Rules and conventions of the Thai ethnic minority
Thai, so called an ethnic minority group of Vietnam, belongs to Tay-Thai language group.


“Thai”, so called an ethnic minority group of Vietnam, belongs to Tay-Thai language group. Its people have resided mainly in the northwestern mountain region of Vietnam stretching from Hoa Binh to Son La, Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Yen Bai provinces. Besides, they have also lived scatteredly in western parts of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Thanh Hoa. From time immemorial, the ancient Thai were seen in a vast area embracing many provinces of southern China, upper Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and northern Vietnam, where they once set up their own State. According to many researchers, there were evidences showing that the ancient Tay-Thai people of Au Viet group having resided on the southern bank of Yang Tze river of China had allied with Lac Viet group (Viet Muong) to form the State of Au Lac, one of the earliest States of Vietnam in the third century B.C. Many parts of these two ethnic groups mingled together, giving rise to the present-day Viet ethnicity.

Riverside valleys surrounded by mountains have been the Thais’ favorite places of residence. Hence, from very early in history, they knew how to grow wet rice with fairly high techniques, especially in irrigation with cannals built to conduct water into their fields. From the second century on, this group was structured socially in the feudal form. Each territorial region comprising a number of communes with one as the core and the others as the satellites was ruled by landlords. Each had its own boundaries recognized by the royal court, had its own administrative and managerial apparatus, its own rules, customs and practices, which all, however, bore the generalities of the entire Thai community. Those traditional conventions, customs and practices comprised concrete provisions on the code of conducts of each member of the community, the relationship among members as well as between each member and the entire community. These conventions were managed and applied in legal proceedings by “tao”, chiefs of such administrative units as “ban” (hamlet), “muong” (commune) and “chau” or “chu” (district) {the chiefs of these units were called “tao ban” (hamlet chief); “tao muong” (commune chief) and “tao chau” or “tao chu” (district chief)}, which existed for very long until the August Revolution in 1945.

After the August 1945 Revolution, particularly following the complete liberation of the area inhabited by Thais from the French rule, this administrative apparatus was shattered. So, the trial based on traditional conventions have found no place to exist. Yet, the traditional concepts which have existed and developed together with this ethnic group are still deeply imprinted in the minds of people, becoming their traditions and lifestyle. To make use of the positive aspects and restrict the negative ones of the rules and conventions of the Thai ethnic group will certainly help strengthen and develop this ethnicity.

Rules and conventions, or in other words the customs and practices, of the Thai minority group were recorded in a document called “Hit khoong muong ban” which was passed from generation to generation among the Thais. It contained three parts.

Part One presented general and basic concepts and principles of the Thai ethnicity’s traditional rules and conventions, including concrete provisions on the rights and interests of “tao” in the trial process.

Part Two defined types of people in the society so as to determine the trial. Depending on their lifestyles and code of conducts, people were classified by this document into 27 types, good or bad, with their own names.

Part Three, the most important part of the document, comprised 17 Articles on 17 principal offenses and the penalties therefor.

With basic concepts and principles of the Thai ethnicity’s traditional rules and conventions, “Hit khoong muong ban” affirmed the traditionality and objective of such rules and conventions, that was to strengthen the community: “From the time when there were water, earth, grasses, air and wind, the Heaven promulgated laws, promulgated conventions for people to follow and make the community stronger and stronger.

From time immemorial, books of laws and books of conventions were compiled, now judgements and trials must consult therefrom”.

The document also prescribed the basic principle of law, namely equality: “The judgement must be correct and fair; never make the less serious serious and the serious less serious or make right wrong and wrong right”. Regarding the jurisdiction of “tao”, the document defined: “First, ‘tao ban’ will try the case; if ‘tao ban’ cannot decide the case, he should submit it to ‘tao muong’ for judgement. If ‘tao muong’ cannot settle the case, he should submit it to ‘tao chau’ for consideration and decision...”

With regard to the classification of types of people, the document gave clear description of each type and specific treatment thereto. For instance, “for bad people, the thieves, penalties shall be imposed by law according to the seriousness of their offense, severe penalties for serious offenses and less severe penalties for less serious offenses.

“For the robber, they shall be sentenced to death by law, their property must be confiscated, their wives and children must work as servants.”

With regard to good persons, the document prescribed: “For good persons, intelligent persons, they shall be respected and well employed; They shall be well fostered and cared for so as to become more intelligent. Those who are capable of assuming difficult tasks can be promoted or rewarded...”

Though with only 17 Articles containing concise prescriptions of concrete offenses and penalties therefor, “Hit khoong muong ban” was of high generalization, being considered a simple civil code of the Thai ethnic group.

For example, with regard to the thievery, the document prescribed in details offenses and penalties for the offenders:

“Anyone who steals rice sprouts shall be subject to a fine of 3 taengs of silver together with liquor and 1 pig; he/she must pay the rice sprout owner half taeng of silver for worshipping the latter’s vital spirit, then return the stolen rice sprouts.

“Anyone who steal rice seedlings shall be subject to a fine of 3 taengs of silver together with liquor and one buffalo. He/she must worship for the owner’s vital spirit with one taeng of silver and return the stolen rice seedlings.

“Anyone who steals silk gauze or silk shall be subject to a fine of 15 taengs of silver together with liquor and one buffalo; he/she shall also have to worship the owner’s vital spirit with one taeng of silver and return the stolen silk gauze or silk...”

Adultery and incest, called “lac mac” by the Thai, shall be severely dealt with in accordance with their rules and conventions:

“Anyone who courts the wife or the husband of another person, thus leading to the breakup of their family shall be subject to a fine of 25 taengs of silver in addition to 3 other taengs, liquor and one pig paid for worshipping the vital spirit of the people concerned.

“Anyone who takes dinner without grace shall be subject to a fine; if the male compelled the female into this, he is subject to a fine, if the female compelled the male into this, she is subject to a fine.”

Cases of incest were prescribed in details with penalties therefor.

As mentioned above, the traditional rules and conventions of the Thai ethnic group existed and developed in circumstances where a feudal society was embryonically taken shape with a system of local mandarins (phia, tao) and landlords. Therefore, they were constrained with many limitations, for instance, the class character was manifest in each provision, thus making these rules and conventions an instrument to protect the interests of the ruling class. A crime committed by an ordinary people against “phia” or “tao” (local rulers) should be dealt with more severely than for the same crime committed against an ordinary people.

Yet, despite those limitations, the Thai’s conventions came into being as a cultural phenomenon on the basis of traditional customers and legal concepts, that have long existed and deeply imprinted in the people’s minds. As the cultural products of the people, such conventions also have basically contained the sense of social equality and helped strengthen and develop the Thai community.

If made full use of and brought into full play, those rules and conventions shall positively contribute to building an equitable and civilized society in the region inhabited by the Thai ethnic group.-

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