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Far East Kingdoms

South East Asia


Akha (South-East Asia)

The Akha are an ethnic group within South-East Asia. They inhabit areas of modern Burma, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. They number roughly between four hundred thousand to six hundred thousand, of which some eighty thousand now in large part live in northern Thailand because so many have fled civil wars in Burma and Laos. Typically living in highlands, they are usually dominated by lowland peoples.

The Akha belong to the Lolo language branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family. The Chinese classify the Akha as part of the officially-designated Hani minority, but the Akha consider themselves a distinct people. They refer to themselves as 'Avkavzav', meaning 'Akha people'. The Thais classify them as part of six hill tribes which migrated from China and Tibet over the centuries and which are not counted as Thai citizens. In Thailand and Burma they are often referred to as 'Gaw' or 'Ekaw', both of which are derogatory terms.

In Laos, the Akha are referred to as 'kho' or 'kha', meaning 'slave', or 'kha kho'. Other ethnonyms include Aka (Ak'a, or Akka), Aini (Hani, Houni, or Woni), and Edaw (Ikaw, Ikho, and Kaw). The Akha form the fourth-largest ethnic group in Laos and form part of the Lao Soung grouping (to which the Hmong also belong).

Ethnic subgroups of Akha in Laos include the Iko Mutchi, Iko Eupa, and Iko Loma. Subgroups in Thailand include the Akha Loi Mi, Akha Phami, and Akha U Lo.

The Akha are thought to have descended from the Lo-Los, a highland agricultural tribe which once had a number of kingdoms in eastern Tibet and Sichuan. The Lo-Los had developed terracing in their farming. General archaeological opinion has the ancestors of the Akha, Lisu, and Lahu losing their ability to live in the cold so that they had descended from the highlands into the Yunan valleys by the seventh century AD. They are mentioned in Sui and Tang documents of the same period.

Akha tradition describes a homeland near a large river and a migration across many rivers. Experts debate whether the Akha originated in Tibet or Yunan but, in any event, they are recognised as having migrated from Tibet into Burma and Laos in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Akha typically live at high elevations in heavily forested areas. They have a semi-nomadic existence, settling in villages but often moving the entire village, and lacking a class system. There is no central political organisation other than each village having its own headman, usually an hereditary position. Together with the headman, male elders enforce social customs.

Modern capitalism has had an important impact upon their culture, and yet they continue to retain certain traditional practices, such as teeth blackening or lacquering. This custom helps to prevent tooth decay and also provides assurance that one is not mistaken for a demon, who always have white teeth. Entrances to villages have an elaborately decorated gate which keeps spirits and ghosts outside the village, in their own realm and in the world of wildlife. Carvings atop roofs perform the same function.

Akha descent is patrilineal, and a man is expected to know his genealogy back sixty generations. In marriage, the Akha are allowed to practice polygamy, but divorce is allowed and is in fact common amongst couples who do not have children. Either spouse can propose a divorce.

Akha religion involves a creation myth in which A-poe-mi-yeh formed the world, along with men and spirits who lived together. After A-poe-mi-yeh tired of the quarrelling between the two, he created the earth and sky and gave men the choice of living in one of them. Men chose earth, with its plants and game. Spirits felt robbed, and every wet season they descended with the rain (which is the only way that sky and earth can meet) to pester men with disease and floods.

When men appealed to A-poe-mi-yeh for help, he instructed them on how to build gates with fierce-looking statues to protect themselves from spirits. He got annoyed, however, when men kept pestering him with other trivial questions, so he allowed the spirits to catch people whenever people became careless, which explains ongoing efforts by the Akha to keep spirits away.

Today's Akha in all regions are amongst the poorest of populations, although they are highly popular with tourists given their colourful attire and the distinction of their village gates. They are subject to a good deal of prejudice. Thai and Burmese people consider them dirty. In Burma, their increasingly difficult slash-and-burn farming has had to be supplemented by the sale of handicrafts made using traditional methods. In Laos, the Akha suffer from very high rates of opium addiction.

Laos beach huts

(Information by John De Cleene and the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Peter Kessler, from Kingdoms of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, Gene Gurney (New York, 1986), from Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopaedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Keat Gin Ooi (ABC-Clio, 2004), from Asia in the Modern World, Claude A Buss (Collier-Macmillan, 1964), from Historical Atlas of the World, R R Palmer (Ed, Chicago, 1963), from Times Atlas of World History (Maplewood, 1979), and from External Links: Laos (Zárate's Political Collections), and John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, and The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, George Coedès (Walter F Vella (Ed), Susan Brown Cowing (Trans), University of Hawaii Press, 1968, and available online via the Internet Archive), and Atlas of Humanity, and Encyclopedia.com, and Facts and Details, and Green Trails, and Vietnam Law Magazine, and Vietnam Law Magazine.)

c.2000 BC

Chinese rice and millet farmers spread southwards into a region which stretches between today's Vietnam and Burma. There, they interbreed with local hunter-gatherers in two main pulses, the first taking place around now and the second around the end of the first century BC.

The migrations seem to occur from southern prehistoric-dynastic China which, at this time, is not part of the Erlitou culture of the north, but which may still be informed and improved by it.

Map of Xia China c.2000 BC
The semi-mythical first dynasty of China emerged in territory along the Yellow River, quickly conquering and dominating the rival early states around it, especially the Shang tribe who would later pose such a threat to Xia hegemony, but also others such as the largely mysterious Pi, and Ge (click or tap on map to view full sized)

1st century BC

A second pulse of migration takes place between southern China and a swathe of territory which stretches between ancient Burma and the kingdom of Nam Viet.

Farmers there inherit a genetic makeup which differs in some ways from that of the earlier Man Bac migrants of the Phung-nguyen culture who had left southern China around 2000 BC, but this still closely resembles the DNA of inhabitants of today's southern China.

7th century AD

Modern archaeological theory states that the ancestors of the Akha, Lisu, and Lahu gradually lose their ability to live in the cold so they descend over from the highlands into the Yunnan valleys. This migration may be complete by the seventh century AD, at which time Sui and Tang records document them.

after 1353

Fa Ngoun, king of Lan Xang, defeats King Sam Phaya (Pha Yu) of Lan Na, after which he conquers the Akha. The Laotian and other local princes submit to him.

Thailand's Akha people
Thailand's Akha hill tribe is navigating an ongoing dilemma between remembering its cultural roots and integrating into Thai society with all the benefits and costs which accompany life in the modern world

1500s - 1600s

The Akha migrate from Tibet into the mountainous regions of northern Burma and the Laos kingdoms. According to Akha legend these migrations take place some fifty-five generations before the twenty-first century.


Harassment by the Chinese and by other hill tribes cause many Akha to move to Burma following the collapse of its second empire during the First Anglo-Burmese War and the Treaty of Yandabo.

1850 - 1864

The Taiping Rebellion pits the Qin against the Taiping 'Heavenly Kingdom' under the leadership of Hong Huoxiu from 1850 until 1864. The Qin begin by attacking the increasingly powerful Taiping in their home province of Guangxi on 1 January 1851.

The war escalates so that, in 1853, the Taiping seize Nanjing and Hong declares it to be his capital. The subsequent fighting rages back and forth for over a decade, with the Akha people participating alongside the rebels.

Qin dynasty courtly dress
While the Mac of Dai Viet were refusing to give up dreams of ruling a united Viet country, their Ming overlords were being replaced by the intruding Manchu (Qin)


Elsewhere, Akha people establish relations with the Shan prince of Kengtung, Chao Maha Khanan Duang Saeng, whose territory is located across the northern flank of Laos and in the eastern areas of today's Burma.


The Akha establish their first hill tribe village in Thailand, in the Phaya Phrai region near the border with a Burma which is now a province of British India.


The Akha participate in an uprising against local leaders in China, while it is focussed on the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which supplies a wave of Jewish Diaspora migrants into European-controlled areas of China.


Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the Akha begin to arrive in greater numbers in Thailand. They are fleeing political instability in the northern states of Burma.

Aung San, 'Father of Burma'
Aung San of Burma is shown here in uniform on a visit to 10 Downing Street in London in his role as vice-president of Burma in 1947, shortly before he was assassinated in Burma


The Akha are being assimilated into local populations of South-East Asia at a high rate. Nevertheless, many are retaining their traditional customs and are an important attraction for tourists, especially thanks to their distinctive headdresses.

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