Thailand’s Hilltribe Atrocities

Meeh Purh, a 19 year old Akha girl from Huuh Yoh Akha village in Northern Thailand, was taken along with seven other villagers while working in their fields at noon on 26th May 2003. At the time of their arrest and imprisonment Meeh Purh and one of the other hilltribe women were 8 months pregnant. Their crime? Royal Forest Department officials are claiming that the fields the villagers farm for a livelihood are state land. Bail was set at many times their annual income. Thus they remained in Ampur Mae Fah Luang jail.

Above the large valley, where Huuh Yoh and other villages of more than 1,000 hilltribe people are situated is a new Thai army checkpoint. It is a sensitive area near the border with Myanmar. State security forces often move whole villages down from these hills. Huuh Yoh Lisaw village at the top of the valley was relocated with disastrous human consequences several years ago. Attempts have also been made to remove the other villages, including Huuh Mah Akha.

Now the villagers are being told that all of their fields will be taken after this year’s rice and corn crop. They will be given the choice of laboring for 60 baht ($1.50) per day, going on a starvation diet, or removing themselves elsewhere.

There is a development project planned for this area of the Haen Taek region. It is a prime location for a hill resort, national park or eco-tourism. The native Akha and Lisaw have their homes and livelihoods here. However, they are being told in no uncertain terms to push off or become exploited slave labor!

State Terrorism (fear)

Loh Guuh, a young man in his early 30s from a relocated Akha village in Chiangrai Province, was shot dead at point blank range in the back of his head and in his back in village corn fields by a police officer in August 2001. It was a set up in which the police had come to the village four days in a row asking villagers for 15,000 methamphetamine pills. (Yes, corrupt police and officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking in Thailand, as elsewhere.)

Two other young Akha men were arrested in the same incident and given long sentences, which they now serve in Bangkok’s maximum security Bangkwang Prison too far away for poor relatives and friends to visit them. In court it is routine for judges to accept police testimony at face value and dismiss any differing testimony from hilltribe witnesses. That is, if any are brave enough to speak up against police or any official.

The case of Loh Guuh and others unusually hit front-page news in the 21st January 2002 edition of the Bangkok Post. However, the situation in the hills has deteriorated badly since then. In early December 2002, King Bhumibol Adulyadej outlined his view of Thailand´s drug problem in his official birthday speech. Premier Thaksin Shinawatra wasted little time in launching an all-out, drug-suppression campaign, signing Prime Minister’s Office Order 29/2546 on 28th January 2003. On 1st February the killing began with a vengeance.

Police reported that 87 of the 183 killings from 1st to 9th February were related to the drugs trade. Human rights commissioner Surasi Kosolnavin called for all deaths to be investigated for wrongful use of force and abuse of the law. Opposition leader Chuan Leekpai charged the government with giving tacit approval for summary execution of suspected drug dealers under the cloak of legitimate self-defence.

By 30th April, after 3 months of the drug-suppression campaign, the number of extra-judicial police killings had soared to well over 2,000. UN special envoy on human rights, Hina Jilani, wrapping up her 10-day visit to the kingdom on 27th May, said it was difficult to give credibility to the government’s explanation that police killed those people in self-defense.

However, Thaksin’s government had already turned its attention towards the “dark influences” of foreign-funded NGOs who dared to stand up for basic human rights and criticize government policy. Jilani said a “climate of fear” was created by public statements against NGOs made at the “highest level of government”, by blatant attempts to cut off their foreign funding, and by the use of the state security apparatus and judicial process to harass human-rights defenders through false or unjust prosecution. She said, “Obviously the message is that the (kingdom’s) reputation is under threat.”

Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, has said that “insecurity and violence are best tackled by effective, accountable states which uphold, not violate, human rights.”

In the northern hills of Thailand the extra-judicial killings and human rights abuses continue. Village headmen have been shot while returning home from meetings with officials. In late May, a Lahu woman was stopped at a security checkpoint outside a village. Officers say she had drugs. They took her into a field and knifed her to death. Early this month, at least three more Akha villagers were reported killed.

The USA has an official foreign policy of providing no assistance to states with proven human-rights violations or extra-judicial killings. Prime Minister Thaksin and the Crown Prince this month went on an official visit to Washington D.C., where these issues will no doubt be discussed.

Both USA and UK are large arms suppliers to Thailand. The USA provides F-16 fighter jets amongst other military equipment. The UK clinched a Royal Thailand Navy contract for two of the latest Super Lynx 300 helicopters in 2001, and also supplies the kingdom with shotguns, ammunitions and components for rifles. Both USA and UK are involved in training Thai security forces. Is it time for US and UK citizens to bring their governments to account over their dealings with Thailand?

According to Emma Bonino, a member of the European Parliament, “It is time to acknowledge that the ‘war on drugs’ is lost – indeed, a monumental failure – and that hostilities should end. Every aspect of the war strategy has failed. Harsh new domestic laws in many countries have not only failed to control the spread of drugs throughout the world, but have delivered a vast new source of state intrusiveness into the lives of millions of people. Prohibition created a pretext for authoritarian regimes to resist the abolition of the death penalty; yet even states that execute people for drug-related crimes have not been able to stem the tide. To circumvent the harsh legal regime now in place, narcotics mafias have forged ever-tighter alliances with terrorist networks.”

Thaksin apparently does not agree, or has not learned the lessons! Meanwhile, the old colonial powers have metamorphosed the failed ‘war on drugs’ into the ‘war on terrorism’! Perhaps it is a neo-colonial ploy to increase arms sales? It seems US and UK governments don´t learn either! They stumble from one war into another in their gross attempts to control the globe, blaming the poor and oppressed for not cooperating in their megalomaniac ‘new world order’ dreams!

Opium officers were still working for the British colonial policy of pushing the drugs trade in Asia until the early 1900s. Prohibition in the USA and UK due to the effects of drugs reaching home markets only served to increase the profits from the now ‘illegal drugs’! Since 1st February Thaksin’s campaign has caused the price of drugs to soar in Thailand. Profit margins are now huge for the traffickers who survive and still operate. The problems worsen and deepen, causing personal intrusions into people’s lives by security forces in a control-freak state, and the terrorizing of poor, oppressed hilltribe villagers whose human rights are not respected at all by state security forces.

The border regions of the Golden Triangle are a legacy of colonial rule. Siam was squeezed between French Indochina to the east and British Burma and Malay on the other sides. New nation state borders were fought over in a colonial land-grab. Only quite recently in history have borders become more sharply defined, while areas of dispute still remain. Ethnic minorities, who previously lived side-by-side in relative peace and harmony with eachother and their environment, have slowly experienced the mysterious phenomenon of foreign, state borders cutting crazily across their native lands! Of course, they didn´t recognize these artificial lines of state, or colonial, power demarcation, which exist in foreign officials’ heads rather than in any reality of native nature on the ground. Thus the hilltribes have been disenfranchised from their native lands, as has happened elsewhere. They have been robbed blind by colonial machinations, foreign wars and ruthless exploitation of the natural resources they depend on for their livelihood.

It is interesting that the Royal Forest Department of Thailand learned its policies of grabbing land rights and removing the native population from British colonial officials towards the end of the 19th Century. Their policies bear the hallmark of those used to commit genocide under the cloak of “development” against the native populations of America, Australia, Africa, and just about anywhere on earth we may care to look! Of course, these colonial, state-sponsored policies are utterly racist in nature, writing into their laws, as they do, the means to plunder native lands and resources, and remove whole populations.

Thailand recognizes nine ethnic minorities under its umbrella term “hilltribe”, but treats same ethnic group people who migrated from Laos since 1975, or from Burma since 1976, as illegal immigrants. The Hilltribe Welfare and Development Center’s summary for April 2002 gives a total 914,755 hilltribe population: Karen (438,450), Meo or Hmong (151,080), Lahu (102,371), Akha (65,826), Yao (44,017), H’Tin (42,782), Lisu or Lisaw (37,916), Lua (21,794), Khamu (10,519).

These figures are very likely to be far less than the true numbers because many hilltribe people who can’t prove where they were born, or those who crossed state borders, are considered illegal immigrants. As such they are not issued identity cards, and thus can claim no rights in Thailand. Hilltribes people are issued blue identity cards, not the white cards issued to full Thai citizens. Cases have arisen recently of identity cards being withdrawn from hilltribe people by officials, causing some villagers to have bank loans called in and property seized.

Pushed to the margins of existence by increasing state intrusions into their lives and state claims to their native lands, the hilltribes are experiencing blatant cultural genocide at the hands of the dominant state powers. State-sponsored business, missions and NGOs are co-opted into government policies, effectively silencing any serious criticisms from these institutions, which stand to gain advantages from exploiting the plight of the hilltribes themselves.

Packaged Dreams (greed)

Ban Bah Kaew is an Akha village that was situated on a small hill above the Mae Kok River and a nearby natural hot spring west of Chiangrai. It was relocated several years ago from its original site higher in the hills near the Myanmar border. However, the forestry department told the villagers they had to move yet again to another site about 700 meters upriver, otherwise they would demolish the entire village themselves. With insufficient time or resources for their forced removal by the 24th February 2003 deadline, their lives were in dire turmoil.

The forestry department had already constructed luxury tourist chalets on the same village hill site above the river and hot spring. Thus they already had their tourist-development pretext in place to ruthlessly force the Akha villagers to move from destitution to despondency.

The tourists who will likely come to this resort and stay in these chalets will enjoy their packaged dream vacation largely oblivious to the suffering caused by this tourist development. The Akha villagers will possibly do laboring work, or sell handicrafts, at the resort, which was their home. The Thai government, their forestry department, tourist businesses, and the tourists themselves are all participating in the steam-rollering and exploitation of quiet, gentle native hilltribe people.

In the packaged dreams of the corporate state the hilltribes are unpeople – they count for naught but their slave labor, tourist attraction value, or as convenient scapegoats to blame all the drugs and other problems onto. Should states be surprised when unrest, anger, and rebellion arises due to their own policies of pushing unpeople into abject poverty, insecurity and helplessness? State-sponsored terrorism has committed more crimes than, and is largely the cause of, private terrorism. The state co-opts businesses, NGOs and missions into its policies to act as pressure relievers in various ways. As long as these organizations don’t criticize the government too seriously they are allowed to operate, even illegally, to exploit or control the fallout. Thus the unpeople are assaulted and cajoled from many sides, while being eaten alive, robbed blind, and having their culture or way of life fried up to commercial tourism’s order.

Thailand is an amazing state of packaged dreams. Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, Chiangmai, and the “hilltribe experience”. Tourists flock in by jumbo jet fleets from around the globe lured by the profusion of advertising propaganda. It’s a windfall for well-placed big-fish in Thailand’s tourist industry. To the little fish it looks more like neo-colonialism by aliens from outer spaces. They are schooled into serving the needs, and doing the bidding, of temporary colonial masters trying to get all they can out of their dream packages.

The illusion holds up due to the enormous gulf between the two – starry eyed tourists and compliant mirror cleaners! The commercial gleaners of Thailand’s hyped-up, tourist-destination image do all they can to remove blemishes out of sight, but not out of mind: the grinding poverty which most Thai people suffer; the appalling human-rights abuses; the atrocities against ethnic minorities; and widespread environmental degradation and pollution caused by new industries, including the very important tourist industry.

Thus it is a paradox that tourism contributes towards the destruction of the very sites and people it tries to package and sell! It can be argued that even eco-tourism does this. It is nothing but a form of commercial, exploitative neo-colonialism: the privileged rich attempting to have their cake and eat it too. Tourist developments driven by large commercial interests obviously cause major disruptions for local people and their natural environment, despite whatever apologetic propaganda may be used.

Who would wish to vacate in resorts built like monumental graveyards over displaced villages and despoiled native lands? However, it is amazing how blind or blase many tourists can be. Who has not seen or visited opulent hotels adjacent to the most squalid slums? States of denial are the heady symptoms of swallowing the tourist-propaganda drug! How far can the pied piper lead tourists on? Can they avoid the charge of complicity in the crime of genocide?

The hilltribes are largely disenfranchised from any participation in the decision-making process for development projects, especially if they oppose them altogether. It is the rich tourists who can speak with their money. However, their minds are severely skewed by massive tourist-industry advertising and the lack of voice given to ethnic minorities. Thus they are co-opted into policies which “progress” like a roller-coaster of state-sponsored, neo-colonialism crushing the rights of the native, ethnic minorities beneath the unwitting tourists’ feet!

Thailand’s tourist industry, as in other lands, is built on much native suffering, pain and pent-up anger. It is not therefore surprising that Thailand has a special, elite tourist police to safeguard its tourist-industry interests. Tourists are the soft underbelly of any state which rules with a reign of terror. Poverty stricken native people see rich tourists as benefiting the same state which oppresses them, thus as ripe targets to release their anger and frustrations on.

When the gloves are off, packaged dreams collapse. Tourists take the merchandised gloves offered to fit their short-term dreams, but native people exposed to the long-term naked fist of state policies may give the tourists a direct experience of the treatment the state gives them. Many tourists in Thailand have been robbed, some raped, others murdered. Tourists have been massacred, taken as hostages, or held for ransom in other states.

The tourist industry and the state do all they can to keep such news out of the media, for it can have a devastating effect on tourists’ perceptions of a destination’s glossy image and ability to deliver packaged dreams that don’t breakdown. A lot of money stands to be lost if tourist numbers plunge, thus the corporate state will go to extraordinary lengths to cover bad news up.

On 10th August 2000 a young British girl, who had been visiting hilltribe villages, was brutally raped and murdered in Chiangmai. The culprit has yet to be brought to justice. The Royal Thia Police tried to pin the crime on a British man, but when that failed they tried to implicate a hilltribe man. However, DNA evidence and the involvement of foreign police prevented anyone but the real culprit from being convicted. That the case is yet to be solved points to the sheer incompetence or corruption of the Royal Thai Police. Other tourists have met similar fates in Thailand when their dreams crashed into reality.

The gulf between tourists’ and local people’s viewpoints can be so diametrically opposed as to be almost impossible for either to cross the chasm to understand the other’s situation. The freedom and wealth of a tourist is difficult for poor villagers to identify with, while the abuse of state terrorism and abject poverty suffered by villagers is hard for tourists to really comprehend. This is a global phenomenon of enormous proportions. Rich tourists and poor natives separated by enormous differences in their circumstances and worldviews are brought into immediate juxtaposition by commercial tourism. In many ways the results are ugly and grotesque.

Surely it is time to assess the commercial neo-colonialism that tourism is. Would it not be better to shed tourist delusions and become more aware of what’s happening on the ground? Perhaps we should trash the tourist brochures and give up our dreams for reality. The hilltribes of Thailand don’t need tourists, for they see little of the benefits. They need people to understand their plight, help them gain a voice and rights as human beings to live peacefully in their native land. Otherwise they will be swept off the face of this earth by state policies now operating to do just that.

Pipe Dreams (deception)

Saha Sart Suksa School in Chiangrai was started by American Baptist missionaries in 1957. It has about 1,570 students aged from 7 to 16, all from hilltribe villages, including 158 Akha boys and 258 Akha girls. The school has four hostels which accommodate about 324 students, and uses eleven independent hostels to house other students which are run by NGOs or missionaries from USA, Canada, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. Japan and Sweden have donated funds for school buildings. Thailand’s Education Ministry pays 8,200 baht ($200) per student per year to the school to cover education costs, while families are expected to pay 5,500 baht ($120) per student per year for hostel food costs. Thai and English languages are taught, along with Christianity. Hilltribe languages are not taught. Few of the students return to live in their home villages after finishing school.

There are also large Roman Catholic schools in Chiangrai and Chiangmai, educating and accommodating hilltribe children. However, the number of smaller mission hostels, orphanages and schools is quite staggering. Rose Martinez runs three orphanages for hilltribe children in Chiangrai Province. The Christian Happy Home, set up about 20 years ago north of Chiangrai city, houses about 65 children. An orphanage was since built in Chiang Saen, housing about 45 children. The third facility in Chiang Khong has about 25 children. These orphanages are funded and supported largely by overseas donors, including Calvary Chapel in San Diego, Youth with a Mission, and donors in Australia and Japan.

The Baan Chivit Mai mission orphanage was opened near Chiangrai in 1997 by Swedish missionary Eva Olofsson. It houses about 60 children, of whom more than 20 are Akha. It also cares for 12 children with AIDS. Children at Baan Chivit Mai produce textile flowers for export to Sweden. Recently the mission opened a coffee shop in Chiangrai city centre, which employs young people from the orphanage. The coffee-shop manager admitted he was more of a businessman than a mission pastor! Perhaps his interpretations of the cleansing of the merchants from the Temple and the five foolish virgins going to the market are more difficult for him to manage than the coffee shop!

These are but a few of the rapidly growing number of such mission facilities for children in Northern Thailand. Where else in the world can such a large concentration of orphanages be found? They number in the hundreds at least, and house thousands of hilltribe children. It beggars belief that they are dealing with the real problem, which must be of enormous proportions, and still growing rapidly, if the number of these new facilities being built is taken as evidence to go by.

However, not one missionary or social worker at these facilities raised the issue of why there are so many orphans from hilltribe villages. It does, obviously, provide astounding evidence of tragedies or atrocities being perpetrated on a large scale. But nobody seems willing to discuss what’s really happening, or to question state policies, or that these missions and NGOs are doing anything but good work in caring for these children. Indeed, they are only too ready to accept donations for their good work. Any hint that something may be amiss in their moral position often gives rise to extreme sensitivity or irritation on their part.

Is the situation in Northern Thailand not reminiscent of the “lost generation” of Aboriginal children in Australia who were forcibly taken from their parents for education in mission schools until the practice was stopped in the 1970s? Similar practices by mission schools in Canada, Africa and elsewhere have also come under close scrutiny and criticism for their abuses of children, colonial excesses, and attempts at cultural genocide.

Yet in Northern Thailand these practices seem to be thriving. Hilltribe children are taken from their parents and villages for education, housing or work in mission, NGO or state-sponsored facilities. They are taught the Thai language, and sometimes English too, while generally being nurtured into regarding their native language and culture as inferior, or to be forgotten completely!

It cannot be doubted that there may be some need for orphanages, schools and other facilities for hilltribe villages. However, the sheer scale of the hilltribe village dislocations now going on should ring alarm bells! For does it not look more like participation in a state policy of cultural genocide? Does it not compliment the atrocities being committed by state security forces in the hilltribe villages? Is it not similar to the co-opting of the tourist business and other commercial interests in the exploitation of the hilltribe minorities and the plundering of their native land and livelihood?

Missionaries and NGOs in Thailand are called to examine very carefully whether they might be complicit in the atrocities being perpetrated by state policies. Is the gospel you preach the same colonial poison, deception and subversion preached before in other lands to colonize and plunder native peoples in league with the dominant state powers and their commercial interests, rather than set the people free from these worldly powers that seek to usurp all that they have and are? For if so you are blind-beggar shepherds at best, or wolves in sheep’s clothing at worst, and fallen into all three temptations.

Do not lead the hilltribe children into captive, bound worldly states with pied-piper dreams of a twisted, deceptive, colonial-exploitation gospel. Let us give the poor, imprisoned, and plundered hilltribe people a voice, to bring their hills alive with a new spirit, fully theirs, and trumpeting freedom. “Looseth the prisoners.” “Set my people free.”

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