Shan of Thailand
October 2009 has been designated as a time of special prayer for the the unreached Shan people. Head to www.surehope.net to get a PDF copy of the new Shan Prayer Guide by clicking on the banner at the bottom of the page.
Population and Geographical Distribution
The Shan of Thailand, or Thai Yai (Great Thai) as they are known locally, are a small but significant Tai-speaking ethnic group in North Thailand. Their historical roots are in Yunnan, China, where about 270,000 Shan are found today. Only about 30,000 Shan live in Thailand, mainly in the Maehongson province, west of Chiangmai and near the northwestern border.
Across the border in Myanmar, there are about 3 million Shan in the Shan states. Their warfare and the resulting tensions and economic hardships have caused many Shan to slip into Thailand illegally to find work for varying lengths of time.
The Shan are of Tai descent and speak a Tai dialect. The language is related to Thai and Lao, with a written script that is less complicated than Thai. Few of the younger generation of Thailand-educated Shan can read their own language, but all of them still speak it. Most of the books available in Shan are Buddhist literature.
Livelihood and Economic Situation
The majority of Shan are farmers growing rice to eat and a variety of crops to sell in the market. Most work on irrigated rice fields and grow garlic, peanuts and soybeans as cash crops. In Thailand, farming is becoming mechanized. The people buy small tractors to replace water buffalo and use threshing machines for both rice and soybeans. The Shan also act as wholesalers of industrial goods through northwestern Thailand and eastern Myanmar in exchange for gems, cattle, and traditional Shan goods.
At first glance, the Shan people look like northern Thai people. The women wear brighter colored sarongs and different style blouses. But, they speak their own dialect and have their own distinct customs.
Most Shan are ardent Buddhists. The life of most communities is centered around the temple and its rituals. The Buddhist lunar calendar structures the ceremonial cycle with four holy days each month. There are temple festivals celebrating events in the Buddha’s life. Wealthy villages and temples celebrate more of these events than do poorer ones. However, all villages at least hold a festival after the end of the rains’ retreat. Once a year, villages as a whole invite monks to chant to remove misfortune and to renew the village and its constituent households’ barriers against misfortune.
There is also a layer of animism underneath and every Shan village has its spirit house, where offerings are left and ceremonies performed to honor the ruling spirit of the area. The Shan insist that they do not worship evil spirits, only good spirits. However, there is a very real fear of spirits evident among them.
The Shan have no concept of a supreme God to whom we are accountable, or of sin or of forgiveness and the need for reconciliation. Buddhism satisfies the Shan socio-religious needs. The animistic superstitions and practices which permeate society meet their heart needs at times of crisis and decision making. Buddhism, with its emphasis on gaining merit and self attainment, is diametrically opposed to the Gospel of salvation, a gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ. Pray for the Shan to be awaken by God’s Spirit to their desperate need for Christ.
In Burma, Baptist missionaries began work among the Shan in 1861. They found the Shan States torn apart by internal warfare. The wars in the 1800s caused thousands of Shan to migrate to Thailand in search of food and security. Later, British rule brought peace from the late 1880s until World War II. Converts from Buddhism appeared early and Shan-speaking congregations emerged. After Burma’s independence in 1948, Burma plunged in chaos and within 3 months, the Communists were in open revolt. Missionaries left the country but the churches remained. Today, there are perhaps 15,000 Christian adherents among 3 million Shan.
In Thailand, OMF work among the Shan began in 1953. In the early years of the work, the missionaries lived in the small towns of Maehongson and Khun Yuam. Evangelism consisted of house to house visitation, meetings for youth and children and English teaching. Visits were also made to many villages, using aids such as gospel posters and film strips. Later on, FEBC began to broadcast gospel programs to the Shan. Medical work, teaching English and children’s ministry helped establish good contacts. The Shan were friendly but generally unresponsive. By 1979, in spite of widespread evangelism, there were but 25 believers scattered throughout the area. It was difficult to establish a church, because the young people who responded either left when they finished school and married, or turned away.
Meanwhile, renewed conflicts in the Shan State led to new migrations of Shan-speaking people into Maehongson Province. These new immigrants have generally been more responsive to the gospel and have formed the core of believers. They have however had a very limited impact on the older, more established Shan community.
A team of missionaries are presently working among the Shan in North Thailand. Their work includes evangelism and church planting, and the production and distribution of literature. A new translation of the Shan New Testament was completed in 1994 and this was dedicated at a service in January 1995 in Myanmar. A new translation of the Old Testament is currently being prepared. The Shan hymnbook was recently revised and reprinted in April 1995.
Christian Church within the group
Currently, Shan churches meet in five places in Maehongson Province. There are only about 100 Shan-speaking Christians in the entire province. In one place, a leprosy patient believed in 1979. God used this garrulous man to point friends to Christ and the church came into being as a result. Meanwhile, in another place, a reputable spirit doctor also believed and was delivered from the powers of the spirits. As a result, others believed and a church began around 1980. The Shan churches comprise believers who are mainly between fifty and seventy years, and many young people who are not yet sure if they want to follow the Lord. It desperately lacks young families. Pray for a new generation of Shan Christian families. Pray for people with gifts in evangelism, able to motivate, train and work with Shan Christians in reaching their own people.