by Keith Carey
Beyond Imagination: A Vast Array of People
—By Saeng Palaito
The people groups speaking the Tai-Kedai language cluster is so vast and varied it staggers the imagination! Let’s start with size. A casual count reveals 100 million people who speak one of these many languages and dialects. Next, consider their location. Their homelands span five countries including northeastern Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, southwestern China, and Vietnam. They live in remote mountains far from city centers, as well as easy to access valleys and mega cities. At least half of all Tai-Kedai speakers are Buddhists, while the other half are animists who worship spirits and ancestors and practice shamanism.
Who Are These People?
To find them there is no better place to start than Thailand. The inhabitants of central Thailand are known as Central Thai speakers and account for 20 million of Thailand’s overall population. They are the dominant cultural group of the Thai Kingdom. Their language, script, and culture are taught to every child via elementary school reading and writing primers. Central Thai speakers think very highly of their language, culture, and history. A main source of pride is their form of Theravada Buddhism. Every year thousands of foreign tourists visit temples and participate in Buddhist rituals. Some visitors believe that by participating in these rituals they will be reincarnated at a higher level. This reinforces the Thai sense of satisfaction with their religion.
Five million Southern Thai (day 10) speakers live along the Isthmus of Kra down to the Malay border. Although most Southern Thai have been Buddhists for centuries, over a million have embraced Islam due to the influence of Malay Muslims. Central Thai people often laugh at the short, choppy sounds of the Southern dialect, and they are very prejudiced against the Southern Thai.
Isaan (day 8) is a region of northeastern Thailand which for centuries was part of the Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang. In the 18th and 19th centuries various Kings of Thailand sacked Lan Xang and enslaved whole villages of Lao people. Many were forcibly resettled away from the Mekong River closer to where the Thai could keep an eye on them. When a treaty with the French colonialists assigned all lands west of the Mekong to Thailand, 80 percent of all Lao speakers suddenly became Thai citizens. Since those days until now, the Thai government policy has mandated the use of the Central Thai language in all Isaan schools and has banned all publications in the Lao script. Twenty million Isaan people—a full one-third of Thailand—and approximately the same number as Central Thai, speak Lao at home and Central Thai in public life. The Central Thai people are prejudiced against the Isaan people and feel they are superior to them.
Across the Mekong River three million more native Lao speakers called the Lowland Lao (day 11) live near paddy fields along the river valleys of their mountainous country. The Lowland Lao have traditionally ruled Laos. They combine Buddhist temple worship with a mixture of local beliefs. Of particular note is that they tie strings on their wrists to keep all 32 “good” resident spirits attached to their bodies.
The Tai speakers of northern Thailand share a common history with the Northern Lao. For centuries the “muangs” or city states of the two peoples were united together under the Lanna Kingdom. Not surprisingly to this day, six million people in north Thailand speak a dialect which is a near perfect mix between Central Thai and Northern Lao. Like the Isaan people, Northern Thai script and language are not taught at school. Yet unlike the Isaan, their script is not banned. Lanna writing is retained in various temple libraries and is even taught by a few older monks in the region.
A people related to the Northern Thai are the Shan (days 6 and 7) who live in northeastern Myanmar, northern Thailand, and up into the southern parts of China’s Yunnan Province. Armed conflict with the Myanmar national government has led many Shan people to flee across the border in order to pursue safer, more prosperous lives in Thailand. Some three to six million people in the region speak Shan, but their illegal immigrant status and conflicts in the homeland make it hard to get an accurate count.
Tai Peoples in Southern China
More Tai people groups exist as you move further north across the border into China. Each dialect is somewhat different from the last. The Tai Lue (day 4) and the Dai (day 24) are two such peoples. These peoples look and sound similar to their Thai cousins to the south. Their Buddhist temples are lower to the ground and have gentler sloping roofs. The Dai womens’ sarong wrap skirts are bright hot pink or vivid greens and blues, rather than the more subtle colors preferred by the Lao and Thai peoples.
Other Tai Buddhist groups would include the Phuan (day 12) and the Phu Tai (day 15). The Phu Tai live in the lowlands of central Laos and are nearly indistinguishable from the Lao. They are energetic and much harder working than the average Thai or Lao Buddhist.
Buddhism and Animism Among the Tai-Kedai Peoples
All the Buddhist peoples of the Tai-Kedai group embrace the notion of an endless wheel of karmic death and rebirth. They embrace the Buddhist teachings which state that in order to escape from one’s karma, one must walk a middle path where the soul does not engage in the feelings and troubles of this world. For most Tai language speakers in practical terms this means you must never raise your voice in public, you don’t show anger, and you must accept your fate with resignation and patience. Sadly this calm outward show of tranquility which the world mistakes for peace is merely a cover for inner lives filled with turmoil, hurt, and uncertainty.
Leaving the large Buddhist sector of the Tai-Kedai group, we find other people groups with similar languages but different religious beliefs. The Tai Dam and Tai Daeng peoples live in the hill country of Laos and Vietnam worshipping spirits of nature and honoring their ancestors with regular sacrifices. Similarly, the Tay (day 14) and the Nung (day 13) of Vietnam have altars for their ancestors located prominently in their homes. Although animistic villagers usually tend to be open to the gospel, these four people groups have shown little response to the Lord, even when presented with a culturally appropriate face-to-face gospel witness.
In China the largest and most prominent group of Tai-Kedai is the Zhuang (days 20-23). They are among China’s largest minorities with 18 million speakers. They are animists who call on spirit priests to help them cast out spirits or sickness. Reports from the last decade suggest that many Zhuang people are open and receptive to the gospel message. However, they live in difficult to reach mountainous locales or in counties where access to the gospel is restricted by provincial governments.
Related to the Zhuang are 2.5 million Bouyei (day 18), 430,000 Shui (day 17), and three million Dong people (days 15 and 16). The Bouyei are polytheists. Their shamans perform exorcisms by climbing knife ladders or walking on fire or glass. The Shui peoples live nearby and further south into Vietnam and are very strongly bound to their ancestor spirits. The Dong live in tightly fitted houses of wood built without nails. They are known for their village drums and the unique wind and rain bridges that they build. They live in fear of the many spirits and gods that control their lives.
To Wrap Things Up…
There is much more to be said about each of the Tai peoples, but the overwhelming impression as one stands back and looks at this vast array of peoples is that few from any Tai-Kedai people group have ever turned to the Lord. In Thailand tribal churches dot hillsides and villages, while the Buddhist Tai peoples rely on the idols in their temples and the amulets they wear around their necks. The same is true wherever the Tai-Kedai people live. While tribal people across their region are turning to Jesus, only a handful among the 100 million Tai-Kedai people group cluster have embraced Jesus in any significant way. One hundred million people are too large a number to ignore! The Tai-Kedai cluster is an important group of people for whom Jesus died. He deserves their praise and adoration.
• Ask God to soften the hearts of the Tai speakers. Pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to them Buddhism’s spiritual emptiness and inability to deliver from sin. Pray we will see in this generation a major turning to Jesus among Buddhist Tai speakers.
• Pray God will raise up laborers to the Tai-Kedai people groups who will work in such a way that the churches they plant reproduce, and in turn, plant daughter and granddaughter churches which will take the gospel message to large segments of their people groups.
Saeng Palaito and her husband have lived and worked among some of the Southern Tai-Kedai’s least reached peoples for 20 years. They currently train church planters to start reproducing church movements and are raising up a prayer movement for the unreached districts of Thailand.
by Saeng Palaito
Dear Praying Friends,
Before I was in full time ministry, I was a personnel manager at a Southern California health spa. The owner of the club was a former championship body builder who told both employees and members that people who want to build muscle must focus on the “fundamental five” exercises. It made for a dull workout, but it produced good results.
In a way, this issue is like doing the “fundamental five” exercises. We are featuring 27 very similar people groups in East Asia, and the common denominator is that they all come from the Tai-Kedai language group cluster. Have you ever heard of this language group? I hadn’t either before hearing from the experts.
It won’t be as exciting reading this time, but it will be very strategic. The seasoned missionaries who selected the people groups for this issue emphasized that when the gospel penetrates these groups, it will be a major move forward toward completing the Great Commission. Please don’t neglect to pray for these important people groups this month. Start by reading the introductory article. It will give you a better idea of why we are praying for these people groups.
I would like to give thanks to Saeng Palaito and all the other missionaries and linguists who gave me the recommendations for this issue. Because of their help, we will be closer to completing the Great Commission come July 1 than we would be otherwise.
Keith Carey, managing editor, GPD