About Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

Approximately 1 million Hill Tribe people live in small villages scattered throughout northern and western Thailand. There are 6 main Hill Tribes, Akha, Lah-fvu (Lahu), Lisu, Hmong, Mien and Karen. Originating in China and Burma, most have migrated to Thailand in the last 150-200 years. Most people were fleeing from fighting in these countries, and the migration continues today. Karen people were the first Hill Tribe to come to Thailand. This was followed by Lisu, Lah-fvu and Akha hill people.

When they came to Thailand, Hill Tribe people chose to live in the highland areas in harmony with nature, similar to that of their origins. However, these are also the watershed areas and protected forests of Thailand. Here, the villagers have rights to use the land, but not to own it. Food and non-timber products are collected from the forest and river. Village committees prohibit the sale of timber products, although with permission, timber can be cut for personal use. The villagers know what to harvest and how much they can collect sustainably. If the villagers are sick, they can go to the forest and collect herbal medicine for most illnesses. Most traditional houses are built from bamboo and wood collected from the forest. The Hill Tribe people have traditionally practiced shifting cultivation of rice and corn, supplemented with hunting and gathering. However, the increased pressure on land has required a change in agricultural practices.

Problems and challenges occur throughout the daily lives of the Hill Tribe people. Many do not have Thai citizenship. This lack of status prohibits them from most normal human rights e.g. owning land, voting, driving a car, leaving the province, receiving minimum wages, access to schools and healthcare. While the Hill Tribes have these problems, and believe themselves to have separate cultural identities, they still consider that they are Thai people. They are aware of the need to conserve nature and fully participate in the development of Thailand as a nation

The Akha

Tuesday, 20 April 2010 14:26 |   

Through HADF, Natural Focus has joined together with 5 Hill Tribe communities to plan and co-ordinate ecotourism in the area. These 5 villages form the basis of the Natural Focus Ecotours. The villages were selected because of their interest in conserving their culture and surrounding environment, and the differences between each village and culture. The group includes four different Hill Tribes; Akha, Lah-fvu (Lahu), Lisu, and Mien, and the villages are at very different stages of development.


Most people in Thailand call this Hill Tribe “Ikor”, but the people themselves call it “Akha”. This Hill Tribe originated in Mon Tong Guay Joaw and Mon Ton, Yunnan China. They migrated to Chiang Dung, Burma. Some groups moved further into Laos and Northern Thailand. The first Akha in Thailand migrated from Burma and established a village in 1903 close to Hin Taek near the Burmese border. By the end of World War II there were 2,500 Akha living in Thailand, increasing to 7,000 people in 1964. However, most Akha migrated to Thailand within the last 20 to 30 years, the Akha population in Thailand now reaching over 30,000 people. Initially, Akha settlements were located in the Mae Kok watershed, Chiang Rai Province, however settlements are now located in three other provinces as well.

Akha people are the largest hill tribe in Chiang Rai. In Thailand there are three main groups of Akha people, U-Lo, Pa-Mi and Lo-Mi Akha. While they are closely related, there are many differences in their traditional designs, handicrafts and hats.

The Akha lifestyle is based on their agricultural system, which means they work very hard in the fields, spending more time there than with their families. The Akha women often work in the field, while carrying their youngest child on their backs. Akha have the most ceremonies of the Hill Tribes, almost every month, all based on the agricultural system. The costs and time of these extensive ceremonies is one reason for the changes of many Akha from Animism to Christianity. However, some villages retain their strong Akha culture.

Akha villages are generally large, with 30 or more households comprising of many clans. Traditionally Akha people live in the highest locations of hill tribe people. Akha villages are often located on the top of the mountain in an attempt to avoid the diseases and outbreaks associated with the moister close to the river . An Akha story tells that the Akha was the eldest in the family and followed their younger siblings into the new land. The Akha let the younger siblings, Lisu, Lahu, etc., choose where they wanted to live, and they naturally selected lower lands. The Akha, the eldest, gave up their choice for their siblings and ended up living on the top of the mountains. The most important leader in an Akha village is the Spiritual Leaders (Djew maa and Djew ya), and the life of Akha revolve around their family. Other leaders in the village include the Traditional Village Leader chosen by the village elders, and the female Spiritual Leader (Nee pah).

The Akha house is made from bamboo, wood and the roof from cogon grass. The house is built on stilts and the living section is divided into two rooms – a women’s room and a man’s room. Akha legend tells that there was a powerful being called “Apermiyeh” – the word Aper translating to “ancestor” or “God”. Akha people believe that Apermiyeh created the first human. The elders tell that Apermiyeh called all of the people to assemble in front of him. He gave each tribe a written language, ceremonies and identifying traits, all written down separately for each tribe. The Akha were given their language and instructions on the back of a cow hide. Unfortunately, as the Akha were returning home from their meeting with Apermiyeh, they became hungary and ate the cow hide, leaving them with no written language, and only their memories to retain important ceremonies and wisdom.
Akha believed that Apermiyeh has a great power over the life of the Akha. It is he who can inspire the rice in the field to produce a good yield, therefore the Akha are careful not to say or do anything which will upset him. Akha will not say that a new born baby is ugly, as Apermiyeh may think that this is ungrateful and take the baby back.
In Akha language, there is no word for “religion”, but the word “Akha’s commandment” has a similar meaning because it covers the traditions, customs and all ceremonies in their life proceedings. This commandment determines the method of cultivation, hunting, identifying and cures for diseases. Furthermore, the commandment contains the legends, proverbs and traditions, which, in practice, may vary slightly between families or villages, but the main practices are never changed. Therefore, each item is like one loop of a large chain which connects them with their past and extends indefintely into the future.

When entering a traditional Akha village, several examples of Akha culture can be seen. At the entrance of the village there is a spirit gate. When Akha re-enter the village, they must pass by the gate to leave any bad spirits outside the village. In the village there is a giant Akha swing. This is part of the ceremony after planting rice to encourage good growth.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 April 2010 05:51 )

       The Lahu

Tuesday, 20 April 2010 14:27 |   

The Lahu

Most people in Thailand call this Hill Tribe “Museur”, however, the group refer to themselves as “Lah-fvu” or “Lahu”. This name came about because one day, an animal came out of the forest and attacked some livestock. The owner was able to shoot the animal but could not recognise it. He asked everyone that passed, but there was no-one that knew what it was until one man passed by and said that it was a tiger, La in Lahu language. After that, the man and the rest of his people were referred to as Lahu, hu being the sound of the tiger. In turn, Museur is Thai for the hunter, due to their skill in hunting. Lahu originated in Tibet, migrating to southern China to escape Chinese aggression. The migration continued to Burma, some groups continuing to Northern Thailand and Laos.

There are four main groups of Lahu in Thailand, often named after the dominant colour in their traditional costimes. Red Lahu (Lahu Nyi) is the largest group in Thailand. Black Lahu (Lahu Na) is the second largest group. The third largest group is Cheleh Lahu (Lahu Cheleh) and is siimilar in culture to Black Lahu. Yellow Lahu (Lahu Shi) is the fourth main group. Other smaller Lahu groups include Lahu Balan and Lahu Bakio.

Amongst the Hill Tribes in Chiang Rai, Lahu is the central language. This is because the Lahu language is easy to say and understand. Lahu also mix easily with other Hill Tribes, and most Hill Tribe villages have Lahu people living there.

Lahu villages are usually located high in the mountains at an altitude of approximately 1,000 meters. In the past, Lahu people practised shifting cultivation, planting upland rice and corn as well as small amounts of a range of food plants and vegetables. Until Government restrictions were enforced, opium was an important cashcrop for the people. Profits from the sale of opium were used to buy salt, iron and other products which they could not grow themselves. Villages comprise of 10 or more houses, generally built on the mid-slope. Houses are built from bamboo, wood and cogon grass. Each village has a traditional leader (Ka sere), village elders and a spiritual leader (Doo boo), a female spiritual leader (Mee boo maa) and spiritual doctor (Nee de baa). When the villagers have a problem this group is consulted for a fair solution.

Lahu food is strong in flavour. Food tends to be very hot and spicy, and/or very salty and/or very sour. Meals are easy, they do not plan for taste, thinking rather of the benefits and having sufficient to eat. However there is never a meal without chillies.

The origins of Lahu:
A long time ago when animals and humans were created, Lafvu people were born inside a gourd, with no way out. The Lafvu thought and wondered how they would get out. At this time the animals and humans spoke the same language, so the Lafvu tried shouting for the animals to help. One day a small bird flew past and heard the calls for help. The bird looked to the right and to the left but couldn’t find where the noise came from. Suddenly the bird saw the gourd. It flew down and peered at the gourd and said “Oh this is where you are, what are you doing?”. The Lafvu replied that they could not get out of the gourd and asked the bird to help them by pecking at the gourd. “If I help you, what will I get out of it?” was the bird’s reply. The Lafvu promised to plant rice, beans and sesame and let the bird eat from the crop first if they could get out. The bird agreed to help and started pecking a hole in the gourd. The bird kept trying to peck open the gourd, until its beak was short and the bird was tired and had to rest.

While the bird was resting, a singing rat passed by. The rat was curious and asked “Lovely bird, what are you doing? Why do you have such a short beak?”. The bird replied “Oh with all your power, you have come at the right time, come and help me get the people out of this gourd. The people who are in the gourd said they would let us eat from their crops first, if we help them out of the gourd”. The rat was happy and asked “Really?”. “Really”, replied the people, “we wouldn’t lie”. The rat hurried and started grinding at the gourd with its long teeth. Finally the gourd opened at the Lafvu people could get out. The Lafvu did not forget their promise to the bird and rat and to this day, when Lafvu plant corn and rice, they allow the birds and rats to eat before them.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 April 2010 05:52 )


The Lisu
Although they call themselves “Lisu”, meaning lovers of peace and freedom, most Thai people call them “Lisaw”. The Lisu Hill Tribe has Tibeto-Burman origins, migrating from Tibet thru Southern China and Burma to Northern Thailand to escape from war and fighting.

Due to migrations in search of personal freedom, Lisu came into contact with many different Tribes and can therefore generally speak a variety of languages such as Chinese, Laos, Akha and Lahu. Lisu have no written language, instead they rely on memories passed down from generation to generation. However, a written language based on the Roman script has been developed by missionaries to help teach Christianity.

Lisu live in villages comprising of 30-100 houses. Each village has a Traditional Leader, a Spiritual Leader (Mor muu pah), a Spirit Doctor (Nee pah) and village elders. This group plays a key role in managing the village and resolving disputes and problems. Houses in a Lisu village are built using easy techniques. They are built directly on the ground as opposed to other Hill Tribes which build their houses on stilts. The roof is made of cogon grass and bamboo is used for the walls of the structure. Some houses are built from mud, however in the present day, these type of houses are rarely seen. Within the house there are normally four rooms, for the parents, daughters, sons and guests. In the middle of the far wall inside the house is an ancestoral alter (Da bia) which cannot be touched by anyone, except during ceremonies. Traditionally meals used to be cooked on the fireplace inside the house, however, nowdays they are cooked in the kitchen, a separate building outside.

Despite the changes occurring through globalisation, Lisu still follow their culture and traditions. This is because Lisu believe that if there is culture, then there is life, without culture there is no life (Lee biar show shua).

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 April 2010 05:52 )

The Mien

Tuesday, 20 April 2010 14:28 |   


The Mien originated in Southern China, where extensive groups of Mien remain. The Mien language comes from the Meo-Yao branch of the Sino-Tibetan family, but has been influenced extensively by Yunnanese. Yao is one of the few Hill Tribes who have their own written language, derived from historical Chinese lettering.

Traditionally Mien people dwell in highlands at an elevation of around 1,000m. They plant upland rice, corn vegetables and are now turning frequently to cash crops such as cabbages or fruit trees. The Mien live in extended family groups, where polygamy is accepted. Because their agricultural practices, adapted from the Chinese, require considerable labour, children are often adopted to increase the labour available within the family.

Mien women are easily recognised by their charateristic dress. They wear a large flowing black coat, tied at the back. A large red muff lines the front of the coat. In formal dress, the women wear beautifully embroidered trousers.

Their first pair is embroidered for their wedding ceremony. Mien women are well known for the embroidery cross stitch which they work from the back. This allows either side of the embroidery to be used. Unfortunately young women nowdays do not have enough time to learn many of the extensive techniques, and these are now disappearing and being replaced by a much easier flowery pattern.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 April 2010 05:52 )

Discrimination against Hill Tribes

เมื่อ Aug 21, 2007 05:16:10 โดย admin

Discrimination against Hill Tribes Nisa Chamsuwan and Jirawat Poomsrikaew (Nisa Chamsuwan is a Rotary World Peace scholar currently studying at Japan’s International Christian University and Jirawat Poomsrikaew is an international trade analyst at Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce.) At the main check point in Chaiprakarn district of Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai, police officers got into a Chiang Mai-Fang bus and demanded to check the identification cards of all passengers. One officer held the identity card of a young man up and spoke loudly, as if he wanted the whole bus to listen to him: “Khon Tang Dao (alien people).” He giggled. “If we cut off the mai tho tone mark in that word, then it means you are a man from another planet,” the police officer said. Most passengers laughed. Such an identity check reported by The Nation newspaper is routine and a familiar scene for people travelling along the Chiang Mai-Fang road, as well as other roads along the 20 provinces in the country where ethnic hill tribe villagers live. It can be a most embarrassed situation for those with “alien” status or without any at all. Hill tribe people though were born and have lived in Thailand-the “land of the free”-for several decades, have never received the same economic, social, cultural and political rights as other Thais. They are not even given citizenship. They are deprived of basic human rights. Without protection from the government, they are often taken advantage by local authorities and business people who make profit from their ambiguous status. The problem is deeply rooted in Thailand’s statebuilding process, which ignored the contradiction between modern concepts of territorial boundary and peoples’ social relationships and the histories of their interactions with the land. As Thailand moves forward swiftly to partake in globalisation and undertake free trade and investment liberalisation, it is leaving some people behind-those who are not only marginalised, but, even worse, left out of the process. To reintegrate these people back into the Thai society, political will, empowerment, local participation, nondiscrimination and equality are mandatory. Denial of Citizenship, Other Rights Hill tribes are ethnic minorities who live in the high land as well as remote areas deep in mountains in the northern and southwestern parts of Thailand. Nine hill tribes are officially recognised by the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Provincial Administration, namely: Karen, Akha, Hmong, Lahu, Lisu, Mien, Khamu, Lua and Mlabri. Although these ethnic minorities have been in Thailand for generations or have migrated from neighbouring countries for over the past 50 years, many of them are still denied registration for an identification card. Instead, they have been given a special card that restricts certain rights of the holders. About 400,000 hill tribe people are classified as non-citizens, nearly half of the country’s almost one million hill tribe population, according to figures provided by the Law Society of Thailand last year. Non-citizen hill tribes are one of the most vulnerable groups. Without proper political status, they face expulsion when their temporary stay provided by the government expires. Without nationality and being treated as second-class citizens, they have suffered multiple discrimination and deprivation of basic human rights that directly leads them to live in extreme poverty. Hill tribe people are often humiliated by the majority Thais. Sometimes, they are called “meo,” which stands for ethnic minority Hmong, but at the same time also means a cat. This expression disgraces hill tribe people since it implies that they are dirty and stupid. Their access to education is limited although the Ministry of Education issued a regulation in 1992 which gave guidelines to provide education to children without domicile and with non-Thai nationality and to provide a certificate of education to such students upon completion of studies. Yet education personnel and schools often do not accept hill tribe children for admission as they do not know about the ministerial regulation. Some schools, although admitting these students, do not provide them with scholarships, food subsidies and quota to continue their education. Without financial and material support, many of them are unable to continue their studies. Only 19 per cent of the total primary school hill tribe students carried on with their secondary education last year. Equally important, many schools do not issue these students with certificates upon completion of studies. These practices obstruct the hill tribe students from pursuing their further studies or obtaining gainful jobs. Underground Economy Being non-citizens and illiterate and lacking employment opportunities, many hill tribe people are pushed into the underground economy, particularly in women and children trafficking. Many girls and women choose to go into sex work because it is more remunerative. The severity of the situation is emphasised by David Feingold, an international coordinator for the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) projects on trafficking. Feingold, also a UNESCO representative on the interagency working group on trafficking for the Mekong sub-region, says hill tribe people “cannot use the education to go out and get a good job… they are going to be more open to the kinds of situations that they are going to be exploited and the dirty little secret of trafficking is, most girls are not trafficked, they become trafficked, in other words, they leave their villages voluntarily, often because of economic conditions and along the way they can get pushed into coercive situations”. According to statistics, one in three Thai sex workers came from the highlands. The living conditions of the hill tribes have also been aggravated by land shortage. Hill tribes are agricultural communities. They live in the forest and earn their living from farming. Absence of the right to land ownership means they can be easily forced to move out of the areas they have cultivated for generations. Conflict often occurs when the land in which the communities have lived and cultivated for decades is being announced as a forest conservation area. This problem directly links to issues of community rights and resource management, forced relocation and discrimination. For example, 48 people of Pang Daeng village in Chiang Mai’s Chiang Dao district were arrested on encroachment charges in a forest conservation area on July 23. It was the third time that there were Pang Daeng villagers being arrested. Yet there was no prosecution against the numerous largescale encroachments in the area by owners of orange farms, resorts, golf courses and other commercial enterprises. The ousted tribal families had suffered hardships including malnutrition, according to an urgent appeal of the Asian Human Rights Commission. Their eviction from the area shows discrimination against hill tribe people. The freedom of movement of noncitizen hill tribes is also restricted. They are allowed to travel only in limited areas specified in their special card. Official permission is necessary for travelling out of the specified areas. Police can arrest them if they are found in areas beyond the districts. Without an identification card, that also means the tribals have no passport and travelling abroad is out of the question. Although the law guarantees everyone the right to health, access to health care of hill tribes is still limited. Those noncitizens cannot obtain public health care service since their names are not registered in the census. Many officials and hospital personnel refuse to treat them on the grounds of budget constraint. Although hill tribe people were born and have lived in Thailand for decades, they face discrimination and are deprived of basic human rights due to their minority status and lack of citizenship. Most of them even do not appear in the official data collection. But why have they not been treated as Thais, part of the Thai society? Being Excluded from Thai State To understand the root cause of why hill tribes are discriminated and deprived of basic human rights by the Thai state, we need to consider how the state was developed. Before the Thai central authority effectively expanded its power to remote provinces, people were allowed to earn their livings by collecting products in the forests on the borders and travel through the areas at the frontiers, or settle close to frontier towns without permission. However, once the nation state was formed and the modern concept of territorial boundary was implemented, continuation of traditional agricultural and social practices of hill tribe peoplemoving back and forth within what have come to be several national territorieswere not only prohibited but also perceived as practices that undermined state sovereignty and represented disloyalty to the nation. In addition, being ethnically and culturally different from the majority of the country, hill tribes began to be considered as “other”, “external” or “non-Thai” that was “problematic” and posed a threat to national security. In fact, the concept of “Thainess” is not yet finalised since the Thai people are more a fusion of various ethnic groups. Still, political recognition of Thainess as a homogeneous and unified nation has a strong influence to what the general public think of what Thai is and what it is not. What is, in fact, “internal” can be considered as “alien” or “external”. One striking example is the perception of communism and Thai communism. In the Cold War propaganda, communism was seen as the number one enemy and external to Thainess. But the presence of Thai communists contradicted such a definition. As a result, the Thai communists were called “the deceived”. Similarly, being accused of causing deforestation, producing opium, involving in communist insurgency and trafficking in drugs, hill tribes are seen as “them” not “us”. These concepts form a negative perception of the authorities and ordinary Thais towards the hill tribe people. Since hill tribes have lived in the remote areas especially in the mountains which are difficult to reach, they were initially excluded in the official census. To obtain citizenship, they need to show official or written documents to prove their connection with Thailand. Negative attitude of the authorities towards hill tribes plays an important role in the application process. It explains why the consideration process for their legal status has taken a long time and made little progress. Of the 50,000 applications for alien status with permanent residence, only 14,000 have been forwarded to the provincial level and just 475 have reached the Interior Ministry, according to a news report by The Nation. The problem also reflects in the demand for extra documents beyond what are required by law to process the application. Some authorities simply refuse to take applications from the villagers or request a little “tea money” to grease the wheels. Some local authorities just ignore the new regulations which allow for civilian rather than official witnesses to back the applications. Even worse, in 2002, local authorities revoked the citizenship of 1,243 hill tribe people in Mae Ai village of Mae Hongson province without due process on the grounds that they were suspected of being Burmese. Though the Administrative Court ordered the local authorities to reinstate their citizenship, the case obviously shows how hill tribe people have been marginalised. Need to Embrace Hill Tribes It is misleading to consider problems faced by hill tribe people merely a humanitarian matter since they are related to bigger issues of Thainess, national security, environment (deforestation), opium production and human migration. To integrate hill tribe people into our society, political will is indispensable. True understanding of the hill tribe culture and their way of life is a preliminary requirement. Negative attitude and suppressive approach towards hill tribes need to be changed. For example, a misunderstanding that hill tribes destroy forest and the environment needs to be corrected since a research has shown that their shifting cultivation is, in fact, ecologically friendly. The problem of hill tribe people (not “the hill tribe problem”) needs to be taken into account seriously. They need to be recognised, empowered and provided with basic human rights to prevent them from involving in underground economy and drug trafficking. Their participation in the policies related to them and their locality is also indispensable. The channel to raise their voice peacefully needs to be provided to ensure that they will not choose violent methods as the only means to resolve conflicts. A state generally tries to create an enemy to justify its political and social control during the state-building process. In Thailand, the state chose to create a sense of “otherness” against the minority hill tribes. The marginalisation caused the hill tribe people to face multiple discrimination and human rights violations. The conflicts between the hill tribe people and the state so far have not turned into violence like the current conflicts in the south. The question remains how long the hill tribe people can tolerate such repressions and whatmeasures are required to prevent such scenario. The government needs to seriously take into account the problem of hill tribe people. How to embrace these hill tribes, who live in Thailand and can be of great national human resources but have been left out from the state-building process and not been receiving protection as other citizens, is a challenging task for the government. Human Rights Solidarity:Asian Legal Resource Center www.ahrchk.net ที่มา : Nisa Chamsuwan and Jirawat Poomsrikaew