The Akha: at a crossroads

The Akha people are  a hill tribe which has a total population of some 2.3 million people in five countries: Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, China and Vietnam. In fairness, it must be said that globalization is only the most recent of a number of daunting challenges and injustices that the Akha have had to face. For decades, as inhabitants of the so-called “Golden Triangle,” they have been caught up in the murky web of that region’s opium politics.

In Thailand the majority of Akha are stateless people who lack documentation proving they are Thai citizens – clearly, a major obstacle to finding work, attending school, purchasing land or carrying out other everyday transactions. Yet another factor is religion, and the consequences of Christian missionary activity for the Akha lifestyle: can Christianity be compatible with the original Akha way of life and its animist, community-based traditions, or are the two mutually exclusive? Recent years have seen the emergence of an increasing number of non-profit organizations in northern Thailand, generally of Christian orientation even if not run by missionaries per se, which host Akha children in boarding-school type establishments.

Our group - which included a cameraperson, several photographers and one retired medical professional - visited one such organization, “Children of the Golden Triangle” (CGT) in Mae Suai. We came away from this experience with conflicting impressions of the children’s situation.

The parents, who are often small farmers living in remote mountain villages, are reassured that the organization will educate the children, teach them practical vocational skills and, essentially, give them a chance at a better, “modern” life.

In our quest to achieve a better understanding of what “development” could or should mean for the Akha tribe, we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Athu Pochear of the Akha Association for Education and Culture in Thailand (AFECT). In this interview, he clearly presents AFECT’s vision for promoting the well-being of Akha people and explains how interested outside parties can be constructively involved in this process.