The K'ho ethnic minority and its customary law
The traditional society of the K’ho ethnic minority is characterized by matriarchy that has governed every aspect of their social life. This is clearly seen in every custom and practice of their own; and few are enumerated here:

To Dong Hai

The traditional society of the K’ho ethnic minority is characterized by matriarchy that has governed every aspect of their social life. This is clearly seen in every custom and practice of their own; and few are enumerated here: After weddings, for instance, married men stay in their wives’ families; females have always taken initiative in marriage. When grown up, a girl shall ask her parents to find a matchmaker (called “lam gong” in K’ho language) to go to the family of the boy of her choice asking for his hand after getting the consent of her uncle. The girl’s family shall present the boy’s family with a brass bracelet and chain of courbary bead. The acceptance of these gifts by the boy’s family shall mean the acceptance of the marriage proposal. On the wedding day, the girl’s parents and the matchmaker shall take her to the boy’s family where the wedding ceremony is held. And after the wedding, the boy shall move to live in the girl’s family, bringing some things as his dowries, including clothings, a sword, two tea cups, one rice bowl, one pair of chopsticks and one brass food tray.

The K’ho customary laws ban the marriage between people of the same blood line, particularly those living in the same locality. The marriage between children of two brothers or between children of two sisters is strictly forbidden; but the marriage between children of a man/women with children of his/her sisters/brothers is allowed. A widower is permitted to marry an elder or younger sister of his deceased wife and similarly a widow is also allowed to marry an elder or younger brother of her deceased husband if so agreed by the latter.

After the decease of his wife, a widower shall have to return to her parents’ house but his children remain in their deceased mother’s. He has to wear mourning for his wife for one year and during that period he can remarry if it is so agreed by the family of his deceased wife or if he marries a sister of his deceased wife.

Under the K’ho conventions, adultery is considered a grave offence which shall be severely punished. Rarely seen in the K’ho community is divorce which, if any, must be approved by the hamlet chief. Monogamy has long been practiced by the K’ho. Yet, formerly some hamlet chiefs and rich family owners got more than one wife after they had paid a sum of money and property as fines to the hamlet and their wives’ families for worshiping deities.

Unlike the conventions of other ethnic groups, the K’ho people’s is fairly liberal on pre-marriage relationship between males and females.

An ethnic minority group of the Mon-Khmer language family, the K’ho has a population of over 92,000 people (according to the 1989 demographic statistics) who live mainly in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong and some areas of Thuan Hai province. Like other ethnic groups in the Central Highlands, the K’ho is also divided into subgroups with different names and different customs and practices, such as Sre, Nop, Ko don, Chim, Lat... Sre is the largest subgroup while the Lat is in a better economic situation due to their close contacts with the Viet majority group.

The K’ho people lives mainly on agriculture, either by wet rice farming (the Sre subgroup) or milpa cultivation. According to researchers, their farming techniques are characterized by crop rotation.

Besides agriculture, hunting, fishing, forest product gathering have been maintained by the K’ho. Husbandry has been practised through free ranching, with poultry, pigs, goats... being raised and killed as offerings for deities in various religious rites. Handicrafts are maintained to produce items mainly for self-consumption.

Due to the differences in their natural conditions, history and residing locations, the K’ho subgroups vary in the levels of their socio-economic development. Those living on highlands often sees lower level of development than subgroups in valleys.

An important administrative unit of the K’ho people is “bon” (hamlet) often built on a vast area of some square kilometers on high mountains or in valleys, depending on the customs and practices of each subgroup. “Bon” is delineated by rivers, mountains or by agreement between hamlet chiefs. Economically, each member of the hamlet is allowed by the hamlet chief to manage a plot of land or a part of forest.

The K’ho hamlet is still left with traces of the matriarchal clan commune, where almost all people are bound together by matrilineal relations or belong to the same descent, staying in different big long houses built close to each other. In some far-flung areas, all people in a hamlet belong to one big matriarchal family, being sons and daughters of a woman and living together in a big long house where each small family lives in compartment with cooking fire. Only in valley or populated hamlets, people of different lineages and different clans live together.

Each hamlet is headed by a hamlet chief called “kuang bon” who does not necessarily come from the ruling stratum with many privileges and special interests but only is the most prestigious person representing the hamlet’s traditions and unity. In areas inhabited by a large number of K’ho people, many adjunct hamlets could voluntarily join into an alliance headed by a person elected from among chiefs of such hamlets or by the chief of the biggest hamlet, who is called “riklung” or “mon rong”. The hamlet chief, forest owners, scorcerers and house owners form into the upper class, who are responsible for the village affairs and do not enjoy any privileges and special interests.

There now still exist in the K’ho society two forms of matriarchal family: The big family and the small one. A big matriarchal family is composed of from 30 to 40 people from three to four generations, living together in one, two or three big long houses (each is from 50-100m long) in a premise. These people are members of small families of the maternal sisters, including their husbands and children. Such common property of a big family as land, cattle, gongs, alcohol vases... can be used by all family members. A big family is headed by a person called “po hiu” who is the husband of the eldest woman of the first generation therein. Yet, the family head has in reality but to keep the traditional customs and practices and execute decisions of the maternal uncle in the family on matters relating to economic activities, daily life, religious affairs, funeral, weddings..., and represent the family in the hamlet.

Formerly the land was put under the ownership of the big family, and recently it belongs to each small family.

Till now, all these customary laws still exist alongside the State laws in the K’ho society, continuing to govern every aspect of the people’s life. In some cases, the customary laws have become obstacles to the enforcement of the State laws though the two are only different in their punitive measures. So, to bring into full play the positive elements of the K’ho convention in support of the enforcement of the State laws shall be a good direction for building a law-governed life in areas inhabited by the people of this ethnic minority.-

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