During the many long years of civil strife and instability in Burma, many of the ethnic Padaung community, commonly known as “long necks”, fled to Thailand to escape the hostilities surrounding their villages in the east of the country.
But while these ethnic minority people took refuge, an opportunity presented itself to Thai tour operators who looked to cash in on the spectacle of the Padaung women folk’s coiled neck bracelets.
The new democratic transition in Burma has emboldened a handful of women from this group to take the journey back to their homes in Dawmawso Township in Karenni State, officially known as Kayah.
“I came back in January. Life here is different than in Thailand,” says one.
“There’s no water or electricity here, but it feels better to be back home in my own village than in a foreign country. This is my home and my village. I can now watch my children grow up and go to school.”
Nine families returned to Dawmawso at the end of last year and were re-united with relatives and neighbours.
They have since decided to build a new village, called Pan Pet, to delineate their own land. And using the lessons they learnt in Thailand, some have begun weaving and creating handicrafts and souvenirs to sell to tourists.
They say other Padaungs living in the district have decided to move to the new village.
“I have been living in this area for a long time. This is my village,” says Mu Parate. “Now I don’t really think about whether I enjoy it here or not. But nonetheless, this is our home. Going to another country without proper identification can be a real inconvenience.”
In the beginning, they say, when they first resettled back in Dawmawso, there were several disputes with local government officials, who were opposed to the returnees building their own village.
However, the authorities have since pulled back, and these Padaung families are now taking steps to plan their own future.
One of the leaders of the returned Padaung, Hnin Thet Phyu, says, “This settlement is dedicated to the longneck women who are struggling financially. Every longneck woman is allowed to come and stay here. I would also like to encourage our women who are in Thailand to come back. You can never be as happy as when you are home. We want you to come back.”
While many tourists boycott longneck villages, calling them “human zoos”, the families in Pan Pet say they want to bring in tourists, not only to make a living, but also because they want to share their culture.