03 April 2013

Hill Tribes

Governments are created to control. To regulate, to enforce, to listen if they want to. To change. When conflict arises, it can be hard for the people to counteract what the government mandates. In the face of losing land villagers have lived on for generations, they fight against the government, and they fight hard. It’s understandable really, pushing to protect the traditions of your people. The Karen Hill Tribes in the Northern region of Thailand, however, take quite a different approach.
            The Karen Hill Tribes reside among the mountains of Thailand, farming and living with one another in places they’ve been for generations and generations. Driving up the winding dusty roads just wide enough for one car zooming up or down the mountainside, the heat begins to fall away along with the worries lingering on the ground. Upon arrival, a nearly tangible calmness settles in the air. The people there are happy. They’re simply content to be one with the forest and one with each other.  Smiles are frequent, villagers venture from house to house fluidly, animal noises are constant, laughs come easily. The joy is potent.   
 This road is the only thing that connects the village to the outside world, both physically and culturally. The Hill Tribes have their own language, their own history, their own spirituality and traditions. To call them “Thai” puts a bit of a twinge in their expressions, a reluctance to identify themselves as citizens of the country they live in. They adopt this same approach when it comes to dealing with the Thai government.
            After the intense wave of logging throughout Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s, the country desperately needed to restore its environment and preserve the forest. Sounds like a good solution right? Block off huge chunks of land just for the trees to grow, elephants to roam free and bugs to jump about. Great idea. The US did it, seems to be working out so let’s try it out. Upon second glance, it’s not as great as it sounds. The creation of national parks and wildlife reserves has pushed people off of the land they’ve been cultivating for tens, sometimes hundreds of years.
The Thai culture of community based living doesn’t exactly translate to the legal aspects of land ownership. Since all Thai land belonged to the King back in the day, the concept of “individual land ownership” doesn’t really exist among these communities. Most villagers did have receipts proclaiming that they lived in the area and pay taxes for it. However, officials came into many areas to collect these documents, saying that they were going to return with more official documents for the tax declaration. Then they were off with the papers, never to be seen again. Now they’re facing government officials threatening them off their land without providing anywhere for them to go and virtually no way to win their homes back.
Villages throughout Thailand are outraged. Many protest, some give in and move away, villages disperse, and others fight and petition. This village in the hill tribes wants nothing to do with it. They worked to get a registration number for the villages so that they can come to the government if they need electricity or an improvement on roads. They don’t feel the need to push for a land title. They say that they want as little involvement with the government as humanly possible. More government, more problems. Who can blame them after hearing what’s been happening to other villages? It goes along perfectly with their entire way of life. They’ve created their personal haven in the skyline and they don’t need anything else. They’re happy. Problem is, will they be left alone?
The spirit of the Karen Hill tribe village is profound. Constant need or any trace of consumerism hasn’t made its way up that dusty road to penetrate the village. They want to live and let live. It is my deepest hope that this respect will given to them, and my greatest fear that it will be taken away in an instant. 
 
Corinne Molz
University of Maryland 

5 comments:

Keith Warner said...

The purity of the life the Karen people have and the problems that linger for them at the bottom of the mountain are ones that have faced different communities all over the world at one time or another. The idea of not wanting help from the government to avoid more problems is also a problem that is not unique to the hill tribes of northern Thailand. Reminders of simpler times and the effects of development and globalization can be harsh to digest.
I hope and pray that the Karen people can maintain their traditions and their culture that has been established from many generations. The constant pressure to keep up with the others around you is not unheard of in these villages and the struggles for balance can cause turmoil within a community. I wonder how long will the development that sits at the bottom of the mountain, stay at the bottom of the mountain.

Melanie M said...

Hearing Sulak proclaim that governments and nation-states do more harm than good and should be abolished confused me: my public schooling, access to running water, paved roads, electricity, and my freedom of speech and religion, among all of the other amenities I enjoy all stem from central government. And for the international declarations for human rights, who is there to enforce them besides the government? But now I realize my experience comes from a place of privilege more than anything else: the U.S. government has more to do with oppression and human rights violations than I gave it credit for. In my (idealistic) mind, governments were made to protect, to regulate, to provide, to do things that small communities can’t. But are small communities the best way to foster all of our ideals after all? Human rights, sustainability, identity… can alternative communities be created, spread, and grow to an extent that they become the majority and result in social change? There will always be disagreements about what’s best for society, since no system is flawless. But will different systems be able to coexist, or will one always disrupt the other?

Melanie M said...

Hearing Sulak proclaim that governments and nation-states do more harm than good and should be abolished confused me: my public schooling, access to running water, paved roads, electricity, and my freedom of speech and religion, among all of the other amenities I enjoy all stem from central government. And for the international declarations for human rights, who is there to enforce them besides the government? But now I realize my experience comes from a place of privilege more than anything else: the U.S. government has more to do with oppression and human rights violations than I gave it credit for. In my (idealistic) mind, governments were made to protect, to regulate, to provide, to do things that small communities can’t. But are small communities the best way to foster all of our ideals after all? Human rights, sustainability, identity… can alternative communities be created, spread, and grow to an extent that they become the majority and result in social change? There will always be disagreements about what’s best for society, since no system is flawless. But will different systems be able to coexist, or will one always disrupt the other?

Nelson said...

Corinne,
You masterfully capture the remoteness and the serenity of the hill tribe. It is interesting, in light of the other communities we’ve visited, to compare and contrast this idea of non-interaction with the government. In many ways the hill tribe people are fortunate in their removal from Thai society. For most communities we visited, the government has pushed their agendas of development upon the people, not allowing for community self-determination. It is absolutely imperative, as you bring up in your post, that the hill tribe people maintain their removal from mainstream Thai society, and especially the Thai government. Perhaps the housing registration numbers will allow for their remoteness to persist at least a little longer.
An interesting point that was brought up during our exchange is education. How can the hill tribe people compete in the modern world without a Central Thai education? Or, perhaps a better question, why, exactly, must the Bogagayo people compete in the modern world? From our cultural perspective, I think the answer to this question is almost impossible to address.
Awesome work, I loved the hill tribe and you painted an accurate picture of the village.

HannahBanana said...

Corrine,

Thank you so much for bringing me back to the beautiful time that we spent with the Hill Tribe. I find myself constantly reflecting back on this home stay. When thinking about it I am first greet by a wave of longing to go back then followed by the contemplation of the how could I possibly ever get the type of feeling back that I felt while staying with these people. These people were so happy living their simple lives, so wise and pure. When I travel to the root of this happiness, as you said, much of it is due to the lack of government pushed agendas and development on their community. I am now thrashed with a bit of sadness because I know that for the majority of the world, that is not longer possible. I am finally contented with a prayer. I pray that the Hill Tribe people's ways of life are not destroyed and that there is amiable acts in this world that will let these people live in peace.