The Lao People's Democratic Republic is a landlocked country bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. Laos is home to more than 60 ethnic groups within several linguistic families. The major group is the ethnic Lao, referred to as the Lowland Lao or Lao Loum, who make up more than half of the urbanized population. The Highland Lao groups, called the Lao Theung, are comprised of diverse groups including the Hmong/Mong, Iu-Mien/Mien, Khmu, Lahu, Tai Dam, and others. The majority are farmers of staple crops such as rice and corn, while others grow cash crops such as tropical fruits, coffee, and, in particular, opium. Ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese also live in Laos.
By 1975 the Vietnam War had displaced about a third of the 3.5 million people
in Laos. More than 300,000 (including Hmong) sought political asylum, and the
majority settled in the United States, France, Canada, and Australia. Some remained
in neighboring Thailand. Lowland Lao, ethnic Chinese, and ethnic Vietnamese left
Laos at the end of the war, followed later by Western-educated professionals,
businesspeople, military personnel, and civil servants. Some Laotians were sent
to “seminar camps” where they did hard labor and were re-educated
in Communist doctrines. Many chose to escape from persecution in their homeland.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 198,203 non-Hmong Laotians are in the United
States. The majority of these are the ethnic Lao, who live in a number of concentrated
areas. Other Laotian ethnic groups also reside in clusters of ethnic tribes or
clans. (See the next section on Hmong and Iu-Mien [link] for statistics on these
groups.) An estimated 4,000 Khmu live in the U.S., half of these in northern California.
There are approximately 3,000 Tai Dam, the majority in Iowa where they were initially
settled. Most Laotians live in California (65,058), Texas (11,626), and Minnesota
(11,516). Smaller concentrations exist in Washington, North Carolina, Illinois,
Wisconsin, Georgia, Oregon, Iowa, and other states.