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The Kayan Lahwi, these women of another time, 

between tradition and modernism


Since its opening a few years ago to the modern world after more than 50 years of dictatorial regime, Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a country which fascinates and attracts more and more tourists today. Surrounded by the most economically important countries of Asia, namely India, Thailand but especially China, Myanmar is also coveted for its abundant natural resources. In the midst of all this mixes an impressive number of different ethnicities. There are no less than 135 of them. The Kayan Lahwi are one of them. 


The Kayan Lahwi are part of the Kayan ethnic group, itself part of the Karenni, which ultimately is a part of the Karen. The latter represent the second minority in the country after the Shan with around 5 million people. It is an ethnic group of Tibeto-Burmese origin. Unlike 90% of Myanmar's Buddhist population, most Kayan have been Roman Catholic Christians since the 19th century, when many Italian missionaries came to settle in this region. A minority of them however continue to follow their ancient traditional beliefs called Kan Khwan, which place spirituality at the center of the universe, and its creation at the meeting between a man and a dragon woman. 


Kayan Lahwi are known to wear long necklaces with rings that lengthen their necks. They come from the Kayah state in eastern Myanmar and live in remote villages in the mountains. Some of them fled the country and the severe repression of the military junta in the 80s and 90s and now live in the northwest of Thailand, thanks especially to the tourists who come in increasing numbers to contemplate them as one contemplate an animal in a zoo. But if you know where to look in Myanmar you can meet them in their native villages.


Kayan Lahwi start to wear their ring necklaces at the age of 5 years old, then, over the years, necklaces are replaced by longer ones. By the time they stop growing up, the necklace can weigh more than 6 kilograms. In fact, the neck itself is not lengthened, but the compression of the rings on the collarbone creates the impression of a long neck. There are many stories about this tradition, but no one really knows which one is the true origin story. For some it comes from the time when many of them were taken as sexual slaves and the rings around their necks made them less attractive, as told in the Kayah state. Others claim it was a sign of wealth. But the best known version states that at the time it protected them from the attacks of tigers which came to bite their throats.


Some of them, especially in Kayah State, continue to perpetuate this custom in the name of old traditions. At the same time, the Burmese government wants to end it because it is too old a tradition for the modern country they want. Some of them, mainly in Thailand, have indeed started to remove their necklaces, in the name of modernity. In this same country, however, many are those who want to continue wearing them because the tourist attraction which emanates from them ensures them a certain financial income. But what about tradition then? These women are the perfect example of the problems of globalization and modernization that I have observed in many countries I have visited in my life: what is the place, in a modern world, for old traditions and how is it possible to preserve them in a world where everything evolves so quickly ?


Florient Zwein | Photographer | Paris - France | +33630111188 | | 2020

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