ETHNIC GROUPS IN THAILAND
Approximately 75 percent of the population are Thai, and 14 percent are ethnic Chinese. Other ethnic groups include Malay-speaking Muslims (4 percent), Khmers (1.3 percent), Soai, or Kui (1.3 percent), Karen (1.3 percent), and Indians and Pakistanis (.4 percent). There are maybe 100,000 people of Indian, Pakistani or South Asian descent. Westerners are known as farangs. Farang is the accepted word for a foreigner and doesn’t implicitly have negative connotations
Additionally, as of 2004 Thailand hosted some 188,400 refugees from Burma, many of them ethnic, non-Thai-speaking Karen who fled their country in the face of fighting between Karen rebels and Burmese troops. An estimated 1 million members of hill tribes, collectively called “highlanders,” live in the northwest. Remnants of 1940s Chinese Nationalist military forces and their descendants and children of Vietnamese immigrants live in northeastern Thailand. [Source: Library of Congress]
In the 1980s it was estimated that Chinese constituted about 11 percent of the population, Malay about 3 percent, and long-term resident (as opposed to refugee) Khmer less than 1 percent. The remaining minority groups ranged in number from a few hundred to more than 100,000. Of these, the largest group was the Karen, estimated at about 250,000 in the 1980s. Some of the minority groups spoke languages of the Tai family but differed in several ways from the core Thai.
See Separate Articles
REGIONAL AND TAI-SPEAKING GROUPS OF THAILAND factsanddetails.com ;
LUK KRUENG (PEOPLE OF MIXED THAI BLOOD) factsanddetails.com ;
LAWA factsanddetails.com ;
LUA (T’IN) PEOPLE factsanddetails.com ;
MUSLIMS AND ISLAM IN THAILAND AND THE THAI PAK TAI IN SOUTHERN THAILAND factsanddetails.com ;
ISAN PEOPLE AND NORTHEAST THAILAND (ISAAN) factsanddetails.com ;
MOKEN SEA NOMADS: HISTORY, LIFE AND CULTURE factsanddetails.com ;
MOKEN IN THE MODERN WORLD factsanddetails.com ;
CHINESE IN THAILAND factsanddetails.com ;
MON PEOPLE factsanddetails.com ;
HILL TRIBES FROM THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE factsanddetails.com;
MINORITIES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA AND SOUTH CHINA: HISTORY, LANGUAGE AND RELIGION factsanddetails.com;
LIFE AND CULTURE OF TRIBAL GROUPS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA AND SOUTH CHINA factsanddetails.com;
HILL TRIBE ECONOMY, AGRICULTURE AND GOVERNMENT factsanddetails.com;
AKHA MINORITY factsanddetails.com;
KAREN MINORITY: HISTORY, RELIGION, KAYAH AND GROUPS factsanddetails.com;
KAREN LIFE AND CULTURE factsanddetails.com;
PADAUNG LONG NECK WOMEN factsanddetails.com;
HMONG MINORITY: HISTORY, RELIGION AND GROUPS factsanddetails.com;
LAHU MINORITY factsanddetails.com;
LAHU PEOPLE LIFE AND CULTURE factsanddetails.com;
WA MINORITY: HISTORY, RELIGION AND FESTIVALS factsanddetails.com;
LISU MINORITY: HISTORY, LANGUAGE, RELIGION AND FESTIVALS factsanddetails.com;
LISU LIFE AND CULTURE factsanddetails.com;
LISU STORIES AND FABLES factsanddetails.com;
YAO (MIEN) MINORITY: GROUPS, BRANCHES AND HISTORY factsanddetails.com;
SHAN MINORITY: THEIR HISTORY, RELIGION AND OTHER PEOPLE IN SHAN STATE factsanddetails.com;
GOLDEN TRIANGLE: OPIUM, HEROIN, KUOMINTANG, HILL TRIBES AND THE CIA factsanddetails.com;
COMBATING ILLEGAL DRUG USE IN THAILAND factsanddetails.com;
KHUN SA: HIS LIFE, ARMY, AND THE OPIUM AND HEROIN TRADE factsanddetails.com GOLDEN TRIANGLE DRUG LORDS: KHUN SA, LO HSING HAN, AND MISS HAIRY LEGS factsanddetails.com
Besides the Tai-speaking minorities, there were a number of peoples speaking languages of other families (although increasing numbers were acquainted with a Thai dialect, especially Central Thai, if they acquired the language in school). Some--such as the Khmer in the eastern portion of the country, the Karen in the northern and western parts of Thailand, and the Malay in the South--found themselves within the boundaries of Thailand as a consequence of conflict and shifting borders. [Source: Library of Congress]
Others, such as many of the hill peoples, were relatively recent migrants from China and the Indochinese Peninsula. They found their way to the peripheries of Thailand either in search of land or to escape political turmoil. Groups entering Thailand that had been minorities in their countries of origin, as hill peoples typically were, became more or less permanent residents of Thailand, although still largely unassimilated. Others, particularly the Mon, who lived in the central region, became substantially integrated.
The groups of Vietnamese who had arrived for various reasons from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries varied in the extent to which they were rooted in Thailand. Some groups of Khmer, refugees from political turmoil in their own country since 1975, were also recent arrivals in Thailand. Finally, there were the Chinese. Of the estimated 6 million in Thailand in 1987, most could be differentiated by the region of China from which they came, when they had arrived, and the extent to which they had been assimilated into Thai society.
Khmer in Thailand
Two groups of Khmer could also be distinguished--long-time inhabitants of Thailand and more recent arrivals. By the midfifteenth century, much of the western region of the Khmer Empire had come under the control of Ayutthaya. Many of the Khmer peoples remained in the area that had come under Thai domination. Five centuries later the protracted civil conflict in Cambodia, which began with the overthrow of the Lon Nol regime in 1975 and included the Vietnam-supported overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in 1979, led to the arrival at the Thai-Cambodian border of additional hundreds of thousands of Khmer. Some Khmer had crossed over into Thailand; many others might be expected to do so if several political obstacles were overcome.
Theravada Buddhists and wet-rice cultivators, the Khmer spoke a language of the Mon-Khmer group and were heirs to a long and complex political and cultural tradition. If long-term resident Khmer and Khmer refugees were both included, there were perhaps as many as 600,000 to 800,000 Khmer living in Thailand in the 1980s. Many of the long-resident Khmer were said to speak Thai, sometimes as a first language, and religious and other similarities contributed over time to Thai-Khmer intermarriage and to Khmer assimilation into Thai society. Newly arrived Khmer, however, were not yet assimilated.
Mon in Thailand
Perhaps the first Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia, and the founders in the seventh century of the kingdom of Haripunjaya near present-day Chiang Mai, the Mon greatly influenced the development of Thai culture. Mon architecture dotted the North, where a number of temples were still inhabited by Mon monks in the 1980s. [Source: Library of Congress]
The Mon, also known as Raman or Tailaing, migrated from Burma during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. They were welcomed by the Chakkri rulers, and their religious discipline helped inspire the reforms made by King Mongkut (Rama IV, reigned 1851-68). The Mon who settled chiefly in the North and the central plain, e.g., at Nonthaburi, Ayutthaya, Lop Buri, Uthai Thani, and Ratchaburi, generally were wet-rice farmers who also had specialized skills such as pottery-making. They maintained a social organization similar to that of the Thai and other lowland cultures. Their villages were governed by Mon headmen, who in turn were responsible to district and provincial officers of Mon ancestry.
Although their language was related to Khmer, the Mon incorporated a large number of Thai words into their vocabulary. Moreover, language differences became less important as Mon children, educated in Thai schools, learned Central Thai. In the 1980s, some Mon still used their own language in certain contexts, but few did not know Thai. In general, the Mon were more integrated into Thai society than any other non-Thai group.
See Separate Article MON PEOPLE factsanddetails.com
Vietnamese in Thailand
Three broad categories of Vietnamese are found in Thailand. The first are the descendants of persons who fled from political upheaval and persecution during the precolonial era in the late eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century. Most of them settled either in Bangkok or in the area southeast of it, and many of their descendants were absorbed into Thai society, although some still lived in villages that were identifiably Vietnamese. Many who came in the nineteenth century were refugees from anti-Catholic persecution by rulers in Cochinchina (southern Vietnam, around the Mekong Delta) before the French established political control over that area.
The second category consisted of persons who opposed the establishment of French domination over all Vietnam in 1884 and presumably expected their stay in Thailand to be short. With some exceptions, however, their descendants and those of other Vietnamese who came to Thailand in the first decades of the twentieth century remained. The earliest arrivals in this category, like their predecessors, mostly came to southeast Thailand. Later immigrants tended to go to the Northeast. The third category included those who fled from Vietnam between the end of World War II in 1945 and the consolidation of North Vietnamese rule over all of Vietnam in 1975. For those who came after the Second Indochina War had ended, Thailand was simply a way station en route to somewhere else, usually the United States.
In the mid-1970s, the number of Vietnamese in Thailand was estimated at between 60,000 and 70,000, most of them in the Northeast.
Most of the 40,000 to 50,000 Vietnamese who came in 1946 and shortly thereafter were driven from Laos by the French, who were then reimposing their rule over all of Indochina. More Vietnamese came later, and, like those who came in the 1920s and 1930s, they expected to return to Vietnam. Between 1958 and 1964 (when the intensification of the war in Vietnam inhibited their return), arrangements were made for the repatriation of Vietnamese to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and an estimated 40,000 left Thailand. Over the years a few families went to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The movements of this period, both voluntary and involuntary, left between 60,000 and 70,000 Vietnamese in Thailand, an undetermined portion of which were post-World War II migrants who could not or would not return to their homeland.
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.
See Articles on the Karen, Akha, Lisu, Lahu, and Hmong under Hill Tribes from the Golden Triangle factsanddetails.com
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.
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 central 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 central 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 Khmu (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.
See Separate Articles LAWA factsanddetails.com; LUA (T’IN) PEOPLE factsanddetails.com; KHMU factsanddetails.com
The Sakai is a jungle tribe that lives in the rain forests of southern Thailand and is on the verge of becoming extinct. Most of the Sakai live in the deep jungle on the border between the Phatthalung, Trang, and Satun provinces of Thailand. Also known as Maniq or Mani. They are called Ngaw by Thais apparently because their frizzy hair and dark-skinned complexion reminds Thais of the Rambutan fruit (“ngaw” in Thai). [Source: Lonely Planet ]
The Sakai are believed to be the remnants of a Proto-Malay race that once inhabited all of Southeast Asia. They are sometimes grouped with the Semang (Orang Asli), a Negrito tribe that lives to the south in peninsular Malaysia. To some the commonly-used term Sakai is pejorative. Only around 300 divided into several clans remain.
Hunting wildlife is the main task for their survival in the jungle. A cylindrical mouthpiece made from bamboo stems and poison darts are the men's weapon for hunting. Meals are unscheduled. They eat when they are hungry and survive on foodstuff until they get it. They eat a root plant that is similar to a potato.
The Sakai live in the easily hand-made shelters called "Tub." Tub are made from palm leaves for structuring and are covered with banana leaves. The shape looks like a hut without room space or a pillar. There is just enough space under the roof for sleeping, cooking, and a fireplace, which is ignited all the time since they are afraid of the darkness. The shelters will be abandoned after a lack of food supply, or when they make the decision that their life is no longer safe there. Their reasons for moving on include: 1) Lack of food supply; 2) Death of someone in the tribe; and 3) The strange behavior of the Sakai during the evacuation: They initially use the toilet in a location far away from the Tub. However, they will eventually move closer and closer to their home over a period of a month. Once they reach the point nearest to the Tub, they will move. Because the Sakai is an itinerant tribe, we cannot specify where they are.
Fifty years ago, the Sakai used only one piece of red cloth to cover their body. Now they have adapted, and wear more modern clothing, like t-shirts. Some of the Sakai can speak the southern local Thai language, but most cannot write because they are not educated. Their accent sounds similar to the Sea Gypsy or Malaysian language. The government has tried education programs, but the Sakai cannot accept the rules and behaviour adaptation. The government has also made an effort to incorporate them into rubber plantation agriculture.
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.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company; New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBCand various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022