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28.8.03

Christian Conversion Threatens Hill Tribe Culture

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.

... 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.

... One day, [Matthew] McDaniel [of the Akha Heritage Foundation] 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.

-- via WitchVox


This is an interesting twist on the idea of collective rights that I wrote about earlier. We tend to think of religious rights as individual rights, because we conceive of religion as belief and private practice. But to the degree that religion is community practice -- which it often is, and which gives religion much of its value -- it's collective.

But not only are the villagers' religious decisions impacting the ability of other villagers to fully practice their religion (e.g. the shaman with to believers to minister to), the story points out a little farther down that they're impacting touyr guides' livelihoods. Tourists come to the area to see "authentic" animist Akha people. While I'm not happy with the implication that someone who has given up their old way of life is somehow necessarily inauthentic or fake, it remains true that the tourists aren't interested in seeing Christian hill people. This reveals how the tour guides were, in essence, making use of a public good -- animist religious practice -- provided for free by the Akha. So perhaps what they need is to take on a more privatized cultural tourism model, in which some Akha are recompensed for the service of showing off their traditions to tourists (though personally I would count that as more inauthentic than Akha Christianity).

The quotes from McDaniel and Chalermliamthong raise a related point. Both seem to say that the Akha have a choice between a traditional unique Akha identity and no identity. That seems like a problematic statement. I know that I, and many other Christians, value our religious identity in part because it's so widespread -- it links us to the millions of members of the Christian community around the world. This is the question, raised in my earlier post in the context of language, of whether diversity should be maintained (or even created ex nihilo) for its own sake.

Most of my discussion has been premised on the idea that Akha conversion to Christianity has been a more or less free choice, subject only to the inevitable pressures exerted by the religious composition of the community as that relates to the ability to carry out collective religious practice. And the article tends to work that way as well, treating conversion as a bad thing in itself rather than the symptom of an injustice such as forced conversion. However, one paragraph suggests that the tactics of Christian evangelists have crossed the line from "the benefits that maintain the Christian community" to "bribing people to convert":

Studies done by Chayan [Vaddhanaphuti, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University] 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."


If the Christians are premising education and health services on religious conversion, they're being very (but, sadly, not unusually) poor Christians as well as poor people in general. And it's that sort of bribery that's the problem, not the fact that more Akha are becoming Christian.

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