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
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
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
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.
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:
- Steel (for knives)
- Salt (for seasoning, cattle, and organic insecticide)
- Needles (because they are easier to use than
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.
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:
- It's fairly difficult to change who you are.
- 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
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
These are the sacrifices all ethnic minorities must make in order to
survive in a majority society.
The motto of www.joshuaproject.net
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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