03/26/2007, 00.00
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Thai Church seeking greater ties among tribal groups in Thailand’s hill country

by Weena Kowitwanij
A recent conference organised by the Thai Bishops’ Conference focused on strengthening ties, networking and increasing awareness of legal rights by tribal groups. But wider society can also learn from them how to better protect natural resources.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Greater unity among Thailand’s tribal communities, increasing their awareness of their legal rights and greater understanding of their respect for the land are some of the issues discussed at the annual meeting organised by the Catholic Commission for Ethnic Groups of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand (CBCT) in Mae Sod, Tak province. Every year the meeting touches upon a different topic; this year the focus was on increasing awareness among Thai tribal groups of their rights in Thai society with some 80 participants coming from six different tribes.

Fr Augustine Prasit Ruchirat, head of the Catholic Commission for Ethnic Groups, said that “the CBCT has been involved in this type of activity for the past ten years. It aims at helping the various tribes to network so that they can become stronger and act on their own. This is why this year we will be addressing government policies and property laws for those tribal members who don’t have an identity card.”

During the discussions government officials intervened, urging tribal peoples to “realise the value of the forested areas where they live and help the authorities to protect their natural resources.”

Prut Odochau, a well-known Karen intellectual, said that tribal people should not only learn from others, but that the wider society should learn from them.”

“Tribal groups have their own laws and rules that must be respected for they can help preserve the country’s natural heritage,” he explained. For instance, “tribal custom dictates that when a child is born, the umbilical cord must be hung from a tree that no one can cut down. This helps preserve the jungle.”

Government figures for 2005 show that there are six main tribal groups in the country living in the northern hill country: Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Mien, Akha, and Lisu.

They are semi-nomadic groups, numbering almost a million in total, who began arriving in Thailand at the end of the 19th century, pushed out of their native Tibet, Burma and China by civil war and political pressures.

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