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The Akha in Myanmar

My first contacts with the Akha were with the Akha in Burma, now called Myanmar. Each time I go through the website I find more information that has to go from the paper archives to the website so that other people can see it. My apology that it has taken so long to get these pages filled in and it is a constant ongoing process.

There are approximately 200,000 or more Akha in Myanmar. They have no particular armed conflict with the Myanmar government and in general have good relations with the government. They have ID cards and attend schools and universities. You can find Akha in the military, education, medical and other professions in Myanmar. They are NOT openly discriminated against, however this may very well have been the case when the Shan controlled the region.

Many of the Akha in Myanmar were converted by the somewhat domineering efforts of the Catholics. Father Appa was the first Catholic Priest in Keng Tung and commented to me in a conversation there that too much of the Akha culture had been destroyed but that the Bishop and other priests would not listen to his point of view. Father Appa passed away. The last time I saw him, he was at the care center for elderly staff at the mission in Keng Tung. Other priests were Karen or Lahu and didn't take too much favor to the Akha people from what I could see. The mission had horded Akha to the captive Catholic compound where alcoholism and the penchant for building one more shrine to the church seemed the main mission.

The Catholics however WERE the first ones to design an Akha script, long before the Baptist influence and new script of Paul Lewis. This is a fact that is often ignored on Baptist and other protestant mission websites.

But later on the American Baptist missionary Paul W. Lewis came to Keng Tung and had a house there near Gah Tai I am told, as well as a place half way up the hill to Lwe Mwe where there is still a Lahu Bible School that I have visited. It was said that Paul Lewis ran a radio from this location, another radio was at Mong Tsat. Pual Lewis worked primarily with the Lahu in Keng Tung but studied the Akha as well. At any rate he did his best to spread the Baptist version of the gospel to the Akha and took over more than one Catholic village, saw their gates and things of Akha culture burned which the Catholics were willing to leave in place. Reports are that while Paul Lewis pushed the culture aside, he also studied it from the standpoint of anthropology. An odd marriage no doubt. While the Akha women were convinced to abandon their traditions and dress and become good little Baptists, Paul Lewis is said to have had a flourishing bead and head dress trade in the US according to other collectors. Certainly he knew the value of these items when he put together his book on hill tribes in the region that sells well in several languages. However its empathy for the Akha does not ring true or compare to that of Jim Goodman's "The Akha: Guardians of the Forest", a fantastic collection of writings and photography.

In later years Paul Lewis was expelled from Keng Tung to Thailand by the Myanmar Government under suspicion that he worked for the CIA. The CIA had clear connections in funding the KMT and other efforts in the region so it stands to reason. The late Bill Young who committed suicide in Chiang Mai in 2011 was also CIA and involved in the exporting of opium from Luang Namtha area of Laos during the war in Vietnam.

Paul Lewis and Elaine Lewis did not have children of their own. So in light of this it is a bit peculiar to say the least that Paul Lewis designed a project from the class rooms and offices of the University of Oregon to get his Ph.D. in Anthropology by setting up and running a sterilization project on Akha women in Thailand and Myanmar. Of course the project would be illegal in Myanmar, but the government there was to be just considered an inconvenience to Paul Lewis and he paid his network of pastors in Myanmar to gather Akha women under a quota system and bring them to Thailand where he saw to it they were sterilized even if they didn't understand the process. McCormick Presbyterian hospital was "helpful" in Chiangmai as were other doctors and clinics. Paul Lewis clearly brags about how helpful he was to the Thai government in pioneering this sterilization of the Akha in order to control their population. He states that the Thai government was wonderful to him in the process. One of the contentions we have always had is that the missions join hands with the Thai government and any means they have for subjugating the Akha are appreciated by the Thai government. For a very revealing discussion and interview by Paul Lewis about the sterilizations you must see the video "Untimely Cut" which can be seen on line by doing a google search.
Untimely Cut Journeyman Films

Life in Myanmar for the Akha is good, while the economy may not thrive as much as that in neighboring China and Thailand the missions still do not have full willy nilly access to the Akha of Myanmar which offers them some protection from the excessive denominational competition seen in Thailand where Akha culture is left as scorched earth. The Akha in Myanmar also are not subjected to the same sort and frequency of human rights abuses as they are in Thailand. Something most "Free Burma" people fail to admit. While the Akha like the Shan people, they certainly enjoy a greater equality with the Shan under the current government than they did in the past.

In Keng Tung there are Shan silversmiths who make a lot of ornament for the Akha women. In Thailand you will also find Akha silversmiths.

Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation