Chin: Annual Cultural Festival in Lewisville High School
The Chin are a predominantly Christian population living in western Myanmar, repeatedly discriminated against in a largely Buddhist country. In this context, and with the support of the UN, throughout time many Chin have fled to the US and registered as refugees. Lewisville, Texas, has one of the largest Chin diasporas in the US, counting over 3500 people of Chin origin living in the city. Since 2011, the Lewisville High School Harmon Campus has been hosting an annual Chin Cultural Festival to promote this people’s heritage and memory.
Photo courtesy of LHS Harmon
Below is an article published by Star Local Media
Each year since 2011, the Lewisville High School Harmon Campus has hosted an annual Chin Cultural Festival to commemorate Chin National Day, a celebration of the Chin people’s emancipation from chieftainship in 1948.
The Chin – or the hill people – are predominantly Christian and from Chin State in western Myanmar. Because of their religion, they have historically been terrorized by the Burmese, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group in Myanmar.
This year, the event will be held from 6-8 p.m. Thursday in the cafeteria of LHS Harmon, 1250 W. Round Grove, Lewisville.
As always, the festival will be filled with food, a Burma fashion show, dance and a guest speaker – this year, it is Rena Pederson, San Angelo native and author of “Burma Spring.”
The festival was born five years ago of a conversation a Chin student had with Andy Plunkett, LHS Harmon principal at the time.
“When I moved to Harmon, I realized all of the Chin students were moving to Harmon because they only lived in two apartments,” said Plunkett, now the LISD central zone leader. “The population doubled. We realized real quick that the students were about 10 percent of our population.
“We were in the middle of doing a black history month program and our students always have a big Cinco de Mayo program. One of our Chin students said they wanted to host a Chin National Day program.”
After he had agreed to allow the students to produce the Chin Cultural Festival, Plunkett came to learn the only other way the students were able to celebrate Chin National Day was through their churches – the cornerstones of their community, as they have been since they began converting to Christianity in the 1800s in Burma.
Living in a country that is against Christianity, many Baptist churches in Chin State have been the sites of murders, according to lewisvillechin.org. Chin people have been sold into internment camps, and crimes against the community are rarely punished by local law enforcement or government.
With the help of the United Nations (UN), Chin people have been able to escape religious and political persecution by registering as refugees in the United States. Lewisville has become one of three major settlement sites in the country with over 3,500 Chin people living in the city.
According to Plunkett, the festival is the pride and joy of the Chin students as it is predominantly student-run. Each year, the students make all of the decorations, cook traditional food in the home economics lab, create the program and organize the agenda. They provide the music and dance, as well.
“I still remember when we walked into the cafeteria and all of our students showed up in their native clothing,” Plunkett said. “We sat back and we couldn’t believe it. They just needed permission to do it and have the doors unlocked, and they were off.”
The program will end with a speech from Pederson. Throughout her career, she has interviewed many notable people, but one of the highlights was her interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the new president of Burma and president of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (Burma).
Kyi has spent her life fighting for democracy in Burma, and those efforts pushed her into the spotlight and countless dangerous situations. One of the most blatant attacks on her freedom and activism was her 15-year house arrest sentence.
“I had to work behind the scenes to get the interview,” Pederson said. “She was the most impressive person I had ever met – more impressive than Margaret Thatcher, more inspiring than the Dalai Lama.”
One of Kyi’s traits that struck Pederson was the intrinsic sense of responsibility that Kyi had.
“Duty is very important to her,” Pederson said. “Her father was the George Washington of Burma and was ultimately assassinated. Her mother was the first ambassador to India. Since she was a young girl, she felt a duty to make a difference in the lives of others. She does that – she builds people from the inside out. She doesn’t say, ‘I promise you a chicken or a better income,’ but she inspires the best in people.”
“The best” in the people of Myanmar has materialized in thousands of people risking their lives for religious freedom, democracy, women’s rights and compassion for the poor. It’s also inspired Pederson to travel to Burma eight times, despite the dangers of the country.
“It’s absolutely a beautiful, beguiling country,” Pederson said. “I think that everyone that goes speaks about it in this romantic way. It’s geographically such a beautiful place, and the people are sometimes described as the most charming, oppressed people in the world.”
Pederson sees her book, “Burma Spring,” and speeches like the one she will be giving at the Chin Cultural Festival as her way of being a foot soldier for Kyi and allowing the story of the Chin people to be told.
“The first time I interviewed her, being a polite, southern girl, I asked, ‘what can I do to help and she said, ‘Shine a light. Don’t let people forget we’re here,” Pederson said.
Admission to the festival is free.