The Khmu, who are also known as Khamu or Kammu, were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. Today, (2010) it is estimated that there are more than 800,000 Khmu around the world: 700,000 in Laos, 50,000 in northern Vietnam, 15,000 in northern Thailand, 7,000 in China, 1,500 in France and another 8,000 in the USA. In Laos, the Khmu form the second largest ethnic group. Only the Lao population is larger. The Khmu are found mainly in Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Phongsaly, and Xieng Khouang provinces, but some Khmu also live in Vientiane, Sayaboury, Bokeo and Borikhamxay, Sayabury provinces. In Thailand, Khmu are found in the northern provinces of Chiang Rai, Lampang and Nan, near the Thailand-Laos border.
The Khmu are settled agriculturists and practice swidden farming. Agriculture is the main source of food, supplemented by gathering, hunting, trapping and fishing. Some Khmu keep domestic animals, but these are used for sacrifices more often than for food. Rice is the staple and there are many varieties, all of them glutinous. Other crops include corn, bananas, sugar cane and a wide variety of vegetables.
Language and Dialects
Linguistically, the Khmu belong to the Plaungic-Khmuic branch of the Mon-Khmer family of languages. Khmu speak a few different dialects. There have been several attempts to develop a written language for the Khmu language, but these dialect differences have caused problems in finding one system that represents all the dialects equally well.
Life and Culture
The older Khmu villages in Laos are situated on mountain ranges, halfway up the mountain. There is usually a belt of jungle with high trees around each village. These Khmu villages on the mountain are generally entirely Khmu, while those in the lowlands may have other people groups. The Khmu villages are usually permanent. Khmu may move when their fields are depleted or if there is a village crisis that is attributed to the action of spirits who live in the area.
Rural Khmu in Laos often have an income that is barely above a subsistence level. Sources of cash income are limited. Some villages produce baskets, wooden bowls, knives, silver bracelets, silver tobacco pipes, and woven cloths to sell. Other villagers sell crops such as peppers, ginger, tobacco, tea, sugar-cane and many different kinds of sweet potatoes, taro and vegetables.
In Laos, the Lao regard the Khmu as the original inhabitants of the area. The Lao believe that the Khmu have power over the spirits of the area. As late as the 1960s, the Khmu were involved in special New Year ceremonies for the King of Luang Prabang, and conducted spirit rituals in the court. In Luang Prabang, the Khmu are heavily acculturated toward Lao life and know the Lao language. They however maintain their own language among themselves. Those Khmu who “become Lao” also adopt Buddhism. Others may spend time in a Buddhist wat in order to learn to read Lao, but without becoming Buddhists or giving up their Khmu identity.
The Khmu were the first people to respond to Christ in the late 1880. In 1960, it was reported that scattered over northern Laos, there were about two thousand Khmu who were evangelical Christians. These Khmu usually clustered in “Christian villages”, but some were also found in communities of traditional religion. Today, there is a global Khmu population of 800,000 of whom 65,000 or 8% are Christian. There are 60,000 Khmu believers in Laos, about 500 Christians in Thailand, and 30 Christians in Vietnam but no known believers in China. In the West, about 800 of Khmu in USA are reported to be Christian, and there about 200 in France.