Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Laos : Lao Sung

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Laos : Lao Sung, 2008, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Lao Sung, or high mountain Lao, number some 585,000 (CIA World Factbook, 2007) and comprise two principal groups: the largest are the Hmong (sometimes referred to as Meo or Miao) and Yao (Iu Mien, Man or Mien). The Hmong are themselves subdivided into four main groups based on the dominating colours of some of their clothing: the White Hmong, Striped Hmong, Red Hmong and Black Hmong. Smaller hill tribes sometimes included among the Lao Sung are Lolo, Ho and Kho (also known as Akha). Hmong and Yao are recent immigrants mainly from southern China who migrated to Laos in the nineteenth century. The Yao live mainly in Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang and Bokeo. Most are animists and continue to practise Chinese ancestor worship, though some are followers of Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity.

Living mainly at altitudes above about 1,000 metres, the Hmong and Yao practise shifting cultivation of dry rice and corn, as well as opium. They also raise a variety of farm animals and conduct a largely barter economy.

Historical context

Under pressure as the Han Chinese population and conquest expanded into southern parts of what is today China, many Lao Sung increasingly moved southwards. A series of wars with the Qing dynasty during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eventually led to the settlement of hundreds of thousands of the Hmong and others into South-East Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand.

There is also a tradition of Hmong and Yao conflict with the Tai and Mon-Khmer, who resided on the lower elevations of the same mountain ranges and who often outnumbered the Lao Sung. During the Vietnam War, Hmong were armed by the US, who used them to fight the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. Hmong continued to fight after the Pathet Lao took control, until they were defeated by North Vietnamese troops, after which many fled to Thailand. Large numbers of Hmong refugees resettled in the USA. There continue to be small groups of Hmong continuing their armed opposition to the Lao People's Revolutionary Party's government.

Current issues

Lao Sung generally are being resettled and losing access to traditional land and resources through the government's development drive and land privatization activities. Contrary to stated principles in the constitution and official government policies, the Hmong, Yao and other minorities generally do not have access to education in their own language, and they continue to be under-represented in many areas of public life, which tends to be dominated by the ethnic Lao. As part of the resettlement process, Lao Sung communities are often mixed in or positioned close to ethnic Lao villages, and are pressured to 'modernize', usually meaning adopting the language at schools. A 2005 report highlights an overall extremely negative picture of the impact of the resettlement initiatives by which most of those benefiting from international aid are ethnic Lao, and the displaced communities often experience unusually high mortality rates and increased poverty.

Many of the descendants of ethnic Hmong who fled into the jungles after the war still live in hiding in the Laotian jungle, persecuted because of their grandparents' decision to support the US army. Internally displaced and isolated, they face frequent military attacks and rarely remain in one place for longer than three weeks. Most of them are women and children. They constantly live in desperate need for food and medical care. The Society for Threatened Peoples documents that more than 400 Hmong surrendered to the Lao military on 13 December 2006. They were put onto military trucks and driven away - their fate is still unknown in 2007.

Fearing death, torture, rape or capture, many thousands of Hmong Lao have tried to escape by fleeing over the border to Thailand. In a March 2007 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Society for Threatened Peoples stated that there were over 8,000 Hmong refugees in a makeshift camp in Petchabun, Thailand. Many more refugees were believed to be hiding in other places in Thailand.

According to Human Rights Watch, in May 2007, senior military officers from Thailand and Laos signed the Lao-Thai Committee on Border Security agreement, allowing Thailand to send Lao Hmong asylum seekers back upon arrival. Over the next month 194 Hmong were forcibly driven back over the border into Thailand. The Thai-Lao Committee on Border Security met once again at the beginning of September 2007 to decide the fate of the Hmong refugees at the camp in Petchabun and agreed to forcibly repatriate them to purpose-built villages outside Vientiane, the Lao capital. The UN refugee agency and other international human rights groups have not been given access to them.

The government's anti-drug campaign, implemented with support from the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the US and European Union, resulted in a large reduction in cultivation of the opium poppy; however, this has been at the expense of those hill tribes who relied on its cultivation. Opium eradication has been used to justify resettlement of indigenous peoples from the remote highlands to lowlands areas.

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