High in the hills of Myanmar’s Chin state, Shwe Mana plays a gentle song on a bamboo flute using only 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 the 53-year-old’s shoulder, makes it clear she will not be getting similar tattoos in what she calls, “this Internet age.” Her illiterate 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 Mana, whose house hugs a 1,370m ridgeline 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 — passed down countless generations are vanishing in the course of one as the long-isolated country opens its doors 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, which is home to more than 140 groups and numerous sub-groupings, 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 one-third of the 60 million people and inhabit half the country, barely a village remains that is still cocooned in the past.
For example, take Kyar Do in southern Chin state, which is inhabited by the Maun sub-tribe. Reached by a precarious trail plunging down a 1,500m deep valley and often cut off during the monsoon rains, the community acquired three inexpensive Chinese-made motorcycles last year and a mobile phone, now owned by the chief. Three television sets, powered by solar panels, allow the 500 villagers to keep up with the latest doings of 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 conducted fieldwork among the Chin.
“The change among the ethnic groups is very rapid and striking and it will accelerate,” Lehman added.
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 sub-tribes. It is a stunningly beautiful, rugged region rising to the 3,100m Mount Victoria. However, 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 some 20,000 in Malaysia alone — has created economic disparities as relatives send money home to once generally 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 US$2,000 a year, a princely sum given the US$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.