The Hilltribe People of Thailand

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The Hilltribe People of Thailand

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The Karen, Mien, Hmong, Lahu, Akha and Lisu... A 2,000 Year Journey to the Thai Payap.

Hilltribe People can trace their origin from the southern Sino-Tibetan geographical area. Though all have legends that speak of their particular tribe as being the "original people" of this area, it is more practical to think of them as part of a continuing exodus of ancient peoples out of China as far back as 2,000 years.

Their history is shrouded in myth and legend; a beginning as hazy and dim as the early morning mist that cloaks their valleys. Depending on the source of the information, most of the Hilltribesmen came from the interior of southern China. These semi-nomadic peoples moved slowly, driven by their need for new land to replace that exhausted by their slash and burn farming techniques. They eventually arrived on the northern borderlands of Thailand, called the Payap.

The gentle tribal people that occupy the lush hillsides and verdant valleys of the Payap, a section now called the Golden Triangle, have come from the south-west and south-central areas of China. All, that is, except the Karen: their origin remains one of conjecture and debate. All of the Hilltribes retain various aspects of their Chinese cultural heritage however the Karen seem to have a cultural background in common with the people of Tibet.

For the most part tribes still remain concentrated on the northern borders of Thailand but with the passage of time increased internal migration has gone as far south as Bangkok. It is now impossible to outline distinct areas of a particular tribe's district. Some places you may find all six major Hilltribes living on the same mountain side or valley.

There is a cultural tendency for the earliest tribes, like the Karen, to have ventured into Siam and lowland valleys. Other tribes, like the Hmong, moved into the more mountainous regions of the borderlands of the Payap. All of the Hilltribes have traveled vast distances to find more areas suitable for their swidden-fields (slash & burn farming techniques). These swiddens can supply enough fertile growing seasons for only a few years before villages have to move on. The Thai government is attempting to change this pattern with crop rotation.

Now living in close approximation to their Thai neighbors, the Hilltribes are in danger of being completely assimilated into the general culture; losing their heritage, self-identity and expressive artifacts, so long a part of their life. Another generation will likely see most of the Hilltribe culture vanish, like most ancient peoples, and their rich legacy a matter of history.


The Mien (Yao)

  • TRADITIONAL LOCATION(S): Northeastern Borderlands, some villages located south to Nann, west to Chiangrai
  • Major Tribal Divisions: Only clan names within the villages; clan membership carried by the male line only
  • POPULATION: (1992) est. Approx. 40,000 settled in villages not counting refugee camps on the borders
  • LANGUAGE(S): Miao-Yao, related to the Sino-Tibetan with many words coming from Chinese
  • FAMILY GROUP: Huge Extended Family; not unusual for 20 or more members per household.
  • RELIGION: Interrelated system of Spirits and Taoist teachings (from China).
  • VILLAGE SETTLEMENTS: Mid-slope areas, near water source. Ill defined village areas, no gates.

HISTORY:

The Mien likely originated from southern China about 2,000 years ago via Hainan, Guangxi and adjoining provinces. They were referred to by the Chinese as "barbarians", which is reflected in their name. These tribal peoples are the only ones to have a written language, Chinese. In recent years, both a Romanized and Thai-based script have been added by Western missionaries.

These peoples have a series of ancient writings which organize their day to day living and include items such as worship and medicine. A series of pamphlets have been devised over the centuries to help their groups become accustomed to their environment and the people they have lived beside.

More is known and understood of the Mien because of their written language, hence their history is more readably available to both scholars and students of Asian Culture. From such rich chronicles we have been able to save the legend of the Mien's beginnings.

The Emperor Pien Hung of China, was attacked by the very powerful Emperor Kao Want and faced defeat. The dog, Phan Hu, was able to get through the lines, kill the aggressor, and bring Kao Wang's head back to the Emperor Pien Hung. Phan Hu was rewarded with one of Pien Hung's daughters as a wife, whom he took up to the mountains to live with him. They produced 12 children, six boys and six girls, from whom sprung the 12 clans of the Mien as we know them today. Or so the legend goes.


THE LAHU (Mussur)

  • TRADITIONAL LOCATION(S): Central Highlands of the Payap
  • MAJOR TRIBAL DIVISIONS: Black Lahu (77%) and the Yellow Lahu (23%) or the Mussur Daeng and Mussur Kwi
  • POPULATION: (1992) est. approx. 40,000 in Thailand and 300,000 in China, Burma and Laos
  • LANGUAGE(S): Yi branch of Tibeto-Burman family; Lahu Na (dominant) & Lahu Shi (occasionally).
  • FAMILY GROUP: Extended family unit with an emphasis on the grandparents sharing raising of children
  • RELIGION: Spirit worship with heavy overtones of Christianity in nearly all villages
  • VILLAGE SETTLEMENTS: Prefer living above 1200 meters but many have now moved to lowland areas.

HISTORY:

Like most Hilltribes, the Lahu have their origin in southwestern China. In about 1830 there were already some Lahu villages located in the Kengtung State of Burma. By 1870 the Lahu had moved across the northern Burmese border in fear of their lives from the government of Burma. They moved into the northern highlands and valleys of Siam. By the 20th century Lahu villages were discovered as far south as Fang, just 70km north of Chiangmai.

Burma has long been the oppressor of Hilltribe people, and it is not only the Lahu who have experienced their wrath. In order to make these independent peoples succumb to a despotic rule, many Hilltribe people have been killed.

The Lahu have always referred to themselves as the "people of Blessing". That is, they have always thought that the blessings of health, sufficient food to eat and security for their families were the greatest gifts that their Creator could bestow. They have used the term, Boon (or merit) to denote the form in which this Blessing is given. Lahu often refer to themselves as Bon Yu or the "children of the Blessing."

The Lahu have now embraced many of the ways of missionary peoples that have lived among them since the end of World War Two. It is a fact of social change that in the near future many of the customs of the old Lahu will have given way to the "consumer passion" that is now evident in Southeast Asia. Radio, television and print media are fast altering this tribal peoples.


THE LISU (Lisaw)

  • TRADITIONAL LOCATION(S): Northwest Highlands of the Thai Payap.
  • MAJOR TRIBAL DIVISIONS: No major divisions
  • POPULATION: (1992) est.: Approx. 28,500 in Thailand; 500,000 in China; 250,000 in Burma
  • LANGUAGE(S): One Lisu dialect of the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family
  • FAMILY GROUP: Extended family to grandparents
  • RELIGION: Both Ancestor and Spirit Worship
  • VILLAGE SETTLEMENTS: Above 1,000 meters and close to available water - but not too near: see History below.

HISTORY:

Interestingly enough, the Lisu have in their history the legend of a Great Flood that killed all but two individuals. The only two survivors of this flood were a boy and his younger sister. Because of a taboo of incestuous relations, they endured a number of "tests" to make sure that they should marry; each test attesting to the fact that they should. Many children came of this union who paired up and became progenitors of all the different Hilltribes. Until there came a time when there were one girl short. An Akha man had no wife so hi went into the jungle and married a monkey. It goes without saying what the Lisu think of the Akha.

Like all but the Mien Hilltribe People, the Lisu have no written language. The origin legend tells of their migration from the Salween River, located in Burma. They have less Chinese features than other Hilltribes and it is thought that they have been moving from the interior of Burma for at least a century. Among all of the Hilltribes, the Lisu have the least known about their origins, and their legends do not specifically tell of any other history than that from the Burmese interior.

Historically, the Lisu villages have been built near high fresh water streams, but not too close for fear of the mystical powers that they believe reside in the stream itself. Bamboo piping will be used for an aqueduct to carry water from one side of a mountain ridge to the other in order for a village to have an abundant supply.


THE AKHA (Kaw)

  • TRADITIONAL LOCATION(S): The Central Highlands of the Thai Payap and some villages in lower Southern Borderlands
  • MAJOR TRIBAL DIVISIONS: Ekaw (term used throughout Southeast Asia) - Kha Kaw (Laos) - Hani (Vietnam)
  • POPULATION: (1992) est.: 65,600 in Thailand - approx. 120,000 in Burma- approx. 45,000 Vietnam - 35,000 Laos.
  • LANGUAGE(s): Falls in the Yi (LoLo) branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. Jeu G'oe is the Thai dialect
  • FAMILY GROUP: Extended family-living relationship is most preferred; but some nuclear families today.
  • RELIGION: No Akha word for "religion, but the term "Akha Way" denotes an Ancestor Worship style.
  • VILLAGES SETTLEMENTS: Usually on the saddle-back of a mountain range. Some lowland villages, but rare.

HISTORY:

Like most other Hilltribes, the Akha have no written language so their history was carried to this century on the backs of many colorful legends, proverbs and rituals handed down from one generation to the other. Akha are able to at least recite the male line of their family back to the "beginning." Their migration routes have been similarly remembered. Like most other Hilltribes, the Akha have been occasionally persecuted by the countries they passed through.

Generally the Akha have traveled down from Central China through Tibet, Nepal, and Burma to the Thai Payap, Laos and Vietnam. Legends from Akha in other lands are extremely similar despite the lack of a written language. Reciting sometimes 60 generations of the ancestors is usually reserved for very special occasions.

Family history is very important when it comes to marriage for it is considered a taboo to be too closely related to another: repeating a family lineage to seven patrilinial generations without finding a common ancestor is advisable. Akha today can meet others of their tribe and always have a distant ancestor in common.

All Akha consider as their common ancestor, the one to which all Akha trace their family tree. When repeating his genealogy, an Akha man always includes Dzoe Tah Pah as a clan member.


THE HMONG (Meo)

  • TRADITIONAL LOCATION(S): Eastern and Central sectional of Thailand
  • MAJOR TRIBAL DIVISIONS: Blue Hmong (Mong Njua) & White Hmong (Mong Deaw) - all in 12 Clans.
  • POPULATION: (1992) est.: 68,000 in Thailand but estimates fluctuate due to unrestricted border crossings to Laos.
  • LANGUAGE(S): Miao-Yao grouping of the Sino-Tibetan family.
  • FAMILY GROUP: Extended Family: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and children.
  • RELIGION: Traditional: Animists. Transitory: less than 1% Christian
  • VILLAGE SETTLEMENTS: High in the lee of a mountain; some now swell in secluded low land areas.

HISTORY:

Legend puts the Hmong coming from a icy land to the North. It is suspected that they migrated from the steppes of Siberia, Tibet and Mongolia. Records of the Chinese have them living on the Yellow River, 3000 years ago. Centuries of Chinese subjugation have given rise to periodic migration for their quest for freedom. It was in the latter years of the 19th century when the independent Hmong could not be found within the borders of China.

During W.W.II Chinese Nationalists tried to stop the Hmong from speaking their own language and practicing any other aspect of their culture; but without much success. This action only fanned the flames of mutual disrespect and drive the Hmong further south in search for better living conditions. Today there are still 3 million Hmong-descendant people living within the borders of the Peoples Republic of China.

The Hmong in the Thai Payap have been present for an estimated 200 years. Coming over the political borders of Laos, they established villages high in the mountains and remained comparatively independent of any other tribal group. The Hmong are now found in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. During the Vietnam War many Hmong worked for the U.S. and many were air-lifted to North America; unfortunately some were left behind. There are reported to be about 12 major Clans that can trace their family history as far back as 1,000 years in China.


THE KAREN (Kariang or Yang)

  • TRADITIONAL LOCATION(S): West and Southwestern sections of Thailand.
  • MAJOR TRIBAL DIVISIONS: Sgaw (in western locations) & Pwo (Plo) (in mid to southwestern sections of Thailand.
  • POPULATION: (1992) est.: Sgaw: 187,000 Pwo (Plo): 47,000
  • LANGUAGE(S): Karenic group of Tibet-Burman language family; Sgaw & Pwo not mutually intelligible.
  • FAMILY GROUP: Nuclear Family: Parents and unmarried children.
  • RELIGION: Traditional: Spiritual Ancestor Worship; Current: Thai Buddhism; Transitory: Christianity.
  • VILLAGE SETTLEMENTS: Mountain Villages, Plains Villages and small Town Settlements (less than 2%)

HISTORY:

Karen believe they came from a place they denote a "Thibi Kawbi". Some feel that this is their representation of the lands of Tibet and southern Gobi desert. However during the 18th century the Karen began to move southward, across the Salveen River from Burma to the Thai Payap (old northern kingdom of Siam).

The Karen, like our American Indians, do not recognize the political borders of the regions in which they live. Thus you will find both tribal sects transversing across the borders into Burma and Tibet for family and economical purposes. This leaves no little problem to the operation of border patrols in the countries involved. Many times in their history they been caught between warring factions in their traditional habitats and been forced to feed and clothe rebel forces and regular troops alike or suffer death.

Currently there have been no large migrations of Karen into Thailand. However there are the occasional nomadic movements of whole Burmese Karen villages over the border when the harsh military government of Burma presses and unrest with which it burdens these people.

It was the people called the Yuan of the Thai Payap that helped the Karen move into Thailand and near another Thai tribal group called the Thai Lawa (Lua). Today many Karen villages are near the hospitable Lawa settlements and there has been a natural exchange of cultural ethics and crafts. Like most of Thailand, dissimilar peoples live peacefully near each other.

 


Copyright 1995-2004 by The Travelers' Club. Revised January 18, 2004.
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