The Hmong people are the third largest ethnic group in Laos. Estimates of the number of Hmong people living in Laos range from 450,000 to 600,000. The largest ethnic group, and the economically and politically dominant ethnic group, is the Lao Lum (‘lowland’ Lao people) who some commentators suggest believe themselves to the genuine Lao people and perceive other ethnic groups, including the Hmong, to be immigrants rather than indigenous people.
About the Hmong ethnic group
The term ‘Hmong’ is used in different ways, and is often used to refer to a wide range of distinct ethnic groups. Used in a narrow sense, the Hmong people are a group who migrated to South East Asia in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century to escape persecution in their homeland in Southern China. At this time the Han Chinese where becoming an increasing dominant ethnic group in China displacing other smaller ethnic groups through discriminatory practices and organised violence.
Many Hmong people came to the Northern Laos, although a slightly larger number settled in the mountainous areas of Northern Vietnam. The largest population of Hmong people, however, numbering around 3 million remain in China.
The Hmong people include a large number of distinct ethnic sub-groups, the two largest of which are the White Hmong and the Green Hmong. The names ‘White’ and ‘Green’ are believed to be derived from the colours of the traditional dresses worn by women in each of these groups. The different Hmong sub groups also speak different dialects.
Hmong people are traditionally farmers, and this remains largely true for most Hmong people in South East Asia, although not so for the Hmong people who emigrated to the United States of America and France whose life opportunities expanded dramatically with the move.
The traditional belief system of the Hmong people is generally characterised as Animist though this does a disservice to the complexity and uniqueness of their religious tradition. Also, many Hmong people in South East Asia have converted to Christianity, which in practice has created further division from the dominant ethnic groups in Laos ad Vietnam who believe in either Buddhism or hold Marxist views which are disparaging of religion altogether.
Hmong in Modern Day Laos
In Laos the Hmong are referred to as one of the groups which makes up the Lao Soung, which means the ‘upper mountain group’. This geographically linked name says a lot about the position of Hmong people in contemporary Lao society. The mountainous areas the Hmong in larger part inhabit are very remote with few facilities such as schools and hospitals, or even a connection to electric or mains water supply.
In a very real sense many Hmong people are living separate to the Lao state, contributing little or nothing in terms of taxes and receiving virtually no public services in return. The living conditions of the Hmong in Laos are not, however, an agrarian paradise by a long stretch of the imagination. The land they farm is inherently unproductive, much of it 1,000 metres or more above sea level and with steep gradients. Rice is difficult to farm in this type of terrain and the range of over crops that can be successfully grown is limited.
To add to the woes of the Hmong people there have been reports of persecution of Hmong people in Laos by the military and the police. It is difficult to know how true these reports are or how widespread such incidents are, however, given that a majority of the Hmong in Laos supported the American effort to stop the creation of a communist state in Laos during the 1960s and 1970s there is a high likelihood that some within the Lao state may still view the Hmong with at least a degree of suspicion.