Originally published on October 21st, 2003 by Paul Hunt, Freelance Writer
The Tourism Authority of Thailand and tour operators use slick advertising to promote the Kingdom's attractions. A significant part of their promotion material incorporates images, descriptions, souvenirs and handicrafts of the Akha people of northern Thailand. Not a few tourists thus include a trek or van tour to Akha villages as one of the highlights on their itinerary.
An aware observer, however, can soon discern that although the Akha are a big draw for foreign tourists eager to meet these unique and friendly hill tribe people, they suffer dire poverty, oppression, misrepresentation and receive little or no benefit or compensation from the tourist traffic industry which so blatantly exploits them and their distinctive culture.
Approximately 70,000 Akha people are scattered in over 300 villages in the hills of northern Thailand, making up only about 0.12% of Thailand's total population. Recent evidence suggests that up to 10% of Akha people in Thailand are incarcerated in state correctional institutions. Forced village relocations and disruptions to their livelihoods by the Thai army, police, forestry officials, and missionary organisations show little or no respect for the Akha people's right to self-determination. Meanwhile, many Akha have great difficulty acquiring identity cards as Thai citizens, although born and living in Thailand. These facts are not mentioned in tourist promotions pushing images of "Amazing Thailand".
While state, business and other organizations are happy to feed off the rich cultural reservoir of Akha creativity they appear to hypocritically deny any human rights protections for Akha people and their culture. State policies, business practices and missionary activities, as they now operate, are heading inexorably toward the total destruction of authentic Akha culture in Thailand. Is this not like a clumsy giant - for example, Thailand's tourism industry - shooting itself in one foot?
As a traditionally self-sufficient people with intimate ties to the land, the Akha way of life, culture, knowhow and creativity has developed in harmony with their environment. Their native land and resource base is the essential hardware for their cultural knowledge, or intellectual property, which gives them the ability to thrive in synergy with their surroundings in a sustainable way. Land and resource rights are inextricably linked to intellectual property rights for a native people such as the Akha.
Their distinctive food, fabrics, clothes, house construction, knowledge of medicinal plants, ancestral stories and artistic designs are created out of their upland environment. However, Thailand's policy seems to be the removal of the Akha people to the lowlands. Such dislocation not only robs the Akha of essential land to farm for their livelihood, but also renders much of their accumulated knowledge unusable in practice in an environment alien to them. This situation makes the Akha easy prey for merchants keen to merchandise Akha culture as crass souvenirs, and even to use the Akha to sell these trinkets. The Akha provide creativity and labour, but see little of the profits.
The Akha are being disenfranchised from their native hills and impoverished of the rewards from their cultural property by those who exploit them for commercial gain and propaganda purposes. State officials, business operators and missionary groups show little respect, sympathy or conscience in what they are doing to these quiet,gentle, peace-loving Akha people. Overzealous missionaries have set aside any argument about intellectual property rights in their outright cleansing of many traditional practices from villages they claim for a "Christ" who is not the saviour whom I know. They destroy Akha village gates, claiming they are set up to false spirits. Yet they put up Christmas trees - not a Biblical, but in fact a very Pagan, custom! State schools denigrate the Akha language and make the Thai language compulsory. Is it not two-faced hypocrisy to stamp out a culture, while at the same time exploiting it and the people who live it, for your own twisted designs?
Press reports, TV and radio blare out endlessly that the Akha and other hill tribe people are the scourge of Thai society. They are blamed for the drugs problem, illegal immigration, deforestation and the pollution of watersheds. Misrepresentations of Akha people and their culture are infringements on their rights to be represented in a truthful and respectful manner. The faulty argument repeatedly used by state officials as an excuse to remove Akha people from the hills - that their "slash-and-burn" agricultural practices are environmentally destructive is simply incorrect. Modern state projects cause far more large-scale disruption to the environment and to native people who have lived on the land sustainably for generations.
Thai government officials, army, police, and the general population hold seriously wrong views about the Akha which often border on extreme racist abuse. In such a hostile climate of disinformation it is very difficult for the Akha to counter erroneous assertions and claim their right to truthful representation, compensation for damages and rights to determine the correct use of their cultural knowledge, images and handicrafts.
MK Suki Restaurants in Thailand recently used pictures of Akha women on place mats for their restaurants. Thai text on the mats described the Akha as a funny people with shameful practices. This is typical of the denigration spread for years by many Thai people, officials and missionaries to undermine the Akha. Due to their poverty there are unlikely to be any Akha people visiting MK Suki restaurants and seeing how they are misrepresented. Meanwhile most Thais and foreign tourists have little or no understanding about the Akha, and thus are susceptible to such false images of them. The company withdrew the place mats and paid compensation after a complaint was made.
At issue is the need not only for correct representation of the Akha, but also fair rewards for their distinctive creativity. Intellectual property policing, however, is rather difficult to carry out in practice and it seems preferable to call for a change in attitudes, with more respect given to the Akha and other ethnic minorities. This will require a major change in Thai government policy, and in the perceptions of Thai society at large, concerning their views and treatment of hill tribe people.
In the absence of any effective lead from Thai government officials to protect basic human rights, land rights and intellectual property rights, it falls to each individual to act responsibly and fairly towards their neighbour, no matter who he or she may be. Should a Thai artist or shopkeeper in the Chiangmai Night Bazaar make thousands of baht from a painting of an Akha woman while that very same woman may be begging for her livelihood on a nearby sidewalk and hustled by police? Every tour operator, merchant, missionary, government official, policeman and soldier, as well as every tourist and Thai citizen, should ask themselves if their deeds are fair, respectful and beneficial for the poor and defenseless. Continued exploitation will erode the Akha cultural heritage, livelihood, language, health and creative energy. If Akha rights are not respected the end result will be a dead, and not a living, culture.