What are the myths about the Hmong

The myth of the Golden Triangle - hill tribes in Southeast Asia

Mien villager with child from Northern Laos, 2009; © Berlin State Museums; Ethnological Museum, photo: Martine Augait

From the Mecca for drug addicts hardly any opium comes out, but it remains a poor house: the ethnological museums vividly present traditional cultures in the border area of ​​Thailand, Burma and Laos.

The junkies of the 1970s / 80s got sparkling eyes when they heard the term “Golden Triangle”: The purest and most effective opium in the world came from the border area between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). This region has now replaced Afghanistan and Pakistan as the most important supplier countries for the raw material for heroin. Former opium farmers in Southeast Asia now mostly grow vegetables, tea or cut flowers for export.



The myth of the Golden Triangle - hill tribes in Southeast Asia

from December 16, 2011 until further notice
daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., on weekends from 11 a.m. in the Ethnological Museum, Lansstraße 8, Berlin-Dahlem

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They have remained poor: They belong to ethnic minorities who are disadvantaged by the respective majority population. The Ethnological Museum presents six of these so-called “mountain peoples” as examples. It uses the “myth of the golden triangle” to fix visitors with the opium dreams of smugglers and drug barons: however, mainly photo and film documents, clothing and everyday objects are shown.


Mass tourism is spreading


They are part of a collection of 2,000 objects that the museum bought in 1986. At that time, adventurous people could still purchase high-quality pieces in the impassable mountainous country: Thailand's border area was difficult to access, and the neighboring terrain in Laos and Myanmar was closed to foreigners. That has changed: The region is largely developed, mass tourism is spreading from Thailand to the neighboring countries.

Interview with curator Roland Platz about the importance of opium and the change in the region as well as impressions of the exhibition


Sacrifice the soul of the rice for rich harvests


Nevertheless, many hill tribes have retained their traditional way of life. They settle in small villages at high altitudes and practice subsistence farming. Their main food is mountain rice, which is only irrigated by rain. The Karen, with 4.5 million the largest ethnic group in the region, sacrifice the rice soul for a rich harvest. Ancestral cults are practiced by all hill tribes. Otherwise they profess various religions: The Karen are partly Christian, partly Buddhist, other groups are animistic; the Mien pay homage to Chinese Daoism.


Like the Hmong, Lahu, Lisu and Akha, they did not immigrate to the region from southern China until the beginning of the 20th century. Like Chinese, their languages ​​are tonal: syllables change their meaning at different pitches. Their cultural independence is expressed above all in the elaborately decorated clothing that each family makes themselves: All mountain peoples and their subgroups prefer their own colors and patterns.


Recent developments hidden


The decolonization of Indochina did them badly: The now independent titular nations want to assimilate them more or less forcibly. While the Karen in Myanmar have been waging a guerrilla war for their autonomy for 60 years, the Hmong in Laos were used by the CIA as US foot troops against the communist Pathet Lao. After the communist victory, many Hmong fled abroad; around 60 came to the Federal Republic.


The show documents these fatal consequences of the Vietnam War in detail. On the other hand, more recent developments are left out: the power struggle between monarchists and populists in Thailand as well as radical reforms by the new President Thein Sein in Myanmar, who is breaking the petrified military dictatorship and its effects on the mountain peoples.


It may be that they cannot yet be fully assessed, but their mention would have made the show's topicality clear. She is content with a knowledgeable overview from a scientific distance - more is expected of the future Humboldt Forum.