Thailand: Annual festival supports hill tribe communities' education

Each year, a festival takes place in the northern Thailand province Mae Hong Son that brings together marginalized hill tribe communities and raises money for hill tribe children’s education. The festival is organized by Toys for Thailand, a charity providing support to 29 remote hill tribe village schools located near the Burmese border in Mae Hong Son. Maria S. Miller and Sasha Billar, directors from the charity, explain how the festival promotes cultural exchange among communities in the province.

What are the issues facing hill tribe communities in Mae Hong Son?

Mae Hong Son is home to a large number of displaced people from Myanmar and 63 per cent of the population is from hill tribes.

It is also Thailand’s poorest province with the country’s lowest score on the Human Development Index and ranks 77th out of 77 provinces in academic achievement. Only 75 per cent of the population has completed primary school and most cannot read or write.

About 90 per cent of the land is mountainous, so travel to the hill tribe villages in the province is difficult in the rainy season (July to October). The average annual income for hill tribe families in Mae Hong Son is around 10,000 baht or just over US $300. Many hill tribe peoples cannot speak the Thai language and are viewed by some nationals as unwelcome.

Poverty and limited education for hill tribe communities have led to problems such as drug abuse, human trafficking, prostitution, HIV/AIDS and domestic violence. Largely disenfranchised and discriminated against, the hill tribe communities suffer from racism and cultural erosion, an overall lack of education and illiteracy and issues associated not having Thai citizenship. Therefore, education is one of the priority issues for provincial development.

Why did you set up The Small World Festival?

Toys for Thailand, Inc. in collaboration with local Thai agencies such as the Education Development Association, created The Small World Festival in 2010 as a venue to bring together hundreds of hill tribe school children from isolated mountain villages to the city of Mae Hong Son to celebrate their cultural traditions and raise awareness of their needs.

The goal of the festival is to provide underprivileged hill tribe children a means to share their music, dance, handicrafts and food with Thai people, tourists and other members of hill tribes. At the same time, it also helps increase the number of international and Thai tourists to the Mae Hong Son province to benefit the community. At school booths, children display and sell their products. The festival provides awareness about the special needs of hill tribe children through information booths and displays. Money raised from the festival goes toward funding for schools for the hill tribe communities.

Over the past five years, The Small World Festival has grown and expanded. In 2013, 30 underserved hill tribe schools participated in event. There were 729 children representing the Shan, Karen (White, Red and Black) Lawa, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, Pao, Akha, and Long Neck groups.

Tourists and local Thai people rarely visit the mountain schools and villages where the children live. The schools are located on dangerous unpaved roads accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles. Many schools have limited electrical power, no refrigeration or heating and primitive living conditions for both students and teachers.

Many hill tribal children have never been away from their village or seen other tribes. The festival provides these children a way to experience “mainstream” society and prepare them for the world into which they will someday have to integrate.

The over-arching goal is to encourage local Thai private sector and non-profit organizations to support education and schools in remote areas. Among the ways to achieve this goal is by providing support for students’ extra curricula activities, such as hill tribe music and dances, handicrafts and producing agricultural products.

How does the festival and your organization work to address issues faced by hill tribe communities?

The Thai government has a large budget for education. However, this budget is poorly and unequally distributed among rural and urban schools. Remote schools lack government funding for school facilities, teachers and teaching materials. Schools in big cities are more generously supported than the remote schools.

Toys for Thailand, Inc. and The Small World Festival work with local authorities and the private sector to support underfunded schools in remote areas.

The mission of Toys for Thailand is to “support the education, welfare and greater awareness of hill tribe children living in underserved schools in northern Thailand.”

The festival is a positive way to draw attention to underserved hill tribe schools and create awareness about their needs. At the festival, students with the greatest needs (two from each of the 30 schools) are given a 1000-baht (US$31) “scholarship.” The money is used by the students throughout the upcoming year to purchase necessities such as shoes, clothing, personal items, and school supplies. Most children receive little or no money for even the most basic necessities. These small awards allow children to continue in school.

What are the major successes of the festival and any other work?

Some successes include:

The Small World Festival encourages collaboration among schools in raising funds from the festival. The Small World Festival now brings school teachers and directors from isolated mountainous areas to show the world what their students can do. The festival provides a wonderful incentive for schools to showcase the best of their crafts and agricultural products and model their school’s educational programmes.

Schools participating in the festival are now generating income and learning how to better market their products to the mainstream society. Students develop skills and learn from each other.

New partnerships and of local organizations and the private sector to support education are developing as a result of the festival and the ongoing commitment of Toys for Thailand, Inc. to stay in contact with schools throughout the year.

At the December 2013 festival, the mayor and governor of the province attended the festival. The business community is now working closely with the Mae Hong Son Education Development Association to provide support for the festival and the hill tribe schools. The festival is now recognized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and will be an ongoing source of fundraising support for the 30 participating hill tribe schools.

What do you think needs to be done to address the issues facing these communities - e.g. on the part of the government?

Sasha Bilar, Toys for Thailand Director,  states:

“The government in Thailand does not have an understanding of hill tribe children and the reality of how they live.

They don’t see the horrible roads and primitive living conditions. Everything is covered up when important officials visit schools.

Also, the politics in Thailand is fluid, nothing is secure right now. The Thai government needs to access accurately the conditions at residential hill tribe schools and also provide stipends for teachers.

It is considered a hardship for a teacher to work in Mae Hong Son and almost all will only stay for their two-year contract and move on. The Thai government needs to address the consistency of teachers and improve the pre-school education for the young children (ages two to five years) that are often left at hill tribe schools.

We are unable to lobby for a national education policy but we can work at the provincial level. We brought the issue of funding disparity to the attention to the Governor of Mae Hong Son and the Local Administrations and they did support us at the last festival. At the festival in December 2013 the Governor of Mae Hong Son came to open the festival. The mayor of the city and the Director of Provincial Administration Organization also attended the festival.

The festival was included in the three-year plan of both organizations. Mae Hong Son Community College is another organization that fully supported the festival.

Hopefully, Toys for Thailand, Inc. will bring awareness and additional resources from the communities, NGOs and the private sector.”

How can people support your work?

Help us promote the Small World Festival throughout the world, that’s what we really need. We welcome sponsors to support the festival and the participating hill tribe schools. We welcome partners who can help us through social media. We want to continue to raise awareness about hill tribe children though our growing social media network on Facebook.


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Hill tribe school, Mae Hong Son province, Thailand. Credit: Toys for Thailand
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Hill tribe children at the Small World Festival, Mae Hong Son, Thailand. Credit: Toys for Thailand
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Hill tribe children at the Kings' School, Mae Hong Son, Thailand. Credit: Toys for Thailand.
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Small World Festival, Mae Hong Son, Thailand. Credit: Toys for Thailand
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Date: 04/03/2014




Culture and Tradition

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