Nov 21, 2006

Karenni: Neck Rings Removed in Protest

A rebellion in Thailand's "human zoos" has seen women remove the brass rings coiled around their necks since early childhood.

Below is an extract from an article written by Nick Meo, and published by Newsday:

MAE HONG SON, Thailand - It was only after agonized thought that Zember became the latest of the "giraffe women" to join a growing rebellion in Thailand's human zoos.

She decided last month to cast off the brass rings that have been coiled high around her neck since early childhood.

Her head did not instantly collapse on atrophied muscles, contrary to what guides tell tourists. But mutiny by one of the most-photographed women in Nasoi Kayan Tayar, a village of about 600 people, has nevertheless provoked surprising results: bitter arguments between the generations, fury and concern among Thai businessmen who profit from the spectacle and a new role model for a generation of disgruntled young women.

When they arrived a decade ago as refugees from Burmese army offensives ravaging their homeland, the Kayan people meekly accepted their role in what were quickly dubbed human zoos, where tourists paid to photograph them.

Their daughters, however, have grown up to question their tribe's humiliating existence. Zember, now 21, is fighting back, along with a dozen other young Kayan women, and their mutiny threatens to end one of Thailand's most lucrative - and most dubious - trades.

Billboards on roadsides all over the north show the giraffe women's extraordinarily elongated necks encased in brass coils.

They advertise an exotic sightseeing experience for Thai and foreign tourists alike in hill country villages not far from the Burma border - in reality, refugee camps from which the women are forbidden to leave by Thai authorities who regard them as stateless refugees.

According to various legends, the brass coils were to protect wearers from the bites of tigers in their jungle home in Karenni State, or began as a tribute to a legendary dragon-mother progenitor. At about the age of 6, young girls are allowed to choose whether to put them on. Wearers say they are not uncomfortable. The weight forces their shoulders down, making their necks look longer.

Removing the coils is said to be harmless for all but the oldest women who have worn the heaviest rings since childhood.

Zember, whose hand darts constantly to her bare neck, admits that removing the rings was a difficult decision. Business has fallen off at her souvenir stall and her family no longer gets the small payment women are given for wearing the coils, a fraction of the profits made from selling tourists entry tickets.

"I want to keep my people's traditions but we are suffering because of these rings," she said. "We are denied education and the Thai authorities will not let us go abroad, although some of us have been invited to leave for Finland and New Zealand. The authorities say the long-necked people are not allowed to go, that they will lose business."

Other women complain the camp administrators pressure them to keep the rings on so the tourists will keep coming. Women are paid 1,500 baht a month (about $42) to wear them. The average wage for a field laborer is about $3 a day in this part of Thailand, although Kayan complain they don't receive the medical and education benefits alleged in a leaflet handed out to tourists.

Without work papers or citizenship the Kayan have little say over what happens to them. They also face a plan to move their villages to a remote location closer to the Burmese border where they believe they will be at risk from bandits.

Bridget Robinson, a British volunteer who has helped educate young Kayan, believes the Thai authorities deliberately deny them help that would improve their existence. She said: "The tourists want primitive, so they are not allowed to develop in any way. But you have these young women who are ambitious and want to have a future."

One young Kayan man, Francis, who like the rest of the tribe has only one name, said: "We have to live by letting tourists photograph our women. We hate this. We feel humiliated."

Such ripples of rebellion are increasing. Mapo, 23, was horrified when she saw a postcard showing her nursing her baby, sneaked by a photographer when she wasn't looking. "I hate that postcard," she said.

"The tourists see it and they laugh at me. When they see it, I want to run away.

"They say it is a human zoo and they have paid money to see us. But I say we ... deserve better."