The hill tribes in Thailand are often misunderstood among westerners, even the larger Thai population is not educated on the hill tribe culture and way of life. So here’s some short FAQ’s to sum up and help adjust your preconceived notions about this unique subculture.
Who are the Hill Tribe People?
The hill tribe people are basically refugees from other Asian countries mostly Myanmar (Burma) as well as China and Tibet. This migration occurred within the last 100 years when these other countries experienced political unrest.
Are they citizens of Thailand?
Many have become citizens of Thailand. The hill tribe people were pretty much left alone until the 1950’s, when the increase in their numbers, extreme poverty, statelessness and threat of insurgency forced the government to create a national committee and provide more resources for educating and integrating the hill tribe people into Thai culture.
How many hill tribe people are there?
Karen Hill Tribe (Myanmar origin) =300,000
Hmong (Yunnan origin) =124,000
Lahu (Myanmar & Yunnan origin) =73,000
Akha (Tibet & Myanmar origin) =50,000
Mien (Central China) =40,000
Do they speak Thai?
Although many of the hill tribe people work in tourism or other outlets where they have to communicate with other Thai citizens, hill tribe people have their own language which differs greatly from Thai as well as other hill tribes. Each hill tribe has its own customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs and this is sometimes true even of the numerous sub-categories within one hill tribe. For example, the Green Hmong and White Hmong speak in different and distinct dialects. The Karen Hill Tribe speak Karen.
What is there religion?
Many of the Karen were converted to Christianity by the missionaries, with some tribes still practicing animism or being Buddhist.
The Karen occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture, including rice cultivation. They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes – practicing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest. Many of them have begun to work in tourism by offering tours of their village and elephant rides.
What is the connection between opium sales and hill tribes?
The hill tribes when first migrating to Thailand began to cultivate opium which proved to be a major source of income for the hill tribes. The lucrative drug trafficking along the Myanmar border is a difficult issue faced by both the hill tribes and the Thai government. Recently, the government has been working hard to eradicate opium cultivation by successfully substituting it with other cash crops, such as cabbages and fruits.
Hill tribes have issues with citizenship, conforming to mainstream Thai society and the loss of their indigenous customs and languages. Furthermore, their placement at the centre of the lucrative drug trafficking along the Myanmar border has often put them in compromising positions.