The International Writers Magazine: A slow genocide in Thailand
Thailand's Akha Hill Tribe Struggles to Survive
imposing compound is surrounded by a high brick wall, topped with
concertino wire. Once the massive steel gate slams shut behind you,
it is clear that those who hold the keys are in command. Now, every
aspect of daily life will be controlled. Upon arrival, the hill
tribe inmates are stripped of their traditional clothing, and forced
to wear a uniform.
they are prohibited from speaking their native tongue. To ensure their
obedience, all ties with their prior life, as free people, are cut.
There are explicit orders against traditional ceremonies, beliefs, and
The hill tribe people are told that they are evil, and that their prior
life was the work of the devil. The message is driven home that the
family they left behind, in the village, will all burn in eternal torment.
Every step is taken to ensure that when they leave the institution,
they will never return to their homes.
Incarceration under these circumstances, of erasure of ethnic identity
and psychological torture, would be in violation of international conventions,
regarding the humane treatment of adult prisoners. That the inmates
are children makes this system seem diabolic. Even worse, the international
conventions don't apply, because the institution in question is not
a prison. It is a Christian mission school, which converts and educates
hill tribe children, taken from the numerous mountain villages in Northern
After Christianization and education the children no longer identify
with their ethnic heritage, and rarely return to live in the village.
This threatens the survival of the tribe, as it decreases the number
of marriageable young people, ultimately reducing the number of births.
With the average life expectancy for hill tribe people being only 46
years of age, the tribes are dependent on a high number of births in
order to continue living. The children themselves are put at risk. Removed
from the nurturing love and protection of a village environment, they
gravitate to the cities of Chiang Mai and Bangkok, in search of work.
But there are few jobs for hill tribe kids facing ethnic discrimination,
at the hands of Thai employers. As most of the hill tribe people are
stateless, denied Thai citizenship documents, there is no possibility
to find legitimate work.
Just by leaving the are where they were born is a crime, as hill tribe
people, without proper documentation, are not permitted to travel freely
It is ironic that Christianity is one of the major causes for the increase
of Akha young people, both male and female, working in the sex industry.
The Akha traditionally live in communities, which function as extended
families, with built in social welfare systems and child day care. The
villages are administered by councils of elders. But it is the Akha
Way, also called the Akha Law, which governs their behavior. The Akha
Way is a very complex and ancient moral code which is at once a religion,
a body of law, a system of ceremonies, and a way of preserving tradition
It dictates when to plant, when and how to build a house, and who an
Akha may or may not marry. Every Akha knows exactly who he is and what
is expected of him, based on the Akha Way.
For the Akha, preserving their way of life seems to be a never ending
battle, as the problems of the modern world are forced upon them. But
for many Akha, it is not preserving their way of life that is of primary
concern, but preserving life itself. I recently spent several days with
Matthew McDaniel, the American who lives among the Akha, serving as
guardian, protector, advocate, lawyer, teacher and friend. As we drove
from village to village, people came out to tell Matthew of their troubles.
In one village the only source of clean water was a one-inch pipe, where
the entire population gathered each morning to brush their teeth. Because
of the forced relocation of one village, the people now had to walk
an hour and a half each way, up a steep mountain, to till their fields.
In yet another village a woman lay on a primitive bamboo bed, dying.
Obviously in a great deal of pain and discomfort, in the extreme heat,
I asked why she wasn't in an air-conditioned hospital room. The answer
was so obvious, that I felt foolish for asking. With an average cash
income of around 500 Baht per month, the Akha would have to do their
dying at home. They couldn't afford to die anywhere else.
Between painfully shallow gasps of air, and with her eyes rolling back
in her head, her body wasting as we watched, the woman made it clear
that her concern was for the welfare of the three orphaned children
that she would leave behind. The Akha Way would normally dictate what
happened to orphan children, prescribing which family member should
take them in. But in a Christian village, there was no such prescription.
Neither was there a pastor. After converting the village he left, seeking
new souls elsewhere. The children would most likely wind up in a Christian
mission school, eventually landing in the city, looking for work. Without
ID cards, and facing racial prejudice, they would be unable to find
legitimate work. And the cycle would continue. Outside of her thatched
hut, set in a block of cheap, flaky cement, was a plastic toilet, donated
by an NGO, who never consulted with the Akha about their needs or wants.
The toilet remained unused, because there was no water system running
Environmental groups criticize the Akha for terraced farming, which
they claim damages the environment. But forced to farm the side of a
mountain the Akha have little recourse. Right beside the Akha tea and
coffee plants dying in the heat of a prolonged draught, were countless
acres of Thai owned flower and fruit farms, with artificial sprinkler
systems running constantly. The farms used unconscionable quantities
of pesticides, which the Akha laborers were ordered to apply. With no
safety equipment and no knowledge of the danger they were being exposed
to, Akha workers were complaining of a variety of physical ailments.
Perhaps worst of all were the premature births by Akha women exposed
to the harmful chemicals. At least one baby was born with his organs
outside of his body.
Beside the mountain road the soil was actually being eroded by the runoff
of the surplus water from the farms. It was difficult to say which was
the cruelest truth, that the flower farms had too much water, while
the Akha had none, or that the land where the flower farms stood had
once belonged to the Akha.
A few miles away, at an abandoned army post, the Akha believe some of
their members found their final resting place in shallow, unmarked graves.
Villages were being destroyed by land grabs. There were forced relocations,
which resulted in two or three villages being resigned to living together,
under cramped conditions, and disturbing the harmonious layout of Akha
houses, proscribed by the Akha Way. Some villages were now mixed, with
Akha and other tribes living together. It wasn't a question of racism
that would prevent this arrangement from working, but simply that the
Akha Way only applies to Akha. Other tribes govern themselves differently.
How could the two systems be expected to coexist? The saddest situation
were villages split by Christianity. The poorest village we visited
was a tiny village with eight christian families and four traditional.
There was no way of creating community or keeping the traditions if
sixty percent of the village was taught that the other forty percent
were minions of the devil. This meant that food wasn't being shared,
children weren't being educated, the old and sick would not be cared
for. Even with the absence of a doctor, the traditional healers had
been prevented from performing their occupation.
This dusty collection of noncohesive individuals was watched over by
the only concrete structure in the village, a sad looking Christian
church, now boarded up, and falling to ruins, with the pastor long gone.
The most blatant and immediate concern was a village, called Hooh Yoh,
where a forestry project has taken nearly all the land (approximately
This has left the 1,100 people, 250 families, living in the village
with no source of income. The headman explained that they had enough
rice to survive until September. But, since they would not be able to
plant in June and July, that would be the end of their food.
"Do you have a plan?" I asked.
He just looked at his feet. What plan could he possibly have? The Akha
are farmers. Without the land, they have no way to survive. They used
to supplement their diet by hunting birds with muzzle loading rifles.
But the Army has confiscated them. The rifles can now be purchased,
by tourists, in Chiang Mai. The village is so remote, there would be
no possibility of finding a job locally. Even if there were, turning
from the communal life of farming to the selfish life of wage labor
would violate the Akha Way, and signal, an end to the culture. Seeking
work in the cities would remove all of the young people from the village,
which again, would kill the village.
The young people who had tried this rout, told of working fourteen hours
a day, in a restaurant, twenty eight days per month, for 2,00 Baht.
The job necessitated living in town, away from family and loved ones.
And, in the end, the employer cheated them out of 1,000 Baht of unpaid
wages. Now they were back in the village, facing certain starvation.
"What could possibly save the Akha?" I asked Mr.. McDaniel.
"They need Thai ID cards, land rights, and micro-loans to purchase
tea and coffee plants." Matthew explained that with tea plants
only costing 15 Baht each, $2,000 US could buy an entire village out
of poverty, forever.
"Mostly, they need to be left alone." He concluded.
© Antonio Graceffo April 2004
Taklamakan by Rickshaw
Antonio Graceffo BA, Dip Lic, AAMS, CMFC, CTC, RFC
Originally from New York City, Antonio spent much of his childhood in
the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. He spent seven years in the
United States Military, in both the Army NG and the US Merchant Marines.
Antonio has studied and competed in martial arts and boxing for over
twenty-five years, and has studied at the Shaolin Temple, in Mainland
China. He works as a full time adventurer and writer, and currently
lives in Taiwan.
Antonio's writing has appeared in the following publications: Escape
Artist, Travel in Taiwan, Taiwanho.com, Travelmag.co.uk, Travellers
Impressions, Marco Polo, Views Unplugged, Kung Fu Magazine, Bike China,
The Elizabethton Star, Go Nomad, Close Quarters Combat, Hack Writers,
Go World, Bike League of America, Martial Arts Planet, The Travel Rag,
Black Belt Magazine, The Bristol Herald Courier, Radical Adventures,
The Travel Rag, The Investment Advisor, I Soldi, America Oggi, The Italian
Tribune, Pagina Uno, and The Italian Voice. Antonio's book about his
studies at the Shaolin Temple, "The Monk From Brooklyn," has
been accepted by GOM Publishing, and will be available in 2004. His
book, "The Desert of Death on Three Wheels" is currently under
review for publication, in 2004.
His book, "Adventures in Formosa," will be published in Taiwan,
in June of 2004.
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