Mountain People of Northern Thailand:
The problems faced by ethnic communities living in northern Thailand
are similar to those faced by marginalised people in any part of the world
- with a complex web of causes. A student of sustainable development outlines
A happy young Lahu
family north of Chiangmai, but what does the future hold for these children?
Some estimates suggest that there may be as many as a million ethnic
people scattered throughout the hills in the north of Thailand, many of
whom live below the World Health Organisation's poverty line. Poverty is
perhaps the most visible and linking factor of their many pervasive problems,
which fall into a number of broad categories.
The first of the ethnic groups began to migrate to Thailand over 150
years ago, living from self-sustaining agriculture in the northern mountains,
traditionally isolated from the rest of society. Today however, modernisation
has reached the lives of most and there is now a growing tendency towards
dependency on the cash economy. In many cases, this has led to other social
problems, the most insidious of which being the illegal drugs trade.
Driven by the desire to improve their material lifestyle, or simply
to feed their families, they involve themselves in the drugs market. Opium
cultivation has been carried out by many ethnic groups but this has decreased
by almost 90% in recent years. However, the use of heroine and amphetamines
has led to a correspondent rise in HIV/AIDS, with an estimated 3,000 heroine
addicts amongst the hilltribes.
farmer, breath-taking beauty, but what of the future?
Much of the land on which the ethnic people live is becoming severely
deforested and this has created severe pressure on the land available to
cultivate; deterioration of fertile land and subsequent soil erosion. Further
pressure has been caused by illegal logging, forest clearing for subsistence
agriculture, the expansion of commercial agriculture in forest areas and
development such as access to government services, construction of dams
and tourism resorts.
Attempts by the government to reduce some of these problems include
introducing legislation to protect the forests by creating National Parks
with protected boundaries; relocating some villages to lowland areas (and
in many cases to less fertile land); and introducing a reforestation programme.
This has resulted in many villagers turning away from agriculture and their
traditional lifestyles to find other sources of income. Another factor
adding to the pressure on the land and available resources is the increased
population growth of the ethnic communities, estimated at about 3% compared
to 1.5% for Thais. As well as births, this includes the continuing refugee
and migrant worker arrivals. It is impossible to assess the actual total
because vast numbers cross into Thailand illegally.
In an effort to reduce the numbers of illegal migrants, the government
has introduced controversial legislation to return them to their homelands.
Illegal migrant workers and their Thai employers face high penalties, and
Thailand recently refused to recognise large numbers of Shan in Chiangmai
and Chiangrai Provinces as refugees, despite being driven from their villages
in Burma - which were then immediately burned down.
However, there is a relatively new policy of granting citizenship to
all people considered eligible, with some 480,000 applications still to
be processed by August.
Most villages have some form of health provision, often in the form
of a clinic or visiting health worker. People who require hospital treatment
often have to travel long distances and have no money to pay for transport
or medical services. Their situation has been potentially improved by the
new government policy which allows anyone in need - who can prove Thai
citizenship - to obtain hospital treatment for only 30 baht per visit.
In the past, ethnic groups relied upon forest products for their medicines.
However, traditional knowledge of herbal medicines is rapidly being lost,
with the focus today more on modern, 'western' medicine. This has increased
reliance on the cash economy to pay for medical services.
Although all ethnic children today have, in theory, the opportunity
to attend school, in practice they have less access to educational services
than other sectors of the population. There are still many villagers who
have long walks to the nearest school, and even more children now attend
'live-in' schools far away from their villages, returning home only during
holidays. Some justify this by citing the lack of qualified, reliable,
teachers prepared to travel to remote areas - others say that removing
the children from their homes and cultures is the first step in the destruction
of these communities.
At present, 39% of all Non-Government Organisations working with ethnic
communities focus on educational issues. Schools run on the Thai curriculum,
do not follow seasonal changes and so it is difficult for ethnic families
to combine children's schooling with their agricultural cycles. The Thai
government's intention is to integrate these people into mainstream economic
activity, particularly through education in the Thai system, but many would
argue that this has led to a deterioration of those ethnic cultures.
Despite tourism bringing incomes into many villages, there are certain
small tourism sectors which have created a poor image for the industry,
and have had a marked negative impact on ethnic groups.
Many villages have become little more than human zoos, where tourists
are taken into villages in groups to wander around with little understanding
of the culture - and leave with little more than the exotic impression
given to them by their guide. As more tourists come, more commercial products
appear to sell to the visitors. The villages become yet more reliant on
the cash economy, which in turn has a marked effect on their traditional
Tourists came to give
clothing to this Akha village, but the lady is more interested in cash
The big question remains: what does the future hold for the ethnic groups
of northern Thailand? Certainly their material situation has improved over
the years, but such successes have been accompanied by all the social problems
associated with modern industrial society.
As with other societies, change is happening all the time - but here
in northern Thailand the scope and speed of change forced upon minority
cultures is alarming! Government officers, development workers, missionaries,
agencies, tourists, drug traffickers, sex trade touts, illegal loggers,
land speculators and others with vested interests all exert their influence
on the ethnic people's long held ways of life.
This is diluting their cultures and knowledge - perhaps to the point
of extinction - and that would surely be the biggest loss to us all.
JUST LIKE THE REAL THING?
Click for larger photograph
Almost! This metal bas relief of a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen actually
represents an aircraft of the 64th Sentai, wich was stationed here at Chiangmai.
Framed in dark Thai timber, each piece is numbered and only 1000 pieces
will ever be produced. Made by Thai craftsmen with care.