LAO - THE COUNTRY AND PEOPLE


THE HISTORY OF LAO
ITS STORY IS TROUBLING

• The population of Laos was 6,987,260 (Jan, 2015 est.). Around 85% of the population are farmers and live in rural areas. There are 3 main ethnic categories: Lao Loum (low Landers), Lao Thueng (lower mountain dwellers), and Lao Soong (high Landers) Despite its small population, Laos has no less than 68 tribal groups. 

•   About half of the population in Laos are Lao Loum, “Lowland Lao who live in the river plains and mostly along the Mekong region. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups. 

•   The Lao Theung (20-30%), or “ Upland Lao”, live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900m), and are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum. 

•   The label Lao Sung also spelled Soong (10-30%) covers mostly Hmong and Mien tribes who live higher up in the mountains and which have been moving into Laos due to suppression in China about 200 years ago. 

•   Due to the lack of land and the warmer climate, the Lao Sung (e.g. Hmong) have been living in rougher mountain areas since than. They are also very known in the neighboring countries as well. There are also an estimated 2-5% Chinese and Vietnamese, concentrated in the cities living in Laos. 

•   And it’s getting growing, especially Chinese people who come to invest and do trade or transfer forest into plantations.

•  About 60% of the population are Buddhist, and the remaining animist, or spirit believers.  This coincides with the population who are about 60% Lao Loum (Buddhist), and  40% Lao Thueng and Lao Soung, who are made up of over 49 ethnic groups with distinct languages and traditions.  It is a lop-sided melting pot challenged and attacked for centuries by it’s neighbors.

•  Laos was originally part of the Khmer Empire and later absorbed into the Kingdom of Siam.

•  In 1893 the French incorporated Laos into “ French Indochina" .   

•  In the 1940's, major change in took place in Laos, hindered by a Communist movement. 

•  The mid-1950's the French were engaged in the Indochina War, after which Laos had gained its independence from France

•  Soon after,  a subversive militant Communist uprising,  that drew the country into an agonizing civil war.

•  Every Tribe was somehow effected by the war, or involved in the war, during the 1960’s and even into the 70’s.   They had no other option but to flee, suffer, die or resist.  Thats when the CIA  got involved with the mountain tribes preferring their style of fighting, versus the Low Land army profile who were not as competent or reliable. 

•   Due to the wide geographic dispersion of villages, some from the same Tribes became separated and resulted in villages of the same Tribe supporting opposition sides, at times, during the many wars in Laos.  Tribal identities were also sometimes confusing, especially to “ Outsiders" hearing similar sounding Tribal names and then assuming them to both be the same but only pronounced slightly differently.   

•  Tribal names, who supported the Royal Lao Government and who were supported by secret American involvement, include the Hmong (Meo / Miao), Khmu (Kmhmu), Lao and Mein Tribes. These, and other honorable Tribal identity peoples of Laos, produced self-sufficient men, women and children of great courage, who survived the hardships of poverty, drought, isolated lifestyles, who sacrificed and suffered the attributes of generations of war-after-war thrust upon their peoples by other Tribes of their own countrymen, and even by other Clans of their own Tribe, and by hundreds of years of foreign invaders.

•   One of those Tribes was then and now noted for providing the highest numbers of manpower supportive of their Royal Laos Government and supportive of our American Government objectives. That particular Tribe consisted of people respectfully ‘then’ known to us Americans as the “ Meo" (Miao), but who in recent years prefer to be called "Hmong".  From translation we learn the Miao means “savage which explains their disdain for that label used by the Low-Landers.

•   The secret war in Laos began with a few occasional hill tribe employees but by the late 1970’s had turned into a multi-U.S.-intelligence agency supported 30,000+ member “Secret Army” of irregulars who : secured villages, fought invaders, defended against civil war enemies, protected secret US installations that “ Officially” didn't exist, rescued downed American pilots from places they didn't "Officially"  fly over, etc

•   Meanwhile Laos Hill Tribes also produced manpower for a “ Secret Air Force" and countless other manpower help provided to covert US operations which kept around 100,000 invading North Vietnamese troops preoccupied while destroying tons of enemy military supplies that otherwise would have made their way westward deeper into Laos killing more innocent Laos villagers, and southward into South Vietnam to kill more Americans stationed there with related allied personnel.


DEMOGRAPHICS and RELIGION  (Low-Landers)

Laos is a Southeast Asian country traversed by the Mekong River,  French colonial architecture, Hill-tribe settlements and Buddhist monasteries. The information here in depth has been gleaned from almost 100 articles on the subject and though records were difficult to verify in some cases, since some tribes never had a written language, there is strong belief all this information is correct.

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.

VERY EARLY HISTORY AND NATION DEVELOPMENT
An ancient human skull was recovered from the Tam Pa Ling Cave in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos; the skull is at least 46,000 years old, making it the oldest modern human fossil found to date in Southeast Asia.  Some Stone artifacts including Hoabinhian types have been found at sites dating to the Late Pleistocene in northern Laos.  Archaeological evidence suggests agriculturist society developed during the 4th millennium BC. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers suggest a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 BC, and iron tools were known from 700 BC. 

This period is characterized by contact with Chinese and Indian civilizations. According to linguistic and other historical evidence, Tai-speaking tribes migrated southwestward to the modern territories of Laos and Thailand from Guangxi sometime between the 8th–10th centuries.

Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the fourteenth century, by a Lao prince Fa Ngum, who with 10,000 Khmer troops, took over Vientiane.   Ngum was descended from a long line of Lao kings, tracing back to Khoun Boulom.  He made Theravada Buddhism the state religion and Lan Xang prospered. Within 20 years of its formation, the kingdom expanded eastward to Champa and along the Annamite Mountains in Vietnam.   

His ministers, unable to tolerate his ruthlessness, forced him into exile to the present-day Thai province of Nan in 1373,[25] where he died. Fa Ngum's eldest son, Oun Heuan, came to the throne under the name Samsenthai and reigned for 43 years. During his reign, Lan Xang became an important trade centre. After his death in 1421, Lan Xang collapsed into warring factions for the next 100 years.

In 1520, Photisarath came to the throne and moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane to avoid a Burmese invasion. Setthathirat became king in 1548, after his father was killed, and ordered the construction of what would become the symbol of Laos, That Luang. Setthathirat disappeared in the mountains on his way back from a military expedition into Cambodia and Lan Xang began to rapidly decline.

It was not until 1637, when Sourigna Vongsa ascended the throne, that Lan Xang would further expand its frontiers. His reign is often regarded as Laos's golden age. When he died, leaving Lan Xang without an heir, the kingdom divided into three principalities. Between 1763 and 1769, Burmese armies overran northern Laos and annexed Luang Phrabang, while Champasak eventually came under Siamese suzerainty.

Chao Anouvong was installed as a vassal king of Vientiane by the Siamese. He encouraged a renaissance of Lao fine arts and literature and improved relations with Luang Phrabang. Under Vietnamese pressure, he rebelled against the Siamese in 1826. The rebellion failed and Vientiane was ransacked.  Anouvong was taken to Bangkok as a prisoner, where he died.

FRENCH LAOS (1893–1953)  FRENCH PROTECTORATE OF LAOS AND FIRST INDOCHINA WAR
In the late 19th century, Luang Prabang was ransacked by the Chinese Black Flag Army.  France rescued King Oun Kham and added Luang Phrabang to the Protectorate of French Indochina. Shortly after, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were added to the protectorate. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Phrabang became ruler of a unified Laos and Vientiane once again became the capital.

Laos never had any importance for France other than as a buffer state between British-influenced Thailand and the more economically important Annam and Tonkin. During their rule, the French introduced the corvée, a system that forced every male Lao to contribute 10 days of manual labour per year to the colonial government. Laos produced tin, rubber, and coffee, but never accounted for more than one percent of French Indochina's exports. By 1940, around 600 French citizens lived in Laos.

During World War II in Laos, Vichy France, fascist Thailand, Imperial Japan, Free France, and Chinese nationalist armies occupied Laos. On 9 March 1945, a nationalist group declared Laos once more independent, with Luang Prabang as its capital but on 7 April 1945 two battalions of Japanese troops occupied the city.[31] The Japanese attempted to force Sisavang Vong (the King of Luang Phrabang) to declare Laotian independence but on 8 April he instead simply declared an end to Laos' status as a French protectorate. 

The King then secretly sent Prince Kindavong to represent Laos to the Allied forces and Prince Sisavang as representative to the Japanese.   When Japan surrendered, some Lao nationalists (including Prince Phetsarath) declared Laotian independence, but by early 1946, French troops had reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos.

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.
French General Salan and Prince Sisavang Vatthana in Luang Prabang, 4 May 1953.


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.

LAO TODAY AS A COMMUNIST COUNTRY
LAO is a Communist Country.  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 lam or khab 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
 Lao has an area of 85,000 square miles (220,000 km2) and contains a population of 7.2 million people.  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, the diversity is found in their culture too.

Further divisions into the culture are by location, the low-landers, the hill people, and the mountain people.  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.

PEOPLE AND BOMBS

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