On Page 286: ‘Little Heroine’ tells the saga of an Akha girl’s escape from slavery and her struggle to go to school
Akha tribesman smoking opium in the Golden Triangle, circa 1980.
The Saga of an Akha girl’s escape from ‘slavery’, struggle to go to school, fight for dignity and justice
The Akhas one of the most exploited and marginalised
Author’s note: In 2001 I was the researcher and interpreter for Reader’s Digest writer doing a regional drug story. We spent quite some time in Mae Sai and I had a good chat with this incredible Akha girl. What I heard blew me away.
The border town of Mae Sai, the northern-most point of the country is by far the most notorious and mind-boggling of all Thailand. It is the gateway for all the worst of human flotsam pouring from Burma into Thailand – opium, heroin, amphetamines, border raids, refugees, child prostitutes and human trafficking, to name a few. For a small frontier town it has the most number of brothels per square area.
The flood of amphetamine has become so serious of late that an all out war was declared and its eradication has become national top priority, says Sompop Jantraka, head of Daughters Education Programme, an NGO in Mae Sai dedicated to preventing and saving young girls being sold into prostitution.
Nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sompop was named one of Asia’s 25 heroes by Time magazine in April this year (2002). [Time magazine issue Apr 23, 2002]
To underscore the effectiveness of his NGO, the police in Mae Sai asked for two women counselors from the DEP to help in the police rehabilitation center.
Young Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: far right, RD writer Marc Lerner and Sompop, back to camera, and police officers interviewing teenage girls at Mae Sai Rehab Center
“We are happy to provide our counselors to help the woman addicts and we have asked the police to provide us with two officers to help us in our fight against woman and child trafficking,” says Sompop.
Of the two counselors helping the police is a tribal girl, Thanayaporn Lecheku, who would in all probability be the heroine of Asia if not the world. Diminutive and unassuming, like most of her mountain folks, her demeanor belies the steel inside her that has been forged by years of hardship and struggle she has endured.
Thanayaporn’s story is the more remarkable as she is an Akha, the poorest and most marginalized of Thailand’s minority mountain tribes. Struggling against all odds she has not only got herself educated and become one of the best counselors, she would also become one of the first Akha woman graduates. At twenty-one, she is now a first year university student majoring in arts and public administration.
Speaking to this writer 2001 in Mae Sai, Thanyaporn said humbly, “I come from a family of nine brother and sisters. I am the middle child. Home is in Pa Daeng Luang, a remote mountain village 40 km from the district town of Mae Suay (110 km from Mae Sai).
“My father is an opium and heroin addict. He also takes amphetamine. I was nine years old and in primary two of the village school when my father said he is going to sell me and my younger sister. There are too many children and not enough to eat, he said. I was very angry and ran away from home with another girl from the village.
“We walked the whole day to Mae Sai with just the clothes we wore. From Mae Sai we hopped on the buses from village to village and came to Chiang Rai, the provincial capital. The conductors let us ride free as they know we have nothing. We beg for food and leftovers along the way.
“From Chiang Rai we hid under the seats of the tour bus and came to Bangkok. Near Bangkok the bus conductor discovered us but let us ride assuming we were Akha beggars coming to Bangkok.
“We wondered around Bangkok huge bus station not knowing where to go. A man picked us up and brought us to a temple in Ayuthaya. The temple has a big hostel for orphans, street kids and runaways like us. There were more than 100 kids, the boys and girls separated into different hostels. The abbot and monks feed the kids and send us to school.
“I stayed in the ‘wat’ for nearly seven years until I was 16 and had studied up to secondary two. I became worried and afraid and decided to come home because some of the girls in the temple had become pregnant after being raped by the monks.
“I had been away and not seen my family for so long. I wonder how my family members were getting on. My friend came back first and I wrote a letter to my father asking him whether he still has intention to sell my sisters, and if he has I shall never come home. The letter was hand carried by my friend and read to my father as he is illiterate.
“My father said no and asked me to return home. Reaching home, he asked me where I had been for so long and I said I went to school and study. He retorted what use were all the years of studies when you can’t feed the family. A girl must work (in the field), that is the only way to get food and money. And can you stay unmarried until 17? he challenged.
“I replied the only way to get more money enough to feed the whole family is to get good jobs and we must be educated. If not you will be a poorly paid laborer. There is no hurry to get married; a girl has to be educated first.
“I had to prove it, so I left for Chiang Rai and work in a shop making pillows. The pay was 2,500 baht per month with board and lodging provided. I worked for two months and came home and gave all the 5,000 baht to my father. He was surprised as he had never seen so much money before. I told him he must send the rest of my sisters to school and he agreed.
“At that time the DEP came to the village and announced that they will provide free education and all support to any girls who wish to go to school. I was very happy and immediately took the offer.
“The DEP programme also provide vocational and leadership training, work and academic studies. I continued my education and today I am a first year university student.
“I have proven to my father that I could not only stay unmarried till 17 but I could still be unmarried at 21. (Traditionally tribal girls get married at 15, 16 and by 17 they would have several children already) He has agreed to all my suggestions now and allowed all my younger sisters to continue school.”
I asked Thanayaporn whether she has used her life story in counseling the girls at the rehab center. She said not exactly her life story, but often the girls complained and bemoaned that their parents have neglected them, not give them enough money to spend and buy clothes.
“Just this small little matter and you’re all complaining; you’re having too good a life and have not ‘eaten’ hardship,” She counseled them. “Do you know my father has not given me, not a single baht all my life! “ And Thanayaporn told them how she worked and gave money to support her family.
The little Akha girl who ran away from home to escape ‘slavery’ and to get an education, has become an important part and effective counselor in the police war to eradicate drug addiction among the youth of Thaialnd. She has also convinced her tribal folks how important it is to their fight against ignorance, poverty, and corruption.
Last year when she came back to the village to apply for her ID card, the headman demanded 20, 000 baht instead of the official 20 baht. Together with the DEP chief, they made a report to the police and today the headman and his henchmen are in jail for corruption and abuse of power. Thanayaporn is now famous in her village and her name has become a symbol of hope and a better future for the impoverished hill tribe.