Minority Politics in Thailand: A Hmong Perspective
This paper was presented
at the International Conference On Thai Studies,
National University, Canberra, 3-6 July 1987.
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
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
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
focussed 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
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
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
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
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,
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 s 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
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 in order 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 and 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
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. Beside 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
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
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,
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 thousands 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 ways 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
other fellow villager. 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
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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