YANGON — Members of a Palaung tribe are considering abandoning their age-old traditional dress featuring brightly colored clothes and silver ornaments after a video clip calling them man-eaters and ghosts went viral on social media.
Most members of the Riang tribe — a sub-group of the Palaung, or Ta’ang — live in Shan State, in the villages of Maemunglon, Saimon and Kon Pung in Namhsan Township.
Some of them are concerned that their customary clothing may be misleading people into believing they are not human and are now worried that preserving their traditions could hurt them.
On Aug. 18, Daw Khin May Tun, a resident of Mongping Township in eastern Shan State, shared a live video on her Facebook page of Riang people walking on the highway in Namhsan. She said they were man-eating ghosts with the power to disguise themselves as humans and could only be seen on moonless nights.
Hundreds of thousands of people watched the video, which upset many Riang not only for its contents but the flippant remarks it drew from some viewers.
“They are even more frightening when they laugh. Their teeth are black. They eat human flesh. It happened not only in the ancient past. They used to eat human flesh until [former Senior General] U Than Swe retired. The government identified them and gave them a place by the highway,” Daw Khin May Tun said in her video.
“You won’t see them in the daytime. I’ve lived here for ages, but I have never seen them. I heard bedtime stories when I was young that they are human-eaters,” she said.
The Riang she filmed were celebrating a traditional courtship ritual as they have for generations.
Riang people are sometimes referred to as the “gold teeth tribe” because they embellish their teeth with gold caps. Riang men do not cut their hair for much of their youth while the women shave their heads when they get married.
Daw Khin May Tun’s video drew the ire of many Ta’ang. Nineteen Ta’ang civil society groups released statements denouncing it and demanding an apology from Daw Khin May Tun, which has yet to come.
The Ta’ang Literature and Culture Association in Namhsan Township, local lawmakers and police have met and tried to comfort local Riang who now dread being seen in public.
Mai A Mai, a member of the Ta’ang Youth Empowerment Association, said his group has been encouraging the Riang to maintain their customs and that it would sue Daw Khin May Tun if she did not apologize.
Nan Moe, a Lower House lawmaker representing Mongton Township in the Palaung Self-Administered Zone in northern Shan State, has also filed a complaint with the President’s Office, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, and Parliament.
She said the video could mislead people about all ethnic Palaung and that it violated guarantees in the Constitution to religions freedom, ethnic rights and citizens’ rights, calling for harsh punitive action to be taken against Daw Khin May Tun.
The Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry, since receiving the lawmaker’s complaint, has sought opinions from the Communications and Transportation Ministry and Ethnic Affairs Ministry.
“We sent a letter to the two ministries and asked them to coordinate as necessary,” said U Aung Hsan Win, director of the Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry.
The Communications and Ethnic Affairs ministries told The Irrawaddy that they had yet to make decisions on the case and suggested that ethnic Riang file a complaint with the appropriate court themselves.
But many Riang do not speak Burmese, the language of the courts, fluently. Mai A Mai said his group was preparing to file a lawsuit on their behalf.
Nan Moe said the government should be the one filing a lawsuit on their behalf and that she would raise the case in Parliament if Daw Khin May Tun continues to go unpunished.
Ethnic minorities in Myanmar receive little government support to preserve their cultures, and until the previous decade hill tribes were regularly associated with witchcraft in children’s bedtime stories.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.