Children sitting around fire, playing on swings



Pictures of children playing on a huge swing made of wood and rope and a painted Akha natives

The rituals are a chant against extinction.  Nationless, homeless, stranded in the heart of the golden triangle, the Akha people are trapped between Burma, Laos and Thailand, and unwanted by any of them.

They have nothing except themselves.  No country, land, no government.



Defying extinction only through their children.  So for the Akha, fertility is everything - the men chant for it, the women swing for it.

Still, even now.  Even after Paul Lewis, the American missionary who brought Christianity, and with it also the antithesis of fertility, a promise of salvation, not through children, but through their opposite. 

Now, after Paul Lewis, many of the Akha women who pray the wooden phallus will point at them, will bless them with children, have been sterilised.


Int: Paul Lewis

It's a matter of cutting two little chords, that's all.


Int.: Matt Mc Daniel

I mean, you're gonna have less Akha people if you sterilise a lot of Ar-Ca women. Er, that's the point.


Int.: Paul Lewis

R: What do you think was God's interpretation of sterilisation?

P.L.: Oh, I think God was thrilled that these women could sleep with their husbands and not be worried. Yeah, wow.(laughs). Oh, I wouldn't have done it if I had thought that there was some...some divine reason why it shouldn't be done, but as far as I could tell, definitely it should be done.


Close up of woman in prayer. The Church, women with children and babes in arms

The Baptist Church of the Golden Triangle.  Its founder, Paul Lewis, first visited Burma in 1947, then crossed the border, evangelizing hill tribes in Thailand, the first white man the Ar-Ca had ever seen, speaking their language, winning their faith and trust, utterly.  Who, knowing neither a Christian God, nor white people, believed Paul Lewis to be both.


Int.: Paul Lewis

So each time you have this trust, in a way its almost frightening. One time we were coming back to the States... they came to the house and said "Do you have a picture?"  I kind of joked about it and I said "What do you mean?" "You know, we would like to have a picture.  League with us, we hear you're going back for a house."   I said "Well, I suppose I do, I don't know.  Why do you want a picture of me?" "Well," the man said, "you know, we're not like the Buddhists, we don't have idols that we worship, you're about the closest thing to God that we know, so we'd like to have your picture."  Wow.


Int: Three Akha women

Paul Lewis had power, he spoke our language. We believed and trusted him.

Everyone went for sterilisation, because he said it was good.

He said that if we had more children, there would not be enough food for ourselves.  He said "sterilise now."'


Int.: Paul Lewis

What happened was, we had to get permission from the government.  Their encouragement was, " Good grief, we have all these tribal people around here.  There are too many of them already, so if you can cut down, that's great."


Child playing with stick, woman walking, children watching soldiers on T.V., panoramic views over hills.

And so a strange alliance was formed, the missionary, the crusading evangelist, for God , Christianity and sterilisation - funded by the F.P.I.A., the Family Planning International Assistance Organisation for America - and the Thai government who, sensing an opportunity to quell the unruly hill tribes of the Golden Triangle, supported Paul Lewis' sterilisation programme with money, nurses, doctors, even hospitals. A covert genocide was born.  Paul Lewis, unwittingly, cynically, hungrily recruited into the Thai government's campaign of hatred against the non-Thai Akha people of the North.


Int.: Paul Lewis

This was pioneering to them, but the man, or several of the men that I dealt with, were wonderful about this. They said  "You're doing a service that we can't do. You know their language, you know their culture. Great, go ahead." And they were a teriffic help.  I appreciated that very much.


Int.: Matt Mc Daniel

The whole thing smacks of genocide and it smacks of arrogance, and we're in charge, and we're white western people and we're going to do nasty little shit to you little brown people and that'sthe equation that you see, if you take away all the names and personality and all the personalities, and all the disputes and feuds that might have gone on. You still have great white hunter sterilising little brown women .


Scene of Matt with Akha people, child with umbrella, woman walking in rain, little boys eating cane. Old man with pipe.

Matt McDaniel is an American aid worker who lived among the Akha.

And in a sense, though Paul Lewis preached sterilisation - promising it would benefit them, winning the trust of the Akha women -the real hunter was white, not brown; the Thai government who, exploiting the Akha's trust in Paul Lewis, began bussing Akhawomen, thousands in all, from the hills to the hospitals to be sterilised.

The Akha, with a natural infant mortality rate of fifty percent, were now being sterilised towards extinction.  


Int.: Matt McDaniel

It would have been seen as one of several ways to affect the Akha nation.  It would have been the same as an Indian Reservation doctor sterilising an Indian woman in America, when she was on the delivery table having her first baby.  That happened in America and so the parallels are certainly that this is what you can do with indigenous people you don't like.


Int.:Paul Lewis

I was accused of genocide among the Akha, by the man in the House of Representatives.  They had a team come out.  As a matter of fact, he himself came out. They looked at what was being done, and when they saw what was being done, they said ‘Oops, this is good.'


Int.: Matt Mc Daniel

I mean, why would you come in here and spend money sterilising Akha women. You're only in here to make sure they don't have babies, which means you're up to one thing, cultural genocide.


Village over-view

Boom-Ah preparing food in house.

But American politicians had decreed it ‘good', and the Thai government was pouring in its support, and so Paul Lewis, the chord-cutting evangelist, stepped up his mission to convert Akha women from the rites of fertility to the gospel of sterilisation.

Women like Boom-Ah.


Int.: Boom-Ah

This has been very bad for me.  I fear this is killing me.


Screen rests on Boom-Ah, eating

Boom-Ah received a Paul Lewis chord-cut more than two decades ago.  She has been in almost constant pain ever since.

A pain which paul Lewis, male American missionary, and the Thai hospital which so eagerly sterilised her,  refused to acknowledge even exists.


Int.: Boom-Ah

I have stomach and vaginal pain.  I cannot even work because of the pain.  It's like having needles inside me.


Int.: Paul Lewis

A lot of that may be psychosomatic.  I've taken some like that into the hospital and they are thoroughly examined; what happens is that it is just a tiny part that is cut and there are no nerve endings there, so that when it is cut they don't even know if it burns, they don't feel it.?


Int.: Boom-Ah

Since I've been sterilised, my periods have been very, very heavy.  I've lost a lot of weight and become sick.


Int.: Akha woman

I cannot eat very much. I cannot work hard.  My life has changed a lot.


Int.: Another Akhawoman

I have pains in my back and in my stomach.


Int.: Paul Lewis

I think that they're complaining of  pain,  it might be psychosomatic.  They want sympathy, I don't know.


Int.: Professor Gillian Turner

No.  The women aren't making these symptoms up.  If a woman says she has pain in her tummy or pain in her vagina, that's what she is experiencing.


Screen holds on Professor Gillian Turner

Professor Gillian Turner has pioneered studies in the link between physical pain and psychological trauma.


Int.: Professor Gillian Turner

That's where the link may not be a literal link, it may be a link via her feelings, via her mind, that's the real link, so it is the sterilisation that is linking that with, but it isn't the actual physical procedure that is being done that's necessarily, or probably, causing the pain.


Boom-Ah smoking

The pain that Boom-Ah now dulls by smoking opium. And she is not alone.  There are hundreds of Akha women, who trusting Paul Lewis, went to ever-welcoming Thai hospitals to be sterilised and have spent their lives ever since in pain and regret.


Int.: Professor Gillian Turner

One of the things that has to be remembered is that women can experience pain and discomfort and unhappiness following operations that they subsequently regret.


Children playing on swings, in field, in the village

Paul Lewis does not come here any longer...he has retired now.  The Thai doctors and nurses, their work done, have also gone.  And there are children here still, the Akha may yet defy extinction, but it will be despite Paul Lewis, not because of him. 

The man who meant no harm, but fostered it anyway.

The smiling, much loved missionary, who unwittingly helped the Thai government commit a chord-cutting genocide.


Int.: Professor Gillian Turner

I think that the interference with people's cultures, people's groups is something that we're only really coming..beginning to come to grips with now and we're still a long way off.  If we look back in history, and think of all the cultures that have been destroyed.


Empty swings.





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