The long road to freedom

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Karenni people are famous for the ringed necks of the women - what is less well known about them is their ongoing fight for survival against the brutal Burmese military. Photographer Dean Chapman spent eight years living with them and chronicling their plight. Words by Mary Braid

During the high season 200 tourists a day roll through

two villages on Thailand's north-west border to gawk

at the legendary "giraffe women". The holidaymakers - mostly European - pass through, counting the metal hoops which circle the women's necks and have their pictures taken with them. While the cameras click they speculate in whispers or quiz the guide. Are the elongated necks in imitation of the dragon-like creature they apparently believe is the mother of creation? Or is it true that the necks are a decorative but terrifying form of male domination. Can an unfaithful wife really be killed simply by her husband removing the rings and watching her neck collapse?

The long-neck women are puzzled by the puzzlement about the practice. They wear the rings because they always have. It is essential to who and what they are and where they come from. But if tourists are misinformed about the rings, they are invariably wholly ignorant of the desperate political plight the women are presently facing. Thai guides sometimes tell visitors that the women are indigenous. They are, in fact, refugees from Karenni, their native land, roughly the size of Lebanon, which is landlocked within neighbouring Burma. For the past 50 years, since Burma won independence from the British, the Karenni people, who enjoyed self-rule under the British, have waged a war of independence. The Burmese military government's determination to deny their aspirations has led to brutal repression.

The Karenni deserve more than the butterfly attention of tourist snappers flitting through the camps. Thirty-three-year-old British photographer Dean Chapman has just won the 1998 European Publishers Award for Photography for his photo-journal of the Karennis and their struggle. He first stumbled across their refugee camps in 1990 while travelling in south-east Asia. He arrived in a village in the rainy season - when the tourists were sparse - on foot and without a guide, intending to stay overnight. He stayed three weeks, living with a family in a bamboo hut. The villagers appear to have recognised a different kind of foreigner, and made him welcome. He made friends first with the men and then, through them, won the confidence of the Karenni women. The Karenni have become Chapman's passion. He has stayed with them half a dozen times in the past eight years and once lived with them for more than a year. "I wanted to show that they were human beings, not animals in a zoo," he says. He has invested heavily in time and effort. In a hangover from the British colonial past, the Karenni speak English, but only usually the men, so he learnt to speak Kayan, "very badly", to communicate with the women. "I ate what they ate, slept where they slept and drank what they drank," he says. And that seems to have involved copious amounts of rice whisky.

The Karenni, like Burma's other minorities, have been devastated by their confrontation with the state. But their battle - remote and not strategically important to the West - has gone largely unnoticed, overshadowed to some extent by Burma's wider struggle for democracy led by Nobel peace prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. But in the past 10 years, since the armed struggle escalated, thousands of Karennis have been forcibly removed from villages and herded into distant camps where the military can control them, and limit their support for their guerrilla fighters. Then, those who cannot afford to pay the so-called "porter taxes" to the government troops, are forced to fetch and carry for them. It is dangerous work, slaving for the enemy in war-torn, mine-ridden jungle. Rather than face the internal camps, the portering and slave labour, more than 10,000 Karennis have fled since the late 1980s to a string of refugee camps just inside the Thai border. It is there that the "long-necks" - in the two refugee camps the Thai authorities allow tourists to visit - have become part of an international tourist freak show. The long-necks are actually Kayans, one of the three main Karenni nationalities, along with the Kayaws and the Kayahs. But only Kayan women wear the rings.

Chapman has himself also gone out on military exercises with the Karenni, trudging the trenches with boy soldiers as young as nine, bent on revenge for the forced relocations of their families. He has seen how a small guerrilla force, perhaps a thousand-strong, can out-manoeuvre a better equipped army in a jungle war. By employing these tactics the Karenni, together with the neighbouring Karen and the Shan, survive as the only minorities still fighting the Burmese.

But Chapman is no adrenaline-junkie war reporter. The war photographs are just part of a wider, humane, intimate story of the Karenni people. His images tell of frustration and joy, and the hope and despair of a stubborn, long- cherished, dream that one day they will return home, and freedom fighters and families will be reunited in one independent nation. He also captures the harsh reality of everyday life in the camps. Even with the help of international charities the diet is still mainly rice and fish paste. Children die of malaria and other diseases which stalk the camps.

The vulnerability and pain of a displaced people is starkly observed in Chapman's photographs. In one, Alphonso, a Kayan sergeant in the Karenni army, lies unconscious and grief-stricken after a marathon rice whisky session. He has just discovered that his 19-year-old son stood on a mine while hunting in the forest and, in blind agony, put the barrel of his gun in his mouth and fired. Alphonso, who lost a leg nine months previously in battle, assumes his son did not want to live as a amputee like his father.

In another image, a family struggle to save a child struck by malaria, with the aid of just a watering can and wet towels. No drugs were available. The child was lucky, and lived. Others perish and are buried in ceremonies which combine Catholicism, Buddhism and animism, together with offerings such as dead chickens and pigs and cooling talcum power for the journey into the next world.

One photograph shows a long-neck woman, Moo Paw, who has just given birth, sitting in a makeshift sauna, to cleanse herself after labour. Chapman was summoned to the tent by the woman's husband while hundreds of tourists milled around, oblivious, outside. Chapman knew the couple's story. The year before they had had a stillborn child whom the wife believed was a spirit child, who would be reborn as their next baby. The still-born baby's remains were kept in a cardboard box on a bed of cotton wool, next to a Catholic shrine and a small bowl of rice and water. The spirit child, which its parents said talked to them in their dreams, had finally come."You must take this picture," said Maung Hla, the father, "for our history and our culture."

Traditionally farmers, the war has left the Karenni vulnerable strangers in a foreign land. Earlier this year a group of long-necks were "rescued" from a custom-built camp set up by Thais eager to cash in on the fascination with the ringed women. Newspapers reported that 33 people - including 20 children and a six-month-old baby - had been taken from the northern camp after being held captive for 18 months. They had been threatened with beatings if they complained to visitors.

War in fact threatens the very survival of the long-necks. There are only 300 of them left in Burma and the Thai camps, and only 50 in the two settlements which tourists are allowed to visit. Until the 1980s most of the Karenni, including the long-necks, lived in isolated, rural communities. Some Kayaw had never seen a long-neck, let alone a Burman or a white man.

Isolation had kept Karenni traditions intact. Military occupation changed all that. War opened up a whole new world and some young women now refuse to wear the coils, which depress the vertebrae, causing pain and discomfort. The Burmese government has periodically clamped down on neck-ringing. The authorities cite health grounds, but their real purpose according to some of the Karenni is the suppression of national identity. Another factor in the decline of the long-necks is the dire state of the economy in Burma as a result of the internal conflicts. It is difficult to find the brass coils now and for many women they are just too expensive to buy. Chapman has seen desperate old women taking off the rings they have worn almost all their lives and selling the metal to buy basic foods. Their necks, of course, do not collapse.

So how do the Karenni view their tourist status? Are they ashamed, demeaned, humiliated? Chapman says they appear to have no strong feelings about the tourists, tending to be amused by the attention. Like the other Karenni refugees they are very poor, and there is no denying that tourism has made them relatively better off. Some long-necks send their money home to cousins to purchase land for the day of their glorious return.

In fact the long-necks' tourist status is now central to a delicate political balance. Other minorities have been forcibly repatriated from the refugee camps by the Thais. But as long as the long-necks bring in the tourists they can protect the Karenni population holed up in the border camps - the "giraffe women" have pledged to return to Burma if the Karenni refugees are forced to go. Oddly, the future of 10,000 refugees may yet come to depend on 50 long-necked Kayan women. For now they must put up with - even be grateful for - a gawking public. At least until the war is over. And only political change in Rangoon, in the vice-like grip of the generals, will bring that about. For no one is winning the war