The Truth About Hill Tribes

Story and photo by Caroline Boschetto | boschetto.c@husky.neu.edu

The day that the deafening military helicopter descended upon eight-year old Niti’s Akha village in northern Thailand was the last day that she saw her father for over twenty years. Never having had contact with the people, culture, or technology outside the bounds of her isolated hill tribe, this child must have experienced the invasion with the shock and horror akin to that of an alien abduction. But, for Niti, this was not a passage in a sci-fi novel that she could close and put away; this was her reality. The Thai government truly did pluck her father, the Akha community leader, from his home, and imprison him for no true crime. The government perpetrated this act of injustice to assert control over the “problematic” Hill Tribe population and to weaken the community’s power structure. While, in the eye of this young girl, the day of this occurrence represented a brutal attack on her family unit, she eventually came to understand the event in a wider context as an attack on her heritage, political rights, and cultural identity. Decades later, Niti’s recount of this childhood memory silenced the room in which she spoke, and instantly gave life to the past and present plight of Thailand’s Hill Tribes.

Many of these marginalized “Hill Tribes” neither dwell in hills nor are organized in a traditional tribal fashion; however, they will be referred to as such in this article for lack of an appropriate substitute. These indigenous people are not native to Thailand, but, rather, have migrated to the northern region of this modern-day country from China and Tibet over the past two millennia. Thailand’s Hill Tribes are historically semi-nomadic people, distinct from the Thai in their language, culture, and traditional pattern of life. Their total of 700,000 members make up approximately 1.2% of Thailand’s population. Nine tribes in northern Thailand have been officially recognized, the largest of which is the Karen tribe, famous for the unique brass rings that a sub-section of the tribe’s women wear in order to elongate their necks.

Korn is a twenty-four-year-old man living alone in an apartment in the Thai city of Chiang Mai. He has a cell phone, a girlfriend eight hours away in Bangkok, and holds a job at an elephant conservation center. Though these details of his life, along with the fact that his interview for this article was partially conducted through Facebook Messenger, indicate that he is a typical 21st century Thai citizen, he was born and raised as a member of the Karen tribe. While Korn wears Western athletic wear instead of woven tunics and does not have a wife whose neck is adorned with rings, his Hill Tribe heritage still dramatically shapes his life experience in ways that exemplify the trials associated with being a member of this ethnic minority. In their Karen tribal village, Korn’s father used to earn a living cutting down trees. Because of his constant exposure to the forest, he contracted malaria and, unfortunately, died when Korn was only three. A study done by Dr. Pichainarong and Dr. Chaveepojnkamjorn of Majidol University in Bangkok reveals that members of Hill Tribes are at a higher risk of contracting and succumbing to malaria than other members of the Thai population. This is due to Hill Tribe members’ high level of poverty, poor access to hospitals, increased exposure to forests containing disease-carrying mosquitos, and a lack of protective equipment such as insecticide treated nets.  Korn’s personal account confirmed this information; for, he explained that his father had to travel a great distance from their Karen community to be treated in a hospital.  Furthermore, when questioned in person on the topic of malaria treatments, the short, gentle man solemnly stated that good cures cost lots of money. At the age of twelve, Korn’s life was again drastically altered when, due to his family’s inability to finance his education, his mother sent him to a Buddhist monastery where he lived and was taught as a novice monk for two years.  While Korn’s lasting devotion to Buddhism and passion for meditation indicate that his monastic experience was a positive one, he still voiced his bitterness over the fact that, when he did go to school, “the government not give budget for tribe people like people in the city.”

Unfortunately, the challenges that Korn and his family experienced are not uncommon for members of Hill Tribes in Thailand. The average Hill Tribe family has difficulty affording medical care and education while living on an average income of under $500 a year.  Many people of tribe heritage are limited to low-wage jobs such as strenuous construction work or peeling fruit, which are positions that often require that they move to city.  The Thai government has created hardships and roadblocks for Hill Tribes because of their perception of the “Hill Tribe problem”: the notion that Hill Tribes pose a threat to national security, environmental efforts, and are the source of drug trafficking problems in Thailand. Many of these claims are based on sparse, faulty, or nonexistent data, however, and are often simply an excuse to use Hill Tribes as a convenient scapegoat for national crises. This systemized blame and prejudice perpetrated by the government has resulted in horrific travesties of justice, including instances of young pregnant women being imprisoned for unknowingly farming on government-owned land. [16] Part of this confusion over property rights has resulted from the Thai government’s forcible relocation of Hill Tribes in order to make room for resorts and ecotourism parks. This injustice is tinged with irony considering the fact that the ecotourism fad is supposedly a style of travel that emphasizes conservation and respect for local populations. Furthermore, 40-50% of tribe members do not possess Thai citizenship, which stifles the population’s employment prospects, political representation, and access to judicial processes. The Thai government has even gone to the lengths of working to defund NGOs that fight to improve the rights of Hill Tribes, reflecting the government’s clear intention to prevent this minority group from gaining a voice that could threaten its interests.  In the worst cases of human rights abuses, tribe members have been abducted by human traffickers and forced into the prostitution and slave labor circuits.

The government programs and services that are in place for Hill Tribe members pose a different threat to the population: the cultural threat of forced assimilation. Government-provided education, especially, acts as both a savior and an oppressor for Hill Tribes. While it provides tribe children knowledge and experience that can carry then out of the stagnant hole of poverty, it also teaches them Thai language, culture, and history in place of that of their own tribe.  In the Thai school of Ban Toong Pong, located outside of Chiang Mai, the majority of the students are members of Hill Tribes, which, to the trained eye, can be deduced through both their ethnic features and their subtle signs of poverty. When bustling past an ajan, or teacher, on the wooden balcony hallway, the tiny children in red and blue uniforms are always quick to wai the adult by giving a traditional Thai bow of respect. This simple gesture is a small-scale representation of the cultural osmosis of Thai traditions and norms occurring between Thai schools and the next generation of Hill Tribe children. Furthermore, when asked to draw and describe images they associated with America, Ban Toon Pong 5th graders displayed a surprising level of knowledge and a strong affinity for America as they created pencil sketches of US celebrities, fast food chains, and other cultural icons. Apparently, not even the marginalized Akha and Karen are immune to Western cultural imperialism.

In many less visible locations and circles, however, the embers of Hill Tribe culture and tradition are still red with heat. The rural home of Niti’s grandmother is one such place. After entering the house through a large, vibrant garden, approximately twenty Western travelers sat crossed-legged on a mat of banana leaves and were served a traditional, home cooked Akha meal. While sampling the array of homegrown vegetables and and spicy, tomato-based dips, the visitors watched Niti’s grandmother presented her traditional Akha headdress. She even let some of the girls try on the heavy, highly ornamented piece. The fact that Niti’s family clings tightly to their Akha language, dress, and lifestyle, along with the fact that they are eager to share their culture with outsiders, exemplifies the endurance of Hill Tribe culture. Shyly peeking from behind the doorframe, however, stood Niti’s pigtailed daughter dressed in a blue Frozen nightgown, serving as a reminder that, even in households where traditional culture flourishes, competing cultural forces are still present.

Looking to the future, the primary question regarding Thailand’s Hill Tribes is simply  “will they survive?” Will they suffer due to poor healthcare access, will they dip further and further below the threshold of poverty, and will more recent government assistance efforts, intentionally or otherwise, strip them of their cultural identities through assimilation? The Thai government has cited that its objective is to form a nation that has “no hill tribes but only Thai”. The realization of this goal would have undeniable benefits for people like Korn struggling to overcome the stigmas and social challenges of living as a mainstream Thai citizen with a Hill Tribe background. Nevertheless, clumping all of Thailand’s residents into one generic category could undermine the rich, unique elements of Hill Tribe culture that people like Niti are striving to preserve. This woman’s most recent entrepreneurial endeavor of a Thai/Akha cooking lesson center could be indicative of the direction in which Thailand’s Hill Tribes are heading. Like Niti’s  Akha style of cuisine, the Hill Tribe population’s culture is merging with that of Thai as a byproduct of its social and economic progresses. The Thai government may have kicked its habit of ripping Hill Tribe fathers out of their daughter’s’ arms; however, further policy alterations are certainly necessary if Niti’s daughter and Ban Toong Pong’s students are to enjoy safe, successful futures in which their rights and identities are preserved.