“At the age of 10, I got my tattoos,” says Ma Lha Sen.
Tracing with her finger the spiderweb-like design covering her face, she retells the story of the two-day, painful process. “It started here,” says the 70-year-old, gesturing at her forehead.
When I ask about the origins of the tattoo tradition she shrugs. “My parents made me get the tattoos. Everyone in the Laytu tribe had to get it.”
This was a common response. Although history books written by Westerners tell tales of the tattoo practice’s emergence in response to foreign kings kidnapping beautiful Chin women as captive wives, many women said the practice wasn’t to make them “unattractive.” Rather, it was described as a coming-of-age tradition or rite of passage.
Each Chin tribe has its own unique tattoo design.
Over a cup of sugary coffee on a cold morning in the southern hills of Chin State earlier this year, I sit with Ma Lha Sen as she changes the conversation from tattoos to development in the region and continues to describe the traditions of the Laytu tribe.
She says she’s tired of Chin State only being referred to as the “poorest state” in Burma, and hopes more people will visit the region.
This is a feeling echoed by former Koh Chaung village chief Tha Gyo Aung. As more tourists have visited the area, “education has improved and houses have started to get bigger and bigger. Some houses have solar panels now too.”
Apart from tourism, he adds that other sources of income depend upon crops such as corn, tamarind, ginger, black pepper and short-grain rice. In a quiet aside, Tha Gyo Aung also confirms that many still practice logging, although in the same breath he adds, “When I was 14, I saw flooding only once but it is getting higher and higher, and I think because we cut a lot of bamboo trees, the bamboo [cutting], that’s why there is so many landslides.”
Chin State poverty’s backstory
“Chin people aren’t poor because they are backward, but because of bad policy choices,” Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO) Program Director Salai Za Uk Ling says firmly.
Under the previous military regime, land-grabbing robbed families of their agriculture-based livelihoods. Human rights groups have recorded that thousands of acres were seized from farmers. Not only was the land confiscated without compensation, but villagers were also forced to work on the seized land that, in some areas, was converted into tea and jatropha plantations under a government-led program.
“We were self-sufficient people but it’s the policy of discrimination that led to all of this,” insists Salai Za Uk Ling, when discussing life under dictatorship.
During this period, people’s freedom of movement was restricted, villagers were subject to forced labour — and tortured if they refused — and farmers could no longer go about their independent cropping. In response, many fled to neighbouring India.
To make matters worse, food insecurity spiralled in 2006 when a massive rodent infestation devastated grain reserves and caused a major food crisis. Many regions have still never completely recovered and farmers continue to be land poor. “There was a total lack of government response and they denied that this happened. They also restricted aid,” says Salai Za Uk Ling. It took years of international campaigning before the World Food Programme (WFP) was allowed into Chin State.
Henry Van Thio: a new champion for minority rights?
Optimism abounded when Henry Van Thio was elected vice president last year, with hopes high that he would elevate the voices of Burma’s diverse ethnic minority communities. The Chin were particularly hopeful, as Van Thio is Chin himself.
But when asked if Van Thio has brought any big changes for ethnic minorities, Salai Za Uk Ling answers, “There was the initial excitement … but people always know being vice president doesn’t entail much power or authority with his office.”
Daily challenges faced by indigenous people across Burma involve rights to land and natural resources, which are intrinsically linked to identity, collective survival and development.
And while it has been more than a year since the National League for Democracy government has been in power, CHRO says there’s been no real change.
The organisation says laws and institutions still discriminate against one’s religion, ethnicity, or both.
“Why would you say you are committed to equality and non-discrimination but, for example, still keep a Ministry of Religious Affairs, whose entire mandate is about promoting Buddhism over all other religions in this country?” asks Salai Za Uk Ling.
Only when institutional structures such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs are dismantled will there be concrete steps to show serious commitment to ending discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, CHRO believes. The organisation is also urging the government to enact a law giving full legal recognition of the rights to traditional land use and the land tenure systems of indigenous peoples.
This is echoed by the local group Chinland Natural Resources Watch. Land rights activist Kham Tin Thang points to land development proposals outside of tourist hub Kanpetlet that are being snatched up for hotel development and is calling for full observance of the Environmental Impact Assessment procedures required by law.
“After 2015, the number of tourists has increased sharply. The people are afraid that the tourism activities on the land will damage their natural environment and near the Mong River,” says Kham Tin Thang.
The largest Indian investment in Chin State is the $214 million multi-modal transport corridor known as the Kaladan project, which will link India’s land-locked Mizoram state by traversing Chin State to connect with the port at Sittwe, in western Burma’s Arakan State.
But seven years into this project, its finer details are still largely unknown.
“We still have no idea which farmland it will cut through or if they [local communities] will be forced to move out,” Salai Za Uk Ling told DVB.
He added, “We are not opposed to it [the project] but we are just saying it should include the local people and respect human rights.”
He is calling for more transparency and a community consultation to be held soon.
In addition to land rights, the Chin are also focused on protecting their right to celebrate their religion and culture.
When DVB visited villages around Kanpetlet and asked what had improved in the area for Chin people, one answer came up again and again.
“We can speak our mother-tongue language freely,” says Min Thaung.
He is one of the first Chin students, enrolled at the Yangon Institute of Theology in Rangoon’s Insein Township, to write a book on Chin history from his experience growing up in the Chin State town of Matupi. Previously, the military regime prohibited speaking ethnic languages or recording Chin history: “In the past they will stop, they will burn, they will persecute and we can’t do anything,” he explains.
To escape the systematic crackdown on cultural expression, forced labour and other forms of state-sponsored human rights abuses, many fled to Mizoram, India. Chin human rights activist Cherry Zahau was one of those fleeing students: “In my classroom I questioned a lot about ethnic groups; why I never learned about Chin ethnic history. The way history classes taught us is that [Burman] kings are the ruling class, superior over other ethnic groups, therefore they have the right to rule over us.”
Now, for the first time, mother-tongue classes are being taught at schools — although it’s still not government-funded, and instead teachers volunteer their time after hours.
In Kanpetlet, local women’s rights activist Mai Naomi Thang says, “We are teaching mother-tongue language classes three times or less in a week. Usually 45 minutes long for each [class].”
She says a Chin cultural and literary committee are also currently developing a mother tongue-based curriculum.
While the facial tattoo tradition looks to be coming to an end, Yaw Shen of the Magan tribe says she is proud that mother-tongue language classes are being taught: “I do not know how to write the Chin dialect but for the younger generation, it is very good to learn.”