A few Lahu, along with the Hmong, Lao, and Mien were recruited by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to help fight against the communist Pathet Lao, known as the secret war, during the Laotian Civil War. In fear of retribution when the Pathet Lao took over the Laotian government in 1975, those who had helped the United States fled to neighboring Thailand seeking political asylum.
The Lahu divide themselves into a number of subgroups, such as the Lahu Na (Black Lahu), Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu), Lahu Hpu (White Lahu), Lahu Shi (Yellow Lahu) and the Lahu Shehleh. Where a subgroup name refers to a color, it refers to the traditional color of their dress. These groups do not function as tribes or clans - there are no kin groups above that of the family. Lahu trace descentbilaterally, and typically practice matrilocal residence.
Bradley (1979) lists the following Lahu ethnic subgroups.
An elderly Lahu woman at a refugee camp in Thailand.
The traditional Lahu religion is polytheistic. Buddhism was introduced in the late 17th century and became widespread. Many Lahu people in China are Buddhists. Christianity became established in Burma in the 19th century and has been spreading since.
The Lahu of Northeastern Thailand had encounters with Theravada Buddhist forest monks (tudong monks) around the years 1930-1940. The leader of such a group of monks, ajahn Man (or Mun), spent some time in Lahu territory. These Lahu asked him for a "gatha that would protect them from ghosts and demons."
Lahu people used to have just a given name, until the Chinese government gave them surnames. About 90% of the Lahu people are either named Lee or Zhang, two of the most common Chinese surnames. Lahu given names are made of two syllables: one that shows the gender and one that gives information on the day of birth, based on the zodiac. For example, a person born on the ox day will be named “Zanu” if he is a boy and “Nanu” if she is a girl.