Looking at it simply, highland
ethnic minorities in Thailand are immigrants. The circumstances and
motives behind the migration of hilltribe people into Thailand
notwithstanding, they are fundamentally a minority people being
integrated into a majority society. As such, they are subject to the
seemingly immutable laws of the Immigrant Experience.
Immigrants in the age of defined
nations, regarless of home or destination, all seem to follow the same
general pattern of adaptation to the majority society into which they
First generation immigrants,
especially older people. are slow to conform to the new mores and
values of their host society. They often attempt to conduct their lives
exactly as before, even in the face of obvious obstacles encountered in
their new home. First generation immigrants often can not speak the
majority language, making do with the help of younger people or
isolating themselves in sub-communities.
Second generation immigrants
are bilingual, often speaking the language of the host society more
fluently than the language spoken in their home. A second generation
immigrant will, especially if educated in the host society, begin to
question the aspects of the beliefs and cultural practices handed down
by their parents seeing them as "old fashioned." Intermarriage with
persons in the host society is common.
Third generation immigrants are
often unable to speak their "native" tougue at all, as it has lost all
practicality and necessity in daily life. So, too, have the beliefs and
cultural practices of their ethnicity lost meaning for them, as the
people with whom third-generation immigrants most identify are not
necessarily people of their own ethnicity. Third generation immigrants
are, for all practical purposes, fully assimilated.
Though hilltribe people have been
entering Thailand for more than a century, it was not until the
political instability brought on during the Vietnam War era (1960-70s)
that the Thai government became concerned about the national security
risks presented by the influx of tribal people in the north. In
response, the government made a concerted effort to locate, access and,
often, relocate the villages of highland ethnic minorities.
Sociologically, this is when the immigration of hilltribe people began.
The children in most hilltribe villages in Thailand are in the second
generation of the acculturation process.
In the process of integration and
acculturation, tribal ethnic minorities have one major distinction from
other immigrants in the world. Tribal ethnic minorities have no
homeland. That is, they have no politically defined nation with its own
social and cultural hegemony. Unlike, say, German or Chinese
immigrants, there will be no place where future generations of tribal
people can return in search for their roots, as highland ethnic
minorities dissolve into the majority cultures of Thailand, Laos,
Burma, China and Vietnam.
Making the connection of
hilltribe people with their past even more tenuous is the fact that
most tribal groups have a strictly oral tradition. Of the hilltribe
peoples in Thailand, only the Mien have a traditional written script (a
variation on Chinese characters). Cultural heritage not passed down
between generations is lost completely. The loss of this heritage is
not only a tragedy for tribal people, but is a loss in the collective
understanding of the human experience.
The Virtual Hilltribe Museum is a
project dedicated to educating about the cultures and transitions in
the way of life among the highland ethnic minorities of Thailand. It
has as its target audience not only non-tribal people interested in
learning about a vanishing way of life, but also young tribal people
themselves who can learn about their own culture in a way that is
consistent with the modern world.