In a small rural village outside Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, Sunday is the day of noise. Evangelical rock echoes from a new church on the hill and a pickup truck with booming, oversized speakers drives along the dirt road. 'That's the gospel,' says A-Ju Jupoh, an indigenous rights campaigner and traditional Akha hill-tribe musician.' Every Sunday, that pickup drives around the villages blasting the gospel in the Akha language: 'He chuckles at the absurdity of it.
The truck may present a rather crude form of evangelism, but it illustrates the diversity of techniques now employed by Christians in Buddhist Thailand. Luminous advertisements for Jesus are found nailed to palm trees across the highlands, and new churches, hospitals and orphanages are cropping up in the remotest of villages. Most communities in the Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai regions--which sport the highest concentration of missionaries in the country--now have at least two churches.
And as US, English, Korean and Taiwanese Catholics and Protestants compete for souls, villages and even families are being split along religious lines. 'One family, two religions,' complains Athu Pochear, chairman of Akha advocacy group Afect. 'It's bad. Before, the household would be very happy, but after, with the different religions, there comes different thinking and different lifestyles.'
Somkiat Jamlong, an officer at the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, is similarly concerned. 'The culture is compromised,' he says. 'In the traditional villages, there has always been a high level of mutual support and respect, but when missionaries and Christianity arrive, this begins to break down'.
However, as Chiang Mai University anthropologist Kwanchewan Buadaeng puts it: 'It's not as simple as just the missionaries coming in and converting people.' Ancient cultures don't abandon belief systems at the whim of a foreign evangelist. As effective as mission work may be, the picture is vastly complicated by the fact that tribal peoples and the Kingdom of Thailand are at critical junctures in their respective histories.
ON THE MARGINS
Over the past decade, Thailand has witnessed an unprecedented level of development. It will meet most, if not all, of its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) well in advance of the 2015 target, and has seen poverty tumble from 38 per cent in 1990 to 11 per cent in 2004. Malaria is now under control and new HIV infections are down 80 per cent from their peak in 1991. Indeed, the UN Development Program uses the country as a luminous case study on the success of the MDG concept.
However, this picture hides a darker side, for unlike regional neighbours Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, where economic growth has lead to a decline in inequality, the disparity between rich and poor in Thailand has been worsening for the past 40 years. And the hill tribes, which mainstream Thai society perceives as backward and primitive, are right at the bottom of the pile.
Comprising an estimated 550,000 people, the hill tribes are broadly divided into six main ethnic groups: the Karen, the Hmong, the Mien, the Yao, the Lahu and the Akha. Scattered throughout the mountains of the north, east and west, many have historically combined slash-and-burn agriculture with opium farming, moving freely between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
With once-nomadic lifestyles curtailed by modern state borders and, in the case of Thailand, increasing pressure for land, traditional agriculture is no longer possible for reasons of space or legislation. Increasingly, the authorities are pressuring people to settle into permanent villages and grow cash crops for Thai or international markets. Many complain that in return for such a dramatic change in lifestyle, the state offers little in return but marginalisation. Limited access to healthcare and education, together with a lack of passports, land rights or citizenship, mean that for many tribal people, the changes have led to little more than a restricted life of poverty. …