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Dealing With Stress in the Akha Population
Dealing With Stress in the Akha Population
To better understand the difficult situation of the Akhas, one has to know the different impacts that are heavily influencing the daily life of the Akha people.
First there are the forced relocations by the Thai Government. Over many years, the forestry department of Thailand has forcibly relocated villages from their original places near their farm lands to places far away from their lands. The Akhas that are still working on the fields have therefore a much longer walking distance to go every day or in the worse case some villages have totally lost their farm land.
A second matter of stress is the steady fear of interrogations and repressions by members of the Thai police and military, mostly due to the drug war organized by the Thai Government and financed by the US politics. Akhas are threatened by the army and the police in different ways. Extortion at checkpoints for Akha who don't have ID cards has been an often excuse for abuse. Drug suspects are often severely beaten before they go to jail, or may be held for days in some private location where they are mistreated before being transferred to jail.
Thirdly there are the western missionaries that have for a long time been in the game of profiteering off the Akhas. The missionaries are offering the Akha's children life at a different location, compared to the situation where they come from. Their suggestions of raising the children at the mission boarding schools, is an ambitious offer to get the children out of their families and villages and integrate them in the mission world. These children generally will not go back to their villages any more.
These are just some of the most important stressors the Akha people have to deal with, but there are several more. Under these circumstances the Akha undergo a large amount of stress from different angles during their daily life.
Before one of these situations can become real stress, influencing the psychological and physical wellbeing of a human being, the concerned person must be in lack of an amount of necessary coping strategies to deal with the stressful situations. Coping strategies are all physical, psychological and social competences within the person themself or in the person's environment that can be used to deal with a stressful situation. Talking to Akha people and observing their living and working conditions, it is easy to recognize that there are, in a first view, little such local resources. The Akhas show little energy and motivation to deal with the stress factors they are undergoing as a result of being overwhelmed. Most of them are showing signs of resignation, some of fear. They reduce their expectations of life and start to accept their living conditions, without thinking or even hoping to ameliorate them, and there is almost no help from the Government either. Visiting Akha villages, that are not part of the usual trekking tours for tourist, you find little anger within the people. But this means, that there is also a lack of energy and motivation from the side of the hill tribe peoples to stand up and fight for their rights.
So are the Akhas like so many other indigenous people condemned to disappear? The Thai Government has little interest in the survival of the Akha population, except for the touristic attraction they are for the foreigners. What can there be done for the Akhas, if the Government does not want and the Akhas are not able to change their life conditions? On one hand there is a certain requirement of external help to ensure at least the most basic security and needs like medicine and food. On the other hand Akhas have to regain a certain amount of self-control and self-determination for their lives.
Unfortunately for at least twenty years many Akhas have had the bad experience that they have little control over their most basic needs, like housing and working. By the Akhas, working is immediately connected with food and eating, as they are a population of farmers and self-suppliers. No land for farming means for them no self-supply. They need to regain security of self-control and self-determination again, before they are able to stand up and fight for better conditions. So they need to have some good and successful experiences in controlling difficult situations, like for example with police controls.
In addition it is important to focus not only on the problems and the difficulties that they are experiencing every day, but also the positive and good things they experience from time to time. Focusing on the positive aspects of their lives, helps the people to find resources within themselves and their community. There have been scientific proofs that focusing on positive aspects help people to become more aware of their strengths and competences. People then have the capability to regain control of their life and feel that they are not completely helpless towards situations that are first considered as uncontrollable. Besides this, one can also work with difficult situations. A method that was used in Brazil to work among street children is role playing, acting. (For further information about this method read the works of Augusto Boal). People create and show a scene in which they experienced a situation of suppression, like for example a police interrogation. In every moment the audience has the possibility to stop the scene and replace the person that is under pressure. In such a setting everybody has the chance to show different ways of possible behaviors in a certain situation and all of the participants see what consequences different behaviors may have on such a situation. Another positive aspect is the fact that throughout the world, people have the capability to act, so everybody can join the motivating and often humorous experience. Different resources and coping strategies are shown and can be discussed within the community and as a consequence the people regain a certain amount of self-control and self-determination again.
Resignation and a lot of frustration are now heavily influencing the lives of the Akhas. There are changes that have to be made by the Thai Government and other external organizations but there should also be the money to help directly within the Akha communities, not only with food and medical supplies but also in psychological ways to reinforce and increase the Akhas self-control and therefore their self-esteem and self-confidence.
Marc Baumgartner (lic. phil.)
Institute of Work Psychology
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation