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.
McDaniel says the missionaries don't do anything to help the people economically. Worse, he says, the missionaries, despite having vast financial resources, have a vested interest in keeping people poor, since desperation makes for easier converts. "You don't succeed as a missionary if you teach someone to be independent," he said. "They want to control them like a resource, like trees in a forest."
McDaniel says one of the main missionary activities, the opening of orphanages, is downright sneaky. "They work to take the children," he says. "Separate them from their parents and it's easier to convert them."
For their part, missionaries in the region describe their goals as a mix of the charitable and the heavenly.
About 20 miles outside Chiang Rai, Gary Spengler is enjoying a harvest celebration in a small Akha village of some 30 houses. The village sits in a shallow valley, where thick vegetation on the steep surrounding hills is broken only by terraced farm plots. The houses are grass and bamboo huts resting on stilts, with one or two rooms on the inside and sometimes a porch out front. Chickens cluck about. Large banana leaves, which everyone seems to be using for plates, litter the ground, perhaps soon to be eaten by the chickens.
Perched atop a small rise is a concrete church where dozens of people are attending a service conducted by an Akha pastor. Spengler is there gathering photos and video to show people back in the States. A born-again American missionary, Spengler is up-front and open when it comes to talking about his mission. "If you see a bunch of people who don't know Christianity, you reach out to them," he says, citing Bible study sessions and organizing sporting events as ways to connect with the locals. "It's not trickery. You can't force people to believe in Christ. We just wake up every day and try to help people out."
Spengler admits missionaries have made mistakes in the past, preaching to people without understanding their real needs. "They used to come with a Bible pack and leave. Now they come with a Bible pack and a hammer," he says. "But obviously we would never come if it was just to feed people. That's what the Peace Corps does."
Four years ago Spengler, his wife, Cindy, and their four children moved to Thailand from Virginia, where Gary worked in construction. The couple, both on the early side of middle age, are not the expected picture of Christian missionaries. Cindy, a former sorority girl at Auburn University, suggested going out for a beer. Gary, with his fit physique and stylish sunglasses, spoke fondly of surfing on the Florida coast. After spending three years as missionaries near Bangkok, they came to Chiang Rai last year and founded the Akha Harvest Mission. Now, Gary says, they're planning a 32-bed orphanage here, with the goal of caring for parentless Akha children and "having these kids raised knowing who Jesus Christ is."
Cindy says missionaries are of course changing the Akha way of life, but she doesn't necessarily think this is a bad thing. "Those that want to preserve culture look at things as so myopic," she says. "Culture is not static. Life is fluid, culture is fluid." She cites an Akha custom that calls for killing one baby in the event twins are born, as twins are thought to bring bad spirits into the village. "Things are not all good in an animist society," she says. "They live in fear. They don't know where they are coming from or where they are going."
And that is the primary motivation for missionaries, redirecting "lost" souls toward the pearly gates. "That is a biblical mandate," says Cindy. "Are we going to go to heaven by ourselves or are we going to see if we can bring others with us as well?"
For people who consider nonbelievers doomed to hell, separating piety from politics may be impossible. The International Justice Mission's own literature states a need for "an explicitly Christian ministry" to deal with human rights abuses. The Department of Labor, however, says IJM's religious affiliation had nothing to do with getting funded. "We would not favor a Christian group over any other," says the spokesman, noting IJM competed with several other secular agencies. "It's based on abilities, not religious content."
As for the Akha people, opinions about missionaries are, not surprisingly, mixed. Mayer, the bazaar merchant, questions the true objectives of religious conversion. She's a university student and Buddhist convert, both rare for a hilltribe member. "The missionaries import the American lifestyle into Thailand," she says. "They entice people to believe in God. I am suspect. Why do they do this? To increase American power, I believe."
Just a few tables down, 20-year-old Fon Visaluk says she respects missionaries' efforts to turn Akha people away from drinking and smoking and their push for education. She praises the missionary who has been in her village for the last decade. "In my village boys and girls don't go to school," she says. "He teaches them. All day long he's working. He's a good man."
In many ways, the judgment hilltribe people and secular aid workers pass on IJM will depend on how well the group segregates its role as American-funded watchdog from its stated commitment to "advance [Christ's] Kingdom." But at a time when the U.S. faces increasing heat from allies and enemies alike for being, at best, an overly dominant culture and, at worst, a relentless crusader, perhaps there's a better way to promote understanding than sending missionaries to do the job of ambassadors.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.