Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

Alternative names: Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Akha, Lisu
Location: northern border areas of Thailand
Population: total about 415,000
% of population: about 1% of Thai population
Religion: indigenous beliefs, Christian (Karen)
Language: various

The hill tribes of Thailand live for the most part in the upland areas of the north, in the region known as the Golden Triangle. There are six main groups recognized by the Thai government. These fall into three linguistic categories as follows: (i) the Lahu, Akha and Lisu belong to the Tibetan-Burman family of languages. These tribes migrated in stages from Southern China into Burma and began entering Thailand at about the beginning of the twentieth century; (ii) the Meo (Hmong) and Yao (Mien) belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language group. These people migrated from south-central China into Laos and thence across the Mekong River into Thailand. Many of them were forced to flee to Thailand after the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975; and (iii) the Karen, the most numerous of the groups, who probably originated in south-west China although there are none living there today.

There are also a number of smaller groups such as the Lawa, Kha Mu, Kha Htin, Thai Lue and Yumbri. In 1983 the total number of hill tribals in Thailand was estimated at 415,000 of whom over half were Karen. This is only a small percentage of the total number of hill tribes peoples living in the Golden Triangle of Burma, Thailand, Laos and China.

Most hill tribes practise slash and burn cultivation which causes them to migrate gradually from place to place. The majority live at high elevations, above 1,200 metres, although the Karen, who have probably lived in the region longer than other groups, are more settled and prefer to live at lower levels. Hill rice is the principal food crop although some tribal groups are now cultivating lowland irrigated rice. Maize and a variety of vegetables are also grown and the most prized cash crop among all but the Karen and Akha is the opium poppy. The government has made efforts to curb the cultivation of the poppy by substituting alternative crops such as coffee, tea and peanuts, but it is difficult to control due to the inaccessible nature of the terrain and the power of the heavily armed opium traffickers who maintain a monopoly of the traffic between the villages and markets. It is also a crop which hill people can cultivate without competition from valley-dwelling farmers. Apart from their work in the fields, all the tribal groups are skilled weavers and embroiderers, each tribe has a distinctive costume, and produces fine carving, silverware and basketware. These handicrafts are increasingly sold in market towns and to tourists.

The majority of tribal peoples have a strong belief in a powerful spirit world and their lives are surrounded by ritual. The village shaman and the priest are highly respected as having some influence over the spirits. Tribal beliefs are not uniform. However, Yao religious beliefs have marked Chinese connections and there are many Christian Karens.

Until the mid-nineteenth century the hill tribes had a high degree of autonomy and this continued after the unification of Siam (Thailand) in 1873 as the new kingdom consolidated its hold in the south and the lowlands of the north. But this changed as government exerted its control over hill tribes. One aspect which is hedged with difficulties is the granting of Thai citizenship and although the number of tribal people gaining citizenship is growing, the majority remain stateless. They are unable to own their own fields and may be fined if they cannot produce citizenship papers at checkpoints. They are unable to obtain vehicle licences — required by law — for the motorcycles and trucks which some villagers are now purchasing. Stateless children are unable to sit for school examinations.

The Thai government has made great efforts to settle the hill tribes. It is uneasily conscious of the fact that they are frequently manipulated by drug traffickers, warlords and communist insurgents who provide them with medicines, cigarettes and guns in return for message-carrying, opium and shelter. Conflicts, with the hill tribes fighting on the sides of both the communists and security forces were most active in the 1960s and 1970s, but are much less prominent in the 1980s. Many thousands of Hmong became internal refugees during and after the Red Meo War from 1967 to 1973. Government schools and health services have been established and a housing programme is available to those who are prepared to give up opium cultivation and settle permanently. Radio stations have become an important link between the hill peoples and the outside world and every village now has a radio. Roads are being constructed, mainly to assist forestry and mining industries but also in order to facilitate national integration: however, the roads have also opened up the areas to lowlanders and tourists who treat the tribespeople as curiosities and have no real respect for their traditions.

Valley-dwelling Thai are also beginning to move into the hill areas, claiming territory which the hill peoples consider to be theirs but to which they have no legal rights. Deforestation has also become a major problem partly as a result of the demands for firewood and the shifting agriculture practised by hill peoples but also due to commercial cropping, timber and mining. Many men have ceased to wear traditional tribal costume although women continue to weave and wear theirs. Gradually tribal peoples are being exposed to modern Thai and western culture and their own traditions and values are threatened. It seems unlikely that they can maintain their lifestyles in the face of such change, although it is probable that the majority of hill people will always prefer to live at higher and cooler elevations and so retain some degree of isolation and distinctiveness.

(See also Burma (Myanma); Hmong of Laos)