They are both eight years old. But one has boundless opportunities before her and the other has none. In the West, we often don’t appreciate everything that is afforded to us simply because of our birthright. Our visit to the “long neck” Karens brought home that point today.
Freedom is a word that is tossed around brazenly in the West. But for a word that is thrown around so presumptively we don’t seem to have an understanding of just what that means.
Today we visited a Karen hill tribe that included Padaung and Akha minorities. National Geographic brought fame to the Padaung after photographing the brass rings worn by women around their necks. The rings give this group their nickname of “Long Necks.”
The Karen came to Thailand during the latter half of the 20th century. Intense fighting in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma) forced hundreds of thousands of Karen to flee the country. They settled in camps along the Thai/Myanmar border.
Despite several generations of Karen having been born and raised in Thailand, they have no rights to citizenship, are not considered refugees by the Thai government, and consequently do not receive a proper education or health care. They do not even have the right to leave their villages.
To make money, the Karen sell crafts and textiles to tourists. They also charge admission to their villages.
We visited a village a few kilometres outside of Chiang Mai and it was frankly depressing. The village was set up as a giant open air market, with houses just behind the shops. There was no school, the houses were shacks made of bamboo, and there were only two toilets for the entire village.
Children of the Padaung start wearing brass rings around their necks at the age of five. They eventually wear about five kilograms of rings by the time they reach adulthood.
The rings push the women’s shoulders down and compress their backs, which make their necks look abnormally long. The weight has detrimental effects on their backs, and naturally affects their health. The rings can never be taken off as the neck muscles atrophy and require the rings for support.
The reason for the rings are mixed. One legend says that the Paduang began wearing rings to protect women’s necks from tiger bites. They also placed rings around their legs for the same reason. Another theory is that these women started wearing rings to make themselves unappealing to slave traders.
Whatever the reason, because these women can’t return to Myanmar fearing persecution, and because they don’t have Thai citizenship, they are trapped in a world where tourism is their only source of income. They are truly not free to stop wearing the rings, and there is no end in sight to their predicament.
I have mixed feelings about having visited the Karen. On the one hand our money will help support them for a few more days. But on the other hand, our visit has contributed to keeping them exactly where they are.
Something drastic needs to change so that these women can experience true self-determination, and can begin to dream of what they want for themselves and their children.