Information on Ethnic Minorities in North Thailand

Table of Contents

Definition of Indigenous Peoples

My understanding of “indigenous peoples” has always been those people who were there first. When we talk about indigenous peoples I always immediately think of the aboriginal people of Australia, who were there before the British arrived. It appears there is no generally accepted definition of indigenous peoples. According to Wikipedia the focus now is on “self-identification, cultural differences from other groups in a state, a special relationship with their traditional territory, and an experience of subjugation and discrimination under a dominant cultural model”.

I use the term ‘hill tribes” on this website because most people know ethnic minorities in North Thailand as such but I would prefer to call them indigenous people.

The Ethnic Minorities or Indigenous people

Thailand recognizes these groups in North Thailand as “hill tribes“: the Akha, the Hmong, the Lisu, the Lahu, the Yao, the Karen, the Thin, the Lua (Lawa), and the Khamu people. We can add to this list the Dara-ang people, or Palaung, in Thailand, known as Palong. They are the most recent migrants from Myanmar, arriving in Thailand in the mid-1980s. On this website, we focus on eight groups: Akha, Karen, Hmong, Lisu, Lahu, Yao, Lua (Lawa) and Palong. 

Three women in tribal dress dara-ang Ethnic Minorities North Thailand
Three Palong women in traditional dress

Migration to Thailand

Apart from the Lawa people, Htin, and Khamu, the homeland of all other groups is in China or Tibet. They have migrated to Thailand via Burma or Laos. The Karen are believed to have migrated to Thailand centuries ago. The other groups have migrated to Thailand (then called Siam) roughly since the early 1900s. These are the six groups that feature in trekking programs for tourists since the mid-1970s. Their different culture, colorful dress, and remote “untouched” lifestyle have attracted tourists from the early 1960s onwards. As said earlier, the Palong are the most recent arrivals in Thailand.

Man and woman in traditional dress Huai Nam Dang National Park Ethnic Minorities North Thailand Karen Hill Tribe Ethnic Minorities North Thailand
Elderly Karen couple in Huai Nam Dang National Park

Tour reports of British consuls

I have a large number of reports of British consuls, dating to roughly from 1915 until the start of World War Two. In those days the hill tribes lived in remote mountains villages, sometimes a days walk from the main road. These main roads often were not more than dirt roads that became impassable in the rainy season. The only contact they made with lowland communities was to buy some products but it seems they were largely self-sufficient. Some of the ethnic minorities cultivated opium poppy and sold the opium poppy to Haw Chinese traders who came to the village. Some of the consuls mentioned presence of the hill tribes.

Karen hill tribe women weaving at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center Karen People
Karen hill tribe women weaving at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Courtesy of Old Chiang Mai.

Anthropologists and Missionaries

Some anthropologists and missionaries were the only people interested in the hill tribes until the late 1950s. They lived their lives in remote villages and were more or less self-sustaining and independent. The situation changed in the 1960s. Southeast Asia was in the grip of the struggle against the communist threat. War against communist insurrections raged in Vietnam, Laos, and later Cambodia. During this war, Thailand was a pivotal ally of the United States. The government started to see the tribal groups as potential allies of a communist insurgency. Many, mostly American and Australian anthropologists, started to research tribal villages in North Thailand. Often institutions such as the Ford Foundation and other organizations funded the research of these anthropologists.

Missionary posing with Padaung aka Long Neck Karen
Group of Long Neck women with missionary. Source unknown

Integration into Thai society

The security aspect was not the only reason for the Thai government to start a drive to integrate the hill tribes into Thai society. Their slash and burn agricultural practices were destroying the forest and damaging watersheds of the lowlands. Communities were moving regularly.
The Thai government tried to keep communities in the same place by establishing schools, construct roads and other facilities. Authorities discouraged the preservation of tribal traditions, religion, and language. The tribal people had to become Thai citizens, learn the Thai language, and respect the monarchy.

Children Palong dance Chiang Dao
Palong dance

Institutes on Ethnic Minorities in North Thailand

The Tribal Research Institute in Chiang Mai

In 1965 the Thai government established the Tribal Research Center to deal with hill tribe issues, in the context where few ethnic studies institutes and researchers existed. The Center was located at the compound of Chiang Mai University but resorted under the Ministry of Interior. In 1984 the government elevated the center to Tribal Research Institute. They closed the institute in 2002 after the government decided that most problems concerning hill tribes were solved. Many researchers lost their jobs but moved books and research materials to the Hill Tribe Museum in the Rama IX Lanna Park.

Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre in Bangkok

Established in 1992, this institute resorts under the Ministry of Culture. Its aim is the systematic gathering, processing, and maintenance of anthropological data , which are scattered throughout the country. It seems to be the leading institute in Thailand when it comes to research on ethnic minorities. Their Anthropological Archive has a fantastic collection of photographs of Thai and foreign anthropologists. Particularly outstanding are the collections of Hans Manndorff, Anan Ganjanapan and Otome Klein Hutheesing. I visited this institute in January 2019 and watched some of the films, made by Hans Manndorff of tribal villages in the early 1960s. These interesting films are unfortunately not on YouTube. You have to go to the institute to see them.

Center for Ethnic Studies and Development, Chiang Mai University

This institute is at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Chiang Mai University. In December 2011 I attended a conference called Mobility and Heritage in North Thailand and Laos at this institute. The CESD owns a large collection of photographs and film footage of tribal communities, made by anthropologists and missionaries. The Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre in Bangkok has taken over this collection and is now digitalizing it. The CESD has a library with lots of books on ethnic minorities.

Lisu hill tribe dance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center Ethnic Minorities North Thailand
Lisu hill tribe dance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Picture courtesy of Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center.

Anthropologists and sources

Charles Keyes, American anthropologist

American anthropologist Charles Keyes lived from August 1967 until November 1968 in Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son province. His research focused primarily upon the relationships between Thai and tribal people in the district. The National Science Foundation funded his research. In the last couple of years, I have studied the very interesting field notes and photographs of Charles Keyes. You can find his photos and field notes on the Researchworks Archive of the University of Washington. There are many fantastic photographs of Karen and Lawa  villages in Mae Hong Son province. Keyes also made at least one trip to the provincial capital Mae Hong Son and took pictures of Hmong, Lahu, Lisu and other groups.

White Karen in the 1930s. Picture courtesy of Oliver Backhouse

Dr Otome Klein Hutheesing

Dr Otome Klein Hutheesing is a Dutch anthropologist, living in Chiang Mai. She was born on Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies in 1930. She studied sociology at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Via India and the United States you ended up in Thailand where she met another Dutch anthropologist, the late Leo Alting von Geusau. He introduced her to the Lisu people, with whom she fell in love at first sight.

She moved to a Lisu community near Doi Lan in Chiang Rai province, where she lived for six years. During those years she did research, funded by some universities, and learned to speak the Lisu language. She now lives in a simple house in the Wat Ket neighborhood in Chiang Mai with her foster daughter Mimi. Her second husband, the American historian Michael Vickery, lived with them until his passing in 2017. The house of Otome and Mimi is also a small museum of Lisu traditional dress.

You can find the pictures and fieldnotes of Otome regarding her research in Doi Laan and other ethnic villages in the 1980s  in the Anthropological Database of the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.

Man and woman discussing
Frans Betgem with Otome Klein Hutheesing, Chiang Mai, 2020

Hans Manndorff

Hans Manndorff is an Austrian anthropologist. If he is still alive he is now 95 years old. In 1961 and 1962, he worked on behalf of the United Nations on a research and development project in Northern Thailand, titled ‘The socio-economic survey of selected hill tribes in Northern Thailand’. It was the first government-supported study of the so-called hill tribes of Thailand but the Asia Foundation assisted in the project.

His first field survey covered the Akha, Hmong, Mien, Lisu and Lahu. In 1965 the Asia Foundation sponsored Manndorff to advice the Thai Government in establishing a Tribal Research Institute at the campus of the Chiang Mai University. During his research of ethnic minorities in North Thailand Manndorff made more than 800 pictures and 54 films. You can find his fantastic photographs in the Anthropological Archive Database of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre. The films have not been published. On the below picture Manndorff is wearing Hmong traditional dress, posing with the headman of the village and his brother.

Two tribal men and a foreigner
Hans Manndorff in the Hmong village Huay Luang, Tak province. Manndorff is on the right.

The concept of Zomia

Dutch Historian Willem van Schendel

In 2002 Dutch historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam introduced the geographical term Zomia to refer to a part of mainland Southeast Asia. This area, which is mainly highland, has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands.This area has been the home of ethnic minorities that have preserved their culture, tradition and way of life because they lived far away from the control and influence of states.

North Thailand is part of Zomia but also the Shan hills of Northern Myanmar, North Vietnam, the whole of Laos, Southwest China and a part of Cambodia. Scholars have different opinions about the boundaries of Zomia but all include the North of Thailand. It is an interesting concept.

Map of Southeast Asia Ethnic Minorities North Thailand
Map of Zomia. From: The Art of not Being Governed

The Art of not being governed

Professor James C. Scott of Yale University used the concept of Zomia in his 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. He argues that the ethnic minorities in Zomia are conscious refugees from  states in the lowlands. Scott believes that the ethnic groups of Zomia have fled the “projects” such as conscription, taxes, slavery, epidemics, and warfare of the nation states of the lowlands. Other scholars have criticized Scott’s convictions. Even if you have doubts about his theories “The Art of not Being Governed” is a one of my favorite books. You can download the book here.

* James C.Scott, The Art of not being governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, 2009.

In this video James Scott talks about his book:

Sources on Ethnic Minorities in North Thailand

* Gordon Young, The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand: a Socio-ethnological Report, Siam Society, 1961

One of the first books written about the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. Gordon Young was born to missionary parents in China. He spent his childhood among the Lahu in Burma. You can download the book here.

* Paul & Elaine Lewis, Peoples of the Golden Triangle Six Tribes in Thailand, London, 1984

Coffee table book written by the late missionaries Paul and Elaine Lewis. It contains more than 700 photos but is a bit outdated. It is available in book stores in Chiang Mai.

*Kwanchewan Buadaeng,  The Rise and Fall of the Tribal Research Institute (TRI): “Hill Tribe” Policy and Studies in Thailand, Southeast Asian Studies, 2006

Excellent article on the Tribal Research Institute.

*Joachim Schliesinger, Ethnic Groups of Thailand – Non-Tai-Speaking Peoples, White Lotus, 2000

I have not been able to find out anything about the author. Joachim Schliesinger wrote several books about ethnic minorities in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. His books are concise and very informative. This books doesn’t only cover the ethnic minorities of North Thailand but also the minorities in other parts of the country.