Ethical Issues – Karen ‘long neck’ village

Ethical issues when traveling to South East Asia has always been at the forefront of traveler’s minds. Are we hindering or helping child beggars by giving them money? If we ride on an elephant are we exploiting them?

Don’t get me wrong, in the West we are burdened by many ethical problems of our own but when you go to South East Asia many of these moral dilemmas are brought upon by tourism and we see it first hand, hence why we feel the need to write about it, talk about it and take action to improve it. But the big dilemma seems to be there is not any clear-cut answer. It is neither black nor white but a large grey area.

Instead of tackling all of the South East Asian issues at once, which would make this blog more of a novel than a post, I thought I would tackle one issue at a time. I will just speak from my personal experiences and from information that I found online and from talking with others. First up is:

The ‘Karen Long Neck Village’ in North Thailand

If you have ever visited the North of Thailand then you are well aware of one of the main tourist attraction’s, which is visiting a hill tribe village. The most popular hill tribe, the Padaung tribe, most often referred to as the ‘Karen long-neck village’ is indigenous to the Kayah state in Burma, not Thailand.

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In Burma there are many different ethnical groups. These ethnical groups first fought for their independence back in 1948 after the British colonial rule ended. From my understanding, the lower portion and upper portion of Burma have been autonomous for much of its history and only recently have they been a part of Burma through colonization by the British.

The lower half of Burma has seen carnage with many different tribal states fighting the Burmese government, most notably the Karin and Shan state. The fight has moved from political to an ethnical fight and now the Burmese government is trying to ethnically ‘cleanse’ these areas. Considering that the Burmese government has pillaged, raped, tortured, terrorized and murdered these people you can understand why they are fleeing into Thailand.

One of the most horrific accounts is that the Burmese military use these people as human mine sweepers. Actually, this scene is depicted in the movie Rambo. In the movie, Rambo kills the soldiers who were forcing the people into the mine fields and we all feel a bit of relief but Rambo isn’t really in the jungles of Burma and neither Rambo nor anyone else is saving them. Burmese held elections and rigged them so they would win causing more clashes and more refugees fleeing into Thailand in 2010 as a result of the fighting.

Update: Myanmar has sworn-in Htin Kyaw as the country’s first civilian president in half a century, a man who is expected to act as a proxy for Aung San Suu Kyi in her fight to end the army’s grip on power. (picture below)

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Upon entering into Thailand, almost all of the Burmese refugees are placed into camps along the border of Northwest Thailand and rarely are foreigners or non-profits given access into these camps. An extremely small sub-group of people called the Padaung tribe also fled here. Some of the women in this tribe wear gold rings around their neck as part of their culture to signify beauty. In 1985 Thailand created tourism villages, with the Padaung women being the main attraction for tourists. These tourism villages are completely fake and set up merely for the tourists. Many people refer to these villages as ‘human zoos’ and they are for the most part.

I also visited the Karen village when I was in Northern Thailand. I went independently to the village. The Karen village I went to was not a popular one as I was the only visitor there during my whole visit, which was many hours.  It was 20 kilometers east of the city of Thaton. I paid the 200 baht entrance fee and went in.  If going by scooter or motorcycle the road is really bumpy and lots of pot holes so be careful if riding there.

Once I entered the village l saw the bamboo stalls lined on both sides with the women selling crafts. Of course, everyone comes here to take pictures but I felt like it would be weird pulling out my camera and taking snaps of them as they were just going about daily life and they didn’t look keen to have their pictures taken when I walked in. I bought two scarves that I didn’t really want (they were nice and hand-made but I don’t really wear scarves) and strolled down to the end of the alley.

Upon reaching the end of the alley, a young woman smiled at me. I asked her how her day was, not sure if she spoke English or would understand me but she responded in perfect English, “fine and how are you?” We started talking and after a few minutes I sat down next to her. She then told me she speaks 5 languages; French English, Thai, Burmese and her native language. She had learned most of these languages just by talking with tourists, which is extremely impressive, considering I lived in Korea for 4 years, and can barely make a coherent Korean sentence.

I was a bit curious of her daily life in the village and decided to ask her about it and so she started to explain.

She had lived in the village since she was a very young girl and can’t remember ever living anywhere else expect in this village. She proceeded to tell me that the only time they are allowed to leave the village is when they are sick and need to go to the hospital. All of the villagers get white rice and if I remember correctly sugar cane for their protein and that’s it. We started to talk more and when asked if most of the villagers want to return to their homeland she said no, that they had a better life here rather than in Burma. All of the men in these villages go and work on farms. I do not know if they get paid or get some kind of food stipend for this work.

Technically these women and their families are economic refugees as the Thai’s who own these villages and technically own these people make a hefty profit and do not want them to leave. It is between $8-$16 to enter these villages and for Thailand, this is extremely expensive, so the owners are making a huge profit. There have been reports of some of these women getting their applications approved to be relocated to New Zealand and the Thai’s that own these villages stopped the relocation. These women only number a couple hundred so the Thai’s are keen on trying to keep them in Thailand and in these ‘prison villages.’ Actually, many Burmese who are part of this group but don’t wear the rings will start wearing the rings because you get paid more by the Thai’s if you wear the rings. If the women do take off their neck rings they are ostracized by the tour operators who run the village and are told they will not be paid. Really this whole tribe has been exploited to the point of no return.

Whenever I travel, I can’t help but get the sting of western guilt. Here is a woman who has learned 5 languages with no formal education who has to pose for tourists in a ‘village prison’ and yet I am the one with the money.

We talked for a while and I think she was probably happy to talk with someone, as it seemed to be a bit of a boring life in the village. I read at the more busy villages, that many of the women are prohibited from speaking about their plight in the villages as it might discourage tourist dollars. So everybody needs to look happy for the tourist. Luckily, this village was pretty barren so we got to speak quite transparently. At the end of our talk I thought it would be nice if I brought her and the village some food and amenities. I had already been there for a couple hours and no other foreigner had come in and I was only a 30 minute drive to my next location.

I went to the convenient store that was close by and get some items for the village. I asked my new friend if I got these things if she would pass them out to the villagers and she agreed. I went to the store and got 100 pad thai’s, 50 ice creams, 30 milks, 50 toothbrushes and 50 toothpastes and all of this only cost me $70! I carried all of this back on my 125cc scooter through a muddy road with potholes. I was pretty impressed I got it all on my bike, although I was a bit nervous riding off, especially when you are being watched by others, which I was. When I arrived back, the security guard let me through, pretty nice guy it seems, as he didn’t question the bags in my hands. Two of the other ladies helped me carry the bags back to my friend. So my new friend and I gave the kids some ice cream and I bid farewell. The only picture I did take was of the children with the ice cream. It just felt wrong taking pictures while there.

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The disturbing part is the Padaung woman and their families have it better than most other Burmese refugees that are living in the camps. Al least the meager income they make from selling their hand made products goes into their wallets but at the refugee camps they have no land to farm and no way of making any kind of income.

Driving from Mae Sariang down to Mae Sot and then to Umphang I saw a couple refugee camps. The road to Umphang is aptly named death highway! There is no connecting road so when you reach the end you just have turn around and go back out. It was originally called death highway because during the 1970’s and 80’s many Burmese escaping the civil war made their way to this border area and they worked on building a road in exchange for a small parcel of land. Many insurgents tried to stop the building of the road and many workers were killed during attacks (over 30 in one attack) and that is where it got the name ‘death highway.’ It is more currently known as death highway because a group of 25 English teachers died here when their bus rolled over and killed everyone inside as well as the other many lives this road has taken with its sharp curves and many blind spots. It was a really impressive road with beautiful mountains and forest. Below is a picture of the road. You could usually see if a truck was coming your way a couple miles out because the roads were on high altitude and there were so many curves so this allowed you to see if trucks were coming but it always made me really nervous because I knew it was coming. I just veered to the side of the road as much as I could and honked my horn really loud when making my turns. Luckily, no accidents!

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Along this road was the Umpiam refugee camp. I actually parked my bike at the end of the camp away from the guards and snuck over beside the gate. It seems there is a way to sneak out of the camp and back in through the barbed wire as there was a bit of a hole. I was very tempted to sneak in, not sure why I wanted to do this and two women from inside the camp saw me and could tell I was thinking of doing it and they were laughing but in the end my trepidation got the best of me.

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I stayed in a small guesthouse in Umphang and another older American lady was also staying there. Come to find out she was one of the very few westerners who was allowed access into a camp. She told me she worked as an education director at the Mae La camp, which is the largest camp.

She offered a lot of insight into life in these refugee camps. She told me that because it is a refugee camp that it is considered temporary housing and that every 2 years they must pull down their homes and rebuild them in order to meet refugee temporary camp rules, even though most people have lived here over 20 years and some their whole life. Driving by Mae La camp, which is the largest, I did notice a smell of urine encompassing the air. To be honest when I first saw it I thought it didn’t look bad but I thought maybe 500-1,000 people lived there, not 40-80,000!!

Nobody in these refugee camps can have jobs and there are no markets since there is no form of currency, although she said people do trade and barter for things but the main problem is there is no police or authoritative force. In a camp of upwards 40,000 people (it could be closer to 80,000) they have nobody to enforce rules. She told me that the biggest threat is rape for many of the women living there. On top of that, the ration for food has been cut down severely since 2007 as the price for rice has increased dramatically. It seems counterproductive to not to let them work and tend to the fields for their own food supply. Because nobody works, most people (especially the men) start to make trouble in the camps.

Thailand has decided to try to close the refugee camps, meaning the Burmese would have to go back across the border but almost all do not want to go. There is still fighting going on and even though Burma has opened their borders for tourism and foreign investment they are nowhere near being a country that has a stellar human rights record.

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Umphang Refugee Camp

Many people go to tiger camps, elephant camps, hill tribe villages, slum tours knowing the ethical repercussions but they still go and I can honestly see why, it is something we have never seen and most people are very curious. 

So the big question is should you go? I think it is the lesser of two evils. If they don’t have these ‘villages’ then they would be put into the refugee camps with no way to make any income. At least in these villages, they can make some money. The refugee camps do not sound like an easy place to live, with rape being something most women have to worry about on a daily basis.

In my opinion, I say if you want to go you should. I think you should follow some simple rules though when going.

1) If you want to take a picture of someone, you should buy a hand made item first. Make sure to buy things that they actually make as there are some trinkets that are for sale that are not made by the women and these items, if sold, does not go directly to the women. These hand-made souvenirs are very inexpensive and provides these women with much needed income.

2) Ask before taking a picture. Get to know these women. Would you want someone to come into your work place everyday and take pictures of you at your desk without permission, probably not.

3) If you want you can always bring items for the villagers. Pens, pencils, paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, food, books, etc… They do not get fed very well and would appreciate this. I think it would be best to give these things to one person in the village rather than passing it out like “charity.” Give to an elder and let them pass it out among the villagers when you leave.

4) If you go to Myanmar the Padaung women have set up small craft centers where you can buy their goods and unlike in Thailand they are not ‘prison villages’. You can do this in Inle Lake. Although they are not from that region they still are not being forced to do this but rather have moved there of their own volition as many tourists visit that area..

Some people might disagree with me and say you should not go but I truly believe that they have it better in these villages than in the refugee camps. Again, a large grey area and it is up to each individual what they think is the right thing to do.

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