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Review for Akha Heritage Foundation, Salem, OR, USA

Rating: 1 stars  

Matthew McDaniel was furiously working away at a keyboard in an internet cafe in ChiangRai, northern Thailand, when I first clapped eyes on him early in 2003. Wearing a ragged hat and battered cowboy boots he walked out to his mud-spattered, uniquely modified, pick-up truck acknowledging me on his way. During the ride out to the hills he wasted little time expounding his views about christian missionaries abducting hill-tribe children into orphanages, sterilizing the women and generally desecrating their culture. Thai army, police, forestry, government officials and Thai royalty were all involved in dispossessing hill-tribe people, especially the Akha, of land, livelihood and life.

I became aware of large numbers of hill-tribe inmates in Thai prisons far from their homes in my personal charity work since 1999. As part of my interest in understanding the issues involved I contacted McDaniel and met him several times in northern Thailand before his arrest on 18th April 2004 at the MaeSai border, his subsequent imprisonment for nine days, and deportation back to the USA ostensibly for visa violation.

McDaniel had been living in Thailand since 1991. He told me he'd been exporting beads and jewelery from Thailand in a business with his brother in the U.S.A. until they fell out over finances. In MaeSai the Akha and other hill-tribe people caught his attention at the border bridge between Myanmar and Thailand. They are largely a poor, dispossessed, exploited people who have their own distinctive cultures quite different from mainstream Thai and Burmese cultures. Seeing the discrimination, and sometimes abuse, these people suffer, McDaniel said he tried to help with much-needed medical assistance. He had no professional medical training or qualifications, and more or less taught himself even how to extract teeth.

McDaniel learned the Akha language and took a young Akha girl, Michu Uaiyue, as his wife. He lived in her family's village house at Pah Nmm in Bpah Mah Hahn until he was apparently told to move out. So he built a bamboo hut just above the village for his wife and their growing family.

Visiting Pah Nmm one day with McDaniel, I noticed slogans daubed across village walls in English - "No Police", "Police Keep Out". At his bamboo hut his young wife was busy taking care of their children - four by this time, I think. Previously, I'd sent a variety of vegetable seeds by post from Europe in the hope that McDaniel would distribute them to villagers for trial growing. When I asked how this project was going he showed me a vegetable patch, explaining how well the beans were doing and producing a bountiful crop for his family since his wife planted them there. He avoided answering queries about any other villages he may have distributed the seeds to.

At his bamboo hut there were some boxes of clothes recently donated to McDaniel's nonprofit AHF for Akha villagers. First pickings were obviously being picked out by relatives and friends. Another Englishman visiting McDaniel had been busy inside the hut setting up a new computer which he'd donated for McDaniel's AHF work. When he came to me complaining bitterly how McDaniel wouldn't let him use it I was at somewhat of a loss myself.

Later the same day, McDaniel drove me down through Pah Nmm village as we discussed an issue on which I thought we needed views from Akha people themselves. I suggested we stop to ask an Akha man walking along the dirt track. "Not much use," snapped McDaniel driving on. "Why's that?" I asked. "He'll talk without saying much of anything. Typical Akha."

McDaniel drove me to several Akha villages near the Burmese border, a region many hill-tribe prisoners whom I knew personally came from. He provided basic medical help to a few sick villagers and he carried a can of liquid used as pesticide for villagers to debug themselves from jiggers and other such insects. When he pointed out a fish pond in one village, explaining how one of his many projects was to set these up to provide protein food for villagers, I expressed my interest in stopping to see it. "No fish in it," he replied, driving on seemingly with no intention of stopping. "Why's that?" My questions were beginning to fall into a pattern, but I didn't see this clearly until later. "Akha ate them all," he answered.

Some hill-tribe villages do reasonably well with viable projects producing coffee, tea, ginger, other crops, as well as handicrafts, while others provide accommodation and guided hiking trips for tourists. Admittedly, such projects are not all managed by hill-tribe villagers themselves, but some are. However, McDaniel said he didn't work with those Akha villages I'd mentioned.

A small cluster of newly built wooden huts we visited was untypically situated in a valley, not the usual ridge-top location of most Akha villages. They'd been forced to relocate by forestry officials. Similar, and much larger, forced village relocation occurs throughout the region in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Such dislocations and interference by government officials, army, police, missionaries, business interests, and even due to tourist developments, obviously have a devastating impact on hill-tribe villagers. These usually uncomplaining, self-sufficient, quiet people have little or no say in such matters that severely affect their livelihood. McDaniel seemed to have a nose that picked up on the scent of suffering hill-tribe people.

In ChiangRai soon after I first met McDaniel, he was handed a modest donation in cash with the suggestion that it be used directly for poor hill-tribe villagers. Soon after this, he said we were going for lunch, and he drove us to a large food court. I headed for local Thai vegetarian food, while McDaniel sepa

Role:  Volunteer