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Mountainland: The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

Sascha Richter | Thailand

View over Ban Huay Yuak, one of five permanent Mlabri settlements in northern Thailand.

The Mlabri are one of the smallest ethnic groups living in Thailand, numbering about 400 people.

In a period of about twenty years they made a transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer communities living in the forest to a sedentary lifestyle in permanent settlements. They experienced rapid social change when encountering the modern world.

The Mlabri are one of the smallest ethnic groups living in Thailand, numbering about 400 people.

In a period of about twenty years they made a transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer communities living in the forest to a sedentary lifestyle in permanent settlements. They experienced rapid social change when encountering the modern world.

Until the 1990s the Mlabri lived a nomadic life mainly in forested areas. They lived in mobile units staying in one place for about five to ten days and subsited largely on hunting, gathering, and digging activities in the forest.

They had limited relations with other ethnic groups living in the mountains, but would sometimes exchange forest products for consumer items such as salt, steel, tobacco, clothes, pigs, rice etc. and occasionally, were hired through exploitative, short-term labor arrangements in which they worked for food and clothing as laborers on the farms of Hmong and northern Thai living nearby.

Their traditional lifestyle continued until the 1970s but has gradually changed since then because of deforestation due to agricultural expansion, logging, and road construction.

Day labor became more important for survival as the natural resources that the Mlabri depended on decreased dramatically; the forest was exploited by lumber companies and by ethnic groups who engaged in swidden agriculture.

In the late 1990s state-led initiatives introduced a sedentary lifestyle to the Mlabri, bringing them in places near already settled Hmong communities, and encouraging them to start cultivating their own rice and corn fields.

Today, they live in five permanent settlements in the Nan and Phrae provinces, engaging in wage labor, cash crop cultivation and ethnic tourism.

Traditional hunting and gathering activities still continue, but on a minimal scale (about 7% of their food source) and are restricted by access to already rare and over-hunted forest areas, which are under the control of the Thai government.

In 2001 the Mlabri gained formal recognition through citizenship and ID cards with presumed birthdates for individuals born before 1998, and the actual registered birthdates for those born after. Citizenship provided them with access to health and nutritional services at government facilities and children started attending school. Authorities carried out different programs in education, public hygiene, and occupational training, including cultivating cash crops and livestock farming.

Traditional, animistic beliefs still remain, but new faiths and activities were also introduced through Christian and Buddhist missions.

 

Part of my ongoing long-term project Mountainland.

„Mountainland“ is an ongoing long-term project, that surveys the lives and societies of Zomia (upland Southeast Asia, India, Bangladesh, China).
The Southeast Asian Massif is a region that extends across Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, China, India and Bangladesh, roughly 2.5 million square kilometers. The people dwelling in these mountains comprise hundreds of ethnic groups, and are linguistically and culturally distinct from the people who dominate the state cores in the lowlands.
The ethnic minority populations in the mountain area are estimated at around eighty million to one hundred million people and are more scattered and culturally diverse than those of the valleys. The migration of these people is best understood as a history of escape from state-making processes in the lowlands.

It is the practice of internal colonialism that describes the making of most modern nation-states. This process involves absorption/incorporation and displacement of inhabitants as well as an alteration of the landscape by deforestation, irrigation, levees, etc., in order to grow crops and set up settlement patterns.
In pre-colonial times, the states in mainland Southeast Asia were small, centralized spaces of power (called mandala) with accompanying tributary villages attached. The rest of their „territory“ was peripheral to influence.
Much of this periphery and the area beyond was made up of difficult terrains, such as mountains, swamps, stepes, marshlands… but at the same time a great source of trade goods and forest products, necessary for the prosperity of the states. It was a source of human captives, needed as laborers and working capital, too.
The contrary nature of the two zones (lowlands and highlands) made them become trading partners, eventually.
Time passed and the reach of the states grew. People and groups at the periphery were either absorbed (becoming, over many generations, part of the main ethnic group/identity) or simply moved away further into the hinterlands, far out of reach of the state. As this process repeated itself again and again, the mountains became culturally complex zones of people who chose to place themselves there.
Being part of a state system meant taxation, conscription, corvee labor and cultural assimilation.
Political independence, on the other hand, came with the advantages of trade without taxes, cultural refuge, and the preservation of group identity. These were historically the driving forces for the people to migrate to the mountains.
Some state subjects ran away for reasons similar to those of the ethnic minorities, and became incorporated into the „Mountainland“. These patterns generated a space made of people who had never been dependent on any state as well as those who esacaped away state reach.
Today, political articulation and negotiation is far more difficult and complex in many areas of Zomia. During the last decades, authorities started to understand the value of the region, its resources and the benefit it could give to their economies.
The postcolonial lowland states sought to exercise influence in the hills by encouraging people of the lowland majority population to settle there.
Military presence, campaigns against shifting cultivation (the traditional form of subsistence in Zomia), deforestation, building of roads, railroad tracks and bridges into the hills, and the introduction of administrational facilities made nonstate spaces a phenomenon of the past.
Avoiding the state was, until some decades ago, a real option, but it has become almost impossible today.

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