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BANGKOK, THAILANDIn the hills of northern Thailand, near the infamous Golden Triangle region, a new kind of battle is taking place. The nexus of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos has long been plagued by cross-border shelling and small-arms fire, but the latest fighting is different. On one side are those trying to save a people's culture. On the other are those trying to save their souls.
And now, squarely in the middle, stands the U.S. government. In early October the Department of Labor, as part of the Bush administration's new policy of helping fund "faith-based" organizations, announced it would give $700,000 to the International Justice Mission, a Washington, D.C.-based Christian group focused on human rights abuses.
Since taking office, President Bush has made channeling federal funds to religious organizations a key part of his agenda. Although the allotment for the International Justice Mission, or IJM, is one of the first faith-based grants to be awarded internationally, others may soon follow. Last month, Bush moved personnel from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to the Agency for International Development.
IJM's money is to be spent countering child trafficking, no small problem considering an estimated 300,000 women and girls are bought and sold here every year; most end up as forced laborers in factories or brothels. However, the infusion of American support comes at a time when local citizens and the secular aid workers who come to help are becoming increasingly wary of missionary work. In particular, they say Christian preachers end up stripping traditional ways from some of the most impoverished people in the Chiang Rai province, the Akha "hilltribe."
One of the region's six major hilltribes, the Akha are relative newcomers. Some 500,000 members have migrated here from Myanmar, Laos, Tibet, and southern China over the last 200 years. Fleeing wars, persecution, and natural disasters, they settle in the remote mountains, erecting grass and bamboo villages, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, and, in some cases, making and selling crafts to tourists. Akha religion is best described as ancestral and animistic, meaning they believe everything has a spirit. The tribe is shunned by Thai societyand heavily targeted for conversion by missionaries.
Twenty-year-old Buga Mayer, who sells hilltribe clothing and accessories in Chiang Rai's night bazaar, has nothing but sharp words for outside religious preachers. "They come to change the Akha people's ideas," she says. "It's no good. We used to have Akha festivals all the time. Now it's just once in a while."
It's unclear how much evangelizing IJM engages in, if any, as representatives declined to be interviewed. And while a spokesman for the Department of Labor says the federal money is only to be used to stop child traffickinga task that includes serving as a liaison between government officials and field missionaries who witness abuseshe also acknowledges the government has no control over how IJM spends other portions of its budget.
Who's to say whether any given dollar gets spent on humanitarianism or proselytizing? With the region's average monthly wage pegged at something less than $100, the sheer size of the $700,000 grant is raising eyebrows.
"That's not good news," says Alberto C. de la Paz, curator of a hilltribe museum run by Thailand's Population and Community Development Association, the country's largest nongovernmental organization. Himself a Filipino-born Christian, de la Paz is hardly a radical anti-missionary crusader. He acknowledges the benefits missionaries bring to the hilltribes, such as teaching basic literacy and thus empowering people to record their history. However, he says missionary outreach sometimes results in half a village converting to Christianity while the other half holds to the traditional faith. This split can create problems for groups trying to run development programs such as encouraging the planting of renewable crops. In many cases, he says, the two halves simply won't work together, so the whole village loses out.
More importantly, de la Paz thinks missionaries contribute to the erosion of indigenous culture. By spreading a belief in Jesus, he says, they relegate ancestral and spirit worship to the history books. Along with it go the clothing, rituals, and other expressions of identity. Also at stake is centuries-old knowledge of agriculture, medicine, and family ties, which is spread through religious stories. A horticulturist by training, he equates a loss of cultural diversity with a loss of biodiversity. The less diverse our human population becomes, the less its chance for survival. "The villagers are living in what I call a cultural island," he says, "and that is being eroded."
Yet de la Paz is not the evangelicals' fiercest critic in Chiang Rai. By almost all accounts that title goes to Matthew McDaniel, a 44-year-old former carpenter from Oregon. Driving from village to village in a beat-up Toyota four-by-four, its rear end pasted with "Missionaries Suck" bumper stickers, McDaniel isn't shy about his disdain for the religiously motivated. He climbs trees to take down signs posted by missionaries. And he says he has told missionaries trying to move into his village, where he lives with his Akha wife, that he'll do "whatever it takes" to keep them out.
Since moving to Thailand 15 years ago, McDaniel has started a small nongovernmental organization called the Akha Heritage Foundation. With an annual budget of $6000, the group provides services that range from the establishing of fish farms and publishing books in the Akha language to documenting human rights violations.