A Tale of Three Tribes
“The Chinese chase the Khmer. The Khmer chase the tribal people. The tribal people chase the spirits. And the spirits live in the mountains.” -- Old Cambodian Tampuan saying
In Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, Chinese and Khmer businessmen get a village headman drunk enough and happy enough to sign a document allowing them to buy the land of a Tampuan family. Strictly speaking, the transaction is illegal, but with the signature of the village headman, no questions will be asked. With the money they get from the land sale, the Tampuan family will buy a used motorcycle, and then starve.
Missionaries convert half of an Akha village in northern Thailand. Now the Christians don’t talk to their animist neighbors. But in the Akha communal system, every member of the tribe must do his traditional job. The healer is called when people are ill. She is paid in food. The shaman, the keeper of traditions and ceremonies, is called when a new house is built or the village is transplanted. He preserves the culture and teaches it to the young. Gaining his permission before making any major changes in the village serves the dual purpose of supporting the shaman and his family, but it also preserves the forest, as the shaman is the one who knows when the resources have been depleted and the village needs to move.
Now the shaman and the healer have no customers, because the Christian villagers won’t patronize them. The villagers don’t know when the village is supposed to move, and the children aren’t being taught their sacred ceremonies.
In the Philippine province of Palawan, a far western archipelago, a remote tribal village lacks both running water and electricity. It is five kilometers from the nearest road and a three- hour drive from the nearest city. Here, a Tagbanua family survives, barely. In the corner of their filthy hut, a family member lies dripping sweat. She has been suffering from malaria for weeks. Edward Hagedorn, the well known mayor of the nearest city, Puerto Princessa, has made a satellite hospital available to the tribal people, but for reasons that are unclear they won’t go there until they are near death. Hagedorn also made free seeds available so that they could diversify their diet and increase their food yield. Once again, no one knows quite why the tribe refuses to take advantage of the program.
The plight of these three ethnic groups mirrors the problems of tribal people in developing countries the world over. Often referred to as living in the Fourth World, they are the marginalized minorities of developing nations. Although each country deals with its ethnic minorities in different ways, none seems to have found a solution. In most cases, if they remain within their shrinking cultures, they are condemned to lives that are nasty, brutish and short, in Thomas Hobbes’ phrase , faced with poverty, ill health, and a bare minimum of education that leaves them functionally illiterate. If they leave to seek education and opportunity away from the village, they contribute to the death of their culture.
Graham Brown, a representative of a non-governmental organization in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, believes that the key to tribal survival is land ownership. His group, Community Forestry International, helps tribal people obtain rights to both their traditional forest and farmland.
“In collective cultures, everything is an all-or-nothing proposition. When one goes, they all go. Once people give up hope they will all sell their land.” Once the land is gone, Brown says, the tribes will die out.
While many of the hill tribes in Thailand have traditionally been denied citizenship because of their links to Burma or Laos and their inability to “prove” they are Thai, the indigenous tribes of Cambodia were given full citizenship and land rights by then-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Sihanouk more than 30 years ago. The problem is that many don’t understand the concept of landownership or its importance.
“They were always here,” Graham says. But national boundaries are an unnatural occurrence which hill tribes are barely aware of.
According to Dr. Carlos Fernandez, a Filipino anthropologist and tribal expert, “To call tribal people horticulturists is wrong. They are craftsmen. Agriculture is just one of the many tools available to them in their plan for survival. They also use hunting, fishing, gathering, and farming, transplanting jungle products closer to the tribal villages for use when needed. And with this combination of skills, plus weaving and making handicrafts to sell, the tribal people could exist.”
In the transition to modern society, lowlanders generally force tribal people off the best land, with a typical defense in the face of conflict being to simply push deeper into the forest. Very few tribes in the 21st century are living on the land they once inhabited. With commercial farms and others taking the choice land closest to rivers and oceans, the immediate impact on the tribal diet is they can no longer supplement it through the fishing or river trading.
As their land is squeezed, they also lose their semi-nomadic ways and are forced to remain in one place, where they deplete the soil.
Back in the Philippines, the Tagbanua faced similar difficulty. The land they have inhabited for years, and which provided them with a livelihood, no longer belongs to them. Each year, lowland Filipinos and commercial farming concerns encroach further on their land. Now, under a government program called Ancestral Domain, they can get title to the land they live on, but this means remaining in one place. It also means they are no longer able to forage in the jungle and that they have been cut off from the river.
Migrants originally from southern China like many Southeast Asians, the Akha have long been in the border regions of Laos, Burma and Thailand. Some of those now settled in Thailand were driven off land in Burma by military conflict and forced relocations. Once farmers and hunter- gatherers, many are being forced off the land in Thailand and even their high mountain fields are drying up because the water is being diverted to large-scale commercial farms. The Akha are also easy victims for drug traffickers, who use them as mules, making them convenient targets for police who need to shore up their arrest numbers toward the end of the month.
In Cambodia, most Tampuan are now sedentary farmers, but lowlanders want their land and each year convince them to sell off some of it. Their domain has shrunk until now even their ancestral burial grounds in some cases have been sold. For the Tampuan, this is a great sin. They believe deeply in the spirits and could never imagine being cut off from the spirits of their ancestors.
“It is actually the village which owns the land, but the individual families are given rights by the village headman to farm the land. They do not, however, have the right to sell the land. This respects their traditional concept of communal ownership. The commune chief and village headman, however, are not supposed to approve the sale of the land. But they do. It is all corruption,” Graham explained.
“The villagers who sell their land are referred to as nyat colcot (scoundrels),” Graham added.
“After the first sales the people lose faith in the government and in the system. They lose faith in the law and believe that they have no rights. So they sell their land. They buy a second-hand motorcycle, and the others in the village get jealous. So, they sell also.”
According to Graham, the buyers are mostly those who have made money from illegal logging, much of which is carried out by the Cambodian armed forces. They are generally politically powerful enough to exert pressure on the tribes.
“They are told they are stupid if they don’t sell, and that they are backward if they keep to ancient ways. People with no land have to move out of the village and then the structure begins to deteriorate. When they move, they have to clear new forest which is both backbreaking and illegal. And, the government will just take the land away from them.”
“Using the knowledge acquired by the tribe over centuries, they were able to work out a survival strategy that was fairly accurate,” says Fernandez of traditional life. “The upland people without irrigation may appear poor because they don’t have good houses, but they eat better than the lowland poor, who eat a mono-crop of rice. The uplanders, without irrigation, grow a variety of foods. The poor lowlanders grow only rice and sell the surplus to diversify their diet. If they don’t grow enough rice, they fall into an endless spiral of debt. Eventually, to pay off the debt, they sell land.”
The tribes “started down the slope to financial ruin was because the land wasn’t producing enough to begin with. Now, they are selling the land, and of course, losing part of their future harvest. This will create more debt and lead to selling more land,” Feranandez says.
War and political upheaval also impact the tribes, but they often have no control over those events and no defense. This is certainly true of those Akha who were displaced by the civil war in Burma and now find themselves as unwanted guests in Thailand, with no rights. Other ethnic minorities in Burma have been engaged in combat with the Burmese government for decades, but the Akha are completely passive. In Thailand they are ill-equipped to understand the political events which affect their everyday lives.
In Palawan, the Tagbanua were always conflict avoiders. When Muslim pirates raided coastal villages, the Tagbanua gave up the coast and pushed into the forest. When the Spanish invaded the Philippines, they pushed deeper into the forest. Finally, during their occupation of the Philippines from 1899 to 1945, the Americans built the first college for the Tagbanua and included them in national education programs. But more than 60 years later, the Tagbanua find it difficult to participate in education.
Tribal people everywhere are often faced with having to send their children great distances to attend school. Rainy seasons may make it impossible. During planting and harvest seasons they are also absent, as they are needed to work at home.
For Tampuan parents, like the Tagbanua, the minuscule school fees and the cost of notebooks and pencils are insurmountable hurdles. Since most Akha refugees are not Thai citizens, their children are not permitted to attend school. However, Thailand’s royal family interceded and under a royal foundation has been building schools in refugee villages where non-citizen tribal children can study. In some instances, Akha children have been given permission to attend school but the parents cannot afford the tuition. In others, the distance to the school makes it impossible for the children to attend.
Governments in all three countries have introduced elementary schools into the tribal areas but high schools always seem far away. Parents often can’t afford or don’t want to send the children away. NGOs may come in and pay for kids to leave the village and go to school in the cities, but this introduces yet another dilemma. In order to improve their lives, it children need education, but once educated many do not want to go back to the hardships of village life and this drains the village of its brightest youth.
Marifi Nitor-Pablico, the director of the Tagbalay Tribal Foundation in the Philippines, has spent years trying to understand the tribal people.
“All of the culture is lost,” she said in an interview in her office in Puerto Princesa. “All we can do is go back to the documents recorded by foreign and Filipino researchers. And there is no way to validate any of it. There is no one who can tell us if the customs or beliefs, which appear in the books still exist.
“Among tribal people, there is a memory loss about culture and a failure to find something to replace what they have lost. They are made to feel ashamed of what they are as tribal people, and made to feel they are inadequate to adopt lowland ways. That is the situation that needs to be explored. But, how do we do it? We must flesh out, what did I lose? And what did I fail to gain?”
It won’t be long until the Akha have lost their cultural memory. Although some villages struggle to maintain the culture, it is clearly on a path to destruction as long as children are shipped off to schools, missionaries invade villages, and the villagers are denied land rights. For the Tampuan, as young people move to cities like Phnom Penh in search of work, the tribe will eventually die.
If children are taken away and educated, the culture may be destroyed, but, as Pablico noted, the march of the modern world has already rendered the culture almost extinct.
For policymakers, the question is whether it is more important to preserve the culture or save and improve individual lives. In Thailand tribal people are marginalized by the state and lack citizenship or recourse to the law. In Cambodia, they have citizenship but still fall victim to predators who want to steal their land. And in Puerto Princesa, where local government is willing to help, even the experts aren’t certain what form the help should take.
Graham paints a bleak picture of Cambodia’s Tampuan situation, but it is true of tribal people everywhere.
“Many Tampuan children go to a government school whose focus is to teach Khmer values and ideas. They teach the children values which differ from their tribal beliefs. They become Khmer. And suddenly, they need things that they never needed before. They need cell phones and motorcycles. And the informal education that they get is much more powerful than the formal one. The informal education comes at the hands of officials who push the development paradigm. They are told that their tribal culture is stupid, and that what they have is backward and without value.”