The Akha

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The Akha are an ethnic minority group living throughout the hill areas of the Upper Mekong region. They speak a Tibeto-Burman language. Akha legend has it that they began to slowly migrate from their ancestral homeland in Tibet more than two thousand years ago into southern Szechuan and Yunnan in China. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they continued southward into northern Burma, northern Thailand, and northern Laos. The Akha collectively number nearly half a million (Kammerer 1998) including roughly 60,000 in the Lao provinces of Phongsaly and Luang Namtha. There are a number of different subgroups in Laos, but most speak similar dialects. In Luang Namtha, the Akha live in the forested hillsides of the Muang Sing and Muang Long districts. Overall, they are the predominant population in these districts but share valleys with lowland Lao, Tai-Lue, Tai-Dam, and a smattering of other minority groups such as Hmong and Lahu. They and a number of other ethnic groups who live in these border regions are immediately recognizable as they commonly are featured in large-scale glossy pictorial spreads in Lao, Thai, and Chinese tourist brochures due to their exotic attire, especially the women’s silver-covered headdresses that can weigh up to two kg, and traditional customs such as annual fertility festivals.

        Until recently Akha livelihoods in Luang Namtha were based almost entirely on highland swidden crops such as rice, opium, maize, and cotton. But since the 1990s, many Akha villages have relocated to lower slopes or valley lands, less than a day’s walk to either Muang Sing or Muang Long towns. This has been partly due to a desire to access state services and markets, and partly is in response to opium prohibition and government policies that regulate shifting cultivation.

         Akha social structure is patrilineal; a wife is incorporated into her husband’s lineage after marriage. Sons are more desirable than daughters: “It is by producing a son that a man ensures not only the continuation of his direct patriline for at least one generation but also his own ascendance after death to the ranks of the ancestors in that patriline” (ibid., 566). In cases of divorce, children are considered to belong to the husband and to be under the protection of his ancestors. The traditional Akha house is divided into men’s and women’s sleeping rooms. Akha women typically eat only after the male householders have finished their meal. Villages that have moved to the lowlands and engage more closely with lowland Buddhist groups have begun to soften these mandates, but gender hierarchy is still evident in certain social roles.

        Assimilation of ethnic minority groups within state-based forms of citizen�ship and national identity is seldom seamless, wherever it takes place, and movement into the lowlands affects the Akha in profound ways. Perhaps the most obvious is changing dress: Akha women now seldom wear their blue tunics and distinctive headdresses as they seek to identify more closely with lowland lifestyles. But integration is not simply about attire; it becomes more complicated when forces of globalization and donor-supported development bring different value systems into contact.      The changes the Lao Akha face reach to the deepest sense of ethnic identity. Similar processes have taken place in China, Burma, and Thailand, where decades of modernization have sharply altered everyday life for ethnic minorities. In Thailand and Burma, many Akha have converted to Christianity over the past fifty years. In China, the Akha endured the Cultural Revolution and subsequent national assimilation programs. In Laos, Akha have so far been relatively removed from far-reaching social change: the socialist government has not had the resources to reach them and foreign missionaries are forbidden to proselytize. But in the past ten years, development has become ubiquitous due to an opening up of the economy to donor aid (particularly from the West) and investment (particularly from China). As a result, many Akha have moved to the lowlands to take part in the opportunities that development offers: better health, better education, and, most important, a chance to dream of economic improvement and material consumption. It is too early to say precisely what the changes the Akha are embracing (or are forced to embrace) will deliver in terms of material wealth. But we can say that lifestyle changes are already bringing radical new social formations and personal relations with a greater number of players, each angling for some sort of advantage in the charged world of market-based competition.

      Akha in Thailand faced similar pressures several decades earlier. Tooker (2004) suggests they now adapt their sense of cultural identity to maximize opportunities in a capitalist context and that their previous protective sense of what constitutes a dangerous “outside” world has changed. The result is a “compartmentalization” of ethnic identity, which is used strategically at certain times, such as to organize events oriented to tourists so as to capitalize on the market value of ethnicity. Others point to more insidious outcomes of commercialization, as young Thai Akha are overrepresented in the urban underclass of prostitution and exploited labor (Kammerer 2000). In Laos, the outside–inside distinction preserving ethnic identity is also rapidly dissolving. In the past, changes due to modernization were limited by a sense of cultural and geographic isolation (for example, until recently very few Akha could speak Lao). But while not yet commodified to any large degree, as integration increasingly takes place Akha identity and cultural beliefs are both used by Akha and exploited by others in ongoing accommodation of modernity.

 

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