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Official Gazette

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Gia Rai and its customary laws

Updated: 09:57’ - 25/02/2011

To Dong Hai


Gia Rai is an ethnic group residing in southern and southeastern Central Highlands of Vietnam, i.e. the western part of the provinces of Khanh Hoa, Phu Yen, Binh Thuan and Lam Dong. It belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language family and has a population of some 71,696 (according to the 1989 survey data). The people of this ethnic group live in hamlets called “Palay” built mainly in mountainous areas of from 500 to 1,000 m above the sea level or in valleys.

“Palay” has been a residence unit and a center for cultural activities too. The people have rarely moved their “palay” to a new place except when such bad things as epidemics, forest fire... happened to their hamlets. The selection of the site for a new hamlet shall be discussed and decided by the “Hoi Dong Bo Lao” (The Assembly of Notables) composed of elder people who have a happy family life, are knowledgeable about Gia Rai traditional customs and practices, volunteer to join the organization and are accepted by the entire community.

Each “Palay” is headed by a “Po Palay” (the hamlet chief) who was the first person to reclaim land in such Palay, not the aged, rich and influential person therein. Various “palay” which are together farming the same mountain can set up their alliance called “Laga” which is headed by a “Po Laga” or “Po Cho” (the mountain chief). “Po Palay” and “Po Laga” have the only but important power, that is to organize rites praying to Heaven and Earth for forgiveness when the Palay is punished by “Yang” (deities) for the incesion committed by people therein. They represent the local people, presiding over such rituals but enjoy not any special interests or privileges. “Po Palay” also have the right to permit families from other hamlets to live in their “palay”.

Milpa farming has long been the main economic activity of the Gia Rai people who have classified their fields into two types: “Kra”, the terraced fields running along streams, and “Apo” - the terraced fields in forests. Besides, they also grow tobacco, pineapple and some kinds of vegetable in gardens around their houses.

In some areas, the Gia Rai has started practicing wet rice cultivation. Yet, under their customary laws, farm tools used for wet rice cultivation are not allowed to be used for milpa farming and wet rice seeds are not allowed to be grown on terraced fields.

Such laws also stipulate that the land is commonly owned by the entire Palay. Each family is entitled to exploit the land according to its labor and the exploitation of land must comply with the Palay’s customs and practices so as to avoid any possible punishment by deities and in fact to avoid any possible disputes over the land.

The Gia Rai society is characterized by matriarchy under which the woman of the first generation in the family decides all issues and manage the property. She is assisted by her younger or elder brother, called “wa” who has the right to accept or object a marriage of any of his nephews or nieces - children of his younger or elder sister(s) or becomes a matchmaker for his nephew(s).

After the marriage, the bridegroom moves to live in his wife’s house. Children bear the family name of their mother. Girls are entitled to inheritance. If a family only has sons the bride can move to stay in her husband’s house and is entitled to inherit property like the offsprings.

The marriage between children of two sisters is considered incestion and strictly forbidden as such children bear the same family name and are of the same blood line. Moreover, under the Gia Rai customary laws, the marriage between children of the previous marriages of the wife and the husband is also forbidden.

If it is a minor violation of the marital convention (the marriage between relatives of distant family lines), the couple are allowed to live together after paying a fine to pray to the deities for forgiveness. If it is a serious violation, for instance incestion, the offenders shall be severely punished so as to avoid the deities’ punishment by causing epidemics, floods, draughts... to the hamlet.

The underage marriage is also prohibited while the marriages between the husband’s brothers and the wife’s sisters or between children of sisters and brothers are not encouraged.

At present, there exist in a Gia Rai “palay” three forms of family:

- The three-generation family where the members work the same terraced fields, share a rice store and have their meals together. This is a very typical form of the matriarchal family still existing in the Gia Rai society.

- The three-generation family where each couple and their children live in a small family with their independent economy and also with contributions to the common store of the big family. The small families stay in different compartments of the big house with their separate cooking places.

- The small family with independent economy.

The Gia Rai customary laws also provide for the inheritance of property in the family. If the husband dies, most of the property shall be given to the wife and children while a small part is spared for the deceased, and another small part for relatives, the youngest sister and the youngest niece. If the wife dies, a part shall be burned for the deceased while the remainder belongs to the husband and children.

If the husband remarries a woman who is not the relative of his deceased wife, all the property shall belong to the children. The man shall have to return to his parents’ home, not being allowed to bring along any thing except some personal effects such as clothings, cross-bow. If the children are still young, the property shall be put in the charge of the younger or elder sister of the deceased wife, who shall bring up the children till they are grown up. In cases where there are only sons in the family, the youngest son shall be entitled to inherit the property and when he gets married, his uncle (the younger or elder brother of his mother), shall act as the matchmaker, persuading the bride’s family to let her move to live with her husband’s family.

Divorce is permitted by Gia Rai laws and if both parties agree on the divorce neither of them shall have to compensate the other party. If either spouse initiates the divorce at his/her own will, he or she shall have to compensate the other often with valuable property. Usually, the female shall have to pay a greater compensation if she initiates the divorce. Under the Gia Rai customary laws, adultery shall be severely punished, though it, like divorce, rarely happens in the traditional solid families of the Gia Rai people.

So, it can be said that the Gia Rai customary laws have been long established, contributing to the consolidation and development of such ethnic group. Basically, they contain many positives which should be inherited and brought into full play so as to build a new life governed by the State law in the localities where the Gia Rai people reside.-


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