THE LAHU PEOPLE
My niece Christina lives in Chiang Mai. She is a teacher there and speaks Thai fluently, which was a huge advantage during our visit there. She is married to Teerawood, a man she met while on a mission trip, who is from one of the hillside tribal groups called Lahu.
Many of his family members still live in the hills near the Burma border. These hills are sometimes referred to as mountains but for someone from Vancouver we will just try to stick with hills.
In 1989, the military government “officially changed” many British colonial-era names. Among these changes was the alteration of the name of the country to “Myanmar“. Many countries in the world (including Canada) do not officially recognize the name and still refer to the nation as Burma, which is what I am choosing to do in this article.
Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world and has had a civil war taking place for the past fifty years. The decades of military dictatorship have basically destroyed the country’s infrastructure and leaving over 30% of the population of 50 million live in poverty. Burma under this regime has become the world’s second largest opium producer and the main producer of methamphetamines in SE Asia.
World Vision tell me that the country also has one of the highest HIV infection rates in Southeast Asia–more than 240,000 people are living with HIV and AIDS.
Foreign Affairs Canada advises against all travel to areas along the Burma/Thai border due to “clashes between the military and armed groups, ethnic conflict, banditry, and unmarked landmines in these areas which pose risks to the security of travellers.” Okay, that seems pretty straightforward. Sporadic fighting between military forces and armed resistance groups is still occurring along the border with Thailand and, tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced and are living, hiding or are in refugee camps
So, when Bob and I were asked us if we would like to go to ‘the village’ by the border we weighed the situation for about fifteen seconds and then jumped at the opportunity.
It was almost a four-hour drive north of the city through stunning countryside. The lush vegetation, valleys, rivers and villages along the way were worth the trip of themselves. The jungle made me constantly think about Vietnam and how they could ever fight a war in jungle like this.
When we reached the village of Huay Kok Moo it was like entering another world. The village name translates ‘Pig Pen Village’ and derived its name because the people there literally keep their pigs in pens.
Everyone we met welcomed us warmly. They are not used to having too many visitors in this remote area. The mountains in the background mark the border to Burma and the close proximity made it clear why the people here are affected by the government struggles. At night you can sometimes hear the gunfire from near the border just kilometers away.
Our sleeping accommodation was on the second floor of a home building were the entire family slept together on the floor with mosquito nets over each bed. After getting our beds set up and dropping off our overnight bags we walked through the village on paths up and down the hills as the neighbors and especially the children stared and smiled. Usually built on stilts using split bamboo for walls and grass for roof thatch, most of these small houses have no running water.
Many village houses are raised up on stilts and underneath are kept the family chickens and pigs. Inside you see a supply of bare-bones essentials: partitioned sleeping quarters with a mat for a bed and a kitchen of sorts with a wood-burning hearth on the floor. The kitchen doubles as a social gathering place for its inhabitants.
There is primitive electricity now in the village and a few satellite dishes set outside the huts making me smile just thinking about the positive and negative influence of television on this tribal culture.
Back at Teerawood’s parents home the women were busy cooking the evening meal. A number of guests had been invited to meet with us – pastors in the area (really the elders of the village).
The meal was greens and fruit picked from the garden or jungle, some chicken, pork, rice and garnished with some spicy condiments and hot local tea. For dessert we ate the most delicious pineapple and mango we have every tasted – picked just minutes before.
As we talked after dinner I observed a beautiful simplicity to life here in the village. The people are usually smiling, gentle and caring for their neighbor. These particulate Lahu people are mostly Christian having been reached by missionaries years ago. They know well the teachings of Jesus about loving your neighbor as yourself. Yet many of them are displaced themselves from Burma.
The war in Burma is truly a horrendous situation. Rambo notwithstanding, the stories have not been exaggerated. Torture, murder, systematic rape, villages burned down, men forced to carry heavy loads for days on end with no food or to “sweep” for landmines…it all happens. There are apparently over 100,000 Burmese refugees living in the jungle in camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border. Agencies of the Thai government and NGO’s are helping to get them resettled but as soon as they are new ones arrive to take their place.
I wondered, “How do you love neighbors like the Burma Army and their execution squads?”
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR
In Thai the word for village is หมู่บ้าน (pronounced ‘muban’).
When in Chiang Mai, Christina would refer to what I would have called subdivisions as muban. They were ‘villages’. The city is composed of neighborhood ‘villages’ and I love the image of this.
Our neighborhoods in Vancouver are actually like little villages – although we often don’t love and care for one another like they do here in Huay Kok Moo. I don’t have to live with the thought of a military force displacing me or forcing me to walk before them across roads or rice fields to clear mines. But we have a struggle of our own taking place in that I see clearly as a Christian leader in a downtown church.
We live in interesting, and challenging days being followers of Jesus of Nazareth in Vancouver. In one of Jesus’ central teachings, he commands us to love our neighbor (Mark 12:31). Yet we don’t know what to do when we don’t agree with our neighbor about something – especially something important, like our religious beliefs. And while we love our neighbor in “the village” by meeting physical needs and being kind, there is an overlooked, application of this passage.
To really to love our neighbor we actually need to stand up for the possibility of truth. We need to protect the endangerment of honest disagreement concerning the nature of reality.
Today a battle is raging in movies, television, newspapers and university classrooms concerning the nature of tolerance. There seem to be 2 competing definitions:
(1) False Tolerance: We can make no judgments at all about the truth of others’ beliefs.
(2) True Tolerance: We allow others the freedom to hold beliefs that we judge to be false.
If we cannot tell our neighbors or ourselves the truth about reality, then we cannot really love them. Because love involves seeking another’s highest good. We must fight false tolerance that seeks to intellectually bully our village into agreeing that every viewpoint (especially when it comes to religion, and morality) is equally valid.
We must speak up in love for the possibility of truth.
Loving our neighbor requires this.