By Libby Hogan
MINDAT, Myanmar — Huddled over a smoldering cooker pot with her cracked heels warming on the edge, 90-year-old M’kaan woman Daw Yaw Shen retells the story behind her facial tattoo. “I went with three other girls from my village when we we turned 15 to the local tattoo artist.” As she rotates her palms to the fire, she continues. “All women were given the same tattoo, but only M’kaan women.” Fine blue dots pinpoint her entire face. It stands in stark contrast to her bulging disc earrings. The bright yellow-and-red beaded shells were handed down from her mother and she smiles as she stretches her lobes to their maximum elasticity to fit the earrings.
Today, there are an estimated 60 different clans that make up the “Chin” ethnic minority. It’s believed their ancestors descended from Mongolia through the Indian hills of Mizoram. The women are marked with facial tattoos that denote their clan. Most women don’t know how the tradition started or the story behind the lines and patterns that are etched into their skin.
When I ask Daw Yaw Shen about the origins of her tribe’s tattoos, she sheepishly laughs and admits she doesn’t know. Her mother simply told her that every woman in the tribe must get them. The common folklore to explain the origins of the Chin tattoos retells stories of Kings and armies riding into the Chin hills and abducting the beautiful women. To deter them, the tribes decided to give the women facial tattoos, to make them “unattractive.”
No written records can be found in the Chin language — only english — as their history was never encouraged to be recorded. However, most Chin women I spoke to in the villages around Mindat couldn’t confirm the story. With a tobacco pipe in her mouth, Ling Hlu from the Magan tribes, shrugs and agrees with the view of M’kaan women, “my mother told me that I had to get them and all my friends were going to the tattoo artist so I just went with them.”
Differing from the view of many Western anthropologists that the tattoos were used to make them unattractive, Ling Hlu says that the Chin believe their tattoos do not disfigure their face, but rather enhance their beauty.
In 1960, the Burmese government forbid the Chin to continue with their tattoo tradition. Under the military regime in Myanmar, the majority Bamar ethnicity was placed above all other ethnic minorities. General Ne Win enforced Burmese and Buddhism as the national language and religion. A strict policy of “Burmanization” attempting to assimilate ethnic minorities was adopted. Ethnic minority mother-tongue language, culture and traditions were banned.
Now for the first time the Chin can freely celebrate their language, culture and record their history. No longer under the shadow of the military regime, isolated areas such as the Chin hills are also experiencing a trickle of tourists venturing to their homeland. Most travelers that venture into the region come to photograph the Chin women with their unique facial tattoos.
Daw Ma Nu finds it curious that tourists are so interested. Retired from working on the family’s farm she welcomes visitors into her home to listen to her traditional nose flute.
She hopes more tourists will come to the area and make donations to build schools. Speaking in her local Magan language she say, “I want the younger generation to be able to learn how to read and write in their local Chin language, not just in Burmese.”
Rather than just photographing the aesthetic tradition of the tattoos local guide, 26-year-old Naing Kee Shin, hopes tourism will also instill a strong sense of pride in the young people to carry on traditions, beyond the tattoos. “I am proud to be Chin,” says Naing Kee Sin, “young people are active and lead funerals, playing musical instruments and dancing for three days to scare off bad spirits.”
Libby Hogan plans to continue interviewing young people from the many different ethnic minorities across Myanmar. She’s curious to document what young people are choosing to preserve and reject, their unique challenges at this moment of change, as their voices were so often silenced or ignored under the previous military regime.