Philosophy of the Virtual Hilltribe Museum

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 are immigrating:

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.