The Mlabri and Suicide: Durkheim in Northern Thailand

The Journal of the Siam Society just published an article about suicide among the Mlabri of Northern Thailand by Gene and Mary Long, who are missionary linguists who have worked with the Mlabri for over thirty years, and myself.  The Mlabri (or Mla Bri) have a attracted a great deal of attention from anthropology over the last 50 years because they subsisted as hunter-gatherers on the fringes of highland societies until recently.  The result is that, like the Ju/’Hoansi of Namibia, each of the Mla Bri seems to have a personal scientist, journalist, or NGO.  In recent years, geneticists, anthropologists, linguists, NGOs, movie makers, journalists and a range of others have all been attracted by this charismatic group of 300-400 people.  Having said that, for general interests, I recommend the film The Importance of Being Mlabri in particular.  Much of the linguistic and anthropological work about the Mla Bri is also quite good.

Our article is about a modern phenomenon among the Mla Bri—suicide.  The Mla Bri stopped wandering as much in the early 1990s, and settled into village life between that time, and about 2002.  The usual explanations for this change apply: The declining availability for forest resources, an interest in health care and schooling, hostility from horticultural groups, and so forth.  The consequences have of course change Mla Bri society rapidly. The Mla Bri also now live in houses rather than temporary lean-tos, and have electricity and Thai television. Notably too, malaria has been eradicated among the Mla Bri, and judging from demographic statistics recently collected by Gene Long, birth rates seem to have increased and infant mortality dropped.

But the rapid change has also means that there is a new phenomenon—suicide, mainly among men.  According to Mary’s notes, suicide threats and attempts began in the late 1990s, and started to become successful a few years later.  A question is why?  Which is of course where the classical sociologist/anthropologist Emile Durkheim (1900) might help offer an explanation.  After all, one of his books was On Suicide, in which he introduced his ideas about the nature of society which he defines as emerging form “social bonds,” and its opposite, “anomy.”  Essentially, Durkheim’s theme is that when society changes, and old norms disappear, people become disconnected from society, and more likely to harm themselves as “anomy” increases, and social cohesion declines.  As Durkheim described, this happened among the rapidly urbanizing populations of northern Europe in the nineteenth century which he studied.  In my estimation, it is a good explanation for why in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, male mortality rates in Russia dramatically increased; the men in Russia did not necessarily kill themselves with poison (like the Mla Bri did), rather they consumed alcohol that led to higher rates of cardio-vascular diseases and accidents.

Does this principle apply to the very small population of Mla Bri?  I think maybe it does—you can read our article, and decide for yourself.

On a more personal note, this article is the result of an unusual collaboration. As I mentioned above, Gene and Mary have lived with the Mla Bri for over thirty years, learned to speak Mla Bri, and raised their children there.  Their association with the Mla Bri is intimate and personal, and their knowledge extensive.   My personal knowledge is much less—mainly I know Gene and Mary, and bring access to academia and social theory to the article.   Anyway. I first met Gene and Mary in 1981 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, and we have kept in touch since.  In 1981, the Mla Bri were largely known via a 1963 Special Issue of the Siam Society, and had yet to attract much attention from the Social Sciences, or even the Thai government.  Rather they were viewed as being a semi-mythical presence in the mountains of northern Thailand.  The world of the Mla Bri has changed a great deal since 1963, and also since 1981-1982 when the Longs first contacted them.  Our article about suicide, also in the Journal of the Siam Society is part of the story that has emerged since.