A letter from Hsipaw

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

6 August 2014

In the first installment of our ‘Conflict’ series, Alice Dawkins writes from mountainous Shan region of Burma/Myanmar.

*Stylistic note: Burma is used to refer to the country before 1962. Myanmar is for the following period.

The train heaves its way up the slopes of the Shan hills, an area of Myanmar notorious for its lawlessness. It’s a curious juxtaposition; the train itself is a relic from the colonial era, yet the verdant towns it wheezes its way through have little if no remaining reminders of a past as a valuable frontier region of British India.

The pulsing whir of unidentifiable, indefatigable insects, roads that disappear into muddy goat-tracks at a moment’s notice, and the constant shift of shadows throughout the dense forest, set the Shan slopes apart from the well-travelled paths of Orwell and the famous glittering pagodas downhill. Up in the hills, what you don’t see is often more concerning than what you do see. Sights of the Myanmar national army (tatmadaw) are rare, but according to non-government organisations in the area, they have around 150 infantry battalions based in the state. In the mid-nineties, anti-insurgent operations forced almost half a million villagers in the region out of their homes at gunpoint, stimulating refugee flows to Thailand and China that continue today. Like many of the enduring conflicts in the region, the tension between the ethnic groups and the state is not new.

In the precolonial dynasties of Toungoo and then Konbaung, the early emanations of the modern Burmese state were administered chiefly by a king who operated from the centre of the country. Significant levels of autonomy was conferred upon rulers in the frontier areas. These rulers descended from families with a consistent ethnic lineage. In the Shan state, they were known as saopas in the Shan language, sawbwas in Burmese. The Shan ethnicity has strong connections to the Chinese ‘Dai’ minority group and the Shan language is far closer to Thai than Burmese, the language of the Burman majority.

The relationship between the post-1962 regime and the tradition of sawbwas in the Shan state has been an uneasy one. Following the coup, concerned by the influence of the sawbwa, the military removed him from his position, and according to the family, secretly executed him. Decades later, there is no record of a body or any documents indicating his imprisonment. The family has only been allowed in the past few years to return to the palace residence in Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw). The residence has become somewhat of a tourist attraction for the trickle of travellers who venture into the town; the wife of a sawbwa descendant receives guests throughout the day into a withered drawing room that sans the stifling heat and steady chorus of mosquitoes, would not be out of place in a Merchant Ivory film. In a well-cultivated accent reminiscent of colonial times, she tells and retells a well-rehearsed story of the demise of her husband’s family from its royal past into years of exile.

As she begins to wind up her family’s tale and subtly nods her head towards the donation jar, I press her for details about the information I’d read regarding the tatmadaw’s use of sexual violence towards Shan women throughout the region. Over a decade ago, the Shan Womens’ Action Network documented the concerning display of tactics used to whittle away at the Shan ethnic identity, particularly the forced impregnation of Shan women to prevent the birth of pure ethnic children. This can be interpreted as a clear violation of the Genocide Convention, which forbids “measures intended to prevent births”. Burma ratified the Genocide Convention in 1956. The prohibition of genocide has attained the level of jus cogens, meaning that it is a non-derogable norm accepted universally throughout the international community. The practical consequence of this is any state could commence an action against Myanmar in an international legal context.

She stops her storytelling abruptly, eyes me with a heavy look of sadness, and gestures towards the fields we can see outside from the open windows. “Anywhere there is a Shan village,” she says, “It’s happened”. She walks over to the window and points to a little path weaving through the rice paddies. “Follow that for two hours”, she says. “You’ll find one”.

I squelch and slide along the path as it cuts through farms, weaves around the river, and coasts along an old railway track lined by dense jungle on either side. For two hours there’s hardly anyone walking this way but for one or two motorcycles. I learnt some hours later, back in the familiarity of Hsipaw, that I wasn’t as alone as I’d thought and the jungle was peppered with Shan insurgents. Clearly this hadn’t bothered the elderly lady too much. Arriving at the village, it’s far quieter than the bubbly, colourful villages I had passed through during treks through the mountains. The schools are gated with tall wire fences and signs in Burmese and English announcing the zone to be ‘DRUG FREE’ – a reference to the drugs trade amongst the insurgents and others which is endemic in the Shan state. The silence is eerie. The whole village seems completely deserted, but for the flash of a colour and sweep of shadows behind windows and half-closed doors. The lady’s words, anywhere there is a Shan village, it’s happened, are ringing in my ears and I’m gripped by a suffocating jolt of fear to leave the haunted place. In a dizzying confusion, I bolt through the paths in between the teak houses and find my way to the riverbank, and negotiate a boat back to Hsipaw.

I return to the train station with skin some five shades darker and aching legs. As it clicks into motion for the eight-hour odyssey on the road back to Mandalay, I fall asleep to the rhythmic clunks of the turning wheels, equal parts fascinated with this complicated place, and equal parts perplexed. Remnants of trauma in the Shan villages hang in the air with the jarring silence of unanswered questions. There is little doubt that ample data exists to prepare a case against the Myanmar military at an international level for the well-documented atrocities against the Shan, but greater political considerations both within Myanmar and in the international sphere are more likely than not going to stifle these nightmares into uncomfortable silence.

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