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India and China
Team Dispatch

Missionaries: Making A Difference?
June 14, 2000

During our time in Thailand, we've been amazed by the cultural diversity of people here, especially of people from the northern regions. There are many traditional groups of people, considered to be hunter-gathering tribes, who live in complete harmony with each other. The seven major tribes, Karen, Hmong (Meo), Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Lawa, and Akha, each have their own distinct culture, religion, language, art, and colorful style of dress. In addition to the 7 main tribes, there are also some smaller tribes such as the Palong, Along, Khamu, Thins, and Mlabri.

The Mlabri are especially small. In fact, only about 100 people remain as part of this ancient tribe. They are known by the Thais as Phi Tong Luang, which means "Ghosts of the Yellow Banana Leaves." They are named this because they build shelters from green banana leaves and migrate to another area each time the leaves turn to yellow. Little is known about the Mlabri. However, it is believed that they originated from tribes in Laos. Mlabri are also animists who believe that spirits infest trees, tigers are the angry souls of the dead and rainbows, which they call "monster's farts," can devour people whole. Many of the Northern nomadic tribes hold similar beliefs.

Although each of these groups has a rich cultural history that can be traced back to ancient civilizations in China, we were dismayed to find out that their way of life may soon become extinct. Religious organizations, such as the New Tribes Mission (NTM), have set up numerous missions to convert the people among these tribes to western beliefs and make them give up their traditional ways.


animist - a person who believes that in addition to humans and animals, non-living objects and things are spiritual beings.
infest - to inhabit or overrun in numbers large enough to be harmful or threatening.
devour - to eat up greedily.

A mission is a group of people sent to a foreign land to spread its faith or provide educational, medical, and other assistance. You may have already heard of them. They have existed throughout history and many different religious groups have them. People have debated the role the missions have played and whether or not it has been a good one. Missionaries feel they are helping to educate people and provide services. Others would argue that they are imposing a different lifestyle on people. How would you feel if groups from other countries were sent to convert you in the way you think, speak, and dress?

Learn more about the Hill tribes in northern Thailand.

The situation in northern Thailand, however, is even more complicated. Because some of the tribes are so small, if the people start converting, their traditional cultures are in danger of vanishing altogether. Missionaries have been active in the area for the past 20 years. And while not a single Mlabari has been converted, so far 25% of the Karen, and 30% of the Lahus peoples have been and they have since abandoned their previous way of life. Even if you aren't sure what you think about the concept of missions as a whole, consider that the actions of the missionaries in northern Thailand are wiping out entire cultures.



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