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Indochina's Oppressed HIll Tribes

Nov 10, 2007
Paul Hunt

Ethnic minorities in the Indochina region of South-East Asia have for decades been struggling to survive. They are facing gross abuses of their fundamental rights, atrocities committed against their villages, and adverse "development programmes" perpetrated by nation-state officials, business interests, missionaries and NGOs who often do not consult honestly or openly with the ethnic minorities whose communities they disrupt.

Such insensitive and exploitative practices have caused the displacement, immeasurable suffering and dire impoverishment of tens of thousands of hill tribe minorities in the region. Yet this human tragedy has largely been ignored by the media and even by human rights groups.

Burma has occasionally been in the spotlight because its illegal military regime has denied the people democratic rights and has few qualms about killing and imprisoning protesters and those who disagree with its brutal policies. A similar state of affairs exists in other nations of the region. Meanwhile, hill tribes have their villages destroyed, lands taken and people killed with impunity while the rest of the world seems hardly to bat an eyelid.

Karen hill tribes are struggling to survive in the face of relentless Burmese military repression. Whole villages have been razed to the ground, villagers forced to do unpaid labour, with many killed and many more fleeing over the border into Thailand. Refugee camps, more repression and exploitation await them there.

Hmong hill tribes have been persecuted in Laos for their support of Americans during the Vietnam War. Some have managed to escape to Thailand where they have not been welcome but have sought refuge there while trying to obtain U.S. visas. Failing that it is likely they are sent packing back across the border to an unknown fate.

Montagnard hill tribes of Vietnam have been denied land rights and religious freedom, and have met severe reaction to their protests from the communist government. Some have escaped repression by fleeing into Cambodia, which itself experienced one of the world's worst social nightmares under the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot.

In the south-eastern provinces of China too, ethnic minorities have been under pressure to change their traditions and ways of life by the communist regime. The situation of Tibet has been publicised due to the tireless work of the exiled Dalai Lama. Tibetans are struggling to keep their people, culture and freedom alive, as are the many other hill tribes of Indochina some of whom share ethnic roots with Tibetans. India, the largest democracy in the world, is facing growing unrest from the many tribal peoples whose lands and livelihoods are severely threatened by "development programmes". The present political and human rights problems in Indochina can often be traced to the post-colonial imposition of western nation-state ideologies on peoples for whom such alien models are misfits. Thus governments in Burma and Thailand have been taken over by the military, while in China, Vietnam and Laos communist dictatorships have taken power. Cambodia is still recovering from Pol Pot's traumatic social experiment. Amidst such turmoil in the politics of the region, hill tribes have been excluded from nation-state policies and become so marginalised that they are fighting for the very survival of their peoples, traditional ways of life, languages and cultures.

Thailand's Ethnic Cleansing
Thailand once had a Tribal Research Institute (TRI) which it set up in 1965 as the Tribal Research Center on the Chiangmai University campus. However, it was quietly dissolved in 2002 Thai government reforms along with the Division of Hill Tribe Welfare with its Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Units. See "The Rise and Fall of the Tribal Research Institute" at:

Reasons for the termination of the TRI may be explained by one Thai official, "There is no need for further study on the 'hill tribes' as they are now considered to have become Thai; Thus 'chao khao', the term for 'hill tribes' which can be translated as 'other people', becomes 'chao rao' or 'our people'." - The Nation - 13th April 2004 It appears that Thai government policy, in one fell swoop, did away with any need to address "hill tribe" people as distinct ethnic minorities. Some staff from the TRI reluctantly moved to the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security in Bangkok.

Tribal exhibits from the dissolved institute were moved to a new Tribal Museum situated in a park in northern Chiang Mai. Perhaps this is how the Thai Government would prefer to deal with its ethnic minorities - as dead museum exhibits! The problems faced by hill tribe people in Thailand are severely exacerbated by such cavalier attitudes and policies on the part of Thai officialdom. Some of the issues denied or refused to be addressed by the Thai government are described in the following article:

Before its dissolution the institute published in April 2002 some data on numbers of hill tribes in Thailand. Nine major ethnic minorities were recognised (population in brackets):

Karen (438,450)

Hmong, or Meo (151,080) Austro-Thai group
Yao, or Mien (44,017)

Lahu (102,371) Tibeto-Burmese group
Lisu (37,916)
Akha (65,826)

Lua (21,794) Austro-Asiatic group
H'tin (42,782)
Khamu (10,519)

Also listed were two small tribes the Palong (2,324) and the Mabri (276).

Genocide by bureaucratic red-tape, official Thai policy, says that these people no longer exist! Yet in spite of Thai official attempts to cleanse themselves of these tribal ethnic minorities they still struggle to survive against the enormous odds stacked against them!

Thaksin's Bloody Rule 2001-2006
Thaksin Shinawatra, leading his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, was elected Prime Minister of Thailand in 2001. His government oversaw the official dissolution of tribal minorities in Thailand in 2002 government reforms. Some were killed with impunity in his 2003 drugs crackdown. But as tribal people no longer officially existed in Thailand that has not been accepted as an issue by officials!

It would seem that Amnesty International, the Asian Human Rights Commission, the National Human Rights Commission and other human rights groups have fallen into the official Thai position by not recognising hill tribes as having any collective rights of their own. But hill tribe minorities are still issued separate ID cards by the Thai authorities which severely limit their rights, including travel restrictions. This is utterly hypocritical official policy. But dead-pan denials and stony silence are all the response forthcoming from Thai officials and human rights groups.

The violent deaths of more than 2,500 people during a crackdown on drugs ordered by Thaksin in 2003 did not affect his public support, neither did an earlier finding by Thailand's Corruption Commission that he had failed to declare all of his wealth. He even weathered criticism over the government's handling of violence in the largely Muslim south, where more than 2,000 people have died since an insurgency began in early 2004. Thaksin fled into exile in September 2006 when the Thai military took power. But this has done nothing to calm the fears of hill tribes in Thailand, which has not yet signed the UN treaty against torture. Elections are due in late December 2007, but as hill tribes are so marginalised, disenfranchised and officially not recognised in Thailand the prospects for any improvement in their dire circumstances look dim.

Amnesty International Thailand Ignores Hill Tribes
In June 2006 hill tribe issues in Thailand, including the disproportionally high numbers of hill tribe prisoners in Thai prisons, were explained to staff at the Amnesty International Thailand office in Bangkok. A donation was handed over at the AI office to work on hill tribe prisoner issues. They subsequently made one visit to the nearby women's prison in Bangkok. However, no more work was done, while prisoners' letters were ignored and not answered. The staff member who received the donation left AI Thailand taking the money with him. A year later the AI Thailand director tracked him down, and most of the funds have been returned. AI Thailand refuses to deal with hill tribe prisoner issues in Thailand. AI headquarters in London also have not replied to a letter about this fiasco.

Other human rights groups also steadfastly refuse to take up this issue. The following reply, dated 31st October 2007, came from one Thai human rights worker "...about AI Thailand, NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) and AHRC (Asian Human Rights Commission) action towards hill tribe prisoners I can answer you as follow: AHRC doesn't do any big action on this issue. It is doing quite a lot about present situation in Burma but not about hill tribe prisoners in Thailand. I, myself, is a member of sub-com on rights of detainees, NHRC. This sub-com is doing in policy review. We just met a new director of Correction Department and discussed with him about conditions of prisons in general. The sub-com is taking some individual cases as well. So far there are about 20 cases that we are looking for. Some are hill tribe prisoners but we do not focus only on this issue. I have no information of AI Thailand since I'm not that close to them." (sic)

From Hills to Prison Holes
The office of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej acknowledged receipt of a petition on behalf of hill tribe prisoners in 2004. The King's 80th birthday on 5th December 2007 is anticipated with best wishes for the King's health and well-being. Although the Thai government has apparently chosen not to recognise hill tribe minorities, we hope the King has the grace to redress the balance in His Kingdom and grant hill tribe people, including prisoners, some relief from their long suffering.

Seven hill tribe prisoners with some proficiency in English can be contacted by those interested in their cause. Their photos with some details can be found at:

Their names are Ms. Bu Mue Emily Soe, Mr. Asok Wei Yee, Mr. Ah Lo Chae Mwae, Mr. Inson Charoenporn, Mr. Apha Mopogu, Mr. Kenny Lee, and Mr. Arka Becheku.

"Development" Over Whose Dead Bodies?
Survival International have published an important booklet outlining some of the main problems all tribal peoples around the world are facing - "Progress Can Kill" is available at:

More states are encouraged to ratify ILO 169, a convention of the International Labour Organization which calls for the recognition of tribal rights. Although 19 states have signed up, the UK and other major exploiters of tribal peoples and their lands have refused to do so for very weak and suspect reasons.

Development and growth programmes, largely spearheaded by western state-corporate market mechanism ideologies, relegate government responsibilities to the private sector. Thus "advanced" western state governments have divested themselves of many of their responsibilities by handing these over to the care of such entities as "market mechanisms",

"free markets", and "privatizations" while hypocritically denying collective rights to tribal peoples by forcefully pushing individual rights!

Is this the end of nation-state collective ideology? The hand-over of power to the right of private individual capital to do as it deems fit in the global market where all things are valued only by price? Lands upturned in search of resources, peoples made homeless by market forces, no sanctuary remaining for those who would rather not participate in such "development programmes" which appear to have no objective but material growth, greed, and progress beyond reason of some at the expense of others. Yet the earth has limits and such "development programmes" are looking more like driverless express trains on crash programmes! The environment is feeling the heat and tracks are buckling!

Arrayed along the formidable front line advancing on all tribal ethnic minorities and threatening their very survival are dreadful alien giants: ideological nation-states in league with global business juggernauts pushing so-called "development programmes". Even NGOs apparently supporting tribal peoples' collective rights come from alien places with their own agendas not always participated in or understood by ethnic minorities, and therefore not under their control. Meanwhile, missionary scouts, hungry wolves of alien gods, often come carrying "development baggage" and other bated lures making their preaching deadly poison for those who receive it! As sold out nation-state "development programmes" force their machinery, bulldozers and steamrollers further into Indochina's hill tribe territories, pillaging their lands, razing or flooding their villages, and dislocating their people, it is time for us to open our eyes and pay attention. The global "development" juggernaut is coming into sharper focus as the heat it generates buckles its own tracks. The earth is feeling the strain. As with the dinosaurs, the powers that be may have their day. But all things pass in time, and when their day is done it is the meek who shall inherit the earth.

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