Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


Case Study: The Akha & Modernization: A Quasi Legal Perspective
Jonathan Levy

The Flag of the Akha People

The Akha Heritage Foundation

The Hilltribe People of Thailand

About the Akha of Northern Thailand

The Akha or E-Gor Hilltribes in Chiang Mai

EarthRights International: Burma Project

Forced labour logging in Burma by Tim Keating

The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia: Thailand's Opium: The Fruits of Victory

FULL TEXT of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred W. McCoy with Cathleen B. Read and Leonard P.Adams II

Opium History, 1940 To 1979 by Alfred W. McCoy

Drugs, the U.S., and Khun Sa

A Tangled Web: A History of CIA Complicity in Drug International Trafficking

The Akha are a people of Tibetan origin in live in the mountains of southern China, Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and northern Thailand. There are approximately 20000 Akha living in Thailands northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Every Akha village is distinguished by their carved wooden gates, presided over by guardian spirits. The tribe have suffered resettlement, has been widely exposed to the narcotics trade, civil war, extensive poverty and finally Christian Missionaries, who have imposed themselves on the poverty stricken Akha and have helped destroy their culture. Akha Children are often put into orphanages run by them. In what amounts to genocide, the Thai and Burmese government view the missions favorably as they weaken the hilltribes as an ethnopolitical entity.

Modernization and Indigenous people do not generally mix. Indeed whether it's called modernization, globalization, or imperialism, the net result may well be the same, cultural annihilation. While modernization may seem benign compared to the old colonial models, the net result for indigenous peoples can often be tragic. Imperialists sought to exploit and enslave indigenous people for profit. Modernizers may actually be doing more damage, more quickly, thanks to technology and the need for developing nations to generate income to pay for the infrastructure of modern statehood.

The government of a developing nation acts a sort of middleman between the multinational corporations and their people. This arrangement may enrich a handful of the elite and their offshore bank accounts.However, the profit from the commodities brokered and extracted, whether they are minerals, oil, timber, or other raw materials, leaves the developing nation along with the goods. Indigenous peoples are particularly hard hit by this one sided transaction.

Modernization in the form of roads, clear cutting timber, and oil drilling and pipelines impacts and disrupts the lifestyle, culture, and most importantly the precariously balanced economies of the indigenous inhabitants. Self-sufficiency becomes poverty in the blink of an eye. Modernity weakens, cheapens, and eventually destroys century old cultures. Central governments may ignore the plight of indigenous peoples, give lip service to their needs, or often exacerbate the situation. In any event, minorities and tribal peoples are often not considered full-fledged citizens and their needs ignored.

This case study examines the plight of the Akha in Thailand and Burma. The Akha are a Southeast Asian hilltribe of Tibetan origin now scattered through Burma, Thailand, Laos and China.(1) The Akha are relative newcomers to Thailand, many having fled the perpetual unrest and decades long civil war in Burma. Few in Thailand are citizens; most are registered aliens.

The Akha are confronted with several immediate issues: relocation of villages by Thai authorities, prostitution, narcotics, poverty, loss of culture and identity, and depredations by Christian missionaries. On a larger, economic and political scale, the civil war in Burma, deforestation/reforestation and road building, and lack of political status frustrate the situation. The net result is that the Akha are clearly endangered as a people. While the situation is not one of outright genocide, the result is the destruction of Akha tribe. (2)

The turbulent politics and economics of the Golden Triangle originally displaced the Akha. Following the fall Communist takeover of China in 1949, the CIA sponsored a secret Nationalist Chinese Army in the region that was to become known as the Golden Triangle. (3) Unfortunately for the semi-nomadic Akha, this also happened to be right in the middle of their territorial range. The Chinese settled the region and devoted themselves to the cultivation of opium. Ultimately, during the Vietnam War half the world's supply of heroin originated there. (4)

More troubling for the Akha is the long simmering civil war on the Thai-Burmese border. (5) While the situation has ebbed and flowed over the years, Shan and Karen separatists have battled the Burmese central government for more than 50 years. The Akha however are apolitical for the most part. This has not stopped the Burmese government in its most recent incarnation as the Myanmar State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) junta from persecuting the Akha on occasion. (6) The SPDC has been accused of deliberately killing, torturing and arbitrarily detaining members of ethic minorities. "Many civilians have been arbitrarily seized as porters from their villages by the military and held in custody... Many of those forced to act as porters have been subjected to ill treatment as punishment if they could not carry their loads of supplies and ammunition. (7) According to a March 7, 2001, Human Rights Watch press release, this practice continues unabated. The Akha have more often than not fled to Thailand during civil unrest in Burma but their presence is not welcomed nor is their traditional slash and burn rice cultivation method. Indeed the Thai government would rather the hilltribes not cross the border at all. (8)

Thailand claims the Akha cause extensive damage to the environment through slash and burn agriculture. (9) However, the real reason may be more mundane, national security. The Akha are identified with the opium growers who until recently dominated that portion of the "Golden Triangle" in Thailand. (10) Thailand has taken steps to eradicate opium cultivation and resettle the Akha into permanent villages. However, both opium and long ingrained farming techniques are key to the complex Akha culture. Critics' claims the Thai government really just want the Akha out of the way of ongoing forestry development. While traditional opium cultivation has been suppressed, processed heroine and latest scourge, methamphetamine, is freely available from Burma. Thus Akha have become both impoverished farmers and in many cases narcotic addicts. As the Akha are resettled they come into contact with mainstream Thai culture, many Akha women are drawn to the "easy" money of the sex industry.

As the Akha traditions and culture dwindle, tourism increases. Roads bring accessibility and tourists as well as providing egress from the poverty of village life for the younger generations, according to one report: "Some of the smaller communities had a sad, even desolate air; we were told that many teenagers leave for jobs in the cities leaving old people, wearing traditional dress, and young children in charge of haggling with visitors at handicraft stalls." (11) However, the picture of Akha life in Thailand is not a happy one, deprived of their traditional semi nomadic way of life with their cultural heritage being leached away by contact with mainstream Thai and Western trends, tourism cannot supplant the poverty of the Akha:

"It was in an Akha village 40km from Mae Sat, on the Thai border with Burma. The Akha is one of about a half-dozen hill tribes who eke out an existence in the inhospitable but scenic Thai uplands. Their villages are innocent of plumbing, though an occasional electric wire straggles into a house. Generally they have simple lives of unremitting tedium, enlivened by two things: addiction to opiates and being used as a tourist attraction." (12)

Unfortunately, the author missed the mark, while the Akha are traditional opium users, they also enjoy a rich heritage including at least thirteen festivals in a given year.

The crux of the Akha problem in Thailand is resettlement. The Thai government has characterized the Akha as destroyers of the forests through their slash and burn agriculture but one wonder if this is merely a stereotypical excuse to remove the Akha from timberland destined to be harvested by international interests? The Thai government has a program of relocating the Akha to permanent village sites, once situated, they are instructed in wet rice paddy cultivation according to the government. However, the Akha already know this and they are often forced to leave behind better land than they are given in return. Controversy surrounds this program run by the Thai Department of Reforestation. (13) Matthew McDaniel of the Akha Heritage Foundation based in Chiangrai, Thailand has been working with the Akha for over ten years. He is critical of the Thai government's approach, the impact being detrimental and the relocation sites already too crowded: in one recent case "Mr. McDaniel said he was informed by the Akha villagers that the move was made against their will. Moreover, he linked the relocation with the Petroleum Authority of Thailand's reforestation scheme. Thai government responds that the moves simply makes it easier for the government to take care of the villagers' needs and that they are never conducted without full consent. According to McDaniel, the entire scheme is often a fraud, a single signature being the "consent" needed to relocate and entire village.

Drug addiction is also a drain on the Akha's vitality. Opium traditionally was used as a cure all and is part of the Akha heritage. However, with the introduction of the CIA Kuomintang Army (KMT) into the Golden Triangle, opium production was encouraged as a way of raising funds upon which the Akha also became dependent. Incredibly, until a deal between Khun Sa, his Mong Tai Army and the Myanmar government was brokered in 1996, the remnant of the KMT remained active in the region. (14) This however only caused further misery for some Akha as heroin prices rose after Khun Sa's retirement. The Akha are prevented by Thai authorities from their traditional opium cultivation and have in some cases substituted the far more costly refined heroin due to availability.

Prostitution is another immediate problem:

"In the area of prostitution, the number of Akha girls ending up in that trade is very large, and growing. The solutions are not simple and the spread of AIDS is not slowing. Road development in the area will force many Akha from one economic model rapidly into another and prostitution will be one way that far to many of them will cope with that dilemma." (15)

However, we are warned that the prostitution problem is not entirely a victimization issue but rather an economic one, "In numerous cases after having filmed or listened at great length to all the horrible events that befell this or that young woman we concluded our interview only to be asked by her then if we could help her get back into the business by providing money for a bus ticket or air ticket to some choicer location where she could gain greater benefit at the trade. Sort of shocking the first time we encountered it. But to assume that all these young woman are duped into this trade would be quite condescending, as though if they were like us westerners they would know better. One would also be quite misjudging of their calculating qualities." (16)

However, if resettlement, narcotics, civil war, and poverty were not enough challenges, Matthew McDaniel of the Akha Heritage Foundation has identified one further plague, Christian Missionaries. According to McDaniel, the churches impose themselves on the poverty stricken villagers and destroy their culture. Children are often put into orphanages run by the missionaries. The Thai and Burmese government view the missions favorably as they weaken the hilltribes as an ethnopolitical entity. Finally, village resources are diverted to build churches often via a tax imposed by the new pastor, while traditional elders and customs shoved aside and forbidden. In short, instead of encouraging self sufficiency based on custom and heritage, the missionaries introduce an alien belief system and destroy initiative.

Legal Solution

"Human rights is only something you manipulate against your enemies, it has nothing to do with the humans the laws were intended to protect." Matthew McDaniel, Akha Heritage Foundation

Undoubtedly, there are numerous, laws, treaties, and conventions that the Akha should benefit from. For instance, Thailand's new Constitution includes a provision that recognizes traditional communities and their rights to conserve or restore their customs, local intellect, arts or good culture and to participate in the management and maintenance of natural resources and the environment." (17) In practice the guarantees granted the Akha are useless as the Akha are not considered full citizens: "It should be said that the Government of Thailand has and does do a lot for the hill tribes. But often it is misguided or self serving, and without basic rights like ID cards at birth, and the right to own land, the rest becomes laughable and the end result is what we have now, the increased marginalization of the Akha." (18) Indeed, do the governments of the Developing World even recognize the concept of indigenous peoples like the Akha, Shans, Karens, Hmong, Nagas, Papuans, Ainu, etc? The PRC certainly does not:

"The Chinese Government believes that the question of indigenous peoples is the product of European countries' recent pursuit of colonial policies in other parts of the world." (19)

It has been argued that a constructivist approach to the legal status of indigenous peoples offers the most flexibility and disarms the argument that the entire notion of human rights is eurocentric (see generally Kingsbury, Indigenous Peoples in International Law, fn 19 above). Thus it may be up to the Akha to define themselves, if they or their advocates do not act on the international stage, time may well run out.

It is difficult to act against governments, insurrection in Burma has led only to a continued cycle of repression. Tribal people cannot hope to win independence from large central governments, and such attempts are generally doomed (Nagaland, Shan States, separatists in Indonesia and the Philippines). However, governments do not generally act alone, encroachment on indigenous lands is often motivated by economic gain and in this endeavor state run enterprises usually partner with private corporations.

Unlike governments, corporations do not enjoy sovereign immunity for violation of international law. The US Federal Courts have jurisdiction over such matters under the Alien Tort Claims Act or ATCA. (20) The giant oil company Unocal which partnered with SLORC (the Burmese Junta) faced a California lawsuit for violation of international law (Doe v. Unocal, 963 F.Supp 880, C.D. Cal. 1997) when the Burmese military forcibly relocated villagers and enslaved them to help make way for a natural gas pipeline. Likewise Chevron faces a lawsuit in another California Federal court regarding violation of human rights in Nigeria in the course of oil extraction there. Human rights violations committed during the Second World War have been successfully litigated against German, Austrian, and Swiss corporations and billions of dollars recovered for victims and their heirs. Court action therefore is a powerful deterrent to economic exploitation, which violates international law.

Could the Akha benefit from an aggressive legal strategy? To the extent resource extraction can be linked to violations of international law, the answer is a cautious yes but the human rights violation must approach the level of violating recognized international legal norms such as genocide, slavery, and perhaps seizure of private property in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention. As for the missionaries, legal redress for perpetration of cultural genocide would be a unique case and well worthy of exploration.

In the meantime, the Akha are in the middle of a new drug war in Thailand as methamphetamine floods the area displacing opiates. The Burmese - Thai border is a battleground. The US is calling for a renewed war on drugs. As MacDaniel points out human rights is a weapon not a right. One perhaps the Akha could use against the right party and in doing so plead their case to the world.


1 "Hilltribe" is used to refer to several highland ethnic minorities that are linguistically and culturally distinct from the Thai. The term includes Karen, Lua, Hmong (Meo), Yao, Akha, Lahu, Lisu, H'tin, and Khamu. Many of these people are relative newcomers to Thailand, few have been granted Thai citizenship, and most are registered aliens,. Douglas L. Tookey, Southeast Asian Environmentalism at its Crossroads: Learning Lessons from Thailand's Eclectic Approach to Environmental Law and Policy, Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, Winter, 1999

2 The UN Genocide Convention of 1948 defines genocide as:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

3 Francis W. Belanger, Drugs, the U.S., and Khun Sa, Siam Square, Bangkok, Thailand ISBN 974-210-4808.

4 International Herald Tribune (Neuilly-sur-Seine, France), March 13, 1998, In Thailand, Ancient Ways and Elephant Excursions; Tribes of the Golden Triangle, After the Poppy, Invite Tourists.

5 Burma and Thailand are a hotbed of ethnic conflict, according to Peace and Conflict 2001, A Global Survey of Armed Conflicts, Self Determination Movements, and Democracy, Ted Gurr et al., Center for International Development & Conflict Management, University of Maryland, armed conflicts by the Hmong in Laos and Karens, Karenni, Kachins, Shan, Mon, Chin/Zomi and Wa in Burma continue at varying levels of intensity.

6 Formerly known by the more sinister acronym SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), the change in name was to show "peaceful" progress, particularly in light of ASEAN pressure.

7 The Irish Times, August 8, 1996, Army accused of violating rights of ethnic minorities.

8 Xinhua, July 7, 1990, Thailand to stop new influx of highlanders.

9 Ibid.

10 Bangkok Post June 1, 1999, We Care - The Good Samaritan

11 AAP, Dec 4, 2000, Among the Hill tribes

12 London Guardian, Aug. 8, 1992, Tourist on a Tribal Detour

13 Bangkok Post, January 16, 2000, Villagers to be moved to new location

14 The official Myanmar version of this deal accuses the US government of trying to establish a secret missile base in the area under Khun Sa's control however fails to explain the sudden common interest between Myanmar and Khun Sa. Ominously, the Myanmar government reports that methamphetamine manufacture is rapidly supplanting the heroine industry. The Political Situation of Myanmar, (A pro government web site disseminating official reports of the Myanmar Armed Forces and Government for National Reconsolidation)

15 Akha Heritage Foundation,, The Akha Heritage Foundation has a laudable purpose, "Our goals are to assist the Akha people in preserving their culture, language and traditions as they see fit."

16 Ibid.

17 The Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, Volume 17, pages, 307, 359.

18 Akha Heritage Foundation.

19 Benedict Kingsbury, Indigenous Peoples in International law: A Constructivist Approach to the Asian Controversy,The American Journal International Law, July, 1998,92 A.J.I.L. 414

20 The ATCA provides that Federal District Courts shall have original jurisdiction over any civil action by an alien for a tort committed in violation of international law. Thus individuals can sue to redress violations of international law in US Courts even if the underlying tort was committed abroad. (See generally, Steinhardt and D'Amato, The Alien Tort Claims Act: An Analytical Approach, Transnational Publishers, New York, 1999)

About the author

Jonathan Levy is a California attorney who has represented organizations and individuals in a variety of Holocaust related lawsuits including banking, insurance, and slave labor matters. He can be contacted at:

The Law Office of Thomas Dewey Easton and Jonathan H. Levy,
PO Box 6080, Cincinnati OH 45206, USA
Tel: (513) 528-0586