Shackled by the neck
Burma’s Long Neck Karen chooses exploitation in a tourist village rather
than returning to a civil war.
Two years ago an 18-year old Karen girl named Zember, living in a refugee
village within sight of the Thai-Burma border, staged her own little
personal revolution. She removed the rings she had been adding around her
neck each year since she was seven or eight years old, the age the girls
take the first ones that ultimately turn them into human giraffes.
Karen woman begin placing rings at age 6 to elongate their necks. Photo
courtesy of Steve Evans, Asia Sentinel.
The Padaung Karen, or long-neck Karen, so-called because of the multiple
rings that elongate their necks by deforming their collarbones and pushing
their shoulders down, have been described for decades as one of the closest
things in Asia to a human zoo. But their condition points up just how much
of a zoo it is. They have found dubious refuge in artificial tourist
villages where visitors, both Thai and foreign, pay a heavy entrance fee to
gawk at them.
The Padaung Karen are a tiny offshoot of the larger Karen people, natives of
Burma who have long been caught up in a civil war against the government.
The Karen – and other Burmese minorities have never been fully integrated
into the country and the current military rulers of the country have spent
decades trying to suppress the various rebellions. Estimates claim that as
many as 2 million refugees, many of them tribal peoples, have fled over the
border into neighboring Thailand.
What Zember wants, as do most Karen on the Thai side of the border, are more
comprehensive residency rights and the ability to move freely. But since
removing the rings, she finds herself in double jeopardy. Now, not only is
she a stateless Padaung Karen refugee living in a sideshow, but the elders
in her village shun her as a traitor to the ring-wearing community.
The Padaung Karen are typically singled out by Thai entrepreneurs because of
their appearance, scooped up and deposited in the tourism villages before
reaching United Nations refugee camps. Allowing Padaung Karen to gain
refugee status would be bad for business because the village owners collect
money from the tourists. Owning a group of long-necks is a lucrative
business lucrative enough, according to Som Sak Seta, a guide who takes
tourists to the villages, that entrepreneurs come and take Padaung Karen to
their own villages elsewhere in Thailand.
“Some Thai made a fake village in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and stole some
Karen from here to live there,” Som Sak Seta said. “They charged 1,000 baht
(US$30.70) or more for the entrance fee.”
Huai Sua Tao is a Padaung Karen village located in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son
Province, near the Burmese border. After paying their entry fee, tourists
find an entire village that is one huge shop, with women and children
selling goods and posing for photos. There are no men to be seen. Karen in
Burma traditionally live by planting and cultivating rice, gathering forest
products, raising animals, and hunting as their people have done for
centuries. But in the tourism villages, the Padaung Karen work as trinket
vendors. Normally, the Karen would be tied to the land, but now, as
salespeople, they are losing their culture. In Huai Sua Tao there are no
“It’s their choice,” Says Som Sak Seta. “The Karen can make money wearing
their neck rings in the camp, or they can go back to the refugee camp. They
don’t have a right to stay (in Thailand). This is the compromise of the
governors of this place, so the Karen can stay inside the Thai border and
make some money, and the governors can get some money as well.”
Prasit Leeprechaa, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, is himself an ethnic
Hmong, a group persecuted in Laos for fighting alongside the Americans in
the Indochina conflict. While millions of Hmong families have been resettled
in the United States and others still languish in refugee camps awaiting
resettlement in the USA, Prasit uses his education to study and help the
region’s many tribal people.
“The Karen are faced with four options,” Prasit says. “Live in a tourist
village, become official refugees, go back to the war in Burma, or, number
four, some countries like New Zealand offer them a chance to go live in
cultural tourism villages abroad.”
These are only options if the tribal people are made aware of their rights,
which most are not. All legal residents of Thailand receive some type of ID
card, with various rights attached. Obviously, citizens get the most rights.
Legal aliens may be granted rights such as employment or residence. But
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
A Padaung Karen girl named Mali – who was born in Thailand – said she hadn’t
been given any type of ID, although she had already lived in Thailand for
more than 12 years. Asked if she has residency papers, she responded: “No, I
don’t have anything. They just let me stay here.”
She is allowed to go into nearby Mae Hong Son, but, she says, “I can’t stay
overnight. I can just go there and buy some food. Afterwards, I have to come
back here. I have to stay here.”
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 they were either unaware of the law at the time their
children were born or that the owners of the villages actually prevented
them from obtaining ID cards for fear of losing revenues.
Mali explained how the Karen business works. “If we stay here and wear the
rings around our neck, they will give us 1,500 baht per month, each. But the
men don’t get money because they don’t wear the rings.” Each Karen receives
another Bt180 for rice and food. “If we don’t wear the rings, we don’t get
the money. So, the men won’t get the Bt1,500. They only get Bt180 for rice,
per month, per person.”
Asked if she had ever thought of going to work in town, she answered: “No, I
can’t go. I just can’t go.” Someday, she said, “I would like to go to work
in town. But we wear this metal around our neck, so I don’t think we can go.
I think we just can stay here and sell souvenirs.”
The trinkets the women sell were identical in both villages. Many were
sealed in plastic, obviously made in a factory. They essentially told us
they get the souvenirs dropped off in the morning and the money is collected
in the evening. They implied that the women didn’t get to keep much, if any,
of the souvenir income. Som Sak Seta said all of the income is put in a pool
and divided up, with the owner getting the first and largest share. But it
isn’t clear if in some months the women earned more than 1,500 baht, for
example if they had good sales.
As I spoke to the villagers, some Thais– probably off-duty soldiers or
employees of the owner hung around, taking pictures and eavesdropping.
Finally, to avoid putting anyone in jeopardy, I asked Som Sak Seta take us
to a “real” village, called Baan Nai Soi, where it was much easier to do
interviews. It was there that we found Zember. Som Sak Seta explained the
soldiers were only there to guard the border, a few kilometers away.
While the soldiers sat on a cooler, sipping Cokes, Zember told the story of
her predicament. Her hair cut in Japanese pop fashion; she says she would
prefer to have a normal life. Her skin is light and she is very slim and
attractive, her neck is only slightly elongated and there is little sign of
the rings she once wore. If she were wearing western clothing in Hong Kong
or Bangkok, she would be a normal Asian teenager. In addition to taking off
the neck rings, she no longer wears traditional clothing, dressing like any
rural Thai, but she is stuck here in a kind of limbo –no longer willing to
wear the rings but not free to make a future for herself either.
In recent years, Thailand, like many Asian countries, has been rewriting its
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
government. High rates of illiteracy among the tribal people also add to the
problem. 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
For the Padaung Karen women, the rings around their neck may be seen as
cultural shackles, but they are faced with a brutal choice: return to Burma
and risk death or remain a stateless sideshow attraction in Thailand.
Reprinted with permission from Asia Sentinel. http://asiasentinel.com
Life in Chiang Mai
We’ve all rehearsed the arguments for living abroad a hundred times –
especially to those concerned friends and family who wonder if we’ll “really
be happy so far from home”. (You betcha…) And wonder what we’ll do if
“something happens”. Like what? Like a megalomaniac leader in this new
country plunging us into an illegal and un-winnable war? Or getting ill and
having to pay for private treatment. Unheard of back home, of course
So we trot out the usual answers. Thailand, since that is whereof we speak,
offers an escape, a new life. The Thai people, their culture, food and
climate (well most of the year), their tolerance (Buddhism) all matter. So
does the proximity to other Asian countries – the only continent in which to
live. We might skate over the personal reasons, usually to be found in the
animated form of someone with a beguiling smile.
But let’s face it, when push comes to shove, as we Brits quaintly say, there
is always the bottom line: cost. Yes the cost of living. And this column is
a warning to you dear reader, visitor, ex-pat, resident or whatever, the
next time you bemoan rising prices in Thailand (exacerbated I admit by some
weak currencies, notably the dollar) think about those back home.
Believe me, reality dawns when you walk into a supermarket, receive a bill
or fill up the petrol tank. And it took on a new dimension last week when
the official ‘rich list’ was published. Last year apparently you had to have
a personal fortune of 600 million pounds to qualify (multiply that by two
for dollars and by 67 for the bath and that’s about the size of it). This
year it is 700 million pounds, to keep out the poor I suppose. Even so you
straggle at the bottom with that amount, since the list is topped by a guy
with 20 BILLION pounds to call his own. This should be useful and will
surely enable him to buy a decent apartment from the younger brothers who
head a company that offers flats from 20 million up, as profiled in this
week’s Independent on Sunday.
True these figures bear little relationship to ‘real’ life anymore than the
feature on the ten best trolley suitcases does to normal travel. The
recommendation (in the daily Independent – Britain’s second best newspaper
after The Guardian) homes in on a suitcase selling at 2,500 pounds or 5,000
dollars, an amount that would pay for most peoples’ holiday, not their
So let’s forget the zillionaires. It is too much like trying to work out a
light year when we know that light travels at 186.000 miles a second. I’d
get lost after a minute. Down to basics, food, transport, clothes, utilities
like heating, or filling a car with petrol. In a Chiang Mai market or
supermarket I reckon that most things cost a fifth or sixth of those in my
town of Bournemouth. This would change drastically if one compared rural
Thailand with London.
So to be even more basic, a figure to make ones eyes water, a small packet
of chillies (sold in plastic since they are too light to weigh) costs about
75 pence or 60 baht. The contents of five or six small chillies would make a
Thai respond in disbelief.
The same response would come from anyone hoping to buy a new condo or even a
studio where at he top price is quoted at 17,000 pounds a square metre. The
problem here is that the trickle down effect means that the average price of
a property in the U.K. is now 180,000 pounds. As I said multiply that by 67
and you have a rough baht figure.
None of this takes account of comparative earnings and other differences but
simply illustrates the problem of those on fixed incomes or savings. Whether
it is Seattle or Southampton, Barcelona or Berlin the difference in living
costs between there and Chiang Mai remains phenomenal.
Last week I mentioned some musical events in the U.K. and locally and at the
risk of incurring the wrath of Oscar Wilde who said, ‘Consistency is the
last refuge of the unimaginative’. I’ll close by returning to that subject
in the context of a newly announced event. Barbra Streisand has just agreed
to return to the U.K. after a long absence. Her show will be given in
London’s largest venue (where else you might wonder could contain her ego)
and should you wish to attend and occupy the back rows where the ageing
superstar will be a mere speck on the horizon the cost is 100 pounds. The
top price is five times that.
Sure you will see something that is unlikely to be repeated in London and
even less likely in Bangkok. I wonder though whether anyone would be able to
contemplate paying 33,000 baht for two hours entertainment in a country
where the minimum wage is under 200 baht a day. It is pretty mind blowing in
a country where the minimum wage equates to 350 baht an hour. It is truly a
funny old world. Perhaps the person who said that was the same one who
coined the phrase laughing all the way to the bank.