The highland minorities of Thailand live in the mountainous areas of western and northern Thailand. As many as 20 different hill tribes, totalling 1 million people according to some estimates, live in Thailand and include, among the more numerous, the Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Meo (Hmong) and Mien. They are all distinct cultural and linguistic groups: some have been established in this part of Thailand for centuries and live at lower altitudes (like the Karen), while others (such as the Hmong and Akha) are new arrivals, having arrived from Burma, China and Laos from about the nineteenth century. While some such as the Karen have converted to Christianity or Buddhism, many others continue to practise a form of animism. Most of the hill tribes living in the remote upland areas practise subsistence farming or swidden agriculture, and until recently opium cultivation was a major source of income for many of these minorities.
A number of highland minorities such as the Karen, Htin and Khamu have inhabited the northern part of Thailand for centuries. Under pressure as the Han Chinese population and conquest expanded into southern parts of what is today China, other highland groups increasingly moved to new parts of South-East Asia. A series of wars with the Qing dynasty during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eventually led to the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Hmong and Mien, for example, into Thailand and neighbouring countries. Other minorities such as the Akha moved into Thailand from neighbouring Burma even later, in the early twentieth century, while some such as the Paduang have in fact been established in northern Thailand for hundreds of years, migrating here at about the same time as the ethnic Thais. Prior to their incorporation into the Thai state after 1900, hill tribes were autonomous.
A drive begun in 2001 to register highland minorities who had not yet been granted citizenship has reduced the overall number of stateless minorities in Thailand but has only partially succeeded. Reports in 2005 and 2006 indicate that there are still perhaps 200,000 highland minorities who have not been able to obtain citizenship, partly because of widespread corruption and inefficiency among highland village headmen and government officials. The effects of lack of citizenship continue to be extremely severe for these minorities: since they are not citizens, they cannot own land, and therefore face forced evictions and relocation, even if they live on land they have cultivated for decades or even longer.
Thai authorities continue to crackdown on highland villagers who live on large tracts of state land in the 2004 ‘New Model of Forested Villages' project, with court proceedings beginning in 2007 against 48 mainly ethnic Lahu and Karen from Palong Pang Daeng, who were arrested and charged with ‘encroachment on national conserved forest'. The project - which was supposed to cover almost 11,000 villages - was officially abandoned in 2006. Land issues remain highly sensitive for highland communities, who find their traditional lifestyles, weak political position (as those without proper citizenship are excluded from the political process) and lack of land titles under attack from development projects and other stresses.
For the most part, highland minorities remain among the poorest of Thailand's populations. They also have much lower rates of participation in schooling, possibly linked - in addition to poorly equipped and staffed schools - to the almost complete absence of instruction in their mother-tongue in state schools. As many of them do not have proper status documentation, they cannot vote, seek civil service jobs or travel freely to other parts of the country. Members of these highland communities who are not citizens may have colour-coded identity cards which have different type of restrictions assigned to them. Reports in 2005 and 2006 confirm that the lack of citizenship status for highland women (and children) is a strong factor in them becoming victims of trafficking for sex and labour exploitation.
Increased tourism has had an ambivalent impact on hill tribe minorities: while this form of development has brought much needed money and job opportunities to Thailand's mountainous northern region, it has also had an intrusive impact on their culture, simply creating ‘spectacles' rather than helping to preserve their way of life.
The war on drugs has also led to allegations that enforcement officials have been involved in illegal searches, beatings, abuse and even deaths of highland individuals targeted by ethnic Thais. This stems from the generally held belief that hill tribes are involved with the drug trade because of their traditional cultivation and use of the opium poppy.