INA House Indigenous Asia: A hidden cultural gem
“The government usually says that indigenous people migrated here to Thailand to rely on the largess of our royalty. In fact, many groups have settled here for centuries, almost as long as the age of Bangkok,” said Chupinit Kesmanee, Chairperson of Asia Indigenous People Pact (AIPP).
Founded in 1988 by a network of indigenous people across Asia, AIPP has spent the past 30 years expanding across the region and now works in 48 offices across 14 countries including Japan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Taiwan and here in Thailand.
“The very foundation of AIPP is to encourage and promote human rights for indigenous people,” said Chupinit who has been with the organisation since its inception. “Most of the activities we support fall in line with the policies of UNDRIP,” continued Chupinit referring to The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. The UN’s definition of indigenous people was solidified in the declaration. “Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.”
“The definition is quite clear,” said Chupinit who pointed out that the translation of indigenous people in the Thai language to fit with that definition beacame quite a bit of issue. “The Thai government doesn’t like to use the term native, as they like to say indigenous people migrated here. Even using the term hilltribe doesn’t cover the population of indigenous people, as it only focuses on those who live in the Northern Thai mountains.”
While the population of indigenous people makes up about 5% of the world’s population, according to a UN report in 2010, they also make up 15% of the world’s poorest people. Among the world’s 900 million extremely poor people who live in rural areas, one-third are classified as indigenous. Although fewer than some would think, these people represent over 5,000 different cultures and it could be argued that they bring great cultural diversity to the world, which is something being celebrated more and more in the modern day.
According to a study by the World Bank published in a book titled Indigenous Peoples, Poverty, and Development, over 75% of the world indigenous people live in Asia. While poverty remains a major issue for indigenous people, they are now also facing the threat of losing land, lack of legal identity and even loss of cultural identity due to lack of inheritance rights, natural resources and due to numerous governments cracking down on ‘undocumented people’. With human rights at the core of the organisation, AIPP works on numerous fronts including policy advocacy, strengthening indigenous networks, environmental programmes, knowledge and information sharing and women’s issues.
“After our former secretary-general, Joan Carling officially initiated the women’s programme, she was eyeing a centre which could act as a venue for meeting and selling handicrafts and foods produced by indigenous people,” said Chupinit. In 2014, INA House was established under that concept. Although small, the centre provides affordable accommodation as well as a meeting room and a restaurant. There are also handcrafts on sale, made by local indigenous people, such as handwoven cloths and coin purses, alongside other items from further afield such as brass works from India. “All of these items were brought from indigenous villages to be resold, but we do not have the strength or manpower to get a regular supply at this time,” explained Chupinit.
The word INA means mother. In a number of Southeast Asian dialects, therefore the house aims to offer a warm, welcoming feel to all guests, like a mother welcoming her children home after a long time apart. Located on the Ping river near the Nawarat branch of Rimping Supermarket, the centre is not only for locals, but welcomes all who wish to come and explore the intriguing cultures of indigenous people in Asia, while at the same time offering a place to support those indigenous people through selling their wares.
Wild honey is one of those products and is produced in a small Karen village known as Khun Win in Mae Wang district where the 200 residents have a great respect for their natural resources. The community is able to harvest at least a thousand litres of wild honey a year, however, all villagers work within strict parameters, passed down through the generations, to ensure the continuation of the trade. Some cultural aspects such as no swear words allowed during honey collection, no collection during Buddhist holidays or during a village death make this task a real part of the cultural fabric. And importantly everyone is held accountable for the overall well-being of the bees.
INA House also serves food every day, curated from a range of unique dishes of the Akha, Karen, Naga, Lisu, Chakma and other indigenous tribespeople. “We also use rice from the villages, as well as fresh coffee. We would love to transition to organic ingredients at some point but right now that is beyond out capability given the limited resources of the villages and the increasing demand,” explained Chupinit.
Karen chicken soup, an aromatic soup served with coriander and tamarind leaves which is usually prepared during ceremonies like New Year and spiritual ceremonies is a rare treat available here. Other rare dishes to try are Chaka fish wrapped in banana leaves served with tomato, string beans, ginger, cumin, green chili, coriander and turmeric – a common dish of the Chaka people in the remote area of Chittagong Hills. The Naga spicy pork, is also served and is an old Naga tribe dish traditionally served during cerebrations.
INA house is open to all, and in spite of its ties to AIPP, the centre focuses on the local lives and cultures that surround Chiang Mai. Though just a drop in the ocean, it is yet another drop that begins to saturate the world with greater understanding and respect for indigenous people.