Suffer the children

A child from the Akha tribe. Photos by David Black.
A child from the Akha tribe. Photos by David Black.
A group of Akha children cradle an even younger member of their tribe.
A group of Akha children cradle an even younger member of their tribe.
A forest grave for a member of the Akha tribe. Malnourishment claims many at a young age.
A forest grave for a member of the Akha tribe. Malnourishment claims many at a young age.
Young members of the Akha tribe in the kitchen of the rescue mission's training centre.
Young members of the Akha tribe in the kitchen of the rescue mission's training centre.

Violence, sexual abuse, disease, psychosis and death ... the children of the Akha tribe face an uncertain future. Shane Gilchrist meets a man who offers hope in the highlands of Southeast Asia.

There are a dozen or so photos spread out on the dining-room table.

They are of children, mostly, though there are adults in one or two of them.

Some of the pictures feature night scenes pulsing with neon; others are notable for the light in the eyes of youngsters, despite what many of them have been through.

Your typical Thai holiday snapshots these are not.

A couple more photos depict a cluster of mounds rising from a forest floor.

The humps of earth are small, child-sized, in fact.

The pictures offer a chilling glimpse into the decline of the Akha, a tribe that lives in the highlands of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and China.

Subsistence farmers who grow mountain rice, corn and soybeans, the Akha people are stateless.

Those little graves denote the end-point of malnutrition.

The land on which the Akha choose to settle is highly valued by others, from governments increasingly intent on forestry and farming, to the private armies of drug lords who control the opium and heroin trade in the region, also known as the "Golden Triangle".

Forced to leave their villages and flee from danger, sometimes over hundreds of kilometres of difficult terrain, the Akha then have to spend months clearing new land on which to grow crops.

In the meantime, they forage; in the meantime, some die.

"They are worth nothing.

"They are valueless," laments David Stevenson, founder of the Rescue Mission for Children in Chiang Mai, who left his northern Thailand base on April 1 for a series of Rotary speaking engagements in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.

En route from Dunedin to Wanaka earlier this week, he stopped in Alexandra for this interview, accompanied by Dunedin Rotarian David Black, the New Zealand project co-ordinator for the Rescue Mission for Children.

Although Mr Stevenson is referring to a societal disdain for the Akha among sectors of Southeast Asia's populations, there are some who place a twisted value on the Akha - in particular, their children.

Networks of professional sex trade traffickers prey on these people.

"They go in disguised as a vendor of some sort and talk to the villagers. 'I have a friend who needs a babysitter - would your daughter be interested in that?'.

"And that's the last they see of her," Mr Stevenson explains.

"They might pay the parents 2000 baht ($NZ88), which is an enormous amount of money to a poor person who hasn't got shoes and needs all sorts of stuff to survive.

"That money clouds their mind; they can't think straight."

Still, he emphasises any suggestion parents willingly sell their children is false.

"They have love for their children the same as anyone else.

"Any selling is because they have been tricked.

"We get asked all the time to find children who have been taken by merchants, who have been promised a job.

"The parents have been given a telephone number that doesn't exist.

"There are all sorts of things that have happened.

"A hydro-electric dam was proposed for Burma [Myanmar], in the Kaladan Valley, but rather than go in and talk to people about the project, they [the military regime of Myanmar] go in and shoot people, then capture the young healthy people, who are chained together and used as porters in the army.

"When they get to a stage where they can't work any more they will be shot.

"This leaves very old people and young children as survivors ... we find them half-starved.

"The first thing we do is feed them.

"If any groups find them, they are easy pickings.

"They take the children straight away.

"They don't mess around.

"The 12-year-old girls just coming into puberty are the biggest targets for brothels."

However, the sex trade involves some much younger than 12.


On a trip to Thailand last year to meet Mr Stevenson and visit the Rescue Mission for Children, Mr Black was approached by children, "about 4 years old" selling flowers.

To make his point, Mr Black indicates one of the photos scattered on the table.

A couple of smiling girls, clutching bouquets, have posed for the camera.

"That is preparatory work for them; they get used to attracting a customer, selling them something.

"The next thing they are selling is themselves.

"Kids walk up and down showing cards with all sorts of pictures of what you can get engaged in for the right price.

"You only have to say you want someone really young and they will take you off the main street," Mr Black says.

"Go back a block or two and there will be kids as young as 3 or 4 who are locked up in cages like animals.

"For the equivalent of about $NZ20 someone can rape one of these kids."

Across the table, Mr Stevenson continues the shocking thread: a child in the sex trade is worth more than drugs, he contends.

"They can be used multiple times a day, so they become worth more than heroin, which is a huge industry.

"Children are valued in prostitution.

"The underground sex industry has been estimated at $US26 billion ($NZ37 billion) a year - that's just in Thailand.

"Those figures were published by a researcher about four years ago ... and it is increasing.

"It is hard to get data on it because it is all underground.

"The whole thing has been going for about 40 years, since jet travel became popular.

"It started with soldiers on rest and recreation coming from Vietnam.

"Because it is such a huge business, politicians won't stop it; the police won't stop it.

"There is no political will to clean it up.

"A few years ago, some Thai politician set up a task force to investigate child sex slavery - they had six men and one car and it lasted six months."

David Stevenson has been helping keep Akha children out of the clutches of paedophiles for 16 years.

In 1994, he visited Chiang Mai with the intention of taking a short break following the completion of a building contract in Myanmar.

He had meant to return to Australia and resume his architectural career.

It seems more than a few plans have collected dust.

"I was staying with a woman on the outskirts of Chiang Mai and in a forest at the back of her house I came across 22 children from this tribe who had escaped different circumstances.

"They had come together in the market of Chiang Mai, started to head towards the mountains and ended up in this forest behind this house.

"When I found them they were hungry and in need of medical attention.

"I tried to find someone to look after them.

"I wrote numerous letters to people in various organisations asking for help and also tried to find out where they had come from, to find a home for them.

"The children I took with me to the villages told others I was feeding them and putting them into school, so more children got into the truck.

"I was way out of my depth, " Mr Stevenson reflects, adding he had no experience with aid organisations.

"I looked after about 85 children by myself for two years.

I flew back to Australia, tried to hang on to contracts, but I just couldn't do it.

"As an architect, I was just a servant to rich people.

"When I met these children I had to make a decision: would I be a servant to rich people or serve these kids? The kids won out."

It was through his endeavours that Mr Stevenson met his wife Asa.

A well-educated Akha woman who is able to translate the dialect, Asa is also "a role model" for the tribespeople, he says.

Nowadays, the couple look after up to 500 children at their Chiang Mai training centre.

Though they have applied to various organisations, their primary support comes from Rotary International and its network of clubs.

Through Mr Stevenson's current seven-week tour, Rotary hopes to raise enough money to build 14 classrooms in Chiang Mai, trebling the size of the facility.


Education is key, Mr Stevenson believes.

"It is proven all over the world: educate a kid and you'll get a citizen who is going to contribute.

"We not only educate the children, we teach them all sorts of vocational and life skills.

"We are constantly talking to them about dangers; what not to do to make your life a failure; how to make your life a success.

"With my wife speaking the tribal language, it makes it easy to warn the people.

"In the villages they don't have education, newspapers, things that are related to their problems.

"The communication is not there.

"My wife not only teaches the children but also the adults.

"She has meetings and seminars, teaching them the value of education.

"This year we have just under 400 children, ranging from the age of 4 to 20, of whom about 60 are orphans.

"We have some at university, at teachers' college, at high school.

"We have tonnes of fantastic success stories."

"Yet there are children for whom the future offers few options, an outlook that includes violence, sexual abuse, disease, psychosis and death.

"They don't get out of some places unless it's by terminal illness or death," Mr Stevenson says.

"Some kids never come out of psychosis.

"There are some children in villages that we don't even attempt to bring back because we have too many others to look after ... there is another place we take them to in Chiang Mai if they have Aids.

"It's horrible, but it drives us to protect more kids.

"Where these kids have come from is horrific.

"They lose their souls, the thing that makes them a human being."

To help
- To contact David Stevenson, call David Black on (03) 489-1100 in the evening, or e-mail Mr Black at
- For more information on supporting the Rescue Mission for Children in Chiang Mai, visit, or contact the Rotary Club of Dunedin Central,


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