Saving Cultures in Karenni

By Nyein Nyein 13 July 2017

DEMOSO TOWNSHIP, Karenni State — Mou Mi, 53, is one of roughly 70 Kayan women known as the “long-necked people” who wear bronze neck rings, a disappearing tradition among the ethnic group in Karenni State.

The way of life for people in her village and nearby Kayan villages in Demoso Township has been the same for generations: farming, breeding animals, hand-weaving clothes, and crafting bamboo household wares. In the last two years, however, their village has become more known to outsiders, since the introduction of community-based tourism.

With distinctive cultures and untouched scenery, Karenni State has attracted thousands of foreign tourists and even more domestic visitors since the previous government opened access to the area in 2013. The decision came months after its biggest ethnic armed group, the Karenni National Progressive Party, signed a ceasefire agreement with the government.

Over the last three decades, many residents of Karenni—the smallest state in Myanmar, with a population of about 290,000, according to the 2014 census, but also host to at least eight ethnic armed groups—fled for the Thai border because of fighting between the Myanmar Army and ethnic armed groups.

About half of Karenni State’s ethnicities, including Kayah, Kayaw, Kayan, and Manu Manaw, are staying in Thailand’s refugee camps. Mou Mi said some of her friends went to the camps, but she remained in her village. The oldest ethnic villagers hold on to their traditional way of life.

Losing Traditions

Like every girl in Banzan village of Pan Pet village tract, Mou Mi began wearing four bronze coils on her neck when she was little. Even though it was initially painful, “it was shameful at that time if we didn’t wear them,” she said through a translator, as she spun yarn.

Mou Mi spins yarn to make a cotton scarf. (Photo: Thet Tun Naing / The Irrawaddy)

But she does not force her daughters to wear the neck rings as her mother did to her.“My daughters don’t want to put these on all the time, so I don’t make them,” said the mother of eight children.

Those accustomed to the heavy neck rings understand how burdensome they would be to wear—one of the reasons why the custom has faded among the younger generation that has not embraced the custom. Traditional attire of other ethnicities such as the Kayah and Kayaw in Karenni has also faded.

Only a handful of young women don the bronze coils now. One of them, a 20-year-old clothes peddler named Mou Tar who returned from Thailand to live with her family three months ago, sells hand-woven scarves as souvenirs at her home-cum-shop.

Mou Tar, one of the few young women who dons the traditional bronze neck rings. (Photo: Thet Tun Naing / The Irrawaddy)

Mou Thu, 47, returned from Thailand in April 2016 and also began selling scarves from her home. Visitors can also preorder local food and enjoy the music of her family band.

She lived in Thailand’s Kayan villages for nine years after leaving on the advice that she could earn more money there.

Kayan villages receive support in Thailand, with residents given a regular salary and taught vocational skills, but Myanmar offers no such support—not even an awareness drive in order to preserve the traditions. The villages in Thailand, however, are often referred to as “human zoos,” as visitors pay an entrance fee to see the Kayan people.

“For our people, the ethnic Kayan, survival matters more than being labeled as a human zoo,” said Khun Lakwui, a community guide who was in a Thai refugee camp for almost a decade, then resettled in the United States for five years before returning to the village of his childhood last year.

“I want the Myanmar government to put effort in to bringing back the ethnic Kayan, or ‘long-necked people,’ from Thailand,” said Khun Lakwui.

An estimated 11,000 Karenni refugees live in at least two camps in Thailand’s Mae Hong Song district since fleeing their homes because of conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar Army in 1989. About 12,000 Karenni have resettled to third countries, mainly to the United States.

Community Fund

Tourists who want to explore the traditional ways of life of Karenni State’s various communities can contact the area’s community-based tourism coordinators.

Launched in early 2016 and supported by The Netherlands Trust Fund, the tourism project creates job opportunities and income for locals, according to the tour guides based in the state capital Loikaw. The fund provided trainings to the local community on how to prepare food for the foreigners and on basic hygiene, but the project ended in June this year, according to U Htay Aung, the chairman of the state’s tour guide association.

The guides introduce the visitors to community elders, translating the language from the local dialects and vice versa. The guides also contribute 10 percent of their fees to the village funds, which are used for the development of the community.

“Our villagers, especially young people, have gotten jobs because of the project. In 2016 we got many visitors,” said Khu Tee Reh, the village elder from Tanelale village, where many Kayah live, and the patron of the tourism project.

“They can also earn income from cooking traditional food,” he added, explaining that the visitors can sample the local dishes.

It encourages locals to promote their traditions, he said, as foreigners want to learn about their culture.

Mou Thu prepares food for visitors. (Photo: Thet Tun Naing / The Irrawaddy)

Khun Lakwui said using community guides is the best way to contribute to the villages.

“Before there was a rule that visitors must hire community guides, but now some people hire them and some don’t, because some regional guides or national guides know the places and they just bring the visitors to the community for show,” he said.

Myanmar’s government must support the communities, he said, to help them not only survive but also preserve their traditions.

“They do not earn any income by living here, but they could have incomes while staying in Thai villages, so it must be hard for them to decide [to stay]. They need the government’s support to be able to come back,” he said.

There is no entrance fee for the Kayan villages in Myanmar. The community-based tour guides said their approach is needed for development.

Mou Mi, pictured with children (Photo: Thet Tun Naing / The Irrawaddy)

“We want sustainable tourism. If many visitors arrive, we are afraid that it might damage the community,” said U Htay Aung, the chairman of the Karenni State tour guides association. “We, the guides, the hoteliers, and the villagers all have to work together to preserve this tradition, which would support sustainable tourism,” he said.

Challenges in Protecting Culture

The bid to preserve the cultures of Karenni’s ethnicities has had a modest start, according to Khu Peh Nyoe Reh, the secretary of the Kayah National Literature and Culture Committee (KNLCC) in Loikaw.

“In this changing era, our traditions are becoming extinct as many tend not to wear the traditional dress. But we are trying to preserve it, especially the old styles, which use hand-woven clothes.”

Traditional craftsmen in Loikaw who make pieces such as silver earrings, decorated silver swords, and necklaces all used as accessories in the traditional dress are also dwindling, he said.

“In ancient clothing, we have lacquered cotton leg rings, the turbans, and earrings in addition to clothes, but now these accessories are becoming rare and we have lost the experts who craft these,” Khu Peh Nyoe Reh added.

Resource Shortages

Locals not only face the loss of crafting skills, but also a shrinking market for raw cotton to use for hand-woven cloth and bamboo household items.

A Kayan woman, pictured through colorful cotton fringe, plays a guitar. (Photo: Thet Tun Naing / The Irrawaddy)

“We have neither the market, the technology nor the higher quality cotton product,” the KNLCC secretary said, adding there are few small-scale cotton plantations in the region compared to the past.

Kyar La Pya, the husband of the scarf seller, Mou Mi, grows some cotton plants in their field to use for clothes and scarves at home. He is also one of the village’s last makers of lacquered bamboo kitchenware, which includes baskets, cups and circular trays used to serve meals.

The cups are used for drinking khawn—local millet wine—and the trays—daunglan in Myanmar and deeyapwelone in Karenni—were once a common sight in households.

The villages also lack access to underground water and households must save rainwater in large bowls for annual use.

“We have to be thrifty using water and when it runs out in the summer, we have to go to further to fetch it,” said one woman in the Pan Pet village tract. The locals added that they got access to electricity for the first time a month ago and that a new road leads to the community.

“From March to May, we have a shortage of water—especially when we have visitors who want to enjoy the local food,” said Khu Tee Reh from Tanelale village.

A woman and child sit at a traditional Kayan home. (Photo: Thet Tun Naing / The Irrawaddy)