The Akha people are the 9th largest ethnic group in Laos with an estimated population of just over 110,000 although the accuracy of this estimate is doubtful as the often semi-nomadic Akha people mostly live in remote areas. Trying to count the number of people in a tribe whose member live in small groups. move frequently between remote areas, and often deliberately try to avoid other residents of Laos, particularly the authorities, is inherently problematic.
About the Akha ethnic group
The Akha people are believed to have originated in what is now China. According to Akha belief their homeland was originally the lower hills of Tibet, although some modern scholars believe that the group’s origins lay in Yunnan Province in China. There are also different views as to when the Akha first emigrated south to South East Asia.
One school of thought is that Akha people first came to Laos in the 16th and 17th Centuries. A more popular view is that the mass movement of Akha people occurred in the early 20th Century with large numbers fleeing civil unrest in China. The Akha are often viewed as relatively new, and therefore illegitimate, immigrants to Laos, Thailand and Myanmar in particular and subject to mistrust and persecution because of it.
The Akha people have a distinctive language and culture, although the first and most striking of these distinctive features is the elaborate head covering worn by women to mark their transition to an age when they are available for marriage:
- Akha Religion: Akha people traditionally believe in a mother god creator, as well as practice ancestor worship, and a form of animism where all things are believed to possess a spirit. The Akha people share with the Christian faith a belief in an early period of human history where people lived in a Garden of Eden type state spoiled by the bad behaviour of human beings.
- Festivals: The Akha people celebrate the coming of both the dry season and the monsoon.
- Marriage: Akha people practice polygamy and divorce is permissible, as is marrying from outside the immediate village group.
- Settlements: The Akha people traditionally favour higher altitude locations where corn, rice and opium poppies can be grown, as well as an abundance of trees. The largest villages tend to have no more than 100 families. Men and women live separately within the village coming together only in specially designated areas and buildings within the village.
- Gates: Akha people traditionally have elaborate spirit gates at the entrance to their villages making the boundary between the human world (the village) and the spirit world (generally in the forests beyond the village).
- Agriculture: Traditionally the Akha people relied on slash and burn agriculture, moving on when the soil become exhausted. As this practice has been difficult to sustain Akha people have moved onto fixed agricultural activities such as growing rice in terraced paddies and growing cash crops such as opium poppies. Traditional hunting practices have waned as the numbers of wild animals to hunt have declined dramatically.
- Education: The Akha people generally have little formal education. The Akha have an oral linguistic tradition and no written version of their language.
Akha in Modern Day Laos
The majority of the people in Laos, over 3.5 million out of a population of 6.5 million, are described a lowland Lao (Lao Lum). This majority group speak a language which is sometimes described as Thai-Lao as it is also spoken very widely in the North Eastern Region of Thailand. The Lao Lum ethnic group occupies almost all the positions of authority in Laos, live in the most economically productive areas, and own pretty much everything of any monetary value in the country.
The other major group in Laos, described as the Lao Soung, or hill tribes, live largely outside the country’s economic system, contributing nearly nothing to the state and receiving nearly nothing in return. The largest Lao Soung group. the Hmong, experience persecution but the Akha are believed to have a much worse situation as their group is smaller and are commonly believed to be fairly recent refugees.
In China the Akha people are slowly becoming more integrated into mainstream society and their right to residency is generally accepted. In Laos this is for the most part not the case. The commonly used term for the Akha people in Laos is kha kho, which means ‘slave ‘in English, and that tells us a lot about the prejudice the Akha people face on an ongoing basis.