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: A slow genocide in Thailand

Thailand's Akha Hill Tribe Struggles to Survive
Antonio Graceffo

The 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.

Next, 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 customs.

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 Thailand.

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 throughout Thailand.
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 and history.

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 to it.

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 8,500 rai).

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

Across Taklamakan by Rickshaw

Roof Of Taiwan

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,,, 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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