Chin Villages along the Lemro River (1 January 2015)
New Year’s Day, although the day did not feel like it, was spent on an excursion that to me was the most controversial part of my trip. I went to visit some Chin villages that day.
These “Chin villages” I was brought to were remote villages along the Lemro River built and inhabited by Chin people. These are a group of people living in the region where Myanmar, India and Bangladesh meet. The selling point of the excursion is not so much about meeting a tribal people quite different from the Burmese and learning about their culture but more about gawking at some elderly ladies with tattooed faces. That in itself already smacks of controversy in my opinion.
We had to spend hours on the river travelling upstream to and between two Chin villages. The river journey started at a jetty outside a village half an hour’s drive away from Mrauk U.
While waiting for my boat to be ready, I decided to watch the activities going on at the jetty. It was then that I realised that many of the people working there, which seemed to be used as a distribution centre for river stones as well, did not look like the Burmese or Rakhines. I believe they were Rohingyas.
From the first day I stepped foot onto Myanmar I had not heard the word “Rohingya” being mentioned. It was not that this group of people featured in conversations with my guides all the time although I sensed a certain reluctance to use the word. Before I had arrived in Rakhine State I had only encountered one reference made to these people. This was in one of my conversations with my guide in Mandalay. I remember him saying “the Indians” and then correcting himself quickly and saying “the Muslim people” instead. It might have been an honest mistake but who really knows.
A, a Rakhine man, had made mention of the Rohingyas a number of times before when we drove through the countryside to get to Mrauk U from Sittwe. Not once did he call them the “Rohingyas”. They were always “the Muslim people”. It was as if the word “Rohingya” never existed. I think to him, like so many people in the country, the Rohingyas only existed in the minds of foreigners.
The boat chartered for me to take me to the villages was late. It was still at another jetty further upstream. I had to hitch a ride on a boat chartered by a German couple to get there.
Before we could meet the Chins however we had to get some gifts for the ladies with tattooed faces and the children in the village. I was not told before the excursion that this was necessary and in fact the itinerary had made it look entirely like a cultural encounter. I did have some issues with the real arrangement. It had felt like I was being asked to pay an entrance fee to observe a phenomenon. It was like I was going on a visit to the zoo. The standard gifts bought, as requested by the tattooed ladies themselves, were betel leaves and nuts and some lime for the ladies to enjoy. The kids would get candy. Did I have to buy bananas for the monkeys? A suggested that I could make a donation too. The very idea of putting money into the equation made the whole affair feel even more transactional and even dehumanising.
On the other hand, perhaps the whole thing was supposed to be transactional after all. But who really benefits from the transactions? I doubt that a single cent of the money that I had paid for this excursion went to any Chin person. Besides the possible donations, the only money that the Chins make from tourism is from the sale of their handmade scarfs. However it did not even look like many tourists make the trip to these villages. And so it may be that the only substantial benefit that tourism brings to the Chins are moments of enjoyment from chewing the betel nuts for the tattooed ladies and candy for the kids. I honestly do not know where I should stand on this issue.
We visited this market at this village by the river for some cultural experience and to get our supplies of betel things and candy.
While at the market, A decided to get a haircut. I sat quietly by the doorway of the barber’s waiting for him to finish. There were times when I wondered if in facthe were the tourist and I were his guide.
After we were done with our shopping, and A’s haircut, we headed further upstream to get to our first village. I was supposed to visit the home of a tattooed lady at the village and before we got there A taught me how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Chin. It was very similar to Burmese. “Hello” in Chin was “mingaladon” (as opposed to “mingalaba” in Burmese) and “thank you” was “chesukatom” (as opposed to “chesubay” in Burmese).
I learnt a little about the tattoos of the Chin ladies from A and their history during my visit to the home of the tattooed lady. It was still quite difficult for me to understand A completely but I think I managed to glean a few things from his attempt to educate me. There were apparently three types of patterns used generally by the Chins in the region and the pattern used by the ladies in this particular area looked like a spiderweb. Only women had their faces tattooed and this was done when they were quite young although I cannot remember how old this lady I had visited was when she got her tattoo. I only remember that a needle made from bamboo was used and soot was one of the materials for the dye. And her face was so swollen after the deed was done that she was unable to eat for days.
The practice of tattooing these girls is not some age old tradition. It only started during the Japanese occupation of the region during the Second World War when Japanese soldiers, as they mostly did wherever they occupied, went around raping girls. The whole purpose of the tattoos was to make the Chin girls unattractive to those soldiers. It was quite simply a response to barbarism.
They no longer tattoo their girls however since the whole reason to do so is no longer present. The days of the Japanese occupation were long over. The tattooed ladies are now quite aged and the one I had visited might have been the youngest in her village. She is in her sixties now. There are few of them left nowadays too.
I met a few more of the tattooed ladies as we walked through this village. Whenever we encountered a tattooed lady A would give her some of the betel things and ask her to pose for me before inviting me to feel free to take photographs of her tattoos. Offer and acceptance, everyone knows the drill.
One tattooed lady that we met seemed to have an infection in her mouth, although that did not deter her from chewing betel. She needed medical attention nonetheless but could not afford the treatment and also the transport to take her down the river to a doctor and back. That was according to A and it sounded like he was hoping that I would sponsor at least her transport. I did consider if I should do so and it did feel like the right thing to do for a moment. However for some reason I felt a bigger resistance to the idea of giving away any money in this manner and quickly changed the subject. I did feel sympathy for her plight and I still do, but I also did not feel that I could give her the money without feeling like this whole trip was a money-making farce and I was just a money tree.
I am also quite sure that by feeling this way I would fall into the broad category of “selfish rich foreigner” some. But I strongly believe that being generous with freebies will not solve the problem of poverty in this world. I also refuse to contribute to the development of any notion that all tourists are rich and the poorer people they visit have the right to a share of their wealth.
As for the kids in the village they followed us around firstly because of the candy that A was handing out for me and secondly out of curiosity. I was after all a novelty. Some of those kids were really excited about getting their pictures taken and gamely posed for me. When I showed them their pictures on my camera they started swiping the screen as if it were a smart phone. The villages might have been remote but the villagers were far from being cut off from the rest of the world.
The best thing for me on this excursion was definitely my encounter with the Chin kids. They were absolutely the sweetest, purest and most genuine encounter to happen to me that day.
The second village I visited was more commercial. Their handmade scarfs were on full display almost everywhere. Some of the ladies would also try to direct my attention to their scarfs hoping that I would buy one. Unfortunately I do not buy scarfs and stuck to my usual principle of not shopping unnecessarily.
By the time I got to the second village however the tattoos had become much less of a novelty. The ladies though enjoyed chewing betel just as much as those I had met in the first village. The kids there were also just as wonderful as those living in the first.
The second best thing for me on this excursion was the scenery along the Lemro River. It was green and sometimes wild but there was also much human activity on and by the river. These made the long boat ride a very enjoyable experience.
My visit of Rakhine State ended with the end of New Year’s Day. I was actually happy that I would very soon finally see the last of A. It was not that he had not shown me the sights at all. No he definitely showed me as much as he could. But I simply could not appreciate the way he did his job.
Notwithstanding A and my discomfort with him however, the visit had allowed me to see some of the faces that could have made front page news at home, whether they be the faces of aggression or the agreessors’ victims. It had also opened my eyes to a part of the world that I never knew existed and put me in a position that I wish I was not put in and yet was thankful I was because it opened my eyes. It would have been ideal if I had more time to go deeper into the issues that still exist and affect the people living in the state today.