The highland indigenous peoples of Thailand live in the mountainous areas of northern and western Thailand. As many as 20 different indigenous communities, referred to the government as ‘hill tribes’, totaling 1 million people according to some estimates, live in Thailand and include, among the more numerous, Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Meo (Hmong) and Mien. They are all distinct cultural and linguistic groups: some have been established in this part of Thailand for centuries and live at lower altitudes (like Karen), while others (such as Hmong and Akha) are newer arrivals, having arrived from Burma, China and Laos from about the nineteenth century. While some such as Karen have converted to Christianity or Buddhism, many others continue to practice a form of animism. Most of the indigenous populations living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming or swidden agriculture, and until the 1990s opium cultivation was a major source of income for many of these communities.
A number of highland indigenous peoples such as Karen, Htin and Khamu have inhabited the northern part of Thailand for centuries. Under pressure as the Han Chinese population and conquest expanded into southern parts of what is today China, other highland groups increasingly moved to new parts of South-East Asia. A series of wars with the Qing dynasty during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eventually led to the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Hmong and Mien, for example, into Thailand and neighbouring countries. Other indigenous peoples such as Akha moved into Thailand from neighbouring Burma even later, in the early twentieth century, while some such as Paduang have in fact been established in northern Thailand for hundreds of years, migrating here at about the same time as the ethnic Thais. Prior to their incorporation into the Thai state after 1900, hill tribes were autonomous.
A drive begun in 2001 to register highland indigenous people who had not yet been granted citizenship has reduced the overall number of stateless minorities in Thailand, but has only partially succeeded. As of 2016, an estimated 100,000 indigenous persons remain without citizenship, due in part to a lack of knowledge and understanding by both indigenous peoples and officials about the registration and verification process. Without citizenship, indigenous communities face a lack of access to state resources, such as health and education and restrictions on freedom of movement, which can exacerbate land rights claims. They are also more vulnerable to trafficking, particularly women and girls.
For the most part, highland indigenous communities remain among the poorest of Thailand’s populations. They also have much lower rates of participation in schooling, possibly linked – in addition to poorly equipped and staffed schools – to the almost complete absence of instruction in their mother-tongue in state schools.
Rights to their traditional lands have been a continuing issue with the Thailand authorities. Various forest conservation policies over recent decades have alienated indigenous communities from their lands and territories. More recently, the current Thai administration under General Prayuth issued a decree in 2014 called ‘Return Forest Policy’ and a conservation ‘master plan’ that sought to ‘reclaim’ forests from encroachment, casting indigenous inhabitants as trespassing on protected lands. In a number of cases, land has been confiscated and its residents threatened with imprisonment or fines.
Increased tourism has had an ambiguous effect on indigenous hill tribes: while this form of development has brought much-needed money and job opportunities to Thailand’s mountainous northern region, it has also had an intrusive impact on their cultures. In many cases, outsiders function as middlemen, leaving indigenous locals not in control of the tours or how their cultures are used in promotion and marketing, creating ‘spectacles’ rather than helping them determine their lives and futures.
Updated August 2017
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