The hill tribes of northern Thailand and the opium problem




Author: Patya SAIHOO ( B.Litt. M.A.; Oxon)
Pages: 35 to 45
Creation Date: 1963/01/01

The hill tribes of northern Thailand and the opium problem

Patya SAIHOO ( B.Litt. M.A.; Oxon)
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.


The Government of Thailand took decisive action against opium addiction and traffic when it decreed the complete prohibition of the sale and consumption of opium throughout the kingdom 1 in 1958. This act was the culmination of a long series of actions that the Government at various times had taken on this matter. Fifty years earlier, Thailand, or Siam as it was then called, was one of the thirteen nations that met together in Shanghai in 1909 and together formed the first International Opium Commission; but even long before this attempt at the solution of the opium problem on an international scale, Siam had always been concerned with her own domestic problem of opium consumption, which, although it never existed to any significant extent among the Thais, yet was widespread enough among the Chinese immigrant population. Going through the the history of Thailand over the past two hundred years, one finds that the opium problem was brought up during each reign of the present Chakri dynasty of Bangkok, and laws were passed and amended at various times to discourage opium consumption in the kingdom. Even when in 1852, during the reign of King Mongkut, the law was relaxed and licence to operate opium farms was granted as a concession to the needs of the large numbers of Chinese immigrants, measures were taken at the same time to restrict opium smoking to Chinese. 2This compromising stand on the part of the government continued for the next hundred years, with occasional modifications to keep within control the extent of permissible sale and consumption, until it was finally abandoned in 1958. But it must be stated that since the Shanghai Conference of 1909 and the subsequent Hague Convention, the joint efforts on the international level have given a new aspect to the whole problem of opium in Thailand, and later attempts of Thailand at the solu-


Proclamation of the Revolutionary Party, No. 37, 9 December 1958. Bangkok.


G. W. Skinner, Chinese Society in Thailand, New York, 1957, pp. 119-121.

tion of her own domestic problem have been automatically governed by a wider consideration of the international situation.

One great difference between this latest act of the present government and the previous ones is that whereas the attempts at the suppression of opium consumption in the past were only partial successes, because only some measures of control on the supply and sale of opium were possible under the Government's monopoly, this time there is no half-way compromise or concession, and the ban on the sale and consumption of opium is complete.

But this revolutionary aspect of the measure has also brought in its train several other problems. Apart from the need to set up rehabilitation centres for the more serious cases of addiction, to exercise effective control of the illicit traffic, to cope with the increase in other compensatory forms of drug addiction, etc., there is also the problem of eliminating all sources of supply, one of which happens to exist within the country - namely, the supply from the hill tribes resident in the north of the country. It is with this last aspect of the overall problem of opium in Thailand that this paper is concerned.


The northern part of Thailand is an area of hills and valleys, which occupy one-fifth of the total area of approximately 200,148 square miles of the country. Roughly parallel ranges of mountains with high peaks rising between 3,500 and 8,452 feet (Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in the country) run in the north-to-south direction, separated by low level-floor basins through which many rivers flow. On the extreme west of the area the rivers drain into the Salween river in Burma, and in the extreme north two rivers flow north-eastwards into the Mekong in Laos. But through the greater part of this region flow the four principal rivers, the Ping, the Wang, the Yom and the Nan, with their tributaries, which farther south merge together to form the Chao

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Map showing northern Thailand and the general distribution of the hill tribes (in shaded areas) [ Adaptation from Gordon Young:The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand (Bangkok, 1962)]

Phraya river, more generally known as the Menam, which is the life-line of the extensive rice-growing area of the central plain of Thailand. 3

Within this northern region of the country, the Thais inhabit the inter-mountain plains, practising wet-rice agriculture as the basis of their economy. Some of these plains are large enough to permit heavy concentrations of population, such as we find in the principal provinces of Chiengmai (population 798,483), Lampang (471,699), Nan (240,471), etc. Higher up on the hill ridges and plateaux, however, we find peoples of different ethnic stocks and cultures living at different altitudes according to their cultural preferences. Thus, in general, we have, for example, the Karen and the Kha Mu at the lower


Robert L. Pendleton, Thailand (New York, 1962), pp. 40-42.

elevation of between 2,000 feet or less and 3,000 feet, and the Lisu, the Meo and the Haw (Yunnanese Chinese) at the highest elevation of over 5,000 feet, with the Lahu, the Yao and lower down the Lawa, in the middle area.

Historically speaking, the majority of these hill populations of northern Thailand are recent immigrants from farther north. The Lawa, a proportion of the Karen and perhaps a few Kha Mu are old inhabitants of the area, possibly long before the arrival of the Thais themselves in the thirteenth century A.D., but the rest of the hill population moved into their present habitat only very recently. Of these latter groups, the Meo, the Yao, the Lahu, the Lisu and the Akha, all of whom grow opium as a cash crop, came into Thailand only within the last hundred years, with their main bulk arriving as recently as during and after World War II. Many of them have come south as a result of a series of incidents occasioned by the actions of the authorities mainly of China and Burma which directly or indirectly compelled a number of the hill tribes in those areas to abandon their homes and search for new lands farther south, following their traditional pattern of migration, which started perhaps well before the Christian era according to the little historical evidence that exists.

These various hill peoples resident in northern Thailand have been classified into three groups. 4 The Wa group (linguistically allied to the Wa of Burma) consists of the Lawa, the Kha Mu and the Htin; the Tibeto-Burman group comprising the Akha, the Lahu, the Lisu and possibly the Karen; and lastly the Yao-Meo-Pateng group, represented in this country by the Meo and the Yao. The Haw, or Yunnanese Chinese traditionally, are not a hill tribe in the strict sense of the word. Originally they were caravan traders from southern China, who were also known as Penthay, or Muslim Chinese, in the Shan States of Burma in the literature of the early part of this century. The Haw in this country, however, have not been exclusively Muslim Chinese, and generally the word is used to refer to Chinese caravan traders from Yunnan. Lately the meaning of the word has been extended to include also Chinese political refugees who have come to settle down in the hills as traders and shopkeepers after the defeat of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) forces in southern China.

Of the significant numbers of recent immigrants, the Karen and some Lahu are from the Kayah and the Shan States of Burma; the Akha, the Yao, the Meo and other Lahu are from Laos. It appears that the southward movement of this migration will continue into Thailand as and when the tribes have exhausted the cultivable land in their present area farther north,


Gordon Young, The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand (Bangkok, 1962), p. vii.

or if they feel they are unduly disturbed by political pressure from the national authorities.

The numbers of the hill tribal population in northern Thailand have been variously estimated, owing to the lack of complete censuses. Perhaps the most up-to-date estimate is that given by Gordon Young in The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand, which gives the figures of 217,000 persons for all tribes, of which 113,550 represent the five main opium-growing tribes - namely, the Meo, the Yao, the Lisu, the Lahu and the Akha. These figures may have to be revised again when a more comprehensive census of the hill tribe population can be taken.


All hill tribes live in scattered villages of various sizes, from a few houses to over a hundred. Each village is perched on a mountain ridge or a suitable slope near the sources of water or running streams. Though using roughly similar building materials available in the locality - usually wood and bamboo for the structure and grass or leaves for roofing - the Meo, the Yao, the Akha and some Lisu build their houses directly on the ground, while most other tribes build them on wooden piles, with beaten-bamboo flooring. The Meo being polygamous and usually having a joint-family organization where married sons and their families continue to stay with the parents, often require large dwellings to house all the members, sometimes as many as thirty persons in the same household. Other tribes, with monogamous families averaging six or seven persons each, have smaller houses.

These hill tribes are distinguished from one another by dress and speech. They also differ in other aspects of their culture. For instance, the Meo and the Yao seem to possess a patrilineal clan system, while the Lahu appear to have a much looser kinship system based perhaps on matrilineal descent reckoning. 5 Meo women certainly suffer a very inferior status to that of men, compared with Lahu women. The tribes also have different customs and practices relating to the major events in the life-cycle at birth, marriage and death.

Though in the traditional system each tribal village appears to elect its own headman, nothing much is known about the more detailed aspects of their political institutions. There does not seem to be a system of paramount chief for the tribe, though the Yao in Thailand used to recognize the head of a certain village as having more influence than others. Similarly, among the Meo


United Nations - ECAFE Division of Social Affairs, Report on a Field Trip undertaken in connexion with the Project on a Socio-Economic Survey of the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand, p. 32. However, we feel that this aspect of the tribal societies still requires more study and research for fuller understanding.

and the Lahu there is a general recognition of a headman of some village in the common area as being more distinguished than any other, but it is not yet known whether above and beyond such gesture there is any definite pattern of political organization that unites all villages on a tribal scale.

All tribes believe in spirits of all kinds. Ancestral spirits are much revered among the Meo and the Yao, but perhaps to a lesser extent among others. Spirits of nature in various forms are believed in, and appropriate rites are conducted on special occasions. Illnesses and unnatural deaths are regarded as being the actions of malevolent spirits who can be propitiated by proper offerings of slaughtered pigs and chickens. Though spirits are the basis of the religious beliefs of all tribes, religious practices vary, and with them differ also the role and influence of the spirit-doctors and religious leaders.

The majority of the tribal population of northern Thailand are by no means isolated despite the distance that separates one village from another across the mountains. Visits are regular among villages of the same tribe in the neighbourhood. Occasionally some persons may travel across the provinces and even the border of the country by local trains and buses to visit distant relatives. Most men of the tribe, and more rarely women, come down from time to time to the lowland market and town of the Thais to sell some of their jungle products and to buy salt and steel for their knives, together with any other goods that may strike their fancy, ranging from matches and sweetmeats to lipstick and silver ornaments. In most areas, however, local Thais or further north Haw, petty traders carry their wares up the hills to the tribal villages to sell and in return may buy some pigs and vegetables of the hill people, including small amounts of opium if it is

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A Meo village, northern Thailand

the opium-growing tribes they are dealing with. Most male tribesmen speak northern Thai, and many Meo, Yao and some Lisu also speak Haw (Yunnanese Chinese), both of which on appropriate occasions can serve as lingua franca when dealing with other tribes.

Nowadays, the tribes with productive cash-crops such as opium have come to rely more and more on trade goods and have stopped manufacturing many items of their own artefacts. Aluminum pots, pans and plates are a standing order in most tribal kitchens. Flashlights using dry batteries are a common sight, and in the house, kerosene lamps are a necessary item. Lately, some Meo have acquired radio receiving-sets and listen regularly to broadcasts in Meo from Laos.

It may be mentioned also that some members of the tribes living nearer the lowland Thais, such as the Lawa, the Kha Mu and the Karen, have become more assimilated by the Thais. The border patrol police and certain missionary groups at work among the tribes have given instruction in the reading and writing of the Thai language. Some tribesmen have taken to stabilized farming, and earn their living by working alongside the Thais, but the bulk of the tribal population remains unassimilated.


Although all of the hill tribes share a somewhat similar pattern of general living conditions necessitated by the geographical nature of their habitat, only some tribes grow opium as the mainstay of their economy, since opium-poppy plants only grow well above 3,000 feet or more from the sea level, and thus become the main cash crop of such tribes as the Meo, the Yao, the Lisu,

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Lisu women and children

the Lahu and the Akha, who live at higher altitudes. The economy of all these hill peoples is based on agriculture, the main crops being rice, maize, bean, gourd, melon, potato, chili, and a variety of vegetables. The agriculture practiced is of the swidden or slash-and-burn type, which involves the clearance of large areas of forests on the hill slopes by cutting down big trees and burning them away with the undergrowth. They do not know the use of the animal-drawn plough or any system of hill-terracing or irrigation. The fields are abandoned when the fertility of the soil is depleted after a period of use averaging three to four years. Old fields may be returned to again after a long following period of sometimes 10-15 years if they have sufficiently recovered. Fields that have been completely exhausted in fertility are permanently abandoned and are generally grown over with cogon grass, which prevents the re-growth of other trees and defies clearance with the primitive implements which the tribal cultivators possess. When all the fields around the village are exhausted, the whole village moves to a new site where fresh fields can be obtained.

The hill tribes also keep livestock on a small scale. Pigs and chickens are common in all tribal villages. Some cows and in some rare instances goats may be seen in some villages. Horses are kept as pack animals. Most of the domestic animals, with the exception of the horses, are consumed within the village. They are eaten after having been killed as sacrifices in religious ceremonies, usually of the spirit propitiation kind.

Occasional hunting and collection of jungle products are made to supplement the food supply of the household. With some tribes who do not possess enough cash to buy necessities of life, these activities become an important aspect of their economy.

The ability to earn cash income varies with the tribes who inhabit the different regions of the hills. Some of the Karen, the Khamu and the Lawa, who live closer to the plains, and therefore for climatic and geographical reasons cannot grow opium-poppy, may produce just enough rice for their own consumption, without any surplus for sale, practising in a few cases plough-type cultivation and stabilized farming. On a very limited scale they may be able to sell some pigs and chickens and some vegetables at the Thai market near by. But more significantly the average male of these tribes often become hired labour to logging companies in order to earn their cash income. In this respect it is the tribes that inhabit the higher regions where opium-poppy thrives in a cooler climate and a suitable soil who are economically better off than their lower neighbours, since they have in opium-poppy a rich source of cash income which not only enables them to buy all the necessities of life they need from traders, such as clothing materials, food, salt, medicines, etc., but also such luxuries as silver ornaments, modern rifles, and now even radio receiving-sets.


Among the Meo, the Yao, the Lisu, the Lahu and the Akha, poppy cultivation is taken seriously, but never more than that of rice, which is their staple food. The first concern of all the hill cultivators is to grow enough rice to last the year if possible. But since the two crops - namely, rice and poppy - are not planted simultaneously or in the same fields, there is no real need for making a choice. Rice grows better at a lower

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Yao women preparing the poppy field

altitude compared with poppy, and rice fields are set apart from others and usually located near the village. Rice is grown alone or in conjunction with green melons, gourds and sometimes sunflowers, the crops being planted in May to be harvested in September/October. On the other hand poppy is first sown in September at the earliest, and in a different field which it shares with maize in alternation. A poppy field is usually located far away from the village, sometimes at a walking distance of two to three hours or more, at a higher level than the rice field and above 3,000-3,500 feet where the soil is rich in limestone, having blackish, reddish or yellowish colour with sufficiently loose surface; and a good poppy field may retain its fertility for over ten years. Earlier, maize is planted in the same field at the end of April or the beginning of May, usually with a mixture of some vegetable crops, and is harvested in August. Immediately after the maize harvest, the ground is prepared with meticulous care for the planting of poppy in September. The soil is thoroughly broken and cleared of all grass and weed. The poppy seeds, mixed with lettuce, parsley, bean and other seeds, are sown broadcast and covered up lightly by gently raking the top soil with fingers. From that time on constant weeding is necessary to keep the soil free of weeds. Young poppy plants that grow too close together will be taken off and the other vegetables which have been planted in mixture with poppy also serve to space out the poppy plants.

Poppy does not need rain-water. It is planted towards the end of the rains and requires only a consistently cool climate and heavy dew at night; hence the high altitude at which it grows. There is no need for irrigation, but the fields must be kept clean all the time, and this demands a fair amount of labor and care from the cultivators. Since each nuclear family owns its individual field, all members of the family - i.e., the man, his wife and their grown children - will be more busy with poppy than with any other kind of cultivation.

The poppy plant has two kinds of flower: one white, and the other purple-red. For each colour one may also find two shapes of petal: one with smooth, round edges, and the other with jagged edges. However, apart from such differences in the colour of the flower and the shape of the petal, there is no difference in any other aspect of the plant. The quality and yield of the resin which is the substance of the opium are the same. Young leaves of the plant can be used for food in the same way as the leaves of other edible vegetables, but old leaves are not eaten, because of their intoxicating effect. The young poppy plants may be damaged by insects, but this can be prevented by spraying the plants and the surrounding area with a solution of tobacco leaves and water. A full-grown plant in the best soil

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Poppy field in bloom

will be about three feet tall. In a poorer soil it may reach a height of only one foot and a half.

Four months after the sowing the flowers appear and with them come the capsules which contain the precious resin. From January to March the capsules are ripe for tapping.

Tapping time is the busiest time for the cultivators. All available labour in the family is out in the field, and even young children who are old enough to learn the job must help. The poppy is tapped for its resin during the day time when it is bright and sunny. An overcast day without sunshine will not produce resin

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Scraping of the opium

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(a) A poppy capsule which has been tapped for its opium;

( b) A tapping knife
Drawn to the same scale
( c) A scraping knife

for tapping and unseasonal rainfalls at such time would virtually ruin all the crop. The tapper works from morning till sunset and returns home in the evening. But if the field is too far away from the village, some will stay behind and spend the night in a field-hut.

Tapping is done with a small brass or iron knife about four inches long with two or three small curved blades tied closely together on a wooden handle. By holding the poppy capsule in one hand and applying the tapping-knife with the other to the side of the capsule starting from the top down with a little pressure, two or three incisions are made at one stroke through which milk-white resin slowly flows out. Usually not more than two strokes of the knife are made on one capsule. The resin is left to dry on the capsule for twenty-four hours before it is scraped off with a broad half-moon-shaped brass or iron knife. The white colour of the liquid resin turns darks brown when it becomes dry. The semi-dry and sticky resin is then collected in a bamboo container or a used tin can. 6

This raw opium is later cooked before it is fit for consumption. To obtain a small quantity for home consumption, the raw opium is boiled in water in a small brass cooking-pan over the house fire. The stuff is first broken into small pieces and boiled until it is thoroughly dissolved. The solution thus obtained is passed through two or three layers of a fine-cloth strainer. The mass that is left in the strainer is put back to boil again in some more water while the liquid that has passed through the strainer is put aside. The process is repeated four or five times until in the last operation


A somewhat different method has also been reported. Some Yao place pieces of absorbent rice-straw paper over the incised capsules to pick up the resin. These pieces of paper are later collected and boiled and strained to get the opium. This practice, however, is believed to be rather uncommon.

the liquid that passes through the strainer is colourless, indicating that all the opium content has been extracted from the remains left in the strainer. All the liquid solution that has been collected from each operation is put back together to boil again until all the water has evaporated and only the solidified opium remains ready for use with the smoking-pipe. The cooked opium is put away in a tin or a small glass jar which the tribal people can now easily obtain from traders. Raw opium that is not required for consumption is kept aside to be sold for cash or be exchanged for other goods which the lowland traders will bring up in great quantities immediately after the poppy harvest.


Among the Meo, where a joint family in which married sons and their families continue to stay with the parents is the usual pattern of family organization, fields of rice and other food crops are worked and the produce consumed on a communal basis by all members of the household; but a poppy field is always worked on a nuclear family basis, and the income derived therefrom is kept as private wealth of the nuclear family. Where the parents as the head of the joint family are too old to work their own poppy field, unmarried and married sons and their wives will join together to work a field for the parents, and the produce of that field is put completely at the parents' disposal: some of it may be consumed by the aged father, and the rest, if any, sold for cash.

An average nuclear family of six or seven members, four of whom may be regarded as constituting the labour force, could cultivate from two to four rai of

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Meo women spinning hemp fibres for weaving material

poppy (2? rai = 1 acre), depending on whether it is a more or less intensive cultivation. One half- rai of poppy field planted with care yields as much opium as one rai less intensively cultivated. A good yield from one half- rai with intensive work is about one kilogramme of raw opium, and a family of the average size will get about four kilogrammes of raw opium per year. A poppy field of four rai is the standard size for an average family with four workers. If it works a bigger field than this, it may have to hire extra labour at harvest time. Hired labour can sometimes be obtained from the vagrant Karen or Khamu addicts, who as a rule do not cultivate their own poppy fields, and also from some impoverished Lahu who do not or cannot grow their own opium.

Of the opium-producing tribes, the Lisu and the Black Lahu consume the least of their own produce (about 5 %), the Red Lahu the most (30-40%) and the Meo and the Yao in between. Part of the surplus is exchanged for household and fancy goods and foods that they cannot produce for themselves. The rest is sold for cash. The price of opium varies with the locality and its nearness to the final market in the lowland. The difference would account for the transportation cost and the risk involved in the illicit traffic. Thus, a hill-tribe grower in the far north of the country (say, in Chiengrai) would perhaps get only 500-600 baht (appr. 21 baht = $1 U.S.) for one kilogramme of his raw opium, while his fellow-grower farther south in Tak province might get 800-900 baht for the same quantity of opium sold. (The local standard weight unit for opium is the joi, which is equivalent to 1.6 kg). 7 As a rule, the hill-tribe grower will not carry his product to sell in the lowland himself That would involve too much risk of being captured by the police and of getting into trouble with dishonest buyers. What happens is that he waits in his village on the hills and disposes of his product either through exchanges in small quantities for other goods with petty traders from the plains, or else through selling in bulk for cash to the big buyer, who comes up in person or sends his agent in a strong party with adequate armed guards, who may travel great distances to buy up the year's crop from one hill village to another within the area of his operation. A less influential buyer may have his headquarters in a small country town near the hills and operate a depot for all opium in that area. A very influential dealer resident in a large city may send his scouts far afield to buy opium, sometimes even from sellers beyond the border of the country. The illicit opium travels in stages, starting very often in the far north outside the country and moving gradually south-


The price of opium when it is seized by the police has been reportedly estimated at 10,000 baht per kilogramme (See for instance Bongkok Post, Saturday, 17 November 1962). Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but no reliable data are available.

wards, collecting additional quantities as it goes along until it reaches its port of exit to markets outside Thailand. First it is carried by human carriers, and less usually by pack animals, who travel in a large caravan along the jungle trails on the mountain ridges until the mountains reach the plains farther south in Lampang or below Tak. The carriers, each carrying a total weight of as much as 30 kg of opium and arms, keep away from the trails patrolled by the police, and stay in tribal villages at night for shelter only if things are in their favour. They try to avoid direct encounters with the police for fear of losing the valuable goods they are carrying. Whenever transport by road or river is more convenient and safe, the opium may leave the hills long before the mountain ranges and there are several well-known routes by which opium travels, or used to travel until effective enforcement of the law put a stop to the traffic. Some of these routes were by road and rail from Chiengmai or from Lampang after the opium was delivered by the carriers, who took it along the mountain trails to the agents in the lowland towns. Farther west it was again first carried through the jungles to south of Tak, where it was then transported down the river to Kanchanaburi and from there by road to the most convenient port of exit from the country. The opium may leave the country in its pure state or in the form of various kinds of opiate.


The role of the opium-growing hill tribes in northern Thailand is therefore that of the primary grower of raw opium. Since opium grows in a cool climate, the higher elevations of the mountainous regions of north Thailand, the Shan State of Burma, western Laos and also farther north into southern China constitute an area which supplies the bulk of opium that illegally passes through Thailand. Proportionately speaking, however, the hill tribes residing in Thailand perhaps supply only a small portion of the total bulk of opium that finally reaches the ports of exit to international markets. A large part of the supply crosses over the border along the jungle trails and mountain paths that at present defy effective invigilation of law-enforcement officers of all the countries in the area. In certain cases, some amounts of the outlawed merchandise may have taken a more direct route without passing through northern Thailand, but it is still true to say that a good deal of the supply that comes through Thailand is collected from sources beyond the border and augmented along its course of travel by additional quantities from local growers in northern Thailand.

Nevertheless, it must be recognized that although the opium-growing hill tribes are recent arrivals in this country and have carried with them the occupation which has given them much of their material wealth, yet with the trend of continuing southward migration and the difficulty of guarding points of entry in the jungle-clad mountains along the border, it is possible that the supply of locally grown opium may increase in the future unless some measures are taken to put a stop to the present practice of cultivation of the opium-poppy as an important cash crop of some of the tribes living on the higher hills of northern Thailand.

A recent estimate has been made of the amount of opium that could have been produced by the hill tribes of northern Thailand in recent years. 8 Taking the population estimate of 113,550 persons for the tribes that grow opium as a cash crop, it is reckoned that these would represent roughly 18,925 families of six persons each on the average, who could have produced a gross output of 75,700 kg of raw opium. About 85 to 90% of this production perhaps finally left the hills for the lowland, the growers receiving a cash income at the price of, say, 800 baht per kilogramme or about 55,000,000 baht (or about $2,500,000 U.S.).

It will not be an easy task to replace this highly productive, but illegal, source of wealth with some substitute crops. Yet, notwithstanding the difficulty, a bold attempt has been made by the Thai authorities to solve this opium problem finally. In November 1959, following the government proclamation prohibiting the sale and consumption of opium, a land settlement project for hill-tribe people in Thailand was proposed by the Department of Public Welfare of the Ministry of Interior. Though the expressed aims emphasize the ideas of helping the hill tribes to make proper use of the natural resources, which would at the same time avoid wasteful destruction of the forests and enable them to improve their social and economic standard of living, yet it is clear that the first objective is to prevent the tribes from growing opium by replacing it with other suitable cash crops such as tea or coffee. 9In order to obtain close co-operation from other government agencies, a Central Committee on Land Settlement for the Hill Tribes was appointed by the Council of Ministers, to consist of the Minister and the Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, Directors-General of the Police Department, Land Department, Department of Public Welfare, Department of Interior, Department of Livestock Development, Department of Internal Trade, representatives of the Ministry of Public Health, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Communications. The Central Committee was given the responsibilities for


Ministry of Interior, Department of Public Welfare, Bangkok, Report on the Survey of Socio-Economic Conditions of the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand, 1961-2.


Ministry of Interior, Department of Public Welfare, Bangkok, Statement on the Land Settlement Project for Hill-tribe People in Thailand, 1 November 1959.

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A red lahu house

the over-all planning and supervision of the work with the hill tribes, while the more localized area of operation was to come under the charge of the Provincial Committee on Land Settlement for Hill-tribe People, comprising the governor of the province and other chief provincial officers of the various ministries serving at the provincial level. The number of the provincial committees will depend on the number of the provinces in which work with the hill tribes will be carried out.

The first objectives of the project have been to bring together the tribal peoples to settle in a few well-defined locations in the general area where they now live. Land will be allocated to them on such a group or individual basis as should prove the more practicable, and new agricultural techniques will be introduced to enable the tribal cultivators to replace their shifting cultivation with stabilized farming growing new kinds of crops which can find a ready market and provide an income similar to, or better than, that from opium. Needless to say, such a permanent residence in a clearly defined area would also enable the law-enforcement officers to make sure that no opium is grown by the tribes now that they have easier access to the tribes and their fields for more effective inspection. As a first step towards this goal, two pilot settlement areas were set up in 1960, one in Tak province and the other in the Chiengmai province. The two pilot settlement sites cover fairly extensive areas in which land could be allocated to a number of tribal families who may wish to participate in the scheme. So far there have been no attempts to force the tribes to move into the defined areas. The work has been one of persuasion and demonstration to convince the tribal people that there are many benefits that such a project could contribute towards the welfare of the tribe.

In order to gain better understanding of the tribal cultures and societies, which would enable the project officers to plan and work more effectively, a survey of the socio-economic conditions of four opium-growing tribes- namely, the Meo, the Yao, the Lisu and the Lahu-was carried out from November 1961 to February 1962 by officers of the Department of Public Welfare, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Forestry and the border patrol police, with financial and technical co-operation from the Asia Foundation, the United Nations, and Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. The results of the survey should reveal certain areas of activities which could be carried out immediately and point out certain directions which the settlement programme might take. The survey will probably not provide all the answers, but it should suggest further practical steps that could be taken to reach the ultimate solution.


It would be misleading if this study should leave an impression that the problem of opium production is the only problem posed by the hill tribes of northern Thailand, and that the solution is just round the corner with nothing more needed to add to the work of the settlement project. In this concluding chapter, the opium problem and the hill tribes will be placed in a wider setting, which should help it to be seen in a better perspective.

First, opium production in only one aspect of the problem of the hill tribes of northern Thailand. It is by now generally agreed among persons interested in Thailand's hill tribes that they invite careful observations in three important respects: (1) their practice of cutting down extensive areas of the forests on the mountains, with possible consequences of soil erosion and destruction of the watersheds, which would affect the supply of water for the lowland Thai cultivators; (2) their non-recognition of international boundaries and national authority and control, with possible consequences of border insecurity, especially in face of the present world political situation for the country in which they reside; and (3) their production of raw opium, which continues to supply the world with the illegal and harmful merchandise in various forms.

Secondly, in all dealings with the hill tribes, especially those living at the higher altitudes, it must be remembered that they are not within easy access of the official authorities from the lowland. There are no motor-roads that can reach their isolated and widely separated villages, and the only way to reach them is to travel along the mountain paths on foot or at best to ride on a horse or a mule. As long as they choose to remain, at such eleva-

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Lahu man and wife smoking opium

tions, the difficulty of communication alone will prevent many kinds of useful official contact and possible development of their economy.

Thirdly, the hill tribes in the border area present an international problem, since a good deal of the border between Thailand and Burma on one side and between Thailand and Laos on the other is covered with dense forests, and general movements of the tribal people can easily escape detection. This would imply that conditions unfavourable to their livelihood in one country can be avoided by migrating back or forth across the border. Or it would further imply that, given adequate support and encouragement from outside, the hill tribes in a particular country may choose to put up resistance to the national authority which would not be easy to deal with unless there were some common understanding among the neighbouring countries with common borders, and unless some common plan of action could be adopted, if necessary, with full co-operation from all sides.

This wider context for the hill tribes should provide a sufficient backdrop to the opium problem. Granted that for producing and supplying a fair amount of raw opium to the world, the hill tribes of this border area of Thailand, Burma and Laos warrant our serious attention in our fight against the harm and suffering that narcotics cause, they also claim our attention for other reasons. If we can solve the opium problem, we can also at the same time solve such other related problems as the destruction of the forests, causing soil erosion and damage to the watershed areas, and the control for border security. In this respect the proposed plan for a settlement of the hill tribes in clearly defined areas may be a step towards the final solution of the opium problem among others, since to replace opium with other cash crops or other means of livelihood requires a great deal of supervision, instruction and help in acquiring new techniques and skills, and all these will not be possible if tribal villages remain too scattered and far from suitable markets for other crops than opium. But to achieve this requires a great deal of careful study of the complex nature of the problem and efficient planning for successive stages of the work which will take much time and considerable patience. It would also require a rigid control of the well-known routes by which opium travels and relentless pressure on the markets where opium is finally disposed of, since it is unlikely that the hill people will continue to grow opium if there are no customers who come up to the villages for the purchase. Without opium serving as the main source of wealth, the tribes will be more receptive to any suggestions for alternative sources of income.

We may yet end on a note of hope, knowing that the hill tribes themselves are fully aware of the nefarious effects of opium, and therefore do not encourage its consumption among the young; that they also realize the illegal aspect of its production, which gives them a constant cause for anxiety; that they do not find enjoyment in moving the village site when old fields are exhausted and would rather remain if they only knew how to preserve the fertility of the soil and grow lawful crops for which there is a market and convenient transport. But so far this has been the only way of life they have known, the only farming technique they have, and opium has always been in constant demand and has continued to give them what little wealth they possess. If a change is necessary, the tribes would welcome it if it could be convincingly proved to them that it is a change for a better life for all.



The author gratefully acknowledges the full co-operation of the Department of Public Welfare, Ministry of Interior, Bangkok, for general information and permission to consult official reports for the writing of this article.



Ministry of Interior, Department of Public Welfare: Land Settlement Project for Hill-tribe People in Thailand as of 1960 (B.E. 2503). 1 November 1959. (Mimeographed).

Ministry of Interior, Department of Public Welfare: Report on the Socio-Exonomic Survey of the Hillf Tribes of Northern Tahiland. October 1961 - February 1962. (As yet unpublished.)

PENDLETON, Robert L.: Thailand. An American Geographical Society Handbook, New York, 1962

Proclamation of the Revolutionary Party, No. 37, 9 December 1958. Bangkok

SKINNER, G.W.: Chinese Society in Thailand, New York, 1957.

United Nations Economic Commission for Aisa und the Far East, Division of Social Affairs : Report on a Fild Trip undertaken in Connexion with the Project on a Socio-Economic Survey of the Hill Tribes of North Thailand. March-April 1961. Mimeographed.)

YOUNG, Gordon: The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand, Bangkok, 1962.