(The following story is retold by courtesy of materials written and edited by Eugene Long, Andrew Sultana, Yoshifumi Sawamoto and Peter Schmid)
Chapter 1: THE GHOSTS
No one knows for sure how it all began. No one can explain what happened along the way. But one thing's certain - up to about three decades ago, no one has seen these people, known only as a myth, and referred to as the “Ghosts of Yellow Leaves".
Mlabri means “Forest People”, a tribe of no known origin who lived a raw life in the jungles of Phrae and Nan provinces in North Thailand and the Sayaburi Province of Laos. Their existence was limited to survival: hunting, gathering and collecting what they needed from the jungle. Always sleeping with an ear to the ground so they could hear wild animals approaching, they lived in simple huts, with a diagonal roof shaped from leaves. By the time the leaves of their shelter have yellowed, they would have cleared the area of food, so they moved on to the next patch of forest ground, build new huts and repeat the cycle.
Since they were never seen and the only traces of their existence were the abandoned yellowed leaves of their huts, it is no wonder they came to be known as “Phi Tong Leung” or “ghosts of yellow leaves”. When they were found about 3 decades ago, they were so primitive they had no music, dance, wore no clothes and had no culture whatsoever. How could a tribe of people, numbering about 300, have isolated themselves for so long and left behind in the evolution that happened all around? As mysterious as that may be, what’s even more mind-boggling is their origin.
They themselves do not know. Their language and history was never recorded, what they know are stories heard from the elders around campfires. But what is proven is that their language belongs to the wider Khmer-Mon group of languages. Hypothesis abound as an attempt to answer why the Mlabris have been left behind in the stone age. Some believe their reserved nature made them run away from other people. Others say they ran away from the civilized world during the wars of the great Angkor era. To survive in the jungle, they had to exist as animals, evolving backwards as the rest of humankind surged forward.
Another curious fact is that the Mlabri population ranged between 300 and 500 persons. Primitive they may be but their complex family names have kept the tribe healthy from inbreeding. This is quite extraordinary considering the fact that they marry and divorce several times. The Mlabri are peaceful people; their way of solving problems is backing away in silence at the right time. An argument between neighbors would result in one party simply dismantling his shelter and move elsewhere, peacefully.
Aliens On Their Own Planet
The guerilla wars that shaped Asia in the 70’s changed the Mlabri’s way of life. Over-hunted jungles robbed the Mlabri not only of their source of food but their whole world, as they know it. The teak industry stripped the forests and for the first time, the Mlabri were forced out of their natural habitat into the ‘civilised world”.
The “ghosts” were now people, an alien in their own planet. One of the last Mlabri to leave the jungle in the early 90’s, recalled how terrorized he was when he saw a Thai holding a torchlight in his hand, which he thought was the sun. Their total non-exposure and naivety led them to a dark period of abuse and exploitation.
With no animals left to hunt and no knowledge of farming, they were forced to find new ways of surviving. The H’mong tribe were the first to exploit them, forcing them to work their lands in exchange for food. Knowing that the Mlabri ate before they worked, the first pig the H’mong gave them enslaved them into working harder and harder to pay back the initial pig. The ‘ghosts” who had suddenly become people, were now slowly but surely sinking into slavery, with no means to defend themselves because they avoid confrontation at all costs.
The Mlabri were being dispersed and their tribe faced extinction. An attempt to keep them together was made by travel agencies who wanted to pay them to go back into the jungle as a tourist attraction. But unlike the Karen (Longneck tribe), this idea didn’t catch up. The Mlabri tribe was disintegrating and set to face a certain doom.
Fast Forward To Present-day Thailand
2007. It is 32 years after the Mlabri were forced out of the jungles. 20 years after they were saved from slavery. 8 years since they started making hammocks. Today the Mlabri can proudly say that from a myth, they have become a living legend. From nobody they became somebody. The village which they named BanBoonYuen ("Eugene" in Thai) is today home to 200 Mlabri, and has been powered by electricity since 2002. And in the last Thai elections, the "Ghosts of Yellow Leaves" made the headlines again when they were allowed to vote for the first time, flashing their brand-new ID cards.
Just 10 years ago, the Mlabri were the poorest people in Thailand. Today they possess all the status symbols of middle-income Thais. Motorcycles, TVs and refrigerators are a common sight in the Mlabri village. The first 5 young Mlabri are now going through higher education, and staying at a boarding school. The Mlabri are now planting their own rice, and have even installed a rice mill for themselves.
Some of the Mlabri are now slowly learning management skills, to support the American missionaries who have helped them to become what they are today - self-sufficient Thais living a comfortable life but still very much Mlabri in keeping with the life that they have known for so long.
Just how did they do it?