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Paul Lewis Sterilizes the Akha Chapter 4

Missionary Genocide against the Akha


Akhas have not had to face their problems alone.  Other agencies and groups have moved in to give assistance and amelioration.  This chapter examines those who have sought to help, what has been done, and how it has been accepted by the Akhas.
Royal Thai Government (RTG)
Early Contacts
Up until 1874, the northern part of Thailand was under the control of autonomous princes, who ruled both the lowland populations, and any hill people who lived within their jurisdiction.  In 1874 the Bangkok government appointed a Commissioner to Chiang Mai in order to replace the local princes, thus officially assuming control of the north.  Although this eventually had long-range consequences for the tribal people, at first very little change was noticed.  The new government had problems enough extending administration into a large, heterogenous area, without bothering themselves unduly with primitive (as they sometimes viewed them) people on the mountains.
For the next eighty years it was left to the provincial and district government officials to determine how they would deal with the tribal people in each of their areas.  At that time the relationship between the lowland and upland populations was one of "mutual tolerance and non-interference" (Manndorff 1967:529).  It was during this period, starting in approximately 1915, that the Akhas began moving into Thailand.  No doubt they welcomed this laissez-faire policy, since it meant they could immigrate pretty much at will.
The Royal Thai Government Takes Control
The "eighty years of benign neglect"  (Walker 1975:13) came to an end following World War II.  The period since then has witnessed the introduction of many government programs for the tribal people of Thailand. 
There are two basic reasons why the government initiated these programs:
              1) It was a period of increased sensitivity to international opinion as the United Nations came to play a meaningful role in Southeast Asia.
              2) The areas where tribal people lived were sources of larger problems, such as Communist influence, ecological destruction, and opium trafficking.
Suwan Ruenyote, the then Director General of the Department of Public Welfare under the Ministry of the Interior, has set forth the following objectives of the government in dealing with tribal people:  1) to prevent the destruction of forests and natural stream sources, 2) to end poppy growing, 3) to develop better economic and social conditions for the hill tribes so that they may contribute to national development, and 4) to help maintain the security of the national frontiers " instilling in them a sense of belonging and national loyalty" (Ruenyote 1969:13).
During this period the Thai term "chao khao" (hill people, tribal people) became more prominent in public statements and newspaper accounts.  The matter of whether the hill people should be absorbed and assimilated into Thai society with all loss of their old identity, or whether they should be integrated into a plural society was debated.  In 1966 General Prapas Charusathira, then Minister of the Interior, said that the government's policy was integration, not assimilation, so that as the tribal people came into the wider society they could make a "contibution to the rich cultural variety of the Thai nation as a whole" (Prapas 1966:8).
Geddes, an Australian anthropologist who was the first advisor for the Tribal Research Centre, while suggesting as a goal an "open-ended integration" which would recognize the right of the tribesmen to assimilate into the Thai culture if they so wished, pointed out that the primary aim should be " promote the welfare of the tribal peoples and the development of their economics within their present hill environments" (Geddes 1967:556).
Government Programs for Tribal People
1. Border Patrol Police (BPP)
In order secure the border against the infiltration hostile forces and enemy agents, the Border Patrol Police was developed in 1953.  Collaterally this paramilitary force sought to befriend the local people and avoided interfering with their customs (Kunstadter 1967:381-82, Walker 1975:192-93, Manndorff 1967:530).
In 1957 the BPP started opening schools in various tribal villages, including several Akha villages (Saihoo 1970:45).  Some Akha children were attracted to the BPP schools, and thereby took the first step toward careers in various types of government service, in which a few can currently be found.
Sometimes BPP are sent to Akhaland as a disciplinary measure, for they consider the remote region to be "Siberia."  It seems that some BPP have tended to abuse their power among the Akhas wholack lines of communication to lodge complaints.
2. Settlement Areas (Nikhom)
In 1959 the Public Welfare Department was entrusted with the task of developing settlement areas for tribal people in suitable locations (Manndorff 1967:531).  One of these settlements, called Nikhom by the Thai, is located in an area embracing several Akha villages above Mae Chan (see Figure 2, page 18).
The purpose of these land settlement projects was to settle hill tribes in locations suited to them.  The projects were administered by a superintendent and staffed by agricultural workers, a health worker, tractor drivers, and mechanics to keep the agricultural and road construction equipment in repair.
To date, the settlements have not attracted tribal migrants from without, although the ones there have tended to remain, maintaining a rather reserved attitude to the whole project.  Walker concludes that "...the attempt to resettle hillmen in nikhom has not been notably successful.  Planners presently favour the idea of stabilizing hill communities in their present locations rather than trying to move them elsewhere..." (1975:200).
3. Socio-economic Survey
In the midst of establishing the settlement areas, the government felt the need of acquiring more data regarding the tribal people so as to give sound direction to future planning (Manndorff 1967:533).  The Department of Public Welfare sponsored a socio-economic survey of selected hill tribes, including the Akhas.  This survey, conducted by the Ministry of Interior, reported in 1962 on the ethnic and socio-economic situation of the tribal people.  Its findings have provided a background for much of the government's policy regarding tribal people.
The major recommendations of that report are summarized by Manndorff (1967:535-43): 1) that the Nikhoms be considered as "pilot development blocks," rather than seeking to resettle tribal people into them, 2) that the Nikhoms be made into training centers for development workers and a base from which mobile development work can be launched, and 3) that a Tribal Research Centre be established for Northern Thailand.  Its recommendations were used as a basis for the present Hill Tribes Development and Welfare Program of the Ministry of Interior.
4. National Tribal Welfare Committee
In 1965 the council of Ministers designated the National Tribal Welfare Committee to be the sole body responsible for tribal affairs.  This was done to cut down on the duplication of efforts.  There are twenty-eight agencies represented in this committee, all located in Bangkok.  (There are no tribal representatives.)  They meet twice a year to discuss the "hill tribe problem" (Sharp 1971:8).
Each of the seventeen provinces where tribal people live (including Chiang Rai) has its own hill tribe committee, which serves as a sub-committee to the national one.  Those in charge of agriculture, medicine, defense, police, welfare, etc. in each province sit on these committees, with the provincial governor chairing the meeting.  (There are no tribal representatives.)
5. The Tribal Research Centre (TRC)
In 1965, in fulfillment of the Socio-economic Survey, the Department of Public Welfare established the Tribal Research Centre on the campus of Chiang Mai University.  One of its purposes was " determine what the hill peoples themselves might need or desire..." (Walker 1975:198).  From the start it has sought to stimulate and coordinate research work in the hills of Northern Thailand, "with a view to assisting the hill tribe projects"  (Manndorff 1967:550).
The Centre has collected a great deal of socio-economic data, and probably has the best collection of books and documents having to do with the tribes of Thailand to be found anywhere.  The Centre has been most fortunate to have had some very capable and competent people to serve both in Chiang Mai and out in the field.
Through the Tribal Data Project, an arm of the TRC, surveys of tribal villages have been made.
Geddes remarked of the TRC, "Its heart must always be in the mountains if it is to have any life at all" (1967:577).  For the Centre to do its most effective work it must maintain sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the tribal and other upland people.
6. Hill Tribe Relations Project
In 1965 the Department of Public Welfare started a special Hill Tribe Relations Project to "generate a sense of belonging on the part of the hill people so that they may develop a national loyalty to Thailand" (Ruenyote 1969:14).  The first part of this project was to assist Buddhist monks to help spread Buddhism among the hill people.  This has resulted in many young boys becoming novices, providing them an opportunity to study Thai in the monastery schools.
The second part of this project was to take tribal people to Bangkok to "view progress and development" (Ruenyote 1969:14).  Many Akhas have been included in this.
The third part of the program was to help detoxify opium addicts.  This has been a very positive help to many Akhas, as well as other tribal people.
7. Tribal Radio Station
The Department of Public Relations established a 100 kilowatt radio station in 1968, with studios in Chiang Mai, for the purpose of "enlightening the tribes on their rights, priveleges, duties, and responsibilities as citizens of the nation" (Walker 1975:199).  The station uses tribal announcers, but no tribal person has a part in the decision making.
The first tribal language that was used in broadcasting from this station was Meo.  This perhaps indicates that the main concern in developing the radio station was for national security, since at that time the government was afraid that many Meo might become Communists.
One by one the other tribal languages were added.  The last language in which regular broadcasts were scheduled was Akha, in 1973.
In the family planning program we have made extensive use of this radio station.  The itinerary of the field worker is broadcast each month, as well as information on the women who are to receive tubal ligation, and where they are to go.
8. Zonal Approach
For some time national planners have been concerned about the population explosion in the north, coupled with the steady depletion of usable land (Walker 1975:205, Sharp 1971).  In response to this need, agricultural experts, working with the Tribal Research Centre and the Northern Agricultural Development Centre, have devised a new integrated approach to the upland (including tribal) sector of Thailand, which they call the zonal approach.  The idea is to divide the north according to natural watersheds into over two hundred zones, and then to develop each zone systematically in every area of life.  The land in each zone is to be divided into the steepest slope (45 degrees or more), which will be left in forest, the middle slope (between 20 and 45 degrees), which will be planted to fruit trees and sustained-yield forests, and the gentlest slopes (less than 20 degrees), which will be developed into irrigated rice fields (Keen 1973, Oughton et al. 1972, 1973).
To serve as a pilot scheme to test out the theory and initial planning, the Mae Slaep Project has been undertaken, which affects most of the Akha villages in the Nikhom area.  Work has been carried on there since 1972, and is to go on for a total of ten years.  According to the developers of this project, if successful it may portend the solution of many problems which the tribal people and other upland populations now face, such as: 1) land shortages, 2) land ownership, 3) restriction of opium cultivation, 4) economic development, and 6) health problems.
9. Other Programs
The above listing does not exhaust the programs in which the government is engaged for Akhas and other tribal people.  There are other programs under the Ministry of Education, the Department of Forestry, the Ministry of Defense, the Provincial Police, and the malaria control and eradication program.  Since each agency tends to see the 'tribal problem' in the perspective of its own program, there is sometimes an overlap and ensuing confusion among programs.
Besides these and other regular government programs, their Majesties the King and Queen, as well as the Princess Mother, have also personally involved themselves directly and indirectly in aid to tribal people, who respond most warmly to the Royal family.
10. Daily Contacts with Government
The Hill Tribes Division of the Department of Public Welfare, Ministry of Interior, is responsibe for the implementation of what the National Tribal Welfare Committee decides.  However, most of the contacts tribal people have with the administration are through the local district (amphur) offices.  Frequently when they come with their problems to these offices, however, they reportedly find only "contempt and confusion awaiting them" (Sharp 1971).  While the District Officer (Nai amphur) himself may be most sympathetic with their problems, the tribal people generally do not get to see him.  The clerks they do meet are often busy with bureaucratic concerns relating to the people in the valleys and towns, and do not have time to give consideration to people whom they can understand only with difficulty, and who are talking about problems which are out of a different world from their own.
Sharp (1971) suggests the appointment of ombudsmen to act as cultural brokers in such situations.  They would help the appropriate government official to get a clear picture of the problem faced by the uplanders (tribal as well as Thai), and then help the uplanders find the appropriate official, or doctor, or agricultural assistant, to meet their needs.
                                                                                    Problems of the Government Regarding Hilltribes
There are certain problems that plague the government at various levels concerning the tribal people (See Manndorff 1967:538-543).
1) Immigrants.  Tribal people from Burma continually migrate into Thailand.  Some years the number of immigrants is quite heavy, adding to the already serious land shortage.  How can the government discourage further immigration, and still deal adequately with the needs of the tribal people already living inThailand?  There is no easy solution to this problem.
2) Overpopulation.  Apart from immigration, the tribal population in Thailand is doubling every twenty years or so, because of the high birth rate and falling death rate.  This natural rate of growth, coupled with immigration, poses one of the most serious problems for both government and the people involved, since it has ramifications in every area of their lives.
3) Legal system.  "The implications of..laws for tribal and non-Chinese minority groups have not been clearly worked out" (Kunstadter 1967:375).  Are tribal people citizens or not?  Should they pay taxes?  Can they serve in the BPP?  Is it illegal for them to make swidden?  On the statutes of the country it is illegal to plant, sell or smoke opium, yet for years the tribal people have been allowed to break this law.  How long will (or should) this policy continue?
4) Education.  Thailand has enough problems trying to educate the Thai population.  How can it even begin to provide education for the thousands of children from six different language groups living in remote villages?  Should the child first become literate in his own language?  Are there special texts that need to be developed?  Many questions assil those concerned with thi problem, which is constantly growing, since many more tribal people now wish to see their children get an education.
5) Communication.  The government is faced with a major problem in communicating with the tribal people for three reasons: a) they live in remote areas often difficult to reach, b) they speak different languages, and c) the tribes have different cultures, both different from each other, and different from the Thai.  It is not surprising that it is so very difficult to secure hill tribe responsiveness to government programs.
                                                                                                               Missionary Groups
For several generations various Christian missionary groups from Western countries have sought to help needy people in countries around the world.  The Akhas of Thailand are among those who have been recipients of this kind of attention.
The Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF)
This mission group formerly served tribal people in China, and was then called the China Inland Mission.  The OMF currently has missionaries throughout Thailand, serving tribal and other minority people, as well as Thai in some areas.
Peter and Jean Nightingale, of the OMF mission, began studying the Akha language in 1959, and for many years lived and worked with the Akhas of Thailand.
During the many years they lived and worked with the Akha people, the Nightingales helped them in various ways in addition to giving religious instruction.  Jean, a nurse, aided with health problems.  Peter has helped in many practical ways, such as teaching them how to dig wells, where to make irrigated fields, and the like.
There was one matter about which the small but growing Christian congregation of Akhas was unhappy.  The OMF had a policy which stated that they must not open or operate schools.  The Nightingales personally did not agree with this policy, but at the time could do little about it.
Later Peter and Ruth Wyss of Switzerland came to work with the Akhas.  Peter devised a Thai script for the writing of the language (Wyss 1969).  Through the influence of families such as the Wysses and Nightingales, the OMF gradually changed its stand, and now actively encourages tribal children to attend a Baptist boarding school in Namlat, run by the Karen Baptist Convention.  {footnote 1: Unfortunately, the Nightingales have had to leave the work now due to health problems.  Peter Wyss was murdered by lowlanders in March 1977, and Ruth has now returned to Switzerland.}
Both the Nightingales and Wyss families helped the Akhas in many ways, including family planning.  More and more Akha families, both Christian and non-Christian came to them asking for help.  At that time they recommended IUDs, which were fitted for the women in the Overbrook Hospital, Chiang Rai.
American Baptist
American Baptist churches sent their first missionary couple, Adoniram and Ann Judson, to Burma in 1813.  Their representatives continued to serve in that country until 1966, when foreign missionaries were asked to leave.  Aid is still being given to the Burma Baptist Convention, which serves some 305,000 members in about 2,500 churches.
My wife and I went to serve Akhas and Lahus living in Burma in 1947.  I first studied the Lahu language, and was involved in training programs, translation, literature production, and various uplift programs with the Lahus.  I also learned the Akha language, reduced it to writing, produced a dictionary and ethnographic studies, prepared primers and other literature in it, and helped to translate the New Testament into Akha.
In relating my service to the people, I stressed from the first that all programs should be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-directing.  This both helps the program develop from a sounder base, and also aids the people in the refining of their own capabilities.
When I went to Thailand in 1968, I immediately contacted the Nightingale and Wyss families.  I let them know that I was most happy to supplement their service to the Akhas if there was a need.  They asked me to help in certain areas, especially in the fields of literature and health.
My primary affiliation has been with the Thailand Lahu Baptist Convention (formerly called the Lahu-Akha-Lisu Association of Churches).  As of mid 1977 this group was composed of fifty churches, located in Lahu villages in the provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.  It was organized into five regional associations, all operated under local leadership.  An executive committee directs the activities of the convention, which has programs in church development, Christian education, agricultural development, economic uplift through a handicraft marketing project, and a health-care program.  The mission board under which I serve believes that any missionary that serves on the field must do so: 1) at the call of a local national body, and 2) in full cooperation with that body.
As I served in Thailand, it became increasingly clear to me and to the Lahu Baptist Convention that the matter of too little food and too many people demanded immediate attention.  It was not necessary to convince my mission board of this need.  Many missionaries of the Board of International Ministries were already involved in family planning programs is various underdeveloped countries.  Moreover, the American Baptist Churches/USA had gone on record in 1968 (Orman 1971:515) urging more humane abortion laws along with more effective family planning programs.
Other Groups
Tribal Health Project
Dr. Thatsanai Parnsingha, of Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, who is also on the Faculty of Medicine of Mahidol University, is the chief of a tribal health project.  Four times a year he and his staff go up to the Nikhom above Mae Chan to serve ten villages:  seven Akha, two Yao, and one Northern Thai.  The Department of Welfare and Mahidol University have set up the project jointly, which is implemented by Dr. Thatsanai and staff from Mahidol.  The New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok is funding at least part of the project (Thatsanai 1976).
Although the program deals primarily with health, it is hoped that when all aspects have reached their culmination, it will "lead to (the) social stability and political security of the country..." (Thatsanai 1976:2).
There are four major aspects to the project: 1) maintenance of a clinic, 2) survey of malarial and parasitic diseases, 3) interviewing in order to collect medical data, and 4) giving immunizations as needed.
In their work so far they have found that the nutritional status of the people (especially the Akha) is poor.  They have also discovered that "more than 90% of the hilltribe people... suffer from parasitic diseases, which is the highest incidence of infection in the country.  The hookworm parasite is the most serious infection as it produces anaemia and weakness" (Thatsanai 1976:8).
They also found a need for family planning, and have been offering vasectomies for men.  As of March 1976, only two Akha men have availed themselves of the free operation, however, whereas in the same period fifteen Thai men asked for the service.
So far the project has found that opium addiction is a very serious concern for the people.  "The problem of treatment for opium addicts is how to prevent them from readdiction permanently, and how to reduce the number of opium addicts.  More important, a means to prevent the younger people from becoming opium addicted should be found" (Thatsanai 1976:9).
                                                                                                                United Nations Projects
For several years, the United Nations, in cooperation with the Royal Thai Government, has had a crop replacement programme, which has been seeking to find substitute crops for opium.  The headquarters for this project is located in Chiang Mai, and almost all of the "key villages" are in the province of Chiang Mai.  There are no Akha villages involved. 
The UN has also conducted an opium detoxification program for tribal people.  In 1975 they brought their team up to the Nikhom area to detoxify the whole village.  Unfortunately, of the more than two hundred Akhas they helped to detoxify, only about eight or nine of them have not become readdicted.
                                                                                    Community-Based Family Planning Services (CBFPS)
Community-Based Family Planning Services was created to serve those people and communities throughout Thailand who were not receiving any family planning services.
                            The underlying hypothesis is that through careful identification, selection, appropriate training, motivation and supervision of the indigenous                                          community personnel, coupled with the availability of contraceptives in those communities, the number of couples practicing family planning                                        on a continuous basis will significantly increase....(Mechai 1976:3)
The only tribal village of my direct acquaintance reached by this program was the Akha village of Pa Mi.  The headman received their literature (which he could not read), and attended various training sessions.  He admitted to me later that he did not understand it until our program, which used the Akha language, came along.  The program for the Thai is excellent, I believe, complementing the government program, and reaching out into areas that would otherwise not be reached at all.
                                                                                                                Reaction of the Akhas
The reaction of the Akhas living in Thailand to the various programs of amelioration, which are mounting in number and intensity as time goes on, is mixed.  For some of the services they receive, Akhas seem to be appreciative, although they would prefer having more say in the type and timing of such services.
The complexity of some of the services is no doubt confusing at times, especially when the Akhas do not understand the relationship of these programs to one another.  Often the programs overlap, and one group may tell the tribal people to ignore the directions they have gotten from another group.  In a very realistic way Akhas have developed a caution against raising their hopes too high over the help they will get in solving their problems.  Such hopes have been shattered too often in the past.

Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation