A Note on the Literature on the Lahu Shehleh and Lahu Na of Northern Thailand1 พิมพ์ อีเมล
เขียนโดย Hans J. Spielmann   





                         A NOTE ON THE LITERATURE ON THE
                            LAHU SHEHLEH AND LAHU NA OF
                                      NORTHERN THAILAND1


                                          Hans J. Spielmann


            Some   of   the   various   groups  of  Lahu (e.g. Lahu Viya,—Gulao,
Ale,—Lalou,—Adawaga,—Nam  Pehn,—Bala,—Shehleh)    are   designated
by others as well as by the groups  themselves  according  to   the  predo—
minant   colour  in  the  dress  of  their  womenfolk: Lahu  Na  (Black Lahu),
—Nyi (Red—).—  Shi    (Yellow—),  and-Hpu   (White—).   Although   some
Black  Lahu  maintain  rather   contemptuously  that  some   group  names
are   derived   from   the   notion  that  the  Red  and  Yellow   Lahu  would
look 'red'  and  'yellow'  respectively, the  former   explanation   seems   to
be more  sound.  According   to   Young   'nyi'  signifies  'raw'   rather  than
'red'; whereas Walker's  Lahu  Ny i informants regard  the  reddish   colour
of their clothes as the reason and   justification   for   the  designation   of
their   group.3   For   the  Lahu  of  Thailand  the  grouping   is   somewhat
uncertain; let us look briefly at both the groups concerned.

            The   Lahu   Shehleh4   live   in   Northern  Thailand  in  27  villages

scattered  over  5  provinces. With  a   few  thousand  members  in  Burma5

                  and  Thailand  they  are a  smaller  group  within  the  Lahu  (who  are


1. The   field  data  for this article were collected during  1967.  The  author

    visited 26 villages of  the Shehleh and 5 of the Na. (In 1968/9 he visited

    the other two villages of Lahu Na. The data obtained on  these  isits are

    not included in this article). He is indebted to the South Asia Institute of

    the University of Heidelberg (Germany) for financing his research, to the

    National Research Council  (Bangkok) and  the  Tribal  Research  Centre

    (Chiengmai) for helpful assistance in preparing and  performing his field-

    work, and to other Thai organizations and individuals.

2. The Lahu Hpu are  not  referred to in the ethnographical literature. Two

    of their four villages in Thailand are to  be  found  in Chiengrai  Province,

    close to the Laotian border.

3. Young, 1966 : 9; Walker, 1967 : 4.

4. Informants  could   give  precise  explanations neither for 'Lahu' nor  for


5. Personal communication of H. Young and  statements  of some Shehleh.






322                                      Hans J. Spielmann


supposed   to   number   about  220,0006); in  Thailand, however, they
number 3,500 and are  second  only  to  the   Lahu  Nyi. On   the  other
hand only some 400 Lahu Na (Meuneu)7 live  in  Thailand, whereas   in
Burma and  China they  form  the  largest  group  among  the  Lahu. In
Thailand they are in the  majority  in  two  villages  and  in  five  others
their number is  inferior to  the  other  Lahu  groups. The  Shehleh  are
called  by  their  Thai (and Shan)  neighbours Mussö  Dam8, a  designa-
tion  which  can lead the superficial observer to conclude that they are
identical  with  the  Lahu  Na known in the  ethnographical  literature.9
The Thai call  them Mussö  Dam  because  of  their  clothing; but   they

do not call  themselves  Lahu Na—as would correspond to Mussö Dam
—but Lahu Shehleh10.

            Nothing could be more puzzling. Nowadays they are the   only
group of the Lahu in Thailand whose members wear black  dress;  the
Lahu Na, being Christians, dress in the Thai or European way wearing
their traditional black dress only at rare festive occasions  which  their
baptism    permits. They   are   called   by   the  Thai,  in   general   and
mistakenly,Mussö Daeng11,since their women's dress  resembles  that
of   the   Lahu   Nyi.   Now, fashion  or  colour  of  the  dress  does  not
warrant any certainty if considered  as  the sole criterion  for  classifica-
tion. To  a   Thai   neighbour   this   may   be  of  no  importance, but  it
should be fundamental to an anthropologist to determine who is to be
regarded  as  Lahu Nyi, Na, or  Shehleh. The   following  discussion will
consider whether enough attention was  devoted  to  this  problem as
far as Lahu Na and Lahu Shehleh are concerned.

            Let  us  outline  the   contributions  of  Young  and  Jones  which
represent the present state of knowledge and then confront them  with
our findings. Both authors  offer  the   first  useful   information   on  the



6)  LeBar, 1964 : 30.

7)  'Na' means'black'and 'Meuneu'   'land-northern' (from  the  Shan);  according 

      to Young, 1966 : 9.

8)  Literally, 'hunters-black' (Shan/Thai).

      cf. Telford, 1937; LeBar, 1964.

10) Some of the Shehleh are inclined to call themselves'Na' in front of strangers,

       because they are called by the Thai 'Mussö Dam'. They  do   so  willingly  as

       the Na are given highest prestige among  the  Lahu.But  when  questioned

       more thoroughly, the Shehleh  distinguish  themselves  from  the  Lahu  Na

       who, the Shehleh believe, belong to a different Lahu group.

 11) Literally, 'hunters-red' (Shan/Thai).










Lahu in Thailand; the  contributions  of   their  predecessors  are  less   im-
portant12.  Young   is  looked  upon  as  an  expert   for  the Lahu; he  was
born in a  Lahu  Na  village  in  Yunnan, the  son  of  an  American    Baptist
missionary, and   lived   among   the  Lahu  for  many years. He knows  the
language  thoroughly. Jones   stayed   among   the   Lahu   mainly   in   the
Fang area  of  Chiengmai   Province   engaged    in    pre-doctoral  research
during   1964-66    while    a    graduate   student   at   Cornell    University.
Young's book   on   the   hill   tribes  of  Northern   Thailand   is  a  valuable
source of  information  and   has   become  a  basis  for  discussion   for  all
anthropological     researchers     working     in     Thailand.   During    1959
Young   collected   data   in  the  field  and  in  1961  he  described,  among
others,  four   Lahu   groups: Lahu   Na   and   Nyi, Lahu  Shehleh  and  Shi.
It is not  necessary  to  be  acquainted  with  the author to understand his
sympathy  for  a  particular  group; that   is,  for   'his'  Lahu  Na, whom  he
considers the 'pure Lahu' from whom the other Lahu split off13.

            The number of the  Lahu  Na  villages  are   'few', 'some 10  known',

once   '25'   and   'their   total   population   3,000'14.  He  maintains these
'true Lahu Na '  should   not   be  confused    with  the  'so-called,  Mussuh
Dam',  the   Shehleh.15   The  Lahu  Na  have   immigrated   into   Thailand
from   Laos   and   Burma. They   have   no   difficulties   whats  oever with
the  dialect  of   the   Nyi , but   do   with   that of  the  Shehleh. 'With very
few    exceptions,  Thailand's   Lahu    Nyi    and    Lahu   Na   are   theistic
animists. The    exceptions    are    Christians    from    Burma    numbering
less   than   200   people'16.  In   describing    the   religious attitudes and
ceremonies, economic  activities, and   the  political, social   and   religious
organization17 he often does not make it clear which group he is



12) cf. Young, 1966 and Jones, 1967; a valuable source on the Lahu in  Burma :
      Telford,  1937, cf. bibliographies of Embree-Dotson, 1950 and  LeBar, 1964.
      A valuable   linguistic  contribution is Matisoff, 1967 (not taken into account
      in this note) who did research from 1964  to 1966 mainly in the Chiengdao
      area   of  Chiengmai Province. Sincen1966 Walker  has been with the Lahu
      Nyi engaged in anthropological  research. The  father of  G.  Young, Harold,
      intends to publish an autobiography on his  missionary  efforts  among the
      Lahu in Burma and China.

13) He reflects here theories of his father and uncle, both of whom did research
      on this problem.

14) Young, 1966 : 9, 10, 89. In    the   4th   edition   he  writes : "2000 Lahu Na"

      (1969 : 10) and "3000 Lahu Na" (1969 : 89).

15) Young, 1966 : 9f.

16) Young, 1966 : 10.

17) Young, 1966 : l0a.f.








324                                    Hans J. Spielmann


describing, the   Nyi   or  Na  or  both.18 Furthermore, he   does   not
mention the characteristic differences between the Christians and the
animists. Young  cannot  find  the  same  sympathy  for  the  Shehleh:
'They are less energetic and slower-moving than other  Lahu  and  are
not as attractive physically'19. 'Women shave the front of their  heads...
that it is difficult to distinguish them  from  the  men  and  boys'20. He
supposes they called themselves in earlier times Na Muey21, but  after
coming to Thailand some 40 years  ago  they  adopted  the  Lahu  Nyi
designation 'Shehleh'22. Besides, they  have 'undergone  a  number  of
changes from their original customs through the influence of the  Lahu
Nyi   in   Thailand'23. Though 'theistic  animists' like  the  Nyi  they  do
not give candle-burning the same importance as the Nyi do24and have
practically discontinued the sabbatical dances.


            In their 14 villages the 2,200 Shehleh live separated from the
outside world; Young counts them 'among Thailand's  most  backward
hill people'25. They have no intermarriage with  the  other  tribes, and
among   themselves   may   practice   'polygamy'26an  important per-
sonality may have up to three wives.


            It is evident that Young is not as certain in his  discussion of
 the  Shehleh  as  he  is for the Nyi and Na. Jones,on his  part, solves
 the problem  in  an  elegant  manner: 'Young  has a section  on  Lahu
 Shelleh, which he says are found  in Thailand, but informants in three
 different Black Lahu villages  in  Thailand  stated  that  Shelleh is the
 Red Lahu name for the Black  Lahu'27. As  he  describes  in  his  tudy
 on  variation  mainly the  'Black  Lahu'28  information  on the Shehleh
 should   be   under  the  heading 'Black  Lahu'. In beginning his study
 Jones states that  'The  limits  of  the  Lahu  population are unknown
 18) As when stating the animists would call themselves 'peh tu pa' beeswax
      burners (1966 : 11).
 19) Young, 1966 : 21.
 20) Young, 1966 : 21.
 21) Young, 1966 : 20; he also calls them Na Mwe (1966 : 10.)
 22) Young, 1966 : 20.
 23) Young, 1966 : 20.
 24) Young, 1966 : 20.
 25) Young, 1966 : 23.
 26) Young, 1966 : 22.
 27) Jones, 1967 : 16; cf. also footnote 10.
 28) In the glossary Jones translates 'Black Lahu' as 'Lahu Na' (1967 : 190).









Thus, the  findings  of  this  study can only be suggestive'29. The main
aim  of  his  study  is 'to describe the range of cultural variation among
six  villages  of  a  single  ethnic  group—the  Lahu'30. He  reports  the
situation encountered in a village of  the  Black  Lahu  near  Fang  and
then relates his  findings  to  those  in  five  other  villages31  using 65
selected characteristics32 in indicating variation or commonness

            As first observer he reports, for example, 'spirit-groups', units
of several households  for the  celebration  of  common  religious  cere-
monies which are conducted in the house of that unit  wherein  is  the
house-altar33. The members of a group are in  general  linked  through
kinship relations34, but a household  may  join  any 'spirit-group'35 and
membership does not  depend  on  being of a particular descent-group.
Jones could not find 'patrilineal  surnames'36 or descent groups — with
the exception of Tak, where  they  exist  only  through  intermarriages
with members of other ethnic groups. He states: 'the kinship
system... is bilateral'37.


             The religious ceremonies  held by  the 'spirit-groups' are  con- 

ducted by a 'spirit-doctor' or  a  'priest', not by ordinary villagers. The
'spirit-doctor' is the most 'powerful man'38, he  has  more  importance
than the 'priest'39, he is 'the keeper of Lahu customs'40. The villagers
work in his fields, in  those  of  the  'priest'  and  of  the  headman  in
exchange for services  rendered  by  these  officials41.  Although  the
village headman is the political representative of his village  he  has a
weaker position than the officials of the  religious  sphere  who  enjoy
 29) Jones, 1967 : 15.
 30) Jones, 1967 : 5f.
 31) Jones, 1967 : 115 a.f. Two of these villages are inhabited by Red Lahu : we
      shall not include them in the following and we first shall  omit  the  Christian
      village as well.
 32) Some of the weaknesses of his comparison he  knows  himself  (1967 : 124).
 33) Jones, 1967 : 65.
 34) Jones, 1967 : 65 a.f.
 35) Jones, 1967 : 65; cf. also 145.
 36) Jones, 1967 : 134.
 37) Jones, 1967 : 182, 118; cf. also 145.
 38) Jones, 1967 : 75.
 39) Jones, 1967 : 111, 120; is at least valid for Fang.
 40) Jones, 1967 : 111.
 41) Jones, 1967 : 121.







326                                 Hans J. Spielmann


the benefit of the 'lack of differentiation  between  the  religious  and
the political aspects of a  role'42. Obviously, each  male  villager  can
acquire one of these positions irrespective of his descent43.


            The villages of the Black Lahu described by Jones have  only
one communal centre, a circular dancing-ground, which is surrounded,
generally, by planks. In this ground candles are  burned  during  some
of the religious ceremonies and  the men dance44. The dancing has a
religious significance; in dancing 'they  gain  merits'45. Jones  asserts
among the Lahu 'a belief in a high god'46, but  nevertheless  he  does
not fail to recognize that  they  also  believe 'in  a  large  number  of
spirits'47. In  his  scheme  for  comparison  between  the  villages  he
places belief in an animistic high god as equivalent to  the  Chiengdao
Black  Lahu's  belief  in  the  Christian  God48, for  he  believes  these
Christian Lahu  to  be  members  of  the  same  group  as  the  above-
mentioned non-Christian Black Lahu of Thailand and  that  differences
derive only from recent conversion. 



            Our  description  of Young's  and Jones' contributions is frag-
mentary. For our purposes, however, no comprehensive review  need
be attempted, but only relevant parts investigated. It  appears  that
Young does not know the number of villages inhabited  by  the  Lahu
Na. The actual number, generously  estimated, may  be  up to seven,
including  those  in  which  majorities  from  other  Lahu  groups  live
together with Lahu Na  minorities. The  Lahu  Na  are  migrants  from
Burma and China and settled down in Thailand some15years ago.They
are all Christians like most of the Shi and Nyi minority in  contrast  to
the Shehleh and Nyi of  Thailand. Therefore, Young's  description  of
Lahu Na animists, of their  religious  ceremonies, economic  activities
and   such, while  of  historical  interest, is  for  Thailand's  Lahu  Na
antiquated  and not to the point. On the other hand, the Shehleh of
Thailand are non-Christians. They are 'peh tu pa', beeswax   burners,
 42) Jones. 1967 : 72.
 43) Jones, 1967 : 77; cf. also 134.
 44) Jones, 1967: 95.
 45) Jones, 1967 : 114.
 46) Jones, 1967 : 121.
 47) Jones, 1967 : 121.
 48) Jones, 1967: 124.









and differ in this respect from the Na  whose  ancestors  were  'sang
tu pa', joss-stick burners. As Young states, this is by no  means  the
only difference between the Shehleh and the Na.

            The Shehleh live in Thailand in 27 villages49, not in 14;  they
constitute (numbering 3,500) a far larger group in Thailand  than  the
Na, who in 1959 did not exceed 200 persons — by no means 3,000 (!).
Young himself is too familiar with these Christians, who  partly settled
down in Thailand on his suggestion, to succumb to such an erroneous
estimate. The Shehleh formerly called themselves Na Muey, according
to Young; actually, we find a descendent group — numerically the
strongest50 called Na Meu.They have adopted the term 'Shehleh',as
informants stated to this writer, from the Nyi, from whom they borrow-
ed various of the minor ceremonies  and  the  position  of  'pawkhu'51,
which reminds us of a shaman. They  did  not  curtail  the 'sabbatical
dances', for they did not dance at the moon-phases,whereas the Nyi
and Na do or did. The influence of the  Nyi on  the  vast  majority  of
the Shehleh is not as pervasive as Young suggests. He  received  his
information on this subject  solely  from  a  village  near  Mae  Taeng,
Chiengmai Province, one  among  four  villages52  of  the  Shehleh  in
Thailand exposed to the influence of the  surrounding  Nyi  to  a  high
degree.  There,  through  intermarriages  and  other  factors  the  Nyi
style was imitated both in dress and  in  ceremonies. Young  obviously
also  got  his  information  on  the  possibility  to  marry several wives
from the headman of this village53. This headman happens to  be  the
only one among Thailand's Shehleh54 who has a wife and a concubine
whom  he  treats  and   regards as  a 'wife'  for  many  years, a  'wife'
acquired without the  necessary marriage rituals   being  performed, a
connection not permitted  by social norms.Young, basing himself on a
single information, has taken the exception for the rule.
49) At the time of Young's censuses there were only 18 villages of the Shehleh
      in Thailand. In 1968 a new village was founded; so the actual number
      is 28.
 50) Besides Hpakho, Gawmu, Awhe, and Malaw.
 51) cf.Young, 1966 : 11,16-18.
 52) Consisting a total  of  40  of  the  601  houses  of the Shehleh in Thailand
 53) According to this headman, he met and informed Young once in Chiengmai.
 54) The author took village-censuses and statistics on the house-holds for all
       Shehleh in Thailand (601 houses).









1) Dress; hairstyle; dialect.

 2) No   'pawkhu', no   'priest',  no   'spirit-groups'  with  the   Na,  no

     permanent dancing-ground; the Shehleh may dance each day,the

     Na on rare occasions; days of rest; disposal of the dead; religious

     ceremonies of the Na  influenced  by  the  Chinese, those  of  the

     Shehleh by the Shan.

 3) Kinship   terms;  marriage  regulations, period  of  service  by  the

     bridegroom with parents-in-law.

 4) Distribution of inheritance; fines and allotment thereof.

 5) Ambivalent avoidance, mutual  ignorance  of  the  pecularities  of

     each other.


          We cannot elaborate on these differences here.Let us proceed
to a further discussion of Jones' thesis. The membership  of  the 'spirit-
groups' described by him, contrary to his assertions, is  connected  to
the   membership  of  a  certain  descent-group, that is, Na  Meu  and
Hpakho households cannot belong to one 'spirit-group'. Thus we  have
patrilineal   descent-groups   whose  members  perform  religious  cere-
monies in different manners58. The  common  ceremonies  of  a village
are conducted by the 'priest'. He is  the  keeper of customs, the most
important man  in  the  village, and  not  the  'spirit-doctor', as  Jones
thinks, who   may  perform  only  the  minor  household  ceremonies59.
Jones is here,and this applies also  to  his  village  near  Fang, prey to
erroneous information. Furthermore  the  'priest's' and  the  headman's
office   is   restricted  to  those  who (or  whose  wives) are  of  such


           Jones states, following Telford and Young, 'a belief in  a  high
god' within the Lahu which harmonizes with that  in  a 'great   number
of spirits'. In our opinion it seems to  indicate  that  this 'Guisha',  the
creator-god, is   an   unintentional   c onstruction   of   the  Christian
missionaries.  For   'Guisha'   is   used  in  many  Lahu  myths  as   an
abbreviation of 'gui ma' and 'sha ma', a male  and  a  female  superna-
tural being who  jointly  created  the  world60.  Certainly, the  Guisha-



58) The Na Meu kill, for example, a female pig and do not dance in a certain

      ceremony, the Hpakho kill a male one and dance.

 59) The 'spirit-doctors' are paid generally with  opium; most  of  them   are

      smokers, because only smokers dare to challenge the spirits.

 60) cf. Spielmann, 1968; more detailed research is necessary.







330                                Hans J. Spielmann


concept  is  not  to  be  equalled  with  the Christian God-concept, as
Jones does in his comparison.

         Once more it should be stressed here that Jones' statements on

 the non-Christian Lahu in Thailand  fit  in  with  the  Shehleh, but  not

 with the Christian and non-Christian Lahu  Na; his  description  of  the

 Christian Black Lahu is valid only for the Lahu Na.



Conclusion:  Our criticism eo ipso has  been  as  fragmentary  as  our

review. It   is to  be  pointed  out  that  the  Shehleh  are  neither  so
'reddish' as  Young believes nor so 'black' as  Jones  states, but   they
are  Shehleh, a sub-group of  the Lahu. To  determine  whether   they
were  (more than 120 years ago) still Lahu 'Na', is beyond  our   intent
here, and the  research to  hand  does  not offer  a  solution  to   this
problem. The two contributions of Young and  Jones   are  to  be  con-
sidered critically; much erroneous information and gaps in the material
presented  could  have  been  avoided  by   more  thorough  research.
In  view  of  the  scarce  literature  on  the  Lahu,  however,  we  are
grateful for these contributions. To add  to  the  prevailing  confusion
on 'red and black', the Christian  Lahu  Na  of  Thailand  live  in  some
villages together with  Christian  Lahu  Nyi, who  affirm  they  are  Na
like the other villagers61. Yet  their  traditional  dress,  kinship  terms,
historical movements and history of conversion, in  addition  to  other
factors, reveal  their  appertaining  to  the Nyi. The  motive  of  their
false assertion may be that the Nyi are refractory in the eyes of Thai
officials, since Pawkhu Luang  in  Burma called the Nyi to unity62 and
acted  in  Burma  in  favour of  the  Burmese against the Shan rebels.
The Christian Nyi want to have friendly  connections  with  the  Thai
government   and  moreover  the  Christian  Lahu  Na  of  Burma  are
pro-Shan, the   Christian  Lahu  Nyi  also  keep  apart  from  Pawkhu
Luang. They   take  the  'Christian  white lie'  and  turn   themselves
'black'. From  all  this,  then, Lahu  appear  inclined   to  dislike  their
identity and observers do not know how to classify them.
61) cf. Young, 1966, the photos of the Lahu Nyi girl. The father of this girl
      asserts they are Lahu Na.
 62) cf. Young, 1966 : 11, 19.

Legend :                       Lahu Shehleh

A 1-5     = 5 villages in Amphur Orakoi, Chiengmai Province           142 houses

A 6-9     = 4 villages in Amphur Wiang Papao, Chiengrai Province     99 houses

                       and in Amphur Chienghung, Lampang

A 10—11 = 2 villages in Amphur Muang, Tak Province                    97 houses

                       and in Amphur Mae Sod, Tak Province

B 12-14  = 3 villages in Amphur Fang, Chiengmai Province             117 houses

C 15-18  = 4 villages in Amphur Muang, Mae Hongsorn Province       93 houses

C 19-22  = 4 villages in Amphur Muang, Mae Hongsorn Province

C 23-24  = 2 villages in Amphur Mae Taeng, Chiengmai Province       15 houses

C 25-26  = 2 villages in Amphur Chiengdao, Chiengmai Province        18 houses

C 27       = 1 villages in Amphur Mae Sod, Tak Province                  20 houses

              27 villages                                                              601 houses
Lahu Na

NA 1       =1 villages  in Amphur Chiengdao, Chiengmai Province       31 houses

NA 2-5    =4 villages  in Amphur Fang, Chiengmai Province              40 houses

NA 6-7   = 2 villages  in Amphur Mae Chan, Chiengrai Province          9 houses

               7 villages                                                                80 houses
The author did not visit the villages C 27, NA 6, and NA 7.






332                                      Hans J. Spielmann



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Boon Chuay. S. 1963 : Hill tribes of Siam, Bangkok.

Credner, W. 1935 : Siam : Das Land der Thai. Stuttgart.

Dept. of Publ. Welf. 1966 : Report on the socio-economic  survey  of  the  hill

    tribes of Northern Thailand. Bangkok.
Devakul, W. 1965 : 'Headmanship  among  the   Lahu  Na' in  Hanks, L.M. et al.
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     mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven.
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Jones, D. 1966 : The tribe, the  village   and   over-generalization: example  of
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     stämmen und Tieflandbevölkeruggen in Nordthailand' in Sociologus,
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Matisoff, J. 1966 : "A grammar  of  the  Lahu  language"; temporary  report  to

          the Nat. Res. Council, Bangkok (unpubl. MS).
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     preliminary report  submitted  to the  Nat. Res. Council,  Bangkok

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,,           1968 : The Guisha problem —monotheism among the Lahu?
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Telford, J. 1937 : Animism in Kengtung  State; in  J.  of  the  Burma  Research

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Young, G. 19663; 19694 (19611) : The   hill   tribes  of  Northern  Thailand.  A

     socio-ethnological report. Bangkok.




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