HILL TRIBES IN THAILAND
There are six major hill tribes in Thailand—the Akha, Karen, Meo, Yao and , Lahu, and Lisu —with a combined population of about 1 million people. These groups—also known as highland people or highland tribes—live in the mountains of northern and northwestern Thailand, parts of which lie in infamous opium-growing area—the "Golden Triangle" (albeit, much less opium is grown in the Thai part of this region than in the past). For a long time these tribes lacked legal status because they were regarded as stateless people who wandered freely and didn’t recognize international borders or obey national laws.
Some of the smaller groups preceded the Tai-speaking peoples into what is now Thailand, but many are relative latecomers. Many of hill tribe members to first arrive in Thailand were driven out of China, Burma, Laos and Vietnam in the last 100 years. Thailand was home to only a few thousand hill tribe members at the turn of the 20th century. In the past hill tribes were regarded as foreigners by the Thai legal and social system. In recent years, largely through efforts by the Thai king, the tribes have been incorporated into Thai society.
Through natural increase and immigration, the population of the highlands increased from approximately 100,000 in 1948 to about 700,000 in the late 1980s, according to Ministry of Interior estimates. This population growth led to a significant increase in the number of landless people in the highlands. As a result, many of the landless began cultivating forest reserves, thereby accelerating the depletion of the country's forestland.
The exact number of hill tribe members is not known and sometimes estimates of their numbers varies considerably. The varying estimates for specific groups in some cases has reflected the tendency of estimators to include only those still living in relatively isolated mountain communities, whereas other observers might include some or all of those who had come down from the mountains and were at various points in the process of becoming Thai. Observers noted that for some groups, more individuals were in the process of assimilation than remained in the mountain communities that were their traditional homes.
More details on the lives of hill tribe populations can be found in the books edited by Nancy Eberhardt (1988) and McKinnon and Bhruksasri (1983).
The Golden Ttiangle was once the world's largest and most famous opium growing region but production has dropped dramatically—particularly in Thailand—and now Afghanistan is far and away the world’s largest illicit opium producer . Covering an area the size of Nevada and at one time the source of 60 percent of the heroin consumed in United States, it embraces the lovely green mountains and valleys of northern Thailand, western Myanmar (Burma) and northeastern Laos.
Most of the opium and heroin is produced today in the region come from Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos. The section of the Golden Triangle in Thailand is pretty tame these days. Many former opium-growing areas are now popular trekking areas. King Bhumibol of Thailand has been active in promoting alternative crops to opium. Some hill tribe villages see a lot of foreign trekkers. Other are still remote and relatively untouched.
Different Hill Tribe Groups in Thailand
The Tribal Research Institute in Chiang Mai recognizes 10 different hill tribes in Thailand. Most are groups that have migrated into Thailand in the last 200 years from China, Tibet, Myanmar and Laos. The major tribes as we said earlier are the Karen (also known as Kariang, Yang), Hmong (Meo, Miao), Mien (Yao), Lahu (Mussur), Akha (Kaw), and Lisu (Lisaw). Remnants of 1940s Chinese Nationalist military forces and their descendants and children of Vietnamese immigrants also live in northeastern Thailand. [Source: Library of Congress]
The hill tribes in Thailand fall into three main lingustic groups: 1) Tibeto-Burman (Lisu, Lahu, Akha); 2) Karenic (Karen, Kayah) and 3) Austro-Thai (Hmong, Mien). Within each groups are divisions such as Blue Hmong, White Hmog and Striped Hmong, whose names are linked to the clothes they wear. The Shan and Lao are generally not considered hill tribes because they are permanently settled, practice Theravada Buddhism and speak a language similar to Thai.
The languages spoken by the hill peoples falls into three broad categories: 1) Tibeto-Burman (a subfamily of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family); 2) Mon-Khmer (a subfamily of the Austro-Asiatic language family); and 3) the small Miao-Yao language family. The language of the most numerous of these hill peoples, the Karen, is generally considered Sino-Tibetan, but some authorities include it in the subset Tibeto-Burman, or placed it in a category of its own. The other languages included in the Tibeto-Burman category—Akha, Lisu, Lahu, and Jinghpaw (Kachin)—have been estimated as ranging from a few hundred speakers (Jinghpaw) to about 25,000 speakers (Akha). [Source: Library of Congress]
Akha in Thailand fled civil wars in Burma in the 1960s. Some ethnic Karen fighters fled to Thailand from Myanmar and live in refugee camps in Thailand along with genuine Karen regugees. It is estimated that there are approximately 30,000 Hmong living in the mountains of Thailand. Until recently there were several thousand more, originally from Laos, living in refugee camps but they have largely been repatriated now. Most of the Hmong in Thailand fall into two groups: the blue and the white.
The category of Mon-Khmer included a number of highland groups: the Kui (called Soai by the Thai), which totaled between 100,000 and 150,000 in the mid-1960s; the Tin, about 20,000; and several smaller groups, including the Lua (also called Lawa), about 9,000; the Khmu, about 7,600; and the Chaobon, about 2,000. The Kui were said to be largely assimilated into Thai society. The figure for the Khmu pertained only to those presumably living in the highlands in a more or less traditional setting. Substantial numbers were said to be pursuing a Thai way of life.
The Miao-Yao languages were spoken by two peoples, the Hmong and Mien, both originally from China (the terms Miao and Yao are Chinese). There were Hmong and Mien still living in China as well as other Southeast Asian countries. Called Meo by the Thai, the Hmong began to arrive in Thailand in the late nineteenth century, and some continued to migrate directly from China or other neighboring states, particularly Laos. Numbering about 50,000 in 1970, the Hmong were one of the largest groups of hill peoples. An additional 40,000 Hmong fled from Laos to Thailand in 1975, but by the late 1980s many of these had migrated elsewhere, some going to the United States. The Mien were even more recent arrivals, most of them having come from Laos after 1945. Their numbers were estimated at 30,000 in the 1980s. These two groups, particularly the Hmong, were among those affected by the security operations of the Thai government that began in the mid-1960s. These actions occurred in part because the Hmong, like other mountain groups, were said to be destroying forests in the course of practicing their traditional shifting cultivation, and in part because their chief cash crop was the opium poppy.
See Separate Articles on the Akha, Karen, Hmong (for the Meo), Yao, Lahu, Shan, and Lisu Under the Hill Tribes and Famous Ethnic Groups Category Under Hill Tribes and Ethnic Groups
Hill Tribes, the Thai Government and Development
Until the 1970s, the Thai central government tended to regard the hill tribe groups chiefly as opium cultivators engaged in illegal activities. Since that time the highland minorities, through their own efforts and government-organized crop substitution projects, have become involved in the legal market economy of the country. [Source: Library of Congress]
The Thai government has made an effort to bring the hill tribe groups into the mainstream by giving them access to decent medical care and educating them in nikorn or settlement schools. The government, the United Nations and various aid organizations have working hard to replace opium as their major source of income, by encouraging the hill tribes to grow other cash crops such as coffee or beans, and finding markets for their colorful and distinctive crafts, jewelry and textiles.
Many hill tribe villages now have electricity, cell phones, and decent roads. Some have paved roads with storm drains. Television antennas and satellite dishes have sprouted from some huts. Children in the hill tribe schools are taught Thai, some English and their native language. Still many hill tribe members, refugees and migrants are undocumented and have no legal status, Many are taken advantage by human traffickers who force them into prostitution or slave labor.
A typical hill tribe family gets by on an income of less that $500 a year and stuggles to come up with money for medical care and their children’s education . Many end up in the cities in low-paying jobs such as peeling fruit or doing heavy labor at construction sites.
Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in the New York Times: “Population and Development Association's Alberto de la Paz had worried that modernization was pulling too many tribes out of the hills, into urban lives they were not equipped to handle. But some hill-tribe people I met in Chiang Rai city disagreed. I spent the morning with A-Je Chaiyot Kukaewkasem, an Akha man who grew up in a traditional animist village and was put through school and university by a local missionary group. At a dormitory complex A-Je had built, Akha orphans received both a modern and a traditional education. The children seemed to be prospering: Bursting with energy, they spent the morning chasing each other around a soccer field. [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, New York Times, April 25, 2004]
King Bhumibol’s Effort to Stop Opium Growing Among Thailand's Hill Tribes
The Royal Project is an initiative of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej to help develop highlands in northern Thailand on a sustainable basis. It has gained recognition worldwide for its success in eradicating opium poppies and improving the well-being of the people. The Royal Project involves the growing of a wide variety of cash crops, especially temperate plants, to replace opium cultivation, improve the living conditions of hill tribe people, and eliminate the slash-and-burn technique of clearing land. It began operations in 1969 and has now expanded significantly, with more than 100,000 people benefiting from it.
The program began in the late 1960s, when His Majesty stayed at the royal palace in Chiang Mai Province, and visited and talked to hill tribe villagers living in the mountainous area about their needs. He asked them about their source of income. They said that their income came from growing opium and peaches, with the the income from opium and peaches being about the same. At that time, tribal people living on highlands had become a problem to the government, partly because of their destructive slash-and-burn technique of clearing land, as well as opium production.
In a speech at Chiang Mai University in 1969, His Majesty said that he intended to help hill tribe people grow useful crops that would give higher income than growing opium, so that they would switch from opium cultivation to other crops. The project would also support the government’s policy of banning opium cultivation and trade. He pointed out that the traditional farming method of cutting down and burning the forest conducted by hill tribe villagers would lead to forest destruction and deterioration of soil quality. That was how the Royal Project was launched. His Serene Highness Prince Bhisatej Rajani was assigned by His Majesty to carry out his initiative for the establishment of the project.
Originally, the project was called the Royal-sponsored Hilltribe Project. Later, it was changed to the Royal Hilltribe Development Project and then the Royal Northern Project. Now, it is called the Royal Project. The Royal Project was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding in 1988. In the same year, it also received the Thai Export Award 1988 for its outstanding activities to promote Thai exports of fresh vegetables and fruit and canned fruit. The Royal Project won an award from the Drug Advisory Program of the Colombo Plan in Sri Lanka in December 2003 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Drug Advisory Program.
King Bhumibol founded the Royal Project in part to make ethnic minorities in northern Thailand part of Thai society. In the 1960s he ventured often to northern Thailand, where he established a special relationship with the Hmong, Akha, Lahu and other hill tribes. He often used the medium of pigs to communicate with the Hmong. Pigs are the centerpiece of many Hmong ceremonies. In addition to helping farmers find replacements for opium, the King has helped hill tribes to build irrigation dams, increase crop yields and cover denuded hills to prevet soil erosion.
The Thai king told an interviewer that once a man came to him to complain that his wife had left him for another man after he paid two pigs and some money for her. After deliberating with the two parties involved the king reached into his wallet and paid the man compensation, something which made both parties happy. "The only trouble was I gave the money. So the woman belonged to me," the king said. He solved this problem by "bestowing" the woman to his cousin Prince Bhisatej Rajani, an important advisor for the king in the northern highlands.
From it humble start, the Royal Project has expanded significantly. Royal Project farmers now grow more than 300 crops, thanks to their training in the methods of growing new crops. The Royal Project helps them collect, distribute, and sell highland produce, while improving their quality of life through education, health care, and environmental preservation.
The dowager queen, Princess Sri Nakarindra Borom, who died in July 1995, is revered by hill tribes for the work she did to improve their lives.
Small Ethnic Groups That Live in Laos and Thailand
The Sek Noi is a group with about 30,000 members that live on both sides of the Mekong in northeastern Thailand and cental Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao society. The So is a group with about 160,000 or so members that live on both sides of the Mekong in northeastern Thailand and cental Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao society.
The Kui is a group with about 100,000 members that lives in east-central Thailand, northeast Cambodia and Laos. They are closely related to the Chaobon, Chomg, Pear and similar groups and are believed to be have lived in the region before the Lao and Thais. They practice wet rice agriculture and have largely been assimilated by local groups.
The Chaobon is a small ethnic group that lives in central and northern Thailand. There are only about 16,000 of them. They are wet-rice farmers and have largely been assimilated into Thai culture. Their villages look like Thai villages and Buddhism has largely replaced their traditional animist beliefs. They are sometimes erroneously called the “Lawa.” They call themselves “Niakuoll.” “Chaebon,” meaning “hill people,” is what the Thais call them.
The Khamu live mostly in Nan Province. The live in houses with dirt floors and roofs with crossed beams. They are regarded as skilled metal workers and make regular offering to Salok, the god of the forge.
The Lua are a small tribe with about 10,000 members that live mainly on the Bo Luang Plateau area in northern Thailand, near the towns of Chiang Mai, Pai and Ban Mae Sariang Thailand. Also known as the Lawa, Luwa or Lava, they speak a distinctive language, either in the Palaung-Wa or Mon-Khmer group of Austroasiatic languages, and practice Buddhism and animism. [Source: Peter Kundstadter, National Geographic July 1966]
Unlike other Southeast Asian hill tribes, the Lawa have Melanesian features similar to those of black people living in Papua New Guinea and on islands in the western Pacific. Some have assimilated into Thai culture and practice wet rice agriculture. Others live in small mountain villages and raise corn, dry-land rice and vegetables.
According to some anthropologist and scholars, the Lua have lived in Thailand longer than any other hill tribe (900 years). They probably emigrated to Thailand from Burma, and they are probably related to the Wa tribe, a fierce group of former-head-hunters who now controls some of the major opium growing areas in Myanmar.
According to legend the Lawa were chased into the mountains by a gigantic rolling stone. Some Lawa believe that a massive boulder lying in the small river valley of Mae La Noi, Thailand is the infamous rolling stone. When the Lawa walk past this boulder they are not are supposed to speak their own language out of fear that the stone will recognize them and begin rolling again.
The Karen have been the traditional enemy of the Lua. Karens migrating into Thailand from their homeland in Myanmar have pushed the Lua off their land in Thailand. The Lua use to warn each other of Karen raids by beating on drums.
A Lawa tribe in northern Thailand had been received Bible training for 12 years from Christian missionaries and then suddenly forbade the missionaries from entering their homes.
Lua Life and Marriages
Lua sometimes eat dog but they also have a great love of animals. Anthropologist Peter Kunstadter observed one old woman nurse a puppy back to health after it broke its neck in a rice pounding machine. Lawa women smoke tobacco and marijuana from curved pipes decorated with silver.
If someone gets sick sometimes the gall bladder of a chicken is examined for omens—shiny ones filled with liquid, for example, are a good. Kundstadter observed a patient whose illness was diagnosis by counting the number of grains in the bowl of rice he just ate. Tthe treatment—sacrificing a black dog and a white chicken—didn't work so a specialist was called in to capture the disease-causing evil spirits and implant them into a hard boiled egg. The treatment was called a success when the hard boiled egg was balanced on a stick.
The Lua have traditionally gotten married when they were in their mid- to late-teens. Before a Lua wedding, the "crying and whimpering" bride is kidnapped from her hut by the grooms friends or family. The bride was often carried away on horseback and was expected to cry for help and her family gave chase in half hearted manner. Most of the time, but not always, the bride knows the abduction is coming and usually it is by friends of a boy she likes. Afterwards the groom's family visits the family of the bride to discuss the bride price. In the 1960s the going rate was several pieces of silver and couple of pigs. After the wedding ceremony, in which the couple's wrists are tied, the women form a procession and carry the brides' weaving equipment and pots and pans to her husband's house.
Animal sacrifices are held by hill tribes to help sick relatives, assure that good spirits watch over their children, and appease the spirits at healing ceremonies, weddings, house christening and births. In ascending order of importance, chickens, dogs, pigs and water buffalo are all sacrificed. A small ceremony to cure a cold may require only one chicken while the wedding of the son of a chief might result in the sacrifice of many water buffalos. Occasionally, a pig is sacrificed for no other reason than because people are hungry for meat.
In a sacrifice, the spirits only take the spirit of the dead animal, which means that animal itself, including the meat, the ears, nose and tail, eyelashes and hoof slivers, are divided among the villagers. The Thai government used to have a tax on sacrificed animals which the Lua tribes skirted by claiming the animal accidently hung itself, and they had no other choice but to slaughter it.
Wrist-tying is a custom performed by many hill tribes do to keep an individual's 64 souls within the body and ward off evil spirits. At weddings tying cotton strings around their wrists is the equivalent of exchanging rings. Some tribes place a brass rings around the wrist as a welcoming gesture to new initiates. Even elephants are rewarded with wrist-tying ceremonies for working. particularly hard. One villager told Kundstadter that he realized elephants don't have wrists, "but they have souls and that is the important thing."
Lua Villages and Homes
Most Lua live in small villages ruled by a "big samang," a combination headman, shaman and religious leader. One Lua villager told anthropologist Peter Kundstadter in National Geographic: "If we didn't have a samang, we would have to live like apes and monkeys in the jungle." The samang presides over all religious ceremonies except for funerals (the Lua believe that a samang who sets foot in a cemetery loses his powers). Any time an animal is sacrificed or a wild animal is killed in the jungle a leg is given to the samang.
Lua houses are purposely arranged in a haphazard way. The Lua believe that aligned houses are bad luck, and if rain from one house drips into rain from another house it may cause sickness. Villagers told Kundstadter that it is also bad luck to build a house next to a trail...Why?... "Because if an elephant bumps into your house, that is very bad luck."
Lua houses traditionally have been built with thatched roofs (cool in hot weather and warm in cool weather) and set on stilts (which prevent the house from being flooded during the wet season). In the 1960s it cost about $35 to build such a house. This price included timber stilts and beams, bamboo poles for the walls, bamboo mats for floors, labor, two pigs for a feast and a dog and two chickens for a sacrifice. Gathering the materials from the forest and preparing them took about three days; building the house took only a day. The hardest task is setting the timber stilts and building the frame. The construction of the fireplace (a wooden frame filled with sand) is "entrusted only to older men."
Traditionally dressed Lua women wear plain smock-like dresses or long white or grey tunics and black skirts with horizontal red and white lines. They adorn themselves with less jewelry than other hill tribes (some beads and bracelets); smear their faces with rice powder to keep their skin young and fresh; and don black tunics during special ceremonies.
Lua. men usually wear baggy pants or sarongs and western-style shirts, or traditional Thai short-sleeve smock shirts made from white homespun cotton. Some Lawa men also tattoo themselves between their waist and knees with tiger and ape designs as a sign of manhood and for protection from evil spirits and wild animals. Lawa shaman wear shirts decorated with spirals of red chord.
The Lua sometimes still make their own cotton cloth. First the seeds are removed from the cotton with a machine consisting of hand-cranked rollers. Then the fluffy balls of cotton are turned into thread with a hand-turned spinning wheel. After the thread is sorted, dyed and washed it is made into cloth with a bamboo belt loom with foot-operated bamboo pedals, a hand-operated wooden carding system and poles for the yarn.
The Tai Lue are an ethnic group associated mostly with the Xishuabgbanna region in the Yunnan Province in China but who have some members that live in Burma and Thailand. They are a subgroup of the Dai and are similar to the Thai and Lao. The have traditionally been rice cultivators and lived in tropical and semitropical monsoon forests along river valleys and in pockets of level land in the hill country of northeast Burma, northwest Thailand and southern China. See Dai, Minorities, China
The Tai Lue are also known as Bai-yi, Dai, Lawam Lu, Luam Lue, Pai-I, Pai-yi, Shui Bai-yi, Shui Dai, Tai. Thais sometimes call them Lua or Lawa. They migrated to the Nan area of northern Thailand from China’s Xishuangbann region in Yunnan Province about 200 years ago. There is no good information on Tai Lue numbers in Myanmar. In Thailand, there are maybe 100,000 of them and they live in communities scattered throughout northern Thailand.
The Tai Lue live mostly in Nan Province near the Laos border. Nearly all are Theravada Buddhists. The Tai Lue language is very similar to the Lao and Thai languages. The written languages resembles Burmese. They have traditionally lived in wooden or bamboo thatched houses supported on thick wooden stilts. Beneath the house they placed their kitchens and weaving looms. Many still make their own cloth, often died with indigo. Their traditions remain strong. Many villages are under the leadership of a headman and astrologer. Tai Lue fabric is regarded as among the best in northern Thailand and their temple architecture—featuring thick walls, small windows, nanga lintels and two- or three-tiered roofs—have had a strong influence on temples in Nan and Phrae Provinces.
The T’in are an ethnic minority that lives in northern Thailand and northern Laos. Similar to the Kmhmu, Lamet and other Mon-Khmer hill people in Thailand and Laos, they are short, stocky with black hair and have a complexion that is darker than their lowland neighbors. They have traditionally lived among Hmong, Yuan, Lue and Lao and have been involved in the opium trade
The T’in are also known as the Chao Dol, Htin, Kati, Kha Che, Kha Pai, Kha T’in, Lawa, Lua, Kwa, Mai, Pai, P’ai, Pra, P’u, Pai, Thin, Toe, Tin. They live in Nan Province in Thailand and and Xagnabouri (Sayaboury) Province in Laos to the southwest of Luang Prabang. They have traditionally lived in the mountain ranges between the Mekong River and Mae Nam Nan Rivers. There are perhaps 40,000 T’in, with about three fourths of them in Thailand. Most live in Nan Province in northern Thailand and Sayaburi Province in Laos.
The T’in are mostly animist and shamanists. They speak a Mon-Khmer language, closely related to Kmhmu and have many borrowed words from Lao and Yuan. They have no written language. They are believed to have lived in the Mekong area of northern Laos for centuries and migrated into Thailand in the 19th and 20th centuries to escape internecine warfare between lowlanders and highlanders and find better farmland.
The T’in have traditionally believed in spirts associated with natural phenomena and deceased human beings. There are village guardian spirits, mountain and water spirits, and jungle spirits. Most spirits are regarded as overly sensitive and capricious. Great care must be taken not to offend them. Offended spirits are believed to be the cause illnesses and natural disasters.
Most traditional villages have a part time spirit specialist selected by the village elders. He presides over rituals, weddings and funeral communicates with the spirits, and performs sacrifices. The T’in observe a 10-day work week with a holy day of rest. During the New Year festival in mid-April villagers drink lots of rice liquor through straws and the village priest goes into a trance and communicates with the spirits. Many festivals are often tied to the agriculture cycle and involve the sacrifices of a pig or a dog.
The T’in believe that people have 32 souls. The loss of one or more souls can cause illnesses of varying degrees. Poor health caused by souls by spirits can be restored if the spirits are convinced through rituals to return the souls to the body. Loss of all the souls results in death.
The dead are usually wrapped in bamboo mat and blanket and buried in the jungle with some possessions. The funeral is a loud affair, with singing, drinking and wailing by family members and friends. The house of the deceased is purified and cleansed of evil spirits. On the 10th day after death some ashes are placed on winnowing tray and the dead are asked to walk over them. If no patterns appear the deceased has become an ancestral spirit. If markings do appear they may indicate the dead has been reborn as a dog, pig or chicken.
T’in Marriage and Family
Traditionally, boys marry when they are in their late teens and girls marry when they are in their mid teens. Courting is carried out in groups and sometimes involves singing love songs, and giving small gifts. If a boy is interested in a girl he informs his parents and they contact the girl’s parents. Groom’s provide a bride-price or do a bride service. Premarital sex is a serious taboo. Violators have to make an expensive sacrifice.
Most marriages are monogamous. First cousin marriages are encouraged. The wedding ceremony often takes place at a village-wide feast after the couple has begun living together and involves a ritual in which a village priest calls on the groom’s ancestor spirits and ask for their blessing. There is usually a feast at the house of the bride’s family in which the groom is introduced to the bride’s ancestors.
Afterward the couple often lives with the bride’s family until the groom finishes his bride service. The couple forms their own household after they have their own children. Divorces are common and easy to get .
Both nuclear and extended families are common. The youngest child usually lives with the parents permanently and takes care of them in their old age. Both parents, grandparents and sibling take part in child rearing. Young children are rarely disciplined. When boys and girls are still young they begin working in the fields, looking after younger siblings and taking on other responsibilities.
Men tend to hunt, do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, trade with lowlanders and brew liquor. Women—with the help of their children—do weeding, harvesting, carrying and processing crops, gathering wild fruits, collecting water, feeding the pigs, growing vegetables, cooking and household chores.
T’in villages are very egalitarian. When there is rank it is based more on age, wisdom and experience than wealth or ancestry. Although some patrilineage organization is found, T’in society seems to be rooted more in village bonds and friendship Villagers are led by and disputes are settled by villages elders, a headman and a village priest. The headman position seems to be a fairly recent innovation, created primarily as a response to pressures from lowlanders. There is a strong social code against violence and displays of anger. Threats of supernatural punishment are used to maintain social control.
T’in Villages and Homes
The T’in generally live in hilly areas that were once and still are covered by tropical rain forests, and often live in village interspersed with Hmong, Yuan, Lue, Lao and Mien villages. Their villages, made up of between four and 100 households, are often situated on the slopes of mountains at an elevation between 300 and 1,300 meters. Many of their villages have village gates and carved wooden spirit posts.
Houses are raised off the ground on stilts or piles and have a wood frame, bamboo walls and roofs thatched with grass. There house have no nails or other metal because of Tin taboo The entrance faces west and is reached by a wooden ladder or a notched log. Flimsy bamboo partitions divide the rooms, Rattan mats are used for sleeping and sitting. Rice is stored in a separate raised granary. Every household has rice pounder. The houses are not built to last in part because the T’in have traditionally moved every few years when the soil was exhausted or there was some sort of bad omen.
T’in Agriculture and Economics
The T’in practice mostly slash and burn agriculture and grow glutinous (sticky) dry rice as their main crop. They also grow betel, tobacco, and opium mostly for their own consumption, and maize, millet, root vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, gourds, and cucumbers for food.. Pig and chicken are the primary source of meat and protein. They are kept for sacrifices and food. Some times they are sold to lowlanders.
The T’in earn money from selling salt collected from salt wells and miang (fermented tea leaves chewed as a mild stimulant). They collect medical herbs, wild fruit and foods and in the forest and hunt deer, wild pigs, wild fowl, rabbits and bears with crossbows and rifles. Some fishing is done with nets and poison.
The T’in sell, trade and peddle miang and sell pigs cattle and wild animals to lowlanders. With the money they buy rice, medicine, blankets, clothes, pots, flashlights, matches, beads, earrings and manufactured goods. They are very skilled at manipulating bamboo into useful things like floor mats and baskets as well artistic creations like musical instruments and bold geometric patterns made by weaving black grass into woven bamboo. They also extract salt from salt wells.
The T’in are primarily subsistence farmers. They are not known as being traders or craftsmen. Slash and burn agricultural land is not owned and is cultivated by whoever clears it. Disputes over land are settled by headmen. Irrigated wet rice land is often privately owned and is inheritable.
Mlabri (Yumbri, Yellow Leaves)
The Mlabri (also spelled Mrabri and Mabri) is an ethnic minority in northern Thailand made up of perhaps 200 or so former hunter gatherers. They live near borders of Phrae and Nan Provinces near Hahn Boon Yeun in Phrae Province . They have traditionally used stone tools and collected wild fruits and roots and hunted small animals. They were once strictly hunter-gatherers. By the 1990s some were working as field laborers for the Thais or other hill tribes such as the Hmong in exchange for pigs and cloth.
The Mlabri are also known as the Yumbri (Yellow Leaves) and Ma Ku. Thais call them the Phil Thong Leung (“Spirits of the Yellow Leaves”). Laos call them the Kha Tong Luang (“Slaves of the Yellow Leaves”). They refer to themselves as the Mlabri ( Forest People). They appear to be a remnant of an Astraloid tribe that lived in Southeast Asia before the arrival of Thais and hill tribes. Ethnically, the Mabri are part of the Mon-Khmer family, unrelated to the forest dwelling Semang (Orang Asli), people of southern Thailand, who are a Negrito tribe. (The commonly-used term Sakai is pejorative.) They are a relic population of the Mon-Khmer who occupied much of Southeast Asia prior to the migrations of Tai groups into Laos and northern Thailand
According to the Joshua Project approximately 300 Mlabri live in Nan and Phrae provinces of Thailand, and 22 Mlabri people, in four families, live in the Phiang District of Xaignabouri Province of Laos. The group in Laos had 24 members in 1985. Epidemics and a decrease of their resources has almost wiped them out. There is another group of about 300 people called Kha Tong Luang in Laos, who practice the same customs. They live in remote mountains on the Laos-Vietnam border. The Mlabri and this later group are not linguistically related, and are separated by a considerable distance. To complicate matters, the Pakatan in Laos are also labeled Kha Tong Luang by the Lao. [Source: Joshua Project]
The Mlabri were called the Yellow Leaves because that is what their crude soot-stained shelters looked like after they left. In the past the they were exterminated as vermin by Thais and used as forced labor by the Hmong to repay "pork debts" for gifts of pigs. Today, deforestation has made their traditional way of life impossible. Some women make a living by taking off their blouses and posing as bare-breasted savages for Thai and foreign tourists.
Mlabri Culture and Life
Many Yellow Leaves are animists. Little is known about their belief system other than that they believe they can not cultivate land themselves; tigers are angry souls of the dead; and heavy rains, which they call “monster farts,”can swallow up people whole. They also believe evil spirits inhabit trees, fear rainbows, which they believe are monsters who devour human flesh, and are afraid to talk about unpleasant things out of fear that talking about them may cause them to happen. Mothers don’t like their children to be complemented out of fear that the complements will attract the attention of disease-causing evil spirits. Few will reveal their rel names out of fear of attracting evil spirits.
Many Yellow Leaves practice multiple-monogamy, with a woman changing husbands every five or six years or so and bringing her children to the next union. Men have traditionally worn a small piece of cloth to cover their groin while women often wore clothes cast off by other tribes. The Mlabri of live in temporary ground-level shelters made of a wooden frame and covered with banana leaves. When the leaves wither and turn yellow the Mlabri abandon their homes and move to a different area to hunt for food. This cycle usually repeats itself every 5-15 days. Many can’t recognize their own faces in photographs or mirrors.
The Mlabri reportedly have extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and herbs. They can reportedly treat poisonous snake bites and poisonous centipede bites and promote fertility with herbs. They reportedly have also developed effective herbal medicine that works as a contraceptive, When a member dies they are placed in a tree to be eaten by birds.
In 1991 some groups still lived in forest shelters in Nan although it is now believed that all populations have moved or been relocated to villages with at least minimal access to schools and health care. The once vast forest that was once has largely been deforested due too agriculture and logging and game is scarce. The hunter-gather life has all but disappeared. Many Yellow Leaves do some gathering and hunt sometimes with archaic rifles and spears but few migrate in a traditional fashion anymore. Most wear ragged clothes. Many work for other tribes. Because they have traditionally frowned upon material possessions sometimes they are not compensated for their work.
As few as 150 Mlabri were left in the late 1990s. At that time about 40 lived in the Rong Khwang district of Phrae under the control of American missionary Eugene Long, who called himself Boonyuen Suksaneh, in a village the Mlabri call Ban Boonyuen. In 1992 some Mlabri families abandoned Ban Noonyuen and settled in Hmong villages in Phrae and Nan. Another 100 or so lived in Nan. The Thai government set up the “Pre-Agricultural Development of Mlabri Society Project” to help them adapt to rural life without losing their culture. But as the of the late 1990s some of them were living in near slave-like conditions, their anti-materialistic leanings exploited by other peoples who exploited them for work and gave them little compensation. Some anthropologist believe some may still migrate in the traditional way. But most agree they will become assimilated into Thai society within one or two generations. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet]
The greatest threat to Mlabri culture comes from the New Tribe Mission (NTB), a born-again Christian missionary group run by Eugene and Mary Long that has provided the tribe with health care, food and education but is also determined to convert them to Christianity. NTB has instructed the Mlabri how to raise crops; requires children who attend school to bath daily; conducts Bible lessons; and limits television watching time to 90 minutes in the evenings. Despite all this there has never been a known Christian among the Mlabri in either Laos or Thailand. NTB has worked among the Mlabri for more than 20 years in Thailand.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014