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The Lao are an ethnic group of Southeast Asia. The vast majority of Lao people live in either Laos (approximately 3 million) or Thailand (approximately 15 million). The Lao of Thailand are concentrated in the Isan region, although there are many migrant workers from Isan working in other parts of the country, such as Bangkok. The Lao speak various dialects of Lao and Isan, which are in turn often considered to be a single language. Many people in Isan prefer the term Isan to Lao as a result of the "Thaification" campaigns of the 20th century, but there remain many close cultural bonds between the Lao people as a whole.
The history of the Lao is the history of Laos and the history of Isan. These histories diverged in the 19th century, when the defeat of Vientiane's rebellion against Siam in 1827 led to large-scale population transfers from modern Laos to Isan, leaving Laos itself underpopulated. The breach was formalised by the Franco-Siamese treaties of 1893 and 1904, which made Isan and Laos the frontier between Siam and French Indochina.
Since then, both Thailand and Laos have carried out sustained campaigns to transform themselves into nation states centred on the Thai and Lao people respectively. In Isan this has meant the strengthening of the people's loyalties to Thailand, a process known as "Thaification". Many younger people in particular therefore prefer to consider themselves Isan rather than Lao: "Isan", literally meaning "northeast" implies belonging to Thailand, while "Lao" connotes instead a loyalty to Laos. In Laos, by contrast, the same process has resulted in the promotion of the Lao language and culture as the national language and culture.
There are around 3.6 million Lao in Laos, constituting approximately 60% of the population (the remainder are largely hill tribe people). The ethnic Lao of Laos form the bulk of the Lao Loum ("Lowland Lao"). The Lao make up around a third of the population of Thailand: the main concentrations are in Isan (about 15 million people) and in Bangkok (where there are thought to be at least one million migrant Lao from Isan). There are other populations of ethnic Lao throughout Central Thailand, but these have been increasingly incorporated into the general Thai population. Small Lao communities exist in Cambodia, residing primarily in the former Lao territory of Stung Treng (Xieng Teng in Lao), and Vietnam, and there are also substantial, unknown numbers of Lao overseas. 500,000 people would be a rough estimate. Most of the latter were refugees from Laos who fled the Second Indochina War and the Pathet Lao.
It bears noting that the last official census conducted in Siam (later Thailand) in which "Lao" was a unique ethnic category showed almost half the population being "Lao." As part of Thaiification the "Lao" category was dropped and today it is unclear what share of the population of Thailand is of Lao origin.
The Lao speak Lao and Isan. Each of these exists in various dialects. The Vientiane dialect has been adopted as the standard in Laos; there is no standard dialect of Isan, but most of its dialects are mutually comprehensible with Vientiane Lao. Most of the differences between Lao and Isan are due either to the greater use of Thai loan words in Isan, and to the adoption of different neologisms for concepts introduced since the division of Laos and Isan in the late 19th century (e.g. "motorcycle" is lot motorcy in Isan, but lot jak in Lao).
Isan and Laos are both extremely poor economically, due to their relatively infertile land and dry climate. The most common lifestyle is therefore that of subsistence farming, with few major urban centres.
Laos and Isan share the Theravada Buddhist religion. The indigenous cuisines of Laos and Isan are very similar, placing much emphasis on fish sauce, chilli and sticky rice. However, Lao cuisine has also absorbed some French and substantial Vietnamese elements, while the greater poverty of the rural areas of Laos has led to a more restricted diet than in most of Isan.
- Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped. University of Hawaii Press, 1984.
- Wyatt, David. Thailand: A Short History. Yale University Press, 1984.
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