I am sending you all a copy of a report I provided recently for the Akha
Heritage Foundation, based in Mai Sai, northern Thailand. Although the
report refers to the situation of the Akha and other Hill Tribes in a
general sense, I provide it also as background to a critical situation
which has now developed with regard to the village of Huuh Mah Akha (Thai
pronounciation Huai Maak).
Huai Maak is located a few kms from Haen Taek, north of Doi Maesalong in
Ampour Mae Faluang District of Chaing Mai Province. The village, which has
been located at the same site for over 70 years, is being forced to move by
the Thai Army and the Forestry Department on the basis of very dubious
allegations of tree clearing and watershed pollution. The deadline for
this forced removal is January 30th 2000.
Many people are trying to prevent this removal as well as to change the
attitude of the Thai government towards the Hill Tribes. Please help if
you can by sending letters to the Thai Ambassador in your country, the Thai
government and anyone else you can think of!
AKHA VISIT 1999
During July/August 1999 I was able to visit northern Thailand and meet
Matthew McDaniel of the Akha Foundation. I was very impressed by the
various activities being undertaken by the Foundation, and also very
alarmed by the situation of the Akha in Thailand at the present time.
I initially contacted Matthew in early/mid 1999 after several months of
reading his Akha newsletter which is posted on various internet bulletin
boards. I am presently undertaking a Ph.D. in the area of the recognition
of indigenous knowledge systems, (or the lack thereof), in promoting plant
biodiversity conservation within the very problematic context of
'development'. Matthew's internet newsletter caught my eye as he seemed to
be grappling with many of the same problems that concern me and was
obviously trying to come up with some alternatives to conventional western
Matthew gave me a good introductory talk about the situation of the Akha.
Much of this information can be found on the Akha Foundation homepage,
though not in such detail. Matthew then took me to several villages so
that I could see for myself what was happening.
I have occasionally seen responses to Matthew's newsletters and comments
questioning his view that the current situation is one of crisis.
Unfortunately, I have to confirm his belief that, basically, the Hill
Tribe cultures are under siege and I can assure everyone that Matthew's
reports do not exaggerate in any way the urgency of the situation.
However, I want to make clear that the following is based on my own
interpretation of what I saw and learned, based on my own background as
someone who has very deep reservations about the whole concept of
'development' as defined and created by western culture. I don't pretend
to have an easy answer or a new whizz-bang alternative. However, I believe
that we need to question the whole concept of 'development', as indeed many
are already doing, and try to evolve some new ways of sharing wealth,
constructive technology, knowledge systems and so on.
Having said that, back to northern Thailand. Under the guise of
'development' and 'modernisation' there appears to be a policy on the part
of the Thai government to systematically dismantle Hill Tribe cultures. My
ongoing research suggests that there are a number of reasons for this.
Thailand operates a very old-fashioned, assimilationist policy aimed at
bringing the Hill Tribes into the 'mainstream' Thai culture. As a white
Australian, the very idea of assimilationism makes my hair curl! Maybe
some people mean well by wanting others to assimilate. A lot of the time
however, assimilationism is just another way of saying 'your culture is
crap, ours is better so take it up or else, because we're not going to
allow any space for you to be different'. In other words, it leads
inexorably to cultural genocide and the Australian Aboriginals have
educated us about the extreme injustice and arrogance of this!
The land that should belong to the Hill Tribes (but which doesn't legally
as they have no 'land rights' or citizenship status) could be 'better' used
by the Thai government and/or Thai farmers. Without going into the various
rights and wrongs of this, or the situation of impoverished Thai farmers,
suffice to say that some very lucrative plantation deals, tourism ventures
etc are in the offing if only those Hill Tribes weren't cluttering up the
place! The situation regarding tourism is interesting though: the Thai
government is faced with some very awkward dilemmas here, given the big
boom in Hill Tribe Treks-more later. The issue is also further complicated
by drug smuggling and associated army agendas and this too has been used as
a pretext to dismantle Hill Tribe cultures and depopulate the highlands.
The need to be active (or at least appear to be active) in the field of
biodiversity conservation and agricultural reform. This has become a major
interest of various heavy duty aid and development agencies (World Bank,
IMF, Asian Development Bank etc). Thailand is faced with some very
embarrassing past history in this area, e.g. systematic destruction of
their once widespread forest resources facilitated by official corruption
and lack of good governance to mention only one.
Unfortunately, it has now proved convenient to scapegoat the Hill Tribes
and to claim that deforestation, soil erosion, stream siltation and
numerous other environmental ills are caused by their agricultural
practices, one of which is shifting cultivation. The possibility that
these people may have valuable indigenous knowledge about their surrounding
ecosystems and to have developed production systems suited to their
environment is never mentioned or acknowledged.
This scapegoating the hill tribes for the problem of deforestation is very
widespread. I visited the Hill Tribe Museums in both Chaing Mai and Chaing
Rai. Both feature display information panels that put the blame for
deforestation squarely on the shoulders of the Hill Tribes. No mention is
made of government sponsored logging, illegal logging and the corrupt
practices of the past and present which persist even though logging was
banned in the early 90's, and which in any case simply shifted the rape of
the forests into Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
While it is undoubtedly true that shifting cultivation becomes less
sustainable as population increases, there have been no recent demographic
studies to clearly demonstrate that the hill tribe populations have
increased or by how much. This is another claim of the government: that
the Hill Tribe populations are increasing at a rapid rate. Whether or not
this is actually true needs to be properly researched.
In relation to the putative effects of land clearing, in the course of my
research I have found evidence that a major contributor to stream siltation
in northern Thailand is, in fact, roadbuilding. While travelling to and
from the villages I saw many examples of road building practices that were
nothing short of environmental vandalism on a monumental scale: these
really have to be seen to be believed! No environmental impact studies had
been undertaken, no proper/best practice guidelines exist in any meaningful
context and road building proceeds with complete and absolute disregard of
the surrounding environment. The government is undertaking a massive
roadbuilding programme to facilitate both trade and tourism, especially
tourist access into ever remoter areas as part of the 'Hill Tribe Trek'
In this way, the government is faced with a dilemma: one the one hand, it
wants the land the Hill Tribes are living on to create lucrative
plantations. The plantations are usually pines and eucalypts and clearing
of indigenous forest to plant them is common. This is usually justified by
the claim that the areas were already degraded (by, you guessed it, Hill
Tribes). Indeed, the Forestry Dept's definition of
re-aforestation/revegetation seems to consist entirely of planting with
exotic plantation species. Deals with Chinese interests for enormous joint
plantation projects were being announced in the Thai media while I was
I am presently seeking information on development funding for
're-afforestation' and revegetation in Thailand. Do the donors know, for
example, what is really happening?
On the other hand, tourism is a mainstay of the Thai economy, especially
during hard times such as the recent Asian economic crisis. Hill Tribe
Treks are the most recent BIG thing and so there is a need to maintain some
villages. However, many of the selling points of the treks are that the
villages visited are 'unspoiled, remote, intact indigenous cultures etc'
and so there is a need to keep pushing into ever more remote areas, to
build more and more roads (bigger to accommodate bigger coaches) and so on.
It isn't hard to see that this is completely unsustainable.
However, tourism aside, the overall policy is undoubtedly to move the Hill
Tribes off the mountains. Once moved, the people are provided with little
or nothing in the way of services and facilities. The situation concerning
water is particularly critical and underscores the apparent reluctance of
the Thai government to provide even the most basis infrastructure. This is
in contradiction to the stated policy of the government, which partly
justifies the moving of people in order to better provide for their basic
needs in the areas of education, utilities and health care.
The real situation however, is very different. I saw several villages that
Akha had been moved to which were not even provided with a source of water.
Health care is an unobtainable dream and there are many well documented
cases of Hill Tribe people being mistreated or ignored by health workers
who view them as undeserving ignorant savages.
One of the things that the Akha Heritage Foundation does is to build wells.
I saw several excellent wells, constantly in use, that Matthew had helped
to build. However, it seemed absurd to me (and very revealing) that
Matthew is undertaking such basic infrastructure works which by any
standards should be provided by the government.
Moving villages has numerous consequences for the people involved. They
are always moved downwards, sometimes even to flat land which Akha are not
used to, and the change in altitude can affect the health of both the
people and their livestock. Loss of livestock means less protein.
The forced removals seriously disrupt the traditional agricultural
production cycles which also leads to dietary problems and malnutrition.
Common ailments among Akha babies, eg congenital heart problems, are often
blamed on dietary deficiency on the part of the mothers. This is usually
blamed on the eating of white rice but there can be no doubt that overall
protein deficiency is a major contributor. This in turn has increased
pressure on the wildlife of the forests, notably barking deer and birds
(which are noticeably absent due to heavy hunting). Added to this is the
aggressive marketing of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in Thailand,
particularly among the Hill Tribes. All this adds up to very serious
In short, and to be very blunt, it was hard to come to any other conclusion
except that the Thai government is undertaking a deliberate policy of
cultural genocide, dressed up in old-fashioned assimilationist language, or
under the guise of environmental protection or development.
The Thai Forestry Department bears no resemblance to what most other
forestry workers would recognise as comprising best practice forestry
management. It would be more appropriate to call it the Department of
Logging and Plantations, and indeed you sometimes hear this said jokingly
when referring to the Forestry Dept.
The use of the environmental protection motive to attack Hill Tribes is
particularly invidious and hypocritical given the otherwise complete lack
of commitment on the part of the Thai government to undertake proper
natural resource management in the forests of the north. There are no
inventories of natural resources and no programmes to manage the forests in
a sustainable manner and no scientific (western or otherwise) standards
applied. The rich store of Akha and other Hill Tribe lore concerning the
forests is completely ignored in the face of logging and plantation
In reaction to this very negative government approach, the Hill Tribes are
in the very embryonic phase of organising themselves to protect their
culture and knowledge. This is made additionally difficult due to the
influence of the Christian missionaries, who always seem to initiate their
entry into a village by telling the people that their own culture and
religious beliefs are wrong (often described as 'devil worship') and must
be given up. In Christian invaded villages it is unusual to see women
wearing headdresses (which are enormously significant components of women's
cultural lives) and in some villages there are only older women present, as
the missionaries encourage the younger women and girls to leave the village.
The reason given for this is to save them from 'devil worship', abuse by
the males of the village, and for purposes of education. The fact that
many of these removed women and girls end up as prostitutes is an
interesting phenomenon that requires further investigation. This removal of
younger women has a devastating effect on the age structure of villages,
the production cycles, social interactions, marriage prospects and so on.
The Thai government maintains a hands-off approach to these Christian
activities but it isn't hard to see that this cultural disruption aids and
abets the government's covert aim of gradually dismantling Hill Tribe
culture and removing them altogether from the mountains of northern
Thailand. Cultural demoralisation will simply make it that much easier.
In relation to this missionary activity, I will be honest and say that I
personally have never been able to understand the zeal that lies behind
thinking that you have the right to go to someone's else's culture and
carry out this kind of activity. I can understand compassion and
generosity but not the colonial mentality that says that you should give up
your 'devil-worshipping' ways (as defined by me) and take up my system of
beliefs. I found it very interesting that Matthew views this as a human
rights issue and my conclusion is that he is right. I think that this will
become a big issue in the near future as increasing numbers of indigenous
peoples gain the confidence to challenge what is, after all, a direct
attack on their basic human right to adhere to their own system of beliefs.
In addition, I think that extreme fundamentalist evangelicism and
missionary zeal will be recognised as the mental illness it undoubtedly is.
In relation to the missionaries in northern Thailand, I tried hard to find
examples of good works but failed. I wanted to give them the benefit of
the doubt, but found only a weird kind of ignorant fundamentalist empire
building whereby the missionaries are happy to build a big church on the
highest point of a village that doesn't even have a well! The role of
these missionaries in the destruction of Hill Tribe culture should not be
In relation to tourism, I would urge everyone reading this to keep in mind
the following if you ever visit northern Thailand and consider going on a
'Hill Tribe Trek'. These treks are the latest fad and often dressed up as
'ecotourism'. Inquiries quickly reveal, however, that local tribespeople
gain little benefit from these treks and suffer considerable disruption to
their village life and privacy. In addition, remember that the popularity
of treks has encouraged the government to increase road building and other
means of access into ever more previously remote villages.
So, sorry to be talking doom and gloom but this IS a crisis situation.
It's only by knowing the truth and challenging what is happening that we
can help the Hill Tribes who are starting to get organised to challenge
these attacks on their culture and to have the right to make decisions
about their future for themselves.
My experience helped me realise that Hill Tribe cultures (and other
cultures in general) are incalculable treasures. We may not all agree on
everything and there's always room for dialogue, discussion and even
argument and disagreement. After all, no-one's culture remains the same
forever (if it does you're in trouble). The important thing is who gets to
decide, how much respect you're given and how much space is available for
difference to exist. In Thailand at the present time, that space is
apparently almost non-existent.
Ali Ben Kahn
B.A.; M.Env.Stud.; Grad. Dip. Outdoor Ed. & Outdoor L'dship.
Dept Social Inquiry
University of Adelaide
I am a plant ecologist and conservation biologist presently doing a PhD
Degree at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. My research field
is the acknowledgment and application of indigenous knowledge in plant
conservation as part of the development process. This reflects my
interests in several areas, mainly plant conservation and natural resource
management, cultural diversity and the alternative development movement
which is critical of the importation of western values, economics and
knowledge systems into other cultures.
I have worked for many years as an environmental activist and am presently
Vice President of the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, the
state's pre-eminent science based community biodiversity and nature
conservation organisation. I also sit on several state statutory bodies
dealing with issues pertaining to conservation and/or natural resource
management. I am a practicing Mahayana Buddhist and a member of the
International Network of Engaged Buddhists. I have traveled extensively,
especially in Africa, where I lived in Zimbabwe in the late 80's.
(Ms) Ali Ben Kahn
Department of Social Inquiry
University of Adelaide, SA, 5005
Ph: (08) 8303 3351 (wk); (08) 8449 9379 (hm)