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Our November 2006 Letter to UNESCO Bangkok

Regarding the UNESCO Website

Dear Mr. Sheldon Shaeffer:

I have just visited with Ms. Sarah Titchen here in New York regarding the Intangible Heritage process and how it can relate to Thailand and the Akha people. I am very interested in cooperating with UNESCO Thailand in encouraging the Thai government to ratify this important convention.

The other purpose of my visit was to discuss our concern about information on the UNESCO website

On this website the following information is listed:

"Partner organizations: Time frame: Funding: New Life Center Foundation, Chiang Mai, Thailand World Concern, Yunnan, China Project Grace International, Yunnan, China 2-19 October 2004 UNDP-SEAHIV"

As you may know, the New Life Center was set up by the American Baptist missionary Paul W. Lewis, who remains committed to the evangelical destruction of Akha culture and identity. Paul W. Lewis was responsible for running a sterilization project on Akha women as well. A project that violated the human rights of the Akha, as well as numerous international human rights treaties. Many of those women suffered terribly, with long lasting negative consequences, as a result of this horrific project.

I find it highly objectionable, as an Akha advocate, that UNESCO would have a partnership with these kind of mission organizations, and offensive that UNESCO would list them on the website, particularly when there are traditional Akha and traditional Akha organizations which need and the cooperative efforts of UNESCO to help protect their culture and communities.

Our organization has many questions regarding UNESCO's cooperation with these missionary organizations.Specifically, we would like to know the extent of this cooperation, what financial links there are or were with these mission organizations; what are the specifics of the HIV education that these organizations carried out; and what current cooperation UNESCO has with these mission organizations at this time.

The mandate of UNESCO is to protect culture. These mission organizations have a stated mandate that ends in the vilification and elimination of Akha culture and oral traditions.

The uninformed person would not know about this contradiction with this website, but having spent 16 years living with and advocating for traditional Akha communities, and fighting for the protection of Akha language and culture, I find it beyond belief.

I think it is poor judgement that an organization like UNESCO has supported these type of missionary organizations. As well, we are informed that UNESCO works on a language project with SIL, another destructive mission organization, (also known as Wycliffe Bible Translators) in a pilot program in Chiang Mai. SIL does not stand up to defend the full content, the full historical oral tradition of the Akha people. SIL would prefer a much shorter modified version of the Akha language, conveniently rewritten to meet their need to distribute the Bible in Akha language, a rewriting of Akha identity. At this present time, at least 40% of the Akha villages in Thailand have been modified to christianity, which equals the removal of large contents from the nouns and verbs that make up their language and its oral transmission to Akha children which christian missions have been removing from their villages by the thousands. This is a matter of very serious proportions.

In my recent year long stay in Laos, I discovered the UNESCO supported NAMTHA Ecotourism Project, which sends western tourists into villages which were either relocated or are soon to be relocated. These villages have no health care, many sick children and staggering mortality rates. I complained about this exploitive program to the Program Director, Mr. Tizard, who did not even answer my correspondence.

I have never seen the Akha living in such a severe, life threatening circumstance. To be sending tourists into these villages, under the auspices of a project that is not fully controlled by the community, is unacceptable.

I hope that you understand our concern about UNESCO's partnership with the above mentioned missionary organizations and UNESCO's support of the NAMTHA project. I have also spoken to people at UNESCO in Paris about these situations and am anxious to see UNESCO take concrete steps towards finding a remedy to these situations and working with the Akha to develop a culturally appropriate AIDS education program, implement a language project that serves the needs of the communities, and develop an ecotourism project that is designed and owned by the people that it is supposed to serve.

Please contact me at your earliest convenience to clarify the questions raised in this communication. We believe that these UNESCO funds are being spent without the free, prior and informed consent of the Akha community, which makes this a human rights violation by the very organization which should be standing up for the Akha people.

This is clearly OUTSIDE the stated mandate of UNESCO.

I hope to hear from you the details of these cases, as well as some ideas as to how they can be corrected. The Akha Heritage Foundation will gladly support and work with UNESCO to find solutions to these problems, so that the needs of the Akha are truly served. I look forward to hearing from you.

At Your Service,
Matthew McDaniel
New York, New York.

Check out this Oct 22 editorial clearly stating the link between UNESCO Bangkok and SIL.

There are no educationally sound programmes to provide ethnic minorities with the language skills they need to achieve academic success, writes SHELDON SHAEFFER

"Although well provided for financially, 31 of the Thai students who were selected for the One District One Scholarship (Odos) programme dropped out and returned home after only a few months, citing the extraordinary stress involved in learning in a language they did not understand.

The Odos involves sending selected Thai secondary school graduates to study at universities abroad. One student, after spending a year-and-a-half learning Italian, discovered that his language skills could not help him understand his professors. He plaintively expressed what many of the others had experienced: ``My notebook remained empty after every class. I cried in my room every day.''

To its credit, the Ministry of Education is now taking steps to better prepare Odos students for learning in the language of their host countries.

But the Odos students' experience highlights the importance of language competence for successful learning. The language problems experienced by the 31 young Thai students far from home mirror those of many ethnic minority children in this country who do not speak the official school language when they begin primary school. Their response is frequently the same _ they drop out.

Like the Odos students, ethnic minority learners in Thailand need help in mastering the language of instruction. Unfortunately, no educationally sound programmes have been established to provide this group of learners with the language skills they need to achieve academic success in Thailand's formal education system.

In June of this year, a UN General Assembly working group drafted a "Declaration of Indigenous Peoples' Rights" that includes the following provision: "States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language" (Article 15.3). Even more compelling, since it has already been endorsed by the General Conference of the International Labour Organisation, is its 1989 Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

This convention requires that "children belonging to the peoples concerned shall, wherever practicable, be taught to read and write in their own indigenous language or in the language most commonly used by the group to which they belong" and that "adequate measures shall be taken to ensure that these peoples have the opportunity to gain fluency in the national language or in one of the official languages of the country". (Article 28)

In spite of past and present international awareness about the need for language-appropriate education, a number of governments continue to support and sustain education systems that require ethic minority learners to achieve national curriculum goals in a language they do not understand.

Professor Bernard Spolsky, a noted expert in language policy and planning, argues against such language-exclusive programs: "There can be no justification for assuming that children will pick up the school language on their own, and no justification for not developing some program that will make it possible for children to learn the standard language and to continue to be educated all the time this is going on.''

Begin in mother tongue
Effective bilingual education programmes begin in the learners' mother tongue _ the language most familiar to them. It helps them build fluency and confidence in using the official school language, and encourages them to continue using both languages for life-long learning. Applied to the Thailand situation, a strong bilingual education programme would, for example, help Kuy children in the Northeast of Thailand learn to read and write in the language they already know, using reading materials that affirm their own cultural knowledge and experience. This component turns out to be especially effective because of something reading researchers discovered long ago: we only need to learn to read once.

Such a process is already at work _ successfully _ in Omkoi District of Chiang Mai, for example, in a pilot project co-sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Unesco, and SIL International, and in other similar programmes in countries such as Cambodia, China, and Papua New Guinea.

Thus, after establishing a strong foundation in mother tongue oral and literate skills, the bilingual education programme should provide a good "bridge" to the national language and culture, slowly building up learners' listening, speaking, reading and writing abilities in the national language so they can learn the required academic subjects successfully.

This kind of bilingual education programme can also improve the quality of education in general. Children who understand what is happening in a classroom actively and happily participate in learning, want to come to school, and less often drop out. Parents and other community members, also able to participate in the life of the school because they understand its language, take a greater interest in the education of their children. And materials in the mother tongue, often developed by local teachers, parents, and students, can be of lower cost and are more relevant to the daily lives of their users than centrally supplied materials.

One of the most common arguments against mother tongue-based bilingual education is that using minority languages in formal education contributes to divisiveness and disunity. Opponents making this argument usually promote the idea of "one language, one nation." More often than not, the opposite is true. The list of countries in which one language is spoken by over 90 percent of the people reads like a litany of tragic civil conflicts: Cambodia, Korea, Rwanda, Burundi, Yugoslavia, Uganda, Somalia, to name a few. On the other hand, one can identify multilingual nations that have not descended into civil strife and divisiveness, especially when their governments recognise multilingualism as a national resource and encourage the participation of all (or most) of their citizens in national development.

Countries with successful multilingual histories include Switzerland, the United States, Cameroon, and Papua New Guinea. In other words, recognition of, and support to, minority languages and cultures by the national government can lead to greater respect for, and loyalty to, that government _ rather than to divisiveness and disunity.

Myths exposed
Other arguments against bilingual education are often based on "myths" about children's ability to learn language. Here are a few common ones heard in Thailand.

Myth 1: Children already know the national language when they begin Grade 1. This is a variation of the argument that Northern Thai (Kammuang), Northeastern Thai (Isaan or Lao), and Southern Thai (Paktay) are dialects of Central Thai. Although a persuasive linguistic case can be made that these are actually separate languages rather than merely dialects of the same language, the fact that all are members of the same Tai-Kadai language family does facilitate their speakers' acquisition of Central Thai.

However, this is not the case for the nearly 15 percent of the people living in Thailand who speak languages that are quite different from Central Thai: Pattani Malay, Northern Khmer, Kuy, Sgaw Karen, Mon, Akha, Hmong and Lahu to name a few. Learners from these languages require sound second-language learning strategies to gain fluency and confidence in the official school language, in much the same way that Odos students need supportive language learning programmes for their education abroad.

Myth 2:Young children learn languages quickly and easily. This argument asserts that special bilingual educational programmes are unnecessary because small children are innately equipped to learn new languages without assistance. However, research clearly demonstrates that adults and adolescents outperform young children in language learning. The older learners have already gained literacy and fluency in their first language and use that knowledge and experience to help them acquire the new language. Only in pronunciation do young children outperform older ones in language learning.

Myth 3: The more time minority language children spend using the national language. the better they learn it. This belief is also contradicted by many research studies into second language acquisition in other parts of the world which show that the minority students who do best in the national language are those who spent the most time learning in their mother tongue.

Slightly below the surface of this "myth" is an attitude that says, "So don't waste the children's time learning a minority language that is of little value to them. They would spend their time better learning Thai." However, this attitude ignores the accumulating evidence that many of the small, marginalised minority language communities possess special and important knowledge; for example, with respect to the medicinal properties of plants found in their forests and farms or ways of living in sustainable ecological relationship to their environment. This knowledge is contained in and passed on through the language they speak.

Some estimates of language mortality among the world's nearly 7,000 languages go as high as 90 percent by mid-century. The linguistic and cultural diversity of our world may well hold as much value and worth as our biological diversity. Strong mother-tongue-based bilingual education programmes serve the dual purpose of greatly enhancing the minority learners' ability to learn successfully in the national language and also developing and maintaining their ability in, and appreciation of, their ethnic language.

Languages themselves are rarely the objects of discrimination. Rather, laws, policies, and practices that exclude the use of certain languages in education often reflect attitudes toward _ and authorise discrimination against _ the speakers of those languages. People, especially children, bear the burden of this kind of educational prejudice.

Thailand _ by definition a "free land" _ needs education programmes that allow all its people the liberty to use their languages, their cultures, their histories and their experiences while also enabling them to acquire the national language and therefore become more integrated and valued citizens of this richly diverse country. Sheldon Shaeffer is Director of Unesco Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education."

Copyright 1991 - 2006 The Akha Heritage Foundation