Special interview: Matthew McDaniel, pro-Akha activist

For years, Matthew McDaniel‘s provocatively painted pick-up truck was a common sight around Chiang Rai and Mae Sai. The truck was an instantly recognisable symbol of his Akha Heritage Foundation, an organisation that he founded in 1991 after learning of issues facing northern Thailand’s highland cultures and societies. The other prominent vehicle of the organisation is McDaniel’s extensive Akha Heritage Foundation website – www.akha.org. It has been online for years.

McDaniel is a prolific creator of resources on Akha issues. He has 13 short films available online at YouTube, a collection of project histories and related essays, numerous other introductions to his work, and much more. There is a long radio interview available online too. Despite McDaniel’s many supporters, there are many others who challenge the legitimacy of his work, and who do not appreciate his style of activism. McDaniel’s outspoken, critical zeal has, in some quarters, attracted much attention.

Some of that attention led to McDaniel’s deportation from Thailand in mid-2004. He had repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of Thai government and royal activities in the North. McDaniel argues that he was banned from Thailand because of these challenges. Since being sent back to the United States, he has travelled widely, and has also spent a year living in Laos. Earlier this month I conducted a lengthy e-mail interview with McDaniel to garner his perspective on a number of issues that may be of interest to New Mandala readers. Using some websites provided by McDaniel, and others that I have found myself, I have provided links to reference material throughout the interview. These should help to clarify some issues for New Mandala readers who are new to McDaniel’s arguments. I hope the links add to your understanding of the issues that he contests.

As always, comments from New Mandala readers are very welcome. If you have further questions for McDaniel please do not hesitate to post them as comments. I hope he will be happy to continue providing his perspective here on New Mandala.

Nicholas Farrelly’s Interview with Matthew McDaniel

NF: What do you see as the single greatest achievement of your time in Thailand with the Akha Heritage Foundation?

MM: Getting the murders of Akha hill tribe people exposed in the Bangkok Post. The murders were front page news in the Bangkok post but I do not think they were being put in a data base on the web at that time. Go here for the specific cases . You can see an index, and then two sets of cases that were filed. [Other achievements are] The UN Filing on these murders, and the confrontations at Hooh Yoh Akha over the Queen’s Project taking the land of that village. Take your pick.

NF: What is the biggest threat to the Akha in northern Thailand? What are the emerging issues that you see as growing in importance over the next 10 years?

MM: Land rights, water rights, and the removal of Akha children by western missionaries. At last count they had 560 neglected children, Akha children that they were neglecting. There are many more of these organizations. Better than a 100 I would guess.

NF: What are your views on the coup and the broader political situation in Thailand? From the perspective of pro-Akha activism, is the change to a military regime an improvement over the Thaksin years?

MM: Thaksin getting the ax was a good thing if it stood alone. If a more democratic process had done it. Getting the ax by the military, I do not see as a good thing because it does not boost civic society and Thai society should have had the chance to grow and learn the process to cope with Thaksin.

NF: You have published two editions of the Akha Journal and a third edition is on the way. What are the challenges of running an independent, activist journal on Akha issues? How have the first two editions been received in northern Thailand? Have there been any major criticisms of this publishing work?

MM: I think that my own criticism of the work had a lot to do with not enough computer equipment in order to improve the quality. It is a process. I take suggestions but I can also readily see how much I want to improve it after it is done as far as content and style, etc. But given the situation I was 80% happy with it. It is like a rice terrace, first you build it, then you improve it year after year.

Being deported, being in Laos for a year, those all contributed to the slow down in the publishing of the journal, it was supposed to be a once a year journal, it is just going to be bigger when I get this volume done. Hopefully it will come out more often on schedule.

NF: You were deported from Thailand in 2004 in a case that received much attention in activist networks at the time. I assume that since then your Foundation activities have changed form in many ways. What is the current status of Akha Heritage Foundation activities on the ground – in Laos and Thailand? Can activities continue without you or has much of the direct activism and advocacy work been made impossible by your relocation to the United States?

MM: I think that my activism work was boosted considerably by the deportation. It freed me up to confront Thailand at the UN both in New York and Geneva. It allowed me the chance to develop a network in Laos, and it also gave me the opportunity to work on a remote network in Thailand while I am away. So my skill spectrum increased, and also international publicity as I have worked a lot on various Akha cases since then that have increased people’s recognition of the Akha situation. I continue to be in contact with the Akha in Thailand and also continue to work behind the scenes to increase pressure on important cases.

NF: In 2004 you stated that your deportation from Thailand was orchestrated by unknown political forces, perhaps including the United States government. Since then have you been able to confirm your explanation of why you were banned from Thailand? To phrase the question slightly differently – why were you expelled?

MM: I think the chief factor was the confrontation over Hooh Yoh land that the Queen’s project took from them. I did not back down on that case, and still don’t. I continue to appeal the issue to the UN. I don’t think the Queen of Thailand has the right to take the land of Hooh Yoh Akha.

But I think that there were a lot of US people who were unhappy about their busy drug war killings, and also about educating people how the US was very much involved in that. As well the links between the US people and missionaries is very strong. I continue to give a lot of publicity to that.

I was told by sources that the US was behind the deportation, but I have no way of proving it of course at this time. I think if word went out there might be more people willing to talk about it.

NF: What is the annual budget of the Akha Heritage Foundation? Has it changed since you were expelled from Thailand?

MM: The annual budget was about $12,000 give or take. Now it has gone down, of course I still keep working nearly full time on it, and also working on fundraising. My expenses are much higher, the opportunities to help the Akha are greater, and more money is needed for this, so it is sort of aggravating to rebuild the project, have a lot more opportunities to help and have even less money than before. I am not particularly discouraged as I see the fundraising issue as a challenge and I hope to make up for lost time and then some. I also push a lot of political issues which don’t always take money, so I think I have a lot more of them on my plate than before. Over a much wider spectrum.

NF: You are probably the most prominent anti-missionary activist in mainland Southeast Asia and have often proclaimed your opposition to mission interventions. You have said: “What the missionaries have perpetrated against the Akha is shameful, it goes against all that I believe and all that I work for, and in my view it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ”. In your view, is Christianity compatible with the good functioning of Akha society? Are there any examples of Christian groups that the Akha Heritage Foundation supports?

MM: Jesus is compatible with the life of anyone who wants to set out to do good. To help people. Christianity in S.E. Asia is a political tool, and as far as I am concerned it has very little to do with Jesus.

My litmus test for anyone or any organization who says that they are a religious group that is different, is to ask them if they will oppose missionaries who pressure conversions, if they will oppose missionaries who take children to build fake orphanages that we KNOW raise money, if they look down on Akha culture, if they will support an ethic for working with the Akha. You can guess the answers. I even promised to host them on my website if they would take some means to prove they are not the same. It is beyond my capacity to fathom what these missions are doing in Jesus’ name. People here in the US are shocked when I tell them what is going on. No, I have not met anyone who would stand up to what was going on there. It is about being a white christian, about empire, about racism. It is not about faith in God or serving or protecting the most vulnerable. It is about a hidden agenda.

NF: A big focus of Foundation work is education advocacy. What do you see as the ideal structure of education for Akha in Thailand and Laos? What subjects should be taught? What languages should be learned?

MM: My children who are here in the US all learn Akha to read it and write it first. I think that the Akha should have Akha schools, Akha teachers and promotion of Akha heritage. The Thais pander them for tourists, then protect the very culture. Same in Laos. I think that the more protection for the knowledge base there is for the Akha the more people will realize that they have a lot to teach their own people, as well as to others.

NF: From your published materials it can be difficult to grasp how heavily involved individual Akha are in your work. In the core work of the Akha Heritage Foundation, how do the Akha participate?

MM: There are many Akha who work with me on the project. Mostly I have to refrain from printing their names and pictures. They are getting killed already, I got deported, how many Akha do you think want to stand up and take that in those circumstances? But also I stress that my work has always been for the Akha on request. Some work is purely donated, I say “Here it is, free Akha books, you can have them if you want them.” I paid other Akha to take time off from farming to help with the books. When ever I am dealing with the Akha I say, “What do you want me to do in this case? Do you want me to help?” Right now I am working to get an Akha woman out of prison in Singapore. If she didn’t want the help, I would not continue to help.

I hope that one day, there is enough of a network built up that many Akha can come out and say what they want.

Other work that I do is on a donor basis too. In Laos I gave out bednets after villages asked for them. I asked what they wanted more, blankets or bednets? They said bednets so that is what I bought them.

Then they started coming into town everyday to my hotel to ask for more, but I was already out of them.

NF: Have you trained young Akha to take over the operations of the Foundation during your absence from Thailand? Is such a transfer of stewardship possible and, in your view, is it desirable?

MM: It is possible and desirable. I would not say so much to take over the Foundation, as that is just a facilitating effort. But to take up skill sets and be able to accomplish more and more activism for themselves, to build strong networks, to be able to better protect their communties. When I am able to pass off one work I pick up more complicated things so there is always more to do. But sure, the more the Akha take on themselves the better, the goal is to be obsolete.

NF: What can you tell us about the treatment of the Akha in Burma’s Shan State?

MM: I don’t think that the Akha in Burma necessarily have it worse than in Thailand. For one thing the missionaries are not so free to move about. Many traditions are still intact, and they have a lot of farm land. The Akha can go to University in Yangon, and they are same in the schools as anywhere else, or in the army or many other practices.

They are not looked down on like the fashion in which the Thais behave.

NF: Having recently lived in Laos, how would you compare the situation of the Lao Akha with the situation in northern Thailand? Where do the Akha enjoy a higher quality of life?

MM: I think that the Akha in Laos have a better retention of their traditions and there are not split villages because of the missionaries passing lies and confusion in their villages, setting them against each other.

But there is greater poverty in Laos due to various events, and there is less infrastructure because it is much more mountainous. So in some ways there is a better life in Thailand, but only in some ways. In other ways the Thais are big bastards to the Akha, way way over the top. There is a lot of police and army brutality to the Akha in Thailand, imprisonment, land confiscations, forced relocations, very high level of prostitution and by that I mean where Akha girls are forced to be prostitutes in establishments that the Thai police allow.

So an Akha in Thailand may be able to drive on a better road, but he might get beat to death at the next checkpoint too.

NF: Do you see Thai Royal activities in the uplands of northern Thailand (such as the many Royal Projects) as positive contributions to livelihoods and the prospects for highland advancement?

MM: No, I do not. I see that the Queen of Thailand took the land of Hooh Yoh Akha. I do not see any excuse for it, or for forestry taking land or forcing the Akha to move. It is disgraceful and we continue to fight it at the UN. I think that the Queen should give back the land to Hooh Yoh, and that the Akha should be compensated. Those who ran the project in the army and forestry should be penalized.

Somehow in Thailand the Thais get the impression that they are more human than other people. Who ever they are, and that other people do not deserve to be treated as equals, as they would like themselves to be treated. You can attribute it to this or that, it doesn’t matter.

It is not the behaviour of mature people or a mature democracy.

NF: What more can you tell us about the situation of the Hooh Yoh Akha? Does your opposition to Royally-sponsored activities in Thailand carry risks for you?

MM: Life carries risk. I think that the Royal project took the land of Hooh Yoh, about 8500 rai that was full of bio diversity, food diversity, and most importantly it belonged to the Akha, they loved that land, the sculpted that land.

It was one of the Queen’s projects. There was a project of the queen that set up three ag[ricultural] stations. Hooh Yoh was one of them. The Thai Consul to the Thai Mission to the UN in New York also called it the Queen’s project. There are various Royal Projects. Prince this, Princess that, King’s this, Queen’s that. This was a Queen’s project. The link with her pic and the name of the project is currently off line.

I went up there for a decade, more than a decade before the project ever went up there. The Akha loved that place, it was like walking on the back of their own hand. The Army and forestry tried to relocate all the villages they could, they destroyed so much, they planted pine and flower farms. But self determination, that is what the Thais have never offered the Akha and I think it is very shortsighted on their part.

NF: You use the Internet as an integral part of your activist strategy. In your experience, how effective is such web-based activism?

MM: Activism is work, if on the web or elsewhere. I think that the web is only one tool, and that one must have many streams of activism, especially in person, publishing books, making presentations, encouraging other activists, learning from other activists, always being on the seek, always trying to find that extra something.

Ultimately I believe that activism has to be one thing. Results. And I have always insisted that my work produce results, the desired results, positive changes. And I think that I have changed a lot. I won’t rate that, I just know that I have been able to get some things done. Not enough, I am always looking to improve my curve, but I don’t spend much time sleeping.

NF: How are you, and your family, adjusting to life in the United States? Are there other Akha in your area with whom your family communicate? What languages are spoken by your family at home?

MM: Our family talks about 95% Akha in the house. We talk by phone to other Akhas. We are connecting to other activists, publishing, web work, presentations, the UN, we also have an ongoing case in Sacramento regarding Akha who were smuggled or trafficked into California. That case will be going on for some time. And we have a lot of publicity that we do here in the US to help more people become aware of who the Akha are. We also work with people regarding churches, pressuring churches who are supporting the taking away of Akha children. There has been a lot of scandal of late in Denver at churches, and it is Denver churches that also support missions who take away the Akha children or pressure them to convert and destroy their culture and linguistic heritage.

NF: Are you involved in other activist causes in the United States?

I join up with other activists, both hispanic, South America, Native American, African Americans, prison activists, vaccine activists, many people on many different levels. Sharing ideas and energy.

NF: Do you expect to ever be allowed back to Thailand? Is your goal to return and live there?

MM: I would prefer to live in Thailand than in the US. But I won’t shut my mouth and pretend that it is ok to take all the land of someone and force them to go hungry. And I won’t agree to the Akha losing all their children to the missionaries in a genocide. See article 5 – the Fifth Article of Genocide: Not an exact quote, but [it reads] to take the children of one group and make them members of another group. From Akha to christian by physical removal. Who knows what the future will hold. My children are from there, their grand parents are there, and I really don’t think anyone has the right to tell you where you can and can not live.

NF: Thanks, Matthew, for taking the time to answer my questions. If there are other issues that you feel I have not covered then please do let us know.

MM: I think that the issue of Akha Human Rights needs a much broader support, and that people can join in to help, it doesn’t matter where they are. Also I think many people should write to the Queen of Thailand and request that she give back the land of Hooh Yoh, it is very very important that she do that.

NF: Thanks for your time.