RAI, Thailand - Missionaries are working hard to bring
salvation to tribal people in Chiang Rai's highlands.
Concerned about nefarious activities, the Thai
government is quietly investigating. About time too,
many would say: missionaries are accused of destroying
traditional cultures and societies, exploiting
highlanders' ignorance and spurring conflict.
For the majority of Chiang Rai Akha, one of many
tribal nations spread across Indochina's mountains,
Christianity has replaced traditional religion over the
past decade. Matthew McDaniel, an American working for a
decade to preserve Akha culture, calculates that 65
percent of 150 Akha villages, home to 35,000 people, now
McDaniel estimates that more than
100 organizations are proselytizing. "There's way too
many missionaries coming. It's become a free-for-all.
They come in with money from their home churches, with
four-wheel drives, living like kings, like they never
would back home," said McDaniel, whose forthright
campaign upset many people, spurring whispers about his
motives. McDaniel was reportedly deported by Thai
authorities after being interviewed for this article;
the reasons for the deportation are unclear.
Thailand is undergoing a spiritual "gold rush"
because its "heathen" tribes hold promise for
missionaries, who face few restrictions, as communities
from which to reach millions more brethren scattered
across the hard-to-reach peaks of Cambodia, Laos,
Myanmar, Vietnam and Yunnan in southern China.
"It seems many of these missionaries are agents
for Christian fundamentalist groups, especially from the
US, who are competing to expand by converting more
people, which means they can garner more donations and
hence convert more people," said Ralana Maleeprasert,
Research and Development head at the Ministry of Social
Development and Human Security.
A sharp increase
in foundation-status applications from missions has
raised official eyebrows. "We want to know what's behind
them, their real intentions, what they want with the
children," said Sergeant Sukich Surin of the Tourist
Police. "The Thai government is very concerned about
But Ta-wye Sawapitak, manager of Baan
Chewit Mai (New Life Home), a Christian home for poor
children, downplayed the disquiet. "This is a small
community. People who are abusing their position, acting
improperly, would find it hard to operate. The new faces
that have arrived recently seem okay," he said.
An extensive investigation still is expected
after Sukich, on orders from Bangkok, filed a
preliminary report about missions in March. Not all
missionaries are angels, it is alleged. A few have been
charged with sex abuse. Others stand accused of fraud.
"They try to bring the kid from the mountain to a center
to make a foundation and get donations from abroad,"
said Sergeant Sukich. "We don't want people to abuse the
hill-tribe children or use them as a tool to get money.
We strongly suspect this is going on."
Missionaries often scour tribal villages
offering orphans and other children, supposedly
threatened by drugs or poverty, an education in mission
orphanages. But these institutions are expensive,
disruptive and certainly no match for a family
environment. "It would be much cheaper to keep the
children with their in-laws in the villages," McDaniel
Life is changing rapidly for the
half-million cash-poor, uneducated highlanders. They
struggle to comprehend the downside that can accompany
promises of easier lives that the charismatic
missionaries tout. Materialism and the market economy
have ridden into their once isolated and self-sufficient
communities on the back of electricity and tourism.
As the cash economy's grip on the hills
tightens, money is replacing subsistence values, so
once-sacrosanct customs become costly burdens. Akha
elders, for example, refuse to reduce costly animal
sacrifices required in traditional religious rituals,
and this gives missionaries an opening.
"Traditionally Akha have to sacrifice at least
nine chickens at least nine times a year for their
ancestors. To avoid this expensive practice, they
convert to Christianity, but only in name. They are not
real Christians," said Ralana.
villages add to exploitation Greedy
orchard-planting businessmen are snatching tribal lands.
A swirling drug war recruits poor highlanders as coolies
or foot soldiers. Many wind up dead or jailed, often
wrongly. As a result, some villages bordering Myanmar
have been forcibly resettled deeper into Thailand by the
government to disrupt narcotics transportation, with
little effect. Resettlement villages leave highlanders
vulnerable to missionaries and social ills.
very old villages are strong communities that Christian
and Muslim missionaries cannot break into. However, in
resettlement villages, communities are broken and often
are a mix of ethnicities. They are not so strong and so
are easily influenced by the missionaries," said Ralana.
Resettlement villages highlight missionaries'
exploitation of jarring change and lack of official
interest. Mountain-dwelling minorities dropped off the
government's priority list when the perceived communist
threat abated 30 years ago. Missionaries crept into that
Their activities, like those of many
foreigners, generally face little inquisition from
laid-back Thais. "I think Thai culture is also a problem
here because it is very open, very welcoming to foreign
ideas and influences. That makes it easy for
missionaries to come in," said Yuthapong Chantrawarin,
an anthropologist-sociologist at Chiang Rai's Mae Fah
Yuthapong worries that this
openness allows missionaries to abuse their position.
"In Thai society missionaries are seen as teachers, a
highly respected position. Some of them misuse this
position, this power. I have watched a missionary in
court being charged with raping a village woman."
Some Christians are concerned too. "I have heard
about cases of so-called foreign missionaries who used
helping children as an excuse to raise money for other
purposes. I'm suspicious of people who opened churches
for a few years and then disappeared," said Songsak
Pairumpuegsakul, an Akha who founded the Akha
Evangelical Church. Its children live by the Bible while
retaining elements of Akha tradition.
Sophisticated, zealous missionaries demand
strict adherence to their interpretation of
Christianity, Islam or Kuan-Yin, erasing traditional
cultures and beliefs. "I think the worst damage done by
missionaries is cultural destruction. There is no going
back, no keeping some old beliefs," said Yuthapong.
McDaniel was more blunt. "I'm married to an
Akha, I live in a traditional Akha community. I see what
is happening in other communities and what could happen
in my community. Only one word comes to mind:
Missionaries and their supporters
stand by their actions. "It's not that the missionary is
destroying their culture or changing their way of life.
But they want to help them have better lives, find work,
stop worshipping spirits, have religion and stop their
daughters marrying at 14 or 15," said Ta-wye. Somsee
Karunawong, a convert working for Operation Dawn, a
Christian drug-rehabilitation foundation that claims not
to proselytize, firmly supports conversion.
a missionary the priority should be to help people
become Christians because then they will be blessed and
good things will come. The problem with missionaries in
the past is that they focused too much on development
and did not pay enough attention to people's spiritual
well-being. Consequently, some people returned to their
old beliefs," she said.
According to Ta-wye,
customs justify conversions. "For example, years ago in
many villages, girls about to get married would have to
sleep with the village witch doctor, who is also the
Similar practices are not uncommon
among traditional societies stretching from Africa to
the Pacific. But who is to say what is right and wrong
within a cultural context? Such judgments, many would
argue, are should not be made by missions but by the
government, widely consulting impartial anthropologists,
doctors and sociologists.
divided Proponents argue that missions save lives
because conversion dispels deadly taboos. Yet such
practices have already been curbed by dogged, respectful
savoir-faire. Today Akha parents often give twins to
different villages rather than killing them as was
tradition, says Chiang Rai Senator Duangjai Deetes, who
has worked with highlanders since the 1970s.
Such activities and arguments damage those
missionaries who respect local wisdom and work hard to
ease the hardships of life thousands of feet up mountain
ridges. Complex customs, integral to highland societies,
should be esteemed rather than dismissed by those
foisting their beliefs on others. Their loss weakens
"In Lokyo, an Akha village, the
community was very strong when they followed traditional
religion. When many missionaries came to the village,
like Christian, Muslim and Kuan-In, the community became
divided. A local medicine woman, visiting one night to
treat a sick lady, was very saddened when she saw so
many beliefs - she said the village's heart was broken,"
Missionaries are not acting
alone. Many Western tourists hand out sweets to
highlanders and have been seen trying to explain a
dosing regime for medicine to villagers, without a watch
among them, in northern Laos. Their ignorance erodes
hardy highlanders' self-sufficiency by provoking demands
for junk foods and Western medicine that requires money,
which has to be earned, compromising independence, while
disparaging traditional medical wisdom, a likely trove
of new medicines.
provoke conflict, further weakening the solidarity of
highland peoples. "Four years ago, to end disputes
between traditional beliefs and old Christian families
in the village, the elders decided Christians must move
to a Christian village. People felt their traditions
were under threat from Christians' new activism. This
conflict was caused by the intrusion and activities of
missionaries," said Wirote Wisetrilairat, an Akha law
student at Mae Fah Luang.
Events in Wirote's
village mirror McDaniel's observations. "Traditional
Akhas will allow a few Christians in their village. But
the Christianized villages will not allow any
traditional Akhas to remain."
friction threatens families and even leaves individuals
confused. "I'm officially a Buddhist, as I don't want
any problems with my family or the villagers. But
actually I believe in God," said Wirote.
Fundamentalist Muslim missionaries grate too,
sowing discord with their uncompromising demands and
secretiveness, said Ralana, contrasting them with
traditional Muslims, who have lived harmoniously beside
other religious communities in northern Thailand for
Modernity gives rise to
materialism, money Religion's firebrands are but
one negative aspect brought on by the uninvited
intrusion of modernity. "It's not just religion, but
mainstream materialism and money that are destroying
tribal society and culture that lives, by and large, in
harmony with nature. Government policies and education
are also pushing mainstream materialism," said Duengjai,
who has witnessed similar effects on rural and
indigenous peoples worldwide.
Events in Chiang
Rai are in essence the end of a game played out
worldwide since the dawn of modern man in which one
culture triumphs over another, leaving only its
artifacts and inscriptions for archeologists to puzzle
over. Today, traditional cultures' importance is well
recognized. Sadly, society struggles to preserve ancient
and medieval cultures while helping them enjoy
Given missionaries' zeal,
the prospects for giving tribal peoples a real choice,
perhaps even saving their culture, look bleak. "I think
it's possible that in a decade all the young people will
be Christian, as the cold Buddhist traditions are
complicated and take up a lot of time. Christianity is
easier, simpler. Missionaries are visiting increasingly
frequently to hand out brochures about Christianity,"
Only the government can control
missionaries. That investigations are under way suggests
that restrictions and close monitoring could follow. But
it may be too little, too late.
force the missionaries to channel their not
inconsiderable funds to established, experienced
charities in Thailand such as the Population and
Community Development Association, the Thai Red Cross
and Oxfam - an efficient and sensible option if their
concerns really are for highlanders' welfare.
Critics say there is no good reason for
missionaries' troublesome mixing of aid work and
religion. Poor, uneducated people are easy victims for
political agendas. "There ultimate aim is to control the
Akhas in Thailand, Laos, China, Vietnam and Myanmar,"
said McDaniel. "If you are an astute observer, you can
see the political, ethnic and social events that are
happening over religion, religion being used as a
political tool, there is a basis for a war here."
An extreme prediction, perhaps, but with
hardline Christians and Muslims cracking communal
harmony, it is not unconceivable, although unlikely for
now, that green lines could one day divide villages
should religious friction burn into violence.
Even stopping missionaries will not derail
modernity's charge through these communities, and nor
should it. "Change is nature. Nothing can be stable. But
change needs to occur with understanding of materialism,
preserving deep cultural roots while only taking what is
needed from globalization," said Duengjai.
Highlanders have as much right as anybody else
to good hospitals and schools. But to save their culture
from the changes and choices swamping them, they need
knowledge. If society fails to provide that, it will
stand guilty of passively supporting cultural cleansing.
A great loss for civilization indeed.
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