Of Labels and Laws: Thailand's Resettlement and Repatriation Policies

In April 1986 government officials began evicting hilltribe people from their villages inside two wildlife sanctuaries in northern Thailand. Readers of Cultural Survival Quarterly are familiar with the criticisms of these evictions by Ardith Eudey (1988), an American academic who witnessed the first encounter between residents of a Hmong (Meo) hilltribe community and representatives of the Royal Forestry Department and the Third Army (responsible for the northern region). In this issue of the Quarterly, Chupinit Kesmanee, a civil servant in Thailand's Department of Public Welfare, presents an indictment of the government's resettlement of those evicted.

In September 1987 government officials and civilian Village Defense Volunteers conducted a series of dawn raids on 13 hilltribe villages in Thailand's northernmost province of Chiang Rai. Houses and granaries were torched; livestock were stolen or purchased at fire-sale prices; rice nearly ready for harvest was left in the fields; and villagers were forced, sometimes at knifepoint, to hand over their silver ornaments. Unlike the inhabitants of the wildlife sanctuaries, these evicted highlanders were not scheduled for resettlement; instead, they were herded onto trucks and dumped at the Burmese border - "repatriation," according to the deputy director-general of Thailand's National Security Council.

Before looking in more detail at Thailand's policies of resettlement and repatriation, we need a brief outline of the history of contact between hill tribes and the national government. Then these paired policies can be considered in light of labels officially applied to the hill tribes. These labels leave hilltribe people vulnerable under Thai law. More correct labels entitle them to protection under international law concerning refugees and indigenous peoples.

The Hill Tribes and the National Government

For centuries tribal people have inhabited the mountains in what is now the national territory of Thailand. Today more than 500,000 hilltribe people reside in the northern provinces. Culturally and linguistically distinct from the Thai majority, these people have diverse cultures and languages. The six main tribes, in descending order of population size, are Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Mien (Yao), Akha and Lisu.

No centralized nation-state existed in Thailand until early in this century; the northern principality of Chiang Mai was semi-autonomous from the Bangkok court until 1910. Initially, integration of the north into the nation focused on the lowlands and lowlanders. The Northern Thai, although Thai speakers and Buddhists like the Central Thai, had their own dialects and religious traditions.

Not until the 1950s did the Royal Thai Government attempt to extend administrative control over the highlands and highlanders. Attention turned to the mountains when the government became concerned about the security of its border areas because of the Indochina conflict and the presence of the Kuomintang in neighboring Burma following their ouster from China by Mao's forces.

A 1958 ban on opium production also increased government interest in the mountains. The opium-producing poppy, which only grows well at higher altitudes, has long been cultivated by some, but by no means all, hilltribe farmers. Opium's immense value as a cash crop derives from its high market demand, its transportability and the fact that, unlike many crops, it does not spoil.

In the 1960s, the Seabees (a US Navy construction battalion) helped to build the first road through the northern hills where previously there were only paths traversed by people and pack animals. Today these hills are crisscrossed by dirt and paved roads, navigated by pickup trucks carrying highlanders and their produce. Some roads now resemble highways: air-conditioned minibuses take foreign and Thai tourists to view the hill tribes, which trekking companies and the government's Tourist Organization of Thailand promote as "colorful" and "primitive."

The Border Patrol Police initiated official contact with highlanders in the late 1950s by establishing schools in some villages as part of its efforts to protect the nation's frontiers. Since then, welfare and development programs have multiplied. Many are operated by the Thai government, often with bilateral or multilateral funding; others are operated by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Christian missions. Today even remote villages have government-run elementary schools taught solely in the national language.

Resettlement and Repatriation

Somewhat paradoxically, during the same time that the government was expanding its administrative structures and welfare programs into highland villages, it also decided to move highlanders from the mountain slopes into low-lying areas. Not once but three times, the Royal Thai Government has adopted a policy of resettlement.

First, the government claimed that hill tribes should be collected in more accessible villages to facilitate the delivery of educational, health and other services. Accordingly, it established four pilot "settlement areas" (nikhom) in the early 1960s. Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government evacuated hilltribe people from areas of suspected communist insurgency into large, low-lying settlements. Most recently, the Committee for Control of Hill Tribe Destruction of Forests in 1986 adopted the current resettlement policy, which resulted in the eviction witnessed by Eudey.

This same policy has been supported by three different official justifications: to improve social welfare, suppress communism and, finally, protect national forests. Interestingly, only the first reason claims to address the tribal peoples' needs - albeit defined by the government rather than by highlanders themselves.

Both the first and second resettlement programs were discontinued. The government built only four pilot resettlement areas because tribal people "did not voluntarily migrate into...[them], and it would have been unrealistic to think that they could easily be ordered to leave their villages and join the projects". Like the strategic hamlets of the Vietnam War, the evacuation centers set up in northern Thailand during the period of real and, to an even greater extent, suspected communist insurgency among hill tribes failed to win the hearts and minds, much less fill the bellies, of their impoverished and demoralized inhabitants.

Despite these two previous failures, this resettlement policy has now been resurrected and proclaimed the salvation not of the hill tribes but of the nation's forests. For reasons unspecified, a policy judged "unrealistic" in the early 1960s is today apparently deemed workable by the Thai government. It is important to point out that although the Hmong of Eudey's account resided in a wildlife sanctuary, the present policy applies to highlanders outside such areas as well. National parks, wildlife sanctuaries and watersheds are but the first of three targeted areas, designated as "Absolutely Restricted Zones," "Intermediate Zones" and "General Relaxation Zones". These areas are as unspecified as their names are indeterminate. Apparently, the policy has thus far only been invoked within parks and sanctuaries; how extensively it will be put into practice remains to be seen.

Following the forced expulsion of highlanders in September 1987, the deputy director-general of Thailand's National Security Council was quoted in the Thai press as saying, "'It is the government's policy to repatriate all these illegal immigrants'". According to a proclamation of the Ministry of the Interior, the government has the right to repatriate immigrants who arrived from Burma after 9 March 1976. The Council of Ministers declared a policy applicable to people arriving from Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos after the 1975 change of government in each of these countries.

The Thai government has used the policy of repatriation not only as a way to expel highlanders to Burma but also as a threat to cause hilltribe people to leave Thailand for Burma on their own. In November 1987 provincial authorities in Maehongson ordered 400 Karen and other "Burmese tribespeople" to leave in 20 days or face forcible repatriation. The involuntary repatriation of Hmong arrivals from Laos in March 1987 received negative publicity both inside Thailand and abroad. To date, however, the policy has been applied infrequently and on a limited basis; nonetheless, as the National Security Council official's statement indicates, it can be applied more extensively.

Repatriation is not resettlement's twin, since its official birth was later, but the two are now paired in the government's efforts to assert its control over the mountains and the mountain people. The government's objective seems to be to remove from the hills both highlanders deemed legal residents and those deemed illegal immigrants - the former through resettlement and the latter through so-called repatriation.

As both Eudey and Kesmanee point out, the government justifies its resettlement of tribal people by claiming that they destroy the nation's forests and watersheds. Officials questioned after the "repatriations" of September 1987 offered the same justification. An additional official reason is that the highlanders grow opium poppies and traffic in illegal drugs.

Eudey and Kesmanee, as well as McKinnon (1987), question the government's central justification for removing highlanders from the hills. Drawing upon scientific studies of the environmental impact of the hill tribes' traditional slash-and-burn (shifting or swidden) cultivation, Kesmanee and McKinnon argue that this mode of agriculture does not cause the degree of forest destruction the government contends.

The government's second justification can also be called into question, this time on the basis of its own statements and statistics. Through a combination of crop substitution (replacing opium poppies with red kidney beans and other crops) and crop destruction (flattening opium fields prior to harvest) the government has, by its own account, successfully reduced the production of opium in northern Thailand.

For example, on the day after the first village was burned in the September 1987 "repatriation" raids in Chiang Rai Province, a headline proclaimed that 71 percent of the poppy fields in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces had already been destroyed by the Third Army during a 1986-1987 operation. When announcing increased investment in crop substitution, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board stated that "opium production in the north was reduced to 26.8 tons in 1986 down from 34.6 tons during the 1984-1985 growing season". An American involved in crop substitution programs affirmed "we're winning" the battle to eradicate opium production. Neither crop substitution nor crop destruction requires moving tribal people out of the hills. It is ironic, then, that at the same time officials were reporting their success at curtailing cultivation of opium poppies, other officials were citing cultivation of opium poppies to justify the policies of resettlement and repatriation.

Of Labels

Officials call the hill tribes "nomadic" or "seminomadic." The government is not alone in adopting the label nomad, which has a long history in mainland Southeast Asia. A British colonial representative in Burma refers to "nomadic hill tribes" in a report written in 1893. Decades later a National Geographic photograph of tribal people in Burma bears the caption "Nomads of the Timberland". More recently, the term has been enshrined in the modern anthropological literature on northern Thailand. For example, members of the influential Bennington-Cornell team, which conducted one of the earliest surveys of Thailand's hill tribes, term them "nomads" and "seminomads". These words are mechanically repeated by other anthropologists, who by training should be aware of the power of labels, without thought to their cultural cum political consequences.

Why not call hilltribe people "nomadic" or "seminomadic," since it is true that they move their villages in response to calamities, both natural and supernatural, and in search of new lands to farm? First, these terms are incorrect from a scientific viewpoint. Nomads, in anthropological usage, are migratory pastoralists, such as the Masai of Africa or the Pathan of southwest Asia, who range with their herds over specific territories in an annual cycle - certainly a sharp contrast with the six main hill tribes of Thailand, whose members are sedentary agriculturalists.

Second and more importantly, this label conveys the mistaken notion that tribal people are not attached to their village lands, homes, and fields. It is but a short mental step to assume that their allegiance to the nation is therefore suspect. If their own villages were recognized as permanent, the government would not need to "promote more permanent settlements," a goal of the 5th National Economic and Social Development Plan (1982-1986). It is true that new villages are built for a variety of reasons, but this does not mean that villages have no permanency. For example, the first two communities founded by Akha when they entered Thailand from Burma nearly a century ago remain Akha villages to this day. Surely, the nomad label contributed to the ability of the commander of the Third Army to shrug off the September 1987 torchings of tribal villages with the statement that what were burned were not houses "but only huts".

This label also contributes to the view held by at least some officials that hilltribe people are all recent arrivals. In early 1987 in the hills of Chiang Rai Province, I joined excited villagers in the school playground after dark to watch movies brought by representatives of the local government. The screening was preceded by a speech in which an official informed the villagers that they must learn the Thai language. He said that in five years a helicopter would land on that spot and all those who did not know Central Thai or the northern dialect would be flown "back to Burma." After the speech I mentioned to the official that all but the very oldest residents were in fact born in Thailand. He denied this, insisting that the villagers had lied to me.

Many hilltribe villagers, including those with whom I watched the movies, are natives of Thailand; it is also true, however, that in recent years numerous highlanders have entered the country from Burma and Laos. Hmong refugees from Laos have received worldwide attention. Not so the thousands of highlanders who have fled forced labor, extra-judicial killings, torture, appropriation of crops and livestock and other human rights violations perpetrated by the Union of Burma's armed forces. Only in the last couple of years have these abuses begun to receive the publicity they urgently demand, but the mounting documentation has not yet been matched by widespread public outcry.

Despite Burma's undeniable human rights violations, those tribal people who flee across the border into Thailand are not recognized as refugees by either the Royal Thai Government or multilateral agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). During the 1987 "repatriations," a representative of UNHCR in Bangkok essentially said that the problem was not definitional but political: to continue to provide assistance to refugees on the Lao and Kampuchean borders, UNHCR ignores refugees on the Burmese border. Instead of being labeled as refugees, recent arrivals from Burma are officially called "illegal immigrants".

The nomad label may be a contributing factor to the current refusal to apply the label refugee. After all, if hilltribe people are seen to be migratory by their very nature, no other explanation for their southward movement is needed. Yet recently arrived highlanders readily say that were it not for the violence endemic in Burma, they would have stayed - harvests are better there than in Thailand.

If recent arrivals are properly called refugees, then what are highlanders whose families have been in Thailand for many years, even generations? The government calls highlanders - whether recent arrivals or long-term residents - "mountain people" (chaawkhaw) and "tribes" (phaw). In fact, the term here rendered as mountain people is often officially translated as "hilltribe" or "tribal," as in the name for the Department of Public Welfare's research center, the Tribal Research Institute (Sathaaban Wicaj Chaawkhaw). Thus, according to the Royal Thai Government, Hmong and other highlanders are all tribal peoples.

According to Convention 107 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), "members of tribal and semi-tribal populations in independent countries...whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations" are granted the same rights as indigenous people. Thailand, although a member of the ILO, has not ratified this convention. According to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, "isolated or marginal groups" should be considered "indigenous populations" if they predated other ethnic groups in the national territory, if they "have preserved almost intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterized as indigenous," or if they are under a state "which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to theirs".

Certain of the tribal people of Thailand fall within the first definition of indigenous. Lua' (Lawa), for instance, who now number under 10,000, are recognized as the autochthonous people by Northern Thai; just as the prince of Chiang Mai did in the past, each year Northern Thai ritually propitiate the last Lua' king, who is considered a guardian spirit of the land. Karen, the largest hill tribe, may not have preceded Thai in the territory that is today Thailand, but they were in the border areas of the earliest Thai polities during the thirteenth century.

Later arrivals such as Hmong, Lahu, Mien, Akha and Lisu first entered the hills that are now part of Thailand from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, according to various ethnographers. Although not indigenous in the commonly understood sense of the term, these highlanders are nonetheless indigenous under ILO Convention 107 and under the UN definition. They are indigenous by virtue of being isolated groups that have preserved customs and traditions similar to those of other groups such as Lua', who are characterized as indigenous. Moreover, they are indigenous by virtue of being marginal groups under a national state that differs from them socially and culturally.

Of Laws

Although Thailand's regulations concerning illegal immigrants sound straightforward, they are not. How is an illiterate highlander to prove that she or he arrived in Thailand from Burma prior to the cutoff date of 9 March 1976? Borders are porous and government presence in mountain villages is sporadic. Official written records (censuses; house registration; documentation of births, marriages and deaths; national identity cards) are prepared by government representatives. Like unregistered immigrants in the US, highlanders may avoid being documented out of fear. Many, too, do not know what, where or when to report to officials. For example, a Hmong woman whose name was removed from her father's house registration card when she married failed to properly report her new marital residence. Later she was unable to obtain a national identity card because her residence record was incomplete.

Lack of government records or gaps in those that exist make it difficult for many mountain people to prove that they are not illegal immigrants, as defined by the government. But those expelled in September 1987 were not even given that chance. Eyewitnesses report that officials ignored documents shown by villagers. A reliable source told me that a man who was among those evicted possessed house registration papers dating back 16 years. Nonetheless, the deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC) insisted it was "impossible" that the authorities had expelled any Thai nationals, and officials reportedly said that all those expelled had lived in Thailand less than 10 years.

The reference to 10 years illustrates the difficulty encountered by government representatives themselves in deciphering the law. According to the proclamation on illegal immigrants from Burma, the relevant time period is not 10 years. The September 1987 evictions occurred more than 11 1/2 years after 9 March 1976, the crucial date in that proclamation. Apparently the smaller figure derives from statutes regarding citizenship: someone who has lived in Thailand for 10 years can become a citizen, provided that she or he has not engaged in illegal activity.

Given the problems associated with record keeping and the fact that records were ignored during the September 1987 raids, highlanders who had resided in Thailand for 10 years - or more importantly, since prior to 9 March 1976 - were probably expelled, the contrary official view notwithstanding. The NSC representative was, however, on firmer ground when he declared that no Thai nationals were expelled. It is not "impossible" but it is unlikely, simply because the majority of highlanders do not have national identity cards. By its own admission, the government has through the years been slow in issuing citizenship cards to highlanders, claiming that quicker registration would encourage immigration. In fact, it is probably precisely the slow pace of registration that has encouraged immigration from Thailand's neighbors. Without a national identity card, a long-term resident is indistinguishable from a recent arrival.

Lack of citizenship has another important consequence deleterious to the national interest. Without a national identity card, a hilltribe student cannot attend public school above the elementary level-government-run secondary schools, colleges and universities are only open to Thai citizens. Private schools are few and most are prohibitively expensive. Without the economic mobility education can provide, young highlanders must follow their parents into farming at a time when the government is justifiably concerned about the future of its forests.

When properly practiced, slash-and-burn agriculture is not destructive to the environment. Mountain land is limited, however, and the demand is expanding. Since the 1950s the hilltribe population has indeed grown through both natural increase and immigration. But other pressures exist, ones largely ignored by the government. Whether because of population growth or government mishandling of the economy, landless lowlanders have moved into the hills. Other lowlanders have appropriated mountain land not because of poverty but because of the promise of plantations to add to their plenty. At the same time that the government attempts to remove highlanders to the lowlands through the twin policies of resettlement and repatriation, lowlanders establish an increasing number of plantations in the hills. By denying highlanders access to higher education, the government has effectively cut off avenues of mobility, thereby insuring that any remaining mountain land will be over-cultivated.

Universal citizenship for Thailand's tribal people would, unfortunately, not solve their land problems. Although they need national identity cards in order to secure land titles, this is not the only requirement. Most of the northern hills are "wasteland...regarded as public domain, property of the State," and not subject to title. (Given this, the reader may marvel, as I do, at the ability of lowlanders to establish plantations in the hills.) Even if the highlanders did hold land titles, these would be invalidated by the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture, which is illegal. Moreover, participation in an illegal activity such as slash-and-burn agriculture is enough to deprive a person of citizenship.

Thailand's laws concerning immigration, citizenship, land use and land rights all place hilltribe people in jeopardy. If the so-called illegal immigrants were to be acknowledged as the refugees that they are, international law would supercede the statutes of Thailand. Then, forcible "repatriation" itself, rather than the expelled tribal people, would be labeled illegal. And if longstanding residents were acknowledged to be indigenous people, as they should be, their legitimate right to remain settled on their mountain land - whether cultivated by slash-and-burn agriculture or not - would demand recognition.

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