The Akha are an ethnic group which originated in China and Tibet. Most of the remaining Akha people are now distributed in small villages among the mountains of China (where they are considered part of the Hani by the government, though this is a subject of some dispute among the Akha themselves), Laos (where they are considered Lao Sung), Myanmar (Burma), and northern Thailand, where they are one of the six main hill tribes. The Akha began arriving in Thailand in the early twentieth century and continue to immigrate, with some 80,000 now living in Thailand's northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai at high altitudes. Many of these villages can be visited by tourists on trekking tours from either of these cities. They speak Akha, a language in the Loloish (Yi) branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. Akha has a very closely related language with the Lisu and Lahu as they once belonged to the Lolohunter tribe people that once ruled the Paoshan and Teinchung plains before the invasion of Ming Dynasty (A.D 1644) in Yunan, China.
The Akha generally live in bamboo houses raised on low wooden stilts in hilly areas. These huts are divided by gender - one side is for the women, and the other side, occupied by the men, is used as a more public area. The Akha subsist through an often destructive form of slash and burn agriculture which can result in elimination of old growth forest, native animal species and serious soil runoff problems. They are expert farmers who focus on mountain rice, corn, and soybeans that are planted in seasonal shifts. The Akha are also very efficient hunters, though their prey sometimes includes endangered species.
They traditionally grew opium for income but due to the insidious effects of this drug, they are increasingly building up the tourist industry. Their commitment to this is an excellent example of giving up a very lucrative and stable economy for something legal.
A village with a large percentage of Akha is Mae Salong (now known as Santikhiri). Akha villages are also found in the area of Ban Therd Thai (formerly known as Ban Hin Taek), a former residence and base of the so-called "Opium King", Khun Sa. Khun Sa died in Yangon, Myanmar in October 2007.
The Akha put a particularly heavy emphasis on genealogy - they are taught their family history at a very early age, and their culture has a strong focus on honouring ancestors and their parents, though they dispute that this represents a form of ancestor worship. A better description of Akha religion would be animism, as they believe in a world filled with spirits, both good and bad, that have a definite physical impact on the world. They believe in a natural cycle of balance that, if disrupted, can result in illness, hardship, or even death.
The Akha have faced many controversies related to human rights and justice, particularly in the countries of Thailand and China. Their settled land is built upon hillsides that are valuable for both timber production and farming, and as such has been the target of seizure by government forces from both countries. Akha settlements and agricultural slash and burn sites increasingly encroach on national forests containing native ecosystems, thus creating another basis for controversy.
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