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ETHNIC MINORITY
 
THE MOSAIC OF ETHNIC MINORITIES
One of South East Asia's most ethnically diverse countries, Laos has long defied the best efforts of anthropologists and linguists to classify its complex array of ethnicities and sub-ethnicities, many of which utilise several different names and synonyms given to them by the government or by other ethnic groups.
Although it is no longer given official credence, the threefold 1970s classification Lao Loum (‘Lowland Lao’), Lao Theung (‘Upland Lao’) and Lao Soung (‘Highland Lao’) is still quoted widely. Based loosely on the altitudes of ethnic minority settlements, this simplified system may be understood as follows:
+ Lao Loum – Lao, Lu, Phuan and other Tai-speaking groups (Austro-Thai language family)
+ Lao Theung – all Austro-Asiatic language family groups
+ Lao Soung – Hmong-Mien (Austro-Thai language family) and all Sino-Tibetan language family groups
However, this brief overview utilises the more universally accepted system which classifies ethnic groups within the three great language families of Austro-Thai, Austro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan.
In his four-volume work Ethnic Groups of Laos (White Lotus, 2003), Joachim Schliesinger has identified 94 different ethnic groups in Laos, although he admits that because of the extremely complicated ethnic situation in Laos this should not be regarded as a final figure but rather simply as a tentative one which can serve as the basis for further work.
The majority Lao population is drawn from the Austro-Thai language family, which is represented by three distinct groups in Laos:
(i) the Tai-Kadai group may be subdivided into three branches:
+ Northern Tay-Tai speakers include Giay, Nhang, Seak, Tai Air, Tai Chiangki, Tai E, Tai Guan, Tai Khang, Tai Mene, Tai Meuy, Tai Nua, Tai Oh, Tai Pao, Tai Poreng, Tai Pouark, Tai Pun, Tai Sam, Tai Senkap, Tai Souei, Tai Then, Tai Yor, Tai Yuang and Yoy;
+ South Western Tay-Tai speakers include the majority Lao population, plus Lao Isaan, Lao Ngaew and Lu (Lao-Lu sub branch), and Kalom, Phu Tai, Phuan, Tai Daeng, Tai Dam, Tai Gapong, Tai Khao, Tai Khoen, Tai Wang, Tai Yai and Yuan (Tai sub branch);
+ Unclassified Tay-Tai speakers include Tai Add and Tai Poua;
(ii) the Hmong-Mien group may be subdivided into two branches:
+ Hmong speakers are drawn from three linguistic sub branches - the Chuanqiandian sub branch is represented by the Hmong Do (White Hmong) and their Hmong Lay and Hmong Qua Mba (Striped Hmong) sub groups, the Hmong Lenh (Flower or Variegated Hmong) and the Hmong Njua (Blue or Green Hmong); the Qiandong sub branch by the Hmong Du or Black Hmong); and the Xiangxi sub branch by the Hmong Si (Red Hmong);
+ Yao (Mien) speakers comprise Yao (Mien) and their Lanten sub group;
(iii) the Austronesian or Malayo-Polynesian group is represented in Laos by a small group of Cham (Chamic branch).
The Austro-Asiatic language family is represented in Laos exclusively by its Mon-Khmer language group, which is in turn subdivided into the following six branches:
+ Bahnaric speakers include Brau, Chieng, Loven, Nha Heun, Oy, Sedang, Sou, Talieng and Yae;
+ Katuic speakers include Alak, Bru, Ca-tu, Kaleung, Katang, Kui, Makong, Nghe, Pa-co, So and Ta-oi;
+ Khmuic speakers include Htin, Khang, Khmu, Mlabri, O-du and Xinh-mun;
+ Palaungic speakers include Bid, Doi, Keu, Lamet and Samtao;
+ Viet-Muong speakers include Bo, Krih, Liha, Maleng, Muong, Phon Sung, Phong, Thavung and Tum;
+ Unclassified Mon-Khmer speakers are represented by the Lavy.
The Sino-Tibetan language family is represented in Laos by two language groups:
+ Han (Sinitic) speakers comprise South Western Mandarin (Yunnanese)-speaking Haw or ethnic Chinese
+ Lolo-Burmish speakers include Akha, Ha Nhi, Kado, Kongsat, La Hu, Lolo, Phanna, Phunoi, Poussang and Si La
Ethnic settlement in Laos is extremely complex, but it is possible to discern a general pattern.
Amongst the Mon-Khmer groups of the Austro-Asiatic family, Bahnaric speakers (Brau, Chieng, Loven, Nha Heun, Oy, Sedang, Sou, Talieng, Yae) and Katuic speakers (Alak, Bru, Ca-tu, Kaleung, Katang, Kui, Makong, Nghe, Pa-co, So and Ta-oi) may be found predominantly in the six southernmost provinces of the country (from Khammouane south to Champassak and Attapeu), while Khmuic speakers (Htin, Khang, Khmu, Mlabri, O-du, Xinh-mun) and Palaungic speakers (Bid, Doi, Keu, Lamet, Samtao) are settled mainly in the northern provinces and Viet-Muong speakers (Bo, Krih, Liha, Maleng, Muong, Phon Sung, Phong, Thavung, Tum) in the east-central region.
Tai-Kadai speakers drawn from the Austro-Thai language family (other than the ethnic Lao majority) - including Giay, Nhang, Seak, Tai Air, Tai Chiangki, Tai E, Tai Guan, Tai Khang, Tai Mene, Tai Meuy, Tai Nua, Tai Oh, Tai Pao, Tai Poreng, Tai Pouark, Tai Pun, Tai Sam, Tai Senkap, Tai Souei, Tai Then, Tai Yor, Tai Yuang and Yoy (Northern Tay-Tai), Lao Isaan, Lao Ngaew and Lu (South Western Tay-Tai, Lao-Lu sub branch), Kalom, Phu Tai, Phuan, Tai Daeng, Tai Dam, Tai Gapong, Tai Khao, Tai Khoen, Tai Wang, Tai Yai and Yuan (South Western Tay-Tai, Tai sub branch) and Tai Add and Tai Poua (Unclassified Tay-Tai) - are concentrated largely in the central and northern regions of the country.
The Hmong and Yao peoples (Austro-Thai language family), together with various Tibeto-Burman language family ethnicities such as the Haw (Han Chinese) and Akha, Ha Nhi, Kado, Kongsat, La Hu, Lolo, Phanna, Phunoi, Poussang and Si La (Lolo-Burmish), are settled predominantly in the mountainous northern provinces.
Exact figures on the ethnic make-up of Lao society are equally difficult to determine.
At the time of writing figures gathered during the government census of 2005 have yet to be broken down by ethnic group. However, according to the 1995 census, the so-called Lao Loum or 'Lowland Lao' made up just over 3.1 million or 68 per cent of the then total population of just over 4,581,000. Of these just under 2.4 million (52 per cent of the total population) could strictly be designated as ethnic Lao; the remaining 700,000 (15 per cent of the total population) comprised various other Northern, South Western and as yet Unclassified Tay-Tai speaking peoples.
Of the remaining 1.48 million Lao citizens, just over 1 million (22 per cent of the total population) comprised Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer peoples (designated by the government as Lao Thueng or 'Upland Lao'), just over 400,000 (9 per cent of the total population) were Lao Seung or 'Highland Lao' (Hmong, Yao, Haw, Akha, Ha Nhi, Kado, Kongsat, La Hu, Lolo, Phanna, Phunoi, Poussang and Si La) and around 45,000 (1 per cent of the total population) ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese.
More recent estimates suggest that out of a total population of 5.6 million (2005) there are currently over 3 million ethnic Lao (54 per cent of the total) and around 2.6 million other cultural distinct ethnic people, including other Tay-Tai speakers (46 per cent of the total). The most numerically significant of the non-Lao ethnic groups are the Khmu (500,957, 1995), Hmong (315,465, 1995), Lu (119,191, 1995), Phuan (115,000, J Schliesinger estimate 2001), So (102,000, SIL estimate 1993), Katang (95,440, 1995), Akha (66,108, 1995), Tai Dam (65,000, J Schliesinger estimate 2000) and Bru (64,000, SIL estimate 1993).
 
 
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