Thailand Profile

Thailand’s ethnic minorities: The Lahu tribe, a lesson of gender equal society

Thailand: Land of numerous ethnic groups

Thailand is an ethnically mixed country: while 75% of the population is of Thai ethnicity, the rest is divided between ethnic Chinese, Malay speaking Muslims, Khmers, Soal or Kui, Karen, Indians and Pakistanis. There are also around 1 million people belonging to hill tribes and living mostly in the mountains of northern Thailand. Even if many different cultures cohabitate in the country, a strong national identity is maintained, with Thai language taught and spoken throughout the entire country. The only exceptions are the hill tribes, who remain quite separated from the rest of the population. Most hill tribes currently settled in Thailand migrated from China, fleeing persecutions. They mostly stay in mountainous areas in the north of the country. They have always maintained their own culture and language.

Today, hill tribes still suffer much discrimination and struggle to maintain their own way of life. Indeed, they do not benefit from any specific protection from the constitution and the suffering continues from multiple stereotypes and bias.

Stateless and deprived of basic rights

The main issue regarding hill tribes is their right to access citizenship, which affects many aspects of their life. According to the NGO Plan International, 37% of the hill tribes’ members do not have citizenship, even if they have been settled in Thailand for several generations. In order to address this issue, the government committed itself to registering all hill tribes’ members to give them citizenship.

As the government has committed itself to eliminate statelessness by 2024, it has granted access to citizenship to certain hill tribes previously not eligible and has supported actions towards providing them with education about their rights. However, activists and organizations have reported widespread inefficiency due to corruption, which has led to a persistent backlog as well as improperly denied applications. Without citizenship, people are considered illegal aliens, and are at risk of facing arrest and deportation. That situation affects many aspects of their lives:

  • Political rights: without citizenship, ethnic minorities have no right to vote. They are not consulted and do not participate to the decisions affecting them.
  • Economic restrictions: they are not allowed to own land, which affects their livelihood largely based on farming. They also have restricted access to bank credits. Furthermore, even if the constitution guarantees equal treatment of all employees, employers don’t always apply this principle.
  • Access to education: if hill tribes have access to education, without citizenship, they can’t get the certificate acknowledging the completion of their education, which makes it difficult to access higher education.
  • Access to services: without citizenship, hill tribes’ members can’t have access to state welfare services such as medical care.

Without any legal status, girls and women are more vulnerable to trafficking and forced prostitution. According to UNESCO, statelessness is the number one risk factor for highland girls and women to be trafficked. Indeed, many girls and women from northern hill tribes fall victims of human trafficking.

A difficult relationship with the government jeopardizing the ethnic minorities’ way of life 

The area is known to be part of the golden triangle, famous for its opium production. Many hill tribes used to live from poppies until they faced heavy restriction from the government. Today, the production of opium has dropped dramatically, especially in Thailand. The hill tribes, however, still suffer from the same reputation. The government does not release pressure on them regarding drugs or deforestation. Indeed, hill tribes are also accused of deforestation due to their farming habits. They have grown used to heavily armed patrols regularly coming to their village; close surveillance as well as more aggressive operations. There are even accounts of extrajudicial killings related to antidrug operations: it is estimated that 2 800 extrajudicial killings have been perpetrated during Thaksin’s (Thailand’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006) war on drugs in 2003.

Those issues are hard to address in a country that so blatantly lacks freedom of speech, especially since the 2014 coup (see article on political situation in Thailand). Many activists have indeed been imprisoned for speaking up. Activists fighting for minorities’ rights are no exception, and the risks are at the highest: in March 2017, the army killed a 17-year-old Lahu activist. The army or government are hardly ever held accountable for human rights violations. Given Thailand’s political situation, it seems impossible to raise these issues, let alone act to fix them.

Hill tribes thus have to strive very hard to maintain a way of life threatened by government pressure as well as lack of basic rights. This situation drives many tribes’ members to move lowland in order to pursue another way of making a living. Their integration into Thai society is not easy considering the language barrier as well as many stereotypes faced by the hill tribes. People now find themselves caught between striving to maintain their way of life in a very hostile environment or acculturating into the Thai society altogether.

Focus on the Lahu Community and their approach to gender equality

In August 2017, Univers’ELLES team spent some time with a Lahu community in order to better understand their way of life and the role and place of women in their society. Indeed, the Lahu community is considered to be one of the most gender equal societies in the world.

Approximately 60,000 Lahu individuals are currently living in Thailand. They fled persecutions in China and settled in northern Thailand about a 100 years ago. They speak Lahu, which is a Tibetan-Burmese language. There is no traditional script for this language.

A religion that unites both gender

The Lahu people practice a variation of Buddhism: they believe in one god as well as in many spirits linked to nature. In their culture, men are the only one who can perform the ceremonies, yet women are commonly considered as important as men in the practice of the religion.

“The old men say that men are more important because they can perform the ceremonies, but for me, women have more power, because if we can’t play the instruments and do the ceremony, men can’t do it either if women don’t prepare everything for the ceremony. Before everything starts, we have to prepare the candles and everything for the gods. After this, the men can start the ceremony. The women do the things that they know and the men do the things that they know, and we put it all together.”(Nabu)

A society based on matriarchy

One particularity of the Lahu tribe is that it is a matriarchal society, which means that descent is traced through the female line. ”Women have more power here. Because we are the ones who can get pregnant, and have the babies. In my family, I am the one who makes the decisions, I have to make all the decisions, because I am the mother of the house, so I am the head of the family. I have to organize everything.”(Nabu)

Women are treated equally and have as much rights as men whether it is for taking decision for the village, for their family or for their own life.

Nabu sitting with her family

“According to my husband, men are more important because they can do the ceremony and can do many things that the women can’t. For me, I don’t really know, we stayed together for so long that it’s the same, I feel like no one has more power than the other. I never think about who has more power in the household.” (Nale Palu)

Freedom of love and marriage

In the Lahu community, when people get married, the man marries into the woman’s family and the couple moves to the woman’s parents’. Then, when the second woman of the family gets married, the first couple moves out and the second couple takes their place in the house of the woman’s parents. The couple who will take care of the parents is therefore the last sister to get married and her husband. When the couple has no daughter, arrangements can be made. “We have one son. Since we don’t have a daughter, we had to talk to the parents of our son’s wife to ask them if they could move in here instead of her house. So my son and daughter in law live with us. We have one grandson. We also took the daughter of my sister’s family to live with us, because they had many children. We adopted her so now she takes care of us and we have many grandchildren. We also took care of some children for other families that had many kids.“ (Nale Palu)

Marriages are not arranged. “Now we have some marriages between Lahu and Thai people. If the men want to marry a Lahu woman, they move here. Lahu men marrying Thai girls, it’s very rare. In my village there was only one man. Thai men marrying Lahu women is more common. And they move to the Lahu village. They take our customs and live like us.” (Nabu)

In Lahu communities, it is allowed to have boyfriends and girlfriends, but there can be no physical relationship outside of marriage. This rule applies to both girls and boys. Pregnancies outside of marriage are considered to be bad for the crops, so if that were to happen, the couple would have to perform a ceremony in front of the entire village to ask for forgiveness.

Gender division of tasks

The tasks assigned to every individual are separated according to the gender, but not in a very strict way. The jobs requiring more physical strength are usually for men, but a woman could do it without it being considered a mistake. The Lahu people work together, men and women, for the sake of the entire village. The village comes before the division of gender. In their ideology, all members of the community regardless of their gender, are assets to the entire community and only by working together can they assure the well being of their people.

Nale Palu and her husband Jale

“Usually, the woman sews the clothes for the men, sometimes she goes to the fields to help her husband to clean the field, find the vegetables, she also prepares the food. My husband is sewing now because he wants to do it by himself, I said I could do it but he wants to.  I still have to put the thread in the needle because he can’t see very well!  It’s still teamwork!” (Nale Palu).

“Women know how to make the candles and the clothes, and the men know how to build the houses and find the wood. It’s not that women can’t do, if we are strong enough we can help the men too, it depends whether we are strong enough or not.”(Nabu).

A very communal way of life

All the matters are settled inside the village. When there is a quarrel, people sit with the chief of village and a counsel of the elderly people to settle things. Both men and women can be chief of village, and both are involved in the counsel of the elderly.

If people are not satisfied with the Lahu law then in theory they could go to the Thai judicial system, but it would mean getting excluded from the community. They could stay in the village but they would lose contact with the community.

Being excluded from the village life would be very difficult because the Lahu society is very communal. For example, when a member builds a house, it is expected that all the village members come to help. The same rule applies to field work, everyone helps each other.

Evolution of society towards a loss of their traditional way of living

Now the Lahu society is evolving. “The new generation doesn’t know how to do everything. In my days, we could do everything. My granddaughter went to high school, and when she come back, she could read and speak Thai but she couldn’t do the things at home or in the field. Now women let their husbands go to the field. Before, the women could do everything. The new generation is too lazy to work in the field and they don’t even know how to do it anymore. They go outside of the community, they see things in town, and everything is easier there. Here, if you are hungry you have to know how to build a fire, find vegetables and cook. Here we can live without money if we know these things. If we don’t know or if we’re lazy we can go to the shop and buy. Now people use more money.”(Nale Palu).

“Before we didn’t use to have a connection with the outside people. Before, whatever we needed we needed to find it on our own, now people go to the shop and buy things. Now things are easier for women, they know how to ride the motorbikes, how to go to the town, and it’s easy for them. The women’s life now is easier than my life was in the past. Before we never saw Thai people, so everything I had, I had to find by myself. Most people in the village used to exchange the things that they grew. You go to your field and find some bananas and I have some vegetables, so you give me bananas and I give you vegetables. Now women wake up, if there is nothing in the kitchen, they go to the shop and buy, it’s easier.” (Nabu)

My daughter goes to sell bananas and sell flowers, she has some Thai customers. That means she can speak Thai and has some connections with the outside people. Those are the new women, but me, I can’t do this job, I don’t know where to go, what to say, how to talk to people. It’s completely different now than how it was in the past. But I am happy to be Lahu. I wouldn’t want to be Thai. I am proud to be Lahu. “(Nabu)

Given the sensitive political situation, tribe members were reluctant to share details about their relationship with the government. We can only assume that all the difficulties faced by all hill tribes in Thailand apply to the Lahu community as well.

The lack of access to the same rights as the Thai citizens puts them in a very precarious situation and represents a threat to their ability to maintain their way of life. According to the elders, things are already changing. But at the same time, they still face many obstacles to live their life any other way: without citizenship and all its consequences, economic opportunities are scarce.

Since the traditional way of life implies much higher standards in terms of gender equality compared to most places in the world, preserving traditions seems like an absolute necessity. Given the difficulties faced by hill tribes in terms of political rights and economic hardships, maintaining the traditional way of life is increasingly difficult. This pressure falls even harder on women who often are forced to find work outside of the community and thus are far more likely to fall prey to human trafficking.

Facts and Details – Minorities, Ethnic Groups and Regional Groups in Thailand – May 2014 –

Minority Rights Group International – Thailand – August 2017 –

United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor – Country report on Human Rights Practices – 2015 –

Asian Correspondent – Activists, Women and Ethnic Minorities lack protection in Thailand, UN – March 2017 –

Human Rights Watch – World Report 2017 – Thailand –

Development and Cooperation – Stateless and without Rights – August 2014 –

UNESCO – Highland Citizenship and Birth Registration project –

United Nations – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Common Core document  forming part of of the reports of States parties – April 2017 – file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/G1246822.pdf



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