Indigenous peoples in Laos

Socio-Economic Changes

Over the last decade, Laos has been in a rapid state of economic and social change which has involved the commodification of water (hydropower and irrigation) and land and forests (agriculture, wood products and carbon pools), which are the natural assets of indigenous communities.

Increasing numbers of indigenous people are being separated from their means of production and pushed into discriminatory, exploitative and transboundary labour markets.


Decision-making power over these resources is mainly controlled by a small politically-dominant elite group from the Tai-Kadia language family (ethnic Lao) and their client-patron networks.

The ethnic Lao comprise around one-third of the total population of nearly 7 million. Approximately another third of the population consists of other Tai-Kaidia language speakers.

As for the remaining population, 30% speak one of the 30+ languages of the Mon Khmer language family as their first language, 5% speak  languages of the Sino-Tibetan family and 10% speak languages of the Hmong-Iu Mien family

Legislation Concerning Indigenous Peoples

The Government of Laos classifies indigenous people as “ethnic groups”  and does not recognize indigenous status, regardless of their support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Only one nationality, "Lao", is recognized.

Officially, there are 49 ethnic groups recognized, with 160 ethnic sub-groups, all of which the Lao Constitution states have equal status and rights.

Self-identification as indigenous varies among the non-Lao portion of the population.

Laos has ratified the:

The Lao government, however, severely restricts fundamental rights, including freedom of speech (media), association, assembly and religion, and civil society is closely controlled.

Organizations openly focused on indigenous peoples or using related terms in the Lao language are not allowed and open discussions about indigenous peoples with the government can be sensitive, especially as the issue is seen as pertaining to special (human) rights.

In 2014, the Universal Periodic Review of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or Laos) made no direct reference to indigenous peoples. 

Yearly Update

Download the 2016 yearbook article on indigenous peoples in Laos to learn about major developments and events during 2015.