Burma's long-neck women struggle to break out of Thailand's 'human zoo'
Zember (left) shares lunch with other long-neck women at Hway Pu Keng village on the Thai-Burmese border. The 23-year-old thought the Thais would let her emigrate to New Zealand if she took off her rings.
Photo: Jack Picone
ZEMBER was a poster child for long-neck tourism. At 12, her neck coiled with brass rings, she sat on display at a Bangkok tourism fair, helping to create the buzz which would draw gawkers from around the globe.
Now 23, her neck is bare, the rings stripped off in anger after provincial authorities in Mae Hong Son, in northern Thailand, refused to let her emigrate to New Zealand, concerned about the negative impact on tourism of an exodus of long-neck women.
"When I was young, I wanted to wear the rings and keep my own tradition. In one way, I feel sad (that I've taken them off) but now I go to the city, no one cares, no one stares," she said. "The people who control us say if the people see us in the town, they won't pay to see us (in the village)." Riding motorbikes, a common, inexpensive form of transport, is also frowned upon because the Thais who control the long-neck villages say: "It's not part of your culture".
Zember, also called Mu Lon, has not rejected her culture, but she now sees her rings as a weapon of exploitation by powerful local Thai authorities. Long-neck tourism is big business in Mae Hong Son, but little of the money returns to the Kayans — the operations have always been run by Thais.
"It is the No. 1 attraction in this area. It's why tourists come here," said Wanchai Thiansiri, a Chiang Mai-based tour guide. "They may go to see caves as well, but the long-necks are the attraction."
About 100 Kayans (also known by the Burmese name Padaung), fled across the Burma border to Thailand from Kayah state in the late 1980s when civil war between Karenni separatists and the Burmese army became too intense.
"When we first came, we didn't know anything. In Burma, we had to work really hard and when we moved here (we worked hard) too. We don't know they are getting money from the tourists, we (couldn't) speak English or Thai," said Zember, who was five when her family fled.
She sits on the balcony of their flimsy wooden hut in Nai Soi village, one of three villages where tourists pay 250 baht ($A9.50) to take photos, talk to the women or just stare. Women who wear the rings are paid 1500 baht a month to run souvenir stalls and men receive a rice allowance of 260 baht a month. They make a little more from the traditional scarves they weave and sell. In one village, Hway Su Thao, the women have had their wages docked for riding motorbikes, talking to foreigners outside the village or attending educational courses that keep them away from the village during the day.
The older generation were grateful to have a means of surviving, said Zember in basic English, and they did not understand tourist comments that they were a "human zoo". "Ours is the first generation who can read and write."
In nearly 20 years, the community has grown to 520, still living in poverty, with few rights in Thailand or hope of return to Burma. Unlike other refugees, because of their commercial value, the Kayans have not lived in the largely sealed-off refugee camps, a fact the Thai authorities are now using to suggest they are economic rather than political refugees.
Provincial officials have also told The Age that the Kayans are in fact registered as a Thai hill tribe and so do not have the right to seek asylum.
For many years, the Kayans had no recourse, but the status quo changed in Mae Hong Son in 2005, when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees opened registration for third-country resettlement to the 50,000-odd refugees in the area.
Almost every Kayan family applied: three families that included women who wear rings were successful.
In Nai Soi, two families, including Zember's, were approved for New Zealand and one family for Finland. She takes the precious, crumpled confirmation letter from UNHCR and their International Organisation of Migration medical cards out of their plastic sleeve.
"When we heard, we were really happy, we think we can go there, we are really excited, Our friends from the (refugee) camp who have already gone to New Zealand told us they have seen the house we will live in. Kayan people without rings in the camp have gone."
Before she, her sister, her brother-in-law and their four children could leave, they needed then governor Direk Kornkleep's approval for an exit permit from Thailand. He would not sign, reportedly drawing the analogy of "an endangered species on the verge of extinction which needed protection" in discussions with non-government organisations.
At the governor's office in Mae Hong Song, Deputy District Officer Waricha this week insisted that the long-neck Karenni have never been approved to leave Thailand on refugee status because, according to Interior Ministry data, "they have been registered as Thai hill tribes".
Wanchai Suthivorachai, the vice-governor for security, clarified they were registered with the Interior Ministry as people of "asylum" but there was a problem, because this status only applies to someone living in the refugee camp and who was a war refugee.
"It is surprising at this stage to hear that any Thai authority is questioning their status as refugees," said Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Bangkok.
A large group of Padaung were submitted to New Zealand for resettlement but there had been no progress on these cases as no Padaung had been allowed to leave in more than two years, Ms McKinsey said.
New Zealand was told there were registration issues with the individuals concerned, said a spokeswoman for the New Zealand Labour Department, which oversees refugee resettlement.
While the then governor blocked their departure, he also announced a plan to consolidate all three long-neck villages, to preserve their culture and make one tourist centre.
As an incentive, the new village project at Hway Pu Keng offers the Kayans their own houses, free from a Thai controller, with the possibility of Thai citizenship in the future.
No other refugees have been offered this preferential deal. Eighty-nine Kayans have moved to the new village but many, including Zember's family, stayed in Nai Soi.
Zember took off her coils in anger, but even bare-necked, she attracts attention. Tour guides now point her out as one who rejects tradition.
"I take off my ring so they will let me go (to New Zealand). When I stay here in the village, they make money from tourists and I don't like that way," she said.
"I want to get my own education, work by myself and own by myself."
The Age Jan. 12, 2008