Tags / Burma
Arkar Min and his colleagues leave their job hauling fish from trawlers to trucks, and walk towards a boat that will take them an hour up the Yangon River to their village. Their boss is a Chelsea fan, and requests that they wear the football strip as a uniform at work. Anyone missing the kit is fined 2000 kyat, the equivalent of $2, the same as they're average daily wage.
At fifteen years old Arkar Min was lured away from his village by a man offering him driving lessons. His food was drugged and he awoke in an abandoned building inside Shwedagon Pagoda Army base. He had no bed, but slept on the concrete, using his longyi as a pillow.
'There were six of us there. Mostly they were 15, 17 at the most. None of them knew they were in the army," said Arkan Min. 'I wasn't there in the first place because I was interested. I was forced."
As Buddhist lent ends and the slim window of winter approaches, couples are keen to marry before the heat returns. Today in Dine Su, a village too small to feature on the map, residents are busy enjoying four separate weddings.
Boys spend their days climbing trees and playing in the street in Dine Su, one of Yangon's countless shanty towns. Many families are too poor to send their young to school past second or third grade, preferring them to contribute to the family income when work is available. Myanmar Army brokers prey on this desire for work, using fake jobs as drivers or mechanics to lure the boys towards nearby army bases.
Win Myint stores his son's few possessions, ready for his return from the Myanmar Army. Like many other boys Aung Than Zaw was forcibly recruited from their village at the age of fifteen, and sent to the Shan State front line. His father has been working with the International Labour Organization to secure his release for two years.
"Sometimes I think he'll never come home, that the army will continue to delay, or that they'll sell him to someone else on the way," he says.
Alongside the Myanmar Army's partial release of it's child soldiers, and regardless of it's continued forced recruitment of minors, billboards can be seen around Yangon displaying various messages of military innocence.
"After I turn 18 and become a man, I'll get into the military, but now I am still young. The military does not accept people under 18."
Dine Su balances between an army base, a shipping port, and industrial factories, teetering on the slippery banks of the Yangon River. A shanty town of bamboo, mud, and dusty football pitches. It is typical of countless other communities. Most people come here from out of town, victims of government land grabs for condos or luxury golf courses in the Delta region. As an illegal settlement, Dine Su is susceptible to exploitation by authorities.
Yangon Train Station as night falls. The Myanmar Army make regular patrols of transport hubs, approaching young boys aged between 11 and 15 who are trying to get home late at night. Officers apply escalating pressure to each in the hope of forcing recruitment.
Yangon Train Station. The Myanmar Army and it's civilian brokers use the city's dark bus stations, train stations, and ferry ports as recruiting grounds for young conscripts. Boys who are traveling home late at night, are approached by the army and threatened with false charges. They are offered an ultimatum: a long prison term, or recruitment.
"This is human trafficking, it's the same as prostitution," says Win Myint, 52, as he waits for the return of his young son from the military.
Tun Tun Win remembers playing football at the edge of his village. A patch of dusty ground, squeezed between an army base and a shipping port was used as a pitch, worn flat by dozens of bare feet. Leafy trees provided some shade for spectators, and a fringe of tall bamboo offered a little privacy. It was here that he was lured into the Army by a civilian broker at 14 years old. âIf the military released all of the child soldiers, thereâd be no one left,â he said.
Win Myint and his wife, appealed to the International Labour Organization for the release of their son from underage enrollment into the Myanmar Army. Now they're waiting for his official release under the 2012 Joint Action Plan.
Tun Tun Win shows both his Army ID card, proving that he's been discharged legally. Usually the Army doesn't begin awarding pensions until 60 years old, Tun Tun Win is drawing his now at the age of 30, $27 per month. He served a 14 year stretch with the Myanmar army, beginning when he was 14 years old.
The isolated mountains of Burma’s Chin state are home to a number of hill tribes that have been separated from modern world for centuries. Chin women used to follow the thousand-year-old tradition of tattooing their faces. The ritual, officially banned by the government in the 1960s, doesn’t attract modern Chin girls anymore. Soon the thousand-year-old tradition could be gone forever.
According to an old legend a Burmese king once traveled to the remote hill regions of Chin state, which was known for its beautiful women. The King then displaced a Chin girl, brought her back to his palace and made her his wife. The girl, desperate and unhappy with its situation, finally managed to escape and tried to make her way back home, always afraid that the king could eventually capture her again. In order not to get caught again she disguised herself by making incisions in her beautiful face using a knife.
“It was like she was stealing her own beauty in order to protect herself from the king,” Daw San recounts the old fairytale. The woman in her sixties belongs to the Muun tribe, one of the few Chin sub-tribes that originally practiced the tradition of facial tattoos. “Every little child knows this story,” she further explains with a smile. Anthropologists believe that it is more plausible that not the king but hostile invaders from other tribes kidnapped the girls. The tattoos then would allow them to identify from which tribe a girl originates. Myth or truth, the fact is that the adoption of facial tattoos became part of Chin culture nearly a thousand years ago and since then has been passed from one generation to the other. Until recently at least.
Today the Chin people consist of various sub-groups which are distinguished only by the women’s facial tattoos as well as differences in their language. The tribes are mostly situated between the north of Arakan state and the southeastern hills of Chin state. The Burmese government officially banned the tradition in the 1960s after the military took over power in a coup d’état. But the Chin-State has long been neglected by the far-away government or, as others say, the Chin state has long tried to avoid contact with outside rulers. In fact the Chin people were in a state of war with the military regime until June 2012 when a formal truce was announced after power was shifted to a civil government. For most of the isolated hill tribes these past events happened without notice.
The Chin-State is still one of the country’s poorest and most isolated regions, with a 73% poverty rate according to an official survey. Some areas are widely inaccessible. While this is the reason that local traditions have survived the past centuries, it also means that malnutrition, childhood mortality and the risk for women to die in child bed are tremendous. Efforts of NGOs to push for the construction of streets and the implementation of governmental action could bring an improvement to the people’s living and health standard.
“People are now hoping that they will profit from the truce and from the booming tourist industry in Myanmar,” says Nay Aung, a 28-year-old guide from Bagan who is regularly organizing trips into the area for NGOs and adventurous tourists. Traveling to hill areas of Chin state is quite challenging and by now still far off the beaten track. Areas are only accessible by four-wheel-driving jeeps on damaged rough tracks. The two-to-three days drive is halted by river crossings, mudflows or flat tires. New roads are currently under construction, often with the use of low-paid child labor, but are not to be expected before the next three years. “Part of the roads get damaged again during the rainy season,” says Nay Aung, “this makes it hard to finish the construction”.
The mountainous area has always been wild and inaccessible. The Chin accepted the harsh and inhospitable conditions of the mountainous regions for centuries by choice, so they could avoid foreign influence and invasion.
But times are changing and more and more Chin, especially the young, are willing to open their region for a better health care, maintenance and modernity. “All the faces with tattoos are those of old women,” says Daw San. Her striking face is graced with distinctive patterns that symbolize a pearl necklace and a dominant ‘Y’ that is illustrating a sacrifice trunk. The tattoo shows that she is a member of the Muun tribe. The differences in the patterns of the about twelve facial-tattoo practicing Chin-tribes vary from simple dots practiced by the Daai tribe or straight lines by the Yindu tribe to spiderweb-like tattoos of the Laytoo or even the full-face tattoos of the Ubun tribe where not even a single dot is spared. “Every tattoo has a spiritual meaning and defines the values of the tribe,” says Daw San. The sacrifice trunk in her face reflects the totem of her village. “So we know who we are and we can find our ancestors in the afterlife by identifying the tattoos,” Daw San is convinced.
The Chin, although most converted to Christianity by American Baptists a hundred years ago, are strongly committed to Animism. Every man or woman needs a ‘House of Spirits,’ a secure place for the afterlife. Once in his or her life, the tradition says, a member of the Muun tribe must hold a sacred ceremony to avoid harm by spirits and gain peace for the afterlife. During the week-long celebration the Muun will sacrifice one chicken, one wild pig, one goat and one wild buffalo and will divide the food with the tribe’s shaman and the remaining villagers. If the ritual is fulfilled one will collect flat stones from the river to build a ‘house of spirits’. After the death of a tribe member its remains are cremated and the ashes are laid to rest under the stone altar. “One is deemed to be alive until the bones have been disappeared,” explains Daw San. Only the most experienced hunters – or the wealthiest villagers – are able to repeat the ritual a second time in their life. “If this happens,” Daw San recounts further, “one is allowed to build the altar next to his or her home.” (See images of two stand-alone-altars next to home in photos 13 and 14, plus a ‘cemetery’ in pictures 19 and 20.)
The town of Mindat is situated five hours on foot through the mountains from the ‘house of spirits’ cemetery of this group of Muun villagers. The town doesn’t differ much from other places in modern-day Burma. Local boys play soccer as the sun goes down; some girls drive through the village on motorbikes; and trucks and jeeps park in front of the town’s market. The place is completely alien to the remaining tribe-members who live their lives quite isolated on the hills.
“Today the girls, at least in Mindat, see the fading custom as an unattractive relic of the past and they are aware of outside beauty standards,” says Daw San with a cautious smile. Decades ago it would have been out of question for a man to marry an un-tattooed girl. “When I was a little girl”, she says, “it would have been impossible not get tattooed. Every woman was proud of her tattoo.”
Daw San is aware of ongoing development in the remote corners Chin state where she lives, and this gives her hope that a better life is on the way. She is happy for this, but she also fears the consequences for the Chin’s traditional lifestyle. She doesn’t doubt that her face is one of the last with a tribal tattoo.
“Soon,” she says, “this thousand-year-old tradition will be gone forever.”
Kyaw Thura on his fifth day at his new welding job. He's been out of military prison just over one week, after defecting to the enemy, and over the Thai border when he was 17.
Thein Myint's bamboo hut is filled with villagers looking for help.Their boys are being kidnapped by the Myanmar Army for active service. In the 20 ft square shack in the shanty town of Dine Su, on edge of the Yangon River, people fill all available space. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters overlap on the hard floor. The men spit betel juice though the cracks in the worn boards, and the women fan each other to keep cool. Younger children peek in from outside, their fingers clawing through the steel mesh in the glassless window.
“Times have changed. There is international pressure now regarding forced labor, child labor,” says Thien Myint, “they can't keep doing it.”
Since the violent crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988, the Myanmar Army's need for rapid expansion, has encouraged the forced recruitment of boys as young as 11 to fulfill impossible quotas. Kidnap, beatings, and drugging are tactics that deliver boys to the front lines of Myanmar's far flung civil wars, to sweep for mines, attack and execute villagers, or man live offensives. In December the Myanmar Army released 80 child soldiers from active service, bringing the total freed children to 845 since 2007. There has been steady pressure on the Myanmar Army and non-state armies to fall in line with ASEAN human rights recommendations, and International Labour Organization conventions. The armies are making small acts of compromise in appeasement, and during the final few months of 2014 have been increasing their releases. However although Myanmar is a member of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the use and recruitment of child soldiers is still commonplace. Slowly though soldiers that were forcibly recruited as children are returning to their villages, to their families who have long thought them dead.
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Kyaw Thura, aged 15, after finishing his four month training in Mon State, in Eastern Myanmar.
"There were rocks in the soup, and sand in the rice," he said, "and I missed home terribly."
Kyaw Thura is reunited with his four year old son, after spending a year and a half in military prison. Heâd been fighting front line battles with the Myanmar Army in the jungles of Karen State for over two years, and eventually defected when he was seventeen, hiding at the Thai border for four years. Now twenty three, he is a free man.
European volunteer fighters and far-right activists have travelled to Ukraine to fight along side pro-Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian separatists. They come from France, Sweden, and other parts of Europe. They have different motivations for participating in the conflict, but they all say that they are not paid to fight.
Journalists Fausto Biloslavo and Laura Lesevre travelled to Ukraine and interviewed, among others, Mikael Skillt, a Swedish sniper, with seven years' experience in the Swedish Army and the Swedish National Guard. Mikael is currently fighting with the Azov Battalion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer armed group under the control of Kiev’s Interior ministry, in eastern Ukraine. He says there is a bounty of nearly 5,000 euros on his head. Biloslavo and Lesevre also interviewed 46 year old Gaston Besson from France who says he wants to defend Ukraine’s independence. Besson, who has also fought in Croatia, Bosnia, Burma and Laos, is in charge of recruiting foreign European volunteers to fight against pro-Russian rebels. "Every day I get dozens of e-mail with requests of enlistment, but I reject 75% of them. People who want to join us are to buy the plane ticket with their own money. Then they go over an initial period of training in Kiev before being sent to the front line. We do not want fanatics, trigger-happy people, drunkards or druggies. We need unpaid idealists, not hired mercenaries”, he says.
There is renewed tension between Buddhists and Muslims in parts of Burma. In March 2014 targeted violence, towards the Muslim minority in Myanmar, claimed the 45 lives and led to many homes being burnt to the ground.
In the Burmese streets, stickers sporting the numbers “969” are seen on taxis, shop windows, betel nut carts. These three ominous numbers are the symbol of a fast-rising Buddhist pride movement, presenting itself as a return to Buddhist roots and the teachings of the Lord.
But, in the new Myanmar, 969 is actually a vehicle of anti-Muslim hatred and Buddhist brainwashing.
“Muslims are fundamentally bad. Mohammed allows them to kill any creature. Islam is a religion of thieves, they do not want peace”, declares Ashin Wirathu the saffron-robed monk nicknamed the “Burmese Bin Laden.”
Far from the iconic images of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”, popular Buddhist monks like Wirathu are travelling the country, preaching in front of thousands, urging Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses, to avoid marrying them, hiring them or to sell property to them. The 969 movement is appealing to a deep anti‐Muslim resentment implanted in Buddhist minds by fifty years of military propaganda. Burmese activist Maung Zarni recently confessed in a blog post: “Like millions of my fellow Burmese Buddhists, I grew up as a proud racist. For much of my life growing in the heartland of Burma, Mandalay, I mistook what I came to understand years later as racism to be the patriotism of Burmese Buddhists”.
By depicting a Myanmar on the verge of an Islamist invasion, the 969 movement is creating a framework for the wave of Islamophobic violence that has swept through Myanmar in the last months. In March, the bloodiest clashes to-date claimed the lives of forty-five people in the town of Meiktila. “At night, we sleep terribly. We are wondering when they will be coming. It is dark, it is scary. Our ears pay attention to every little noise”, said a Muslim resident of the city. Throughout the country the Muslim communities are living in the constant fear of new attacks.
Currently, 969 has seen little resistance from local or international governments. The movement is currently drafting a law proposal that would ban interfaith marriage, and four 969 monks have been working on a curriculum aimed at educating lay people and children about the ins and outs of protecting Buddhism from Islam. Set to take place in a Sunday school manner, the monks hope this new form of education will save their faith in this majority Buddhist nation but what implications will this have on cross-religious relationships? And will it instigate more religious violence?
Afraid of alienating the Buddhist vote for the 2015 elections, the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is staying silent on this subject. Many see, behind 969 and the religious riots, the hand of hardliners from the army trying to destroy the fragile change Myanmar is going through as the country stumbles towards democracy.
In a remote corner of Karen, Burma, isolated for decades under Myanmar’s military dictatorship, the village of Kayin Anyd Thar stands as a rare reminder of the area’s animist beliefs before the arrival of Buddhism and of Christian missionaries. 30-year-old king Phoe Ta Khit rules over 500 people who believe in his powers as a shaman. He beleives that he has a connection with the spirits of the past eight monarchs, each of them one of his previous existences. Everyday life in the village - barely above the subsistence level - is entirely organised by the king. His doors are open to anybody as long as they follow the monarch’s rules. Halfway between the eccentric and the supernatural, the village is derided by some Karens in the area, while others respect Phoe Ta King as a spiritual leader without question.
Kachin State, Burma
Tens of thousands in Burma's Kachin state have been forced from their homes as fighting continues between Burmese government forces and the autonomist guerrilla group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The ethnic Kachin, from the mountainous north of Burma, speak a different language than that of Burma’s Bamar majority and are also Christian, in contrast with the country's Buddhist majority. Since 1961, both sides have been at war for political and economic control over the Kachin state, which is rich in natural resources.
While there is hope that a dialogue between the government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO, the political wing of the KIA) will bear fruit, sporadic fighting continues and it is taking a huge toll on the local population. Many fields are strewn with landmines and tens of thousands of Kachin have had to relocate to temporary camps.
Most of these internally displaced people (IDPs) are sheltered in camps within the strip of territory along the Chinese border controlled by the KIO/KIA. There are also some camps in government controlled zones. For almost two years, the Burmese government has blocked any international aid to the IDPs and they have had to rely solely on help provided by local organizations. Many have been living in camps since the fighting resumed and are losing all hope of ever returning home.
In government-controlled areas, some IDPs have been arrested on spurious charges of collaboration with the KIA and tortured under detention. This has created a climate of fear in camps that are closely watched by Burmese security forces.
A father-daughter team works together to stack bricks into a kiln.
A teenager in the Kayin Anyd Thar Village. Teenagers here do not go to state Burmese school and the King decided to build their own primary school in the village.
The full moon day celebration ends late at night. The only light in the Kayin Anyd Thar Village comes from the moon.
A King's monk preparing the last decorations inside the Hopy Hta Mote where His Majesty will pray for the village.
On the full moon night the King, on top of his regal litter, circles the holy Hta Mote nine times. After this walk he goes inside the holy temple to address the village with his prayer.
An image of King Phoe Takhit in a little shrine where local villagers of Kayin Anyd Thar Village give offerings and praise him.
Devotes of the King sit outside the Hta Mote listening the prayers coming out of the speakers.
At Kayin Anyd Thar Village horses are free to roam the surroundings. According to the old Karen traditions the presence of cows, buffalos, horses, and elephants in the village, is sacred .
A local Karen villager prepares the speakers for the full moon night prayer.
Villagers from Kayin Anyd Thar Village pray in front of their King, during the ceremony of a wedding celebrated on the full moon day.
King King Phoe Takhit blessing one of the villagers during the holy festivities of the rainy season's full moon.
A newlywed couple perform a traditional rituals around a tree. They tie tree trunks with twine which symbolises a strong union.
The monks, chosen by the King, are the only ones allowed to enter on the holy Hta Mote, where the King prays on the night of the rainy season full moon.
Two villagers walk and pray around the holy Hta Mote, a bamboo fenced field with a red Pagoda style building in the middle, from where the King give his sermons.
A young girl decorates the grave of the King's father during the full moon celebrations.
A Young monk rides a horse during the holy full moon of May when all the village prays for a new and prosperous harvest season.
King Phoe Tha Khit and his 'right hand man' walk around the village observing the full moon ceremony preparations.
A giant concrete painted statue of King Phoe Tha Khit situated at the entrance of the village.
Villagers of Kayin Anyd Thar live inbetween modernity and very ancient rituals and rules designed by the King.