Sinuan – Laos, Akha tribe

Linked with AKHA.net; and with Articles for Indigenous Peoples on our blogs.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Sinuan does not know exactly when she was born. In 2005, she estimates that she is around 40 years old. Born in Huay Ung, on the Burmese border, her parents moved to Laos when she was young. Her family moved often to find good land to till, so Sinuan had no chance to go to school. Sinuan works as a field officer for the Rural Development Project which operates in the mountainous northern area of Laos, responding to the needs of the tribal communities who live there. The project is supported by the German International Technical Development Agency … (1000peacewomen 1/1).

The Akha are an ethnic group which originated in China and Tibet. Most of the remaining Akha people are now distributed in small villages among the mountains of China (where they are considered part of the Hani by the government, though this is a subject of some dispute among the Akha themselves), Laos (where they are considered Lao Sung), Myanmar (Burma), and northern Thailand, where they are one of the six main hill tribes … (full text).

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Sorry, I found no specific photo of Sinuan, of the Akha tribe in Laos, but a picture of an elderly Akha-women.

She works for the Rural Development Project.

Watch this videos: Akha Festival, 6.21 min, added March 17, 2008; Akha Swing Festival, 2.49 min, added November 20, 2006; Akha TV 6 Amue Athu, 32.55 min, added April 15, 2007; Akha TV 4 Akha Crab Hunt, 22.50 min, added February 09, 2007; Akha Children Sing, 4.51 min, added December 26, 2006; Akha: Queen’s Royal Project Rips off Hooh Yoh Akha’s Land, 2.08 min, added December 11, 2006.

She says: “I shall wage war against traditional culture that subjugates Akhan women” … and: “All the curses are dumped on Akhan women, men are good for anything, but women are often treated badly. Men have rights, but women have nothing”.

… The Akhas, often by the Thais called ‘Egor’ (a derogatory name) have one of the lowest status levels in Thailand. There are even other hill tribes who look down on them. Originating from Tibet, the Akha migrated south into Burma, Laos and Thailand more than a century ago, along with the other hill tribes. Persecution under the military regime in Burma caused many more to arrive in Northern Thailand as refugees over the past few decades, and though many have lived here since childhood they remain stateless and subject to exploitation from drug lords, abuse by corrupt and immoral police, as well as being considered worthless peasants by many Thai people … (full text The real story of Thailand’s Akha tribe, by Paul Horstermans, March 16, 2006).

(1000peacewomen 2/2) … “I shall wage war against traditional culture that subjugates Akhan women”. This beautiful, yet audacious remark, was made by a forty-year-old woman from the Akha tribe. Sinuan, whose indigenous name is Eusue, resides in Ban Huaykaem, Muang Singha District, Luangnamtha Province.


She is married with one son and two daughters who are all of school age. She has been working for the Rural Development Project, which operates in northern mountainous region of Laos, where many tribes live, since 1994.

The Akha, the most populous of the tribal group, live simple lives growing food, rice, and vegetables and collect food from the forest. They have no material comforts and no access to electricity and tap water. In 1994, an epidemic in Sinuan’s village caused 48 deaths in three months. Those who fell ill were too feeble to work. Starvation was on the rise. Sinuan heard about the Rural Development project operating in Muang Singha district and decided to seek help from them. Staff members came bringing rice for the villagers. After that, the project’s staff members invited her to work with them.

She could not decide immediately and sought advice from her husband, who told her to decline the invitation. However, the project’s staff invited her again, and eventually she decided to disobey her husband and work with them. Her first assignment was as an interpreter from Akhan to Lao for the project’s staff. Since she did not go to school, Sinuan was not so knowledgeable in Lao language and it took some time before she could speak and write the language well.

Enthusiastic to learn new things, she has since carried out participatory research, provided information about primary health care to the villagers, given them health tips, and even helped with child delivery. From her makeshift office in the village, she walks to adjacent villages to give people health care advice, tend to patients, help with child delivery, help refer the seriously ill to hospital, and sometimes bring in physicians from outside to heal the villagers.

Working with people from outside her tribe has made her reflect on her own traditions. There are many good things which should be preserved, she says, and many things that impede progress and have made the Akha lag behind other tribes. She feels strongly about male-domination elements in her culture. For example, the Akhans believe that twins are Satan’s offspring and must be slaughtered, causing pain to many women who bear twins.

Many traditions reduce women to servitude. For example, Akha maidens are supposed to sleep with the men to complete their rite of passage and become fully mature. Sometimes, they are forced to sleep with unmarried elderly men in the village.

And if any boys in the village invite them to have sex, they cannot disobey. For some girls who have no one to sleep with, their parents hire some boys to help complete this rite of page.

Akhan women must observe many rules, even about their manner of dressing. Those women who already have children cannot wear blouses, since it is believed that these will make their children unhealthy. They must wear turbans at all times, even when they sleep. They may remove their turbans only after their husbands or children die. Soon after becoming a staff member of the project, Sinuan decided to change her attire for convenience in her work.

All married Akhan women must rely entirely on their husbands, since it is believed that only men can raise “Pi Misa,” or the House Spirit. Women who have been abandoned by husbands are despised by the community. When they fall ill, they are taken outside the village to die, and their bodies are not buried alongside the others in the community.

However, no men are abandoned by their wives. On the contrary, they are allowed to have more than one wife, since according to traditional belief, this it is the way to produce more hands to help with the family’s work.

In addition to giving health care advice and other information on primary health care to the villagers, Sinuan attempts to change certain traditions. Believing that only education can help the Akhan walk tall and look into the eyes of those who belong to richer tribes with access to higher education, she has put her efforts into promoting education for her people. She believes that education can help prevent Akhan women from being trapped in the old traditions. Sinuan is determined to send her own children to attain the highest education possible.

Of 50 villages under the supervision of the Rural Development Project, Sinuan takes care of 12, the majority of which are populated by Akhan. In 2003-2004, Sinuan expanded her work and, with her colleagues, did participatory research making community maps and a seasonal calendar to provide basic information for the development of a participatory and sustainable community action plan.

Since 1994, nearly 3,000 people have benefited from Sinuan’s work. There is a plan to expand the project by presenting examples that can be replicated in other areas. (1000peacewomen 2/2).

… Human rights and other issues: The Akha have faced many controversies related to human rights and justice, particularly in the countries of Thailand and China. Their settled land is built upon hillsides that are valuable for both timber production and farming, and as such has been the target of seizure by government forces from both countries. Akha settlements and agricultural slash and burn sites increasingly encroach on national forests containing native ecosystems, thus creating another basis for controversy. Many children are tricked into child prostitution or send away by their families to work in the cities. Not only has this resulted in a lost generation of Akha people, but it also leads to an inevitable erosion of Akha culture and language. The Akha also still experience unfair treatment on many levels, according to their own tribal spokespeople. Another issue facing the Akha involves national identity cards – tribal people are often either refused such IDs altogether, or they are charged unofficial fees that they cannot afford to pay, because of their immigration status … (full text, scroll down).

links:

Specials: AKHA.net; the Akha Heritage Foundation; The Hilltribes of Thailand: AKHA; The peoples of the World Foundation: the AKHA; the AKHA hill tribe; The virtual Hilltribe Museim: Akha.

Methods for Rural Development Projects‘, 126 pdf-pages, August 2002;

find worldwide articles concerning a ‘Rural Development Project’ by this Google search;

Chiang Mai travel articles on Northern Thailand travel.

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