In the Thai north – far from the honeymoon beach-oriented oases of the south that are so appealing to western tourists – live the indigenous peoples of Thailand, traditionally referred to as “chao khao”, meaning “mountain or forest people”.
To foreign eyes, the setting is a romantic evocation of Asian jungle, with layered, green-coated mountains soaking in dense sunlight and forcing the mighty Mekong River – which marks the border between Thailand and Laos and also moves through Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China – into a sinewy snake path.
The reality, however, is perhaps less dreamy for many of those who live in the region. While the term “chao khao” has been used for the past half century, its connotation is increasingly seen as outdated and politically incorrect, with the forest usually implied to be a place less civilized. According to the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, the term was originally used as part of a Thai nation-building process in which national identity and definition of “Thai-ness” was linked to cultural traits, particularly Buddhism, the Thai language and the monarchy.
With the drawing of national boundaries in Southeast Asia during the colonial era, many such indigenous tribes were divided. While the Citizenship Act of 1965 allowed indigenous peoples born in Thailand to become Thai citizens, their parents were required to be Thailand-born, which proved complicated for many who could not prove their backgrounds due to lack of birth registration. With almost 300,000 indigenous peoples still lacking citizenship, many are denied full freedom of movement, access to basic health care and admission to public schools.
“Kwam lub mai mee nai loke” – there is no such thing as secret, try not to hide what can’t be hidden.
– Aaron C. Greenman
Aaron C. Greenman has been a photographer for over 25 years and has lived and worked on four continents. He has previously been profiled on The Leica Camera Blog for his work in Japan, India, East Africa, Israel, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, and throughout Western Europe. More of his images can be viewed at acuitycolorgrain.com and his first monograph is now available for the iPad.