Community Portrait: Lao
by Miriam Gross
Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse Asian countries. Although its population was estimated in 1999 to be just 5.4 million,1 it contains over sixty different ethnic groups speaking eighty-five languages and dialects.2 Laos is a mountainous country, and these ethnic groups live in the mountains.
In general, each mountainside has the same pattern of settlement by these ethnic groupsstratification based on altitude.3 Usually, different ethnic groups will share more culturally and linguistically with their members on another mountainside at the same altitude (even if that mountain is in a different country) than they will with neighboring groups of different ethnicity who live slightly below or above them.4
Three Ethnic Groups
In modern times, the Lao have split the country roughly into three ethnic groupings: the lowlanders, the uplanders, and the highlanders. In order to fully appreciate the ethnic diversity in Laos this study tour will include visits and discussions with members of all three Laotian groups: the Lao from the lowlands, the Khmu from the uplands, and the Iu Mien from the highlands.
The Lao Lum, or lowlanders, include the Lao, who are the largest ethnic group in Laos comprising just over 50% of the population, and the many different Tai ethnic groups,5 who make up another 15% of the population.6 The Lao Lum retain complete dominance culturally, linguistically, politically, and economically over the other Laotian ethnic groups.7 They have the best contiguous spread of farmland, mainly do wet-rice farming, practice Theravada Buddhism, and speak a Laotian version of Thai. The Lao emigrated to Laos from China starting in the eighth century8 and began the Laotian empire of Lan Xang in the fourteenth century.9 Their initial advantage was solidified by the French, who colonized Laos in 1890.10 In general, the French gave educational opportunities only to the Lao ethnic group, usually to those who previously held elite positions. Such elites were granted all governmental positions, even in those areas where they were a minority.11 Despite the French colonial presence in Laos, because the French primarily had contact only with Laotian elites, they had very little influence on the rest of society.12 Since most of the Laotian refugees who came to America were from rural societies, the review on the Lao that follows will focus on village life, rather than on the urban, middle-class elites.
The second grouping is the Lao Theung, or uplanders, who reside at around 2,500 feet, and do swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture supplemented by hunting and gathering. They are animist or spiritualist, and speak Mon-Khmer languages, but generally lack a written language.13 The Lao Theung make up another 25% of the population.14 The largest of them (also the second-largest minority in Laos) is the Khmu, who are thought to be the original inhabitants of Laos,15 probably from around Luang Phabang.16 As the Lao, Thai, and Tai ethnic groups migrated to Laos, the natives were pushed onto the poorer lands of the hill country and subjugated by the newer ethnic groups.17 The Khmu along with other midland ethnic groups were previously called kha, which means "slave" in Lao.18
The last group is the Lao Soung, or highlanders, who inhabited areas at 3,000 feet and above. They primarily do slash-and-burn agriculture supplemented by hunting and gathering, and are animists and ancestor worshipers.19 They speak languages in the Sino-Tibetan language group.20 The two most common highlanders are the Hmong (also called to Meo or Miao) and the Iu Mien (also called the Man or Yao),21 who together make up 10% of the Laotian population.22 The highland ethnic groups are the most recent immigrants from China. Most have come to Laos since 1850. Some first passed through other Southeast Asian countries, which still have Iu Mien and Hmong villages. Because of their isolation and semimigratory lifestyle, they have retained their independence more than most other minorities in Laos.23
The recent history of Laos has been complicated by two simultaneous wars with very different goals. In 1953 the Laotian population finally succeeded in gaining independence from France.24 This opened up Laos for the first war between the Royal Lao government, which represented the old, French-supported elite, and the Pathet Lao, a communist group that started before independence in 1949. The Pathet Lao hoped to create a new society that would change some of the age-old inequities among the stratified Laotian social classes and between the Lao and other ethnic groups in Laos.25 At the same time that this internal war was occurring, the United States started participating in the Laotian government and helped finance the Royal Lao Army in its battles against the Pathet Lao.26 The fight against the Pathet Lao became one more piece in the United States war against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Starting in 1964, the United States fight against the Pathet Lao began to have a striking impact on the rural population, particularly that located in Pathet Laodominated areas because the United States began major cluster bombing of Laotian villages.27
Although the United States presence in Vietnam was the main focus in the American press, in fact the "secret war" in Laos made the Laotian countryside, where almost 90% of the population lived, almost uninhabitable.28 A total of 3 million tons of bombs were dropped, more tonnage per capita than on any other nation in the history of warfare.29 Nonetheless, at the same time the Pathet Lao succeeded in taking over more territory.30 Villagers were faced with three choices: align themselves with the Pathet Lao, try to remain neutral, or join the Royal Lao and the United States military efforts. Those who did join the Royal Lao Army felt betrayed when, after many promises, the Americans left them to their fate just as the Pathet Lao succeeded in conquering Laos in December 1975.31 Approximately 500,000 Laotians, most of whom were Lao Lum and Lao Soung villagers, left Laos either because their economic base had been destroyed due to mass bombing, or because of previous affiliations with the Royal Lao Army.32 Refugees crossed the Mekong River into Thailand and settled into Thai refugee camps waiting for years to be settled in a third country. About 350,000 Laotians ended up coming to the United States.33
Reflective of the strong influence of Indian culture, Laos had a highly stratified society.34 The Laotian language mirrored this stratification by having four different tones dependent on to whom one was speaking: one for royalty, one for superiors, one for equals, and one for inferiors.35 Since the royal family was endowed with semidivine roots, it was hard to argue with the kings proclamations.36 Although the Lao royalty and through them provincial officials had total control over villages, except for taxes, and occasional military impressment and corvée labor, most villages were left alone to govern themselves. Most villagers tended to stay in the immediate world of their own and neighboring villages within which most families were relatively equal.37
The Lao village, usually composed of thirty to fifty houses containing 150 to 300 people,38 functioned as a self-sufficient, independent entity, which provided its members with everything they needed for physical, moral, and mental well-being and identity.39 Village members helped each other throughout their lives. Although each family had its own fields, villagers would do labor exchanges during planting and harvest time. Each family would contribute equally in time, money, and labor to bigger village projects such as building roads or a school.40 Villagers would help each other during house raisings, and also during times of illness, death, and other emergencies.41 In addition, every true village had a Buddhist temple, or wat. The upkeep of the monastery and the bonzes (monks) fell exclusively on the village and also helped bring members together as a single group.42
Formation of and Roles within the Family
The formation of relationships between families also contributed strongly to villages becoming a single community. Laotians did not have last names until 1943, when the government required them.43 For this reason, most people knew their relatives only three generations back. Families did not form greater clan groupings based on shared family names.44 As 80% of marriages took place within the village, most of the village was related by blood or by marriage.45 Because children counted both their mothers and their fathers families equally as relatives,46 they had a large number of people to call on for help. In this way, the village became like a greater family. Most households in the village consisted of parents, children, and perhaps one childs spouse and children.47 Occasionally relatives or close friends who became "uncles or aunts" also lived with the family. Relationships between children and parents were strong. Because of their religious belief in reincarnation (described later), these relationships were further enhanced as they were thought to represent the accumulation of many lifetimes of interactions.48
Mens and womens roles within the family were clearly defined and, although different, were usually considered equal.49 The father of the family was considered the head of the household and represented the family at all village meetings.50 The mother often had control of the house, managed household finances, and sold family produce at the market.51 Couples usually discussed all problems and made major decisions together.52 Women were also allowed to inherit property, could be shamans, and participated along with other elders as advisers to the headman and families to help them solve conflicts.53 Although there was a sexual division between mens and womens workmen tended to do the heavier work in the fields and women to do more work at homemany tasks were done together and were interchangeable.54 For example, when counting families contributions to a labor exchange, everybody over sixteen, male or female, was counted as equal.55
Youth were allowed a large degree of sexual freedom and generally decided on their own mates. However, if pregnancy resulted, marriage almost always occurred.56 Such liberty was allowed because it was often believed that the pair had been lovers in a former life and were continuing their relationship in this one.57 The engagement process and marriage ceremony were complicated and worked out between both sets of parents.58 As usual, the ceremony involved much laughter and horseplay as well as ritual. For example, the new groom had to figure out a way to pay off his new sisters-in-law in order to convince them to wash his feet before he was allowed to climb the ladder into his in-laws house and meet his new bride.59
When young couples got married, they tended to live with the wifes family for the first couple of years so that her first child could be born in a comfortable environment and so that the husband formed a close relationship with the wifes family. This period also usually served as the young husbands "bride price." By working for his father-in-law for several years, he paid back some of the labor his wifes family would lose after the marriage.60 If the young husband was found to be unacceptable, the marriage was terminated at this point.
After the couple moved out, much of the time they settled near the wifes family. Usually the youngest daughter would continue living permanently in her parents house after marriage. The young couple would take care of the wifes parents as they aged and would often inherit the house after their death.61 Because of these living patterns, women had a uniquely powerful role in Laotian village life.
Once a man succeeded in getting married, he was allowed to marry a second time. However, both second marriages and divorce rarely occurred. Only wealthy men had the means to pay a second bride price.62 Instead, it was common to have girlfriends in addition to ones original spouse.63 Few women had boyfriends, and the repercussions for being found with one were severe.64 Divorce was allowed, but was extremely difficult for a woman to initiate because the person responsible for breaking up a marriage had to pay a large fine. Few women had sources of outside income available to them. However, almost all marriages survived and prospered because mens and womens roles were clearly defined and respected. In addition, marriages were actively supported by both sets of parents and, when needed, by the council of elders.65 All parents and elders were ready to mediate conflicts and encourage decisions based on the long-term needs of the family, rather than on the immediate interests of the individual.
Getting an Education
By living in the close confines of the village community, most children automatically assimilated appropriate behavior and skills. Children, who were mainly cared for by their grandparents,66 learned from listening to their stories and by actively observing and then slowly participating in the tasks of adults.67 Children were usually not forced to help their families or to learn any particular skill at home, at school, or in the temple.68 Further, they were usually not praised once they had successfully mastered a new ability. This was because it was believed that the successful completion of a task should be its own reward. 69 In addition, because the capacity to do something was thought to be an innate quality, it was not useful to encourage or to praise. At the same time, the closeness of the community created an environment where children wanted to join their peers in helping to contribute to their families. When children did something wrong, they were rarely physically punished.70 Usually, they did not feel as if they had individually sinned or were morally bad. Instead, they knew they had brought shame to their family in front of the community. This was usually enough to keep them in line.71 Although a large degree of deviation was allowed in personal values and beliefs,72 in general, children wanted to grow up to be respected. Respect was gained through concealing displeasing emotions and being generous, cooperative, nonargumentative, and moderate, and through merit-making activities related to Buddhism such as becoming a bonze.73
By becoming a bonze, many boys received an education in addition to that picked up around the village. In the temple they would learn discipline, moral values, Buddhist ceremonies and scripture, meditating, reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and many manual skills.74 Bonzes tried to teach boys to follow the eightfold path: (12) right views (or knowledge) and right intention, which were based on wisdom; (36) right speech, action, living, and effort, which were based on morality; and (78) right attention and concentration, which were based on learning techniques to concentrate the mind.75 Secular schools focused on teaching children knowledge. Knowledge was thought to be a pool of pragmatic information often used to develop a plan of action that will be carried out in the near future (step one on the path). In contrast, the temple tried to teach wisdom. Wisdom was thought to be a deeply intuitive sense of judgment based on a perfect and comprehensive understanding of what has always been right in the past.76 In addition to wisdom, the temple taught morality and meditation, thought to be the basis for the other steps on the eightfold path. For this reason, when there was a secular school available, its curriculum often seemed limited or even somewhat useless to villagers.77
When learning occurred in the school or the temple it usually embodied discipline and flexibility, two characteristics typical to Laotian village life.78 Both school and temple curricula were learned by rote. Teachers and bonzes were greatly respected, and discipline was strong. At the same time, it was the individuals choice based on his innate ability whether he would apply himself, and whether he would continue his studies.79 These same characteristics were also true for those who became a bonze before they got married or when they were elders. The temple was a strict hierarchy mirroring the secular political system.80 In addition to the temple boys and novices, there were six different levels of bonzes.81 Despite this, although bonzes had to listen to and obey their superiors, rules were not rigidly defined and they could leave the monastery at any time.82