Leo Alting von Geusau

interview conducted by Manu Luksch in Chiang Mai Jan 2000


[MiniDV 26] [TC 00:05]



The history of our projects, which have developed over the last 25 years - I can summarise a little bit. I'm an anthropologist, but also indeed I'm people oriented.


When I came here to Thailand I did field work in two villages. The first one was with the name of Saen Chareon. I was astounded by the knowledge and wealth of this culture behind all those poor houses, by the knowledge of the people.


When I was there, I met Mr. Abaw Buseu who had come for a family planning project; that was his mission.  I was also extremely surprised when I talked with him about Akha culture and Akha-zang, that we immediately had contact.


So, out of the relations with Abaw Buseu came factually most of the projects, which I'd been developing. A lot of my plans were not at all to set up my projects to develop the Akha because I had the feeling that I had to be developed by the Akha.


While knowing Abaw Buseu, later his daughter became my wife, Deuleu. The projects we had started to help people in Chiang Mai, were especially for Akha women.  That also was the growth of the first tribal NGO association in Thailand because the village people and the tribal people had no power at all. The situation they have is not that bad, at the moment, but the reason of Abaw Buseu was that they have promises to fight for of course because they oppress us but from the outside, and also the Catholic Mission they eat our culture away from inside.


So, Abaw Buseu had a dream to set up a hostel in Chiang Rai, and do the same as the Mission but the other way round, that meant not to teach Christianity but teach the old Akha culture to the students.


We started and this developed into an association in ı89 through lots of problems because we had no legal status in the beginning and the professors from the University had to be asked to give us some structure. The majority of people were trying to take over the projects which were started by this foreigner.


At the same time we tried also to build a foundation, which would be able to co-ordinate the tribal Akha / Hani associations. So we had the Students Projects here also so we went inter-tribal, that means we had students not only Akha but from the other mountain people. Out of that came the NGO IMPACT, which is also in Chiang Mai, which is for all the other groups except Akha.  So that was the second association. This brought about the idea to co-ordinate them through a quite powerful foundation. Unfortunately the situation became such that this foundation was first taken over by members of the majority people [ed.: Thai], and later destroyed by the founding agencies creating difficult times.


[TC 4:55]


So, here in Chiang Mai, we started from the beginning a documentation information centre which  still exists, for a lot of people who are coming in from the region and also to finally give a greater voice to the Akha who Œfeedı all machines with tapes [ed.: transcribing voice recordings of oral Akha literature]. And in fact I've been taping any text in the village where I lived.


In '92, we had an enormous crisis through the Dutch donors who did not understand the situation where everything seemed to collapse. We survived here with our SEAMP, NGO for South East Asian Mountain People.


And also we got support from the Netherlands (where I'm from) through a foundation, which was interested in giving us scholarships, which we hope to create a Œleadershipı of Akha, because there was no leadership in the sense of people who have been studying. There was a leadership

in the mountains, but only for the oral systems. The links and languages of the countries were extremely difficult, so, this Dutch foundation and the two associations have given us scholarships, certainly for students from different tribes and also Akha. 


In '94 we had another project, ABU, the Women Projects - which is also an association now in Mae Suay near the villages. We discovered that many village-oriented people coming to Chiang Mai could not cope with this enormous gap between Chiang Mai and the village with like, 3 motorbikes and a mountain. So this village project, Abu - that means ³Women²-, developed in Mae Suay.  


What happened after that is that through my writings and through the Akha radio here in Chiang Mai, which is audible in the whole region, Laos and Southern China, we were invited to the first Hani/ Akha culture conference in '93. There, to our great amazement, we were treated like famous people, and that was the beginning of our networking.


So, since that time I got involved in networking Akha and Hani between Burma and China and Laos. As you remember, also Laos became known to me by the trips I had to make there. I had quite a good overview over the Akha network.

 Abaw Buseu, the headman and who had started the project, became the symbol of conservation of the Akha old-culture. Not to take it all over to conserve it all for use, but

to know exactly how the culture was situated and what dwells of poetry and texts of the Dzoemas could be for the young people to read later. Because from an oral tradition is an incredible memory on those books come of the heads of the reciters, they have memories like harddisks. And before they die and before take they letıs say take the harddisks with them in the grave, we have to save it for the later generations.


[TC 10:00]


So out of that came, first of all, a meeting here with the whole Akha group, and later a meeting like the one which we had been attending in Jinghong. Also to my amazement, we became the symbol, the value of the old culture, to be adapted of course.

And as you have seen in this meeting there was quite a polarisation between the missionaries on the one side and our groups on the other side. That was symbolised by Baptist missionary and on the other hand myself and family.

What also made us very well known is exactly the work we did. We had the luck to get funding for three years only, to write down the ancient text and translate them. That has created the situation with a very good network with China and Burma and Laos for the last year, so the Akha world has become quite united on the basis of culture and not politicised too much.


We live in five border areas. These five countries are a bit anxious that minority groups would unite themselves on the borders as we've seen with so many others. That is then something, which I proudly can say that we have managed so far.


[TC 11:50]  


The best project that has developed over the years and which has been a dream project for a long time already, was possible to implement thanks to the help of a funding foundation.


It goes right to the root of the question: How can the Akha minority, the Hani - Akha minority in the area, survive? They will have problems in the future with the majority people, but how can we take care that they keep their roots in their culture? That doesn't mean that we have to keep going on this the same culture, many people do not understand this. The missionaries, the government projects want to keep those people primitive on one hand, and the younger people have the tendency in the first generation to become a so- called Œlost generationı.  They lose interest in the village, look down on the parents; they want to be Thai or Chinese or Burmese or Christian. So, extremely important is that they keep their roots as I said in the conference.


The Akha- Hani system is like a tree; there are a lot of branches. This is expressed in the genealogical system, like in Laos; everybody knows their genealogical name and what this tree ­ it looks like upside down. It's an incredible system because people who belong to one clan or super-family can know exactly where they are located in this tree, and how they relate to the whole group which, as we found out in these meetings, are basically one people. The primarily ancestor is Sumi-O, it is a word which has been used a lot but is not only the genealogical system which makes keeping identity. It's an ID-card for people. - but also the knowledge of the end, and transfer of the traditional knowledge in particular the traditional text. I have been flabbergasted and I am still all the time, by the memory of those reciters and Dzoemas and what we call cultural specialists.


[TC 15:00]


 We have been starting to write down from tapes. I have been systematically collecting recites since the beginning. I always have a tape-recorder with me whenever I go to the village. Iıve amounting to 1600 tapes, and others have helped too to write down those texts.

The Pima, the reciter, who is the village teacher-reciter also does the ceremonies with his voice. He had a book of 700 pages with the Archaic Text not understandable for the younger people or for most people. He would go to page 350 or he would tell them 'is this sentence correct' or he would say ' yes, with a word maybeŠ Can you also go on reciting' and then Œthere you are'. It's really an extremely exact hard-disk type of memory. So before those people die it has to be recorded otherwise it will be lost forever.


And there was also a movement in the UNESCO, and we had a meeting about this in Laos. This has to be done as soon as possible. So we started in the last three years to write down systematically text where we have one column of the old archaic Akha and only very few people who can help us to translate it. We retranslate it first in modern Akha, it's like Shakespeare, something like that, into modern English because Shakespeare is not always understandable, and next to this the guide text and now also the English text. But we did not make it first of all to publish but as a literature for the young generation. Or maybe for their children many of who became Christian and maybe become curious why their parents threw away as they say their ancestors basket, the ancestor paraphernalia has been throw away to become Christian.

With that you throw away effectively knowledge of herbs, the songs, the sort of the lost songs, there are many, the knowledge of agriculture, the knowledge of the very strong morality, the knowledge of the law because Akha-zang - Akha culture - contains laws.

And you can see that the younger generation losing this becomes rootless, really. They are not Thai, they are not Chinese yet, they are not Akha anymore and lose their roots also morally and legally and they lose their knowledge.

So, the point is not to write down nice old texts and make it to a kind of poetic venture or academic. The main reason is to make it before the old people die, make something for the next generations to come in books; and we have seen that this has made us extremely popular in the circles of Akha, Hani, researchers and China.


[TC 18:30]



Nobody knows here in Thailand that ³Iko² is so dispraise by the majority people and even worse, much worse now than in the past.


[TC 18:59 ­ 19:17    NOISE]


And those Iko have (noisy interruption)Š So (speaks really quietly, then louder again)Š


Š but became also popular with foundations because the Akha texts are of an extreme poetic beauty comparable to Tao texts or Mahabharata texts or the bible. All those texts have been going on for hundreds of years in oral traditions, until they wrote them down much later. The latest text is the Akha text, of course, but the beauty of those texts is really incredible Š.


[TC 19:58]


So, it became also a proper, I'd say not only an academic, but Š for all people who are interested in this kind of thinking.


The problem has become that these moments last 5, 6 years the way of living of Akha has changed a lot. A lot of people have been urbanised because the Akha in Thailand have no land-rights. The government wants to get them all down or out, 50 percent of the people have no ID cards. That means no nationality. And the result is brain-drain in the villages that the leading people go down study and so on, and the remaining people have this big problem of drug addiction, itıs now ŒJaba² [?] coming over the border, and heroin.


The attitude of the majority people, the Thai, towards the tribal people, is worse than it ever had been before.  There's been a meeting in Amsterdam in Thai studies and some of the Karen and others were there and also the Thai. They mentioned in Amsterdam this fact that the Akha are best off in communist China and worse off in capitalist Thailand, which gave a shock to everybody. But the reaction was that when this was known in Thailand, that the governor of Chiang Mai and even the Prime Minister got extremely angry and people who had told this in Amsterdam got death threats by telephone or by fax and email. 


Also the attitude of the news/ media, the papers is always that Akha have been in drugs trafficking or being addicted or being prostitutes, an image which is only very partly true. because many women are lured into prostitution, younger girls.  So the whole attitude is worse than we have seen it inŠ I have seen it personally in almost 25 years. And this worries us lots, to see the villages often in bad shape, we see the younger people theyıre kind of desperate.

There are our students and people in the villages reacting against this.


But we hope for the future, and we are sure that the Akha will stay together exactly because of the discrimination; they will be pushed back into their own identity and then they will find whatever we have been able to save. That's our ideology, save what can be saved for the generations of Akha and Hani to come, and our publications, books and texts we have been seen in that particular light.


[TC 24:10] comment


We have been talking a lot about culture and conserving Akha culture in which I am not so much the initiator but the middleman. So, if our group here - which is Abaw Buseu but it's a whole group in Thailand- tries to conserve the culture, that doesn't mean that they want to keep the culture as it is, but it has to adapt it to modern times.

Like the Akha here have 9-12 times of ancestor service, which is greatly based on rice and, first of all, rice is maybe not anymore the most important crop of all. A lot of people go to the city. So here that is an instant to talk that we have to reduce the ancestor service to maybe three times a year, the Swing ceremony, and the New Year ceremony, and maybe the spring, which are practically universal things and also attractive for the young.


But there are of course other things. In the past, the twin babies were suffocated and there was a kind of damn on this phenomenon which is very well understandable, because as we have seen in Laos how the mother works in the fields, so when she gets the twins she doesn't have enough milk, and two or three die as we have seen in the past. So this was adapted that twins are not suffocated anymore.


Or the dresses, some people are saying they have to keep the dresses. But then I always say to my friends from Holland and Austria 'why don't you walk around in the Lederhosen or in the Dutch things?ı Modern life in the city, uniforms and this is kept for the special occasions.


Or the woman who was divorced in the past could not go back to her family. It happened to my own wife also, Deuleu, that was abolished.


There are of course many other example of adaptation because the gap between modern life and the old system is enormous, it's a few centuries almost and this way of thinking.

This adaptation takes quite some time. In previous meetings we have been talking about this. In this meeting there was a little bit the tendency to see the past a little bit negative, especially on the women. It was all bad, they were all ³oppressed². And we said there is one very important woman in Thailand in Akha villages, she is called ³Ye Ahma². This means effectively the Rain-field Mother. It's a woman who after she has no children anymore at 45 or 50, becomes equal to the men. She gets a white shirt and she gets involved in all kinds of ancestors' ceremonies and she has quite some authority in the village, and becomes something like a leader of women. That's in the past and it's extremely positive for the power of the women.


[TC 28:09]


Yeah, we had been recalling it and writing about and talking about it not because it has to be kept the way it is, but as an example that women can be leaders, and maybe that in the city we find a new formula, an older woman or a stronger woman like my wife is considered a village leader, by most people, because of her attitude. Maybe that we can find some kind of formula to continue this kind of system.

The women issue is extremely important for us because it was those, the women who are the main people who have the culture continued in the villages, and probably as much in the cities. We see that the women are stronger, they are the first to look into the cities for jobs and for selling handy crafts of the villages, and the men then follow slowly.

Not that the men are bad, but the men in the last two generations had no job anymore, they had no hunting, no clearance, they tend to be weaker than the women.

So, adaptation is an extremely important task, but it has to be based on the knowledge of the past as you can find in the text. A lot of things that we find in the text are extremely useful to consider the adaptation of the culture.


[TC 30:00]  


One element of adaptation, which is not so easy, is the difference between the authorities such as in the mountains in the traditional Akha village, and in the low- lands like Thailand in effect, and Burma and China, also.

When I came to the villages 20 years ago I was struck by the sense of equality between the people and a lack of an hierarchical authority system. In the village the older people have authority because they have experience based on knowledge and then it goes age wise. Even the parents are told not to command their children because then they lose authority.


I felt myself extremely nice because I was just me. I was just Abaw Leo. I brought money but thatıs because I could find it and they couldnıt find it. That didnıt make me any higher than other people. Thatıs the reason I liked it very much in the villages. Now the problem has become that this sense of equality has suffered

a) because students go to schools and come in the city, or even with NGO associations which are located in Thailand, and there is a tendency that the relationship of authority becomes vertical, like in Thailand and effectively in China also. In China itıs the Communist party, for instance, or the military. In Thailand itıs the military system and the hierarchical system of the King, the army, the business and going down.


[TC 32:22]


So, it has been extremely difficult to adapt to this kind of situation. Also because funding agencies and outsiders, amongst the Dutch agencies, say we are in Thailand, so why not take the Thai model. In fact a group of such a funding agency from Holland abolished the equality system in 1972, which we had set up in our own NGOs, and we are still in the middle of this process. And itıs not that clear how to resolve this except by the fact that in some of our NGOıs the sense of equality is growing and in the city, all the people who came to the cities, also have this kind of attitude. But it will take a long time.

And itıs also true inside Akha worlds, the difference between wealth and poverty has also increased, thatıs also ethnologically justifiable because if you live at the edges of the mountains or people become very rich through drugs or through other crops, they tend to make themselves bosses of all the others -- except that the Akha are extremely allergic in the mountains to anybody who tells them he is king. The Akha say always: "we donıt need a king, we need lawyers.² To help us to resolve our land problems, to defend our legal status, to protect our children against prostitution, we need to have a voice on the legal level. So the old intelligentsia has not yet gone down completely.


[TC 34:37]


I was puzzled right from the beginning about the question why does the Akha system have this kind of equality in its system; itıs really built into the system at the moment, except that thereıs also an opposite tendency on the village level or inter-village level of people who are richer to become some kind of a leader.

Now my explanation, and also the Akha explanation of this is that like in all other tribal groups or any societies, in fact, there are systems in which one family becomes rich and richer and then involves its kin and clan into this. And you call this Œcolical systemı ­ itıs building up, like we have it in Mexico and other places. In fact, model states come out of that you get even in the end those systems link their king or higher king to Buddha or to heaven or to Jesus in the past.

So why has this not happened to the Akha? The only explanation is that as a minority spread amongst others -in the face of this majority - you see the tendency in the past in certain villages, in almost all villages to build up this kind of power, to have some small colical systems. But factually this is all the time destroyed by the outside world.


Take my father-in-law; he was involved in a very profitable cash crop. It was used like opium, it was allowed at that time. He had a lot of silver. But then other tribal groups came and Thai came and they put him into prison and took all his silver and he was poor again. Iıve seen many other examples of people who tried to build up a leadership also through greater wealth, which was destroyed by the environment.


One more thing has to be said. In the past wealth didnıt necessarily only mean to build up power because in the traditional system the sense of distribituity, sharing with others, was also a part of the system, so-called feasting. People that were wealthy were obliged to do feasting and feed all villages meat, which is extremely rare in their nutrition until today. But of course later he could ask the people he had invited to do a job for him in the field or something. But that was genuenly destroyed by the environment. So, the equality of the Akha baked in their system sees an opposition tendency to leadership, I mean we see that near to the Thai system, sometimes this kind of development into a more totalitarian system happens.


[TC 38:23] GAP


In my study of the texts and comparing old texts Iıve been struck always by the fact that they are so much the same in Akha villages, and teachers who had been split off from each other over hundreds of years. So I have been researching if the Akha maybe had rulers in the past. Certainly the Akha would say: "No, we had no rulers², but there was. His name was Abaw Tchu-ban, and this Abaw Tchu-ban, is told in the Akha stories to have been ruling over Chinese and Thai and Burmese and so on and so forth. According to the stories, and itıs a bit ridiculized, people had to bring him ten sacks of ant eggs, and fly noses and all kinds of other things like that. It is a bit ridiculized. However this Abaw Tchu-banıs kin, his son, is so proud of his power that he gets a horse. He flies up in the air but one wing was broken by his mother and he had been mending it with wax. So when he came closer to the sun the wax was melting and he was collapsing.

Hereıs the story of Icarus, an Akha Icarus but the moral of the story is, in fact, that if you fly too high, if you want to have too much power, you will collapse and die. 


Now, historically there is some truth in the story of the Akha ruler who then, after two generations, had to give up his dynasty. And we have found, also in the last meetings, that the Akha had been part of, and the Hani, of the Nan Chao kingdom, which was in the area, in Jo Nang mainly, between 700 after Christ until 1200 when it was conquered by Kublikhan and the Mongols.


But for the Akha, having a ruler is always something they would be a bit allergic of, because they would be afraid that those, who pose as rulers and leaders, one day, would collapse. We have a contemporary example of one Akha who had become extremely rich by drugs. He had to escape, collapsed and was shot. So we see that it happens not only to the Akha, maybe we donıt even know to whom, but thereıs an example for that those being rich and who want to become rulers one day will collapse.