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Hilltribes of Northern Thailand can live in harmony with nature.

They are being accused unfairly, and tend to be the natural scapegoats for many environmental problems caused by the government and industry.


HILLTRIBES: When the finger pointing starts, minority groups often unfairly shoulder the blame for the country's environmental problems.

Supara Janchitfah

'Hmong village raided: Amphetamines found," has been a common headline in local newspapers recently. Such forests and watershed areas through slash-and-burn farming, growing opium and dealing illegal drugs. Although these reports are true to some degree, exaggeration for reader impact has resulted in widespread prejudice in the way ordinary Thai citizens perceive the minority peoples of Thailand.

For instance, a tuk-tuk driver at the Chiang Mai railway station said that tribesmen are not Thai. "How can they demand things from our government? We ourselves are Thais and we don't have land. We are also poor," the driver said.

These prejudices seep up to the highest bodies of the land. "I feel for the Thais who have no place to sleep, no land to till, nothing to eat," said Mr Newin Chidchob, deputy minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives.

"The state should take care of the Thai citizens first and the other groups later," he said.

The recent crackdown on a peaceful protest by hilltribe peoples in Chiang Mai province reflects the reality of prejudice in Thai society towards minority groups.

Mr Newin has stressed that those who are not Thai nationals have no right to be on Thai soil. "We are now in the process of proving these rights. If you have lived there before the (declaration of) national forest, you have the right to be there. Otherwise, the government has no choice but to move you out," Mr Newin said to the tribal representatives in early May. "Furthermore, those who are not nationals have no legal system to protect them. Those who want to earn their living on Thai soil must be Thai, " he added.

In reality, the hilltribe communities of Thailand do much to protect forests, watershed areas, and natural bio-diversity as an integral part of their way of life. They have also helped fight communist insurgents. These are facts often pass without public recognition.

"I don't say that they are all good people, but I say that most of them respect the facets of nature that they live with," said Tuanjai Deetes of the Hill Area Development Foundation.

Different studies and field research by Chiang Mai University (CMU) as well as non-governmental organisations found that most of the tribal communities protect forest resources. They have traditional ways of coexisting and using forest products and resources. "Not all tribesmen destroy the forest. Not a single tribesman owns a logging or mining company; these are the ones who clear up the mountains," said Tuanjai, who has been working with tribespeople for 25 years.

According to Thailand's Forest Community: The Development Path, the first forest concessions in the North were granted in 1807 to foreign and local companies.

"Our studies found that many tribes arrived to settle in places where there were few big trees left, proof of previous logging activities," said Tuanjai.

"Note what materials make up the houses of the Akha and Karen tribes. See what kind of materials they used," said Tuanjai. She stresses that these tribes have not cut down trees in the forest.

While the public continue to believe that floods and erosion should be blamed on the tribal communities, there are questions that point to other possibilities.

Such questions concern Dr Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of the Ethnic Studies Network of (CMU). "Can simple villagers destroy whole mountains and forest without money or machines from outside? "Can they transport huge logs over long distances without the consent of officials? "In the northeastern region, there are no tribes. Why is there no forest left?" The tribespeople continue to insist that they have never willfully destroyed any forest. "Without the forest, our communities and ways of life cannot continue. Our beliefs are entwined with keeping the forest alive and fruitful. From birth to dead our lives are engaged with forest, the trees, the rivers, the animals therein. How can any of us destroy our own habitat?" said Mr Jorni Odochao, a Mae Wang tribal leader.

To the tribal family, the forest is a supermarket, a source of water, food, medicine, and shelter. "We have no money to buy the things of the lowlanders, that's why the forest is so important to us. We have to coexist with nature," he said.

When city folk need water, they just turn their faucets. When they are hungry, they just go to a shopping mall. Few question where the water or the food come from.

A tribal family has to keep their environment capable of producing their needs. "It is impossible for the tribes to even think of destroying their supermarket," said Tuanjai.

Many factors should be examined in order to understand the continuing destruction of the forest.

First, government development policies have introduced new ways of life.

"In the past, tribespeople lived in lean-tos and huts, not solid houses. They used bamboo to build their huts, not big trees," Tuanjai said. "Then the government said they should meet the 'Thai standards of living' and 'minimum standards of public health' so they had to change the way they build their houses and the way they lived," Tuanjai said.

Second, when the economy boomed, land and housing prices became competitive, and many trees fell to the sudden demand. People sold their land and encroached on forest areas. Third, government policies to industrialise tourism also contributed to forest destruction.

"Up to five million lowlanders have occupied highland areas since the late 70s, developing resorts, hotels and tourist attractions. These have been a threat to watershed areas and forests," said Prof Nidhi Eiewsriwong of CMU.

"Why is the blame on the tribes while the urban sector is a bigger user of natural resources?" asked Prof Nidhi.

Despite urban gluttony, rural folk have always been asked not only to carry the blame, but also to shoulder the burden.

For instance, when the city was threatened with a low water supply this summer, the Chuan government prohibited farmers from growing rice.

Many state projects, such as fast-growing trees, have given rural folk and tribal communities similar headaches. An example is when the government banned opium farms in the highlands and introduced vegetable cash crops, requiring chemicals and fertilisers which tainted watershed areas and affected forests.

City dwellers may find it difficult to understand just how much tribal families depend on nature and the forest for basic survival, and how hilltribe villages farm only for self-sustenance, not for commercial profit.

"Those who stay in town can hardly understand how these tribespeople have contributed to the abundance of the forest and nature," said Tuanjai. The number of trees cut down by tribespeople to build a house does not warrant claims of deforestation. Urban furnished houses use more trees than all the hilltribes combined. And while tribal communities are often accused of protecting illegal forest poachers, peaceful forest tribes have little choice when facing the barrel of a lowland gun.

The same can be said about drug trafficking.

"How can they do that alone?" asked Tuanjai. Drug production and trafficking requires technology and connections which are alien to the hilltribe lifestyle.

"I think there are a few who are in that business. But we should not brand all tribes as drug traffickers," she said.

A Hmong who asked not to be named said there are several factors that pushed some of them into the illegal drugs business.

"We are being prohibited to farm, because we cannot own land, because we are not citizens.

"We try to do an honest job, but those who hire us give us less pay and make us work harder because we have no Thai citizenship," said the Hmong.

"So what can we do when someone offers us money for something that we can easily do? How can we refuse something that will help us earn money? Our families are hungry. We need to buy things."

The national borders are too difficult for the government to fence in, much less monitor. What the government has not done is utilise the loyalty of the tribespeople who live along the borders. "These people can help protect the national borders," said Tuanjai.

"If the nation loves them, they will love the nation. They want to feel that they belong to the nation.

"If the government asks them, they will protect the land and the borders."Dr Chayan notes that the minority communities in Thailand have never ever asked for independence or separation. They have always wanted to be integrated.

The concerns of national security, said Prof Nidhi, can best be addressed by looking to the well-being of the rural folk and the tribespeople. The recent crackdown on hilltribe demonstrators in Chiang Mai reflects the outmoded relationship between the state and society.

Ethnic diversity, however, could be used as social capital.

The National Security Council (NSC) says that "culture is a source of wisdom and this wisdom is social capital." "A country with cultural diversity has more help in finding social solutions, as it finds more alternatives in solving crises and problems. If we make use of this wisdom, we will have sustainable development," said Mr Pichai Rattanapol, deputy secretary of NSC.

Buddhism says that people are born equal, with the same potential of attaining enlightenment. Phra Maha Boonchuy Siritharo, deputy dean of Mahachulalongkorn Ratcha Wittayalai at Suan Dork Temple said that only karma (deeds) make people different from each other.

Whether one is a highlander or a lowlander has nothing to do with it. Historically, tribes are a vital component of Lanna culture.

CMU's Dr Anan Ganjanapan said that Lanna is an integrated culture, as Thai was never a pure race. "The Thai culture has never been an isolated culture. We have assimilated Mon, Cambodian, Lao, Khamu, Akha, Tibet and Burmese cultures as part of our history and culture. "In the past Lanna dominators used to respect the native and indigenous culture and observed their traditions. "We are interdependent as we've learned so much from them about herbs, medicines, magic, and culture," said Dr Anan.

When the Central region conquered the North, the concept of a nation-state and nationalism was introduced.

At the moment, cultural diversity is acceptable only to some government agencies, as the incident in Chiang Mai shows.

Although the tribes have clearly expressed that they ask for no special land title deeds, only the right to cultivate and the right to upgrade their blue cards (certifying them as highlanders) into Thai citizenship, they are turned down by authorities.

"We are not asking for something we do not deserve," said Meeju, an Akha. On May 11, an agreement between state officials and northern farmers and tribes were changed en route to the cabinet. The new document says that only Thai citizens have the right to till Thai soil, effectively rendering blue-card holders landless and stateless.

The only concession was that the government agreed to allow card holders to prove their rights (See sidebar).

For the Thai government, granting tribespeople nationality is a complicated issue.

Dr Anan suggests the use of local organisations to manage and control the process of granting citizenship. "The tribes have their communities and their organisations. They know who just moved in or who had been there for years. A group from the central government cannot know this. "Our prejudices should not bar people from Thai citizenship," Dr Anan said.

"There should be a national agenda to manage natural resources in a sustainable way, so that a majority cannot exploit a minority. There should be co-management between the state and the tribes," said Dr Chayan.

Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1999
June 6, 1999
Bangkok Post

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