Legal pluralism and the struggle for customary law in the Vietnamese Highlands

John Gillespie, Hong Thi Quang Tran

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For centuries, diverse groups of people living in the highlands of Southeast Asia have resisted lowland empires in China, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The interaction between lowlanders and highlanders has been described as “internal colonization”—a process involving the absorption or displacement of highland communities and customary law. This Article draws on an empirical study to explore whether the Vietnamese Government’s new “village covenant” (Hương ước) program is continuing internal colonization by transforming and displacing customary law in the Vietnamese Central Highlands. It uses a novel analytical framework—synthetized from legal pluralism and systems theory—to argue the state legal system and highland communities lack a shared conceptual grammar in which to identify common ground, reconcile differences, and converge. The Article closes with the conclusion that, although highland communities are resisting internal colonization, the forces of modernity are slowly changing the deeply held epistemic assumptions underlying customary law.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-42
Number of pages42
JournalAmerican Journal of Comparative Law
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022


  • customary law
  • Southeast asia
  • ethnic minorities
  • legal pluralism
  • systems theory

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