Suicide among the Mla Bri Hunter-Gatherers of Northern Thailand
The Mla Bri are a small group of nomadic hunter-gatherers (about 400) living in northern Thailand who since the 1990s have begun to settle in semi-permanent villages. Eugene and Mary Long are missionaries who have lived near the Mla Bri since 1982. Between 2005 and 2008, there were five fatal suicides in this group, including four males and one female. This is apparently a new phenomenon; suicide was virtually unknown among the Mla Bri before more permanent settlements were established. Suicides and suicide attempts were usually—though not exclusively—by drinking poison, and involved married males. Explanations given by the Mla Bri for the suicides, and suicide attempts, emphasize the role of “paluh” which functions as a form of censure. The incidents of paluh leading to suicides were often in the context of sexual jealousy, and triggered by extra-marital affairs and alcohol abuse. This article discusses the “epidemic” of suicide in the context of life among the Mla Bri during the last thirty years as they were confronted with the world of modern Thailand. From a broader context, the article concludes that the 2005-2008 suicides are associated with the rapid social change the group has experienced during the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to semi-settled status.