Hmong of Laos

Alternative names: Meo, Miao, various tribal and clan names
Location: northern Laos, Thai refugee camps, USA
Population: about 400,000 (est.)
%of population: 10% (est. of Laos population)
Religion: indigenous beliefs
Language: related to Chinese

The Hmong, also called Meo or Miao, of Laos are a hill-dwelling people numbering some 400,000 or 10% of the population of Laos. They are closely related to the Chinese (and sometimes referred to as “Aboriginal Chinese”) who entered Laos from Yunnan province only during the 1840s. Although there are over five million Meo remaining in China, and others in Thailand and Vietnam, the groups have gradually become separate.

The Hmong are agriculturists and pig herders who also cultivate the opium poppy. Soil erosion causes villages to move to new areas several times in each generation. Hmong society is strongly hierarchical and there are firm clan loyalties; during the French colonial period the French were able to control the entire tribe by favouring and educating members of the dominant family, and volunteer battalions of mountain tribesmen fought with the French until the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

In 1959, the American CIA found these dispersed former soldiers and began to form the “clandestine army”. In all 30,000 full-time soldiers and 40,000 reserves of village militiamen were trained and supplied with weapons by the CIA and Green Berets and came under the leadership of the commander of the ex-French-Meo troops, Vang Pao. Allegiance to Vang Pao was expected from all Meo troops and this created difficulties between the various clans as it upset the hierarchy of clan loyalties. The territory controlled by this army at one stage exceeded that of the legitimate Lao government.

In 1967, the communist offensive pushed the Hmong from their territory in the north back to the area around the Plain of Jars which was taken by the Pathet Lao and then bombed intensively by the Americans. Many Hmong fled while others were evacuated; by the ceasefire of 1973 there were about 200,000 Meo refugees crowded into American camps in the valleys of the Mekong river and many abandoned their allegiance to Vang Pao who had lost 25% of his army. American influence was strong in the camps and Hmong traditions were further weakened.

A coalition government formed in 1974 placed emphasis on the unity and equality of all minorities with the majority Lao people. However, plans to return the refugees to their homes and rehabilitate them were thwarted when Vang Pao refused admission to the census teams. No longer supported by the CIA, Vang Pao had sided with the anti-Pathet Lao element and when the Pathet Lao took over Laos in 1975 he fled to Thailand with some 25,000 Meo. Vang Pao’s forces maintained guerrilla resistance for several years before disintegrating into small bands. There have been reports of Hmong guerrillas operating in northern Laos and allegations of atrocities from both sides.

It is difficult to evaluate the situation of Hmong in Laos today, as it is a largely closed society and the area is not easily accessible. Reports state that in recent years a more conciliatory approach towards them is being taken by the Laotian government and that conditions are improving but that the majority lowland culture is predominant, education is in Lao and that “model villages” have been built.

Large numbers of Hmong live in exile, mainly in Thailand, the USA and France. After 1975 many Hmong fled to Thailand fearful of Pathet Lao reprisals. In 1975 there were 25,000 refugees, in 1976 45,000 and by 1979 60,000 refugees in the camps in Thailand while many thousands of others were thought to have died while attempting to leave. In 1986 there were probably 40,000 Hmong refugees in Thailand, 40,000 resettled in the USA and between 6,000 and 8,000 in France. The Hmong in exile remain a dispossessed people who have suffered almost total social disruption and largely lack the education and skills to integrate in western society.

(See also Hill Tribes of Northern Thailands; National Minorities of Central Vietnam)