ALL THE PEOPLE OF LAOS


LOCATION and HISTORY  ສະຖານທີ່

Laos is a Southeast Asian country traversed by the Mekong River,  French colonial architecture, hill tribe settlements and Buddhist monasteries. 

Vientiane, the capital, is the site of the That Luang monument, where a reliquary reportedly houses the Buddha’s breastbone, plus the Patuxai war memorial and Talat Sao (Morning Market), a complex jammed with food, clothes and craft stalls.

It is landlocked country occupying the Northwest portion of the Indochinese peninsula, Laos is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. It is twice the size of Pennsylvania. Laos is a mountainous country, especially in the North, where peaks rise above 9,000 ft (2,800 m). Dense forests cover the northern and eastern areas. The Mekong River, which forms the boundary with Burma and Thailand, flows through the country for 932 mi (1,500 km) of its course.

The Lao people migrated into Laos from southern China from the 8th century onward. In the 14th century, the first Laotian state was founded, the Lan Xang kingdom, which ruled Laos until it split into three separate kingdoms in 1713. During the 18th century, the three kingdoms came under Siamese (Thai) rule and, in 1893, became a French protectorate. 

With its territory incorporated into Indochina. A strong nationalist movement developed during World War II, but France reestablished control in 1946 and made the king of Luang Prabang constitutional monarch of all Laos. France granted semiautonomy in 1949 and then, spurred by the Viet Minh rebellion in Vietnam, full independence within the French Union in 1950.

In 1951, Prince Souphanouvong organized the Pathet Lao, a Communist independence movement, in North Vietnam. Viet Minh and Pathet Lao forces invaded central Laos, resulting in civil war. By the Geneva Agreements of 1954 and an armistice of 1955, two northern provinces were given to the Pathet Lao; the rest went to the royal regime. Full sovereignty was given to the kingdom by the Paris Agreements of Dec. 29, 1954. 

In 1957, Prince Souvanna Phouma, the royal prime minister, and Pathet Lao leader Prince Souphanouvong, the prime minister's half-brother, agreed to reestablishment of a unified government, with Pathet Lao participation and integration of Pathet Lao forces into the royal army. The agreement broke down in 1959, and armed conflict began anew.

In 1960, the struggle became a three-way fight as Gen. Phoumi Nosavan, controlling the bulk of the royal army, set up in the south a pro-Western revolutionary government headed by Prince Boun Oum. General Phoumi took Vientiane in December, driving Souvanna Phouma into exile in Cambodia. The Soviet bloc supported Souvanna Phouma. In 1961, a cease-fire was arranged and the three princes agreed to a coalition government headed by Souvanna Phouma.


THE SECRET WAR  ສົງຄາມລັບ

The Laotian Civil War (1953–75) was fought between the Communist Pathet Lao (including many North Vietnamese of Lao ancestry) and the Royal Lao Government, with both sides receiving heavy external support in a proxy war between the global Cold War superpowers. It is called the Secret War among the CIA Special Activities Division and Hmong veterans of the conflict.

We called it the Viet Nam war and it ran concurrent with the  North Vietnamese Army, versus US, Thai, and South Vietnamese forces. 

The Kingdom of Laos was a covert theatre for other belligerents during the Vietnam War. The Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association signed 22 October 1953 transferred remaining French powers to the Royal Lao Government except control of military affairs, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. However, this government did not include representatives from the Lao Issara anti-colonial armed nationalist movement.

The following years were marked by a rivalry between the neutralists under Prince Souvanna Phouma, the right wing under Prince Boun Oum of Champassak, and the left-wing Lao Patriotic Front under Prince Souphanouvong and half-Vietnamese future Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane. Several attempts were made to establish coalition governments, and a "tri-coalition" government was finally seated in Vientiane.

The actual fighting in Laos involved the directly and through irregular proxies in a struggle for control over the Laotian Panhandle. The North Vietnamese Army occupied the area to use for its Ho Chi Minh Trail supply corridor and as staging area for offensives into South Vietnam. There was a second major theater of action on and near the northern Plain of Jars.

The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao eventually emerged victorious in 1975, as part of the general communist victory in all of former French Indochina that year.

SIMPLIFICATION and STATUS:  LAOS IS A COMMUNIST CONTROLLED COUNTRY


LANGUAGE
The official language of the Lao PDR is Lao as is spoken in Vientiane, a language that is very close to the Thai language. This is a tonal language (6 different tones). Besides the official language, which has become the common linguistic vehicle between all the ethnic groups, there are also many other languages or dialects which are still spoken by the minorities and in particular by Sino-Tibetan families.



LAOTIAN ART AND CULTURE-
Except for modern and contemporary visual arts, Lao artistic traditions developed around religion and the political and social circumstances that governed the lives of the various ethnic groups in Laos. Many of these traditions, particularly sculpture, music, and classical dance, were strongly influenced by the Khmer, Vietnam, and Thailand civilizations.

The physical artistic heritage of Laos encompasses archaeological sites, religious monuments and cultural landscapes, traditional towns and villages, and a variety of highly developed crafts including textiles, wood carving, and basket-weaving. The two great performing art traditions of Laos are rich and diverse folk heritage of the lamor khap call-and-response folk song and its popular theatrical derivative lam luang; and the graceful classical music and dance (natasinh) of the former royal courts.

Little is known about the earliest cultures in the region. The Plain of Jars, a large group of historic cultural sites, containing thousands of large stone jars, which archaeologists believe were used 1,500–2,000 years ago by an ancient Mon-Khmer race. 

Recently discovered kiln sites in the Vientiane area indicate an active involvement with ceramics manufacture and artistry during the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. The influence of Theravada Buddhism is reflected throughout Laos in its language as well as in art, literature, and the performing arts. Buddhist sculptures and paintings make up a large portion of the enduring artistic tradition of Laos.


SOCIAL CUSTOMS
The Lao people greet each other with a prayer-like gesture called a nop. A younger person or a person of lower status will nop their elder or social superior. The western custom of shaking hands has become more common in recent years - though a smile and a slight bow of the head is still considered polite. 

Backslapping, public displays of affection, shouting, and wild gesticulation are all considered impolite. The head is considered the highest part of the body, while the feet are considered the lowest, both literally and figuratively. Touching someone's head or pointing at people or things with the feet are, therefore, considered extremely rude. As with entering temples, shoes are removed before entering somebody's home.


VARIATED RELIGIOUS BELIEFS - IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND  
1-  Laos has an area of 85,000 square miles (220,000 km2) and contains a population of 7.2 million people.  

2-  It has a fairly common but diverse religious culture on the outside.  But just as the Christian Church in the US has hundreds of divisions and sub-divisions and varying forms of worship (Just pick up a directory and the list and sub categories are endless), the diversity is found (albeit more subtle) in their culture.
3-  Further divisions into the culture are by location, the low-landers, the hill people, and the mountain people.

4-  They are also divided by linguistic properties with five groupings recognized.

•  Within Laos approximately the majority of the population are said to be Theravada Buddhists, with the remaining population largely following Animism in the form of spirit (phi) worship.  Almost all are ethnic or “ Lowland” Lao (Lao Loum and Lao Lom) and are followers of Theravada Buddhism; however, they constitute and it varies by who is reporting from 50%-65% of the population.   

•  Animism (perhaps the oldest from of religion) encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and that souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including ...thunder, wind and shadows.

•  The remainder of the population belongs to at least 48 distinct ethnic minority groups.  Most of these ethnic groups (30%) are practitioners of Laotian folk religion, with beliefs that vary greatly among groups.  Laotian folk religion is predominant among most Lao Theung, Lao Sung, the Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, as well as among Mon-Khmer and Tibeto-Burman groups.  Even among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist phi religious beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. 

•  Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2% of the population. Other minority religious groups include those practicing the Bahá'í faith, Mahayana Buddhism, and Chinese folk religions.   A very small number of citizens are atheist or agnostic.

•  Although the Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, some resident foreigners associated with private businesses or nongovernmental organizations quietly engage in religious activity.   The Lao Front for National Construction is in charge of religious affairs within the country and all religious organizations within Laos must register with it.

•  Today around 65% of the Laotian population practice Theravada Buddhism, also known as the Little Vehicle Buddhism. This religion was developed in Laos between the 14th and 17th centuries as it gradually took over over animism and Brahmanism. 

•  As in neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, religion has a strong influence on culture and daily life. The monasteries (Wat), which form the centre of collective life, have a social function in addition to their religious role by providing education to children from poor families.

Ancient beliefs, in particular the cult of the phi people, exist side by side with Buddhism without any problem. Many feasts or ceremonies practiced by Buddhists are ancient animist practices.  Many ceremonies here in the states are dual ceremonies that I have attended and have been impressed by the sharing and outright respect and love shown at these ceremonies.

•  There are numerous ethnic groups in Laos, between 65 to 129 according to different estimates, with certain groups not yet being sufficiently studied to enable a proper definition of their origins or family grouping. These groups can be sub-divided into five linguistic families (cf. L. Chazee): Thai-Kadai (Tai), Austro-Asian (Mon-Khmer), Miao-Yao, Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Birman) and others (non defined).

•  The government has tried to classify these peoples according to the altitude at which they live: Laotians of the plains (Lao Loum), Laotians of the hills (Lao Theung) and Laotians of the mountains (Lao Sung). Although very practical, this classification is gradually being abandoned, as it does not meet ethnological criteria.

•  All these minorities have a more or less large degree of cultural development according to their social binds or geographical position. In this way the Thai Yang in the Oudomxay province or the Nyuane in the Xayabury province have adopted the traditions (religion, habitat, feasts, dress) of the Lao Loum (Laotians of the plains). The Lue in the north or the Khmu in the north and east have only very partially adopted the way of life of the Lao Loum. As for the minorities of the Miao-Yao or Sino-Tibetan families, most of these have kept their own culture intact.

•  This ethnic diversity is one of the treasures of Laos and will remain so as long as the development of its tourism industry, which in any case is destined to grow, can be planned in an organized manner. The notion of "Fair Tourism" must at all costs be present, both on the financial and cultural levels. It is sad that in these present times few tourist organisations are aware of these realities or of the know-how needed to help discover these fragile cultures.


Buddhism 
Was introduced to Laos beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was widespread by the fourteenth century. A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the Pathet Lao attempted to convert monks to the leftist cause and to use the status of the sangha to influence the thoughts and attitudes of the populace. 

The effort was in many ways successful, despite efforts by the Royal Lao Government to place the sangha under close civil administrative control and to enlist monks in development and refugee assistance programs. Political scientist Stuart-Fox attributed the success of the Pathet Lao to the inability of the Lao Loum elite to integrate the monarchy, government, and sangha into a set of mutually supportive institutions.

Popular resentment of the aristocracy, division of the sangha into two antagonistic sects, the low level of its religious education and discipline, and opposition to foreign (i.e., Western) influence all contributed to the receptiveness of many monks to Pathet Lao overtures. The politicization of the sangha by both sides lowered its status in the eyes of many, but its influence at the village level augmented popular support for the Pathet Lao political platform, which paved the way for the change in government in 1975.

The LPDR government's successful efforts to consolidate its authority also continues to influence Buddhism. In political seminars at all levels, the government taught that Marxism and Buddhism were basically compatible because both disciplines stated that all men are equal, and both aimed to end suffering. Political seminars further discouraged "wasteful" expenditures on religious activities of all kinds, because some monks were sent to political reeducation centers and others were forbidden to preach.

The renunciation of private property by the monks was seen as approaching the ideal of a future communist society. However, Buddhist principles of detachment and non-materialism are clearly at odds with the Marxist doctrine of economic development, and popular expenditures on religious donations for merit making are also seen as depriving the state of resources. Thus, although overtly espousing tolerance of Buddhism, the state undercut the authority and moral standing of the sangha by compelling monks to spread party propaganda and by keeping local monks from their traditional participation in most village decisions and activities.

During this period of political consolidation, many monks left the sangha or fled to Thailand. Other pro-Pathet Lao monks joined the newly formed Lao United Buddhists Association, which replaced the former religious hierarchy. The numbers of men and boys being ordained declined abruptly, and many wat fell empty. Participation at weekly and monthly religious ceremonies also dropped off as villagers under the watchful eye of local political cadre were fearful of any behavior not specifically encouraged.

The nadir of Buddhism in Laos occurred around 1979, after which a strategic liberalization of policy occurred. Since that time, the number of monks has gradually increased, although as of 1993, the main concentrations continue to be in Vientiane and other Mekong Valley cities. Buddhist schools in the cities remain but have come to include a significant political component in the curriculum. Party officials are allowed to participate at Buddhist ceremonies and even to be ordained as monks to earn religious merit following the death of close relatives. The level of religious understanding and orthodoxy of the sangha, however, is no higher than it had been before 1975, when it was criticized by many as backward and unobservant of the precepts.

From the late 1980s, stimulated as much by economic reform as political relaxation, donations and participation at Buddhist festivals began to increase sharply. Festivals at the village and neighborhood level became more elaborate, and the That Luang festival and fair, which until 1986 had been restricted to a three-day observance, lasted for seven days. Ordinations also increased, in towns and at the village level, and household ceremonies of blessing, in which monks were central participants, also began to recur.

Theravada Buddhism is by far the most prominent organized religion in the country, with nearly 5,000 temples serving as the focus of religious practice as well as the center of community life in rural areas. In most lowland Lao villages, religious tradition remains strong. Most Buddhist men spend some part of their lives as monks in temples, even if only for a few days.

There are approximately 22,000 monks in the country, nearly 9,000 of whom have attained the rank of "senior monk," indicating years of study in temples. In addition, there are approximately 450 nuns, generally older women who are widowed, residing in temples throughout the country. The Buddhist Church is under the direction of a supreme patriarch who resides in Vientiane and supervises the activities of the church's central office, the Ho Thammasaphat has the 20% of the populations.

Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and preserved in Sri Lanka after Mahayana Buddhism branched off in the second century B.C. Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant school in neighboring Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.

That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the nationally important festival and fair in November.

For the Lao Loum, the wat is one of the two focal points of village life (the other is the school). The wat provides a symbol of village identity as well as a location for ceremonies and festivals. Prior to the establishment of secular schools, village boys received basic education from monks at the wat. Nearly every lowland village has a wat, and some have two. Minimally, a wat must have a residence building for the monks and novices (vihan), and a main building housing the Buddha statues (sim), which is used for secular village meetings as well as for prayer sessions. Depending on the wealth and contributions of the villagers, the buildings vary from simple wood and bamboo structures to large, ornate brick and concrete edifices decorated with colorful murals and tile roofs shaped to mimic the curve of the naga, the mythical snake or water dragon. An administrative committee made up of respected older men manages the financial and organizational affairs of the wat.

Buddhist ceremonies generally do not mark events in a life- cycle, with the exception of death. Funerals may be quite elaborate if the family can afford it but are rather simple in rural settings. The body lies in a coffin at home for several days, during which monks pray, and a continual stream of visitors pay their respects to the family and share food and drink. After this period, the body is taken in the coffin to a cremation ground and burned, again attended by monks. The ashes are then interred in a small shrine on the wat grounds.

Although officially incorporated into the dominant Mahanikai School of Buddhist Practice after 1975, the Thammayudh sect of Buddhism still maintains a following in the country. Abbots and monks of several temples, particularly in Vientiane, reportedly are followers of the Thammayudh School, which places greater emphasis on meditation and discipline.

There are four Mahayana Buddhist temples in Vientiane, two serving the ethnic Vietnamese community and two serving the ethnic Chinese community. Buddhist monks from Vietnam, China, and India have visited these temples freely to conduct services and minister to worshippers. There are at least four large Mahayana Buddhist pagodas in other urban centers and smaller Mahayana temples in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China.


Laotian folk religion (Lao: ສາສນາຜີ sasna phi, “religion of the gods”)
Is an overarching term for the ethnic religions practiced by 30.7%[3] of the population of Laos. These religions are pantheistic and polytheistic **, and involve classes of shamans.  The category comprehends traditions of the Lao and other Tai-Kadai people, the Khmu and other Mon-Khmer people, as well as religions of the Hmong-Mien (Hmongism and Yao Taoism), Tibeto-Burman, and other ethnic groups of Laos.    

Among the Lao, the Lao Loum and Lao Lom are predominantly Buddhist, while the Lao Theung and Lao Sung are predominantly folk religious.  ** Pantheism is the belief that all of reality is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god. Pantheists thus do not believe in a distinct personal or anthropomorphic god.  

Polytheistic religions include Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, tribal religions in the Americas and Africa and modern neopaganism. With the exception of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, most world religions are characterized by polytheism.

Christianity
Is a minority religion in Laos. There are three recognized Churches in Laos: the Lao Evangelical Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Roman Catholic - There are approximately 45,000 members of the Roman Catholic Church, many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese, concentrated in major urban centers and surrounding areas along the Mekong River in the central and southern regions of the country. The Catholic Church has an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, and Catholics are able to worship openly. 

The Catholic Church's activities are more circumscribed in the North. The church's property in Luang Prabang was seized after 1975, and there is no longer a parsonage in that city.  An informal Catholic training center in Thakhek prepared a small number of priests to serve the Catholic community (20%).

Protestant
Approximately 400 Protestant congregations conduct services throughout the country for a community that has grown rapidly in the past decade. Church officials estimate Protestants to number as many as 100,000. Many Protestants are members of ethnic Mon-Khmer groups, especially the Khmu in the north and the Brou in the central provinces. Numbers of Protestants also have expanded rapidly in the Hmong and Yao communities.

In urban areas, Protestantism has attracted many lowland Lao followers. Most Protestants are concentrated in Vientiane Municipality, in the provinces of Vientiane, Sayaboury, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Bolikhamsai, Savannakhet, Champassak, and Attapeu, as well as in the former Saisomboun Special Zone, but smaller congregations are located throughout the country. The LFNC officially recognizes only two Protestant groups - the Lao Evangelical Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church - and requires all non-Catholic Christian groups to operate under one of these organizations.

Seventh-day Adventists number slightly more than 1,000 country-wide, with congregations in Vientiane Municipality as well as Bokeo, Bolikhamsai, Champassak, Luang Prabang, and Xieng Khouang provinces. Christian denominations that have some following in the country, but which are not recognized by the Government, include the Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, Lutherans, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Baptists. Official membership numbers are not available.

Laos used to be part of the Khmer Empire and has some remaining Hindu temples.  Small groups of followers of Confucianism and Taoism practice their beliefs in the larger cities.

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