Coping With Modernity: Northern Thailand’s Akha New Wayfaring in the City of Chiang Mai
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AbstractAbstract. This masterthesis highlights the transitional processes of an indigenous people towards urbanization in a globalizing world. It is a reflection of fieldwork, carried out in Northern Thailand from February to April 2013, among the Akha people, from Sino-Tibetan origin, and most deprived of all hilltribes. I focus on the representations of the urban Akha. From the time this group migrated into the Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand some 160 years ago, they occupied the most remote hilltops at altitudes up to 1,500 meters, to dwell in patrilineal village communities amidst other hilltribe groups. They were known as “khon pa”, the wayfarers of the forest, where they lived in harmony with nature to the prescripts of Akhazang, their unique cosmology. In the Thai state process of nation-building, they are reluctant to assimilate into dominant Thai culture. Much of the Akha people still lack official citizenship, which pins them down to their living grounds and makes traveling an illegal act. Government policy in the 1970s and 1980s halted opium cultivation and encouraged to implement rotational farming instead of slash-and-burn practices, grow alternative crops instead of opium and take part in Royal Agricultural Projects. Recent government restrictions on forestry forces them to relocate, abandon the mountaintops, losing all landrights. Poverty stricken and marginalized by negative public image as uncivilized, uneducated destroyers of forest ecology and accused of bad habits and being entropy resistant, they leave the villages in ever increasing numbers seeking new livelihoods. Coming from subsistence economies, they lack city skills and in most cases cannot read and write or speak Thai language. Arriving in the city, they disappear in the margins, the bad areas called slums and mix with other hilltribes, in mutual dependent heterogeneous hilltribe communities. They are queuing on the lowest level in Thai society. Though deprived, more and more manage to make a living, by using their flexibility and ability to respond to changed circumstances, shifting iden-tities and using new strategies. The slums of Chiang Mai, places where they dwell and try to succeed, in adapting to modern life to become wayfarers of the city, was one of my main fieldwork areas. .