Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mae Hong Son Hill Tribe Update: The Karen

For years, I knew the word “Karen,” and heard Thais speak of the “Galien people.” I finally realized that they were the same thing. There’s the g/k confusion, and of course the ongoing r/l miscommunication, and some vowel abuse too, but the Galien become, in print, the Karen.

This is the tribe of long neck women (see picture, above). They came over the hill from Burma because those generals don’t know how to get along with anybody, much less hill tribes where the women use brass rings to lengthen their necks. In Thailand they are officially “stateless,” no one will give them a passport, they can never become Thai citizens, and the children born to the tribe have no rights in any country in the world.

Ripe for exploitation! And the rumors fly that they are coerced by local power-players to play up the long neck thing, and “protected,” for the mere payment of a portion of their meager earnings from selling things to tourists. They have no recourse for any of this, being stateless.

Almost all of the sellers are women in traditional clothes, with the brass rings and all. They are very sweet and friendly, and they start a little high with the prices so that they can demurely reduce the price, just for you. I did notice, though, that when no tourists were close by they sometimes used a tone of voice with each other that was more bitter recrimination than sisterly devotion.

Can you blame them? How would you feel, with the permanent neck pain, the political weirdness, the grinding poverty, and everything else? My sidekick talked to a couple of women at length and was told that yes, the neck thing is really a permanent pain in the ass. Part of the vig that they pay to their protectors is forcing their young daughters to start with the rings to deform their necks as much as possible, the better to attract tourist dollars. They are absolutely not culturally bound to it: there are Karen people all over Northern Thailand and as soon as they can they drop that long neck thing like a hot brick.

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