Laos Facts
Area:    236,804 sq. km.
Capital:    Vientiane
Total Population:    4,837,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Hmong have four of the factors that increase the chances of future rebellion: current low-level insurgency; territorial concentration; recent government repression; and a history of lost autonomy. Improving the group's economic status along with allowing the Hmong to practice their religious and cultural beliefs could decrease the prospects of future violence.

Analytic Summary

The population of Laos can be divided into three main groups. The Lao Loum or lowland Lao speak a Tai language and they form 56% of the country's population. The Lao Theung, who reside in the mountain slopes in the northwest and the south, are tribals who were the earliest inhabitants of the territory. They constitute 34% of Laos' population and they speak Mon-Khmer languages. The Hmong, also referred to as Meo, are the largest of the Lao Soung tribes (Lao of the mountain tops). Group members migrated to the northern regions from southern China in the 19th century. Both the Lao Theung and the Lao Soung historically and currently occupy subordinate political and economic positions.

While the Hmong have linguistically assimilated with the majority lowland Lao, they differ in their social customs and religious beliefs (LANG = 3; CUSTOM = 1). Most of the tribals are either animists or they adopted Christianity during French colonial rule of Indochina (BELIEF = 3). The lowland Lao are Theravada Buddhists. The Hmong are also racially different from the majority Lao Loum and there has been little intermixture (RACE = 3).

Relations between the Hmong and the French were tenuous. In the early 1920s, the fiercely independent tribals launched a two to four year rebellion to oppose French taxation policies and the colonial government's attempts to control opium production. The Hmong, who live in some of the country's least accessible and marginal lands, have traditionally relied on the cultivation of opium as their major economic source. Despite increasing French encroachment, group members were able to maintain a semi-autonomous status in which political rule was exercised first through leadership by the major clans and later under a canton system implemented by France (AUTON = 1).

Divisions within the Hmong emerged with the onset of World War II as some group members chose to support the French while others favored the Japanese who occupied the region or they made contacts with the communists in Vietnam. Decolonization in Indochina and the subsequent American interventions were also played out in the context of Hmong fragmentation.

The Hmongs' possession of large quantities of opium, which could be traded for arms on the black market, brought them into direct conflict with the various rebel groups participating in the general civil and liberation warfare which engulfed Southeast Asia in the 1950s. The CIA recruited the Hmong, under the leadership of the Vang Pao group, to engage in the anticommunist insurgency against the Viet Cong and Laos' Pathet Lao (REB60-75X = 6). Other tribals chose to support the Royal Laotian government, the Pathet Lao, and other foreign intervenors. American support led to the brief ascendency of the Vang Pao supporters who joined with the LaoTheung tribals in 1966 to declare a short-lived independent Meoland in southern and central Laos. The association of the Hmong with the Americans was however to result in consistent political, economic, and social discrimination following the Pathet Lao victory in 1975 and the establishment of a communist state.

With the assistance of Vietnam, the new Pathet Lao regime was able to temporarily quell Hmong resistance during the early 1980s. Since then there has been low-to-mid level rebellion by group members, particularly in the country's northern areas (REB85X-98X = 4). A significant number of Hmong migrated to the United States in the years after the communist victory. Most of the 150,000 Hmong reside in Minnesota. Hmong leader Vang Pao and his group, the Lao United Independent Front, are also based in the United States. By the late 1990s, thousands of Hmong who were living in refugee camps in Thailand had returned to Laos. The UNHCR, along with financially supporting the camps, has monitored their resettlement.

Since the early 1980s, the government has enacted various polices that have sought to promote reconciliation with and assimilation of the country's tribal groups. Programs to economically develop Hmong areas have been undertaken along with improvements in social sectors such as education and health. However, Laos remains one of the world's most poor states. Unlike most other communist countries which have engaged in significant political and economic liberalization, there has been limited change in Laos.

The Hmong are subject to various cultural, political, and economic restrictions. In recent years, some Christian Hmong have been forced to renounce their faith or face arrest and imprisonment. Open worship is prohibited in some areas and dozens of churches have been closed. While the majority population is also restricted in expressing its faith, the communist party has ensured that it effectively controls the Buddhist leadership. Economic discrimination against the Hmong is the result of historical neglect and/or restrictions and although some public policies are in place to help address the group's disadvantages, societal discrimination remains an issue (ECDIS03 = 1). There are some tribals in the senior levels of the government but their political role is also limited (POLDIS03 = 2).

Obtaining autonomy for Hmong-majority areas is a goal shared by most of the tribals (AUTGR401-03 = 1). In addition to seeking greater opportunities to improve their economic status, group members are concerned about protecting their ability to practice their religion and culture (ECOGR301-03 = 1, CULGR101-03 = 1).

Militant organizations such as the Chao Fa and the Lao United Independent Front represent group interests within Laos (GOJPA03 = 5). Conventional organizations include the US-based United Lao Movement for Democracy which regularly lobbies the US Congress to draw attention to the status of the Laotian Hmong, to press for democracy in Laos, and to promote the migration of group members to the US. (COHESX9 = 3).

In recent years, sporadic clashes between the armed forces and the Chao Fa have been reported (REB98-03 = 1). The Chao Fa has also attacked a number of villages resulting in civilian casualties. Repressive actions against the Hmong include the confiscation or destruction of property, restrictions on free movement, and forced resettlement. Neighboring Vietnam supports the Pathet Lao regime with military training and likely the provision of arms. An unspecified number of Vietnamese soldiers are also based in Laos; however, given the limited information available, it is not clear if they have been involved in military campaigns against the Hmong. In the spring and summer of 2003, several bus attacks, allegedly by Hmong rebels, along the country's main highway killed more than two dozen people. While the government refused to acknowledge publicly anti-government actions by the Hmong, additional troops were sent to the north, where attacks on military camps took place. Government troops – possibly with the assistance of some Vietnamese troops – conducted raids on Hmong camps in response to the attacks. Hmong groups fleeing government forces faced starvation and exhaustion. The arrest of two Western journalists – who were reporting on the plight of the Hmong – and their Hmong-American translator turned international attention briefly to the situation. Four Laotian Hmong were also arrested – including children – and three were sentenced to long jail terms. According to the journalists – who were freed after diplomatic intervention – the Hmong insurgency consists of approximately 3,000 poorly armed men, women and children in four different groups. In fall 2003, the Laotian government offered amnesty to any Hmong rebel who turned in arms, but most Hmong are too afraid of retaliation to do so. In November, an ethnic Hmong was named as governor the northern Xieng Khouang province, where many Hmong live and where the journalists were arrested.


1. The Europa Yearbook, Far East and Australasia 1995.

2. Keesings Record of World Events, 1990-1993.

3. Far Eastern Economic Review 1990-94.

4. Nexis Library Information 1990-2000

5. Tapp, Nicholas, "Squatters or Refugees: Development and the Hmong," in Gehan Wijeyewardene (ed.), Ethnic Groups across National Boundaries in Mainland Southeast Asia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1990).

6. Voice of America News. Laos-Conflict. August 13, 2003.

7. The Yearbook of Experts, Authorities and Spokespersons. November 10, 2003. "Provincial Governor Sacked."

8. Amnesty International. October 2, 2003. "Laos: Use of starvation as a weapon of war against civilians." AI Index: ASA 26/013/2003

9. Agence France Presse. August 28, 2003. "Laos calls on ethnic minority bandits to lay down arms"

10. Inter Press Service. July 17, 2003. "Freed newsman calls Hmong ‘insurgency' exaggerated."


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