We are often asked what one problem plagues the ethnic minority peoples of Northern Thailand more than any other. It is a difficult question to answer, because there isn't just one independent problem. Each problem is both the cause and effect of other problems, creating a web of difficulties in which entangles, at some level, all tribal minorities.

Some issues, most notably HIV/AIDS and the Thai government's centralized economic development policies, are quite damaging to the tribal communities, but do not receive explicit mention in this diagram because they affect all people of this area equally. Tribal villages are no more crippled by HIV/AIDS or Bangkok-centric development than many Northern Thai communities.


Essence of Being a Minority

It all begins here. So many of the obstacles facing tribal people boil down to only a matter of numbers. If tribal people outnumbered lowland Thais 99 to 1, things would probably be a lot different.

Land Rights

A generation ago, hilltribe people still lived a semi-nomadic existence, high in the mountains. Farm land was plentiful and limited only by a person's capacity to clear and farm the land he chose. A person would use only the land that he could farm and leave the rest undisturbed.

Over the past thirty years, however, the Thai government policy for development of the tribal peoples has had one primary objective: bring these people down where we can keep an eye on them. As a result, hundreds of tribal villages have been relocated to the lowlands, often as part of the process of conversion to Christianity. Relocated villages are seldom awarded farming land or community forest, thus creating an upheaval in the method that tribal people use to sustain themselves. One must either rent land (incurring extra, often unbearble cost) or abandon farming to work as a day laborer in the city.

Lack of Thai Citizenship

This is the issue that is often hardest for foreigners to understand. In northern Thailand there exist hundreds of thousands of stateless people, people that have no citizenship in any country. A majority of these people - but not all - were born in Thailand and even have a claim to citizenship under Thai law. There are many obstacles, however, for one to realize their rights to Thai citizenship. Foremost, corruption is rampant. Those without citizenship are completely bewildered by the steeplechase of government processes required to attain citizenship. Civil servants whose role it is to facilitate such matters are often willing to assist, but at a cost. From village headmen to district chiefs, the opportunity to profit by exploiting people desperate to attain citizenship in their home countries is often too much to resist, thus is prepetuated an arcane system of citizenship verification that is inconsistent with Thai law, yet endorsed by power establishment which profits from it.

A person without citizenship in Thailand lives an existence that is only barely human. He is not entitled to vote, attend secondary school or travel outside of his district. He is also deprived of the government's generous health plan whereby most illnesses can be treated for 30 baht ($0.75 US). Seeking similar treatment from a private physician often costs one-hundred times as much, or more. A tribal person without Thai citizenship also lives under constant fear of being herded onto a truck and shipped back to Burma - even though he is not from Burma. The usual way this works is the herdees are released at the Burmese border and, to dispel any notion of a quick return to Thailand, the Thai soldiers begin shooting their guns to cause the deportees to flee farther into Burmese territory.

While the government policy on Thai citizenship is based on an almost understable concern about national security and attempt to stem the tide of immigrants from Burma and Laos, in many ways this policy is penny wise, but pound foolish. Unlike other countries in the region who have at least embraced tribal people as citizens of their nation, Thailand's refusal to embrace those tribal people who know no other home than Thailand is creating difficulty and division where there should be opportunity and unity.

Lack of Political Power

In Mae Yao sub-district where we are located, hilltribes comprise at least 80% of the inhabitants (though lack of citizenship makes official numbers differ from actual populations). Thais are a minority in Mae Yao sub-district, yet they still control all of the local politics. This is a pattern played out all over Northern Thailand.

There are a number of reasons why hilltribes have not been able to achieve the political power that their numbers would seem to dictate. Foremost among those reasons is that while tribal people exist under a collective name, they are unique groups. So, while Mae Yao sub-district may be 80% hilltribe, if you look at it as 35% Akha, 25% Lahu, 10% Mien, and 10% Karen, you see that no one group has an overwhelming majority. In areas where there is a concentration of only one tribe - western Tak province (Karen), eastern Phayao province (Mien), parts of Nan province (Hmong) - the political landscape is more representative of the citizenry. Even the Akha, possibly the least politically minded of the major tribes, have elected some officials in areas where they are as much as 70% of the population. The fact remains, however, that unless one tribe has an overwhelming majority in a given area, Thais will control the local politics.

Geography is another factor that has kept tribal politics from evolving past the village level. Though some tribes have legends of once living in walled cities, traditionally, hilltribe people have scattered their villages sparsely throughout the mountains to ensure safety from attackers as well as enough farming and hunting territory. As there has never been any communication infrastructure between villages, each community has always been left to manage itself. Thais, however, have always lived in densely populated (often walled) communities along river banks, a situation that is much more conducive to reaching the critical mass needed to beging any political movement.

Difficulties in Using Thai Language

Unlike the Shan, Thai Lue, or Lao people, none of the languages spoken by tribal people in Thailand are even in the same laguage family as Thai. Karen, Lisu, Lahu, and Akha are Tibeto-Burman languages, while Hmong and Mien form their own eponymous Miao-Yao language group. Though through television and other media, exposure to Thai and Northern Thai is ever-increasing, Thai is still very much a second language for most tribal people. The difficulties for children who begin school without ever having tutelage in Thai are about the same as a French child would have if thrown into a Hungarian school.

But children have it easy. They only have to endure one or two years of their teachers thinking they are stupid before they become quite competent in Thai. Adults, however, suffer in every interaction they have with lowlanders, especially in looking for work, dealing with the police, or trying to understand and receive their legal rights from government functionaries.

And, of course, there is the mockery. As a rule, tribal languages have no final consonants, so tribal accents are prone to omit them, producing a brand of spoken Thai viewed as either cute or ignorant, depending on the listener. The funny thing is, Thais speaking tribal languages is even more of a car wreck than their usual hilarious attempts at English.

Click here to hear a song that mocks how Hmong children speak Thai.

Inability to Use Rights as a Thai Citizen

For tribal people, completing the process of obtaining Thai citizenship is only half of the battle. Once Thai citizens, tribal people often do not have the knowledge or opportunity to make efficient use of their rights. Nor do they necessarily know all the laws by which they now must abide as Thai citizens. Common examples include receiving less than minimum wage (133 baht = $3.33US per day in Chiang Rai), citations for traffic violations which may be actual laws or may be creative interpretations on behalf of the police, rules about carrying hunting rifles, right to filing police complaints free-of-charge, and almost every scenario involving land or property ownership.


Perhaps stemming from a diversity of very clearly defined, homogenous ethnicities, racism in Thailand is overt and takes on many forms. Some groups, especially white Westerners, receive superficial benefits from their inherited Thai stereotype, while some poorer groups are denied the benefit of any doubt. Thais even hold very stong and unflattering stereotypes for each geographical division of their own country. The concept of "us" and "them" is one that pervades all of Thai society.

As the poorest people in Thailand, highland ethnic minorities receive the most brutal results from racism. Whether it is lack of co-operation from government officials, belittlement of their understandable--but not perfect--Thai, or intentional ethnic exploitation, the results are devastating to the confidence that tribal people have in their home country and in themselves.

Lack of Employment

This is one hardship that tribal people share with rural lowland Thais. There are just not very many jobs in upcountry Thailand, and the majority of those are unskilled labor positions receiving poor pay, not that many tribal people could qualify for skilled positions, anyway. In the job market, the qualities that tribal people do possess are an incredible capacity for hard labor among both the men and women, and an intricate knowledge of mountain agriculture, though the latter is being rendered useless by restrictions limiting farming to the lowlands.

Aside from construction, agriculture, and service-industry jobs, the other legal source of income available to tribal people and rural Thais comes via selling things to other people in the village or city. Impressively, some tribes are achieving success as merchants, finding a niche between the Chinese-dominated markets and the foreign-owned Megastores. The Mien and Hmong are prominent examples.

The majority of young, rural people, however, simply take a leap of faith and travel to Bangkok in search of work. Almost 20% of all people in Thailand live and work in Bangkok with more arriving daily, despite the high costs - both social and financial - of relocating themselves to the nation's capital. Most impressive are the people without citizenship who risk expulsion from Thailand if caught in transit or working in Bangkok.

Increased Cost of Living

Too often when speaking of poverty or economic hardship we hear only talk of insufficient income. What is crippling the economies of tribal communities today, however, is not a decrease in income - indeed, their income is much higher than ever before - but a rapid increase in cost of living. For most of us who have lived our entire lives in market economies, it is phenomenal to consider that until recently the tribal peoples of Northern Thailand could live as some peoples in Northern Laos still live, going for months at a time with no expenditure of hard currency whatsoever. No rent, no bills, no taxes, no food costs, no clothing purchases, no transportation costs. Nothing. Any food they ate, they grew, gathered, or hunted themselves. Any clothes they wore, they wove themselves. Any toys for their children, they made themselves. Indeed, if tribal people a generation ago had shopping lists, they might have looked something like this:

  1. Steel (for knives)
  2. Salt (for seasoning, cattle, and organic insecticide)
  3. Needles (because they are easier to use than porcupine quills)
That's it. But that's not how it is now, because of one factor: land rights. As villagers lose their land rights, they also lose the right to live life the way they and their ancestors have lived for generations, because now rice costs real money, not just time, patience, and hard work. Without land, tribals quickly convert from proud, self-sufficient people to a meek underclass of subservient day laborers. Without land, tribal people have nowhere to raise livestock for protein and use in their sacrificial ceremonies. Without land, it makes sense to trade all of one's livestock for a vehicle that one can use to look for work. Without land, everything becomes more expensive, and everything starts to change. Secrets about the forest are forgotten, unreasonable risks to make money are taken, and age-old belief systems are abandoned because the expense of animal sacrifice is now too much to bear.

Media Influences

Like is happening to minority societies all over the world, television is KILLING tribal culture.

How many people in the world want to grow up to be Tom Cruise? How about Michael Jordan? Or Britney Spears? Now, how many people in the world want to grow up to be a wise Akha elder? See what I mean?

Most tribal villages now have televisions, and in those villages televisions have taken over the role of village storyteller. Whereas nighttime stories in the villages were once age-old legends that helped pass down the wisdom and values of each tribe, now the nightly stories that enrapture tribal children are poor production-value Thai television capsules formulaicly centered around either implausible love triangles or fart humor.

The results are not good. If questioned, many tribal children say outright that if they could choose, they would choose to be Thai. That's right, they would abandon their own culture in pursuit of what they have seen on TV and in the market. That is scary enough until you consider two other factors:
  1. It's fairly difficult to change who you are.
  2. That's not stopping the kids from trying.
The result is a generation of children who are not accepting who they are, yet are never going to be who they want to be. So, I guess my final question is how can a culture survive if nobody wants to grow up to be a member of that culture?

Education in the Thai System

Thai schools represent a necessary and beneficial evil for hilltribe people. With the exception of restriction of land rights, no other factor contributes as much to the disruption of cultural continuity among tribal people as do Thai schools. To understand this point, one must look not at what the students are learning at that are preparing them (to an extent) to be successful members of Thai society. One must look at what the children are not learning during the time they spend in the classroom.

The parents of today's tribal students never went to school. They received their education walking to and from their fields with their parents. They learned stories, legends, the things that adults in their culture should do, which plants were useful, which plants should be avoided, how to hunt or catch animals, how to farm a steep mountain slope, and all the proper procedures and ceremonies one needs to administer in order to realize good fortune. In short, what that generation and the fifty generations before them learned on the mountain path was how to be a successful member of their own society.

Now, however, tribal people are part of a larger, foreign society. More often than not, the skills and knowledge necessary to be a successful tribal adult do not translate to the society of the lowlands. Moreover, the most essential skills for success in Thai society, fluency and literacy in Thai, are not easily learned on a jungle path or in a mountain field. Thus, tribal people send their children to school, discarding cultural continuity in favor of the possibility of future prosperity.

These are the sacrifices all ethnic minorities must make in order to survive in a majority society.


The motto of www.joshuaproject.net is "Bringing Definition to the Unfinished Task". For me, it is a disturbing motto, because when I think of "unfinished task", I think of finishing mopping the kitchen floor or cutting the rest of the grass. The people at the Joshua Project, however, have a slightly larger Task in mind, the task of making sure that every single person in the world worships Jesus. Every. Single. Person.

Backed by extensive foreign funding, this kind of single-minded, almost incomprehensible zeal to coerce others into believing as they do (without regard for whether Christianity is actually appropriate for the communities in which they are working) is - for better or for worse - having an enormous impact on the tribal communities of Northern Thailand. Matthew McDaniel's www.akha.org lists over ninety (90!) faith-based organizations operating in and around Chiang Rai alone, a much denser concentration than is found in other areas of Thailand. Indeed, it seems that the few hundred-thousand animists and ancestor worshippers of Chiang Rai draw far more resources than the twenty million Buddhists of Northeastern Thailand. Thai Buddhists, part of a cohesive majority, have shown very little interest in Christianity. Even in poor Northeast Thailand only about 1% has converted. Akhas, on the other hand, have been converting in droves. Estimates have as many as 90% of Akha villages in Chiang Rai province are now officially Christian, though Christian Akhas themselves will admit that only about 5% have converted out of belief, while the remainder have converted for largely economic reasons.

The tribal people of northern Thailand are not only poor, they are vulnerable. With many communities existing without citizenship or land rights, and primed to co-opted as the exploited class of Thai society, tribal people often eagerly accept missionaries hoping to inherit some of their social status and foreign riches. In exchange for those implied riches, however, tribal people have to sacrifice more of their culture than they realize. The final sadness is that with all of millions of dollars pumped in from Taiwan, Korea, and the United States annually, the tribal people are still poor. Northern Thailand is dotted with confounding examples of the strange distribution of faith-based resources.

Looking at the large picture, missionaries do some great things. The preferred hospital in Chiang Rai was founded by missionaries, as was the school that offers tribal students the best opportunity of a good education. Even some of the most important work on documenting the cultures of tribal people was done by missionaries. Paul Lewis alone has published dozens of volumes including essential dictionaries of Akha, Lahu, and Hani (China) languages.

Missionaries also do some very bad things, ranging from intensely annoying practices of using loud speakers to blast relentlessly a pro-Jesus message into villages, or afixing tacky yellow Jesus advertisements high up in palm trees all over Thailand, to actions that are ethically injustifiable (see www.akha.org).

More than anything, however, missionaries just make things different. Christian and traditional tribals seem no longer to share the same sense of identity. For example, Akhas who are raised and educated with missionaries will often call themselves Akha, but (for whatever reason) refuse to speak Akha to other Akhas. Such cases are very concerning, because carrying on a culture is more than just continuing to refer to yourself as a given ethnicity.


To the casual observer, drugs and missionaries might seem the two largest disruptions to tribal culture, but both of these problems, while acute, are much symptoms than they are roots of distress. For tribal people in the drug-infamous Golden Triangle, narcotics have always been simply a means to an end. Whether growing poppies as a cash crop (sometimes at the behest of a foreign government requiring morphine) or smoking opium to assauge the pain of a cancer-riddled body, tribal people, as a rule, understood and balanced the role of drugs in their lives. There were of course, those who could not control their relationship with opium, but a village's need for cooperation in order to eke out survival in the deep jungle tolerated very few cases of these social burdens.

Today, tribal communities have much less of a control over their relationship with narcotics. Several factors have contributed to this phenomenon.

First, the narcotic itself has changed. Opium is no longer grown in Thailand in any measurable quantity. Amphetamines are now by far the most common drug in rural Thailand. Amphetamines offer none of the redeeming medicinal qualities of opium, being used as distractant from from the mental anguish of modern existence instead of as a palliative for the actual pain of physical illness.

Their role in the drug industry has also changed. No longer growers and without any other source of income, some tribal people turn to transporting or selling drugs on a modest scale (there are very few tribal druglords). In this new role, addiction to drugs is much more common, rendering the addict unable to find other employment, even if he wanted to do so, creating an incredible burden for his family and community.

Drugs also play a role in the racism against tribal people. Conventional Thai wisdom holds (unfairly) that the drug problems of Northern Thailand are the doings of the tribal people. This viewpoint somehow justifies the arbitrary detainment of innocent tribal people on drug charges (as happened to my friend's husband yesterday) and, more famously, the unbelievable shoot-first-ask-questions-later "War On Drugs" conducted by the Thai government in 2003.

Lack of Ethnic Pride

How often do you see two French people talking to each other in English because they are afraid that someone will overhear them speaking French? Never, right? Well, it is very common to see two Akhas speaking Thai to each other in the market, because they are ashamed to speak their own language in public (even though their accent betrays who they are anyway).

If you think two native speakers of the same language speaking a third-party language to each other is silly, then you are probably from a majority group in your home society. You also probably can not comprehend the unrelenting belittlement - both active and passive - that tribal people receive. This belittlement eats at the confidence and self-esteem of tribal people, especially young people, and puts them in identity limbo between who they really are and who they think they should become in order to be accepted by the majority society. Since they will never become who it is they think will be accepted by society, they resign themselves to always being second-class citizens - that is, if they are granted citizenship at all.

Financial Hardship

The same scenario applies to the impoverished throughout the world: financial hardship can force one to make decisions or take risks that invite dangers and instabilities from which people in more solvent financial situations are immune.

Human Trafficking/Labor Migration

Another problem brought on by economic vulnerability, human trafficking and labor migration are depleting tribal villages of their next generation of leaders. In need of income, village youth are coerced to leave the safety of the community and look for work in the cities where, at best, they live a draining life of extremely hard work and where, in situations that are all too common, they become prey for human traffickers.

For those of us who work with minority communities, the stories of human trafficking can become numbing, not only because of their inconceivably inhumane nature, but also because of the sheer volume of such stories. Yet for all the stories the villagers have heard, when the white van drives into the village and offers the prospect of steady work for any young girls willing to hop in, there are still people who deem it worth the risk. That in itself is phenomenal and speaks volumes about the options that tribal people see available to themselves.

Breakdown of Village Structure

Within the last decade many tribal villages have made the transition from a subsistence economy relying on the complete cooperation of all the members of the community to villages typical of rural Thai communities where the 18-to-35-year-old demographic is completely missing, having gone to the cities to look for work. The social costs of this transition run deep. The village has always been the foundation of a tribal person's life, and as that foundation crumbles around them, many tribal people find themselves facing a world which they are unequipped to face alone.

Cultural Erosion

The loss of the rapidly vanishing tribal cultures of northern Thailand is a tragedy on many levels. The most accessible of these levels, of course, is visual. It is a shame that the tribal people seldom make or wear their traditional outfits anymore. It is a pity that the beautiful and quaint tribal homes are being replaced with drab concrete dwellings. But, in reality, this aesthetic loss is felt more by tourists who are looking for an antidote to their own tedious existence than by the tribal people themselves who have made these changes in search of economic stability in uncertain times. The abandonment of aesthetic symbols of identity is a sacrifice that the owners of the culture have been willing to make.

Like all cultures, the tribal cultures have evolved as recipes for survival of a people within the environment that they find themselves. In the harsh but relatively unchanging environment of the mountains, each of the tribal cultures has successfully guided its people towards survival for dozens of generations. These cultures have evolved over that period, but show less change than most other cultures given the steady, cyclic nature of life in the mountains. The tribal cultures are highly complex, not simple or primitive, which they are often deemed because they still retain so many aspects of the ancient formula for survival developed by their ancestors. Tourists are right to be fascinated by these cultures, but they would do well to come not with an attitude that they are going to view natives or primitives, but that they are going to view people whose cultures are a living testament to the common-sense American saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The problem is that now these cultures are breaking. Under the assault of a new set of problems and temptations never envisioned by their ancestors, the hilltribe people are struggling to adapt to their new environment, and, for the first time in their memory, can not fall back on the prescriptions of their cultures to answer these challenges. As a result, the effects of cultural erosion on tribal people work on a much deeper level, a level unseen by the casual tourist.

It is not that change is inherently bad. It is not that adopting Christianity or aspects of a majority culture is defiling one's ethnic identity. All tribes have been influenced by the Shan, Chinese, or Burmese, and many tribes, particularly some of the Karen and Black Lahu, long ago converted to Christianity and now maintain a strong ethnic identity through their Christian belief. The danger is one of tragedy on the individual level as the disintegration of a culture creates a fragmentation of its people and leaves each of those people to scrap for existence without the support which a culture gives.

The final tragedy of the loss of these cultures is felt by mankind, for the loss of a culture, any culture, is the loss of knowledge of the human existence for which all of mankind is in a perpetual search.

Low Quality of Life

For the majority of humans, the decisions they make in their daily lives share a common goal: to improve the quality of their lives, as measured by whatever standard they hold as appropriate for themselves. For tribal people today, despite greater material wealth, access to health care and education, and exposure to new ideas and ways of thought, many people long for lives of freedom and self-sufficiency that they once lived in the mountains. Many tribal people would argue that they were better off a generation ago than today. This includes a substantial portion of the Mien and Hmong refugees who have immigrated to the United States, who would be willing to trade the tremendous opportunities that come with American citizenship if they could reconnect with lives they once lived in their Lao homeland before the Vietnam War.