A group of Idaho missionaries made the news last year when they were caught transporting Haitian children from their earthquake-stricken country to a Dominican orphanage. It turned out they weren’t orphans and they have since been returned to their parents.
A Salem activist, Matthew McDaniel, says the story could have had a different ending.
“They could’ve been missionary heroes. [Taking ‘orphan’ children from their parents] has been going on for 20 to 30 years in Thailand.”
Twenty years ago, McDaniel traveled to Thailand to buy glass beads and bring them back to Salem. His life changed when he met the Akha, a minority group in Northern Thailand.
“I saw what was happening with the Akha and I kept working with them ever since. I gave up beads,” says McDaniel, who lived in Northern Thailand 13 years as a radical anti-missionary activist until he was deported. He founded the Akha Heritage Foundation (akha.org) in 1991, a grassroots organization aimed at defending Akha human rights, which he says are being violated by foreign missionaries through their orphanage campaigns.
“American missionaries are taking children, telling donors that they’re in danger of going into prostitution or that they’re orphans, and almost in no cases are the children orphans,” claims McDaniel, adding that even orphan children have extended families with whom they could stay rather than going to an orphanage. This, he says, destroys the next generation’s connection to the land of their parents.
“They’re moving them out of the village into residential schools and having church donors pay for it. The [Thai] government wants people out of the mountains and they want to assimilate these people but couldn’t do it without the missionaries,” he claims.
In some cases, parents choose to give their children up because they can’t afford to raise them, but he says that it’d be better if the donors gave the money directly to the families. McDaniel thinks that most of the donated money ends up in the missionaries’ pockets.
“The Akha are not fully informed. They’re in a desperate situation and they don’t know how much money will be made off their children. With the sponsorship money, they could live very well in the village. Why are the Akha still poor if the missions are so rich?” he asks.
McDaniel himself is also trying to raise money. On his site, donors can contribute to his goal of 30 million dollars as an “endowment for the Akha.”
Another concern for McDaniel is the premise of converting the Akha to Christianity. The Akha are environmental theologists who believe in good and evil spirits.
“They believe in them, but they don’t worship them. They are monotheistic and they keep track of their genealogy all the way back to the first Akha,” says McDaniel. He’s concerned that missions are destroying Akha culture.
Because of this, a couple years ago, McDaniel spent two weeks picketing in front of the Salem Alliance Church after some missionaries gave a presentation there to raise sponsorship money. He wanted to give his message to the donors, saying that the missions do more bad than good, but he was ignored.
“A guy with a very large umbrella was blocking church people from seeing us,” says McDaniel.
He adds that he doesn’t believe that local churches are doing harm on purpose.
“They don’t know what’s going on. They think what they’re doing is heroic,” he says.
The presentation was by volunteers of the Akha Outreach Foundation, which McDaniel claims runs one of the “fake orphanages.” One of the volunteers is from Salem. Her and her husband have a Web site, vernonjournal.com, where they post their experiences in Thailand.
According to McDaniel, Akha Outreach Services has a dark history. The people who run it, he says, were trained by a Denver Baptist missionary named Paul Lewis who obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon while sterilizing Akha women decades ago under the well-known excuse of “family planning.”
“They were planning somebody’s non-family,” says McDaniel, who also picketed the University of Oregon.
“One of their students pioneered the sterilization of minorities in Thailand and after he did it the Thais kept doing it because he taught them how to do it,” says McDaniel. “They were dishonest. They were not telling the women it was irreversible.”
McDaniel has given presentations at Willamette University and he recently came back from a year-long trip from the West Coast to New York on horseback to raise awareness about the Akha people.
Salem Alliance Church and the missionaries were unresponsive to request for comments from Salem Weekly for this story.