The Akha are a tribal people who inhabit the mountainous regions of southern China, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam and northern Thailand. Most sources indicate that the Akha are a Tibeto-Burman people due to their linguistic patterns, but historic records show that the Akha have been as far south as Thailand since the 12th century.
The Akha can be recognized by their distinctive dress and village structure. Clothes are usually died with dark indigo. The women wear leggings up to the knee and skirts adorned with white beads or seeds. Their jackets are usually black with heavy embroidery in reds and yellows around the cuffs and collars. The most distinctive piece of the costume is the cap, which is usually covered in silver coins and embroidery.
Every Akha village (that has not been corrupted by missionaries) has a series of carved wooden entrance gates presided over by guardian spirits. These gates are usually accompanied by wooden sculptures of a man and a woman on either side. The significance of the gate is to indicate to the spirits that beyond the gate lays the domain of humans. Homes are usually constructed of bamboo and are raised on low stilts with tall steeply pitched roofs and a large porch leading into a square living area.
The Akha practice swidden or slash and burn agriculture. When the land becomes no longer suitable for agriculture, the village is moved to a new area. This process occurs approximately every 20 years. Currently, the dominant crops for cultivation include tomatoes, peppers, onions, coffee and rice (of course). The dominance of these crops varies by region and climate, but tomatoes and coffee tend to be the cash crops. Coffee cultivation, however, is a recent advent, pushed by local governments as a substitution crop for opium.
Opium itself is not a traditional cash crop of the Akha. Its usage within village life is usually reserved for the old and infirm to ease the pain of a very rigorous lifestyle. However, due to the extreme poverty of the Akha and the profitability of the product it has been cultivated extensively since approximately 1946. Opium production by the Akha and other hill tribes near the Mekong River intersection of Thailand, Laos and Burma led that region to be dubbed the Golden Triangle by the US State Department during the 1970's.
While the hill tribes of this region are all very poor by western standards, the Akha are the poorest. Aside from opium cultivation, this has led to several problems among the Akha. Many families send off daughters to make money for the village as prostitute
s. It is also common to see Akha in their traditional garb on the streets of Bangkok
and Chiang Mai
selling handicrafts to tourists. Perhaps the most insidious consequence of their poverty is susceptibility to the missionaries who travel the region. Many of these missionaries (most notably Protestant
and American Baptist
) force the village to give up all of their customs and festivals. In such villages it is common to find that the only permanent structure is a concrete church, paid for by the already meager earnings of the tribe. To quote from akha.org:
In some countries the missionaries take wholesale advantage of these extreme conditions, teach the Akha that all they are, know and do is evil and that only when they will become like white evangelicals or white catholics can they become free from "darkness and bondage".
Like other hill tribes in this region, the Akha do not align themselves with any nation. They prefer to remain independent in their tribal way of life (though this has become increasingly difficult as time and technology march onward). This desire is probably most closely related to their semi-nomadic nature, which sometimes causes them to cross national borders. Unfortunately, this lack of nationhood makes the Akha and other hill tribes extremely easy to exploit. Local governments do not give many villagers citizen status which means that any claims to land or police protection are difficult or impossible to enforce.
Information in the this node culled from personal experience, the Population Development Association and