Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Coils of Custom

The Irrawaddy News

As tourism drops, many Padaung abandon the tradition of putting bronze coils on the necks of their daughters

Though likened to “human zoos” whose residents are seemingly caged like exotic birds, the Padaung tourist villages of Mae Hong Son Province used to be relatively prosperous.

U Ladu, the Padaung headman of Ban Nai Soi, said they can no longer count on tourists coming to see their “long neck” women, who are famous for the bronze coils wound around their necks, since the numbers of foreign visitors coming to the province has dropped sharply.

Padaung women are a major tourist attraction in Mae Hong Son Province in Thailand.

“The tour companies have stopped contributing to the individual monthly incomes of 1,000 to 1,500 baht (US $30-$45) received by our women,” said U Ladu. “They no longer provide food rations of beans, pulses and cans of fish.

“We’ve got enough rice for six or seven months, but we no longer get any regular income or food donations. We haven’t been provided for on a regularly basis for almost eight years. Sometimes supplies come, and sometimes they don’t. The worst is when we get sick—we can no longer afford medical care,” he said.

A sub-tribe of Burma’s Karenni people, the Padaung were among almost 200,000 refugees that left Burma for Thailand by 2005, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Driven from their homes in the Demawsoe area between Loikaw and Kyaphogyi in Karenni State by economic distress and military oppression, they migrated to Thailand over a 20-year period.

The 500 Padaung who settled in Thailand came as a windfall for Thai businessmen and provincial authorities, who placed them in three fenced-off villages—Ban Nai Soi, Ban Sua Thao and Huai Pu Keng—near Mae Hong Son in northwestern Thailand. The Padaung were not given official status, but they were free to leave the villages provided they did not go too far, though in practice this was discouraged.

Foreign tourists wanting to see and photograph the Padaung women wearing their iconic bronze coils had to pay 250 baht ($7.30) to enter the villages.

During the boom years of Thailand’s tourism in the 1990s business was good. The Padaung women could earn up to 3,000 baht ($120 at that time) per month by having their photographs taken and selling handicrafts. A 2008 report in the The Irrawaddy said Ban Nai Soi, the largest Padaung village, attracted around 1,200 tourists annually.

Travel writers observed that the Padaung were better off in the tourist villages in Thailand than they would have been in Burma. The local authorities who promoted them as a tourist attraction and the tour operators were happy.

In 1998, however, a scandal broke out when a Thai businessman was charged with luring some Padaung to Thailand, promising to take them to their relations in Mae Hong Son Province, but allegedly forcing them to live as virtual prisoners in a camp in Thaton, a small tourist town in the north of Chiang Mai Province.

The scandal died down when they were sent to join their relatives in Mae Hong Son, but the taint of “human zoos” tarnished Thailand’s reputation.

In 2008, the Thai government was accused of denying exit visas to 20 Padaungs who were being offered opportunities for resettlement in Finland and New Zealand. Observers accused the Thais of keeping the Padaungs because they did not want to lose tourist business.

The Thai authorities were reluctant to give an explanation for denying the Padaungs exit permits, but according to U Lay Maung, the chairman of the Karenni Refugee Committee, the Thais are now saying the Padaung can qualify for resettlement provided they live in a UNHCR camp. A UNHCR source said that to get an exit permit the Padaung women must also remove their neck rings.

“Even though they are not providing regular food, the Thai authorities are giving them [the Padaung] a choice: they can move into the refugee camp, in which case they must hold a UNHCR refugee card, or they can get legal permits to stay in Thailand. If they stay in Thailand, the Thai authorities are saying their children will be able to enroll at the village schools,” U Lay Maung said.

With regional competition, political disturbances and the global economic crisis causing a dramatic decline in numbers of tourists entering Thailand—in the first four months of 2009 numbers fell by almost 20 percent from the same period in 2008—the Thai offer may not be enough to keep the Padaung.

“Only 20 tourists came to the village in the last 10 days,” said U Ladu, adding that these had been the busiest days all month. As he spoke, three Chinese tourists were wandering around and taking photographs. “The villagers will only get money if they can sell their handicrafts,” he said.

U Lay Maung said, “Many of the villagers have been totally without income for the whole year,” adding that they had to eke out an existence by farming small plots. When the Padaung villagers asked for food from the Karenni refugee camp, they were refused because supplies were already insufficient and there was no additional budget, he said.

The children, however, can get an education. “Many of the village children go to the school in Karenni Refugee Camp-1, which is an hour’s walk from the village,” U Lay Maung said, “and more and more Padaungs are no longer putting the coils on their daughters’ necks if they go to school.”

U Ladu’s wife, Ma Hu Htee, wears the bronze coils, but she says they are not putting them on their daughter, a 9th grade student at the school in the refugee camp.

“Originally, about 50 of us wore coils in this village,” Ma Hu Htee said, “But now only 23 still wear them. The older ones can deal with the looks when we go out, but we don’t want our children to suffer when they go to school.

“We don’t really know how we came to wear them. My parents began putting them on my neck when I was 6-years old, just as their mothers and fathers had done before,” she said.

Some think the coils made the women look more beautiful and were a display of wealth, others that the coils protected them from abduction by other tribes by making them look ugly. A tribal myth suggested that the coils protected the women from tigers, but whatever the reason for wearing them, the coils are injurious to the wearer.

As a child grows, more coils are added each year, pushing down the collarbones and squashing the vertebrae, and making the neck look longer. A full set worn by an adult may have more than 20 coils and weigh 5 kilograms.

In the three Padaung tourist villages, fewer women wear the traditional coils, according to U Lay Maung.

“In times of robust tourism, private Thai companies used to take care of [Padaung] education and provide scholarships for their children,” U Lay Maung said, adding that every tourist brochure for Mae Hong Son Province would have a picture of a Padaung woman wearing coils in it.

“But many of the younger generation want to abandon the coils to get an education,” he said, saying that some of the young girls were adept at learning languages and could make money working as tourist guides.

A few Padaung families live outside Mae Hong Son Province in at least three small tourist villages in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. How long they will be willing to stay remains to be seen, however, especially when they hear their kin in Mae Hong Son are being resettled in third countries.

U Ladu knows what he wants for his daughter. “She could marry someone from around here in the next three or four years and be stuck here,” he said, “but I want her to resettle in a third country where she can continue her education.”

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