Thailand's gold rush for God

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 are Christian.

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 this now."

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 said.

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.

Resettlement 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.

"The 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 vacuum.

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 Luang University.

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: 'fascism'."

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.

"As 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 headman."

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.

A community 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 communities.

"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," said Duangjai.

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.

Missionaries' intrusions 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."

Growing religious 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 generations.

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 modernity's benefits.

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," said Wirote.

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.

Restrictions may 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.