The Mlabri Weavers

All of us at Fiber College are proud to announce that we will be hosting the Mlabri Weavers as guests this year.  Representing their tiny tribe in Northern Thailand, two women and their translator will be demonstrating the weaving of their carrying bags beginning with the raw vines collected from trees, processed with the simplest tools, woven in a knot-like structure and finally dyed with natural plants.

Mlabri Weavers of NothernThailand

Mlabri Weavers of NothernThailand

Recently at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, this is the information that was printed from their flyer:

The Endangered Mlabri People of Northern Thailand
The Mlabri people call themselves Mlabri which means people
of the forest.
To the outside world, they are often known as People of the
Yellow Leaf or even Spirits of the Yellow
Leaf. In days gone by, these shy forest
people were called spirits because they were so elusive.
The Mlabri object to being called spirits and assert that
they are people, not ghosts.
The Yellow Leaf appellation comes from the Mlabri
custom of building shelters with roofs made from wild
banana leaves. When the leaves turned yellow, the
Mlabri would move on.
The Mlabri language is unique and sounds like falling

Weaving is a family affair

Weaving is a family affair

water, but soon the language may never be heard
Less than 450 Mlabri people survive
today, making them one of the most imperiled people in
the world. Most live in two settlements in northern Thailand.
They still do some forest gathering, but without access to
traditional forest land and with no farmland, the Mlabri
are being marginalized and exploited. To
bring in enough money just for food, the
Mlabri increasingly have to perform day
labor for neighboring farmers.
The Mlabri have preserved some of their traditional crafts
such as baskets and knit bags.

3 thoughts on “The Mlabri Weavers

  1. I was delighted to find your web site with information about the Mlabri people from Thailand. I applaud your interest in assisting them as they seek to survive and maintain their own identity, even as they fit into larger Thai society. I have lived among the Mlabri people since I was six years old. I’m now thirty two, so I’ve spent most of my life with them.

    Your web site, quoting information printed in a flyer from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, said:

    “Most [Mlabri people] live in two settlements in northern Thailand. They still do some forest gathering, but without access to traditional forest land and with no farmland, the Mlabri are being marginalized and exploited. To bring in enough money just for food, the Mlabri increasingly have to perform day labor for neighboring farmers.”

    This does not reflect the situation in Rong Kwang District at all.

    Some Facts and Figures about the Mlabri Village in Rong Kwang District:

    Thailand has a population that is quickly approaching seventy million people. There is, consequently, not an abundance of forested land available for anyone. Nevertheless, the Mlabri people in Rong Kwang District in Phrae Province have access to the forest equal to all of the neighboring people, tribal and ethnic Thai. They forage, fish, hunt and gather at will.

    They have more than adequate land to farm on. The Mlabri grow enough rice to feed their whole village (population: 152) for the entire year and still have some left to sell. This last year, they gave several 100 pound sacks of rice to their relatives in a neighboring province.

    It may be necessary for the Mlabri in other places to perform day labor to bring in just enough money for food, but this is decidedly not the case in Rong Kwang District of Phrae Province.

    The Mlabri in Rong Kwang District even have enough land to grow corn as a cash crop. Still, nearly a third of the land they occupy remains forested, a part of which is also planted with coffee trees, a potential future cash crop.

    Even though they have no legal title to their land, no one disputes their right to it. In a recent project to build a road across Mlabri land, the Rural Highway Department sent a special delegation to negotiate the best route for this road to follow across their land. Negotiations are ongoing.

    The Mlabri people in Rong Kwang District are not marginalized. In spite of being small in numbers, difficult to communicate with and very proud of their own heritage, the Mlabri have been treated with respect by the Phrae Provincial Government. A number of special training courses have been undertaken to help them function as full members of Thai society. Local politicians even canvas them for electoral support!

    The Mlabri people in Rong Kwang District are not exploited. The Mlabri have such a good income that surrounding villagers, Thai and Hmong, literally come begging for the hammock weaving jobs that the Mlabri do. Now that some of these others are also weaving hammocks, the Mlabri people oversee quality control, a development that gives them status and self respect.

    The twenty three houses in the Mlabri village in Rong Kwang District represent thirty nuclear families who have among them 9 satellite dishes/ TVs, 10 motorcycles, a dozen electric rice cookers and a village rice mill. Six of these houses are partially tiled, all the houses have bathrooms, and all but one have electricity. Five households have life insurance policies, 13 people have Social Security, and all Mlabri people have access to free medical care. Moreover, many of the Mlabri people in Rong Kwang District raise chickens, hogs and fish for personal consumption or sale.

    All of the Mlabri children attend primary school in the village. They are learning to read and write in the Thai language. Thanks to an initiative sponsored by the Thai Research Council and Mahidol University, they will also soon be learning to read and write in the Mlabri language, using a Thai-language-based script developed by the Mlabri people themselves.

    The Mlabri from Rong Kwang District represented themselves at the World Indigenous Peoples Day events held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, 6-9 August 2008. They have been elected to the local village committee, have their own members on the village police force and one Mlabri man is a Village Public Health Volunteer.

    Are the Mlabri an endangered people group? By any definition, their small numbers alone would require an affirmative answer. Are there imminent threats to their existence? Indeed there are.

    However, their cause is ill served by misinformation and a failure to acknowledge ongoing, sustainable development and preservation programs with a proven track record.

    I hope this information will give you a more complete picture of the situation of these fascinating, enigmatic people.

    Udom Suksaneh

  2. Thank you for your very informative, honest and intelligent comments Udom. You’re probably never going to get a job selling newspapers or TV news in a capitalist society, but you are probably a very decent human being. Hopefully I will see you in Prae one day

  3. I am sitting at my computer in San Francisco, California, USA and the Article from Udon was one of the best pieces of information I have come across in my now three months preparations for my first visit to Thailand this December/January where I hope to take a four week language and culture course at the University of Chiang Mai. I was quite transported in my mind and emagination to the habitat and the life of the Mlabri people in the Rong Kwang District of the Prae Province. Bravo to Udon and if it is to be credited as well to an interpreter for this fine piece of writing. At 62 years of age and a life time of traveling and living in various parts of the world I am, thanks to fine articles such as the Mlabri one even more motivated to do my best in preparing for this wonderful place called Thailand and it’s most interesting inhabitants. Paul had a point in suggesting that a sales job in the media might not be where Udon should be looking for as an income, but I will want to suggest that the Thai media and the TAT would do well to vigorously support and represent people with such understanding and clarity of the various Thai social structures and communities. I would certainly lay down my money to get such information as Udon has offered us. Thanks again.

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