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interview with Leo Alting von Geusau

Dr.Leo Alting von Geusau is also called Dr.Leo in Thailand or Abaw Leo by the Akha people in Northern Thailand and nearby E.Burma,S.China and N.Laos. He is of Netherlands' nationality and an anthropologist from the New School of Social Research in New York,USA.He has been living with the Akha people since 1977 and lived in two Akha villages for 4 years studying Akha language and culture.In 1981 he married an Akha woman,called Deuleu Dzoebaw and with her he also got involved in NGO building for minority mountain peoples in the area. We interviewed him and about the history of his work and projects and got the following answers :

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 came there 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 developed. 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.

test. While knowing Abaw Buseu, later his daughter became my wife, Deuleu. The Projects, where we started to help people in Chiang Mai already, Akha women. Our emphasis had been they often found lemon as much as possible and that also was growing the first tribal NTO association in Thailand because the village people and the tribal people had no power at all. The situation they had was not that bad, at the moment, but, reasoning of Abaw Buseu was that they have promises to fight of course because they oppress us but from the outside and what a promise with the ---webisst--- and 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 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 ’89 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 started by this foreigner. The same time we tried also to build a foundation which would be able to coordinate 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 ---Thesarow--- And then? And out of that came IMPACT, which is also in Chiang Rai, which has all the other groups except Akha. So that was the second association. Coming about the idea was to coordinate them through a quite powerful foundation. Unfortunately the promise is the majority of people became such that this foundation was first taken over by majority people, and later destroyed by the founding agencies creating difficult times.


So, here in Chiang Mai, we started also from the beginning a documentation information centre in which we still have here and so on, ---??---to a lot of people coming in from the region and to also finally give a greater voice to the Akha who feed all machines with tapes. And in fact I've been taping any text in the village where I lived. In '92 ----?------- we had an enormous crises through the Dutch donors who did not understand the situation where everything seemed to collapse. We survived here with our SEAMP.

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 leadership of Akha, because there was no leadership in the sense of people who have been studying here. There was a leadership in the mountains, but for the oral systems, but the links and language of the countries was extremely difficult, so, this Dutch foundation and the two associations have given us scholarships. Certainly students from different tribes and also Akha. In '94 we had another, because I always said: Before I am not able to do to give honour to the Akha women who are strong, interesting, also beautiful and so we started the Women Projects - which is also an association now in Mae Suay near the villages because we discovered that a many village oriented people coming to Chiang Mai could not cope with this enormous gap between Chiang Mai with like 3 motor bikes and a mountain. So this village project, Abu, it means "Women", 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 cultures in '93 and there, to our great amazement, we were treated like famous people, a little bit like listing by villages in incredibly and that was the beginning of our networking. So, since that time I got involved and Akha here in networking between Burma and China and Hani in Laos and, as you remember, also Laos became known to me by the trips I got to make there. I had quite a good overview over the Akha network and also tried the headman and also became ---Obeik--- near Abaw Buseu and ---?---- who had started the project. He became the centre of consultation 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 premasters’ disciples 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 --- and before they die and before take they say - this time in the grave we have to save it for the later generations.


So out of that came, first of all, a meeting later, which we had been attending in ---?--- 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 that was symbolised in baptist missionary and 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 and that has created the situation with very good network with China and Burma and Laos for last year so the Akha world has become quite united on the basis of culture 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 managed so far. The best project that has developed over the years and which has been a dream project for a long time say was possible to implement it thanks to the help of 3 of the Ben---?------ Foundation. It goes right to the root of the question: how can the Akha minority, any Akha minority in the area, survive? They will have problems in the future with the majority of the 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 element projects and the Dutch projects want to keep those people primitive on hand and the younger people have the tendency in the first generation to become or be called a lost generation. The lose influence 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 is a lot of branches. This is expressed in the geneological system, like the Laos, everybody knows geneological name and this tree looks like upside down. It's an incredible system because if people who belong to one clan or super-family know 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 this is primarily ancestor Sumi-O, is a word which has been used a lot but is not only the geneological system keeping identity, it's an ID-card for people but also the knowledge of the end, and transfer of the traditional knowledge in particular in the traditional text. I have been flabergasted and I am still all the time, by the memory of those reciters … what we call cultural specialists.


We have been starting to write down from tapes. I have been systematically collecting since the beginning. I always have a tape-recorder …where… everywhere …right in the village from the beginning amounting to 6/700 tapes and… others step out, to write down those texts. Pima, the reciter, who is the village teacher reciter who does also 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 maybe… Can you also go on reciting' and then ‘there you are'. It's really an extremely exact hard-disc type of memory. So before those died it has to be recalled otherwise will be lost forever.

And there's a whole movement also in Unesco, we had a meeting 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, to 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 who became Christian maybe become curious by their parents through a way as they say their ancestors lasted the ancestor paraphernalia has been throw away many become Christians and 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 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 generation to come in books and we have seen that this has made us extremely popular in the circles of Akha, Hani, conservatism and China. Nobody knows here in Thailand or… in that "Iko" despies made majority people and even worse, much worse now than in the past.

And those Iko have (noisy interruption)… So (speaks really quietly, then louder again)… but became also popular with specialised -like spend- foundation and others. He caused Akha texts of an extreme poetic beauty within to Tao texts and fake ---?--- texts or the bible. All those texts have been going on for hundreds of years in oral traditions which they buried them down much later ---?--- latest Akha text, of course, but the beauty of those texts is really an incredible opposition….


So, it became also a proper, this more, I'd say academic, not only, but people, who are interested in this kind of thinking. As far as time and effort the work is cheap here. 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 there is as result brain-drain in the villages that the leading people go down study and so on and the remnant people have this big problem of drugs which is now real bad coming now out of there. And 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 Kadem and others were there and also the Thai. They mentioned Amsterdam with 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 on email. Also the attitude of the news/ media, the papers is always about Akha had others … in drugs … being addicted or being prostitutes, because many women are lured into prostitution. So the whole attitude is worse than we have seen it in… 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, they’re kind of desperate students and people in the villages are reacting against this.

But we hope for the future, we are sure that the Akha will stay together because, 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, 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 seen in that particular light.


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 doesn't mean that they want to keep the culture as it is, but it has to adapt it to modern times. Like 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.

(Twins?) Also I'd like it for …. But there are of course other things. In the past the trends were suffocated and it came and it was a kind of damn on this phenomenon which is very well understandable, because if we have seen that the Laos … the mother work in the fields get the two … doesn't have enough milk, and two or three dying as we have seen in the past. So this one's adapted to trends not accepted anymore.

Or the dresses, some people are saying they have to keep the dresses and … also 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?’ 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 … that was abolished.

But talk about this or about any other example, of course, of adaptation caused the gap between modern life and the old system 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 oppressed. And we said there is one very important woman in Thailand in Akha villages she is called ---Eye Ahma--- means effectively the Rainfield Mother. It's a woman who after she has no children anymore at 45 becomes equal to the men. She gets a white shirt and she gets involved in all kinds of ancestors' ceremonies and she becomes something like a leader of women. That's in the past and it's extremely positive for the power of women.


Yeh, 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 those, the women 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.


One element of adaptation which is not so easy is the difference between the authorities in the mountains in the traditional Akha village and in the rural lands like Thailand in effect, and Burma and China, also. When I came to the village 20 years ago I was struck by the sense of equality between the people and a lack of an authority existent. In the village the older people have authority because they have experience based on knowledge and then, of course, agewise.. 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 that’s because I could find it and they couldn’t find it. That didn’t make me any higher than other people. That’s 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 in the city or even NGO’s associations are located in Thailand and there is a tendency that the relationship of authority become vertical, like in Thailand and effectively in China also. In China the problem is the Communist party, for instance, or the military. In Thailand it’s the military system and the hierarchical system of the King, the army, the business and going down.


So, it has been extremely difficult to adapt to this kind of situation. Also because running agencies and outsiders amongst the Dutch agencies. Inbetween I’m tired, so why not take the time model. In fact at the trial mass we had in ’72 or such a funding agency from Holland abolished the equality system which we had set up in our own NGOs, and we are still in the middle of this. And it’s not that clear how to resolve this except by the fact that in some of our NGO’s 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 it’s also true inside Akha worlds the difference between wealth and poverty has also increased, that’s 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 think of themselves bosses of all the others except that Akha extremely alert in the mountains through anybody who tells them he is the king. The Akha say always: "we dont need a king, we need lawyers." To help us to resolve our land problems, to defend our legal status, to protect our children against prostitution and we need to have a voice on the legal level. So the ---oaths intelligentia--- has not yet gone down completely.


I’m …puzzled right from the beginning about the question why this Akha system have this kind of equality in its system; it’s really build in the system except that there’s 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 ‘comical system’ building up like we have it in Mexico and other places and, 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 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 comical 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. I’ve seen many other examples of people who tried to build up a leadership also through greater wealth and this was destroyed by the environment. One more thing has to be said. In the past wealth didn’t necessarily only mean to build up power because in the traditional system the sense of nativity, 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 terribly destroyed by the environment. So, the equality of the Akha baked in their system sees an opposition tendency to leadership, I mean see that near to the Thai system sometimes this kind of development more into the kind of totalitarian system happens.


In my study of the texts and comparing old texts I’ve been struck always by the byfact to … 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. For the fact if Akha maybe their part of or have ruled us in the past. Certainly the Akha would say: " no, we had no rulers" but there was. His name was ---Abo Chuban--- and this ---Abo Chuban--- 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 whole system, lots things and it’s a bit …. People had to bring him ten sacks of ant eggs, fly noses and all kinds of other things like that, it is a bit ridiculous. However this ---Abo Chuban--- 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. Here’s the story of Icarus, an Akha Icarus but 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 Kurblikhan and the Mongols. But for the Akha, having a ruler would always be 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 by Akha, maybe we don’t even know by whom but there’s also escape as an example those being rich and who want to become rulers one day will collapse. END

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