The International Writers Magazine: Asian Charity
Akha Culture Hijack
Profiting from suffering and spilt blood of others is abhorrent to most people, while war profiteering is illegal. However, the business of “nonprofit” aid to dispossessed peoples has no controls or laws. It treads a lax, lawless frontier between haves and have-nots. People on both sides of this fluid frontier pursue self-interest in the unregulated trade across this human divide. One man saw the possibilities: His main income comes from donations given to him on the basis of vague promises that it goes to help a hill-tribe people in South East Asia.
The nonprofit Akha Heritage Foundation (AHF), aka Matthew McDaniel, is still registered at an address in Keizer, Salem, Oregon, USA. No one there seems to know or care what he’s doing, how much he raises, or even checks where the donation money he gets is actually going. It is a testament to the dysfunction of regulatory systems in the USA, and in the State of Oregon in particular, that this man is continuing to operate unchecked, soliciting donations, and propagating a brand of cultural idealism of no benefit to Akha people on the ground in SE Asia. A thorough investigation of AHF regarding its operation, directorship and accounts is long overdue.
McDaniel’s one-man operation lacks any substantial support from Akha people. This fact exposes him as an impostor attempting to impose his views alone of a small ethnic minority struggling for survival. His unbridled manipulation of aid donors, who don’t check to see how, or if, their donations are used on the ground in SE Asia, exploits the suffering of a small group of tribal people, abusing them yet again in the service of foreign self-interest.
McDaniel vehemently accuses all others of what he himself is doing, albeit in his own peculiar way, which amounts to cultural hijacking for personal benefit. His tireless efforts to collect bits and pieces of Akha culture, to present their suffering and exploitation to the world, and to call for donations on their behalf is shown in the article below to mean little or nothing to the Akha people themselves.
An Oregon-Registered Nonprofit Exposed
Matthew McDaniel was furiously working away at a keyboard in an internet cafe in ChiangRai, northern Thailand, when I first clapped eyes on him early in 2003. Wearing a ragged hat and battered cowboy boots he walked out to his mud-spattered, uniquely modified, pick-up truck acknowledging me on his way. During the ride out to the hills he wasted little time expounding his views about Christian missionaries abducting hill-tribe children into orphanages, sterilizing the women and generally desecrating their culture. Thai army, police, forestry, government officials and Thai royalty were all involved in dispossessing hill-tribe people, especially the Akha, of land, livelihood and life.
McDaniel had been living in Thailand since 1991. He told me he’d been exporting beads and jewelery from Thailand in a business with his brother in the U.S.A. until they fell out over finances. In MaeSai the Akha and other hill-tribe people caught his attention at the border bridge between Myanmar and Thailand. They are largely a poor, dispossessed, exploited people who have their own distinctive cultures quite different from mainstream Thai and Burmese cultures. Seeing the discrimination, and sometimes abuse, these people suffer, McDaniel said he tried to help with much-needed medical assistance. He had no professional medical training or qualifications, and more or less taught himself even how to extract teeth.
McDaniel learned the Akha language and took a young Akha girl, Michu Uaiyue, as his wife. He lived in her family’s village house at Pah Nmm in Bpah Mah Hahn until he was apparently told to move out. So he built a bamboo hut just above the village for his wife and their growing family. Visiting Pah Nmm one day with McDaniel, I noticed slogans daubed across village walls in English -“No Police”, “Police Keep Out”. At his bamboo hut his young wife was busy taking care of their children - four by this time, I think. Previously, I’d sent a variety of vegetable seeds by post from Europe in the hope that McDaniel would distribute them to villagers for trial growing. When I asked how this project was going he showed me a vegetable patch, explaining how well the beans were doing and producing a bountiful crop for his family since his wife planted them there. He avoided answering queries about any other villages he may have distributed the seeds to.
At his bamboo hut there were some boxes of clothes recently donated to McDaniel’s nonprofit AHF for Akha villagers. First pickings were obviously being picked out by relatives and friends. Another Englishman visiting McDaniel had been busy inside the hut setting up a new computer which he’d donated for McDaniel’s AHF work. When he came to me complaining bitterly how McDaniel wouldn’t let him use it I was at somewhat of a loss myself.
Later the same day, McDaniel drove me down through Pah Nmm village as we discussed an issue on which I thought we needed views from Akha people themselves. I suggested we stop to ask an Akha man walking along the dirt track. “Not much use,” snapped McDaniel driving on. “Why’s that?” I asked. “He’ll talk without saying much of anything. Typical Akha.”
McDaniel drove me to several Akha villages near the Burmese border, a region many hill-tribe prisoners whom I knew personally came from. He provided basic medical help to a few sick villagers and he carried a can of liquid used as pesticide for villagers to debug themselves from jiggers and other such insects. When he pointed out a fish pond in one village, explaining how one of his many projects was to set these up to provide protein food for villagers, I expressed my interest in stopping to see it. “No fish in it,” he replied, driving on seemingly with no intention of stopping.
“Why’s that?” My questions were beginning to fall into a pattern, but I didn’t see this clearly until later. “Akha ate them all,” he answered.
Some hill-tribe villages do reasonably well with viable projects producing coffee, tea, ginger, other crops, as well as handicrafts, while others provide accommodation and guided hiking trips for tourists. Admittedly, such projects are not all managed by hill-tribe villagers themselves, but some are. However, McDaniel said he didn’t work with those Akha villages I’d mentioned.
A small cluster of newly built wooden huts we visited was untypically situated in a valley, not the usual ridge-top location of most Akha villages. They’d been forced to relocate by forestry officials. Similar, and much larger, forced village relocation occurs throughout the region in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Such dislocations and interference by government officials, army, police, missionaries, business interests, and even due to tourist developments, obviously have a devastating impact on hill-tribe villagers. These usually uncomplaining, self-sufficient, quiet people have little or no say in such matters that severely affect their livelihood. McDaniel seemed to have a nose that picked up on the scent of suffering hill-tribe people.
In ChiangRai soon after I first met McDaniel, he was handed a modest donation in cash with the suggestion that it be used directly for poor hill-tribe villagers. Soon after this, he said we were going for lunch, and he drove us to a large food court. I headed for local Thai vegetarian food, while McDaniel separated off and went straight in to the U.S.-based Kentucky Fried Chicken joint. “How many Akha or hill-tribe people eat there?” I thought to myself while eating my veggies alone.
After lunch McDaniel drove to a mechanic to get his truck looked at. Then he bought a spare tyre which must have later fallen off his truck on the way to the hills, because he lost it. A gas station to fill up was next on the agenda. McDaniel had no regular job or any other obvious source of income, so it was obvious where the lion’s share of donations he got were going. After internet costs, truck bills, supporting his growing family, and his own American habits, how much was left over for poor Akha villagers, I wondered. McDaniel’s answer went something like this: “Can we stop a donkey from eating some of the load it’s carrying?”
I didn’t press him any further at the time on his use of donations. However, I’ve never seen a donkey eating inside an American fast food joint, needing to pay internet and truck bills, and claiming to be doing, or facilitating, charity work consuming most of the same donated resources in the process.
McDaniel’s confrontational approach is not the natural style of the usually quiet hill-tribe people. He claims to be taking up their cause in a one-man campaign, but he omits or ignores many aspects of the hill-tribe situation. He pushes his own one-sided view of Akha culture without allowing Akha people much say in his projects or the overall control of AHF. This has given his campaign much spin, and earned him a reputation.
“Missionaries Suck” were the words emblazoned boldly across McDaniel’s truck as we drove into Roman Catholic, Baptist, and other christian-run orphanages which accommodate large numbers of hill-tribe children. Donations supporting these orphanages largely come from the U.S.A., Europe and other parts of the so-called “developed world”. I knew from my own research that many children in these orphanages were not orphans. Some had parents who were in prison. McDaniel assured me of others who had parents living in the villages.
All was quiet, with nobody in sight, late one evening when McDaniel drove into a remote Akha village. I was not feeling comfortable about our intrusion, although McDaniel seemed to be expecting a big welcome. He honked his horn a few times into the dark night that covered the silent village. A woman eventually replied, then a few villagers emerged. They didn’t appear eager to respond to our unexpected visit. However, we entered one of the huts and were served food and drink, while McDaniel talked with them. We slept there. McDaniel hadn’t brought any supplies that I knew of, and he hadn’t informed me previously that we’d be visiting this village empty handed.
McDaniel had problems with staff at the large Christian hospital in ChiangRai. So he asked me to take a young Akha girl with her newly born baby suffering from hydrocephalus into the hospital for a CAT scan. A donor had already footed the bill. The doctor’s opinion was that it was a waste of hospital resources and money, because a previous diagnosis indicated it was a severe case, which even with expensive shunt procedures would leave the baby’s brain unable to develop properly. After the CAT scan I was shown the images of the baby’s head as the doctor explained and confirmed the diagnosis. He said the hospital had some charitable funds available, so he gave a discount off the full cost of the CAT scan. I took the girl and her baby out to McDaniel, returned the discounted money, and told him to inform the girl of all the doctor had told me. As I was handing the girl some money, to buy food and things for herself and baby, McDaniel stepped in quickly and took it himself. He said he would buy her what she needed on the drive back to her house, which was not far from where he himself lived.
The baby’s condition was possibly caused by the mother working at a commercial flower farm where copious chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides were used. I asked McDaniel for the names of chemicals stored at the flower farm, which was near the place he lived. However, in this and other cases he seemed to lack the ability or the will to investigate or do detailed research. My own search of the storeroom at the flower farm later revealed that there were indeed chemicals stored there which published studies have linked to cases of hydrocephalus.
I questioned McDaniel as to who the baby’s father was. He answered incoherently, trying to avoid such queries. That the girl lived near his own place, that he was intent on checking the baby’s condition, but did not welcome any further investigation, left unanswered questions in my mind.
Demented Dust Devil
McDaniel went from village to village to town and to missions stirring up thick, dark clouds all around him, like a dust devil. He gathered pieces of debris onto his website www.akha.org where he spent much of his time in another cloud. There was a steady stream of foreign volunteers, donors and journalists visiting McDaniel at the time. Most had found him on internet where he invited such interest in his work. However, he complained to me that many of these visitors were utterly inept and useless and had no idea about what was going on in the villages. My own thoughts were that McDaniel needed to do better with his explanations, analytical skills, and above all to have more clarity himself as to what exactly he was doing. But a heat-driven twister is all style without substance, a lot of activity without any calm moments for reflection on its whole circumstance, and so he continued to feed on the sufferings of a people getting badly burnt on the ground.
Up early one morning I was on my way by motorbike to Hooh Yoh Akha village whose prime farming land had been taken by a project in the name of Queen Sirikit. Almost there, I met McDaniel in his truck. “You’re up early,” he shouted, surprised to see me there. Antonio Graceffo was inside the truck with him and we briefly greeted each other. Following McDaniel’s arrest on 18th April 2004, Graceffo wrote a piece comparing McDaniel to the Colonel Kurtz character depicted by Marlon Brando in the movie “Apocalypse Now”. Colonel Kurtz is based on the Kurtz character in Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness’. I commented at the time that the comparison was a valid one.
Graceffo came under ferocious attack from McDaniel for his comments. McDaniel cannot tolerate any criticism of his activities at all, and he does not like any foreigner working with “his” Akha people unless they have his approval. But McDaniel “was doing good work in the villages, wasn’t he?" This is where the concrete may not support the abstract. Yes, Matthew was working tirelessly to give moral support to the Akha, and to document their suffering on the web and in print. But what were his actual concrete works? Or said another way, where was donor money going? After all, Matthew was using the Akha to solicit donations, the same as most of the people he accused and hated.
He supported his various children and wives with the donation money, and he imposed his “aid” on Akha without involving them. He also doesn’t like anyone else doing ANY Akha work. He had horrible things to say about nearly every other Akha or hill tribe aid organization. Both times I was in his village he had just thrown some documentary film makers out of the village before my arrival, and both times, he had a huge altercation with either a volunteer or a film maker, who he then threw out of the village.
McDaniel’s project work in Akha villages “appeared to have collapsed” after his arrest and deportation, according to NGO founder and manager Paul Hancock who had donated to McDaniel’s projects in Thailand, and who also helped McDaniel’s family at the time of his arrest. “I saw no sign that he could delegate any of his work to capable juniors with a view to developing a sustainable organisation. I saw that McDaniel had no organisation and was not developing younger Akha to share his workload so that he could expand the number of people he could help. I offered to fund the salary of a promising younger person to travel with him to villages, so that person could eventually take over some of his duties. He didn’t ever take up my offer and, consequently, when he was deported, as far as I know, left behind nothing by way of a functioning organisation.”
'Collapse' may not be the best word to describe a dust devil when it loses its heat source, blows itself out and disperses. The problem was that Akha people themselves had no say in McDaniel’s AHF projects in Akha villages, while he utterly failed to delegate management responsibilities. All AHF projects, finances, co-ordination, direction and facilitation only hold together in McDaniel’s head, that’s if we can say they hold together at all! Those who have participated in McDaniel’s projects have been left with empty, spent shells, and perhaps none more so than Akha people themselves.
Graceffo later received this reply concerning McDaniel: “It’s a very sad affair, as the man is obviously completely delusional. His writing style is pretty incoherent, and like you, I thought there would be staff who would be operating in Thailand.”
Paul Hancock further commented, “I’ve always wondered why there have been no accounts or annual reports describing the number of people or communities who have benefited from his work. There’s such a big discrepancy between his web income and declared foundation income.”
Dusting himself off in the U.S.A., McDaniel had his wife and children join him there in May 2006. He apparently made his wife director of AHF and had her deliver a statement in the Akha language at the UN headquarters in New York City on 18th May 2006. The focus was on the taking of hill-tribe farmland by a project in Queen Sirikit’s name.
There’s little doubt that hill-tribe people are suffering the heat and getting burnt from state politics in SE Asia. However, McDaniel’s activism, agitation and confrontational style is not that of hill-tribe people themselves. Meanwhile, there is no evidence on the ground AT ALL that McDaniel’s methods have improved the lot for Akha people in particular. Solutions, or understanding, will surely only come by standing back and considering the whole situation, or the big picture, from all sides. McDaniel has branded himself on one side. He therefore spins all his publicity that way, deleting, ignoring, and opposing all other views, even those of Akha people themselves! Some Akha Christians hate McDaniel, even cringing at the mention of his name, Matthew, although this is the name on the first book of the New Testament.
Graceffo questions McDaniel’s 'Ride for Freedom' across the USA by horse and bus from March 2009 to March 2010: “I found some mention of his ride across America. So, I began google searching it, to find out more about it. But I found so little press about the event, it seems like one more adventure he carried out on his own, most likely with donor money, and without first coordinating with any other organizations, not even the press. So, just how effective was this ride in helping the Akha or even raising awareness?”
McDaniel has since tried to whip up substantial donations so as to acquire a yacht to 'Sail for Freedom' - on behalf of Akha people, of course. His dream is to cross the Pacific Ocean supposedly carrying supplies for Akha villages. Akha people live in hills far from any sea or ocean. Few have even seen the sea, let alone sailed across any ocean. If McDaniel’s dream is facilitated, with help from hoodwinked donors, he’s likely to be arrested on entering Thai waters. That’s if he manages to cross the ocean and Thai pirates don’t waylay him first. No doubt he sees all this as good self-publicity for his cause on internet, the cloud of his dreams, which really amounts to nothing but the hijacking or piracy of people’s interest in his exploits on Facebook and other social media, all for the cause of the Akha, of course.
McDaniel’s activities and dreams are pie in the sky to most Akha people. He’s been asked why he doesn’t give AHF donations directly to Akha villagers. He claims to be a “facilitator” - but of what? More publicity stunts, the materialization of his own dreams, to sail away like a pirate on the high seas? Meanwhile, on the scorched ground, Akha people aren’t getting any refreshing raindrops coming their way from the cloud of McDaniel’s publicity on internet and elsewhere.
If McDaniel insists on carrying on such activities he needs at least to be honest and set up his operation as an Akha news and information service. He repeatedly says that he expects users of www.akha.org to pay donations for the privilege of accessing it. He needs to pay internet bills, after all. So it’s suggested that he incorporate himself as an information or news service, rather than as a nonprofit. One suggestion for a name is 'McAkha Dreams Incorporated'. However, as McDaniel has attempted to entice people to sell their yachts through his AHF nonprofit so as to avoid taxes, there may be problems ahead. There are also outstanding problems with McDaniel’s exposure to legal action for copyright infringement.
My own work concerning hill-tribe prisoners was made freely available to McDaniel since 2003. He visited a couple of prisons in northern Thailand while he was there, but he did very little to add to my findings on the issue. In May 2011 he asked for US$500, then US$600 in donations on his website for a prison-letter project. He was informed that the prisoner information he had was years out-of-date, with many hill-tribe prisoners transferred to different prison locations, while some had been released and a few had died in prison. Knowing full well he had badly dated information, he went full-steam ahead calling for donations to send hundreds of letters off to prisoners who were mostly not going to be there. He didn’t even ask, or want to wait, for updated prisoner information. He was clearly told that he was deceiving donors as his prison letter project would be very largely a waste of money, time and effort. Another one of his empty, spent, shell projects!
In December 2011, McDaniel expressed his lack of understanding as to why he had so little response from prisoners, while some of his letters had even been returned. The single-page, mass-copied letters McDaniel sent to hill-tribe prisoners asked for their personal details, and included an attempt to promote McDaniel’s own script for the Akha language. There was no script for the Akha language until Christian missionaries produced one or more systems. As McDaniel does not approve of those scripts, he developed his own. However, he’s made no headway getting his version accepted by Akha people.
The last words are reserved for authentic Akha voices coming from behind the walls of separate prisons in Thailand:
“Matthew is one of most confused person I ever know, actually I never know him as person. So it is ashamed and sad that he used the Akha for his own benefit. I tried to asked many Akha villages about Matthew’s project, but no one seems to know any thing about him.” (sic) Dated 9th September 2011
“Yes, I have got a letter from Matthew McDaniel on last 12th Oct. It’s the first letter. Anyway, I won’t reply him because I don’t understand any of his Akha new alphabets... He said he has worked for Akha for 20 years. But in 20 years I just heard his name 2-3 months ago. I think he has never supported Akhas as he boasted in front of the world, even United Nations...” (sic) Dated 25th October 2011
The author, Paul Hunt, can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org