05/29/2004, 00.00
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Church highlights problems of hill tribe people

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Ucan) - To mark Indigenous People's Day, the Thai bishops' Catholic Commission for Ethnic Groups called attention to problems threatening hill tribe people's survival, way of life and values.

Among the problems the commission cites are debt, poverty, lack of education and legal status, broken families, consumerism and materialism, effects from fertilizers and migration to urban areas.

"It is the responsibility of hill tribe people and others in society to help promote and preserve their way of life," says a message signed by commission chairman Bishop Michael Bunluen Mansap of Ubon Ratchatani. The message was sent to the country's 10 dioceses to be read in parishes.

Bishop Bunluen said the Church in Thailand marks Indigenous People's Day, the second Sunday of May, because ethnic minority groups face various problems.

For the occasion, the commission organized a seminar and Mass at the archdiocesan hall at Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok. More than 100 people including Bishop Bunluen, Church workers and tribal representatives attended. Bishop Bunluen said that the meeting was an occasion to inform Catholics about issues affecting hill tribe people and to help Catholics know what the Church has done for them.

Nathaka Sagnuanvong, a volunteer with the commission, said it has worked with other NGOs to help hill tribe people get Thai citizenship, and more than 80,000 have become citizens through this process. It also acts as the voice of tribal people, advocating on their behalf for the government to protect their rights and dignity as human beings and to support their lifestyle.

As many hilltribe people still do not have citizenship, or do not know their rights, Nathaka said the commission has set up a legal clinic in Mae Suai, Chiang Rai, 690 km north of Bangkok. The clinic provides free legal counselling for tribal people regarding their legal rights in Thailand. The commission hopes to open similar clinics in Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Ratchaburi provinces, where many tribal people live. The commission also organizes training seminars and exposure programs for pastoral workers at the diocesan and national level to allow people to see how tribal people live and how they preserve natural resources.

Thavorn Khamphonkul, an ethnic Karen and Church worker of Chiang Mai diocese, told participants about problems his people face including prejudice and difficulties that emerge from a government-promoted farming method.

He said the government tends to view hill tribes as people who destroy the forests through slash-and-burn farming. He acknowledged that in the past his people used that method but said they had switched to rotational farming, cultivating various farm crops in a cyclic pattern.

The government has asked them to switch again to permanent commercial farming of cash crops such as tomatoes, corn, beans and vegetables, he said. However, he continued, such farming also brings environmental degradation, as large areas of forest have to be cut down and the heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers pollutes the soil, water and air.

Thavorn told government policy seems to view everything in business terms, which has affected the villagers. The government provides them capital through the 1 million baht (24,517 US$) per village scheme, and banks have made loans easier, he said. Meanwhile, consumerist trends push people to want to make more money. Environment degradation and rising debt are the negative effects that follow, according to the Church worker. Another problem he cited is that young tribal people see no future in farming and migrate to cities. Regarding the Church response to hill tribe people, Thavorn said Chiang Mai diocese has set up centres that house about 50-100 hill tribe youth who attend public school and get additional values education.

The government's Social Welfare Department records 917,355 tribal people in Thailand in 2002. The most numerous are the Karen, at 438,450, followed by the Hmong at 151,080 and the Lahu at 102,371. Smaller groups in order of decreasing size are: Akha, Mien, Lisu, Lua, Khmu, Palong and Mlabli.

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