The Hill Tribes

The Hill Tribes

The Hill Tribe minorities of the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand are semi nomadic in origin coming from Tibet, Burma, China and Laos during the last 200 years or so. They are “fourth world” people, belonging to no developing nations nor do the Hill Tribes recognise the political boundaries of countries. This fluidity of territorial identity is exacerbated in Northern Thailand by the porosity of the jungle, which masks the boundaries. (A helpful commodity when fleeing oppression.)

The self-identity of all the Hill Tribes, rather than defined by borders is one bound by links of kinship, customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs. Due to the isolation of the Hill Tribes, customs and traditions remain unchanged that go back centuries. The Hill tribes do not write and therefore all their folklore, knowledge, wisdom, customs and the minute details of their lives are all passed by spoken word and committed to memory, the Yeo the only exception to this rule.

In the modern world, the arbitrary constraints of global geopolitics have obliged the Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Yeo, Padong and Hmong to accept an external national identity, while their instinct for tribal survival pushes them to find strategies to preserve their own cultural integrity.

Whether the Hill Tribes will continue their traditional way of life, or whether they will eventually be absorbed into the ever encroaching Thai society remains to be seen. They do however need our interest, our respectful and sensitive understanding and the economic benefits that such contacts bring.

The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand are amazingly skilled artisans, producing a wide array of products such are basket wear, weaponry, musical instruments, tools, weaving, embroidery and the finest of silver. Appreciating the true cultural value of their crafts enables their traditional livelihoods to be sustained, work and training is then available for the next generation and their tribal heritage can be preserved.

Five Hill Tribes are involved in silver production, these are, Karen, Akha, Lahu, Hmong and Lisu. It is the Karen however who produce silver on a commercial scale and supply Luna Tree Jewellery. Their villages are situated  in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand.


The Karen People

Population: approx 440,200
Origin: Burma

The Karen people make up the largest ethnic minority in Thailand. They are Animists (Spirit Worship) although some have converted to Christianity and Buddhism. Buddhism is a very open religion and coexists side by side with Animism, with most villages housing a Buddhist temple and  monastery.

There are three main sub groups: White Karen or Sgaw, Black Karen or Pgo and Red Karen or Kayah.

The Karen engage in agriculture, including rice cultivation and practise crop rotation to ensure the fertility of the land. Skilled weavers, the Karen women produce remarkable clothing and other textiles. Thailand is now hosts many permanent and well established Karen villages. They generally occupy the lower altitudes, residing in houses built on stilts. The Karen move around less frequently than other Hill Tribes and this therefore allows them to undertake longer term farming projects such as fruit trees. Thailand is also home to many refugee camps of Karen who have fled oppression from Burma.


Up until marriage girls and women wear long white dresses with red edging. Married women wear a sarong made of two lengths with a v-neck blouse in either blue, black, red or white depending on which sub group they belong to. These blouses are normally decorated with embroidery and beads. Finally a cotton turban is worn on the head. The men wear simple woven cotton shirts and black or blue trousers. A cotton turban also completes their outfit.



Burmese History

The Burmese monarchy was destroyed by the British in the 19th century and it was in 1948 when it regained it’s independence. Civil war soon followed.

Burma has been governed by a military dictatorship since 1962 when it took power. The elections of 1990 saw Aung San Suu Kyi as the democratically elected leader but the Burmese army refused to hand over power. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her commitment to peaceful change. Under house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 1995. She is back under house arrest in 2008.  2010 elections saw a quarter of the seats reserved for military officers, with a transition from military dictatorship to military controlled country having made very little difference to the Karen people here. Aung San Suu Kyi is released shortly after the election and then stands and wins in 2012. The civil conflict between the Karen and the Burmese Junta is one of the worlds longest running yet a ceasefire was established in 2012.

2013 and there has been little fighting in Karen State but oppression still continues with forced labour, extortion, incarceration, forced resettlement and many human right violations such as denial of citizenship rights and political representation.  Meanwhile in central and West Burma the Burmese army have lead a massive offensive of ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Kachin people. In 2015 a peace treaty has been agreed between the government and 16 rebel groups which continues the peace hopes for this bruised nation.

Over 150,000 Karen have fled oppression via Thailand.


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