The people groups of the Mekong region are extremely diverse and unique. Summarizing the overarching characteristics of these minority groups is a challenge. The reason for this is best explained by one of OMF’s Field Directors:
“The Mekong minorities tend to be found in the highlands where the lack of navigable rivers and good roads caused minority groups to maintain their distinctive cultures and languages even to the present time. Thus the farther north one goes in the Mekong region the higher the hills are and the more evident the minorities become … What makes each minority group distinct is that their members share beliefs and practices among themselves which are distinctively their own.”
It may take dedicated language learning and cultural study to truly understand the unique practices and worldviews of the Mekong region’s people, but we can still gain some insight into their lives. Below is a brief introduction to some of the region’s people groups. As you learn, pray for God to make himself known to each ethnic group.
The Akha People
The Akha of China (200,000), Myanmar (200,000), Thailand (60,000), Laos (50,000) and Vietnam (15,000-20,000) have historically been animists. Missionaries arrived in Thailand more than 50 years ago to share the gospel with the Akha, and now there is an Akha Bible Institute in Thailand that trains students and pastors for ministry.
The Bouyei People
The majority of the 3 million Bouyei people live in Guizhou, Southern China. They are typically farmers living in remote tropical areas with minimal medical care. Diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, cholera and typhoid are a threat, especially with the absence of readily-available clean water. Most Bouyei practice a blend of polytheism and animism. Less than 0.5 percent follow Christ. There is a growing Bouyei church in need of God’s word.
The Hmong People
There are an estimated 8.6 million Hmong, almost all of whom live in mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Most Hmong are animists and have yet to hear about Jesus Christ. The Hmong who do follow Christ have great opportunity to share the gospel through storytelling, which enables biblical truths about Jesus Christ to be shared simply and relationally.
The Shan People
The 6 million Shan people (also known as the Tai or Dai people) live in remote areas of Myanmar, Thailand and China. They are a Buddhist people with animist influence. Approximately 0.1 percent of Shan people are Christian. Reaching the Shan can be difficult as visa issues, bad roads, war, language challenges and mountains present obstacles. But a Shan gospel radio program has been an effective tool in reaching homes where no believer has been.
The Zhuang People
The Zhuang are China’s largest minority group, with a population of about 19-20 million. They mainly reside in Guangxi, as well as Eastern Yunnan and Northern Vietnam. Most are farmers, but many young people have found work in cities and factories in Guangdong province. The Zhuang speak a Thai-related language which includes 17 dialects and more than 50 sub-dialects. Work is being done to translate the Bible into these many dialects—a huge task. The Zhuang believe in and worship many gods, believing the gods can bring blessing upon their lives.