Approximately 140,000 in Laos and 40,000 in Thailand
Areas of Habitation
Provinces of Khammoune and Savannakhet, Laos
So, Kha So, Tro, Thro, Mangkong, Makong, So Makon
Linguistic Family: Austro-Asiatic
Language Sub-family: Mon-Khmer
Language Branch: Katuic
The So people together with other Mon-Khmer speaking tribes were some of the original settlers of mainland Southeast Asia. These small indigenous tribes have lived in isolation for centuries and their histories have always been influenced by whichever major kingdom was ruling at the time. The first kingdom to which these tribes paid homage was the mighty Khmer empire which dominated much of Southeast Asia in the early centuries A.D. At the decline of Khmer power and influence Tai-speaking tribes began to push the So out of the best lands. By the 16th century these Tai-speaking groups had forced the So to leave their homes along mountain ranges and valleys to resettle on the banks of major rivers and tributaries.
Today the So live in the same region in Laos as they did thousands of years ago – with the exception of a smaller group of So living in Thailand. The Tai-speaking Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang lasted from 1354-1707 and allowed the So to live in relative peace. In the late 18th century the Lan Xang Kingdom was internally dismantled and became multiple vassal states under the Kingdom of Siam to which they paid tribute. Chao Anou, a Lao prince who served in the courts of Bangkok, became king of Vientiane in 1804. The King, in an attempt to reestablish the old Kingdom of Lan Xang marched on Bangkok in 1827 with large a large army to no avail. Chao Anou’s failed uprising and attempted attack on Siam caused major repercussions for the city of Vientiane and the thousands of indigenous peoples under its influence, the So included.
Depopulating a region was a common wartime practice of the day and in response to the threat of losing power, Siam forcibly relocated tens of thousands of people from the east bank of the Mekong River to what is now called Northeast Thailand. Today about 35,000-40,000 So people inhabit 53 villages in the Thai province of Sakhon Nakhon. The Thai So have retained much of their language, culture and oral histories yet have lifestyles that are far removed from their ancestral brothers and sisters in underdeveloped Laos.
In recent years, Laos has been the location of numerous battles with China, Russia, Vietnam and U.S.A. competing for political influence. Thousands of American cluster bombs and unexploded ordinances remain in central Laos. Today, over 140,000 So people live in central Laos spread throughout Khammoune and north-western Savannakhet Province, the heartland of the So.
CUSTOMS AND HABITS
The So of Laos are subsistence farmers. Over time they have adopted many practices of the Lao changing things from agriculture to social systems. From slashing and burning land they are now growing wet rice on terraced plots. They also use buffalos to plow fields and are efficient hunters and fisherman navigating the many rivers and tributaries. Other changes include traditional dress, language, educational methods, housing, and public administration. Only a few distinctive, cultural characteristics have remained, such as the silk scarves worn by the So women around a bun of hair at their necks.
The So are poorer than other ethnic groups around them and most live in isolated rural villages. They typically live in thatch roof bamboo houses built on stilts. Among the So, the village is considered the most significant political unit of society. Each village is led by a headman, and each family is led by the father. A young married couple may live with the bride’s family until they are able to establish their own home.
The So in Laos are primarily Animists mixed with elements of Buddhism. So villages that have assimilated with Lao people might have a Buddhist temple, or Wat, but the majority do not and worship ancestor spirits. The belief in supernatural spirits and objects is central to their worldview.
The So believe that the “Yiang” or “Sacred Spirit” was here before man existed. This Yiang must always be appeased and in doing so established the customary laws that their ancestors followed. To not appease the Yiang and other ancestral spirits would cause sickness, harm and misfortune.
So families usually have small altars near their homes where sacrifices and offerings are made to the spirits of the dead. The people also believe that each village has a “guardian spirit,” as well as various spirits that are linked to the elements of nature. Charms, amulets, tattoos and potions are commonly used to provide protection and good health.
The So are bilingual, speaking So in their homes and Lao in social settings. This language has yet to be written down. There are currently no written or oral evangelistic resources in the Lao So language.
Currently there is only one So church that exists in Laos. This church began in 2009 with one individual who roamed the jungle as a crazed demon possessed man and was later caged. His faith in the power of Jesus caused a complete transformation. As a result, over 12 families are now following Jesus.
Now there is a dedicated team or workers who want to see the Church established within walking distance of every So village in Laos. Ministry is currently underway to see prayer mobilized, oral resources developed, people trained and a movement of indigenous reproducing churches started.
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