Christian conversion threatens hill tribe culture

MAE YAO, Thailand - The hill tribes of northern Thailand have survived centuries of displacement, hardship and discrimination. But now their uniquely colorful culture is under a new threat, albeit a well-meaning one: Christian evangelism.

Ake Chermu has a pivotal role in this village, where faith in animism runs deep. Ake, 67, is the shaman, the religious leader who keeps alive the ceremonies associated with the rice harvest or when new homes of bamboo are built.

For the moment, this community of the Akha hill tribe in northern Thailand's Chiang Rai province still honors Ake. They let him lead them in the close to 20 religious rituals, some of them including animal sacrifices, that they have across the year.

Yet the shaman turns melancholy as he ponders on how long this essential feature of Akha life will be around. "I am worried about the change. Because to be Akha, you have to follow all the rituals," said Ake, who cuts a quiet figure with his small build, his watery brown eyes and his soft voice.

The source of his worry lies in a neighboring Akha village - Christianity has made its presence felt there, causing the community to trade the shaman and animism for the Bible and monotheism.

On Sundays, this village exudes an air of enthusiasm toward this new faith as people sing hymns to the accompaniment of guitars in two churches and listen to young preachers deliver passionate sermons.

For women such as Mi Pa, 41, a recent convert to the Baptist Church, her Akha village has put a stop to events that marked the Akha culture - the annual swing ceremony, building the wooden spirit gate and the harvest festivals.

"The priest asked us to stop the old traditions, which included worshipping spirits," she said. "Now we have Christmas. The entire village celebrates."

But now, it is not only the likes of Ake who are troubled by this shift to Christianity among the Akha, one of the six main tribal communities that have carved out a colorful niche in this mountainous part of the country along the Myanmar border.

Concern is increasingly being expressed also from an unlikely quarter - tour guides who operate in Chiang Rai.

After all, the hill tribes are the main draw that attracts tourists in the thousands to northern Thailand - a fact amplified by the posters and postcards of the hill-tribe people that are visible in the local airport and in the shop windows along Chiang Rai's narrow streets.

"Tourists come here expecting to see a village that is very authentic and typical of the hill tribe culture. So they are not happy when they find churches in the villages," said Charlie Keereekhamsuk, a tourist guide for more than six years.

An increasing number of guides and tour companies are opting against taking tourists to villages where the people have converted to Christianity, he said. "There is a big difference in the village culture after the churches have come in. In Akha villages, it is very clear."

An Akha cultural-rights activist is hardly surprised by such growing concern, given the inroads that church groups, largely from the United States, have made over past 40 years.

"They have succeeded in converting close to 50 percent of the Akha villages in Thailand, and they are aggressively going after the rest," said Mathew McDaniel of the Akha Heritage Foundation, based in the Thai town of Mae Sai.

"Tourists don't want to see these tribal people with a church foisted on them," he said. "They are offended by what is happening: people being made clones of groups like the Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, other Protestant churches and Catholics from Italy."

One day, McDaniel argues, the Akha identity in this part of Thailand may well cease to exist. "Their rituals, the spirit healing, belief in animism is what makes them Akha. It gives them their cultural identity, their unique place in the world."

Pastor Kenu Chalermliamthong, however, sees it differently. The hill-tribe people can still retain their culture even after converting, since it is "only one aspect of their lives - religion", said Kenu, a Baptist minister who belongs to the Karen hill tribe.

The churches are not asking the hill tribes to change their clothes or the way they live, he added. "But when they convert, the people have to give up their old customs and habits, superstitions and faith in animism."

Currently, there are more than 70,000 Akha living in close to 300 villages spread across the forested parts of northern Thailand. Besides the Akha, the other ethnic groups who make up the nearly 1 million hill-tribe population in this Southeast Asian country are the Lahu, Lisu, Yao, Hmong and Karen.

The majority of Thailand's 62 million people are Buddhists and the country respects the individual's right to religious freedom. Consequently, the local media, government officials and the Buddhist clergy have treated as a non-issue the spread of Christianity among the hill-tribe people reputed for their belief in animism.

"Thai governments have shown little attention to the hill-tribe communities," Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University, said in an interview. "They have also ignored them on economic and social matters."

Studies done by Chayan have revealed that the hill-tribe people often convert because of the perceived benefits church groups offer. "They are assured education, scholarships and health services," he said. "It is these benefits and not religious passion that have attracted more hill-tribe people to convert."

In this new religious environment, "the shamans and the spirit and cultural leaders have no place", Chayan said. "The old, traditional knowledge that has been passed down to the community comes to an end."

According to Budsaba Maiwong of the Chiang Rai-based Mae Salong Tour Co, visits to the hill-tribe villages and overnight stays are what 70 percent of the tourists arriving in Chiang Rai request. "It is so popular because it is unique, the way the hill-tribe people live, the way they dress. It is different from the rest of the country."

These semi-nomadic people migrated to Thailand from Burma (now Myanmar), southern China and Tibet a long time ago, and have lived on mountain slopes in villages that appear untouched by the many advances in modernity. An Akha house, for instance, is made of bamboo and has no windows and food is prepared over an open fire.

It is shamans such as Ake who helped give these semi-nomadic communities their unique character by keeping alive the flame of animism. "You cannot be a proper Akha person, relate to our history, ancestors, if you give up spirit worship," he said.