Feature Image: Matteo Selva
Northern Thailand’s ‘cultural tourism’ industry is founded upon the villages of the Kayan long-neck tribe, whose woman stack solid brass rings around their neck. This practice has long been ubiquitous with Kayan culture in which the subsequent elongated neck is a symbol of beauty.
This practice achieves this illusion by placing pressure on the base of the chin and top of the shoulders. Rings are continually and routinely added until the shoulders become depressed and the wearer seemingly sports an elongated neck.
Despite the mounting pressures of our technocentric modernity and the fading of this practice in Myanmar, the Kayan tribes place of origin, said practice has remained strong in Thailand. Their key role in Thailand’s tourism industry has placed economic pressures on the woman to maintain this practice – this economic incentive has been vital to maintaining this practice, despite the fading of many other people’s traditional practices.
But, all is not well for the Kayan tribe.
While the long-neck villages of Northern Thailand draw much tourism, particularly from the Chinese market, the women of these villages are not the beneficiaries of said tourism, only the attraction.
Through market incentives and corrupt governments, the Kayan have become exploited and essentially imprisoned by those whom have seen the monetary value of this practice and the women’s’ vulnerability. The practice of the Kayan tribe has continued because it is a spectacle in current times.
The events that led to the Kayan Tribe’s current circumstances and the formation of a tourism industry begins in a country entirely distinct from Thailand. So….
Who are the Kayan?
Despite being synonymous with the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand, the Kayan are not of Thai heritage. Their origins are to be found in Myanmar, at the time Burma. Here, they identify as a sub-group of the Red Karen People – the Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar. Their presence in Thailand is an unfortunate story, which has resulted in much backlash in the international community.
During the late 80s, the Kayan were made refugees by an intensifying civil war between the Burmese army and Karenni separatists. They were forced to flee the country eastward to Thailand. Under the status of ‘conflict refugee’, the Kayan were granted temporary asylum by the Thai government and allowed to inhabit guarded villages in the country’s north.
These villages offered a solution to the initial issues of the Kayan, but they were never designed as anything more than a temporary option. Two decades on and little changed. There is no sign of the conflict abating and few Karen are willing, nor desire, to return to a country in the midst of the world’s longest running civil war.
The civil war in Myanmar if the longest running war you’ve never heard of. It is often called the ‘Forgotten War’.
Source: Democracy for Burma
The Kayan of northern Thailand now occupy a perpetual state of stagnation stemming from national ostracism. Surely, there are laws to mitigate such issues?
The Thai government class the Kayan as ‘temporarily displaced persons fleeing fighting’ and are judged prima facie. (At the national level, Thailand has minimal regulation on the handling and labelling of refugees). Essentially, this washes-their-hands of any legal obligation. The Kayan are allowed asylum in Thailand, but with minimal protections.
The Kayan have no citizenship and few rights; limited access to essential and basic utilities, including health care, education and electricity; minimal incomes; are forced to occupy predetermined tourist villages or overcrowded refugee settlements, from which they may not legally exit; et cetera.
The lack of official recognition by the Thai government deprives the Kayan of any rights and civil liberties that should be afforded. Instead, they are the main attraction at a human zoo.
(It should be noted that there are many settlements in northern Thailand that continue to take-in refugees from Myanmar. These villages have many issues, including overcrowding, limited access to potable water and high rates of disease. However, they are distinct from the tourism village that hosts the Long-neck Karen woman. This article should only be considered as an analysis of the tourism village).
A Tourism Spectacle.
There is an earie vibe to the Long-neck Village. As a steady trickle of tourists depart a long-line of tour vans, they are welcomed to the village by heavy smiles. The colourful shops sport a bounty of skilfully hand-made trinkets and the children play on the paths. It gives the impression of a simple and peaceful existence. But, something seems off.
You would not be able to work out exactly what, had you not done some prior research. There will be no information provided by tour operators on the real history of the Kayan-Thailand relationship beyond a pale description of a ‘mutual business arrangement’.
They do a good job at reinforcing this illusion. But, the Kayan are not viewed beyond their worth as a product. Their captors provide an illusion of a seemingly peaceful and reciprocal relationship – people pay a fee to enter the village and gawk at the Kayan who, in return, receive a portion of the profits. But, this is not the case.
The Kayan are, essentially, chained by circumstance. They have no resources or, at least, not enough to go their own way, nor any knowledge of a way to utilise their attraction to leverage themselves above their exploiters. The fee you pay at the entrance only reaches the Kayan in the form of small incomes, just enough to live on. (This is a common misconception. These entry fees rarely support the Kayan people and few are actually dependent on them for subsistence).
For many of the Kayan, the only time they are able to find some form of frugality in their life is when a tourist pays them for a service, such as a photo-op, or when a trinket is purchased from their shop.
Tourism: Enchain and Liberate.
The Kayan Tribe have remained a marginalised and exploited people at the hand of the Thai government. While tourism continues to stoke-the-flames of this injustice, the fire burned long before the Kayan became a tourist attraction.
The specifics of this issue can be understood by breaking it down and analysing three formational dynamics – institutional abuse, relative poverty and misinformation.
When the Kayan fled Myanmar during the civil war, the Thai government’s non-status label enabled the foundations of institutional abuse – abuse validated by law, but that, nonetheless, remains an abuse.
A non-status by the Thai government stripped the Kayan of any rights and capacities needed for independent subsistence and self-sufficiency. The boarders of their small village symbolise the boarders of their existence – nothing more may be gained from the world legally, besides that which can be found within this boarder.
This led to an unwilling dependence on the village for otherwise unobtainable resources – they may refuse to participate in the sideshow, but this would result in nothing more than their own end.
By law, they are limited to utilise resources only attainable inside the boarders of their small villages. And there is only one ‘substantial’ resource in the village – tourists. The Kayan must accept it and join the scores of their peers reluctantly marketing themselves to tourists. With these villages, they are prisoners. Without these villages, they live in relative poverty.
The Kayan Long-neck Village as depicted in a Thailand promotional magazine.
Source: The Thailander
But, without the Kayan, specifically the profitability of cultural tourism, these villages would cease to exist as a source of wealth for the local and national governments. In order to maintain this dependence, the Kayan are fed a false narrative about the importance of maintaining their cultural practice.
Specifically, that the brass rings around their necks are an unreturnable endeavour. Once they are on, they cannot be taken off without subjecting the neck to many risk. Of course, it is nonsense – the neck is not actually elongated, the shoulders are merely temporarily depressed.
While the Kayan are not actually allowed to leave this settlement, and many who have attempted to were arrested, it is much easier to keep someone complacent when they are uninformed. What would happen to the fabled Long-neck Village of Northern Thailand’s tourism industry if all the villages suddenly became filled with normal-neck people?
While the Kayan lack the necessary intellectual resources required to help themselves. Most people do not. Internationally, the exploitation of these people and support by tourists has been condemned and most articles on the matter recommend avoiding them altogether. However, in Thailand you will scarcely find any tourism operator that avoids them. Most, in fact, have them displayed in their shops and will happily take any tourist to the village for a fee.
Unless people are engaging in international affairs prior to visiting Thailand, few would have any knowledge of the issues surrounding the Kayan and hence would not see any issue in visiting this seemingly raw example of cultural expression.
Information will be the decisive factor in determining the future of these villages. If people continue to enable an industry founded on the exploitation of an oppressed people, the issue will continue. Short of international intervention or the Thai government gaining a conscious, the only thing that will end this human zoo will be the days when the trickle of tourists entering these villages runs dry.
It will not solve the issues of the Kayan. But, it will solve the issue that is Thailand’s exploitation of refugees.