Laos Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Like many nations in Southeast Asia, Laos has a diverse population. However, this has meant something different in Laos. In this lesson we'll look at ethnic division within a nation working towards national unity.


Many Asian nations are characterized by both the presence of incredibly dense populations and a high amount of ethnic diversity. Some people might even assume that these two traits are inherently linked. But then again, maybe not. Laos is a landlocked nation of Southeast Asia which has been noted for its unique demographics. The entire nation is only composed of around 6 million people, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia. At the same time, many researchers have claimed that Laos is home to well over 200 distinct ethnic groups. That would make it by far one of the most diverse nations in the world. Yet, many people within Laos dispute this. Why? Well, let's take a look at ethnicity within Laos, and see what this means in a nation of 6 million people.


Ethnic Groups in Laos: The Old System

Obviously, we can't talk about all of the ethnic groups in Laos today, but instead we can talk about what this diversity has meant to the people of Laos. Traditionally, the Laos people and government organized ethnicity by geography, resulting in four broadly defined categories. The first group are the Laos Thais, some of which preferred the name Laos Loum, who lived in the lowlands, generally around the fertile river deltas. They made up the majority of the population, and recognized 23 different ethnic groups within this greater category. The second group were the Laos Theung, who lived in the middle-altitude lands. They were traditionally discriminated against by other members of Laos society, and prejudice against people of this region exists to this day. The upper-mountain groups were called the Laos Soung. Living so high in the mountains, they were traditionally pretty isolated from mainstream Laotian society. As for the fourth group, it's simply a category of people with ancestry from other Asian nations.

The New System

So, what system does Laos use now? As of the 2005 national census, the Laos government recognized 240 subgroups of people. These 240 subgroups, however, were lumped into 49 ethnic groups. From there, the 49 ethnic groups were categorized into one of four ethno-linguistic groups. So, despite potentially having over 200 distinct ethnic groups, the Laos government prefers to only recognize four broad categories, based on ethnic and linguistic similarities. The ethno-linguistic groups that make up Laos' current system are the Lao Tai, Mon-Khmer, Chinese Tibetan, and Hmong Mien. The Lao Tai, formally Laos Thais in the old system, are the vast majority at around 55% of the total population, and are mostly descended from the ancient Lao Kingdom that ruled over the region. This group does control most of Laotian government, and lives in the rich river valleys where the ancient kingdoms first arose. The other three ethno-linguistic groups are compilations of mostly mountain-dwelling ethnic minorities.

Members of a Hmong ethnic group

When looking at the continual attempts by the Laos government to decrease its official diversity, the obvious question is: why? Why is the Laos government so insistent on reducing the ethnic categories? Well, there are several practical challenges that come along with formally recognizing 240 ethnic groups, but really the government is mostly worried about national unity. The Laotian government has expressed concern that ethnic divisions weaken national unity, and attempting to foster and maintain a single national identity has been a major focus of recent politics. In fact, in 2008 the government formally declared that while they would recognize 49 ethnicities, there was only one nationality: Lao.

Despite its diversity, the government of Laos prefers a national identity as one Lao people

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