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11/14/04

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Introduction To

The Vanishing Tribes Of Burma

THESE photographs are the culmination of many visits
to Burma between 1982 and 1997, during which time I
found myself inexorably drawn to the country's ethnic
groups. As Burma had just opened its doors to
foreigners at the time of my first visit, few people were
interested in the lives of the hill or tribal peoples.

Although I did not realise it then, I. had a unique
window of opportunity to capture their way of life and
culture. This book is not intended as an ethnographical
or political study, rather it is an honest attempt to
show through photographs and stories the diversity of
the ethnic groups in Burma, and to shed some light on
ways of life that are fast disappearing.

Nestling between China and India to the north,
Thailand and Laos to the east and Bangladesh to the
west, Burma is home to a vast collection of different
ethnic groups and clans who for centuries have
followed ancient migration routes from India, south-
west China, Tibet and Assam. Many of these peoples
eventually retreated deep into the mountains and
forests around Burma's borderlands, where few roads
exist above 3,000 feet, and away from the malaria-
infested valleys where their forefathers had lived and
died. Indeed, such is the ruggedness of Burma's
mountains that two villages of people belonging to the
same ethnic group can be so isolated geographically
that their language will not be understood by the other
after a generation. Chin State alone boasts forty-four
different dialects, many of which are mutually
unintelligible. Across the centuries, despite a process of
constant human movement and interchange, these
geographical barriers have served to keep culture, dress
and language remarkably separate in Burma.

Even today, Burma remains one of the last unexplored
regions on earth. Modern maps provided by the US
Defense Department show swathes of land marked
'relief territory incomplete' or 'boundary only
approximate'. Vast tracts of the country have no roads
at all, particularly in the mountainous border areas.
Where they do exist, the roads are made of dirt and
disappear into rivers of mud during the rainy season,
making travel to the region impossible.

These physical obstacles have meant that there has been
very little access to the hill peoples by outsiders. Few of
the majority of Burmans, let alone foreigners, have seen
these ethnic groups, and very few photographs have
been taken in minority areas in recent years. The

Burmese government ended its own studies on ethnic
minority peoples in the 1960s after General Ne Win
seized power, while books compiled by the Ministry of
Culture were not allowed to be reprinted.

In my search to find out more about Burma's ethnic
groups, I resorted to historical and ethnographical
studies of the country, consulting British journals from
the last century as well as studies by military men with
an eye to recruitment of the hill peoples in the First
and Second World Wars. To my amazement, I found
that many of the ethnic, sub-groups had changed very
little in a hundred years, if at all. Photographs in Sir
George Scott's 1900 study, Gazetteer of Upper Burma
and the Shan States,
or National Geographic in 1922,
for example, show black-and-white photographs of Bre
(Kayaw) and Padaung (Kayan) peoples wearing the
same style of dress and jewellery as they wore nearly a
century later when I photographed them.
Many of these photographs were taken during times of
great upheaval within the country. Few foreigners were
allowed into Burma in the 1980s and some of the
photographs before you were taken while the country
was under martial law. I was in Rangoon in March
1988, when the seeds of the anti-government rising
recent ceasefires, the Burmese government is unwilling
to allow outsiders to visit most of these regions,
claiming it cannot guarantee their safety. Whether this
is due to a genuine concern for travellers' safety or
simply irritation at the fact that it has been unable to
bring a large proportion of Burma's population under
its control is a moot point. Nothing is more
troublesome to central government than semi-nomadic
villagers or minority groups demanding political
autonomy and cultural freedom. In remote areas, many
of the hill peoples still live by slash-and-burn methods
of growing food and must abandon nutrient-depleted
upland fields every five to fifteen years. They may
move to nearby fields, or else the whole village may
just pack up and travel to new hills.
Another problem is the notion that national boundaries
do not exist and that the hill peoples are free to
wander across mountains as they choose. Ethnic
minority groups such as the Naga straddle both Burma
and India, while the Karen overlap into Thailand and
the Lisu, Akha, Lahu and others find themselves in
Burma, Thailand, Laos, China, or even Vietnam.
Central government control means nothing to such hill
peoples because they have no affiliation of national
identity with the government in Rangoon, only kinship
within the clan or local ethnic community.

Travelling in Burma, where military rule is pervasive,
presents many difficulties. Although all major roads
and towns are controlled by the central government,
the country can be divided into three different areas.

The 'white areas' cover the region known by the
British as 'Burma Proper'; they have long been under
the control of the government and, under the SLORC,
tourists are permitted to travel relatively freely in these
areas. Then there are the 'brown areas', such as towns
located in insurgent-held areas which have garrisons of
soldiers and to which tourists may be granted
permission to travel. Finally, there are the 'black areas'
controlled by insurgent groups where there is little or
no Burmese government presence; here the schools,
hospitals and trade have long been controlled by
armed ethnic opposition groups which try to run their
own administrations.

As a foreigner I used every means possible to reach
Burma's most remote hill or tribal peoples. Sometimes
I was able to reach them in their villages by negotiating
border crossings with the help of local soldiers or
ethnic groups which maintained their own armies in
the region. On other occasions, I was led to the villages
by elephant or by the headman himself.
Some of the ethnic groups were so remote, such as the
Lahta in the Loikaw area, that I had to send
independent representatives to them in order to gain
their trust. Then they were brought to me - often
many miles and many days' journey away - to a place
where they felt comfortable posing for photographs,
far away from the probing eyes of central government.

I am indebted to many people who, at great risk to
themselves and their families, helped me to gain an
insight into these isolated peoples.
Like many readers, perhaps, I was overwhelmed by the
most obvious characteristic of the hill peoples - their
colourful, exquisitely crafted costumes and jewellery.
Each clan or sub-group has a unique range of styles
and colours, and great time and imagination are used
to make the adornments. They are an expression of
status, pride, and art. Until recently they were worn all
the time - at work and rest. Now the most ornate
costumes are only worn on ceremonial occasions.
Western clothing - jeans and T-shirts - are commonly
worn by men and children, although women still wear
traditional clothes.

Jewellery is usually made of brass or silver, the latter
being the common currency among many of the
mountain villagers as they do not trust paper
money. Animals, land, dowries and crops are all
paid for in silver, and spare jewellery on a woman's
costume performs much the same function as a
bank account.

Although many of the customs of the different ethnic
groups have somehow endured throughout the
twentieth century, some are beginning to show signs of
change. When I first went to Burma in the 1980s, most
of the 'tribal' people I encountered wore traditional
dress every day at home and in the fields. However,
within a mere fifteen years, it has become the
exception rather than the rule. I soon realised that this
was perhaps the last opportunity to document their
cultures. Some of the photographs you see before you
are perhaps the last of their kind.

For example, the Taungyo people of Shan State, who
seemed plentiful when I first photographed them in
1983, had become very difficult to find in 1996. Some
had traded the brass rings they wore on their ankles
for cooking pots. Living in villages which were
physically isolated, they had stopped weaving and
only the very old wore traditional dress.

Similarly, the traditional thick amber earrings worn by
Hkahku women are easy to find in Kachin State, but it
is nearly impossible to find anyone who can still wear
them. The elderly Hkahku women on pages 20-21
were a rare sight indeed. Similarly, few ethnic minority
women have had the time to sit and embroider a piece
of cloth or weave a fish trap when war is raging and
they are left to fend for their communities alone.

There has never been a time in the history of Burma
when there have been more threats to the traditional
lifestyles of the country's ethnic minority and hill
peoples. In the past few decades, countless villagers
and communities have been dislocated from their
homes due to the fighting. Western influences are also
growing stronger by the year and the geographical
barriers that once protected them, such as mountains,
ravines and rivers, will soon be overcome. Even the
most remote ethnic groups will be linked to their
neighbors by roads cutting through their terrain and,
as demand for their agricultural produce grows, they
will become more familiar with outside influences. In
addition, the demand for development and economic
progress is strong, too, among leaders of ethnic
minority groups that have been battling for political
rights for their peoples for more than forty years.

As the pressures increase, the lack of cultivable land
has led to inter-ethnic rivalries as well as conflict with
the local authorities, with the result that many
traditional villagers have either left the hills,
abandoning their unique way of life, or have been
absorbed into neighboring ethnic groups. The Yinnet
and Yinset peoples near Loilem, whom I had
photographed in 1987, have had their villages burnt
and have fled deeper into the mountains. The
Taungyos are probably going to be absorbed by the
Pa-Os during the next few years. In Kachin State,
smaller groups such as the Hkahku, Azi, Maru, Lashi
and, to a lesser extent, the Nung-Rawang, will come to
be dominated by the culture of the majority Jinghpaw.

In Shan State, the Yinnet and Yinset are quickly
disappearing, while the Wa, Palaung, Akha and Lahu
are slowly being absorbed by the Shan or by each
other. The few Hmong of Burma, like the more
numerous Hmong in Laos, have been lured across the
Thai border by the scent of easy money and can now
be found in the night market of Chiang Mai or the
streets of Bangkok, selling their crafts. 

The Taungyo wear the same style of clothes as the Pa-0;
the Intha are increasing in population, but the
resources of Inie Lake will not be able to sustain them
for long. Arakan State has been dominated by Burman
rule since King Bodawpaya's invasion and the loss of
the Mahamuni Buddha image two hundred years ago,
while the Thet, Khami and Daignet are faced with
absorption by the more populous Rakhine. The Mon,
too, are destined to live in the shadow of their
conquerors, the Burman, who, over time, have claimed
much of their cultural identity as well. Cultural
assimilation and exchange can work both ways.

In Kayah (Karenni) State and Karen State, the fifty-year
war between the central government and Karen groups
have driven more than 100,000 Karen refugees over
the border into Thailand. Padaung refugees have been
brought into Thailand where they live as exotic
curiosities for the entertainment of tourists wishing to
see the so-called 'giraffe-necked' women. They earn
more from tourism than from their agricultural work.

The indigenous Chin of Chin State and the Naga of the
Naga Hills, who have been isolated for fifty years, are
still relatively untouched due to their isolation, but
even these groups are now being affected by outside
influences. The Burmese authorities no longer permit
Chin women to tattoo their faces; skulls are rare in the
Nagas' bachelor huts as game is dying out, and the
tiger claws which once circled warriors' faces are often
made of painted wood.

Most of the Wa still live in semi-autonomy in the
eastern Shan State and are able to continue growing
their opium crop and to carry weapons. But, after
decades of insurgency and communist pressure, their
culture is now heavily influenced by China and most
Wa men now wear the green military fatigues of the
Chinese army rather than their traditional robes.

It is difficult to predict how Burma's ethnic minorities -
in particular, the diverse hill peoples - will adapt to the
complex changes of the twentieth and twenty-first
centuries. Determined ethnic nationality movements
continue to struggle to find a just place for their peoples
on Burma's political map. But in the mountains, what
will become of the spirit headmen who can relate the
myths and histories of the last forty generations? What
will happen to their unrivalled knowledge of traditional
medicines? Tribal children are hungry to learn, but
without citizenship or accepted national identities they
remain on the periphery of the dominant cultures in
which they live. They have little stake in the future:
there are no fresh mountain ranges to inhabit, no virgin
fields to till and no untouched streams to fish.

Burma's minority peoples have always had a
precarious existence, but the next millennium will
bring new and exacting challenges. Some ethnic groups
will fight to maintain their traditional way of life;
others will adapt and modernise or be absorbed by
more dominant groups; others will probably die out,
leaving only the faintest trace of what was once a fine
culture.

I hope to show, through the eye of my lens, Burma's
rich tapestry of ethnic groups. Before you are the faces
of men, women and children who are struggling to
maintain a way of life that has been rendered obsolete
in most of the rest of the world. Their lives are
difficult, but they maintain a rare dignity in the face of
a rapidly changing world. It is my hope that this book
will help to preserve the unique traditions of Burma's
ethnic groups for future generations. If not, then at
least the photographic record will be there. I dedicate it
to the tribal peoples of Burma who, despite generations
of isolation, can still offer a stranger a smile.

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