Introduction / History The Lao are one of the many Tai-speaking peoples who have prospered in mainland Southeast Asia. Their native language, Lao, is a Lao-Phutai dialect of the Tai language family. The Lao of Laos speak only one language, whereas those in Vietnam have probably adapted to their surroundings and may be bilingual.
Centuries ago, the Lao lived in China. However, relentless pressure by the Chinese gradually forced them southward into Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. In 1954, Communist rebels emerged in North Vietnam, and military regimes formed, leading to massive bloodshed. The war finally ended in a Communist victory in 1975, when the Communist Republic of North Vietnam overtook South Vietnam. Post-war North Vietnam has gone through a period of intense reconstruction of industry, yet there has been a deterioration in the quality of output.
What are their lives like? Most of the Lao are wet-rice farmers. Rice is produced both as a dietary staple and as a cash crop. Cultivation is done with wooden equipment drawn by buffalo, although the "slash and burn" method may also be used. Some of the Lao are also blacksmiths, carpenters, or fishermen.
The Lao avoid living in the mountains, choosing instead to dwell in the plains. Their houses are typically made of wood or bamboo and are built high on stilts. Poultry, pigs, and goats are allowed to run freely underneath the houses. Farm lands are adjacent to the villages.
The Buddhist Wat, or temple, is the center of village life. Village leadership is usually divided; the chief has authority in secular matters, while the Buddhist monk has authority in religious issues. Lao society has no rigid social class system. Instead, their social structure is based on family units, with no widespread lineages or clans. Sexual promiscuity before marriage is relatively common.
Lao culture has changed dramatically as a result of Vietnam's transition from a feudal to a socialist society. When the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established in 1976, a program was begun to move ethnic Vietnamese from the lowlands into the mountains. In addition, the Lao farmers now belong to agricultural cooperatives, and small-scale industrialization has helped turn agricultural peasants into a Vietnamese working class. Socialism has also brought improved education and health care. A medical school and some hospitals have been built, and these have helped gain control over diseases such as smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, and malaria.
The Lao are traditionally distinguished from the surrounding peoples by three criteria: the sticky rice they eat (steamed rather than boiled), the skirts worn by their women, and their musical instruments. A bamboo wind instrument called the khene is the most widely known instrument. They also play the khouy, which is an end-blown flute. Music is part of every festival, and it is frequently heard as people work in the fields.
What are their beliefs? More than half of the Lao are Buddhists. They believe that right thinking, ritual sacrifices, and self-denial will enable the soul to reach nirvana (a state of eternal bliss) at death. They live in fear of their gods and constantly strive to appease them with ritual chants and sacrifices.
One-third of the Lao are ethnic religionists, combining folk animism (belief that non-human objects have spirits) with Buddhism. They seek help through various supernatural beings and objects. Of major importance to them are the territorial deities.
What are their needs? The physical needs of the Lao are many. They occupy a region in which yearly monsoons destroy schools, clinics, and bridges and threaten to leave hundreds homeless. Humanitarian aid, medical facilities, and doctors are needed to work among those who have been affected by flooding. Spiritually, their needs are even greater. Many of the Lao have been affected by the fighting and bloodshed of the past. They are in desperate need of inner healing and true spiritual hope.
Prayer Points Ask the Lord to call medical missionaries and humanitarian aid workers to go to Vietnam and share Christ with the Lao.
Pray that the Lord will give missions agencies new strategies for effectively evangelizing the Lao.
Ask God to use Lao believers to share the love of Jesus with their own people.
Ask the Holy Spirit to anoint the Gospel as it goes forth via radio in this region.
Pray that God will save key leaders among the Lao who will boldly proclaim the Gospel.
Ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches among the Lao.