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One such tourism village
is Hoy Sua Toa Long Neck Karin village, located in Thailands Mae
Hong Song Province, within sight of the Burmese border. After paying their
entry, tourists will find that the entire village is one huge shop,
with women and children selling goods and posing for photos. There are
no Karen men to be seen. Traditionally, tribal people lack a merchant
class, and yet the village is 100% dedicated to the sale of trinkets.
Karen in Burma live by planting and cultivating rice, raising animals,
and by hunting. In Hoy Sua Tao, however, there are no rice fields.
by the Neck
Burmas Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe chose exploitation in a
tourist village rather than go back to a civil war which borders
The Burmese civil
war, often viewed as a genocide, committed against Burmas
tribal minorities, has been raging off-and-on for a period of nearly
fifty years. Estimates claim that as many as two million refugees,
many of the tribal peoples, have fled over the border into neighboring
Thailand. The Long Neck Karen tribe, so called because their women
wear multiple neck rings, which elongate the neck, to several times
normal size, have found refuge in artificial, tourist villages,
where visitors, both Thai and foreign, pay a heavy entrance fee
to gawk at the unusual looking people.
Its their choice. Said Som Sak Seta, a guide who takes
tourists to the Long Neck Karin Villages. The Karen can make money,
wearing their neck rings in the camp, or they can go back in the refugee
camp. They dont have a right to stay (in Thailand). This is the
compromise of the governors of this place, so the Karen can stay inside
of the Thai border and make some money, and the governors can get some
money as well.
Ajan Prasit Leeprechaa, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University is himself
a member of the Hmong tribe, a group persecuted in Lao, for fighting along
side the Americans in the Indochina conflict. While countless Hmong families
languish in refugee camps, awaiting resettlement in the USA, Ajan Prasit
uses his education to study and help Thailands many tribal people.
Original images by
Ajan Prasit explained the Karen predicament this way. The Karen
are faced with four options. Live in a tourist village, become official
refugees, go back to the war in Burma, or number four, now some countries
like New Zealand offer them a chance to go live in cultural tourism villages
All of these options are only options if the tribal people are made aware
of their rights, which most are not. The Long Neck Karen are typically
singled out, because of their appearance, scooped up and deposited in
the tourism villages, before reaching the UN camps. Allowing Long Neck
Karen to gain refugee status would not be in the best business interest
of the village owners, who collect money from the tourists.
Owning a group of Karen is a lucrative business.
Some Thai made a fake village in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai,
and stole some Karen from here to live there. They charged 1,000 Baht
or more for the entrance fee. But, the Mae Hong Song government went down
and took them back here already. Said Som Sak Seta.
All legal residents of Thailand are given some type of an ID card, with
various rights attached. Obviously, citizens get the most rights. Legal
aliens may be grated rights such as employment or residence. Because the
Long Neck Karen in the tourist villages have no legal status, they have
no rights of residence, employment, or freedom of movement in Thailand.
A Long Neck Karin Karen girl, named Mali, told us she hadnt been
given any type of ID card, although she had already lived in Thailand
for more than twelve years.
Do you have any other papers for residence or anything?
No, I dont have anything. They just let me stay here.
Can you go into town? Can you go into Mae Hong Song?
I can, but I cant stay overnight. I can just go there and
buy some food. Afterwards, I have to come back here. I have to stay here.
In Burma, the Karen people would be engaging in agriculture, as well as
hunting and gathering forest products, as their people have done for centuries.
But in the tourism villages, they work as full time sellers of trinkets.
Normally, the Karen culture would be tied to the land, the jungle, and
the agricultural rhythms. As salespeople, the Karen have lost their culture
We asked Mali if her younger sister, who was born in Thailand, had an
No, no we dont. None of us have an id card, none
of us. Said Mali.
Other Karen have explained that the Thai government is willing to give
ID cards to babies born in Thailand, as long as the birth is registered.
The same Karen said that they were either unaware of the law at the time
their children were born, or that the owners of the villages actually
prevented the Karen from obtaining ID cards for fear of losing revenues.
Mali explained how the Karen business worked. If we stay here and
wear the rings around our neck? They will give us 1,500 Baht per month,
each. But the men dont get money because they dont wear the
Do they give you rice, something to eat here?
Yes, they give us 180 Baht per person, per month. So, we take that
money and we go to buy rice and food.
If you dont wear the rings, will they give you money?
No, if we dont wear the rings, we dont get the money.
So, the men wont get the 1500 Baht. They only get 180 Baht for rice,
per month, per person.
Have you ever thought about going to work in town?
No, I cant go. I just cant go.
Have you ever thought about what kind of job you would want to get?
I have been thinking about that? Someday if I can, I would like
to go to work in town. But, we wear this metal around our neck, so I dont
think we can go. I think we just can stay here and sell souvenirs.
Thai spies, in yellow shirts, hung around, photographing my team and evesdropping
on our conversations. Finally, to avoid putting ourselves or the Karen
in jeopardy, we had Som Sak Seta take us to a real village,
called Baan Nai Soi, where it was much easier to do interviews. Som Sak
Seta explained the soldiers were only there to guard the border, merely
a few kilometers away. While the soldiers sat on a cooler, sipping a coke,
an eighteen year old Karen girl, named Zember, told her story.
Zember only moved back to the village when she was about seven or eight,
the age when girls take their first rings. She followed the custom, adding
one ring per year, till she was sixteen. Finally, she had them removed
in an attempt to gain more comprehensive citizenship rights and be able
to migrate down to "urban" Mae Hong Son without being gawked
at as a freak
Since removing the rings, she finds herself in a situation of double jeopardy.
Now, not only does she still have the lowly status of being a stateless
Karen refugee, living in a sideshow, but the Karen elders shun her as
a traitor to the ring-wearing community. Zember said that she does make
frequent trips down to the city during daylight
In recent years, Thailand, like many Asian countries, has been rewriting
their laws to increase human rights and freedoms. The issues facing the
tribal people do not seem to result from a lack of legislation, but rather,
a lack of enforcement. Too often, it seems the whim of the local authority
prevents people, both Thai and tribal, from accessing rights granted them
by the federal government. High percentages of illiteracy and low levels
of education among the tribal people also add to the problem.
Although none of the Karen came right out and said it, they must be living
under tremendous pressure, knowing that they have no legal right of residence,
no right to property ownership, and as far as they know, no access to
legal recourse. Add to this the ever present specter of deportation to
a war, where they are considered the enemy, and it is no wonder that the
tribal people lack the internal strength to stand up for themselves.
Tribal people tend to think in very tangible, concrete realities. And
one reality which they see everyday is, as bad as the situation in Houy
Sua Toa is, no one is shooting at them. Additionally, they have an income
and they have their children and families with them. So, on some level,
they are better off than they would be in Burma. And of course, at any
time, they are free to return to the war.
The Puyai Ban, village owners who pocket most of the tourism revenue,
evoke images of the war as a justification for what they are doing. Tourists,
headed into Houy Sua Toa will notice a huge display of bombs and mines,
right near the entrance.
They are just telling what kind of bombs, and how bad it is for
these people, so the tourists can know. Explained Som Sak
Som Sak Seta told us that for a brief period, the Thai government
had been issuing ID cards to the Karen.
Now the Karen just dont get the ID cards anymore.
Som Sak Seta. They (Puyai Ban) prevent the people from becoming
Thai citizens. They are trying not to give them anything. If the government
gives them the card, and the people in charge of this income let them
have the card, and they become Thai citizens, the Long Neck Karen will
disappear. So, no more income and no more attraction. They are trying
to keep these people as Long Neck Karen and pay them 1500 Baht a moth,
and keep them happy.
So, what if the Karen disappeared? Mae Hong Song province would just be
short of income. Isnt that so?
Usually there is a lot of income from foreign tourists. Normally
the people who get the money for the entrance fee will develop the roads
or build a temple or something in the village, but these people only develop
their pockets. The Karen said that if they had to relocate to another
artificial village, they would not go there. They would move into the
refugee camp. They dont want to go farther from the border, into
the interior. Here, they have NGOs to look after them, like the UN. So,
they might have a chance to go to a third country as refugees. Some of
them have already moved to Holland, USA, and Australia. I think already,
more than 500 have been resettled into third countries by aid organizations.
If they stay here they are being pressured by the governors in charge,
if they move into the NGOs it will be better for them, they have no freedom
if they stay here.
The rings around their neck are cultural shackles. The Long Neck Karin
are faced with a fatal alternative. Is it better to return to Burma, and
risk death, or better to remain as a stateless sideshow attraction in
Thailand? On the other hand, the Long Neck Karin, because of their unique
appearance, are the only one of Burmas many ethnic minorities who
has this option of escape.
Antonio Graceffo is
an adventure travel and martial arts author, living in Asia. His specialties
include ethnic minorities, languages, and martial arts. He has studied
Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple and lived in the last Muay Thai monastery
in Thailand. He has published four books on amazon.com
Contact Antonio: Antonio@speakingadventure.com
Checkout Antonios website http://speakingadventure.com/
Get Antonios books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa
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