Tribal groups in Thailand have their own distinct language and culture, and many have their own unique religious system. Nearly all are said to have come from China and other areas north of Thailand in mass migrations over several thousand years.
Today, most are found in remote, mountainous areas in the north of the kingdom.
Among southern tribes, the ‘sea gypsies’ live along the seashore of Thai southern islands, and the Negrito Sakai live on the Thai Malaysian border.
While the gospel has had some success among these minority groups, much remains to be done.
The gospel has often been presented from a traditional western viewpoint, with little understanding of the worldview of specific tribal groups. This has led to ‘Christo-paganism’.
Where the gospel has been taught in an understandable way, with due regard for language and culture, several tribal groups have been brought from darkness to gospel light.
Most evangelism among tribes has been done in the majority Thai language, or through interpreters from English to Thai or from Thai to tribal. Often the message becomes garbled as it filters through several languages.
Many folks use ‘teaching English’ as a way to gain converts, with some success. Others use tracts, or Bible texts high up in trees on roadsides, to get the message across. Hospitals, clinics and schools have also been built to meet the ‘felt needs’ in different groups.
But the most ‘lasting’ method of teaching the gospel has been to live with the people, to get to know them thoroughly, and present the truth in a clear scriptural way, ‘precept upon precept’.
The year 2002 saw the first completed Bible in a minority language in Thailand. Don Schlatter of New Tribes Mission published the complete Bible in the Lawa language, using the Thai script.
Other translations are in progress for the Bruu and So tribes in the northeast, the Northern Pwo in the north, and the Southern Pwo Karen in the west.
The smallest minority group, the semi-nomadic Malabri or ‘Yellow Leaf’ people, will soon be hearing God’s Word in a clear and understandable way. The hitherto resistant Southern Pwo Karen are showing much interest in the truth — many are in the ‘valley of decision’.
The Sgaw Karen, who have had churches since the time of Adoniram Judson, are seeing continual church growth.
Where the gospel is received in remote tribal areas it leads to changed lives. People no longer want to ‘appease the spirits’. There is freedom in worship. They have a purpose in life, and turn from gambling, drunkenness and adultery.
With this change of heart comes improved health and better living conditions. These changes are helped by missionaries bringing in medical help and rural development.
Although similar assistance may be offered by local government or other religions, these agencies often lack love and concern for the whole man.
At the same time, a philanthropic approach by missionaries can produce ‘rice’ Christians, especially where money, practical help and education are given indiscriminately.
This has occurred in refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border, where people have been receiving ‘handouts’ over long periods of time.
Also, Christians who are used to receiving from ‘rich foreigners’ are less inclined to give to God’s work from their meagre resources, and this hampers church growth.