The Life of the Others – Thailand’s Minorities Under Threat


Thailand’s minorities are having a hard time, not least because of the nefarious activities of powerful and ruthless missionaries. The original story this feature is based on was published in German and ran to 2.500 words. This is a seriously cut edit.

The German article on the same subject was published in MERIAN and Spiegel Online.

Read the German text here.

Photographs by Aroon Thaewchatturat.

Read The Life of the Others in the Orissa Post this week.

Full text:

Dawn. For the past hour, the roosters in the Lisu Village of See Dong Yen have been crowing. Chiang Mai, northern Thailand’s largest city lies 50 kilometers away, in a different world. It has rained throughout the night, thick clouds of fog obscure the green valley in which the village lies. The jungle covered mountains loom, like the spines of a sleeping dragon, out of the darkness and stretch all the way north to Burma.

Two decades ago, tigers, communist rebels and opium traders moved through these mountains. Today, two giggling Lisu girls in long black and brightly coloured skirts are surprised that the guests of the Lisu Lodge are up so early. Around us, on the hillsides on the edge of the jungle, high land rice has been planted, grown only by the hill tribes.

The Lisu Lodge is the start of our journey through the world of the ethnic minorities. Almost a million people belong to the most varied ethnic groups who speak their own languages, wear their own clothes and have animistic belief systems. Until the 1990s, they also grew opium.

We are on our way to people who move along the edges of the Thai society. My wife, the photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat and I have three days march ahead of us. The villages of the so-called hilltribes, are stuck to steep hillsides like bird-nests, between 500 and 1500 meters above sea level.

“Don’t worry.” Ata, broad shouldered, his hair short, wearing a green T Shirt and shorts, his naked feet in Burmese army surplus boots, grins at me. “The path is beautiful.”

Ata will take us to some of the ethnic groups who have settled in northern Thailand in the last 150 years. He himself is Akha, was born in China and arrived at the age of four from Burma. He remembers the opium caravans, which passed through the Golden Triangle along the Thai, Burmese and Lao border. Since the government has banned the cultivation of opium, the caravans from Burma bring cheap amphetamines.

With a few bags of rice, vegetables and meat in our rucksacks, we set off into the Mae Taeng Valley, on the trail of the Lahu people. We walk north along the river, high into the hills, passing banana plantations and elephant camps. When the road ends, we leave the roaring river behind uand climb though dense temperate forest, along the border of the Huai Nam Dang National Park. A group of Lahu women in knee long black outfits passes us, talking happily.  Each one of the women carries a basket of firewood, mushrooms and nuts on their back, strapped across the forehead with a thin string.

The first Lahu families arrived around 1880, the next wave came with Mao’s victory in the civil war in China, and finally, the civil war in Burma in the 1980s drove more Lahu into Thailand. They have not found a true home, but a refuge, the mountains give them some protection. Other ethnic minorities also came to Thailand from China and Burma in the hope of a more peaceful life. Many are stateless, the village is their only government. The Lahu women who watch us from the edge of the path, come from the clan of Lahu Nye, the Red Lahu.

The trail is steep and muddy. Around midday, we stop at the foot of a waterfall.   The water falls thirty meters in cascades from the rock wall over grown with trees into the deep. Before we eat, Ata collects large leaves in the forest – our plates. Loaded with rice and chicken, the first leaf is deposited at the edge of the path.  “For the spirits that live in the forest,” he laughs.

At around a thousand meters, the forest becomes lighter. We walk along a narrow ridge – to our left and right the forest reaches to the horizon. Ahead of us, the village of Huei Kut Kap lies in the evening sun, which is just breaking through thunder clouds. The straw covered roofs of the hits of the Red Lahu glow like gold in the dark green of the forest.

Ata waves us past some houses which stand on short stilts in the ankle deep mud. On the verandas, young boys with shaved heads chase their dogs or carve small pieces of wood with big knives.  The next mountain ridge is barely two kilometres away, as the crow flies. Another Lahu villages sticks to that hillside too.

We sit down on the terrace of the largest house with village chief Laem and his family. Laem is wearing a short black jacket, embroidered with countless silver coins. He looks like a Chinese war lord from an old movie. “Many of our traditions are disappearing,” Laem recounts with a melancholic smile. “More and more people are changing religion. In the old days our clans were strictly divided. Today a Black Lahu might well marry a Red Lahu.”

I ask Laem’s father Chakaw whether he has ever been to Chiang Mai. “Why? You foreigners are mad enough to travel around half the world and pay money to come up the mountain to us.”

At the crack of dawn, we say good-bye to Laem and his family and start our way down. We walk along a narrow mud encrusted road and the village along with the screaming children and barking dogs is soon lost in the distance. As we march on we suddenly find ourselves facing three elephants. The three young Karen, members of Thailand’s largest ethnic minority, sit on top of the mellow giants. They are mahuts, elephant drivers, and they are passing to find feeding grounds deep in the forest.

A couple of hours later, we are sitting in Ata’s home, on the side reserved for the men. In the Akha village of Ban Palai, men and women live separately. In the family homes, the large central room is divided by a wall. Ata’s mother comes and goes without us hardly noticing, the house also has separate doors. We eat rice, minced meat and a delicious green soup with lemongrass. The Akha also eat dogs, but those are not served at table.

We meet Atu, the village Shaman. He is 65 years old and dressed all in black. His strict but not unwelcoming face is deeply lined. Born in Burma, he came to Thailand 34 years ago.

“I have three jobs as a Shaman. I tell the Akha what to expect from the future. I heal the sick – sometimes by sacrificing animals, and I know all the rituals which are necessary when someone dies.”

At the entrance to the village stands a church. Atu is not impressed. “Our culture is 2500 years old. But in the last decade, half of the Akha in Thailand have converted to Christianity, because the missionaries give money and send the kids to school. And there they are forced to become Christian.”

I sleep in the male part of the house, between Akha and his father. Aroon is sleeping in the women’s half. The rain hammers onto the roof all night and I sleep better than I have in ages. The next morning, the sun is out, underneath a bright blue, the jungle reaches across the rock formations around us.

Aroon and I have to return to Chiang Mai, back into the world of cars, TVs and supermarkets. But before we leave Ata’s village we follow his mother to her field. She is harvesting maize and while she slowly fills her basket we sit underneath a small hut on stilts and peel the cobs.

Ata watches his mother work and smiles, “I am the oldest son. It is therefore my responsibility as an Akha to look after my parents. And although I have studied and converted to Buddhsim, I am still Akha at heart.”

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