By traveler and travel agency alike, Thailand has been touted for its diversity of hill tribes. Despite their rich cultural background and contribution to Thailand’s thriving tourism industry, hill tribes are regularly faced with government policies that are detrimental to their way of life. As a result, members of hill tribes are relocating to the cities where they are impoverished and exploited.
In Thailand, the term ‘hill tribe’ refers to the ethnic minority groups living in the mountains. Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, way of dressing and beliefs. Most are of semi-nomadic origin and have immigrated to Thailand from Tibet, Myanmar (Burma), China and Laos over the past 200 years, frequently as a result of discrimination and internal strife. In Thailand, some of the recognized hill tribes include Akha, H’tin, Karen, Khamu, Lahu, Lisu, Lua, Med and Yao.
Since 1960, the Thai government has implemented different policies of relocating the tribes from highland areas to lowland areas where the land is generally unsuitable for farming. Each policy has been initiated with various reasoning behind them. The most recent unsupported excuse is that hill tribes are responsible for deforestation in the area of the Golden Triangle. Thus, they have been moved en masse with little or no warning and were forced to assume the costs of moving and re-establishing themselves at the new locations.
The population of the hill tribes in Thailand is estimated at 1.2 million. According to the Law Society of Thailand figures, less than half are registered as Thai citizens despite a much larger percentage having been born in the country. This lack of citizenship is the biggest problem that these groups must contend with. Human rights violations and discrimination on many levels are factors that directly lead the tribes to live into poverty.
In 1992 the Ministry for Education compiled guidelines for the integration of ethnic minority children in Thai schools. However, beyond setting the guidelines, little else was done to see that they were implemented. Most Thai schools do not receive hill tribe children and in cases where they do, the children are given little support with the costs of schooling and materials. For many they have no choice but to stay home. For those who do attend school, it can be very difficult to succeed in a school system that is not in their native tongues and makes little effort to accommodate their various cultures and living conditions. Also, as a result of extreme poverty, many hill tribe children as young as three years old are forced to work for a living. This work usually consists of walking the streets at night and selling flowers from bar to bar. Because of the conditions and locations where these children work, it is not unusual for some to become involved in the child sex-trade.
On another front, statistics show that one in three sex workers in Chiang Mai comes from a hill tribe family. It is not uncommon for girls leave their mountain homes in search of gainful employment. Due to their lack of education, this prospect is soon quashed and the girls find themselves entering or being sold into the sex industry.
Restricted freedom of movement is another big issue of the tribes. Movement of non-citizens within certain areas is allowed but if they are found outside of these areas they face instant arrest.
In hospitals, non-registered members of the tribes are often refused health care.
Unfortunately, on a national level the hill tribes of northern Thailand are associated with the problems they face rather than being embraced as part of the mix of ethnicities that makes up the Thai population. Hill Tribes are associated with deforestation, illicit drug production, drug trafficking and even communist activity. They are ousted by society and face daily the stigmas of problems that are a result of their non-citizen status.
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