Hilltribes Terrorized by Government Agents and Policy in Thailand

Meeh Purh, a 19-year-old Akha girl from Huuh Yoh Akha village in northern Thailand, was arrested along with seven other villagers while working in their fields at noon on May 26, 2003. At the time of their imprisonment Meeh Purh and one of the other hilltribe women were eight months pregnant.

Their crime? Royal Forest Department officials are claiming that the fields the villagers farm for a livelihood are state land. Bail was set at many times their annual income. Thus they remained in Ampur Mae Fah Luang jail.

Above the large valley, where Huuh Yoh and other villages of more than 1,000 hilltribe people are situated, is a new Thai army checkpoint. It is a sensitive area near the border with Myanmar. State security forces often move whole villages down from these hills. Huuh Yoh Lisaw village, at the top of the valley, was relocated with disastrous human consequences several years ago. Attempts have also been made to remove the other villages, including Huuh Mah Akha.

Now the villagers are being told that all of their fields will be taken after this year's rice and corn crop. They will be given the choice of laboring for 60 baht ($1.50) per day, going on a starvation diet, or removing themselves elsewhere.

There is a development project planned for this area of the Haen Taek region. It is a prime location for a hill resort, national park or eco-tourism. The indigenous Akha and Lisaw have their homes and livelihoods here. But they are being told in no uncertain terms by the government that they must either push off or become exploited slave labor.

State Terrorism

Loh Guuh, a young man in his early 30’s from a relocated Akha village in Chiangrai Province, was shot dead at point blank range in the back of his head and in his back in village corn fields by a police officer in August 2001. It was apparently a set-up in which the police had come to the village four days in a row asking villagers for 15,000 methamphetamine pills. (Yes, corrupt police and officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking in Thailand, as elsewhere.)

Two other young Akha men were arrested in the same incident and given long sentences, which they are now serving in Bangkok's maximum security Bangkwang Prison, too far away for poor relatives and friends to visit them. In court it is routine for judges to accept police testimony at face value and dismiss any differing testimony from hilltribe witnesses – that is, if any can muster the courage to speak up against police or any official.

The case of Loh Guuh and the other Akha made an unusual appearance in the front-page news in the January 21, 2002 edition of the Bangkok Post. However, the situation in the hills has deteriorated badly since then. In early December 2002, King Bhumibol Adulyadej outlined his view of Thailand´s drug problem in his official birthday speech. Premier Thaksin Shinawatra wasted little time in launching an all-out drug-suppression campaign, signing Prime Minister's Office Order on 28th January 28, 2003. On February 1 the drug-related killing began with a vengeance.

Police reported that 87 of the 183 killings from February 1 to 9 were related to the drug trade. Human rights commissioner Surasi Kosolnavin called for all deaths to be investigated for evidence of wrongful use of force and abuse of the law. Opposition leader Chuan Leekpai charged the government with giving tacit approval for summary executions of suspected drug dealers under the cloak of legitimate self-defense.

By April 30, after three months of the drug-suppression campaign, the number of extra-judicial police killings had soared to well over 2,000. United Nations special envoy on human rights Hina Jilani, wrapping up her 10-day visit to the kingdom on May 27, said it was difficult to give credibility to the government's explanation that police killed all of these people in self-defense.

However, Thaksin's government had already turned its attention towards the “dark influences” of foreign-funded NGOs which dared to stand up for basic human rights and criticize government policy. Jilani said a “climate of fear” was created by public statements against NGOs made at the "highest level of government", by blatant attempts to cut off their foreign funding, and by the use of the state security apparatus and judicial process to harass human rights defenders through false or unjust prosecution. She remarked, “Obviously the message is that the [kingdom's] reputation is under threat.”

Amnesty International's Secretary General, Irene Khan, has said that “insecurity and violence are best tackled by effective, accountable states which uphold, not violate, human rights.”

But in the northern hills of Thailand the extra-judicial killings and human rights abuses continue. Village headmen have been shot while returning home from meetings with officials. In late May, a Lahu woman was stopped at a security checkpoint outside a village. Officers say she had drugs. They took her into a field and knifed her to death. Early this month, at least three more Akha villagers were reported killed.

Both the U.S. and the United Kingdom are large arms suppliers to Thailand. The U.S. provides F-16 fighter jets, amongst other military equipment. The UK clinched a Royal Thailand Navy contract for two of the latest Super Lynx 300 helicopters in 2001, and also supplies the kingdom with shotguns, ammunitions and components for rifles. Both countries’ militaries are involved in training Thai security forces. Is it time for U.S. and UK citizens to bring their governments to account over their dealings with Thailand?

According to Emma Bonino, a member of the European Parliament, "It is time to acknowledge that the 'war on drugs' is lost – indeed, a monumental failure - and that hostilities should end. Every aspect of the war strategy has failed. Harsh new domestic laws in many countries have not only failed to control the spread of drugs throughout the world, but have delivered a vast new source of state intrusiveness into the lives of millions of people. Prohibition created a pretext for authoritarian regimes to resist the abolition of the death penalty; yet even states that execute people for drug-related crimes have not been able to stem the tide. To circumvent the harsh legal regime now in place, narcotics mafias have forged ever-tighter alliances with terrorist networks."

Thaksin apparently does not agree, or has not yet learned these lessons. Since February 1, Thaksin's campaign has caused the price of drugs to soar in Thailand. Profit margins are now huge for the traffickers, many of whom survive and still operate. The problems worsen and deepen, causing personal intrusions into people's lives by security forces deployed by a state bent on absolute control. Sadly, this campaign is largely characterized by the terrorizing of already poor and oppressed hilltribe villagers, whose human rights are completely disregarded by state security forces.

The border regions of the Golden Triangle are a legacy of colonial rule. Siam was squeezed between French Indochina to the east and British Burma and Malay on the other sides. New nation-state borders were fought over in the colonial land-grab. Only quite recently in history have borders become more sharply defined, while areas of dispute still remain. Ethnic minorities, who previously lived side-by-side in relative peace and harmony with each other and their environment, have slowly experienced the mysterious phenomenon of foreign and state borders cutting arbitrarily across their ancestral lands.

Of course, they didn’t recognize these artificial lines of state, or colonial, power demarcation, which reflected the whims of foreign heads of state far more closely than any reality on the ground. Thus, following a sadly familiar pattern evinced in the histories of countless indigenous peoples, the hilltribe peoples have been steadily dispossessed of their traditional lands. They have been robbed blind by colonial machinations, foreign wars and ruthless exploitation of the natural resources they depend on for their livelihood.

It is worth noting that the Royal Forest Department of Thailand learned its policies regarding appropriation of lands and removal of indigenous populations from British colonial officials towards the end of the 19th century. Their methods bear the hallmark of those used to commit genocide under the cloak of "development" against the Native populations of America, Australia, Africa, and just about anywhere else on Earth one may care to look. These colonial, state-sponsored policies depended – and continue to depend – explicitly on racist policies and attitudes, inspiring the establishment of laws designed to facilitate, rather than prevent, the plunder of Native lands and resources, and the displacement of entire peoples.

Thailand recognizes nine ethnic minorities under its umbrella term "hilltribe", but treats people of the same ethnic groups who migrated from Laos since 1975, or from Burma since 1976, as illegal immigrants. The Hilltribe Welfare and Development Center's summary for April 2002 gives a total hilltribe population of 914,755: Karen (438,450), Meo or Hmong (151,080), Lahu (102,371), Akha (65,826), Yao (44,017), H'Tin (42,782), Lisu or Lisaw (37,916), Lua (21,794), Khamu (10,519).

These figures are most likely much lower than the true numbers: many hilltribe people who can't prove where they were born, or those who crossed state borders, are considered illegal immigrants. As such they are not issued identity cards, and thus can claim no rights in Thailand. Hilltribes people are issued blue identity cards instead of the white cards issued to full Thai citizens. Cases have arisen recently of identity cards being withdrawn from hilltribe people by officials, causing some villagers to have bank loans called in and property seized.

Pushed to the margins of existence by increasing state intrusion into their lives and state claims to their traditional lands, the hilltribes are the victims of blatant, almost unabashed cultural genocide at the hands of the dominant state powers. State-sponsored business, missions and NGOs are co-opted into government policies, effectively silencing any serious criticisms from these institutions, many of which stand to gain from exploiting the plight of the hilltribes themselves.

Paul Hunt is a freelance journalist. He worked closely with Matthew McDaniel of the Akha Heritage Foundation in writing this article. For more information on the work of the Akha Heritage Foundation and the threats facing the Akha people, go to www.akha.org.