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 The current population of Laos is estimated at just under 5 million. There are well over 40 ethnic groups, many rather small in number. Geography has played a major role in the settlement of present day Laos, and different ethnic groups have carved out ecological niches at different altitudes. The government characterizes people into the lowland, midland, and upland Lao. Laotian is the term for a person from Laos, while Lao describes a person from the predominant ethnic group. The Lao, or lowland Lao in modern terminology, are a Tai people who emigrated from south China several centuries ago. They are related to the people of Thailand, the Shan of northeastern Burma, and various groups in mountainous regions of northern Vietnam and southern Yunnan, China. The Lao make up 2/3 of the population and are clustered along the Mekong River to the east and in the southern panhandle, areas where wet rice agriculture is possible. Traditionally they have felt themselves superior to the various upland peoples, whom they contemptuously called Kha or "slaves." The ethnic Lao are more likely to be literate and to be Buddhist. They have always been disproportionately represented in the government and the recipients of more government services. There are few urban areas and these tend to be along the Mekong where the population is predominately Lao.

The midland Lao, about 24% of the population, are of Austroasiatic origin and probably were the earliest inhabitants of the area, having moved northward from Indonesia. They were displaced to the less productive and more mountainous regions by the migrations of lowland Lao. They are many diverse groups, the largest of which is the Kammu, and practice slash and burn agriculture supplemented by hunting and fishing. A patch of forest is clearcut, burned off, and worked for a few years until the soil is depleted and a new area is cut and burned. Sometimes a village moves to a new area to begin the cycle.

The upland Lao, about 10% of the population, are Tibeto-Burmese speaking peoples who have migrated southward from China over the last two centuries. The Hmong make up the largest group. Others include the Mien (Yao), Akha, Lahu. They live on the upper slopes of mountains in the north and practice slash and burn agriculture, growing rice, corn, vegetables, and often opium poppies.