Chapter 2: THE MISSIONARIES
We’re sure you’d want to know how the Mlabri survived the threat of extinction as recently as 3 decades ago but are now enjoying the lifestyle of middle-income Thais. Just how did they do it?
In 1980, Reverend Eugene Long, a Protestant missionary from Florida left his home with his wife and child to further God’s work in Thailand. After 5 years, he learnt about the Mlabri and their dark future. He decided to help. Knowing that the Mlabri needed urgent help just to survive, Eugene put aside his mission work and together with his family struggled uphill for the next 20 years just to help them. To start with, it was not easy to gain the Mlabri’s trust. It took Eugene many years to learn their language just to be accepted.
Learning the Mlabri language perfectly actually took them 5 years. Now that there was no communication barrier, they started some projects. They reforested the bare land with an ecologically-sound mixed forest. This provided work for the whole tribe and a fair salary was paid to them for the first time. A large schoolhouse was built. Eugene and his family took turns to teach the Mlabri who weren't too interested in the beginning. But they soon realized that they were learning fascinating things such as counting the money they now earned.
In the beginning, Eugene helped to free them from the exploitation they were subjected to. Soon the surrounding villages were not happy to lose their cheap labour. All kinds of obstacles were thrown in his way. Bad words were spoken, threats made and in some incidents, violence barely avoided. In the beginning, the Long family also faced a lot of skepticism from the Thai government who could not understand why the Longs bothered to help those “spirits”. This was a government who treated the Mlabri tribe then as “non persons”, and refused to issue birth certificates or identity papers to the Mlabri, let alone accept them in schools. It took the Long family almost 20 long years and relentless lobbying before the government finally agreed to accept them as Thai citizens.
A major part of Eugene’s efforts was dedicated to finding an alternative way for the Mlabri to make a living. Fish ponds and pig pens were erected, and chickens soon roam the village. Rice was planted alongside other crops. Slowly but surely, the Mlabri started to discover the things that are so normal to us, but were totally alien and often scary yet fascinating to them. Things like buying a shirt, switching on a lamp, fixing a water pipe, and riding a bike. Soon they were also toying with the modern gadgets we take for granted: cameras, TVs, refrigerator, telephones. Life had become a series of daily surprises.
Eugene’s work might not be the most successful mission in ecclesiastic standards but no one can dispute the fact that it can be considered a social and development miracle. Eugene managed to get the whole tribe together, away from slavery, and be independent from other tribes. He respected this independence, lifestyle and beliefs of the Mlabri tribe and imposed nothing on them, not even his own religion. He offered counseling and guidance, he helped them preserve their identity and manage their way through this new reality. He was the beacon that shone steadily for the Mlabri who took what must be the world’s biggest leap – from the Stone Age to the 21st century.