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Minority Politics in Thailand: History of the Hmong in Thailand and their Needs

This paper was presented at the International Conference on Thai Studies,
Australian National University, Canberra, 3-6 July 1987




  1. Acknowledgements

  2. Introduction

  3. References




The research on which this paper is based was made possible by financial assistance from the Wenner Gren Foundation (grant no. 3164), and (for a follow-up visit) from the American Social Science Research Council - to both of whom I sincerely express my appreciation. I am, however, alone responsible for opinions stated here.




Dasse (1976:74-75), writing about highlanders and revolutionary wars in South East Asia, makes the bold assertion that "Thailand is the only country in South East Asia where the people have never shown any contempt for the hill populations". He justifies this by the fact that the hill tribes have always been referred to as "Chao Khao" (dwellers of the hill tops) in the same way as the Thai rural peasants are known as "Chao Na" (dwellers of the rice fields), or prisoners as "Chao Kook" (inhabitants of the prisons). Thus, the difference in these terms of reference is not based on race or ethnicity, but on geographical space. This difference sets Thailand apart from other nations in the region, and accounts for "a better development of relations between the Thai and the highlanders". Among the latter, however, the Hmong or Meo are said to be the most difficult group to integrate into a modern society.

This paper will attempt to examine some of these assertions, and to shed light on the main reasons why the Hmong are perceived to be more difficult to integrate than other hill tribes in Thailand. There are many accounts in Thai, English and French on this subject, but they are mostly from the perspective of government officials or foreign researchers. Being myself a Hmong who have many years of close association with the issues involved, I will speak mainly from the point of view of the Hmong themselves. I hope that this may help bring a better understanding to the manners in which these tribes people have interpreted their situation and reacted to it now or in the past.

It can be said that before 1955 contacts with hill tribes by government authorities were "rare and usually rather of the character of occasional interviews", patrols, police visits to settle criminal cases, or tax collections (Department of Public Welfare, 1966:29). Apart from these sporadic activities, the Thai Government did not appear to be concerned about the presence of ethnic enclaves in the mountain regions of the country. Tax was not imposed on all of them, and the tribal populations were not included in population censuses. Their legal status as residents in Thailand was never clarified, and the Government did not extend its presence beyond exercising a general suzerainty over the remote parts where they were found (Mandorff, 1967: 529).

During this early period, the contacts between the hill dwellers and lowland officials were at worst characterised by a certain mutual distrust and a few unpleasant incidents. Among these unhappy encounters were such events as the confiscation of unlicensed rifles, the killing of tribal domestic animals for consumption by visiting policemen without paying for them, and the collection of illegal opium taxes by Ampher or district officials (Department of Public Welfare, op. cit.: 47; and Chanthanapoti, 1977: 204). This forced payment of opium tax with the Hmong, whether a family grew opium or not, did not stop until about 1965. The amount demanded at harvest time varied from year to year, but it was generally based on the number of households in a village or the number of people living in each household: the bigger the household, the heavier the opium exaction.

Despite these incidents, the fact remains that until 20 years ago, the highlanders were often left to themselves in their isolated settlements. They were not required to engage in national service or to pay regular taxes as most Thai did. This is in contrast to the relations between some tribal groups and Northern Thai princes before the taking-over of North Thailand by the Bangkok Government at the end the 19th century. Previous to this southern control, many areas of the upland country were under a number of small principalities, with some being more powerful than others. The hill people, who served as buffers between these autonomous princes, paid tributes to them in the form of rice, roofing straw and various mountain products in return for the right to use land around their villages for agriculture (Kunstadter, 1967a: 639-674).

Under this princely arrangement, members of the upland tribes were regarded as citizens of the principalities, with tribal leaders being appointed to overseas multi-village areas and to settle disputes within them. After the Bangkok annexation in 1874, the political powers of the northern princes were gradually eliminated. No longer was the tribal land tenure system recognised as the new Government reserved for itself all rights over mountain forests and lands. Agrarian laws used for lowland Thai were applied to all regions of the country, making no allowance for upland swiddening and land claims.

The Hmong first migrated to Thailand from China and Laos during this period. They settled on hill tops and carried out their traditional shifting cultivation in relative peace and isolation because of the few contacts between highlanders and lowland government representatives, particularly now that the old ties established by the former princes had been severed. There was no apparent land shortage, and the authorities focused their attention mainly on lowland issues (Hearn, 1974: 21). The hill populations were still too few in number at this time to attract the concerns of Thai officials, although a sort of administrative structure was in existence at the village level in the sense that the de-facto authority of tribal leaders was still accepted by the nearest Thai village headmen to whom they were subordinate.

It was usually at the level of the bigger Thai villages that the direct role of central administration stopped. For the hill peasants, the local district or Ampher office was the next most accessible government agency after the Thai Kamnanh. As Judd (1969: 89) points out, however, visits by district officers to Thai villagers were rare so that in practice headmen constituted the sole government representatives with whom many people came into contact. This system was applied equally to the hill people in their inaccessible enclaves where officials’ visits were even rarer than in the Thai rural areas.

Compared to rural Thai farmers, the position of many highland groups is most ambiguous in relation to Thai laws. According to Kunstadter (1967b: 375), government policy in the 1960's and early 1970's was not clear as to whether or not hill dwellers are citizens "when the Lawa seem to be, but some Meo groups (because they are assumed to be recent immigrants) apparently are not". Before 1972, Hmong in certain areas were granted Thai citizenship and issued with identity cards, except for those in isolated settlements which were not surveyed by officials, or those who were not eligible for political reasons. When Gen. Thanom Kittikhachon took over the government of Thailand in 1977, the new Administration issued Proclamation No.337 to the effect that it would have to withdraw the citizenship of all those persons whose loyalty to the Thai nation was in doubt. It was aimed mainly at the Vietnamese minority in Thailand who were suspected of supporting the Communist Hanoi regime with subversive activities.


There were about 58,000 Hmong living in Thailand during this period, and many of them fell victim of the new regulation as a result of the so-called "Red Meo" insurgent activities in various parts of Northern Thailand. The Thai Ministry of Interior stated in 1974 that citizenship would be restored to all hill tribes with proven documents of residence, but this restoration has been very slow in the more remote provinces such as Chiangrai and Nan where small subversive groups were still operating until recently.


The issue, however, remains that citizenship may be revoked whenever the Royal Thai Government sees signs of dissidence among members of a particular ethnic group. This renders precarious the legal standing of all those who give their full support to the present administration as they all come under suspicion along with any dissidents. Today, the Hmong who had gone over to the "Red" insurgence in the jungles have all rallied with the Thai Government under its 1981 Amnesty, but the regulation concerning citizenship withdrawal still applies.


Specifically, the Proclamation states that any tribal persons to qualify for citizenship must first register themselves with their local Kannanh or have come under the supervision of government agencies such as the Public Welfare Department, the Border Patrol Police, the Communist Suppression Operations Command or the Thai Army, Furthermore, such persons would have to be: (a) born in Thailand; (b) living continuously and permanently in a particular locality for at least 5 years; (c) free of criminal or subversive activities; (d) without a record of imprisonment of more than 5 years; (e) loyal to the Thai nation; (f) employed in occupations which do not threaten the order and peace of Thai society and the country; and (g) in possession of adequate means of livelihood or considerable assets - to be determined by the appropriate Thai authorities.


Children can apply or qualify for citizenship if their parents or legal guardians are already citizens. All registrations and applications are done at district offices, and referred for final decisions to the provincial administration (Ministry of Interior, 1974:1). Based on these criteria, many Hmong in Northern Thailand have been officially recognised as citizens or loyal residents of the country. Anyone who was officially registered as legal residents and who was over the age of sixteen is issued with a citizenship card. However, many Hmong still cannot obtain this card because they are too old or too poor to travel to the Ampher office from their highland villages in order to apply for it. In some cases, parents cannot register their children since they cannot get their residential records transferred from the local authorities of areas from which they had recently migrated. The transfer of these records is not easily obtained, as it is believed that this would lead to more migration by the Hmong and other tribal people.


Changes in family circumstance such as birth, marriage or death have to be reported to the local Kamnanh within 21 days. Sometimes, the Hmong fail to report some of these events, with the result that records are incomplete or inaccurate in respect of some families. Sometimes, reporting such events can also result in loss of residential status. In Khun Wang, Chiang Mai Province where I was doing research in 1977, a woman's father registered her marriage with the local Kamnanh many years before and her name was removed from the list of his family. In 1978, she wanted an identity card, but could not obtain one as there was no up-to-date record of her residence.


There are many instances of highlanders who have lost their right to citizenship through non-reporting to their registrars in the nearest towns or cities. Apart from the inability to travel to these official places, ignorance of bureaucratic requirements is contributing to this problem. For many Hmong, the benefits of citizenship are not yet fully enjoyed beyond the fact that it gives them an ID card, thereby allowing them to remain and to travel in Thailand. Political representation through voting is still relatively absent for them, except for those living near enough to the ballot box. Many hill settlements remain to be surveyed by Thai officials to determine the eligibility of their inhabitants for legal residence and citizenship. This means that these hill people cannot buy wet rice lands or run a business as permits and land titles are only granted to those with proof of citizenship.


The ease with which Thai authorities can withdraw citizenship from the Hmong and the slow progress in determining legal residence for those in insecure areas have greatly handicapped their integration into the Thai nation. They find it difficult and impossible to break away from their shifting agriculture because they cannot legally secure lands for permanent settlement and cultivation. Those without citizenship cannot send their children to government schools as examination certificates will not be issued to them. Thus, many Hmong have been living in Thailand for a few generations, but still cannot obtain education or employment in the Thai public services, have no right to land ownership and are restricted in their freedom of movement (Rittinetipong, 1977: 3)


The loyalty of remote hill tribes people is often called into question, because their remoteness is seen by Thai authorities as a potential threat to the national security of the country. This suspicion has been confirmed in the past when, as stated previously, some of these groups were known to have joined Communist insurgents. This national security problem is felt especially along the border areas adjacent to Burma and Laos whose tribal populations sometimes move freely into Thailand owing to lack of border control. This is true of Laos in particular since 1975 when the Communist control of that country has resulted in tens of thousands of tribal people crossing to Thailand to seek refuge as political refugees.


These recent waves of refugees apart, the uncontrolled migration of tribal groups before World War II has affected the Thai highlands in two ways: (1) intense competition for agricultural lands and reduced productivity as a result of population growth and over-use; and (2) armed conflicts in areas without territorial or political unity because of influences from insurgents and economic discontent.


These two factors often reinforce each other in the sense that lack of agricultural land causes political discontent, and subversive actions deprive the participants of the ability to be agricultural productive. The problem of insurgency seems to have been brought under control at present. There are only very small groups of a few hundred Communist dissidents still in hiding in the mountain fastness of Khao Kho in Phetchabun Province or along the border with Laos in Loei and Uttaradith Provinces. Nevertheless, the problem of population pressure and land scarcity remains. This has been exacerbated greatly the emphasis put on the reforestation of fallow lands in the hills by the Thai Department of Forestry. Using lowland labourers living in separate communities from the tribal highlanders, the Department has for the past ten years systematically planted trees on all lands which are not under crops, regardless of the problems this may bring to the hill farmers.


The result is that highlanders have been further deprived of farming lands, and they are forced to use over and over their present plots which are fast becoming infertile. This lack of land severely reduces productivity so that now many Hmong can barely produce enough rice to last them from 3 months to a year. McKinnon (1977: 5) has pointed out that for the tribal population "it is rice that is valued above all other crops... Rice is not only important as a food crop set about by ritual, good harvests provide the household subsistence needs and grant an enviable degree of independence " from hunger and indebtedness. It is the importance placed on rice as a staple crop and the problem of producing sufficient of it for consumption which lead many Hmong to cultivating opium poppy to obtain a means of exchange for supplementary rice and other goods. Faced with the prospect of starvation, some Hmong families are forced to borrow money or rice from lowland traders on credit. Short of selling their children or their domestic animals, the only way they can settle these debts is by growing opium as repayment. This credit arrangement is attributed to be one of the reasons for the continuing poppy production in Thailand. These debts are crippling and can become a sort of ongoing bondage when interest rates are as high as 200% per year.


As stated by Geddes (1976: 225), these debts make it difficult to give up the production of opium. This is especially the case when banks will not lend money without securities to the peasant farmers so that their only recourse is with the "loan sharks". Cohen (1984) has discussed in detail this indebtedness among the Karen whose debts were financed by selling off or mortgaging more of their wet rice lands. The Hmong have no title land to sell or mortgage, and their only means to survive is to incur more debts which are repaid in opium. This not only curtails their ability to produce for their own needs, but also reduces their already low living standard to a level bordering starvation by forcing some of them to take away part of their crop production to settle their debts. This situation has brought about much poverty among those lacking in manpower or capital to hire additional labour to grow more opium.


In the highland, medicine for simple ailments is not always available. In cases of chronic or serious illnesses, people may take opium as a pain-killer. Eventually, this will make some of the sick people addicted to opium smoking. Often, opium smokers are physically incapable of doing continuous farm work. Besides being less productive than non-addicts, they also consume a big portion of the opium produced by their family members, thereby reducing further the amount which could have been exchanged for cash or other commodities. This deprivation is most acutely felt by those families with loans to repay. Until medical facilities are introduced in the hill, opium is likely to remain the most effective medicine for many farmers. The hill people do not have money to go to city hospitals for treatment, nor can they take time off farming to accompany a sick relative there. As a result, many households are locked in a vicious circle of poverty and sickness from which it is difficult to escape. Therefore, as Cooper (1978: 271) suggests, opium is "both wealth and poverty to the Hmong" when it provides the principal source of cash for the wealthy, but often drains the income of the poor.


This vicious cycle of poverty, sickness, land scarcity and low productivity has sometimes resulted in a feeling of hopelessness about their life circumstances. It helps explain why certain groups of Hmong in the past had chosen to join insurgency who promised to deliver them from their economic predicament and social oppression. The Hmong have thus been regarded as a threat to the security of Thailand. The threat is not so much that their presence may lead to an uprising against the Government in order to control the country. Instead, the major fear of Thai officials is that Communist insurgents may use isolated highlanders for their own subversive purpose. This was especially relevant in the 1960's when the Thai Government did not have enough resources for public relations and socio-economic development in the highlands.


Marks (1973: 931), for instance, remarks that "The Government has found it particularly hard to regulate the Meo (Hmong), for they live in the most remote and mountainous regions of all the hill tribes. Compounding this problem is the fact that groups are constantly on the move in search of new farmland... and the possibility of links with those elements of the tribe in Communist-held areas, especially with the four million Meo in Southern China, is of grave concern to the Thai. This concern was enhanced by popular beliefs held about the Hmong, and reinforced by publications on them. Bernatzik (1970: 674) sees their "fearlessness bordering on defiance of death, their glowing love of freedom... (and) reputation of feared warriors" as being the main "difficulties for colonisers". The Joint Thai/US Military Research and Development Centre (1969: 1) also reports that in time of war the Hmong can be "cruel and extremely belligerent" with "extremely strong" political and military organisations.


While it may be true that the Hmong are not easily absorbed by the Thai, it can hardly be said that they are an aggressive people. This aggressiveness is manifested only in defence against those outsiders who are a threat to their properties or their freedom. On the whole, they maintain friendly contacts with neighbouring villagers and "are able to live in harmony with other people without becoming overly sociable with anyone who is not of their tribe" (Young, 1962: 43). Despite intense competition for land between them and other groups such as the Karen, they have managed to co-exist without violence (Chindarsi, 1976- 11-14).


This peaceful co-existence has, however, been often ignored when the issue of national security is considered in relation to the hill tribes. What is debated is often that the latter have little or no "national consciousness" and do not know enough about Thai institutions and culture to want to adopt or preserve them (Buruspat, 1975: 139). They have not been given the opportunity to participate fully in the affairs of the central office of the Tribal Welfare Division of the Thai Department of Public Welfare, despite the fact that in recent years there have been tribal university graduates. This is true equally of the Tribal Research Centre, the research arm of the Thai Government. This has prompted many tribal leaders to believe that these government instrumentalities are no more than facilities set up to pacify the hill tribes and to spy on them. Even at the local level, the Hmong have not been allowed administrative offices other than village headmanship no matter how big or numerous their settlements may be in any one area.


It was not until 1968 when insurgency had already flared up in the mountains of North Thailand that the Thai National Security Command approved a long-standing proposal by the Border Patrol Police to train and arm selected tribesmen as village militia under the Hill Tribe Border Security Volunteers Team Program (Hearn, op. cit.: 27). Prior to this date, the proposal had been rejected because it was believed that the tribal people could not be trusted. This attitude still prevails today, in contrast to the policies of neighbouring Laos, Vietnam and China where ethnic minorities have been given trust and important functions in the administrative hierarchy. By not enforcing the law on land tenure rigorously and by not collecting taxes from them, some Thai leaders hope that the tribal farmers will be "friendly to Thailand" because "far from being deprived, the tribes have in fact been privileged" (Charusathira, 1966: 20).


Hearn (op. cit.: 38-40) attributes economic discontent and Communist propaganda based on the real needs of the Hmong as the main reasons for some of them to engage in subversive activities in the 1960's in North Thailand. Hopes and verbal statements by Thai officials were not enough to rally the hill tribes to the Government, when they were promised medicine and agricultural supplies, better education and more participation in decision-making about their fate by insurgent leaders. Moreover, they were given training, and were actually recruited into the ranks and files of the Communist movement instead of being left to remain merely as spectators of the Thai Government in its dealing with their grievances and aspirations.


However, as explained by Mottin (1980:60), the Hmong were in reality victims of Thai Communist insurgents rather than their willing collaborators. It was cadres and leaders of the Communist Party of Thailand who capitalised on the Hmong's own grievances and rouse them against the legal government of the country, armed and trained them, and used them for the Communists' own political ends. The Hmong did not understand much of the national and international ideological conflicts, except for what they were told in the isolation of their villages. Cooper (1979: 326) further says that for the tribesmen, security is "protection against thieves and murderers, not insurgents... Security also means freedom from unreasonable demands made by poorly paid and often corrupt police... Security to the Thai Government and to the U.S. (which pays many of the bills) means communist suppression".


When government troops first clashed with the Hmong in 1967 in Nan, this was seen as a "Meo conspiracy cooked up by outside communists and directed from headquarters in Laos" (Asian Notes, 31/12/69). On their side, the Hmong claimed that the clashes arose from the violation of Hmong women and the destruction of houses by Thai police patrols who did not succeed in their extortion of illegal tax from opium farmers. The two sides thus saw the event differently. This was the beginning of the "Red Meo War". Responding to this so-called rebellion, the Thai armed forces used heavy-handed tactics with artillery, aerial bombardment and napalm through "search and destroy" missions. In order to isolate the highland population from the insurgents, hundreds of tribal families were herded to refugee camps in the lowlands and their villages were abandoned or destroyed. This strategy, however, succeeded primarily in generating fear and distrust of Thai government representatives among the Hmong.


In all North Thailand, 101 villages were evacuated, involving more than 12,000 people (Hearn, op. cit.: 188). By June 1972, close to 33,500 tribal people were estimated to have fled to the jungles or inaccessible areas under Communist control, while only 21,223 persons resided in "secure" areas in the six northern provinces other than the government resettlement sites. In terms of its impact, this forced evacuation resulted in the deterioration or complete destruction of the economy of many highlanders in the regions concerned (Marks, op. cit: 932-933). Many of the resettlement centres were not adequately supported, except perhaps for Pak Klang in Nan and Khek Noi in Phetchabun where between five to eight thousand of these evacuees still remain today.


Kunstadter (1983: 38) contends that "most Hmong in Thailand have no tendency to move to the lowlands, to change their ethnic identity and pattern of making a living, or to do wage work". The Hmong have developed a few cash crops, but these seem to be related to their needs in the hills rather than to any real desire to adapt to a commercial way of life. This pattern, however, is slowly changing, as more and more roads are built into their villages. Although these dry season roads are primarily for military access, a few wealthy Hmong have purchased vehicles to be used as taxis, or have opened small shops and gifts for tourists and for fellow villagers. Some have also bought houses and land in the lowlands for the use of their children attending schools there or for renting to Northern Thai.


The fact that the Hmong have not settled in the lowlands cannot, however, be explained by a reluctance to do so. There are powerful economic and political constraints hindering them. Economically, most of them do not have assets to carry on business or commercial farming in the lowlands. Many who migrated there cannot make ends meet, and have to return to the hills: in case of conflicts with Thai villagers, the tribes people often find no justice. The military also discourage them from leaving the highlands for fear that this would create a political vacuum in the areas they vacate so that insurgents could easily move into them.


According to Young (op. cit.: 43), the Hmong are business-minded people as is evident by their involvement in opium growing and in small trades of various kinds. It would only alienate them to rely on military forces to win their loyalty and to solve what are basically symptoms of economic inequities, cultural differences and social grievances. It is not that they do not wish to integrate, to receive Thai education or to adopt acceptable life styles. A few of them have gone so far as building their own schools and paying for their own teachers in order for their children to be educated in Thai (Dassé, op. cit.:82).


It will not be possible to gain the total trust of the Hmong when they cannot profit from the rights enjoyed by other Thai citizens, or when this trust is not given them in the first place. For Marks (op. cit.: 936-37), the problem is that the Hmong are not ethnic Thai, and hence "are treated as second-class citizens by many Thai" who have few qualms in using force to have their ways with the tribal minorities. There has been little empathy for the highlanders by the lowland majority: any instances of social or economic conflict between the two groups are often seen as signs of rebellion or Communist subversion. The Hmong continue to be called Meo, despite numerous protests and polite requests for change. The official policy seems to be one of firm control and domination/assimilation, not one of integration and collaborative co-existence.

As described by Stone (1967: 173-74), many officials dealing with the hill tribes in Thailand are like men watching a dance through heavy plate glass windows, and "what rarely comes through to them are the injured racial feelings, the misery, the rankling slights, the hatred, the devotion, the inspiration and the desperation. So, they really do not understand what leads men to abandon wife, children, home, career, friends; to take to the bush and live gun in hand like hunted animals; to challenge overwhelming military odds rather than acquiesce any longer in humiliation, injustice or poverty". There have been many government projects with millions of dollars spent on them to improve the social awareness and living conditions of the hill people. However, only academics, bureaucrats and foreign aid "experts" have benefited from these development programs in the form lucrative employment and research contracts. Furthermore, these projects always emphasise changes in tribal attitudes and life styles, never changes in Thai attitudes towards the hill tribes.

In conclusion, I wish to reiterate that the real issues in minority politics in Thailand still remain the question of citizenship and land tenure. Until these problems are solved, and not sidestepped as they are now, Thailand is likely to continue having tribal discontent and destitution (Hearn, op. cit.: 193). At present, there are few incentives for the highland population to co-operate in government projects, for whatever action is taken about their legal status will not immediately change the situation for the better unless the people "are included as full and equal partners in any development strategy that may be undertaken" (McKinnon, 1978: 14). Many villagers have been brought under the watchful eye of Thai authorities through the many dry season roads built up to the hills in the past few years. However, they will be influenced by anti-government groups as long as they are not given a direct role to play in the management of public resources and in the execution of programs for their own and the national interest. This is particularly the case when many tribes people, despite their desire for a peaceful existence, are forever at the mercy of unscrupulous traders and officials or are serving as buffers between the Thai Government and insurgents in the remote areas of the country.



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