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The Black Hand - Missionaries and the Destruction of Akha Culture -
The Black Hand: Human Rights and the role of the Missionary in the Destruction of Akha Culture
THE BLACK HAND
SUPREME PROTECTORS OF THE INNOCENT
HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE ROLE OF THE MISSIONARY IN THE DESTRUCTION OF AKHA CULTURE
AN ESSAY ON TRUST AND MORAL DECEPTION
? A QUESTION OF ACCOUNTABILITY
1991 Maesai Thailand
There are more causes of the destruction of Akha culture than just missionaries. Certainly political policy plays a major factor. Behind such policy and local private interests there are the greater market forces which push for peoplesí total dependency on a material world rather than on each other by a process of alienation. And certainly the Akha themselves are to blame for a lack of resolve and leadership, willingly playing into the hands of outside forces.
But this essay chooses to look at the missionary involvement because of the unique roll they play in the process, apparently away from more suspect or sinister forces. People are very hesitant to question missionary work in a definitive way for a host of public and personal reasons. This lack of mainstream accountability is what contributes to the missionary playing a far more sinister role than one would imagine.
Within the shadowed privacy of missionary organizations one can find manifold abuses of power and of people, all done with impunity. The aversion that many people have to religious institutions and religious control further causes many individuals to pull back from getting too close a look at the closet affairs within, reminded of their own negative experiences with religious institutions and religious control techniques. As a result the missionary organizations are further shielded from view.
A person might say that the missionary organization must be doing all kinds of good for those poor ignorant people. Upon inspection one finds that missionary tactics have not changed since the U.S. Cavalry, the American frontier land grab, the American Indian of Oregon, Washington and Idaho States in America, and the Whitman Massacre. The missionaries have shown up all over the world. Where ever land is being stolen, where ever resources are being plundered, they have played their vaporous role of innocently being there for the good of the culture and the people whose resources were being stolen. This relationship can be seen in Africa, where the vacuum of missing resources is audible. Everywhere you look you see a Bible school, a church. One would think, by talking with the missionaries, that they havenít a clue to their role in the destruction of Akha culture!
The missionarieís apparent inability to see this issue is what makes the situation all so peculiar. The missionaries go to great length to hide their awareness of their possible roll in the destruction of Akha culture. The missionary is strangely silent about many things and smugly arrogant about the stand alone good they are doing. The missionaries might defend their actions against those pointing to cultural destruction by telling of how they use old Akha song tunes with "Jesus words" as an example of their "cultural sensitivity". None of which changes the end result.
They deny there is any connection between their work and the obvious destruction of the Akha culture. They are unwilling to look at the destruction that has been done elsewhere in the world, using the same techniques they are using, should one try to draw the connection to their attention. The missionary is also unwilling to justify the absolute need of a dominantly placed Western style church in Akha villages rather than a clinic. They can not see their arrogance in assuming that their culture, their religious belief, is so superior that they have the right to replace another peoples entire culture and tradition with it. Often the individuals doing the spade work have no interest in the culture they are burying or the language the people speak, which is the embodiment of culture. They readily dismiss the negative effects they appear to be causing with off handed comments revealing the single mindedness and ignorance of their effort and their general callous disregard for the people they are working on.
This brings the subject down to its focal point. The question: Could the missionary just as well be a soldier, an intelligence operative, a cultural subversive by another name? Who is the missionary? Who is the missionary knowingly or naively unknowingly, working for? In this situation?
There is a moral raised. Is it an a abuse of the Akha people, to systematize a belief in God and use it for a sinister end? What massive deception, what massive abuse of trust is being executed? Instead of finding concern for their culture, for their family landmark, these people are having their culture, and their children taken away from them with an efficiency never accomplished more completely by any other means? The goal of this essay would be to suggest parallels between history and the current local process by which missionaries appear to play the pivotal role in destroying a people for the gain of their organizations.
This story is about these questions. Questions are raised about what appears to be the destruction of the Akha Culture, Akha villages, Akha families, Akha relationships, and the Akha people themselves. Taking possession of Akha children, taking them out of the village and the culture, for whatever claims of high moral agenda, is how it is done. One could speculate at possible local rewards for the missionariesí service and even what might be waiting for them back at home along the same lines. The quantity of evidence suggests one need not speculate so much about more sinister aspects of connections which the missionaries have had for years in this region.
These questions need to be answered. Hopefully missionaries will finally begin to realize that the general dislike of missionaries has it legitimate reasons. Maybe it is time they begin to do some soul searching themselves about the arrogance and narrow mindedness of their organizations and their people. Is it not time that missionaries quit hiding behind "Jesus told me to do it" as a whitewash of all that they do, raising it to some Godly plain above anyone elseís question or inspection? Financial statements showing sponsor donations and operating expenses should be available for inspection. This would be a step in the direction of honesty on the part of people working with the Akha.
Hopefully the Akha people themselves will realize that it is time that they address the assaults which are coming on their culture from many directions, including within, and develop solutions that work. Otherwise a host of related sad events will continue to occur: Religious indoctrination, cultural abandonment, drug abuse, broken families, lost children, prostitution, Akha people selling their own girls into prostitution, Aids, health problems, factory labor and child slavery . What is lost is lost for ever. Cultural uniqueness, human potential, human relationship and human trust.
HYPOTHESIS # 1
Coincidentally this missionary view happens to fit very well with the western economic model which requires a homogeneous population all living at their maximum capacity for consumption. This can be called market based materialistic consumerism. According to the needs of this model populations of people are only considered for their capacity for consumption and the ease with which they can be pushed into this process. The spiritual cost to them as human beings is not considered. The comment the missionaries may make to justify themselves is that the Akha want everything they are bringing from goodies to religion. The missionaries have a neatly packaged, sterile western version of Jesus in which there is not a contradiction with their ambitions for power and control. Nor is there a contradiction with the western economic model of wasteful consumption. The result for any minority, and in this case the Akha, is cultural destruction, predation and alienation from their kinsmen.
HYPOTHESIS # 2
HYPOTHESIS # 3
SOME QUESTIONS AND THOUGHTS TO PONDER
Is there a violation of human rights?
Could one go so far as to call it slow motion genocide? If so, how do the missionaries justify their actions? Who are missionaries accountable to? If missionaries are the visible hand of political agenda is it not a cold calculating amoral hand? How do you protect a culture from such a political agenda which uses missionaries to accomplish it? What are the results of the cultural destruction we witness? What are the visible techniques the missionaries use to destroy a people?
How are the techniques used immoral in contrast to the spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ? If the goal of the missionary is strictly for the good why do they fail to address this astounding blank page where the Akha culture used to be in the lives of people they have converted? What ignorance are missionaries showing of themselves in knowing so little about the culture of the people they are trying to convert and in the obvious assumption that their culture, their religious beliefs, are better. Why do missionaries confuse their culture with the actual teachings of Jesus Christ? Is there any reason that the teachings of Jesus Christ couldnít be imparted to the Akha with out changing their culture? Certainly the teachings of Jesus Christ are about how humanity treats each other, not about a personís cultural base. Each culture carries with it characteristics which contribute to or take away from such teachings of Jesus Christ, be it the Akha culture or Western culture. But this is not a justification to bring an end to the culture.
Western Christians prefer to think western culture only contributes to the teachings of Jesus Christ but the dark side of western culture runs in complete contradiction to this. What parallels are there in the missionary dealings with the Akha people and the missionary role in the past three hundred years elsewhere in the world? Where Christians justified in killing Jews through out history? Why does Thailand, a country known for tolerance and temples which are open 24 hours a day, allow missionaries a free hand in seeking converts to a style of religious belief that has sown misery throughout the world for centuries by means of its notorious INTOLERANCE?
SOME OBSERVATIONS OF MISSIONARY BIAS IN DEALING WITH THE AKHA PEOPLE
Limited knowledge of the Akha language and culture. Protectionism of that knowledge. An unwillingness to be open to inspection or exchange of information. Taking children away from Akha villages. The appearance of needing those children in order to help sell their program to sponsors.
Not seeing any problem with having separated those children from their culture and not seeking a better solution. Not providing Akha cultural or Akha language support for those children in their possession. (Does the missionary treatment of the American Indian ring any bells?) Due to an abundance of money by Akha standards these missionaries are quickly able to convince the children, by way of example, that the Akha culture most certainly must be inferior. Making the prejudicial point that dirt, whether it be in the village, on the clothes or on the body, is proof of inferiority and backwardness.
Having no knowledge of the traditions of respect and spirituality among the Akha. Having no concept of spirituality as an inherent part of man, separate from regurgitated religious dogma. Not being interested in what the Akha people want. Treatment of Akha people in a way which is in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus Christ. The missionaries claim to adhere to these teachings. Removal of the family landmark. Missionary denial of the more sinister techniques they use to gain converts or the sinister results of replacing the traditional parents with themselves. If the young people donít trust the Akha leadership, the missionary, playing the role of "supreme protectors of the innocent" has certainly had a black hand in this.
PARALLELS IN HISTORY
COMMENTS ABOUT THE AKHA
Most organizations appear to value their personal agenda over the needs and desires of the Akha and certainly above what would be best for all Akha people. Instead, missionary organizations try to see how many villages they can gain control of. In a village right next to one they consider theirs, there may be obviously and seriously ill children that wonít get help because they donít come within the agenda. Most organizations are concerned with who will be the gateway to the Akha people. Whether the Akha people as a whole are helped is not important. That it is done their way and through their organization is important. One of the most disturbing aspects of organizations which work with the Akha people is their built in assumption that their Western cultural and religious beliefs are better than Akha culture and beliefs. This justifies doing anything necessary "to save them". This may including taking their children away from them at a very young age with the stated goal of raising them outside of the culture with a specific kind of brain washing. This behavior is not limited to missionary organizations.
Missionaries teach Akha converts what tactics to use in the villages which the converts proceed to use. The converts do not know that those tactics are widely condemned in most Western circles. They do not know that western people exist who believe in the importance of allowing people the dignity of maintaining their old ways.
SOME CONSTRUCTIVE IDEAS
There is a need for a council, run by the Akha themselves, to which organizations must apply before being allowed to interfere in the lives of villages. Their activities in the villages should always be open to inspection and review. This should include the issue of tourism. This is not to say that there wouldnít still be room for abuse but it would be a start in trying to set up some form of accountability.
There should be discussion on why someone must completely end their ties to their culture in order to believe in a white manís version of Jesus? All in all there needs to be better leadership on the part of the Akha. People should all be working toward the same end of supporting the culture and reinforcing the use of the language. There should not be agendas that take precedent over supporting the traditional culture and aiding its survival. There needs to be an attempt to help Akha adults and children who have become disconnected from the culture for religious or other reasons to return to it.
There are certainly plenty of innovations which do not take away from Akha culture which could be used to encourage it and help it to flourish. This is the case with many indigenous cultures all over the world. These efforts do not need to be packaged as a Western solution but as a solution appropriate to the Akha people. The Akha language must be recognized as the cornerstone of Akha culture. The knowledge of the language, its grammar and all of the history and traditions it carries must be seen as the first priority for protecting the culture and passing it down to future generations. Improving the opportunity for young people to marry and remain within the culture while raising families should also be addressed.
Organizations which do not support the Akha culture or language should NOT be in possession of Akha children. This includes missions and brothels. (One can not be sure the difference is so great! A brothel exploits the body whereas a mission exploits the mind.) There are the other pressing needs of land, collapsed village economies, drug abuse, AIDS education and prostitution. As well there is the need to address the causes and solutions needed to help Akha beggars.
I have lived in Maesai most of the time since 1991. I have worked with the Akha people on a regular basis for that time. During this time I have encountered many problems with learning the language. I also found many problems in trying to gain accurate first hand information about the culture. As I found my way around I began learning many things. First off I found that the Akha were seen as so many wards. Someone needed to "take care of them". Soon I was to learn how it worked. Different organizations or reliegious groups had dibs on certain villages.
I observed many problems with what appeared to be a badly misunderstood and mistreated people. Quite obviously many persons had very little respect for the Akha as a people different from themselves, and looked down on them for some of the most juvenile of reasons. But as time went by I found that the Christians who weren't Akha looked down on the Akha as well as did the different ethnic groups. I was often asked why I was wasting my time with these Akha people. I could be spending my time on their people.
This was all very disappointing. When I would ask for cultural information about the Akha I found that not only did I get dis-information about them but that I got total untruths or specifically prejudicial statements. I found this most disappointing. When I discovered that Christian people would specifically lie to me about what was going on with the Akha all I could figure was that everything they told me needed to fit their agenda of trying to "convert" all of the Akha into similar Christians, who could also tell me untruths.
What I find so sad about their goal of converting the Akha is that they are trying to convert the Akha to a form of Christianity that is a system of rigid beliefs. A denominational system. Meanwhile the great majority of people in the West are apologetic for what their Christian missionaries did all over the world to shame people into thinking their own culture was evil and dirty. To my surprise the same kind of missionary was very much alive and well in this part of Asia still doing that very thing to the Akha with all the blessing of a number of America's religious organizations.
"What the Akha need is Jesus"! That is what I heard. And I wondered who's Jesus he was referring to? Well, his, of course! I found the Akha dress and their rich past fascinating and it was sad to me that it seemed in such distress while meeting the present world. One of the saddest things to me was that a lot of the young people didn't wear their traditional Akha dress any more. When I would ask them why they didn't wear it I invariably got the reply, "Akha clothes no good!" I could imagine where they got such an impression! Best I could figure someone was feeding them this feeling and belief about their heritage. I wondered if it was a coincidence that very few of the "Christian" Akha in the Baptist or Catholic villages wore their traditional dress. I found the non-Christian Akha more often wore their traditional dress.
To follow up on this I began asking some of the Christian Akha why they didn't wear their traditional dress. I got lots of untruths. But the common denominator seemed to be that someone had given them a horrible sense of shame about their traditional dress and that was the end of it. The line that the traditional dress was expensive didn't hold water. Compared to how much money they spent on flimsy western clothes that didn't last near as long the traditional clothes were cheap. And so, as far as I could tell the only shame that the Akha had gotten loaded down with was the shame that the Christian people so generously had given them. I wondered if control had anything to do with this.
I wondered if the Christians here spelled their Jesus: C-O-N-T-R-O-L?? With all of this Christianity stuff running around I thought I might see the results of some of the teachings that I would have hoped the missionaries had brought with them. But I was disappointed. I would have thought that the two simple teachings of Christians would have been: Love God, Love your neighbor. I couldn't speak for the first one, but it was certain that the Christian Akha didn't spend any more time on the second one than anybody else. This seemed to go for a lot of the other Christians of other ethnic groups as well. I wondered just what the missionaries had been teaching these people? Maybe just a system of systems.
Then I noticed that the Christians I knew, didn't seem to have much understanding why there was sort of regional sentiment against missionaries in general. When I asked them about this legacy, they didn't think that it had any connection to anything going on in the present. They didn't think that missionary organizations were still doing questionable things in the region. I found this to be part of an enormous lie on their part. I began to question their real motives and once again wondered if the missionaries were only about control. I began to suspect so.
Then I noticed that villages that had been indoctrinated, that had a church building, still had a good number of seriously ill children who had been chronically ill for a long time. I found no one appeared to give a damn about this blatant contradiction. I found this disturbing, especially with the conspicuous shadow of the church all around. I wondered again just what kind of a Jesus this was?
Well, I am no linguist, and I don't have much luck learning languages. But I didn't need anyone to tell me that both the Catholic script of the Akha language and the Baptist script were very difficult to learn. I couldn't imagine that someone had considered themselves to be done making this language accessible when they left the script like it was when I found it. I don't have to know Latin to read the Bible or most English literature so I don't know why I should have to know Latin to learn Akha which is in an English script? To follow the current form the word 'Catholic' would be pronounced 'Chatholich'.
Come on, someone had to have gotten stranded high in the Ivory Tower! Pity the Akha person who wanted to learn English later on!
Add to that problem the fact that the Akha script used marks at the end of the words for tone markers. The wonderful thing about these markers was that they were hard to keep straight in your head and furthermore they didn't come standard on typewriters or computers.
Accessible? Maybe that accounted for the fact that so little was published for the Akha in their own language. The more encounters that I had with people working around the Akha the more I found that exclusiveness was the best way in which to describe it. Each group wanted to see itself as the gateway to the Akha. Each group had its cluster of villages which were "theirs" as if they could own a village. Akha not living in those villages really didn't count unless there was a chance they could be annexed by changing their religious line or being converted for the first time. Very strange indeed.
The longer I was to stay in the region the more I was to find out just how much people were abusing the Akha. The strategy was standard. You take the children out of the village for a host of pious "do gooder" reasons and you teach them your kind of thinking with never so much as a thought about your right to do that or the wrong that you might be doing.
Whenever I would ask Christians and others working with the Akha what they were doing to keep the kids in touch with their language or culture I got these blank silent stares, like what kind of blooming idiot was I? So to make a long story short I came to a conclusion. And my conclusion was that almost all the organizations I came in contact with had no respect for the Akha as a people and only found them easy prey to take in building some kind of dynasty. The justifications didn't matter. The Akha were easy to "abduct". I myself see no difference in taking a child for the purpose of exploiting their body and taking a child for the purpose of exploiting their mind.
Why don't the Christians go back to their own country and exploit their own needy people who got tired of their ideology a long time ago? And if everybody is so keen on saving Akha girls from prostitution then why don't they lobby to have the laws changed or enforced. Until that happens, no matter how many girls they pat themselves on the backs for saving, the marketplace will just go ahead and get the required quota of girls at some other village.
And to those who appreciate the Akha people and try to help them with out assaulting their culture and traditions with distorted religious ideas, keep up the good work.
In the end, the Akha people are going to need to throw off the lead blanket which has been placed on them by the selfish ambition of others who see themselves as superior.
Copyright 1991 - 2006 The Akha Heritage Foundation