Yunnanese Muslims along the Northern Thai Border

Wang Liulan

In the northern reaches of the modern Thai nation-state, along the borders of Myanmar and Laos, people have been on the move since ancient times following seasonal migration routes, pursuing trade, and making new settlements. One group that has put down roots in Thailand garners much less attention from outsiders than the tribal minorities with colorful native garments. These are the Yunnanese Muslims, called “Ho” or “Chin Ho” in Thai.

Although the meaning and etymology of the term is not clear, historians have always understood the Ho to be caravanners who used horses and mules to cross into Thailand from Yunnan. For example, the histories of the Lua people, who already occupied northern Thailand, report that Ho caravans came to their village in the early seventeenth century, that their horses died while in the village, and that their demand for compensation was reported to the king.

In the nineteenth century, Ho caravans coming to Thailand from Yunnan increased in number, and their details were recorded by Western travelers and missionaries who were also moving around the region. Ho caravans traveled to and from Yunnan, Burma, Laos, and northern Thailand, with only a few traders settling along the way. They journeyed south to Thailand once or twice a year, normally in the dry season, bringing hand-woven cottons, felts, silks, medicines, and daily goods from Yunnan and returning home with ivory and traditional medicines, such as pilose antlers (Antrodia), tiger and leopard skins and bones, and bear livers. From Burma they brought opium poppies, a valuable trading commodity 

Yunnanese Muslim Traders in Early Twentieth Century Thailand

It is thought that Yunnanese Muslims first settled in what is now northern Thailand in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Although most of them went back to China as merchants, some of them started to settle in the area. As their numbers gradually increased, families gathered to form communities. Currently, the greatest number of Yunnanese mosques are in the districts of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son, with some in Lampang. As of 1997, the mosques had become the centers of Yunnanese Muslim communities of approximately 250 households (1,500 people).

The Baan Ho mosque, the oldest in Chiang Mai City, is today the heart of the Yunnanese Muslim community. It was established in the early twentieth century by a trader called Zheng who hailed from Yuxi in Yunnan province. Zheng left Yunnan and passed through Kengtung in Burma, Lampang, Tak (where he married a local Thai woman), Lamphun, and Mae Sai, along the Thai-Burmese border. In 1905, he migrated to Chiang Mai City.

The Yunnanese Muslims at that time had strong links with Thai society, and stories of Zheng’s connections and activities, in particular, have been handed down to later generations. The Thai woman Zheng married was said to be related to the Thai prime minister. In 1920, Zheng’s links with local Thai businesses allowed him to help subcontract the transport of materials by horse for the construction of a railroad in Lamphun. He ran the postal service. And it is said that he provided a camp of approximately 100 rai (1,600 km2) to be used for grazing horses at the time of the construction of Chiang Mai’s airport. For these contributions to Thai society, Zheng received the order of merit of “Khun” and took the Thai surname “Woenglukiaet.”

1950 to 1970: From “Traders” to “Refugees”

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, many Yunnanese Muslims migrated to Thailand from China via Myanmar, and the community of the Baan Ho mosque also increased rapidly. Most spent their youth and young adulthood in China and fled to escape the political turmoil of war with Japan, civil war, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Some of them suffered oppression and torture at the hands of the Communist Party both before and after 1949.

In Myanmar, nearly all Muslim refugees were caught up in the military activities of the Kuomintang (KMT) forces driven out of China after their defeat. In the 1950s, KMT forces, mainly composed of Han (non-Muslim) Yunnanese, set up military camps in Myanmar to fight against Communist rule in China. They recruited the civilian refugees as soldiers or porters to carry food and military equipment. When the government of Myanmar tried to push the KMT out of its territory, the civilian refugees from Yunnan were caught in the middle.

KMT forces were expelled by the Myanmar government across the border into Thailand in 1961. In fact, some KMT forces and civilian refugees had already moved south into Thailand in the 1950s. Eventually, more than seventy villages were built by KMT soldiers and civilian refugees, including Yunnanese Muslims, along the northern Thai border.

The circumstances of fleeing from China to Thailand are clearly different for each individual, but here is the story of Mr. Ma, a typical refugee.

Mr. Ma was born in 1919, in Najiaying village in the Tonghai District of Yunnan Province. Mr. Ma’s family had been merchants for generations who traded using horses and mules. When Mr. Ma was twelve years old, he accompanied his brother, who was seven years older, on a trading venture to Kyaing Tong in Myanmar. The brothers were accompanied by two servants and ten horses and mules. For the next eight years, Mr. Ma lived in Kyaing Tong. During that time, he continued to trade, traveling from Kyaing Tong to Menghai in Xishuangbanna, without returning even once to his home in Najiaying village. After eight years, he returned home to take a wife and afterwards began trading separately from his brother.

In the latter half of the 1940s, China was plunged into civil war, and the land was desolated. Mr. Ma was unable to pursue his commercial activities and felt he had lost any prospects for a good future. He left China in August 1949, just ahead of the establishment of Communist rule. He was 30 years old. Leaving his wife and three daughters behind, he struck out for Kyaing Tong in Myanmar. His elder brother left their farming village a year later, but did not go to Myanmar. Instead, he moved to Menghai in Xishuangbanna, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Mr. Ma took five horses with him when he left China, and he used them to conduct trade mostly between Tanyan and Tachilek on the Myanmar/Thai border. While he was living in Myanmar in this way, the Kuomintang was defeated and its armies moved south. Mr. Ma is said to have encountered the Chinese nationalist armies in Tanyan. The situation in Myanmar had also changed drastically, and trade could no longer be continued in the way that it always had. The Myanmar army attacked not only the KMT, but also the traders who had moved there from Yunnan. Therefore, with his own safety in mind, Mr. Ma fled to northern Thailand in early 1950. At the time, Mr. Ma was deeply pained by the realization that he could never return to China. In northern Thailand, he first traveled to Doi Angkhang, just over the border from Myanmar. He spent the next three to four years in a refugee camp for Yunnanese Muslims and ethnic Han Chinese called Baan Yang, in Amphoe Fang, Chiang Mai Province, after which he traveled south to Chiang Mai City.

At the beginning of his life in Thailand, he was categorized as a “refugee” by the Thai government. He was not allowed to obtain Thai citizenship and was forced to carry “proof of refugee status.” With no nationality, he was unable to get voting rights or a local commercial license. Moreover, he was forbidden from traveling freely within Thailand and was only authorized to travel outside of the administrative region in which he lived conditionally, and only upon written request.

From “Refugee” to “Muslim”: Problems and Prospects

In this way, the majority of Yunnanese Muslims living in northern Thailand are “refugees” trapped in a nation-state framework, rather than “traders” traveling freely between regions, as they did earlier. At present, there are estimated to be about 80,000 Yunnanese living in northern Thailand, of whom about 10,000 are Muslim. But citizenship for the Yunnanese – whether Han or Muslim – seems nowhere near. Some trade illegally across the Thai border and use the money to purchase citizenship and so escape from refugee status. There are still many Yunnanese Han and Muslims living in the mountains without nationality.’

In the 1970s, the Thai government started development programs to improve the harsh economic circumstances of Yunnanese refugees in mountain areas. These projects include vegetable, tea, plant cultivation, and so on. Thai schools were also built to educate second generation Yunnanese. At the same time, the Taiwanese government started to pay financial support to the refugee camps in the mountains, including those with Yunnanese Muslims. Among other things, it supports infrastructure, such as roads and water supplies, and builds Chinese schools.

For religious activities, however, especially for Muslims, the Thai and Taiwanese government offer little support. Therefore, Yunnanese Muslims who became wealthy from trade started to build mosques for the poorer communities. Five mosques were completed in the 1970s and 1980s in the refugee camps clustered in northern Chiang Mai District. Around the same time, Yunnanese Muslims started to expand their religious networks with Muslim communities outside Thailand. As a result, the first Islamic school in northern Thailand was built in Chiang Mai City by Yunnanese Muslims with funds from Saudi Muslims in 1972.

The Yunnanese Muslims are now facing their fiftieth anniversary in Thailand. What forces will shape their community in Thai society in the future? How resurgent will be their Islamic faith? As a religious minority, how will Thai society regard them? In order to understand the relationship between the state, ethnic groups, and religions, these questions present significant issues for research.

Wang Liulan
Wang Liulan is a research associate at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 5 (March 2004). Islam in Southeast Asia