Effects of Government policies towards the Highland peoples in Thailand

Seminar Paper, 2004

24 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Introduction

2. Stereotypes

3. Highland Peoples of Thailand
3.1. The Karen
3.2. Hmong
3.3. Mien
3.4. Lahu
3.5. Lisu
3.6. Akha

4. Some? Changes

5. Economic situation

6. Environment

7. Government Action

8. Benefits

9. Culture

10. Conclusions

11. Literature

„The tribal lifestyle as practiced is not beneficial either for the hill tribes themselves or the countryside in which they live“

(King Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX)

1. Introduction

This following paper is dedicated to the Highland Peoples of Thailand, which are written about and “developed” by the Thailand government and others but seldom have the chance to speak or write back. Seemingly their traditional way of living is not fitting into the modern capitalist and globalized world any more, which is surrounding them and new challenges are coming up each day. Individuals and groups have to adjust in some way to the world as it is now only changing but also getting smaller. As they are living within the nation state of Thailand there is not much option for them as to accept the western nationalism concept and the Thais as the dominant group in the state. The way they deal with this situation and the way the Thai government is dealing with it and is trying to improve the situation not leading to problems derived from ethnic differences should be the reason for this paper. The Thai concern for their national identity is valid, given the diversity of minority groups within their border and the rise of ethno political conflicts throughout the world (Kampe 1997:24). As ethno political problems are everywhere in heterogeneous societies a comparative approach has to be taken. Nonetheless will the focus be on the living of Highland Peoples within Thailand and changes which occurred to their communities from the outside over the last decades. We will look into the lives of the six recognized “Hilltribes” in Thailand and their situation as residents of the state of Thailand. A big issue should be the cultural clash between different cultural heritages and the Thai government actions trying to cope with it. At the end we will think about ways and policies which have been done and policies which in our view should be done. Suggestions would only concern the particular issue of the Highland Peoples living in Thailand and are opted for the best outcome for the those peoples written about, including the Thais. The author is aware of that the outcome is only suggestions and does in no case challenge the autonomy of the peoples involved.

2. Stereotypes

A group is defined through another group because only if one group of people has differences from another can they be a group. When different groups come together they define the new group by the standards of their own, simply because this is what they know. Out of this process stereotypes may come into existence and become part of the society and their socialization in the end. Stereotypes always go against a whole group and as Walter Lippmann described it are “pictures in our heads” that we do not acquire through personal experience take it out of society as a given, without proof (Marger 2003:68). Also within Thai society some stereotypes exist like the following:

„ they are all drug addicts“
„ they destroy the forest“
„ they are a threat to national security“
„ they are beggars, prostitutes, stupid,…”

In the end it comes out for them to be „ they are second class citizens“. Before the end of the paper more reasons for this statement will be made. Regarded no only by the Thai people but also by the government because of their current status. Changes are coming but they are coming slowly which doesn’t have to be negative in the first place. There are as well stereotypes by the Highland Peoples against Thais but as the minority group they don’t have the power to yield them against as much as the other way around.

Before I want to start introducing Thailand’s “Hilltribes” the used term has to be clear. “Hilltribes” is the term used within Thailand but is not exactly right any more because many tribal people don’t live on the mountains but moved to lower altitudes. Also is the term “tribe” not exactly perfect as their organization is not typically tribal as they are not living in one single area nor have tribal organization (e.g. no leader)[1]. To use the term “ethnic minority” would be confusing as we would have to include Chinese, Laotians, Indians or Malaysians. Even “Highlanders” would include Chinese people living in the high mountains, so with using the term “Hilltribes” the confusion can be kept low (Lewis 2002:7). For this paper I want to use the term Highland peoples to refer to the so called “Hilltribes” in Thailand. The Chinese people living in the Highlands of Thailand (often called Yunannese) are not included but as Chinese are not originally Highlanders the confusion is low enough and we don’t have to offend anybody by writing about “Hilltribes”.

3. Highland Peoples of Thailand

After the census in 1996 1,3 % of the Thai population are Highland peoples[2], which comes to 790.369 people exactly (McCaskill 1997:22). Also numbers of 550.000 are said in different sources[3]. Those are made of six tribes acknowledged by the Thai government, namely Karen, Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Lisu and Akha respectively[4].

The Hilltribes now living in Thailand originally came from the southwest or central China besides the Karen where nobody really knows where they are from since they only exist here (Lewis 2002:9).

Opium is a traditional crop for some Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Lisu and for a few Karen and Akha, but as it is illegal in Thailand since 1959 new cash crops had to be found. The government was very eager to stop this tradition as the US government[5] was pulling a lot of money and emphasis in. Even though some could argue that opium is their traditional crop it is a fact since over 40 years that it is illegal and as we know the situation in the world it will be so in the future. For that it was a huge change for many Highland peoples and we can look at the outcomes and try to prevent the negative effects but are not able to go back in time. Through the years where the Thai government, with massive help from the US government fought this tradition, ugly scenes took place. The analyses of the Thai drug war would take a different essay but if we only think of the resent incidents in premier Thaksins drug war (2274 lives lost – of those many Highland peoples) we know that it is far not over. Also were the outcomes of the illegality of opium different as anybody thought. It brought many heroin addicts throughout the Highland peoples, which were not able to differ and which destroys many families and villages.

The traditional agricultural method is mainly slash and burn (swidden) agriculture which means that you have to cut down all the trees and underbrush on a wooded hillside, and then when it thoroughly died, burning it of in preparation for planting. It destroys insect’s pests and disease and the layer of ash remaining serves as fertilizers for the crop. So shifting cultivation is the main method used by Highland peoples, but also a lot of Thais use this method. We come back to this in the chapter of environment.

Rice and vegetables are the traditional plants which were grown but now new cash crops as Chili pepper and sesame, coffee and tea, special fruit trees for the high altitudes, peanuts, castor beans soy beans and tobacco are added. Here the king Bhumibol Adulyadej II played a major role with his Royal Projects[6], which did some good in introducing new crops.

Their Religion is different in each case but animist with many spirits obvious in daily life. Even Thais are Buddhists the spirits also play a major role in their lives. Taoism influenced or was taken over by the Mien. The Lisu and Akha have characteristics of Chinese religion and the Karen and the Lahu have many Thai religious practices. Buddhist and Christian Missionaries both influenced tribal believes. In the following pages, each of the Highland Peoples we are talking about should be examined on their own.

3.1. The Karen

The Karen or Kariang or Yang is the largest group of Highland Peoples in Thailand. They consist of two major divisions the Sgaw and Pwo[7], which speak the Sgaw and Pwo Karen language. In the 18th century Karen started to immigrate from Burma, where still about 4 million live today, into Thailand, where they make up 246.000 people (Lewis 2002:70). A characteristic for their cloth might be the traditional red woven color cloth, which they wear with beats but no heavy jewellery. Karen are found on a lower elevation than other groups and in agricultural techniques they are known for their sound method of swidden agriculture. Living in the valleys they tend to imitate the Thai farmers in their methods.

Their villages are traditionally built in clusters around mother villages, but due to the population pressure there are no longer sites into which satellite villages can move, which forces the Karen to adjust. Karen villages are more stable than those of other tribes, even when a priest dies and a village has to move, they move not far and they can still use their fields. For that they grow permanent crops like jackfruit, mango and citrus fruits and they also have garden areas and tobacco fields. All that is a sharp contrast to most other highland peoples.

The most important person in the village is the priest, which has to restore harmony and in consultation with the elders allocates the fields to households. Compared to him the village headmen has little power, he has to deal with the Thai authorities which sometimes brings him in between two cultures more than other villagers.

Karen built their houses on stilts with only one room and a big veranda. In building the house is has to be taken care of the spirits, as they could be offended. In the house only a nuclear family lives at a time. There can’t be a woman in the house who is not related to the wife and mother of the family since this would offend the spirits. Therefore Karen men never take second wives or even remarry, at least as long their children are in the house. Unmarried sons past the age of puberty should not sleep in the house with their sisters of marriageable age, they sleep on the verandas of friends (Lewis 2002:87).

It is not approved to marry a first cousin, an aunt or uncle or nephew or niece. When the spouse is found the wedding ceremony takes 2-3 days, the bride’s community hosting the groom’s. The bride wears a long white dress but changes during the ceremony. After the wedding the couple performs a three day thanksgiving ceremony. Karen marry for a lifetime. Divorce is strongly disapproved. The only 5-6% divorce rate is made up of 75% opium addicted husbands who left their wives. The wife keeps the house and the children.

The Lord of Land and Water owns all. The most important spirit has a shrine outside the village where once a year a ceremony is held. Also around birth and pregnancy a lot of spells and rituals have to be performed. After death people go to the after-live, which is a mirror life on earth. They have to make fields and raise livestock just like in this life. When the sun sets here it raises there. The Lord of the Death can put those who have been worthily living to higher realms and those who offended Karen customs to hell.

The Karen face many problems, living within the Thai society. They suffer overpopulation, depleted soil and limited land. Their traditional values are crumbling and poverty is increasing. For the young, who are supposed to always defer to their elders, it becomes harder and harder to live as a “good Karen”. Historically Karen are known for their friendliness, but they were also involved in fighting for their homelands. A long civil war for an independent Karen state (Kawtoolei) ended only in January 2004[8].


[1] www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Hill-tribe (8.September 2004 – 10:10)

[2] Without ethnic Chinese which might live in the Highlands.

[3] www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Hill-tribe(8.September 2004 –10:10)

[4] Lawa, Khamu, H´tin, Mlabri, Padoung are also listed as Hilltribes of Thailand but without official government recognition (Mckinnon 1998).

[5] US$ 170 million in the past 30 years for government programs to meet national security and development needs more than local conditions and requirements

[6] http://www.rdpb.go.th/main.asp?lang=EN (9.September 2004 – 10:02)

[7] also Pa O and Kayah but they are less than 1 % of the Karen in Thailand

[8] www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Karen-(ethnic-group) (8.September 2004 – 9:53)

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Effects of Government policies towards the Highland peoples in Thailand
University of Vienna  (Calpoly Thai Study Program 2004)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
499 KB
Effects, Government, Highland, Thailand
Quote paper
Sabine Putzgruber (Author), 2004, Effects of Government policies towards the Highland peoples in Thailand, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/56020


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Effects of Government policies towards the Highland peoples in Thailand

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free