Mar 28, 2019

Hmong: Statement by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights on his Visit to Lao PDR, 18-28 March 2019

On 28 March 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, concluded his 11 day visit to Laos. In his statement regarding his visit, the Special Rapporteur mentioned the economic progress made by the country but expressed disappointment that “[e]thnic minorities and indigenous peoples continue to experience poverty at a vastly higher rate than the Lao-Tai majority.” While Laos “is one of South-East Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries . . . poverty is concentrated among the minority (non-Lao-Tai) ethnic groups, who have lower rates of education, depend primarily on agriculture, and live in more remote areas.” Crucially, “there are real indications that government policies disfavor minorities.” The Hmong, a UNPO Member people, are third largest ethnic group in Laos and the UNPO has been consistently highlighting the institutionalized discrimination and persecution that they face in Laos, including through our 2018 alternative report submitted to the UN quoted by the Special Rapporteur. The UNPO strongly welcomes recognition of this fact by the UN Special Rapporteur.


Find the full statement here


Lao PDR is one of South-East Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries. The constitution defines the country as a multi-ethnic State, with equality among all ethnic groups. But poverty is concentrated among minority (non-Lao-Tai) ethnic groups, who have lower rates of education, depend primarily on agriculture, and live in more remote areas. The government officially recognizes 49 ethnic groups, while independent estimates put the number at more than 200.


Minority groups make up approximately 45 percent of the population. They face higher rates of poverty, typically practice subsistence oriented, semi-permanent or shifting agriculture, often live in areas with limited social services and infrastructure, and may not speak Lao. A 2017 World Bank report found ethnic minorities lagged behind the majority Lao-Tai at all economic levels: those in poverty ethnic minorities were worse off than Lao-Tai in poverty, but also those better-off from ethnic minority groups were still poorer than better off Lao-Tai. They have more limited access to healthcare, lower rates of education, and less access to clean water and sanitation. For example, the percentage of ethnic minorities relying on unimproved or surface water ranged from between 20 to 32.5 percent, compared to just 8.5 percent of Lao-Tai. And while only 13.9 percent of Lao-Tai practice open defecation, that rises to between 30.3 to 46.3 percent among ethnic minorities.


Crucially, the gap between ethnic minorities and the Lao-Tai majority cannot be fully explained by differences in characteristics like larger household sizes or more limited access to education and infrastructure; there are real indications that government policies disfavor minorities.


Ethnic minorities have more limited access to schools, with just 5 percent living in a village with an upper-secondary school, compared to 16 percent of Lao-Tai. Thirty-four percent of working-age ethnic minorities have no education, three times the rate of Lao-Tai, and just 15 percent have completed secondary education compared to 60 percent of Lao-Tai.


For children from ethnic minority families who may not speak Lao at home, the government’s insistence on Lao as the only language of instruction puts minority children at a disadvantage. While the Ministry of Education and Sports told me they cannot be expected to provide an education in 50 languages, that should not preclude teachers from minority communities from using their own language to ensure children from already disadvantaged communities are not being left behind. The Ministry said there were 23 special schools to train children from ethnic minorities to become teachers, but that they would only be able to teach in Lao.


Corruption and land distribution also disproportionately impact minorities, and land concessions to foreign investors in the hydroelectric, extractive, and logging industries significantly impact minority groups through relocation without adequate consultation or compensation. Because of linguistic differences and lower rates of education, ethnic minority groups may not fully understand their land rights and the terms of the contracts being signed.


Some ethnic groups have laid claim to indigenous status. While this report is not the appropriate context in which to resolve that claim, such status would confer additional rights under international law, including to free, prior, and informed consent to the use of land and resources. However, the government has shut down the discussion, contending that there are no indigenous or even minority groups in Lao PDR, and that all ethnic groups are equal. Such an approach fails to acknowledge the very real disparities between ethnic groups, or to address the issue of whether protections available under international law for indigenous peoples should actually be considered to apply.


The government has resettled people, including ethnic minorities, to consolidated villages in remote areas. But there is evidence that these steps have worsened the welfare of relocated households due to unsuitable land in relocation areas and a lack of support in adapting to new environments. Some have argued that these programs are in fact geared.


Photo courtesy of Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights