As in thousands of other villages and communities scattered in the diminishing roadless hills and secluded valleys of the planet, the indigenous people of northern Thailand (the Karen, Mon, Lahu, Lisu, Akha and others) are engaged in a struggle for the continuance of their way of life in the face of the expanding industrial-consumer culture. Under the pressure of logging, development, roads, mining, dams, racism, alcohol, drugs and the lure of advertising and consumer goods, these ethnic groups are experiencing the same physical and cultural dislocations as have the people native to the Americas; only within a more compressed time period. In fact, when we look deeply, we can also see that the issues faced by Thailand's indigenous peoples are relevant to people everywhere. Questions such as the following arise:
| What community values are essential to preserve and nurture in the face of encroachment from the commercialized monoculture?|
| How can the lineage of wisdom, customs and ceremonies be transferred to the young whose attentions are increasingly monopolized by compulsory state education and mass media?|
| How can the indigenous communities be supported as the rightful guardians or stewards of the forest land they have inhabited for generations?|
| How can we describe the differences between simplicity and power, or between a high quality of life and a high material standard of living?|
These and other questions arose this past December as the Association participated in an amazing experience along with individuals traveling from North America, India, Ireland, Burma, Indonesia and many other parts of the world; totaling seventy five of us in all. Three separate, concurrent solidarity walks took place and divided this international delegation into smaller groups, each with two Buddhist Thai forest monks, a spiritual leader, and an invited Native American. Two groups went to the north to walk into remote forests and villages in the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai area, while our group went west towards the Burmese border. The walks visited hill tribes of the Karen, Akhu, Lisu, and Hmong peoples.
These walks were not 'eco-travel tours' but an invited pilgrimage with the intent to bear witness to the struggles of the indigenous people of Thailand in times of rapid change. Several years before, Elias Amidon was asked by the Karen headmen to be able to share their stories with others from outside, and to meet our indigenous people the Native Americans and hear about their experiences. Elias's Spirit in Action program and his company, The Boulder Institute for Nature and the Human Spirit began to organize these walks, coordinating between six NGOs, several monasteries and one government ministry.
On each walk, we engaged village members and leaders in daily dialogues about the pressures for change, the transfer of cultural wisdom to the young, sustainability and the forest, and other social and environmental issues. At the end of the walks, the three groups converged to form a 'letter of concern' regarding tribal issues to the Thai PrimeMinister and Members of parliament. A press conference was held in front of the Thai Government House in Bangkok, presenting the letter to the Prime Minister's deputy and to members of the press, who reported the story in national papers.
For ten days, we stayed with families in small groups, sleeping and eating on the floor with them, sharing chores and cooking meals, talking and sharing the similarities and differences in ways of life. Many evenings were spent trading songs and music, as well as listening to villagers share their tribe's histories. The stories we heard were many; here are just a few.
The Akha can trace back their lineage 54 generations. The elders in the village spoke with us, saying "Before our lives were like a bright light. Now people worry for money. We are the only ones who practice the old ways. The children aren't around for ceremonies because government education puts them in school. They are not learning the heart of our ways. For us, life is all one thing: ceremonies = religion = land = life. We cannot survive as a people without practicing our ceremonies."
Kiefer Foote (Spotted Eagle, as he is known amongst his Dakota Sioux people), is a pipe carrier. He was asked to speak to a group of Karen elders in a remote village deep in the forest along the Thai-Burmese border. "They say my people once lived like this, in villages where no one went hungry alone. They say my people lived like you do, with a respect for the plants and animals and spirits of the forest. It is a blessing for me to see what I have only heard about in stories. In my country, when the Europeans came, their way of life changed my peoples' way of life forever. I see these same changes happening in your country."
Elders in the village of Koh Saedang at a council meeting with us: The village elders told us of their concerns that the government was trying to convey: "We do not say our way of life is the best, but we wish to continue it." At the end of the afternoon council meeting, one of the monks on our walk, Phra Kosin, asked them, "If the government agents came tomorrow and told you all to move out, what would you then do?" Answers came immediately from several elders: "I would talk with them." "I would too." "And I. But if they pushed us, I would die here." Ne Saeng, the ceremonial leader, was the last to speak. "The sacred beings of the forest would see this and they would protect us." The other elders nodded their agreement.
And from the notes of Elizabeth Roberts, Elias' partner in life and the Institute for Nature and the Human Spirit:
"Among the Akha, Lisu and Lahu peoples, their myths and ceremonies tie personal and communal well-being to the seasonal cycle and particular ecology of their place. Their ceremonial life acts as an 'immune system,' keeping both individuals and communities healthy and in appropriate relationship with each other. This immune system preserves the identity and integrity of both culture and nature. We found on each of the three walks that, among the tribal peoples, one of the most certain predictors of ecological care for the surrounding forests, rivers, and animal habitat is their continuation of animist ceremonies and cosmology. In a culture where spiritual values are tied to the land and where the social life is united with the land's cycles, there are built-in corrective measures to discourage a single family from undermining the ecological base of the whole community. However, once a village has beenonverted to either Christianity or Buddhism, there is more evidence of a breakdown in this ecological-cultural integration. Buddhism and Christianity are not to blame (both have within them the teachings and practices designed to remind us of the sacredness of all life) but contemporary, urban Buddhism and Christianity give little emphasis to these teachings. This recognition led Phra Paisan Visalo, a highly-respected Buddhist monk who accompanied our walk, to conclude: "I feel these village communities have been happy with their own religions for many centuries. We should not impose our own religion (specifically some form of nationalized Buddhism) on them."
On our walk in the west, we hiked into one village where we spent six nights. The other two walks changed villages daily as they hiked into various communities within the forest. In our longer stay, I appreciated the opportunity to settle into village life and get to know our host family. As it turned out, our family was the village headman. Many evenings, the gatherings took place at our house. Villagers and foreigners alike would come to the house to share stories, smoke rolled cigarettes from tobacco they grow themselves, sing songs and communicate through our Karen interpreters to exchange information about each others' culture. I was very impressed at the way the villagers thought about a question when asked, sometimes not answering even until the next day! We had come to hear their stories, but I found the Karen to be very deep listeners, thoughtful and present. Often, when asked a question, they would look to each other to see which one might want to answer it, or retreat back to a smaller circle to smoke and discuss an answer as a group before directing it back to us.
On our first meeting in the village, one of the elders stood up to greet us. In an apologetic manner, he explained that the Karen are so small in knowledge compared to us from the west and that they would be happy to share their humble information with us. Over the days that followed, it seemed to me that they were the ones vast in knowledge and that perhaps, in this sustainable way of life they lived, we were incredibly small in knowledge. The Karen live in balance with their land. The crops are rotated so the land can rest. They travel far distances when choosing farm land to maintain the land's integrity and ecological balance. They ask permission of the forest and river spirits before they do anything and treat their total environment with a deep and profound respect. All peoples within the village are cared for; food storage is communal; fields are harvested as a community. One day, a young man went into the forest to gather bananas and when he returned, he ran house to house to distribute them equally. No one in this village would go without food, clothing or shelter while others had more than they needed. Their work life of farming, gathering, grinding rice and wheat and so on is balanced with a healthy and contented social life. Many hours eachay are spent playing with the children, visiting others, eating together, and sharing stories.
The Karen talked of their different types of clothing and explained how they dye the colors to achieve the rich purples and blues and pinks. The difference between ceremonial clothing andaily wear and that of a married or unmarried woman's wear was explained. We visited a woman's house who brought out her family's ceremonial clothes to show us.
One evening, a celebration took place that we were invited to attend. A family's crop had been harvested and on this night, with prayers and offerings to the spirits that helped create the healthy crop, the water buffalo were brought in to stomp the wheat and separate it from the stalks. There were songs and musical instruments played as people took turns raking the wheat in order to allow the smaller pieces to settle to the ground, which the elderly women would later collect. We were side by side with the Karen, working, whooping, hollering and celebrating the successful harvest. At the end, a great feast was brought out by the family whose crop this was and laid out upon the mats they had toted from their village. We were asked to be seated and eat first as a way to honor and respect us for joining them.
The three main issues the villagers see, as told to us in one of our many meetings with them, are as follows:
| Their resources are getting fewer due to current land depletion by timber, mining, and other large companies. They are also no longer allowed to roam where they need to go as in times past due to their lands being claimed as preserves and wildlife sanctuaries (which protect the land itself and the animals which live upon it, but calls for the eviction of people).|
| The morals and values are changing among the young people. The elders are afraid that the young won't know "when enough is enough" in the modern ways that the natural balance in their lives will be destroyed.|
| They are afraid they will lose their land completely and therefore, their entire way of life.|
One of the elders explained that he felt he had become like a chicken scratching for food. By day, the chicken worries about the sharp eagle's eyes. But by night, the chicken must watch out for the large cats in the forest. Either way, he is always pecking, scratching for small scraps here and there, concerned only with eating enough and staying alive.
|Were the walks useful?|
Did they serve a purpose? Some of the U.S. participants, when looking deeply at these questions, raised issues of possible contamination of these villages by the group's presence the very thing they did not want to create. Groups and individuals discussed the tendency to idealize village life, the necessity and inevitability of progress; even what progress is. Meditation and contemplation were the only difficult issues. Listening, questioning, sitting silently together with the villagers in the face of these realities (however painful or complex) opened avenues of understanding. It is the understanding gained from being such a direct witness that allows us to create solutions and actions to these issues. For many, this spiritual practice was an intrinsic part of the walk itself.
For the hill tribe peoples, there was no question about the utility of the walks. Repeatedly, they told us how happy they were that we would come from so far away, want to eat and stay with them and their families, work beside them, ask questions and share about our cultures. The elders were pleased when, after one evening council of discussion with the group, they saw renewed respect in the eyes of their young people. All agreed that tourism, even eco-tourism, might bring money but didn't bring the renewed self-esteem that resulted from this Interfaith Solidarity Walk. The local people want more of them, and have requested that six per year be held. The Boulder Institute for Nature and the Human Spirit has agreed to a training program to teach people from the United States and Siam to create similar experiences that bear witness to global differences and global unity.
There are many benefits on both sides of the world when western activists listen, exchange insights, pray and stand in solidarity with Asia's tribal peoples. Elders from these tribes have asked that we continue to visit them in this non-tourist way to bring greater attention to their struggles and help them understand the changes that are coming.
If you would like to join future walks, please contact Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Roberts at
The Boulder Institute
1314 8th Street
Boulder, Colorado 80302,
indicating your background and interest. They may also be reached at (303) 939-8398; or by fax at (303) 447-2253.
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