By Alex Aziz
There are many different ethnic groups in South East Asia originating from Myanmar (Burma), Tibet and various provinces in China, all with various different customs, traditions and beliefs which can be greatly admired and respected. Even the main groups can be sub divided further giving hundreds of different groups across Asia. There are some agencies still trying to document all these ethnic groups.
The Karen are a very large hilltribe ethnic group mainly found in Northern Thailand and account for almost half of the entire hilltribe population. They live in many provinces along the Western border of Thailand and also further into Thailand. The Karen tribe originate from Burma and the Thai-Burmese border area. Over the past century they have moved further into Thailand to avoid political unrest. The Karen groups include the Padong and the famous “longneck” ethnic group symbolised by the tight bronze rings they wear around their necks. Karen settlements are normally at a lower altitude than other hilltribes - approximately 500m above sea level and often reside in valley areas. They don’t often move location and many villages have been in the same place for hundreds of years. They are skilled at weaving, with the women weaving sarongs and dresses while the men weave large baskets for rice or cloths storage.
The Akha are believed to originate from Southern China or Tibet. Linguistically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman group and they are related to the Lolo tribes of Yunnan (Southern China). The Hani tribe in Yunnan province is very similar to the Akha. Most Akha are to be found in Northern Burma, North Western Laos and Northern Thailand; which would support the view that they migrated southwards from Tibet and China. Different Akha groups can be distinguished by their costumes and headdress with different tribes having different patterns on their coats and different shaped headdresses.
The Akha prefer to live at an elevation of over 1,000m. They practice shifting cultivation growing dry rice, corn, vegetables, peppers and beans and also rearing of livestock. They believe in all kinds of spirits and village gates can be found at the entrance to every Akha village at both ends which is said to protect the village from the many spirits outside. In one house you will find the whole extended family with a divide separating the men and women. The husband is monogamous and married couples with also have a smaller house apart from the large family house.
The Hmong groups are found scattered throughout many countries, including China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand and can also be divided into sub groups, which can be defined by their different styles and colours of clothing. Hmong families are male dominated and after marriage the bride moves into the husband’s house, the Hmong are also known to have several wives. They prefer to set their villages at high altitudes of 1000-1200m and practice shifting cultivation, moving great distances looking for better land. They grow mainly dry rice and corn and vegetables and they worship their ancestors and many other spirits. The village priest and shaman are very important in the village and their ceremonies bare some resemblance to the Chinese culture.
The Lisu are thought to originate from Southern China (and probably from Tibet before that), they first came to Thailand and Myanmar approximately 80 years ago and can further be divided into two smaller groups. They are part of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group and their culture is closely related to that of the Chinese. At Chinese New Year they also celebrate their New Year making offerings to ancestor spirits and their village guardian spirit. The women dress in stunning costumes such as coloured robes with thin coloured stripes around the neck and upper arms. When a Lisu man marries there is always a dowry to be paid for the bride, marriage are normally allowed only outside the clan and they practise monogamy.
The Lahu are believed to have originated in Tibet and then migrated down to China, Laos, Burma and Thailand. They can be further sub-divided into many groups and belong to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group, amongst them the dialect of the Lahu Na is recognised as standard. Lahu when translated means hunter and indeed they are great hunters, with the men going off into the forest sometimes for many days at a time to hunt. Clan doesn’t play a large part in Lahu villages and the headman has the most power with rules of the village being decided through a consensus. The Lahu like to stay mobile and if one doesn’t like the rules of one village they would easily move and find another, this isn’t seen as a problem as the villages are all considered as one extended family.
The Yao (Mien) are very similar to the Hmong and form part of the Austro-Thai linguistic group. Their culture is similar to the Chinese celebrating the same New Year and they use Chinese characters to record traditional songs and legends. Many Yao can also speak Yunnanese or Mandarin, they are found in Guangxi, Yunnan and Guangdong provinces of China, as well as Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand.
Yao households normally consist of an extended family and like the Hmong; Yao men are allowed to take more than one wife. In the past, the Yao were highly mobile, always on the lookout for better land. The Yao set their villages at a high altitude and will not be situated beneath another tribe. The women are skilled at needlework and embroidery, with the men being great silversmiths again like the Hmong.
The Katu group is found mainly in Vietnam but also across the Laos border in the Provinces of Sekong and Savanakhet, they live in mountainous areas and belong to the Mon-Khmer division of the Austro-Asiatic family. Women bear responsibility for the household and the upbringing of the children, and for much of the agrarian work. Men are the decision-makers and have the authority in the house hold.
Alak and Laven
Again part of the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austro-Asiatic family. They live on the mountain slopes at an altitude of around 600m. They practice slash and burn agriculture, and the Alak group can be found in the south of Laos around the Bolaven plateau which straddles straddling the provinces of Attapeu, Champasak, Sekong and Salavan.