KAMPALET, MYANMAR – High in the hills of Myanmar’s Chin state, Shwe Mana plays a gentle song on a bamboo flute using her nostrils — one of the last of her tribe to preserve this ancient skill. A dark, intricate web of tattoos covers her face, harking back to a time, it is said, when women disfigured themselves to dampen the lust of lowland marauders.
Her university-educated daughter, resting a hand gently on her shoulder, makes it clear she won’t be getting similar tattoos in what she calls “this Internet age.” Her illiterate 53-year-old mother, like many from the Chin ethnic group, explains that the outside world has imparted a new sense of what is beautiful.
“My daughter thought it would be too painful and she would not look pretty,” said Shwe Mana, whose house hugs a 1,400-meter-high ridge in the pleasant town of Kampalet. “Sometimes I also feel that the tattoos don’t make me pretty — but just sometimes.”
Their story is becoming a common one in a country not long ago described as a place where time stood still. Tribal ways — dress, festivals, even languages — are vanishing in a single generation as the long-isolated country opens wider to the outside world.
The end of military rule three years ago and the launch of economic and political reforms are accelerating change. That is bringing opportunity and hope for a long impoverished country, but also increasing pressure on tradition in one of the most ethnically diverse nations, home to more than 140 groups and numerous subgroupings, from sea-roaming “gypsies” in the south to a tribe of pygmies living in the shadows of the Himalayas.
Across Myanmar, where ethnic minorities make up about a third of the 60 million people and inhabit half the country, barely a village remains cocooned in the past.
Witness Kyar Do in southern Chin state, inhabited by the Maun subtribe. Reached by a precarious trail plunging down a 1,500-meter-deep valley and often cut off during the monsoon rains, the community acquired three Chinese motorcycles last year and a mobile phone owned by the chief. Three television sets, powered by solar panels, allow the 500 villagers to keep up with soccer squads Manchester United and Real Madrid.
“The world they are in contact with is in constant change, and they want to be part of it,” said F.K. Lehman, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and one of the few anthropologists to have worked among the Chin.
Wedged between northeast India and the heartland of the Burmans, the majority ethnic group in Myanmar, Chin state is home to six Chin tribes and 69 subtribes. It is a stunningly beautiful, rugged region rising to the 3,100-meter-high Mount Victoria. But it is plagued by periodic famines, threadbare infrastructure and an insurgency — now at least temporarily halted — aimed at greater autonomy from the central government.
Driven by poverty and politics, a Chin diaspora — there are 20,000 in Malaysia alone — has created disparities as relatives send money home to formerly egalitarian communities.
The family of Yen Htan recently built a new house in Kyar Do thanks to a son working in Malaysia who sends home about $2,000 a year, a princely sum given the $2-a-day income of most other families. Brightly painted and tiled, the house is built of wood, in contrast to the traditional bamboo and thatch.
There is also a generational disconnect. Older people are mostly illiterate, while the young attend a village primary school, and a few of them go on to higher education in the district capital.
With previous restrictions on foreigners traveling to Chin state now mostly lifted, a trickle of tourists make the heart-pounding trek to Kyar Do. Some offer candy and medicine, or donations to rebuild a bridge demolished by floods. Others try to buy heirloom jewelry — expressions of pride, status and artistry — from households. Some of the tattooed, bejeweled women expect cash for photographs.
“Our village must be developed, and some tourists come to help,” said villager Phey Htan, attributing some economic betterment to the replacement of half a century of military rule by a government elected in 2010.
British colonials, who seized the Chin Hills in 1896, and American missionaries were earlier agents of change. The indigenous groups were able to meld some of their animist religion with Christianity, and the missionaries strengthened the concept of “Chin-ness” by creating the first Chin written alphabet and other unifying measures.
“The English and missionaries offered a connection to a larger, interesting world which did not depend on the Burmans, who had always been rather unkind to them,” Lehman said.
Christianity and animism
Kyar Do, like other Chin villages, seems to have his feet planted in both animism and Christianity, in the past and the present.
Down the slope from a Christian church, the ashes of the deceased lie beneath clusters of flat stones, according to custom.
Phey Htan, an avowed Baptist, proudly presents his tattooed wives — two of them. “Tattooing is good. It’s our tradition. I would like to see it continue. I am very proud to be a Maun,” he said, reflecting a deeply rooted sense of identity despite changes in what anthropologists call showcase culture: dress, ornaments, dances and other visible elements.
One wall of his house is decorated with the skulls of “mithuns,” domesticated forest oxen that are sacrificed to ensure bountiful harvests in a five-day ceremony also involving the slaughter of chickens, pigs and goats — plus plenty of liquor.
Such traditions are challenged by continuing efforts to assimilate the minorities into the Burman mainstream.
Lian Sakhong, a Chin activist and anthropologist, fled Myanmar after the brutal 1988 military suppression of a prodemocracy movement. On returning home in 2001 from asylum in Sweden, he noticed changes. Buddhist pagodas stood on hilltops where there were once only Christian churches. Students were pressured to convert to Buddhism, the religion of most Burmans, at special, well-endowed schools run under the government’s Border Area Development Program.
His generation studied in Chin languages through primary school, but now children can do so only at Sunday school. Christianity, which once so transformed Chin society, now is saving it, said Lian Sakhong, also the son of a tribal chief.
“Chin identity and Christianity are fully blended,” he said. “We have only one institution that is not controlled by the government: our church. When you sing a hymn and read the Bible in Chin on Sunday, and you know that others across the state are doing the same, it makes for a kind of community, a unifying force.”
But as in other ethnic areas, languages are disappearing as once-isolated valleys are connected by roads and modern communication.
In his grandfather’s time, everyone in a cluster of 27 villages where Lian Sakhong grew up spoke Zophei, a distinct dialect of the Laimi tribe. Today, it is spoken in only four or five.
Long-running insurgencies and political struggles by the Chin and other ethnic groups for greater autonomy also forged a sense of identity. Now, most have agreed to cease-fires that could lead to peace.
“Strong identity is being kept alive by the armed resistance. It has become an identity-keeping force,” Lian Sakhong said. “I tell my friends, ‘If there is peace, we have to find other ways to protect our language, our essential culture.’ “