Kmhmu is the name of an ethnic group in Laos (an ethnicity of the Mon-Kmer group) who speak the mon-kmer language. They are the native people of the country of Laos and are one of the three largest ethnic groups in Laos. According to the latest research of the Laos ethnic group by Laurent Chazee in 1991, the Kmhmu people represent 32% of the total population, or roughly 1.4 million people.
In the 13th century (about the year 1230), an ethnic group called the Lao immigrated from the southern portion of China into the territory now known as Laos. They came and invaded the territory as conquerors, driving some of the native inhabitants into the remote mountainous areas of their land and enslaving the rest of them. These highland outcast, known as the Kmhmu, maintained their ethnic distinctiveness and lived as a scorned minority far away from civilization.
This isolation meant that the Kmhmu were excluded from the benefits of full Laotian citizenship. Since then they have lived as a stigmatized minority and have been unjustly branded as being an inferior people as compared to the ruling class of the Laotians. There are several derogatory names that the Lao have used when referring to the Kmhmu, some of which are: Kha, Laotheung, Lao-Kang, Thai Hai, and Khmu. Kha is an insulting word some Laotians used to belittle the Kmhmu. Another term, Laotheung is a word that means people who live in the mountains. Lao-Kang is a word that means people who live between the top and bottom of a mountainous area. The word Thai Hai means people who live off the land by cultivating rice of mountainous fields, through a process known as slash and burn. The proper name is Kmhmu, which means "real people" or "human being."
The Kmhmu in Laos tend to lack the educational skills that would help them succeed (about 98% are illiterate due to the lack of schooling). During monarch rule the Royal Government's aid did not extend into the territories of the mountain tribes because of their lack of political organization, or the hatred between them and the lowlanders. The Kmhmu were mistreated and discriminated against. For example, in a 4th grade history book it was written that the native people of Laos are a savage people who have learning disorders. For 30 years, from the date Laos gained its independence from France in 1945 until the Communist takeover in 1975, there were only ten Kmhmu students who had graduated from high school. Eight of these ten graduated from Catholic schools.
The practice of mistreating the Kmhmu was also evident in the military. Kmhmu people participated in wars to protect the country against enemy invasion, including the late Indochina war. In this war Kmhmu troops were 40% of the total troops in the 2nd military region, but other groups claimed their honors. Furthermore, the Kmhmu soldiers were prevented from attaining high ranking positions.
Despite persecution, the Kmhmu people have maintained their rich traditional culture for centuries. They have their own language, customs, beliefs and their own identity which distinguishes them from other ethnic groups. They have an old cultural system, some of which others may consider mysterious or bizarre. For example, the Kmhmu people make bronze drums, excellent swords and have a method of carving large chunks of rock into stone jars. The Kmhmu also have a rich language filled with fascinating legends and beautiful music.
The following are cultural aspects of the Kmhmu people:
Kmhmu kinship and family organization
The Kmhmu people are made up of clans called "Sunta," each of which identifies itself with a totemic ancestral being. They are then classified into three groups or lineages: the quadruped, birds and plants.
- Quadruped Lineages may include clans such as: The Civet Cat, Tiger, Buffalo, Pangolin, and so on.
- Bird Lineages may include clans such as: Forktail, Hornbill, Kite, Kingfishers, and so on.
- Plant Lineages do not have as many clans as the other lineages. One example would be the Black Fern.
Clans are often used as family names in many Kmhmu areas. No one may marry a member of his/her own clan.
Historically, the Kmhmu have been animist and believed in many different spirits that could affect their lives. In the 1940s while in Southeast Asia fighting against the Japanese, the French introduced Christianity to the Kmhmu people. After World War II the British, and later the Americans, continued the missionary work started by the French. As a result of these influences, the Kmhmu in the United States are 70% Catholic, 20% Protestant, and 10% other religions. Kmhmu families are usually large, having an average of five children per household. The Kmhmu are taught to be friendly, honest, respectful, and peaceful. Problems or feelings of sadness are to be kept inside, and not to be shown to others.
The Kmhmu people believe illness is caused by natural or supernatural phenomena. Treatments for illness include ingestion or application of herbal remedies, abdominal massage, herbal body massage, rituals and incantations. The shaman or spiritual healer performs ceremonies to invoke help from the spirit world in curing the ill.
Kmhmu words are written in the emergent standard Roman-based Kmhmu orthography, derived from initial efforts of Catholic missionaries in 1950. The alphabetic inventory of Kmhmu are 34 consonant sounds and 22 vowels.
In Laos, the Kmhmu New Year occurs at the end of the harvest season and is a celebration of the bounty that the Kmhmu farmers are able to win from the soil.