Like minority groups the world over, the hill tribes of Laos are facing unaccustomed pressures on their traditional way of life. The depletion of protective, life-giving forest and wilderness, the upward migration of more lowland Laotians, growing pressure on the hill tribes to settle closer to accessible roads and river routes, and to adapt to the habits, customs and values of the more pervasive lowland Laotian culture, are forcing change at a rate never experienced before.
As mountains, secluded valleys and gorges are overcome by new roads and airstrips, time and spatial perceptions are altering. Villages that once seemed a world apart now belong within the same geographic orbit. With this compression of distance and time, minorities are finding themselves impacting with an outside world that seems increasingly less alien, but no less threatening.
Strikingly individual, with their own arresting styles of dress, customs, beliefs, rituals and interpretations of the animist world that surrounds them, the hill tribes of Laos, eking out a living from the mountain slopes and upland valleys that nobody else cares to inhabit, live a life apart. For this reason, the tribes, considered a law unto themselves, have always been viewed with a degree of suspicion by the authorities. Scornful of intrusive bureaucracy, difficult to tax, tame or conscript, with little conventional respect for borders, they represent, as idiosyncratic pockets of nonconformity, an ever-present challenge to state control.
Because of geographic barriers, poor means of communication and a fierce opposition on the part of many hill tribes, particularly those in the north and northwest, to any form of assimilation into mainstream Laotian culture, traditional social structures and value systems have remained relatively intact in many remote areas of Laos. The Laotian government however, has declared its intention to resettle all the hill tribes onto the lowland plains within the next few years. The dismantling of the ethno-geographic divisions that have largely determined the social structure of Laos, while offering the prospect of a higher standard of living through greater participation in the economy for the impoverished minorities, is clearly a mixed blessing, as similar developments in neighboring Thailand and other parts of Asia have shown. If this goal of integration is ever achieved, the minority cultures of these virile, independent-minded groups could very well face the prospect of cultural extinction.
Hill tribes make up a significant proportion of the population, though precisely how many ethnic groups actually exist in Laos remains uncertain; figures range from a government list of 68 to estimates by independent ethnographers of 120 or more. Laos’ rich and complex linguistic mosaic is such that some minorities, so tiny that they occupy no more than a single valley, use a dialect dissimilar enough from their neighbors for it to be considered a distinctly separate language. Laos is a multiethnic society with an extraordinary range of cultural and social plurality within its porous borders. Its people have, for the sake of convenience and to imply a degree of largely absent national unity, been classified into four primary ethno-linguistic groups. Tai-Laotian speaking lowlanders form a majority of around 3 million people, with the Mon-Khmer, Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Burmese speaking hill tribes composing the rest.
Based on these linguistic affiliations, the Laotian minorities have been neatly classified into three groups according to the altitude and elevation at which they live. This vertical stratification into tidy topographical shelves tends, however, to crumble under closer scrutiny, with countless groups resisting simple classification. How, for example, to neatly affiliate the Mabri, known in Laos as the Kha Tawng Leuang (“Slaves [or Spirits] of the Yellow Banana Leaves”)? The name for this highly introspective group, believed to be on the brink of extinction, derives from their practice of abandoning their temporary shelters once the banana fronds used in their construction have turned yellow.
Ethnicity in Laos is increasingly determined by self-identification rather than by inherited or applied labels. It is quite common, for example, to meet Laotian Lum lowlanders who describe themselves as coming from a Laotian Sung village, someone, in other words, who has redefined his or her group affiliation by simply changing their circumstances. One minority group encountered by a Swedish anthropologist, having lost their knowledge of a Mon-Khmer dialect generally associated with the Laotian Theung minorities, now referred to themselves as Tai Lue, a lowland Laotian Tai speaking group. In a conscious step to improve their employment and marriage prospects, certain Laotian Theung groups in the north of the country have likewise reclassified themselves as Laotian Lum.
Reservations aside, the categories remain a useful general indicator of patterns of settlement. As a device used to promote a sense of unity, to suggest that all inhabitants within its borders are Laotian as opposed to disassociated minorities, the vertical system of distribution succeeds in implying a certain degree of communality, of shared cultural roots. Efforts to achieve ethnic equality through the process of assimilation into a collective Laotian identity, though imperfect, have also helped to challenge some of the racial chauvinism discernible in the attitudes of the lowland Laotian elite toward more “primitive” minority groups. The lowland Laotians have always been ambivalent in their attitude to their tribal predecessors, belittling them on the one hand for their “backwardness,” and fearing them on the other for their association with the dark forces of wizardry. They also confess, at times, to admire them for their tenacity and independence.
Economically and statistically, Laos is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped nations in the world. Aspects of the Laotian economy that are likely to have an impact on hill-tribe life, environment and culture are linked for the greater part to the exploitation of its natural resources and to the development of tourism. Laos’ greatest economic assets are its largely untapped natural resources, principally timber and hydroelectric power. Most infrastructure and development projects, as well as technical and agricultural programs, are financed with foreign assistance.
The country’s mineral resources include gemstones, gold, coal, bauxite, gypsum, potash, lignite and large deposits of iron ore. A number of Western companies are now eagerly engaged in prospecting for oil and gas deposits, while others have been granted mining and exploration rights, many of them penetrating deep into the heartlands of Laotian minorities. As more hill tribes face the prospect of being displaced and forced to resettle in areas less conducive to them, the specter of cultural disintegration looms.
Mountain areas are already inhabited by teams of engineers, surveyors and the crews of laborers they employ to extract the mineral wealth that is located in these remote, but no longer inaccessible parts of the country. These government-backed endeavors are achieving the same ends once sought by Christian missionaries in the area, of enfeebling and finally decimating indigenous cultures. Lowland areas on the fringes of the upland slopes from which minorities descend are increasingly turning into unofficial transit zones where communities, brought from the higher elevations, quickly lose their tangible culture as they undergo reconditioning into the mainstream culture. Though no longer tattooed for easy identification, or pressed into corvee labor, these movements of micropopulations are uncomfortably akin to the manner in which invading Siamese armies relocated Laotian settlements in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Wishing to verify conditions for myself, I visited the country’s remotest region, the malaria-plagued provinces of Attapeu and Sekong on the Vietnam and Cambodia borders. My arrival in the village of Pa-am may have been a good five years or more too late. Little remained of the assertive local culture I had been led to expect. On spotting a foreign visitor, still a rarity, the women in the village’s single shop, a wooden shack covered with a dry pandanus leaf roof that sold warm Pepsi and squares of dried buffalo skin, reached beneath the counter and brought out a plastic sachet full of jadeite. A few locals, we were told, had been diving to the bottom of a shallow lake nearby to excavate the stone. She would be willing to sell the sachet for $800. The government, it seemed, had already signed contracts with European companies to excavate the area, which was also said to have a mountain rich in deposits of gold. Locals like this women were making sure they got their share before the area was designated off limits, the resources and wealth of the region diverted to the capital Vientiane and its foreign friends and backers.
A few kilometers from the lake, I stopped off to pay my respects at the house of the headman of a local Lave village whose residents were said to be intransigent traditionalists who refused to wear Western clothes. This was not the case as the worn shorts, Chinese-made sandals and fading facial tattoos of its elders proved. I was informed that a French TV crew had passed through the village a week or two before. Because of a tight budget and schedule, they had insisted on a chicken being sacrificed, and a gong-dance performed that would normally take place on a designated day of the lunar year. According to my guide, the villagers, egged on to dress up in their tribal finery, to dispense with their “Coke is Cool,” and “Gap Rap” T-shirts, to remove their Thai jeans and flip-flops for more colorful tunics and other apparel, had seemed initially ill at ease, even sheepish, but soon warmed up to the charade once the music drove away their inhibitions. It was a good performance, the team got their footage, and nobody was any the wiser.
The disappearance through commercial logging of the forest as a dietary, medical and cultural resource, not to mention the protective canopy it affords to the more socially introspective hill tribes, is an issue of the utmost concern. Almost 2 million hectares of virgin forest provide hill tribes with a convenient, though annually more depleted, storehouse of hardwoods, animals, game, birds, wild fruits and vegetables, natural dyes and a whole pharmacy of plants and herbs. Tropical rain forests grow luxuriantly on the leeward side of mountain ranges where the annual rainfall is generally high. Monsoon hardwood forests thrive at higher altitudes, their sheltered slopes often covered in deciduous forests. Valuable rain-forest trees such as teak, sandalwood and rosewood are more vulnerable to commercial interests than those found in monsoon forests.
Although commercial logging has not reached the insatiable levels found in neighboring Myanmar, deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate. Despite the government’s plan to replace the export of raw timber with a processed wood industry that could turn Laos into a major exporter of paper and pulp, logging continues unabated. Much of this is illegal. Corruption, a lack of trained forest rangers and the country’s porous borders make it relatively easy to smuggle wood out of the country.
Many of the tribes that inhabit this shrinking environment have little or no contact with the world beyond the ethnic branch of their own group, village or confederation of clans. Marriage partners tend to come from within the same village, and the involvement of the entire community in its own festivals, rituals and spiritual practices reinforces the view of a strong psychological identification with a single ethnic group to the exclusion of others. Because of isolation, diversity, changing patterns of distribution and the tendency of the hill tribes, who constitute approximately 40 percent of the population of Laos, to place the interests of their own village or clan above what they perceive to be the rather abstract notion of statehood, true political and cultural unity remains an elusive, largely unrealized goal.
In a sense Laos continues to remain closer to a conglomeration of tribes than to a conventional nation state composed of a unified people. The geopolitical priorities facing Laos today are almost identical to those at the time of its earliest recorded history: the quest for national and ethnic integration through the creation of a unified state, the preservation of its fragile cultures, and resistance to foreign domination. Accordingly, the Laotian government is intent on making the upland tribes aware of themselves as part of the nation, to shift their allegiance from the confines of the village to the country at large. In combating what they judge to be the detrimental aspects of change, Laotian hill tribes must struggle to find a middle ground that allows them to enjoy the economic and educational advantages that come with a closer form of citizenship, without trading in their cultural identity.
Laos is less a politically unified nation than a fascinating human map, one that, for all the formidable changes of the last few decades, remains as ethnically diverse and richly fractured as ever. It is a tribute to the resilience of the hill tribes of Laos that they are still with us today, though for how much longer is a question no one is quite ready to answer.