Books / Reviews

Last glimpses of a vanishing people

by Stephen Mansfield

THE VANISHING TRIBES OF BURMA, by Richard K. Diran. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 240 pp., $60.

Coffee-table photo books are usually too expensive, space-consuming or indistinguishable in content from the art of the glossy postcard for most of us to consider buying. Every once in a while, however, there appears a publication in this cumbersome format that overcomes all such reservations. Richard K. Diran has achieved this rare feat with his book “The Vanishing Tribes of Burma.”

Diran, a resident of Bangkok, is one of those rare people who manages to successfully accommodate their business interests with a long-term creative project. After finishing a course at the California Institute of Art, Diran worked in Japan for several years as a painter before returning with his Japanese wife to the United States, where he completed a stint as a student at the Geological Institute. This served as a prelude to his entrepreneurial trips through Myanmar and Thailand in search of sapphires and rubies.

What is remarkable about this book is not so much the photos themselves as the fact that they were taken at all. From the time the country fell to a military dictatorship under Gen. Ne Win in 1962, the authorities have viewed the trickle of foreigners who enter Myanmar each year with mounting suspicion. The writers, photographers and documentary film-makers who have succeeded in producing telling records of the country have generally crossed its porous borders incognito, often depending, as in the case of Bertil Lintner, the journalist who wrote the classic “Land of Jade,” on the protection and good will of hill-tribe minorities.

As a free-wheeling gem dealer, presumably with friends in high places, Diran is careful to steer clear of politics, though he does make a few sly allusions along the way. We learn little, however, about the circumstances that have made his presence in Myanmar on so many occasions possible. There is clearly a subtext to this book. Perhaps when Diran has finished his business there, he will fill in the missing details.

Since very little has been written about the ethnic peoples of Myanmar in the last four decades, and with few skilled photographers prepared to take the risks involved in getting to minority regions, Diran is driven into the past in search of sources. He is astounded to find that many of the photographs appearing in publications like George Scott’s 1899 “Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States,” and a National Geographic piece from 1922, depict hill tribes wearing identical costumes and jewelry to those he has photographed on recent trips.

Time, however, is catching up even with the most isolated inhabitants of Myanmar. The handwoven costumes and exquisitely worked ornaments traditionally worn both at home and in the fields are gradually being exchanged for the drab, workaday clothes of the migrant farmer. “Some of the photographs you see before you,” Diran warns, “are perhaps the last of their kind.”

Material prosperity, as case studies of hill tribes in neighboring Thailand have demonstrated, is the single most powerful harbinger of change for ethnic peoples. Ironically, then, as long as it remains on the world’s economic periphery, Myanmar’s remote tribes, impoverished but culturally relatively intact, are unlikely to vanish, though they may well withdraw further into the protective cover of the forest and jungle when faced with traumas linked to warfare, conscription or new roads.

Disrupted by military conflicts reaching at times into their homes, many tribes have been displaced from their villages in recent decades and distracted from the customs and rituals that sustain such cultures. As temporal and spatial divisions shrink and impassable mountains and ravines are overcome by new roads that link villages that, until only recently, seemed worlds apart, the future seems to suggest that more tribes will be drawn into a cash economy that promises to replace ancient customs and habits with the convenience of the marketplace. Why cultivate silkworms or gather plants for the extraction of natural dyes, many tribes in other remote areas of Southeast Asia are already asking, when you can go to the market and buy cheap, durable Chinese cloth?

The world at large is more informed of and sympathetic to the plight of indigenous minorities now than it has ever been, but this fund of good will is often at odds with the political systems tribes find themselves increasingly answerable to. Nor is an intrusive central authority held back by the natural barriers of geography.

It comes as little surprise to learn from Diran’s text that Myanmar’s government no longer permits Chin women the right to tattoo their faces. The material culture of the tribes may be tolerated by the authorities, but, as with laws enacted by communist regimes the moment they took power in Laos and Vietnam, the indelible marks of a tattoo, there for all to see, are not to be suffered.

“Before you are the faces,” Diran reminds us, “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.” While there are images in “The Vanishing Tribes of Burma” that depict tribes such as the Hmong, Yao and Lahu, minorities well-known to anyone who has visited northern Thailand, Yunnan or Laos, few will be familiar with the names of groups like the Yinbaw, Hkahku or Lahta.

Diran’s fascination with textiles, jewelry and ornamentation, and his skillful closeups of them, enhance the appeal of this book. While the lacquered waistbands, stiff, hooped leggings, silver torques and jackets edged with British colonial coins will be common sights to readers who have browsed through other coffee-table books on tribal culture, Diran has some surprises: the rare sight of a village elder, ear-lobes plugged with bars of thick amber; cowrie shells stitched into a man’s sash; and shots of young Yinset women who have their front teeth capped with gold and then inset with ruby and jade.

In a more formal age and with a different set of photo equipment and film emulsions, many of these highly arranged images would seem stilted, waxen tableaus trapped in an open-air studio in which they have been posed. Stunning costumes and unguarded expressions, the latter a tribute to the trust inspired by the photographer in his subjects, save the day.

Diran’s photos date from the early 1980s, when he first began traveling through the more remote regions of Myanmar. The book features a short introduction, photo plates and text on each of the 32 tribes included. There is a useful ethnographic history and bibliography at the end. The last two sections provide the background and sources for the book and a context with which to compare the photographer’s own work.

Fifteen years and hundreds, perhaps thousands of rolls of film later, the images selected for “The Vanishing Tribes of Burma,” shot against a background of guerrilla warfare and occasional mistrust, is a remarkable record of that contact, surely as valuable as any precious stone the photographer may have traded in his other career.