles between one and two meters above the ground and are at least five by seven meters in size. Usually they are larger. Construction materials include woven bamboo or sawn lumber for floors and walls and grass thatch or bamboo shingle roofing. A kitchen hearth is located inside the house, and an open porch is built on at least one end of the house. A separate rice barn, also built on piles, may be located in the village near the house (Kammu) or on the edge of the village (Lamet). Villages are commonly built near a small stream to provide drinking and washing water, which is often diverted through a bamboo aqueduct to facilitate filling buckets and bathing.

Virtually all Lao Theung groups rely on swidden rice cultivation as the basis of their household economy. Lamet and Kammu prefer glutinous rice, but some other groups prefer to eat ordinary rice. A small field house is almost always built in the fields, and all or part of the family may sleep there for days during the farming season rather than walk back to the village every day.

Swidden rice seldom yields as much as paddy fields, and the labor needed to keep weeds under control is the major constraint to expanding the area farmed. Corn, cassava, and wild tubers are thus important components of the diet to supplement a frequently inadequate rice supply. As a consequence of low rice yields, Lao Theung are generally considered to be the poorest of the three ethnic groupings in Laos. Men often come to towns to work as coolies.

In addition to farming, Lao Theung engage in hunting and gathering in the forests surrounding the village. Men shoot or trap small game and occasionally a wild pig or deer. Both women and men regularly collect bamboo and rattan sprouts, wild vegetables, mushrooms, tubers, and medicinal plants, the latter marketed by women. Fishing is common for some groups but seldom practiced by others, perhaps as a consequence of living in an upland environment distant from large streams.

Damrong Tayanin, an anthropologist of Kammu origin, has described a pattern of land tenure for the Kammu in which households own a large number of separate fields that are farmed over a twelve- to fifteen-year rotation; other households recognize these ownership rights. The claimed fields are divided among the offspring of each generation. However, no other studies mention any Lao Theung group respecting permanent rights to swidden fields. In all cases, fields that are cleared and farmed are allowed to revert to fallow after a year or two. Depending on the population-to-land balance, these fields might be allowed to lie fallow for three to over fifteen years before being cleared again. After each harvest, individual households select the fields they will clear and farm the following year. Sometimes this choice is an individual decision, but sometimes a group of households cooperates to clear and fence a single large area, which is then divided. Or a village decides which area to clear and divide among all the families in the village. Once a field is abandoned, anyone may clear it and farm. Fallow periods shorter than five to seven years lead to gradual degeneration of the swidden system, however, because they do not allow adequate regrowth of vegetation to restore the soil fertility.

Virtually all Lao Theung groups are patrilineal. Kammu and Lamet households average between six and seven persons but may be as large as twelve or fourteen persons. The ideal household consists of parents and children, wives of married sons, and grandchildren. Married sons eventually establish separate households, but a family might be temporarily augmented by a son- in-law who must live and work with the bride's parents for several years in partial payment of the bride-price. The Kammu and Lamet have eight and seven totemic clans, respectively, which provide a basis for social organization and the regulation of marriage. For the Lamet, the clans are exogamous, and each village contains at least two clans, thus providing the possibility of marriage exchanges. Kammu group the clans according to three categories-- quadruped, bird, or plant-- depending on the clan's totem. The totem is a plant or animal that was instrumental in either saving or killing the legendary clan ancestor. One must marry someone from another clan, and more particularly, men should marry real or classificatory mother's brothers' daughters. Each group of clans (for example, quadruped) always gives brides to one of the others (for example, bird) and receives brides from the third (for example, plants) in a circular relationship. Thus a village must have all three clan categories represented for marriage exchanges to proceed.

Lamet clans help in establishing relationships between persons both inside and outside a village. In the village, members of the same clan are likely to develop cooperative relationships in farming, and a man traveling outside his village might seek out fellow clan members when arriving in another village. For the Kammu, however, clan membership appears relevant only for facilitating interhousehold cooperation and for regulating marriage relationships within a village. Should a family move to another village, they may change their clan membership in order to fit into the three-group marriage exchange circle.

Marriage choices are made by the groom and bride. Once a couple agrees to marry, their parents negotiate a bride-price. Among the Lamet, the bride's family also sends a dowry. Because there are few opportunities to acquire significant wealth in villages, Kammu and Lamet young men have frequently migrated to towns or to Thailand since the 1920s to work for several years until they acquire the funds needed for a bride-price. Among the Lamet, unmarried adolescent males sleep in the communal men's house, although they work with their families during the day.

Polygyny traditionally has been allowed, but it is rare, because few men can afford a second wife. Whereas a Lamet man may marry two sisters, this practice is prohibited among the Kammu; a widow may marry her husband's brother in either culture. If he chooses not to marry her, however, the brother is still responsible for her support. Initial residence after marriage is usually patrilocal, but if the groom is unable to pay the full agreed-upon bride-price, he may be obligated to live and work in his in-laws's household for several years in lieu of the bride-price. Upon the parents' death, the sons divide items of value and, according to Damrong, rights to swidden fields and fallows. Material possessions are generally limited and include--not much more than livestock, farm and household equipment, or perhaps a few silver coins--used in traditional dress--or ingots. Wooden and bronze drums were important symbols of Lamet and Kammu household wealth in the past, but most appear to have been lost or sold during the Indochina wars.

Gender role differentiation in both farming and household activities is considerably greater among the Lao Theung than among the Lao Loum. Men are primarily responsible for clearing and burning swidden fields, although women may assist in clearing the smaller brush. Men punch holes for seed and the women follow, dropping and covering the seed with topsoil. Both sexes weed the fields, but the women are primarily responsible for this time- consuming task. Harvest is a joint activity. In the house, women cook, care for children, husk rice, cut firewood, and haul water. Women also gather roots, shoots, and other wild vegetative products. Men weave baskets, repair farm tools, and hunt small game. Men are also more likely than women to manage household finances and engage in trade, typically selling livestock and collected forest products or scrap metal from the war in exchange for rice. Izikowitz reports a significant trade of surplus rice by the Lamet and Kammu to neighboring lowland Lao villages in exchange for salt and metal implements in the 1920s and 1930s but notes rice sales were declining because of competition from other producers. Since at least the 1970s, few Lao Theung produce any surplus rice. Women may sell vegetables, chickens, or occasionally handicrafts locally but do not have the important market role of lowland Lao women. Where villages have access to primary schools, both boys and girls attend for a few years, but girls are much more likely to drop out before boys.

As in all villages in Laos, village governance is managed by an elected administrative committee consisting of a president and several other members in charge of economic affairs, self-defense, agriculture, and so on. Traditionally, the village has a chief who is the intermediary between the village and the national government. Important decisions are made by elders, who in the absence of a written script memorize agreements among village members.

Both Kammu and Lamet villages have a ritual leader (lkuun in Kammu, xemia in Lamet) who officiates at important spirit rituals that affect the entire village. This position is hereditary in the male line. Kammu and Lamet, as most Lao Theung, are animists and are respected by their lowland neighbors as being especially proficient in protecting against or propitiating spirits that may cause illness or accidents. Ancestral spirits are an important aspect of household religious and safety rituals, but above the grandparents' generation they are generalized, and the spirits of specific persons are not worshiped. Kammu and Lamet revere rather than fear the spirits of their ancestors, who protect the household and village against harm as long as they are respected and are offered sacrifices. Rituals are also performed at the start of any important undertaking, for example, at the beginning of rice planting or building a house. Taboos restrict certain activities; for example, Lamet cannot make or repair tools inside the family house but do this work in the communal men's house.

Lao Theung are socially, economically, and politically the most marginal group of the three ethnic classes. During the Second Indochina War, many Lao Theung supported the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Lao Patriotic Front--LPF), the political party of the Pathet Lao--or actively fought with the Pathet Lao. Ethnic differences and resentments against lowland Lao dominance likely stimulated some of this support, as did effective Pathet Lao recruitment activities in the remote eastern areas populated principally by Lao Theung groups. During the years immediately after 1975, Lao Theung cadre gained numerous mid-level positions in the new government, but later many were replaced by lowland Lao with greater technical training and experience. Provincial and district officials are more likely to be Lao Theung in provinces with pronounced minority populations, and geographical isolation and poor education are still barriers to the integration of all Lao minorities in national affairs. The traditional subsistence swidden agricultural societies of the Lao Theung, which involved little trade with other groups, led to a marginal economic existence for many villages in the 1990s. Numerous individual Lao Theung have adopted lowland behavioral patterns and successfully pass as lowland Lao, but prejudicial attitudes attributed to many lowland Lao continue to affect social and economic opportunities for many Lao Theung villages.


Laos - Upland Lao Society


Lao Sung (Laotian of the mountain top), include six ethnic groups of which the Hmong, Akha, and Mien (Yao) are the most numerous. As of 1993, the Hmong numbered over 200,000, with settlements throughout the uplands of northern Laos. About the same number of Hmong live in northern Vietnam, and approximately 90,000 live in Thailand; this number does not include the 30,000 Hmong that were living in Thai refugee camps at the end of 1992. Some 60,000 Akha reside for the most part in Louang Namtha, Phôngsali, and Bokeo provinces. The other upland groups are the Phu Noi, found in Phôngsali and northern Louangphrabang provinces, the Mien (in Bokeo and Louang Namtha provinces), and small populations (fewer than 10,000) of Lahu and Kui located in the far northwest. The 1985 census also classified the 6,500 Hô (Haw)--Chinese originally from Yunnan Province--with the Lao Sung. All these groups have significant populations outside Laos, and the bulk of the ethnographic information available is from studies conducted in neighboring countries.

The Lao Sung are the most recent migrants to Laos, having arrived from the north in a series of migrations beginning in the early nineteenth century. Hmong entered northwestern Vietnam from China prior to 1800, and early settlements in northeastern Laos were reported around the turn of the nineteenth century. Pioneering settlements gradually extended westward, crossing the Mekong around 1890 and reaching Tak in northern Thailand around 1930. Mien migrations, in contrast, seem to have come southeast through Burma and Thailand before reaching Laos. All Lao Sung settlements are located in the north, with only Hmong villages found as far south as Vientiane.

Lao Sung typically live on mountain tops, upland ridges, or hillsides over 1,000 meters in elevation. The name means "the Lao up high." Most groups are considered to be semimigratory; villages are moved to new locations when swidden farming resources in the old locale have been exhausted. Yet some villages have continued for more than 100 years, with individual households moving in or out during this period. Although all Lao Sung traditionally live in the uplands and engage in swidden farming, their housing styles, diet, farming techniques, kinship systems, and social organization vary from one group to another.

The Hmong make up more than two-thirds of the Lao Sung. Hmong villages in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand have traditionally been found on mountain or ridge tops, with sites selected according to principles of geomancy. Before the 1970s, villages seldom consisted of more than twenty or thirty households. Hmong rely on swidden farming to produce rice, corn, and other crops, but tend to plant a field until the soil was exhausted, rather than only for a year or two before allowing it to lie fallow. Consequently, the fields farmed by a village would gradually become too distant for easy walking, and the village would relocate to another site. The new site might be nearby or might be many kilometers distant.

The Hmong fled China (where they were traditionally paddy rice farmers) to escape persecution and pacification campaigns, gradually migrating through Vietnam and Laos, into Thailand. They adopted swidden farming in these regions by necessity because lowland basins were already settled. Small groups of households would leave an established village to start another village in relatively uninhabited upland areas. In turn, other families moving from older settlements would settle an area that had been vacated, always in search of better farmlands than those that had been left behind. As the population of both Hmong and other neighboring groups increased, it ultimately became impossible to find new unclaimed lands, and the pioneering settlement pattern ended sometime between 1960 and 1975 in western Laos and northern Thailand. Villages in the old settled areas of eastern Laos-- Xiangkhoang and Louangphrabang--in many cases have been in one location for more than thirty or fifty years and have grown in size to as many as sixty or eighty households and more than 500 persons.

Hmong houses are constructed directly on the ground, with walls of vertical wooden planks and a gabled roof of thatch or split bamboo. In size they range from about five by seven meters up to ten by fifteen meters for a large extended household. The interior is divided into a kitchen/cooking alcove at one end and several sleeping alcoves at the other, with beds or sleeping benches raised thirty to forty centimeters above the dirt floor. Rice and unhusked corn are usually stored in large woven bamboo baskets inside the house, although a particularly prosperous household may build a separate granary. Furnishings are minimal: several low stools of wood or bamboo, a low table for eating, and kitchen equipment, which includes a large clay stove over which a large wok is placed for cooking ground corn, food scraps, and forest greens for the pigs. Almost every house has a simple altar mounted on one wall for offerings and ceremonies associated with ancestral spirits.

The Hmong swidden farming system is based on white (nonglutinous) rice, supplemented with corn, several kinds of tubers, and a wide variety of vegetables and squash. Rice is the preferred food, but historical evidence indicates that corn was also a major food crop in many locations and continues to be important for Hmong in Thailand in the early 1990s. Most foods are eaten boiled, and meat is only rarely part of the diet. Hmong plant many varieties of crops in different fields as a means of household risk diversification; should one crop fail, another can be counted on to take its place. Hmong also raise pigs and chickens in as large numbers as possible, and buffalo and cattle graze in the surrounding forest and abandoned fields with little care or supervision.

Hmong have traditionally grown opium in small quantities for medicinal and ritual purposes. From the beginning of their colonial presence, the need for revenue prompted the French to encourage expanded opium production for sale to the colonial monopoly and for payment as head taxes. Production, therefore, increased considerably under French rule, and by the 1930s, opium had become an important cash crop for the Hmong and some other Lao Sung groups. Hmong participate in the cash market economy somewhat more than other upland groups. They need to purchase rice or corn to supplement inadequate harvests, to buy cloth, clothing, and household goods, to save for such emergencies as illness or funerals, and to pay bride-price. In the isolated upland settlements favored by the Lao Sung, opium poppies, a cold-season crop, are typically planted in cornfields after the main harvest. Opium, a sap extracted from the poppy plant, is almost the only product that combines high value with low bulk and is nonperishable, making it easy to transport. It is thus an ideal crop, providing important insurance for the household against harvest or health crises. The government has officially outlawed opium production, but, mindful of the critical role it plays in the subsistence upland economy, has concentrated efforts on education and developing alternatives to poppy farming, rather than on stringent enforcement of the ban. It also established a special police counternarcotics unit in August 1992.

Lao Sung farming is not mechanized but depends on household labor and simple tools. The number of workers in a household thus determines how much land can be cleared and farmed each year; the time required for weeding is the main labor constraint on farm size. Corn must be weeded at least twice, and rice usually requires three weedings during the growing season. Peppers, squash, cucumbers, and beans are often interplanted with rice or corn, and separate smaller gardens for taro, arrowroot, cabbage, and so on may be found adjacent to the swiddens or in the village. In long- established villages, fruit trees such as pears and peaches are planted around the houses.

In response to increasing population pressure in the uplands, as well as to government discouragement of swidden farming, some Hmong households or villages are in the process of developing small rice paddies in narrow upland valleys or relocating to lower elevations where, after two centuries as swidden farmers, they are learning paddy technology, how to train draft buffalo, and how to identify seed varieties. This same process is also occurring with other Lao Sung groups to varying degrees in the early 1990s as it had under the RLG.

Hmong households traditionally consist of large patrilineal extended families, with the parents, children, and wives and children of married sons all living under the same roof. Households of over twenty persons are not uncommon, although ten to twelve persons are more likely. Older sons, however, may establish separate households with their wives and children after achieving economic independence. By the 1990s, a tendency had developed in Laos for households to be smaller and for each son and his wife to establish a separate household when the next son married. Thus, the household tends toward a stem family pattern consisting of parents and unmarried children, plus perhaps one married son. Following this pattern, the youngest son and his wife frequently inherit the parental house; gifts of silver and cattle are made to the other sons at marriage or when they establish a separate residence. In many cases, the new house is physically quite close to the parents' house.

Hmong reckon kinship patrilineally and identify fifteen or sixteen patrilineal exogamous clans, each tracing their descent back to a common mythical ancestor. There are several subdivisions in Hmong society, usually named according to features of traditional dress. The White Hmong, Striped Hmong, and Green Hmong (sometimes called Blue Hmong) are the most numerous. Their languages are somewhat different but mutually comprehensible, and all recognize the same clans. Each village usually has at least two clans represented, although one may be more numerous. Wives almost always live with their husband's family.

Marriage is traditionally arranged by go-betweens who represent the boy's family to the girl's parents. If the union is acceptable, a bride-price is negotiated, typically ranging from three to ten silver bars, worth about US$100 each, a partial artifact from the opium trade. The wedding takes place in two installments, first at the bride's house, followed by a procession to the groom's house where a second ceremony occurs. Sometimes the young man arranges with his friends to "steal" a bride; the young men persuade the girl to come out of her house late at night and abduct her to the house of her suitor. Confronted by the fait accompli, the girl's parents usually accept a considerably lower bride-price than might otherwise be demanded. Although some bride stealing undoubtedly involves actual abductions, it more frequently occurs with the connivance of the girl and is a form of elopement.

As a result of a government directive discouraging excessive expenditures on weddings, some districts with substantial Hmong populations decided in the early 1980s to abolish the institution of bride-price, which had already been administratively limited by the government to between one and three silver bars. In addition, most marriages reportedly occurred by "wife stealing" or elopement, rather than by arrangement. In the past, males had to wait for marriage until they had saved an adequate sum for the bride-price, occasionally until their mid-twenties; with its abolition, they seemed to be marrying earlier. Hmong women typically marry between fourteen and eighteen years of age.

The Hmong practice polygyny, although the government officially discourages the custom. Given the regular need for labor in the swidden fields, an additional wife and children can improve the fortunes of a family by changing the consumer/worker balance in the household and facilitating expansion of cropped areas, particularly the labor-intensive opium crop. Yet the need to pay bride-price limits the numbers of men who can afford a second (or third) wife. Anthropological reports for Hmong in Thailand and Laos in the 1970s suggested that between 20 and 30 percent of marriages were polygynous. However, more recent studies since the mid-1980s indicate a lower rate not exceeding 10 percent of all households. Divorce is possible but discouraged. In the case of marital conflict, elders of the two clans attempt to reconcile the husband and wife, and a hearing is convened before the village headman. If reconciliation is not possible, the wife may return to her family. Disposition of the bride-price and custody of the children depend largely on the circumstances of the divorce and which party initiates the separation.

Hmong gender roles are strongly differentiated. Women are responsible for all household chores, including cooking, grinding corn, husking rice, and child care, in addition to regular farming tasks. Patrilocal residence and strong deference expected toward men and elders of either sex often make the role of daughter-in-law a difficult one. Under the direction of her mother-in-law, the young bride is commonly expected to carry out many of the general household tasks. This subordinate role may be a source of considerable hardship and tension. Farm tasks are the responsibility of both men and women, with some specialization by gender. Only men fell trees in the swidden clearing operation, although both sexes clear the grass and smaller brush; only men are involved in the burning operation. During planting, men punch the holes followed by the women who place and cover the seeds. Both men and women are involved in the weeding process, but it appears that women do more of this task, as well as carry more than half of the harvested grain from the fields to the village. Harvesting and threshing are shared. Women primarily care for such small animals as chickens and pigs, while men are in charge of buffalo, oxen, and horses. Except for the rare household with some paddy fields, the buffalo are not trained but simply turned out to forage most of the year.

As with all Laotian ethnic groups, there is virtually no occupational specialization in Hmong villages. Everyone is first and foremost a subsistence farmer, although some people may have additional specialized skills or social roles.

Hmong are animists, although a small number have converted to Christianity as a result of contact with Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. Most believe that spirits are a common cause for illness. Shamans (txiv neeb) who can treat spirit- induced illness are respected and play an important role in the village, often being consulted to tell fortunes. Shamans may be either male or female and are usually "chosen" by the spirits after the former have suffered a long illness. Other men and women may know curing rites but do not enter a trance as a shaman does.

Village stratification is limited but based primarily on clan membership and wealth. Often the clan that founded a village dominates it, either because of numerical majority or because early settlement facilitated access to the better fields. A family's wealth derives primarily from work and good luck. The ability to produce enough rice, or even a little to sell, and a decent opium harvest depend on having enough workers in the family to clear and care for more extensive swidden fields than average. Livestock, particularly buffalo and cattle, are another important source of mobile wealth. This wealth, however, is subject to loss through disease, just as savings of silver, livestock, or cash can be lost almost overnight if the family experiences a serious illness that reduces the workforce at a critical time or that requires the sacrifice of chickens, pigs, or even a buffalo for curing rituals. Proceeds from sales of opium and livestock not immediately consumed are usually converted into silver bars or jewelry for safekeeping.

In contrast to the Buddhist wat or the men's common house in Lao Loum, Kammu, and Lamet villages, there is no building or other central point in a Hmong village. Hmong cultural norms are more individualistic, and the household is more important than the village. Despite greater overall village permanence than in former times, individual households may come and go, usually in search of better opportunities but occasionally because of conflict with relatives or neighbors. The decline of migrating villages has been a gradual process since the 1940s. As opportunities for pioneering settlements have disappeared, households often relocate to be near other clan members or less-distant relatives.

Village governance is usually in the hands of a president and administrative committee, but clan elders have important consultative or advisory roles in all decisions. Interhousehold cooperative relationships occur less often than among the Lao Loum and appear limited to labor exchanges for some farming tasks and assistance at house raisings. Most cooperation takes place among brothers or cousins, and it is primarily close kin who can be relied upon for assistance in the case of family hardship or emergency. Lacking any other resource, Hmong will look for help from any other member of the same clan.

Hmong and other Lao Sung groups have traditionally lived in villages distant from Lao Loum or Lao Theung settlements, although trade in rice, forest products, and other market goods has stimulated contact between the groups. As the population of both Lao Sung and Lao Loum groups increased after the war, Lao Sung expansion of swidden fields had an impact on the watersheds of Lao Loum rice paddies. Northern Lao Loum who cannot produce enough rice on limited paddy fields have also begun to clear swiddens in the middle elevations. For the most part, there has been no overt conflict, and trade and casual contact have continued, but long- standing ethnic prejudice continued to color interethnic relations in these regions of closer contact and competition for land in the early 1990s.

At the same time that roads in remote provinces were being improved and international trade opened in the late 1980s, the Thai government imposed a ban on logging and timber exports following extensive deforestation and catastrophic floods. Thai logging companies quickly turned to Laos as an alternate source of tropical hardwoods. This suddenly increased demand for tropical timber has stimulated additional competition for hitherto unvalued forestland and provoked increased criticism of upland swidden farming groups. Although traditional levels of swidden farming did not cause the same level of land and forest damage as have recent logging activities, government statements increasingly have attributed rapid deforestation to swidden clearing and have envisioned the abolition of all upland swidden cultivation soon after the year 2000. Thus, in the 1990s, there may be more pressure on arable land in the uplands than previously. However, other analysts have noted the great impact of legal and illegal logging, as well as the encroachment of lowland Lao farmers into the uplands since the end of the Second Indochina War. A continuing low-level insurgency against the government, substantially led by Hmong refugees who formerly fought for the RLG, is a further source of official mistrust directed at some Hmong and other minority groups. Government efforts to resettle Hmong and other swidden farming communities in lowland sites are motivated by security concerns--as was the case under the RLG in the 1960s and 1970s--and by competition for timber, but may lead to increased disaffection of the minorities affected.


Laos - The Pattern of Rural Life


For Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Sung, the rhythm of life is strongly tied to the changing seasons and the requirements of farming. For swidden farming villages, the work year begins in January or February when new fields are cleared. This time of the year is also good for hunting and for moving to a new village. Opium farmers harvest the resin between January and March, depending on location and variety of poppy, but otherwise there are few agricultural activities. Swidden fields are burned around March and must be planted in May or June, just before the first rains. From the time the seeds sprout until August, work revolves around the never-ending task of weeding. Hunting and fishing continue, and with the coming of the rains, the forest begins to yield new varieties of wild foods.

For paddy farmers, the agricultural year begins with the first rains, when a small seedbed is plowed and planted. The seedlings grow for a month or so while the remaining fields are plowed and harrowed in preparation for transplanting. Transplanting requires steady work from every able-bodied person over a period of about a month and is one of the main periods of labor exchange in lowland villages.

Swidden farmers begin the corn harvest as early as September, and short-season rice varieties mature soon after the corn. Paddy rice seldom ripens before October, however, and the harvest may continue through early December in some areas, although midNovember is more usual. Even late swidden rice is finished by early November. Harvesting and threshing the rice are the principal activities during the second period of intense work in the farm year. Dry-season rice farmers repeat the same cycle, but vegetables, tobacco, or other cash crops require a more even labor input over the season.

Food availability parallels the seasons. Wild foods and fish are abundant during the rainy season, although the months just before the corn ripens may be difficult if the previous year's harvest was inadequate. Fruit is available during the rainy and cool dry seasons, but becomes scarce, as do most vegetables, from March through May. Hmong and Mien celebrate their new year in December or January, when the harvest is complete but before the time to clear new fields. Lowland Lao celebrate their new year on April 15, also shortly before the start of the farming year. The harvest is marked by the That Luang festival, on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, which falls in late November or early December.

Because most roads are in poor condition, travel in the rainy season is generally difficult, and villagers tend to stay close to home, because of farmwork as well as the ever-present mud. The dry season brings easier land travel and the free time it allows. Since the late 1980s, a few rural villagers have begun to travel to regional population centers in search of temporary wage employment, often in construction.




With a population of somewhat over 250,000 in 1985, Vientiane is the only city of any size in Laos. Three provincial capitals have populations of more than 20,000--Louangphrabang with 20,000, Savannakhét with 109,000, and Pakxé with 50,000. The 1985 census classified 15 percent of the population as "urbanized," but this figure includes the populations of all district centers, most of which are little more than large villages of 2,000 to 3,000 persons. The expanded marketing and commercial opportunities resulting from economic liberalization in 1986 have somewhat stimulated urban growth. Vientiane planners anticipate an annual population expansion of 5.4 percent through the year 2000, and many of the more rural provincial capitals also are growing at a significant rate in the early 1990s.

Urban centers, for the most part, have developed from villages that expanded or grew together around an administrative or trading center. Louangphrabang is the historical capital of the kingdom of Lan Xang, and Vientiane and Pakxé are also centers of earlier kingdoms. Migration of the Lao Loum into the region resulted in the establishment of muang, semi-independent principalities, which sometimes formed a larger state entity but which always preserved a certain autonomy as a result of transportation and communication difficulties. Many of the original districts, have since become district centers, and the word itself is used for this political division. Although district centers rarely had more than a few thousand people as the mid-1990s approached, they serve as secondary administrative posts and marketing centers for the surrounding villages and are the location of the medical clinic and lowersecondary school--grades six through eight--for the vast majority of the rural population.

Population displacement during the Second Indochina War caused growth in some cities--Vientiane, Louangphrabang, and the main lower Mekong Valley towns--but depopulation of centers in the eastern liberated zones. Xiangkhoang was destroyed by bombing in 1969, and Xam Nua and Phôngsali were virtually depopulated. These provincial capitals have been revived since 1975, but their geographic isolation inhibits rapid growth. The capital of Xiangkhoang was relocated twenty kilometers north to the village of Phônsavan. Administrative centers of several districts were also relocated after 1975 in order to make them more central to all villages in the district.

Historically, towns were located along major rivers or in upland valleys and were primarily populated by Lao Loum and small populations of Vietnamese merchants, artisans, and civil servants (imported by the French), as well as by Chinese and Indian traders. Migration of refugees during the Second Indochina War brought an increased minority population, which grew even faster after 1975 because officials of the new regime, many of whom were Lao Theung and Lao Sung, moved into administrative posts in Mekong towns. So many Chinese and Indian merchants left Laos during the war that these groups accounted for only a small portion of the urban population in 1994. Many Vietnamese who were sympathetic to the RLG also fled, although an unknown number of advisers from North Vietnam were posted to Vientiane and other major centers. The Vietnamese population was nevertheless unlikely to exceed a few thousand in any towns other than Vientiane and Savannakhét.

All provincial capitals were centers of marketing, administration, education, and health care, but not of manufacturing because there was virtually no industrial production outside the Vientiane area. As of mid-1994, each capital had at least one upper-secondary school-- often the only one in the province--along with specialized technical schools for agriculture, teacher training, or public health. Almost every province capital also had a hospital, but the quality of care and the availability of medicines--although greater than that in villages--were frequently limited.

Everywhere, the basic village character of society is evident. Even in Vientiane, a substantial number of the inhabitants are paddy rice farmers, either as their main occupation or as important supplemental work. Government officials' salaries are inadequate to support a family, and many officials rely on family members to secure their basic rice supply by farming. Cities and towns are also important markets for vegetables and fruit produced in the nearby villages; the trade volume remains small outside of Vientiane but has stimulated the gradually increasing market orientation of rural producers.

Traditional festivals and religious ceremonies are observed in towns much as in villages and are often organized on the basis of a neighborhood, which is typically defined by the boundaries of a formerly separate village. Family life-cycle ceremonies frequently draw guests from outside the neighborhood but rely on close neighbors and relatives to help with food and other preparations, as in a village.

Between 1975 and 1990, urban amenities such as hotels, restaurants, and cinemas were virtually absent outside of Vientiane, Savannakhét, and Louangphrabang. A few towns had government-operated guest houses for official travelers and one or two restaurants with a limited menu. Travelers in most district centers and even some provincial capitals could find a meal only by making arrangements with a family or the caretaker assigned to the guest house. Town markets are also limited in size and number. After the economic reforms of the late 1980s, however, private restaurants and hotels opened in most provincial centers and larger districts. Official travel increased, and more important, Laotian merchants, foreign delegations, and tourists again began to travel within the country.

Sanitation services and utilities are not widespread. As of mid-1994, only a few of the larger towns had municipal water systems, and none had sewerage services. Electrification is a limited but important feature of urban life. Outside of the Vientiane area, Thakhek, Louangphrabang, and Savannakhét, most district centers did not have electricity in the early 1990s. Even in towns, electric power is limited to a few hours a day. Automobile batteries and voltage inverters are widely used as a power source to watch television or listen to a stereo cassette player.

The presence of a foreign diplomatic and aid community has had a significant effect on the economy of Vientiane, both in terms of direct aid and through employment of Laotians by the missions and as domestic help. In response, Vientiane merchants stock imported consumer goods such as electronics, clothing, and food, items purchased by Laotians much more than by foreigners. A once dormant service sector of automobile and truck repair, tailors, barbers, and hairdressers has begun to revive. Patrons at restaurants and the six disco establishments are also predominantly Laotians, reflecting the increased income available to private-sector businessmen and employees of foreign organizations. Foreign assistance in Vientiane during the early years of the LPDR helped to develop several upper-secondary schools and technical-training schools and improve the two main hospitals.

However, Laotian cities failed to attract the rural population, as cities do in other countries, because they offer little obvious economic opportunity and because the rural areas offer the possibility of making a decent living within communities that had not been socially or economically fragmented by the forces of modernization. Further, the government initially had explicitly anti-urban policies. Other towns had experienced less in-migration than Vientiane; this pattern is likely to change if economic opportunities arise in secondary towns or if competition for land and forest resources--or restrictions on access--increase to the point of reducing the rural standard of living. Nevertheless, even if a town does not dominate the region, it has an impact on the lives of people living in the surrounding area. The larger the population of a town, the greater the town's impact on the region. For example, farmers within about fifteen kilometers of Louangphrabang grow vegetables for sale in the town market. In Vientiane, this radius expands to forty kilometers; some village residents commute up to thirty kilometers each way to government or private jobs in the capital. Through these contacts, new ideas and material goods filter into rural areas.





Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and the organization of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy. The faith was introduced beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was widespread by the fourteenth century. A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism. Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists in the early 1990s, as well as some Lao Theung who have assimilated to lowland culture. Since 1975 the communist government has not opposed Buddhism but rather has attempted to manipulate it to support political goals, and with some success. Increased prosperity and a relaxation of political control stimulated a revival of popular Buddhist practices in the early 1990s.

Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and preserved in Sri Lanka after Mahayana Buddhism branched off in the second century B.C. Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant school in Thailand and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism is neither prescriptive, authoritative, nor exclusive in its attitude toward its followers and is tolerant of other religions. It is based on three concepts: dharma, the doctrine of the Buddha, a guide to right action and belief; karma, the retribution of actions, the responsibility of a person for all his or her actions in all past and present incarnations; and sangha, within which a man can improve the sum of his actions. There is no promise of heaven or life after death but rather salvation in the form of a final extinction of one's being and release from the cycle of births and deaths and the inevitable suffering while part of that cycle. This state of extinction, nirvana, comes after having achieved enlightenment regarding the illusory nature of existence.

The essence of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha: suffering exists; suffering has a cause, which is the thirst or craving for existence; this craving can be stopped; and there is an Eightfold Path by which a permanent state of peace can be attained. Simply stated, the Eightfold Path consists of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right thinking, and right meditation.

The average person cannot hope for nirvana at the end of this life, but by complying with the basic rules of moral conduct, can improve karma and thereby better his or her condition in the next incarnation. The doctrine of karma holds that, through the working of a just and impersonal cosmic law, actions in this life and in all previous incarnations determine which position along the hierarchy of living beings a person will occupy in the next incarnation. Karma can be favorably affected by avoiding these five prohibitions: killing, stealing, forbidden sexual pleasures, lying, and taking intoxicants. The most effective way to improve karma is to earn merit (het boun--literally, to do good--in Lao). Although any act of benevolence or generosity can earn merit, Laotians believe the best opportunities for merit come from support for the sangha and participation in its activities.

Traditionally, all males are expected to spend a period as a monk or novice prior to marriage and possibly in old age, and the majority of Lao Loum men probably did so until the 1970s. Being ordained also brings great merit to one's parents. The period of ordination need not be long--it could last only for the three-month Lenten retreat period--but many men spend years in the sangha gaining both secular and religious knowledge. Study of the Pali language, in which all Theravada texts are written, is a fundamental component of religious training. Ordination as a monk also requires a man to comply with the 227 rules of the monastic order; novices--those under twenty years old--must obey seventy- five rules; and lay persons are expected to observe the five prohibitions. Only a few women, usually elderly, become Buddhist nuns; they live a contemplative and ascetic life but do not lead religious ceremonies as do monks.

Monks are trying to develop detachment from the world and thus, may have no possessions but must rely on the generosity of people for food and clothing. These gifts provide an important opportunity for the giver to earn merit. Women are more active than men in preparing and presenting rice and other food to monks, who make their morning rounds through the town carrying a bowl to receive offerings that are their only nourishment for the day. In villages where there are only a few monks or novices, the women of the village often take turns bringing food to the wat each morning. Attendance at prayers held at the wat on the quarter, full, and new moon of each lunar cycle also provides a regular means of gaining merit.

Major religious festivals occur several times a year. The beginning and end of the Lenten retreat period at the full moon of the eighth and eleventh months are occasions for special offerings of robes and religious articles to the monks. During Buddhist Lent, both monks and laity attempt to observe Buddhist precepts more closely. Monks must sleep at their own wat every night-- rather than being free to travel--and are expected to spend more time in meditation. Offerings to monks and attendance at full-moon prayers are also greater than at other times. Vixakha Bouxa, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha at the full moon of the sixth month--usually May--corresponds with the rocket festival (boun bang fai), which heralds the start of the rains. The date of Boun Phavet, which commemorates the charity and detachment of Prince Vessantara, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, varies within the dry season, and, aside from its religious orientation, serves as an important opportunity for a village to host its neighbors in a twenty-four-hour celebration centering on monks reciting the entire scripture related to Vessantara. That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the nationally important festival and fair in November.

For the Lao Loum, the wat is one of the two focal points of village life (the other is the school). The wat provides a symbol of village identity as well as a location for ceremonies and festivals. Prior to the establishment of secular schools, village boys received basic education from monks at the wat. Nearly every lowland village has a wat, and some have two. Minimally, a wat must have a residence building for the monks and novices (vihan), and a main building housing the Buddha statues (sim), which is used for secular village meetings as well as for prayer sessions. Depending on the wealth and contributions of the villagers, the buildings vary from simple wood and bamboo structures to large, ornate brick and concrete edifices decorated with colorful murals and tile roofs shaped to mimic the curve of the naga, the mythical snake or water dragon. An administrative committee made up of respected older men manages the financial and organizational affairs of the wat.

Buddhist ceremonies generally do not mark events in a life- cycle, with the exception of death. Funerals may be quite elaborate if the family can afford it but are rather simple in rural settings. The body lies in a coffin at home for several days, during which monks pray, and a continual stream of visitors pay their respects to the family and share food and drink. After this period, the body is taken in the coffin to a cremation ground and burned, again attended by monks. The ashes are then interred in a small shrine on the wat grounds.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the Pathet Lao attempted to convert monks to the leftist cause and to use the status of the sangha to influence the thoughts and attitudes of the populace. The effort was in many ways successful, despite efforts by the RLG to place the sangha under close civil administrative control and to enlist monks in development and refugee assistance programs. Political scientist Stuart-Fox attributed the success of the Pathet Lao to the inability of the Lao Loum elite to integrate the monarchy, government, and sangha into a set of mutually supportive institutions. Popular resentment of the aristocracy, division of the sangha into two antagonistic sects, the low level of its religious education and discipline, and opposition to foreign (i.e., Western) influence all contributed to the receptiveness of many monks to Pathet Lao overtures. The politicization of the sangha by both sides lowered its status in the eyes of many, but its influence at the village level augmented popular support for the Pathet Lao political platform, which paved the way for the change in government in 1975.

The LPDR government's successful efforts to consolidate its authority also continues to influence Buddhism. In political seminars at all levels, the government taught that Marxism and Buddhism were basically compatible because both disciplines stated that all men are equal, and both aimed to end suffering. Political seminars further discouraged "wasteful" expenditures on religious activities of all kinds, because some monks were sent to political reeducation centers and others were forbidden to preach. The renunciation of private property by the monks was seen as approaching the ideal of a future communist society. However, Buddhist principles of detachment and nonmaterialism are clearly at odds with the Marxist doctrine of economic development, and popular expenditures on religious donations for merit making are also seen as depriving the state of resources. Thus, although overtly espousing tolerance of Buddhism, the state undercut the authority and moral standing of the sangha by compelling monks to spread party propaganda and by keeping local monks from their traditional participation in most village decisions and activities. During this period of political consolidation, many monks left the sangha or fled to Thailand. Other pro-Pathet Lao monks joined the newly formed Lao United Buddhists Association, which replaced the former religious hierarchy. The numbers of men and boys being ordained declined abruptly, and many wat fell empty. Participation at weekly and monthly religious ceremonies also dropped off as villagers under the watchful eye of local political cadre were fearful of any behavior not specifically encouraged.

The nadir of Buddhism in Laos occurred around 1979, after which a strategic liberalization of policy occurred. Since that time, the number of monks has gradually increased, although as of 1993, the main concentrations continue to be in Vientiane and other Mekong Valley cities. Buddhist schools in the cities remain but have come to include a significant political component in the curriculum. Party officials are allowed to participate at Buddhist ceremonies and even to be ordained as monks to earn religious merit following the death of close relatives. The level of religious understanding and orthodoxy of the sangha, however, is no higher than it had been before 1975, when it was justly criticized by many as backward and unobservant of the precepts.

From the late 1980s, stimulated as much by economic reform as political relaxation, donations to the wat and participation at Buddhist festivals began to increase sharply. Festivals at the village and neighborhood level became more elaborate, and the That Luang festival and fair, which until 1986 had been restricted to a three-day observance, lasted for seven days. Ordinations also increased, in towns and at the village level, and household ceremonies of blessing, in which monks were central participants, also began to recur. Although the role of Buddhism has been permanently changed by its encounter with the socialist government, it appears that Buddhism's fundamental importance to lowland Lao and to the organization of Lao Loum society has been difficult to erase, has been recognized by the government, and will continue for the foreseeable future.



Laos - Animism


Despite the importance of Buddhism to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups, animist beliefs are widespread among all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) colors the relationships of many Lao with nature and community and provides one explanation for illness and disease. Belief in phi is blended with Buddhism, particularly at the village level, and some monks are respected as having particular abilities to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person or to keep them out of a house. Many wat have a small spirit hut built in one corner of the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the beneficent spirit of the monastery.

Phi are ubiquitous and diverse. Some are connected with the universal elements--earth, heaven, fire, and water. Many Lao Loum also believe that they are being protected by khwan (thirty-two spirits). Illness occurs when one or more of these spirits leaves the body; this condition may be reversed by the soukhwan--more commonly called the baci--a ceremony that calls all thirty-two khwan back to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the affected participants. Cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the participants to keep the spirits in place. The ceremony is often performed to welcome guests, before and after making long trips, and as a curing ritual or after recovery from an illness; it is also the central ritual in the Lao Loum wedding ceremony and naming ceremony for newborn children.

Many Lao believe that the khwan of persons who die by accident, violence, or in childbirth are not reincarnated, becoming instead phi phetu (malevolent spirits). Animist believers also fear wild spirits of the forests. Other spirits associated with specific places such as the household, the river, or a grove of trees are neither inherently benevolent nor evil. However, occasional offerings ensure their favor and assistance in human affairs. In the past, it was common to perform similar rituals before the beginning of the farming season to ensure the favor of the spirit of the rice. These ceremonies, beginning in the late 1960s, were discouraged by the government as successive areas began to be liberated. This practice had apparently died out by the mid1980s , at least in the extended area around Vientiane.

Ceremonies oriented to the phi commonly involve an offering of a chicken and rice liquor. Once the phi have taken the spiritual essence of the offering, people may consume the earthly remains. The head of a household or the individual who wants to gain the favor of the spirit usually performs the ritual. In many villages, a person, usually an older man believed to have special knowledge of the phi, may be asked to choose an auspicious day for weddings or other important events, or for household rites. Each lowland village believes itself protected by the phi ban, which requires an annual offering to ensure the continued prosperity of the village. The village spirit specialist presides over this major ritual, which in the past often involved the sacrifice of a water buffalo and is still an occasion for closing the village to any outsiders for a day. To liang phi ban (feed the village spirit) also serves an important social function by reaffirming the village boundaries and the shared interests of all villagers.

Most Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups are animists, for whom a cult of the ancestors is also important, although each group has different practices and beliefs. The Kammu call spirits hrooy, and they are similar to the phi of the Lao Loum; the house spirit is particularly important, and spirits of wild places are to be avoided or barred from the village. Lamet have similar beliefs, and each village must have one spirit practitioner (xemia), who is responsible for making all the sacrifices to village spirits. He also supervises the men's communal house and officiates at the construction of any new houses. When a spirit practitioner dies, one of his sons is elected by the married men of the village to be his successor. If he has none, one of his brother's sons is chosen. Ancestor spirits (mbrong n'a) are very important to the Lamet because they look out for the well-being of the entire household. They live in the house, and no activity is undertaken without informing them of it. Ancestor spirits are fond of buffalos; thus buffalo skulls or horns from sacrifices are hung at the altar of the ancestors or under the gable of the house. Numerous taboos regarding behavior in the house are observed to avoid offending ancestral spirits.

Hmong also believe in a variety of spirits (neeb), some associated with the house, some with nature, and some with ancestors. Every house has at least a small altar on one wall, which is the center of any ritual related to the household or its members. Annual ceremonies at Hmong New Year renew the general protection of the household and ancestral spirits. The spirit of the door is important to household well-being and is the object of another annual ceremony and sacrifice. As with other Lao groups, illness is frequently attributed to the action of spirits, and spirit practitioners are called to carry out curing rites. Two classes exist: ordinary practitioners and shamans. Ordinary priests or the household head conduct the household ceremonies and ordinary divinations. The shaman may be called on to engage in significant curing rituals.

According to Hmong belief, spirits reside in the sky, and the shaman can climb a ladder to the heavens on his magical horse and contact the spirits there. Sometimes illness is caused by one's soul climbing the steps to the sky, and the shaman must climb after it, locate it, and bring it back to the body in order to effect a cure. During the ritual, the shaman sits in front of the altar astride a wooden bench, which becomes his or her horse. A black cloth headpiece covers vision of the present world, and as the shaman chants and enters a trance, he or she begins to shake and may stand on the bench or move, mimicking the process of climbing to heaven. The chant evokes the shaman's search and the negotiations with the heavenly spirits for a cure or for information about the family's fortune.

Hmong shamans are believed to be chosen by the spirits, usually after a serious or prolonged illness. The illness would be diagnosed by another shaman as an initiatory illness and confrontation with death, which was caused by the spirits. Both men and women can be summoned in this way by the spirits to be shamans. After recovery from the illness, the newly-called shaman begins a period of study with a master shaman, which may last two or three years, during which time he or she learns the chants, techniques, and procedures of shamanic rites, as well as the names and natures of all the spirits that can bring fortune or suffering to people. Because the tradition is passed orally, there is no uniform technique or ritual; rather, it varies within a general framework according to the practice of each master and apprentice.




Education Prior to the Lao People's Democratic Republic

Of the many ethnic groups in Laos, only the Lao Loum had a tradition of formal education, reflecting the fact that the languages of the other groups had no written script. Until the midtwentieth century, education was primarily based in the Buddhist wat, where the monks taught novices and other boys to read both Lao and Pali scripts, basic arithmetic, and other religious and social subjects. Many villages had wat schools for novices and other village boys. However, only ordained boys and men in urban monasteries had access to advanced study.

During the colonial period, the French established a secular education system patterned after schools in France, and French was the language of instruction after the second or third grade. This system was largely irrelevant to the needs and life-styles of the vast majority of the rural population, despite its extension to some district centers and a few villages. However, it did produce a small elite drawn primarily from the royal family and noble households. Many children of Vietnamese immigrants to Laos--who made up the majority of the colonial civil service--also attended these schools and, in fact, constituted a significant proportion of the students at secondary levels in urban centers. Post-secondary education was not available in Laos, and the few advanced students traveled to Hanoi, Danang, and Hué in Vietnam and to Phnom Penh in Cambodia for specialized training; fewer still continued with university-level studies in France.

The Pathet Lao began to provide Lao language instruction in the schools under its control in the late 1950s, and a Laotian curriculum began to be developed in the late 1960s in the RLG schools. In 1970 about one-third of the civilian employees of the RLG were teachers, although the majority of these were poorly paid and minimally trained elementary teachers. At that time, there were about 200,000 elementary students enrolled in RLG schools, around 36 percent of the school-age population.

<>Education since 1975


Laos - Education since 1975


An important goal of the LPDR government was to establish a system of universal primary education by 1985. The LPDR took over the existing RLG education system that had been established in 1950s and restructured it, facing many of the same problems that had also confronted previous governments. The French system of education was replaced with a Laotian curriculum, although lack of teaching materials has impeded effective instruction. An intensive adult literacy campaign was initiated in 1983-84, which mobilized educated persons living in villages and urban neighborhoods to bring basic reading and writing skills to over 750,000 adults. Largely as a result of this campaign, those able to read and write had increased to an estimated 44 percent. According to the United Nations (UN), by 1985 those able to read and write were estimated at 92 percent of men and 76 percent of women of the fifteen to forty-five age-group. Because few reading materials are available, especially in the rural areas, many newly literate adults lose much of their proficiency after a few years.

The decision to establish universal education led the government to focus its efforts on building and staffing schools in nearly every village. Because resources are limited, most schools are poorly constructed--of bamboo and thatch--and staffed by only one or two teachers who are paid low wages, usually in arrears. Many village schools have only one or two grades, and books, paper, or other teaching materials are conspicuous by their scarcity.

School enrollment has increased since 1975. In 1988 primary school enrollment was estimated at 63 percent of all school-age children. In 1992-93 an estimated 603,000 students were in primary school, compared to 317,000 students in 1976 and 100,000 students in 1959. However, the goal of achieving universal primary education was postponed from 1985 to 2000 as a result of the lack of resources.

Because teachers are paid irregularly, they are forced to spend significant amounts of time farming or in other livelihood activities, with the result that in many locations classes are actually held for only a few hours a day. Because of irregular classes, overcrowding, and lack of learning resources, the average student needed eleven to twelve years to complete the five-year primary course in the late 1980s. Repetition rates ranged from 40 percent for the first grade to 14 percent for the fifth grade. Dropouts also were a significant problem, with 22 percent of all entering first graders leaving school before the second grade. In the late 1980s, only 45 percent of entering first graders completed all five years of primary school, up from 18 percent in 1969.

Performance statistics vary according to rural-urban location, ethnic group, and gender. Enrollment and school quality are higher in urban areas, where the usefulness of a formal education is more evident than in rural farming communities. Isolated teachers confronted with primitive rural living and teaching conditions have a difficult time maintaining their own commitment as well as the interest of their pupils. Ethnic minority students who have no tradition of literacy and who do not speak Lao have a particularly difficult time. Unless the teacher is of the same or similar ethnic group as the students, communication and culturally appropriate education are limited. Because of these factors, in the late 1980s the enrollment rate for the Lao Sung was less than half that of the Lao Loum; enrollment was also low for Lao Theung children.

Girls are less likely than boys to attend school and attend for fewer years--a discrepancy that was declining, however, in the early 1990s. In 1969 only 37 percent of students in primary school were girls; by 1989, however, 44 percent of primary school students were girls. Because of Lao Sung cultural attitudes toward girls' and women's responsibilities, girls in these groups accounted for only 26 percent of all students.

Secondary education enrollment has expanded since 1975 but as of mid-1994 is still limited in availability and scope. In 1992-93 only about 130,000 students were enrolled in all postprimary programs, including lower- and upper-secondary schools, vocational programs, and teacher-training schools. The exodus of Laotian elite after 1975 deprived vocational and secondary schools of many of their staff, a situation that was only partly offset by students returning from training in socialist countries. Between 1975 and 1990, the government granted over 14,000 scholarships for study in at least eight socialist countries; just over 7,000 were to the Soviet Union, followed by 2,500 to Vietnam, and 1,800 to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

In mid-1994 the school year was nine-months. The ideal sequence included five years of primary school, followed by three years of lower-secondary school and three years of upper-secondary school. Some students go directly from primary or lower-secondary school to vocational instruction, for example, in teacher-training schools or agriculture schools.

Local secondary education is concentrated in the provincial capitals and some district centers. Dropout rates for students at secondary and technical schools are not as high as among primary students, but the gender and ethnic group differentials are more pronounced. In the late 1980s, only 7 percent of lower-secondary students were Lao Sung or Lao Theung, a rate that dropped to 3 percent in upper-secondary school. For most students who do not live in a provincial center, attendance at secondary school requires boarding away from home in makeshift facilities. This situation further discourages students in rural areas from pursuing further education, with additional differential impacts on girls and minorities. Vientiane has the majority of advanced schools, including the national teachers' training school at Dong Dok, the irrigation college at Tad Thong, the agriculture college at Na Phok, the National Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Medical Sciences. Even so, the level of training available at these schools is low.

In 1986 the government began to reform the education system, with the goals of linking educational development more closely to the socioeconomic situation in each locality, improving science training and emphasis, expanding networks to remote mountainous regions, and recruiting minority teachers. The plan envisioned making education more relevant to daily realities and building increased cooperation in educational activities among the various ministries, mass organizations, and the community. However, the ability to implement this program through its scheduled completion in 2000 depends on a significant budgetary increase to the educational sector in addition to receiving significant foreign aid. Education accounted for only 8 percent of government expenditures in 1988, down from a 10 to 15 percent range during the preceding seven-year period, and cultural expenditures also were not accorded a high priority.

Although more school texts and general magazines are being printed, poor distribution systems and budgetary constraints limit their availability throughout the country. Overall, 3.9 million books were printed in 1989, including school texts published by the Ministry of Education, and novels, stories, and poems published by the Ministry of Information and Culture. Translations into Lao of various Russian-language technical, literary, and children's books were available through the Novosti press agency. Virtually all these materials are inexpensive paperbound editions. Distribution of school texts is improving, and magazines and novels can occasionally be found in district markets distant from Vientiane. Thai printed material--for the most part, magazines and books--was available after the late 1980s in a few shops. Yet, in the early 1990s, it was rare to see a book or any other reading material in rural villages, with the exception of political posters or a months-old edition of the newspaper Xieng Pasason (Voice of the People) pasted on a house wall.




Public Health

Health and health care in Laos were poor in the early 1990s. Although diets are not grossly inadequate, chronic moderate vitamin and protein deficiencies are common, particularly among upland ethnic groups. Poor sanitation and the prevalence of several tropical diseases further eroded the health of the population. Western medical care is available in few locations, and the quality and experience of practitioners are, for the most part, marginal, a situation that has not improved much since the 1950s.

The life expectancy at birth for men and women in Laos was estimated in 1988 at forty-nine years, the same as in Cambodia but at least ten years lower than in any other Southeast Asian nation. High child and infant mortality rates strongly affected this figure, with the Ministry of Public Health estimating the infant mortality rate at 109 per 1,000 and the under-five mortality rate at 170 per 1,000 in 1988. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) believed these figures underestimated the true mortality rate but still represented decreases from comparable rates in 1960. Regional differences were great. Whereas the infant mortality rate for Vientiane was about 50 per 1,000, in some remote rural areas it was estimated to be as high as 350 per 1,000 live births; that is, 35 percent of all children died before the age of one.

Children's deaths are primarily due to communicable diseases, with malaria, acute respiratory infections, and diarrhea the main causes of mortality as well as morbidity. Vaccination against childhood diseases was expanding, but in 1989 Vientiane's municipal authorities still were unable to vaccinate more than 50 percent of targeted children. Other provinces have much lower rates of immunization. Malaria is widespread among both adults and children, with the parasite Plasmodium falciparum involved in 80 to 90 percent of the cases.

In the first malaria eradication program between 1956-60, DDT was sprayed over much of the country. Since 1975 the government has steadily increased its activities to eradicate malaria. The Ministry of Public Health operates provincial stations to monitor and combat malaria through diagnosis and treatment. Prevention measures involve chemical prophylaxis to high-risk groups, elimination of mosquito breeding sites, and promotion of individual protection. The campaign has had some success: the ministry reported a decline in the infected population from 26 percent to 15 percent between 1975 and 1990.

As of 1993, diarrheal diseases were also common, with regular outbreaks occurring annually at the beginning of the rainy season when drinking water is contaminated by human and animal wastes washing down hillsides. Only a few rural households have pit or water-seal toilets, and people commonly relieve themselves in the brush or forested areas surrounding each village. For children in these villages, many of whom are chronically undernourished, acute or chronic diarrhea is life-threatening because it results in dehydration and can precipitate severe malnutrition.

Although nutrition appears to be marginal in the general population, health surveys are of varying quality. Some data indicate that stunting--low height for age--in the under-five population ranged from 2 to 35 percent, while wasting--low weight for height--probably does not exceed 10 percent of the under-five population. These figures reflect village diets based predominantly on rice, with vegetables as a common accompaniment and animal protein--fish, chicken, and wild foods--eaten irregularly. Children aged six months to two years--the weaning period--are particularly susceptible to undernutrition. The nutritional status of adults is related closely to what is being grown on the family farm, as well as to dietary habits. For example, fresh vegetables and fruits are not highly valued and therefore are not consumed in adequate amounts. As a result, it is likely that vitamin A, iron, and calcium deficiencies are common in all parts of the country.

<>Health Infrastructure
<>Social Welfare


Laos - AIDS


Permissive attitudes of Laotian men toward sex and prostitution facilitated the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) during the 1980s and 1990s, making HIV infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) a growing concern. In 1992 a focused sample of about 7,600 urban residents identified one AIDS case and fourteen persons who tested HIV positive. No other statistics were available as of mid-1994.

The government convened a conference on AIDS in 1992, which noted the potential for a rapid spread of HIV in the population. Participants at the conference agreed that the spread of AIDS in Laos was inevitable, and, in fact, would likely be through young men who migrated to towns and then returned to their villages, as well as through women who entered the sex trades because of economic necessity. The numbers of HIV-positive people could increase to more than 10,000 within the next few years, although these numbers would likely not expand at the same rate as in Thailand--even though Thai men demonstrate similar attitudes toward sex and prostitution--because Laos's national policies forbid open prostitution. Through the early 1990s, Laos avoided widespread prostitution such as that found in neighboring countries, but it is likely to increase, as is the temporary migration of Laotian women to neighboring countries to work in the sex industry. Other possible routes of HIV infection include users of injectable illicit drugs and medical injections using unsanitary syringes. Should AIDS spread significantly in Laos, it will not only have a devastating effect on rural labor and the national economy, but will put impossible stress on the health care system. As the best means of preventing an epidemic, the conference report emphasized education in all sectors of the population through a variety of methods, including the media.


Laos - Health Infrastructure


Despite government promises that the urban-oriented health system inherited from the RLG would be expanded to support rural primary health care and preventative programs, little money had been allocated to the health sector as of 1993. According to figures from 1988, less than 5 percent of the total government budget was targeted for health, with the result that the Ministry of Public Health was unable to establish a management and planning system to facilitate the changes envisioned. UNICEF considered the effort to construct a primary health care system to have failed entirely.

Official statistics identified hospitals in fifteen of the sixteen provinces, plus several in Vientiane, and clinics in 110 districts and more than 1,000 tasseng (subdistricts). In reality, most subdistrict clinics are unstaffed, unequipped, and unsupplied, and in 1989 only twenty of the district clinics actually provided services. The physical condition of the facilities is poor, with clean water and latrines unavailable at most health posts, and electricity unavailable at 85 percent of district clinics, rendering vaccine storage impossible. Drugs and equipment stored in the central warehouses are seldom distributed to outlying provinces, and in most situations, patients had to purchase Western pharmaceuticals from private pharmacies that imported stock from Thailand or Vietnam.

The number of health care personnel has been increasing since 1975, and in 1990 the ministry reported 1,095 physicians, 3,313 medical assistants, and 8,143 nurses. Most personnel are concentrated in the Vientiane area, where the population per physician ratio (1,400 to one) is more than ten times higher than in the provinces. In 1989 the national ratio was 2.6 physicians per 10,000 persons.

Training medical personnel at all levels emphasizes theory at the expense of practical skills and relies on curricula similar to those used prior to 1975. International foreign aid donors supported plans for a school of public health, and texts were written and published in Lao. As of 1990, however, the school did not exist, because of delays in approval of its structure and difficulties in finding trainers with the appropriate background.

Rural and provincial health personnel work under conditions similar to their counterparts in education: salaries are low and seldom paid on time, necessary equipment and supplies are unavailable, and superiors offer little supervision or encouragement. In these circumstances, morale is low, job attendance sporadic, and most health care ineffectual. In general, the population has little confidence in the health care sector, although some village medics and a few district or provincial hospitals are respected by their communities.

Use of traditional medical practitioners remains important in urban as well as rural locations. Healers who know how to use medicinal plants are often consulted for common illnesses. The Institute of Traditional Medicine of the Ministry of Public Health formulated and marketed a number of preparations from medicinal plants. Spirit healers are also important for many groups, in some cases using medicinal plants but often relying on rituals to identify a disease and effect a cure. Many Laotians found no contradiction in consulting both spirit curers and Western-trained medical personnel.

In the absence of a widespread system of health workers, local shops selling drugs became an important source of medicines and offered advice on prescriptions. However, these pharmacies are unregulated and their owners unlicensed. As a consequence, misprescription is common, both of inappropriate drugs and incorrect dosages. In rural areas, vendors commonly make up small packets of drugs--typically including an antibiotic, several vitamins, and a fever suppressant--and sell them as single-dose cures for a variety of ailments.


Laos - Social Welfare


Despite statistics indicating that Laos is one of the poorest counties in the world, it has for the most part been spared the acute problems often associated with underdevelopment and poverty. Famine and serious epidemics have been absent in the twentieth century, urban slums have not existed, and debt bondage has been unknown. Because the rural economy was not effectively monetized through at least the early 1980s, households usually countered seasonal crop shortages by increasing their gathering activities and relying on wild tubers and other foods as insurance crops. Most villages have customs regarding the provision of rice loans-- sometimes interest-free--to families experiencing a bad year. Most shelter in rural areas is self-built and not dependent on land ownership or access to money. Thus, it is possible for most families to survive at least at a subsistence level, although for many the material standard of living is not high. Chronic marginal food production and lack of access to or inability to afford medical care and education remain pervasive problems, however.

No reliable statistics regarding income distribution or the extent of poverty were available as of mid-1994. A 1988 survey of income distribution in urban Vientiane found an average household monthly income of about K35,000, or US$70, with the most common income of between K25,000 and K30,000 per month--about $US55 at the 1988 exchange rate. With 4.5 persons per average household, the modal figure implied an annual per capita income of about US$150, far below the UN poverty line of US$275. Whether this survey included noncash income from agricultural production or other exchange was unknown, however; family crop production was still an important element in the economy of many urban Vientiane families. These limited statistics emphasize the relative sensitivity of urban residents to prices and cash income, particularly when compared with rural villagers who were more insulated from the effects of inflation and market behavior.

The government does not maintain a social welfare system, but the National Committee for Social Welfare and War Veterans operates a number of "orphan's schools" in some province centers and administers retirement pay to government officials. This retirement pay, however, is as insignificant as their salaries were before retirement. Orphans, handicapped persons, and elderly persons living in rural villages are usually supported and cared for by their relatives, although the level of support depends on the economic resources of the caretakers. Lowland Lao are traditionally tolerant of mentally handicapped members of their community, and these persons, although not economically productive, are allowed to live with their families and move around the village at will. This family approach to social welfare operates in the towns as well, often on a neighborhood basis but particularly relying on extended kinship networks. As a consequence, urban beggars were unknown between 1975 and about 1987, although a small number appeared in Vientiane after that date, perhaps reflecting the increase in urban economic differentiation as much as any increase in acute poverty.

Regional and ethnic discrepancies remain the greatest source of poverty and poor living conditions. Many lowland villages are prosperous, regularly produce a rice surplus, and assist a small number of less well-off households within their boundaries. Other villages, particularly those in the uplands or of minorities who had recently relocated to lowland sites, are less well off and often unable to produce enough rice for village consumption. In these situations, the ability to produce other salable commodities, whether livestock, opium, or vegetables, or to find wage-labor jobs, is critical to the well-being of the household and the village. In settings where an entire village is rice-deficient, interfamily exchanges and rice loans cannot ameliorate the basic shortage affecting the community. Acute regional crop shortfalls in several years between 1989 and 1993 were largely met by rice imports provided through foreign aid. As market networks expand and as the economy becomes increasingly monetized and population growth and resettlement increase pressure on land resources, the number of villages in marginal economic situations can be expected to increase.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

TRY USING CTRL-F on your keyboard to find the appropriate section of text


what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com