About three years ago I heard about this crazy American guy who was living with the Akha people in the hills of Thailand. His wife was Akha, his kids were Akha and he, after thirteen years, was now pretty much Akha. He would ride around the hills in a beat up old pick-up truck – “Missionaries Suck” written on the sides in English and Akha – traveling from village to village, solving problems. If someone was sick, or injured in an accident, he would take them to a hospital. He would hand out homemade protein bars to malnourished kids and give bags of rice to hungry elders. If someone had been kidnapped by the military he would find out where they had been taken and go directly to the base to confront the commanders and, dead or alive, bring the missing person back to their village. His problem solving was dangerous work. Life is cheap in the hills of Thailand. His ass was on the line every, single day.
Although I never met him (let’s call him Matthew), I began receiving emails from him almost every week, updating me on the situation, telling me stories about his efforts to help the Akha protect their rights in the face of a non-stop, well funded onslaught by missionaries, the Thai military and the US “War on Drugs”. I was impressed. He actually got things done. The community where he lived was printing school books in Akha; hunger, disease and other day to day problems were being addressed; missionaries who stole Akha children were being confronted; and the US Embassy in Thailand was continually receiving documented proof of the abuses being committed against the hill tribes with US funding and in the name of the US war on drugs. It’s amazing what one person can do when they put their back in to it.

I read his emails for about a year without ever responding. They were fascinating and scary. Every week a new email would arrive and I would be amazed that he was still alive. Then, one day, I received an email that simply said “Matthew was taken by the military today. Please help.” …

I sent a fax to the government of Thailand and the US Embassy expressing my concern for his safety and demanding that he be released immediately. I contacted others, individuals and human rights organizations, and asked that they do the same. Then I sent him the first email that I ever sent him –

 “If they didn’t kill you already, and you get released, I’ll pay for you to come to the United Nations in New York to give testimony on the plight of the Akha and raise some hell from over here”.

About a week later, he responded.

Matthew was lucky. He wasn’t tortured, he wasn’t killed. They simply kicked him out of the country. His pregnant wife and his four kids weren’t so lucky. They were left over there to fend for themselves. As soon as he was gone the military began harassing his village, focusing on his wife and her family. After years of being forced to stand down by the crazy American they were taking out their frustration on his family. Thirteen years of being out-machoed and now they had something to prove. They beat and arrested his brother in law on bogus charges; they made life for the villagers unbearable. And the whole time he’s keeping up his campaigning, raising money to continue his health and nutrition projects in the villages and trying as fast as he can to get his kids their American passports and his wife a visa so they can be together again, but his wife’s visa never comes through.

We went to the UN, and he worked his ass off.  He met with all the relevant UN agencies, programs and commissions. He presented documentation of human rights abuses. He made the government of Thailand real nervous and they asked to meet with him. They began a dialogue. He did odd jobs, carpentry and house painting mostly, sent money to buy food for his family and keep his projects going. I could see that being away from his family was a big strain on him. He missed his wife. He missed his kids. He hadn’t even seen his youngest, who was born after he was deported.

After well over a year of jumping through hoops, filling out forms and getting the run around from the US government, Matthew and his family could wait no longer. Matthew scraped up a couple thousand dollars, bought a plane ticket and flew to Laos to meet his wife and kids as they walked across the border.

To make a long story short – The Akha are treated as less than human in Thailand. Their lands are being stolen by the government and military. Their rice paddies are being destroyed so that timber companies can plant their stands of pine. Missionaries steal and abuse Akha children, raise huge sums of money to “care for the orphans”, and then adopt them off to Europe and the United States. At the same time the US government is supporting a disastrous, inhumane “War on Drugs”. In order to keep receiving that American money, Thai Army forces drive through the hills in American made Humvees and trucks, gathering thousands of Akha men and women to beat, send off to prison or kill. In order to keep receiving those dollars they had to have big numbers, they have to have proof that their drug war is working, and the Akha are the easiest targets. As a result, thousands of Akha have been killed and thousands are rotting in prisons, far from their homes.

In the thirteen years that Matthew had been living with them he was witnessing their universe fall apart. Some villages were going hungry. Families were being torn apart. People were living in fear, staying awake at night listening for the sound of the Humvees entering the village, wondering who would be the next to be dragged out of their home, beaten and taken away.

Now he is in Laos, working with Akha villagers there. Getting by on almost nothing and still, miraculously, getting things done. He continues to wait for his wife’s visa to be approved so they can come back to the states and work from here. Last I heard from him he was down to his last few dollars. Go visit his website www.akha.org .

Donate! It’s the holidays for fucks sake.

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