CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The Karen Hill Tribe is one of many isolated indigenous tribes living in extreme poverty that can be found in the densely forested mountains of Northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai. This particular tribe is well known as the ‘longneck’ tribe because its women and young girls can be seen wearing traditional golden rings around their necks. The Karen people are also a salient example of poverty in Thailand.
The following are historical facts pertaining to the Karen hill tribe:
- An estimated 400,000 members of this tribe live in Northern Thailand, while 7,000,000 members live outside of Thailand (e.g., in neighboring countries like Myanmar).
- The establishment and early settlement of the tribe can be traced back to Tibetan nomads in the 12th century.
- Karens are typically not recognized as Thai citizens, despite many of them having been born in Thailand.
I would like to share my thoughts on my visit to a Karen village in the rural Thai mountainside on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Throughout my trip I had been exposed to various forms of poverty in Thailand, but what I encountered during my visit to the tribal village will forever be ingrained in my memory.
Upon arriving to the village, I saw livestock milling about and farmers trying to nurture their crops despite the area not being very suitable for agriculture due to the mountainous terrain.
I witnessed the tribe’s living conditions: bamboo huts with dirt floors and little to no furniture except for floor mats. There was no electricity or easily accessible water and the only way of cooking was over an open fire. The only water sources were nearby rivers and streams.
Economically, the tribe relied on tourism to make a living. Developing a skill or a trade was a crucial component of becoming a successful economic contributor. A high level of craftsmanship and much time went into the creation of goods to sell to tourists. The products included beautiful woven cloths, jewelry, beads, wood sculptures, instruments and knives.
The Karens I encountered mostly spoke their own language; some spoke English and Thai, but not very well. Education was lacking in the tribe, and it was considered more of a privilege than a right.
Thai Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of refugees from Burma and the indigenous people of Thailand, reported that the Ministry of Education in 1992 tried to integrate ethnic minorities such as Karens into Thai public schools. But the implementation of this policy has not been successful.
If they are even able to attend school at all, the children from the tribes are given little academic support because their native languages are not spoken by the teachers. The cost of schooling is a financial issue as well, and schools rarely grant tribal students accommodations for their living conditions. With little support, many tribal children end up leaving school.
Children not receiving adequate education feeds into the extreme poverty already present in Thailand. It has been reported that some children as young as three begin working to make a living. These children have jobs such as selling flowers on the streets.
Young girls often leave the village in search of better employment opportunities, but a lack of education leads many of these young women to sex trafficking.
The Thai government’s ostracizing and decentralizing of the settlements of the indigenous people of Thailand contributes greatly to overall poverty in Thailand. Thai society’s lack of acceptance of tribal people furthers the extreme impoverished conditions of these people–without being formally recognized as citizens, the tribal people are unable to receive the education needed to become financially and intellectually prosperous.
– Haylee Gardner