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3. Appeals and News from Endangered Communities

News of the Akha in Thailand

In response to my request to publish his letter “Unreasonable success…” in the Overheard on the Web section, Matthew McDaniel came up with the following update on his work with the Akha in Thailand.

I now have in training one very skillful young Akha woman who can read one of the old scripts and is now moving swiftly to move some texts into the new script to get ready for publishing. After six years of struggle this is good news indeed. I had made a recent trip some 160 kilometers up into Burma and met an old man who was able to help me greatly in making the last corrections to the script and tone system.

So now we are ready to publish, as soon as the prototypes are done, and I have more than just one village waiting for any books they can get their hands on.

As well I have a second young woman coming this week for translation training and one older woman who is going to be starting up our project to train older men and women to write so that they can be an active part of story preservation.

On my recent trip into Burma, apart from the good that the missions may do, I have to say that the contrast in the existence of the culture between religious and traditional villages removed any doubt in my mind as to the effect of the missionary presence. Religious villages are totally without cultural life, there is a very high instance of prostitution into Thailand with the accompanying denials. The young people have nothing to hold onto and the Christmas carols and religious shrines, far in excess of anything previously an Akha shrine, can hardly make up for the loss of the completeness of the culture they had.

The Catholic mission told me that apart from a catechist book and a few pamphlets, the Catholic church in Keng Tung, Burma has not published a book of any kind in 80 years. Quite impressive if you ask me. The culture of religion can be no replacement for remembering your own people and where you came from. If western types want the melting pot they should at least not impose it on others.

However, in the same town, there was one traditional Akha village where it was all going on orderly, much cloth was being made in traditional fashion with natural dyes, traditional clothes are worn and this village is also the source of the cottage industries in looming which are being provided to even some of the Catholic young women who have not much more to do than walk around in their western threads looking pretty and wishing they were in Bangkok making big bucks. I can say that with such seething sarcasm as I know many of these young women personally and what their jobs are when they are in Thailand having lived in this border town for six years.

So in my mind it removed all doubt that for whatever its problems, the old culture is best, in most need of reinforcement and the religious folk need to do some repenting in regard to the havoc they have reaked and the fragmentation of the genetic pool they have been instrumental in bringing about. After all, is not the size of the genetic pool, that it at least not shrink, really what language preservation is parallel to?

The Catholic mission offered them all free land if they would come and build their houses around the mission years ago, and culturally they paid a tremendous price for that.

The priests still refer to any Akha who is not a Catholic or Baptist, as a pagan. That is their exact word.

In Burma the conditions are extremely bad for the Akha. There is very little AIDS education, the boys coming down to Thailand to work and taking it back to the farthest villages. The stories of the headmen were very discouraging.

The government ineptitude has harnessed the people with 300% inflation and a level of poverty that hasn't gotten better in the six years I have been going there.


So, within the next six months our literacy publications should go on line. With our new computer system, when it comes in, we will also be updating our web site extensively.

All books when published will also be made available for download off the net where possible, our apology in advance for not having an in house artist for our book illustrations.

You can copy and publish any of my work, anything I have to say or write by email.

I suffered extensively in the last six years as a result of the secrecy of those who had knowledge about the Akha language, mostly religious people, and spent my food money on a regular basis to pay for reluctant help to make the new script, having to correct intentionally built in mystakes repeatedly by paying others to double check it. This was caused by both people from the big protestant missions who were westerners as well as protestant and catholic Akha. My translators were threatened by the Baptists who were working on an Old Testament Bible translation for OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship) to stop working on the new script or there could be problems. This was in a country where you "don't want 'problems'". So I swore at that time that when my work became clear and got going I would always have a policy that none of my work was copyrighted, that people could ask any question they wished and that no one would ever pay me for language knowledge, that it would all be free to protest this belial mentality to hide and control knowledge from both outsiders and the poor who live here.

On the cheer side, a religious friend of mine (as you see, I am religious but do not believe in religious agendas or systems) was the one who quite out of the blue gave us a substantial gift to get our school open again and jump our work forward.

I do not say that the "non-religious" do not do this or that there needs to be sides, but my advice to the religious is that if they would be humble enough to give answer to the troubling contridictions in many of their practices there would be so many more working for the same good. However, so many non-religious people and religious both, including myself, have had such disturbing experiences with western-style religion that we can not make peace with that mindset and further, as myself, find it horrifying that these same experiences are being pushed on the unknowing tribal peoples like the Akha. Give us a place for a church and you get aid.

Our four goals were:
1. Replacement computer.
2. Reopen our Akha school.
3. Purchase printing press.
4. Purchase a four wheel drive ambulance. $24,000

The first three have been accomplished and the last is remaining.

Except for maintenance costs and specific printing projects, this is the scope of our work nearly accomplished in the foundation setup.

So if a few more people come forward with the ambulance funds we will have a very well rounded program that offers aid here on the Burmese border as well as literacy assistance and first aid medical in both Burma, Thailand and hopefully soon Laos.

Happy new year everyone.

Matthew McDaniel

Latest Developments in Chiapas, Mexico

Sent by Luisa Maffi, of Terralingua:

1. Background: "Zedillo: la Guerra Perdida"

This is a translation of Jaime Aviles' newspaper column EL TONTO DEL PUEBLO titled:"Zedillo: la guerra perdida".

It was published in LA JORNADA on January 10, 1998 and translated by Global Exchange Chiapas Staff.

It is a very interesting analysis of the roots of the violence that is boiling over in Chiapas today.

Initially taken by surprise on the first of January 1994, the Mexican army took back the cities occupied militarily by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) within a few days. On January 16, four days after the huge peace demonstration in the Zocalo of Mexico City, the Mexican Army took up position 80 km from Guadalupe Tepeyac, in the canyon of Las Margaritas, and at a similar distance from the ejido of San Miguel, in the canyon of Ocosingo. Federal troops maintained these positions until December 19 of the same year, when the Zapatistas - without firing a single shot - began their second military campaign of that year.

The strategic mobilization of the Mexican Army in December 1994 was in preparation for the attack on EZLN positions in February 1995. In March and April, while the format for the reinitiation of dialogue was being agreed - formally broken off by the EZLN on June 10th of the previous year - the State security apparatus, under the cover of the Mexican Army, took its first steps to organize a paramilitary group in the north of Chiapas, outside of the so called conflict zone.

In May 1995, Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice) appeared on the scene to start a new, surreptitious kind of warfare, technically referred as low intensity conflict. During the rest of 1995 and all of 1996, the State intelligence services worked tenaciously for the extension of the low intensity war in the Highlands region [of Chiapas].

The creation of paramilitary militias in the Highlands was the responsibility of General Mario Renán Castillo Fernández, commander of the Seventh Military Region with its headquarters in Tuxtla Guttierez [capital of Chiapas]. Experts under his command, trained like him in the school of counterinsurgency at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, took on the detailed task of finding out, in ball park terms, just how big the EZLN areas of influence were in the mountain chains that surround the city of San Cristobal.

No doubt incredulous at the extent to which EZLN influence had spread, the counterinsurgency specialists began to examine, in close detail, those municipalities that displayed the greatest tensions between indigenous zapatistas and those affiliated to the PRI.

Their initial investigations revealed that within the poorest of the poor existed small groups of people that were even poorer. Using the PRI municipal structures, the State apparatus began to sow the first seeds of paramilitarization within this group. In May 1997, when the intellectual authors of the paramilitary project were convinced that they had sufficient numbers, the new stage of the hidden war began.

Between May and September 1997, the paramilitaries, who little by little had been forming the Indigenous Antizapatista Revolutionary Movement (MIRA), began their harrassment campaign against EZLN support populations, mixing selective terror with the harrassment of entire villages; later, as Samuel Ruiz [the Archbishop of the Diocese of San Cristobal] explained in his interview with [television journalist] Ricardo Rocha (December 14 1997), the process of plundering whole communities, robbing harvests and burning houses began.



From September to November, the paramilitary offensive reached its peak with a deliberate strategy to maximum chaos by displacing thousands of EZLN supporters into the mountains. They were deprived of everything in the process: shelter, clothing, food, work, and security. When the press finally woke up to the barbarity, the war was reduced to a level of intensity that would prevent displaced people from reorganizing their daily lives.

Then, taking advantage of the fact that the country had already gone on holiday, Acteal happened.

The killing on December 22 was a strategic strike, albeit badly calculated and executed. With the complicity of the State Public Security police (who put a defensive ring around the area to protect the paramilitaries); the logistical coordination of Uriel Jarquin and Homero Tovilla, political functionaries of the (ex) governor, Ruiz Ferro; the supervision of State Counsel of Public Security (chief organ of the counterinsurgency) and the consent of the (ex) Secretary of Internal Affairs, Emilio Chuayffet Chemor, the murderers arrived at Acteal. According to the most recent investigations, they were prepared for [armed] confrontation with the displaced people, not to riddle them with bullets.

The inhabitants of the camp, however, who were devout Catholics and in and case unarmed and unable to defend themselves, decided to start praying once they heard that an attack was imminent. Ricardo Rocha, in his excellent [radio] program last Sunday, demonstrated how the majority of the bodies had entry wounds in the back.

The paramilitaries had precise orders and they carried them out to the full. Their only problem, however, was that they over did it. According to the head of the Red Cross team who helped out at the scene of the massacre, Uriel Jarquin arrived that night to try and disappear a certain number of the bodies that they had found "heaped together". A State crime had just taken place in Acteal. What came next, as is consistent with the general outline of this war, was a cynical explanation from the State.

On December 23, the President of the Republic, Dr Ernesto Zedillo, reacted by declaring that "It was a cruel, absurd and unacceptable act". The General Attorney's Office for the Republic brought the investigation under federal jurisdiction and promised to investigate "until we get to the bottom of it". The President of the National Human Rights Commission, after a period of hesitation that gave her enough time to send no less than three members of her staff, finally deigned to make a personal visit. The nation's top lawyer acted swiftly. On December 25, as all the facts appear to suggest, he organised for some of the paramilitaries to "be found" on the road at the same time as the funeral cortège of the 45 victims, "capturing" them immediately in what still seems like a "voluntary surrender" to protect the jackals and "obtain" evidence. Immediately, his investigations led him to discover that it had all been the product of an "intercommunity conflict", allowing him to continue "apprehending" the less important players.

Having been planned with great care, however, the war maintained its steady course. After the killing, the State security apparatus detected "movements of Zapatista troops in the Jungle" and sent 5,000 soldiers to... the Highlands. The regular combat forces, from what it appears, occupied the area that the irregular forces had "prepared". Thanks to this operation, Dr Zedillo's administration has managed to find the missing link in his grand annihilation plan. We must not forget that the regime continued to reinforce its military installations in the canyons throughout 1995 and 1996.

From the "government's" point of view, everything is now ready for the final offensive against the EZLN. With huge numbers of troops in the Highlands, the Mexican Army has been advancing towards the rebels' mountain positions since Thursday with the intention of capturing Subcomandante Marcos. Taking the "top leader" continues to be a priority for the military strategists who want to negotiate the surrender of the rebel bases. Four years of argument has not made them change their opinion on this point.

The regime is playing against time. Things will come to a head the day after tomorrow when a world-wide mobilization, as yet unprecedented in this war, takes place in Mexico, Paris, Rome, Berne, Madrid, Barcelona and various cities throughout the United States. The demonstrations will ask Dr Zedillo to put a stop to his senseless adventure and to honour his commitment to fulfill the San Andrés Accords. It will also demand that the countries of the European Union break negotiations on the free trade treaty with Mexico and apply sanctions for human rights abuses against the poorest and most vulnerable people in Chiapas. There will also be calls for Bill Clinton's government to suspend the military aid that Mexico is using against a justified rebellion by its Indian people.

Another reading suggests that the new Secretary for Internal Affairs, Francisco Labastida Ochoa - who represents an alternative view point within the PRI to the factional interests of the Chiapan governors, but still buys into the neoliberal megaprojects for the region in which the Indians do not fit - is employing the Mexican Army irresponsibly and adopting the macabre strategy designed by Chuayffet to force the EZLN into negotiating under the most unfavorable circumstances possible.

If this is the case we are facing another military offensive similar to the one on February 10, 1995, and the risks for Zedillo, Labastida, the image of the Mexican Army and the stability of the country are extremely high. If something goes wrong in these cold blooded calculations, the backlash could be severe.

Meanwhile, by employing generals to carry out functions that belong to the civil police, Labastida, either intentionally or by neglect, has brought about an open and public conflict with the Catholic Church. Now only the Presidentms Office stands between these two institutions. The statement by the Secretary for Internal Affairs that "Samuel Ruiz counts in the peace process" will not be enough to alleviate the feeling of offense felt by the church hierarchy, a dreadful outcome for someone who has been head of internal affairs for barely seven days.

The most important point, however, has not yet been mentioned: since January 12 1994, the EZLN in obedience with demands made of it by civil society, converted itself, paradoxically, into a non-violent political force. In June of that historic year, having broken off dialogue with the Salinas government, the Zapatistas initiated a dialogue with Mexican civil society and the whole world that has continued uninterrupted. In this same spirit, the EZLN resumed dialogue with Dr Zedillo and, despite numerous provocations from Ruiz Ferro, continued to negotiate until September 1996, having signed agreements with representatives of the President's Office (which have never been fulfilled).

By completely embracing pacifism, the EZLN has won the political street war. This goes a long way to explaining why the regime, having failed to beat the weak and illiterate at the negotiating table, persists in its desperate attempt to destroy them militarily: an attempt at genocide (that appeared in its most concrete form in Acteal on December 22) that no civilized country on the planet has seen fit to support; on the contrary, they have shown nothing but horror and genuine concern. Or perhaps Dr Zedillo can show us just one demonstration of support from either within Mexico or abroad? Has there been any kind of statement whatsoever from a political party, government, parliament or religious authority that will help him to shoulder this barbarity to its logical conclusion? Mexico is today living through its most serious diplomatic incident in many years, and the causes of this calamity cannot even be justified by saying that we are going - and that they are taking us - in the right direction.

Let's get out there and make one more effort to stop this war on Monday. The appointment is at four o'clock in the Zócalo.


2. Appeal for Action

From: Luisa Maffi maffi(at)
Date: 14 January 1998
Subject: emergency in Chiapas
Cc: maffi(at)

Dear Colleagues and Friends,
I'm passing on an appeal I received from the esteemed Mexican colleague, ethnoecologist Victor Toledo, for the scholarly community to join in denouncing the recent dramatic events in Chiapas. I think this is an excellent way to speak up in a more forceful way than individually, if you feel so inclined. If you wish to sign, please then send back the signed message (minus my own text) *directly* to Victor, who is planning to publish the appeal in the Mexican papers (c/c to Mexican President Zedillo) in the next couple of days. His email address appears in the message below. FYI, a separate message contains a very good summary and commentary on the recent facts, translated from a Mexican newspaper. I hope you all will sign. Chiapas needs all the help it can get. Best,

Luisa Maffi

P.S.: If any of you had already received the same appeal, please forgive replication.

Dear colleagues, We are invite you to endorse the enclosed letter of solidarity with the indigenous peoples of Chiapas (Mexico), who during the last weeks are resisting the "silent war" of the Mexican army and of the terrorist groups promoted by the state powers. As perhaps you know, the past December 22, 45 indigenous persons, principally women and children, were assassinated by paramilitary groups, while praying at the community of Acteal. They were part of the social basis of the Zapatista movement. Please sign the following letter, as soon as possible, and circulate it among the highest number of people.


We, scientifc researchers of universities, academic centers and technological institutes worldwide, profoundly concerned with the events of the last days in the indigenous regions of Chiapas, demand:

1) The concentration of the troops of the Mexican army outside of the indigenous regions of Chiapas and in places certified by the public, media and non gubernamental organizations.

2) The respect to the Law for the dialogue, the concentration and the peace in Chiapas, promulgated by the Mexican Congress on March 11, 1995.

3) The promulgation and application of the San Andrés agreements, signed by the Government of Mexico and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) on July 12, 1996. These agreements constitute the first step toward peace in Chiapas.

4) The respect to the human rights of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas and other regions of Mexico, today threatened by military and paramilitary actions. The above implies the free transit of journalists, observers, and NGO activists in the indigenous regions of Chiapas.