Masking fear: celebrations hide a fading Shan culture

Beth Macdonald

Apr 30, 2009 (DVB), On the surface, the ceremony held last weekend in the small Thai village of Piang Luang was a lavish affair, attracting exiled Shan from across Thailand to ordain new monks and celebrate a culture whose roots reach back over 1000 years.

Yet the rich aesthetic of Poi Sang Long festival masks a darker issue. Many Shan living in Thailand want to return to their state, despite the ongoing conflict between rebel groups and the Burmese army. With the army's ever expanding presence in Shan state, they fear their culture is disappearing, and ceremonies such as this are one of the few ways in which Shan people can maintain contact with their homeland and its traditions.

"[Burmese] authorities do not allow and really limit Shan from expressing their culture," said Siphoung, an ethnic Shan living in northern Thailand.

"They are afraid of us getting together and being unified, thinking we might do something against them."

Government control of ethnic areas has followed an ideology of 'Burmanization'. A report released recently on land confiscation in Burma, entitled Holding Our Ground, found that soldiers moving onto confiscated land in ethnic states were being encouraged to either bring with them their families or marry local women.

This, said the report, was part of a policy to dilute ethnic identities in Burma."They don’t allow us to learn our own literature," says Siphoung. "Some of us would very strongly like to learn [but] we are under the control of the government."

All this accounts for the added significance of this year's Poi Sang Long festival, which lasted five days rather than the traditional three days. It featured 107 Sang Longs, or young boys, preparing to be ordained as monks.

The Sang Longs, aged seven to 14, are no longer considered the sons of their earth-bound parents, but those of divine entities. This adopted heavenliness manifests itself in the prince-like attire they wear, and forbids them from setting foot on the ground. Thus, during the celebrations, the boys are carried on the backs of family and friends.

The contrast of the austerity of monastery life and that of the extravagant display of Poi Sang Long is great, but the grandness in no way reflects the daily life of the celebrants.

"It’s expensive," says Noom, a spectator and former resident of Piang Luang village, which is composed mainly of Shan immigrants.

"[The villagers] try to save money because they feel this is an important thing to do, even though they are poor."

The display of seeming wealth and plenty can obscure what many see as the real value of the event.

"In Thailand, this is the only [time that Shan] can come together and build relationships; close relationships," said Noom.

"[Parents] celebrate with their sons and they can invite their friends and their relatives to come."

Even members of the nearby unofficial Shan refugee camp try to take part in the ceremony.

"When I went to the refugee camp, they lived in such a bad situation," said Siphoung. "Even though they don’t have money, [some] still make their sons Sang Longs. It shows how much they take value from it."

Yet while the importance of the event itself is not lost on any, some have failed to grasp the greater significance of the culture it embodies.

"The older people, they will keep the culture," says Noom, who is 21-years-old.

"Maybe the practice of Buddhism [is more important] for the old people because they are from Shan State, and they learned and they follow the culture, and they always go to the temple, but for the young, they don’t care about this."

He voiced concern that young people who stay in Thailand become too assimilated into Thai society.

"They forget about themselves. They don’t want to let people know that they are Shan.

They forget about their culture," he said. But the blame cannot lie solely upon youthful ignorance. When asked why Shan teenagers hesitate to reveal their ethnic identity, Noom replied that Thai law bears some of the responsibility.

"Maybe it’s the gaps between the Thai and us," he said.

"Because we are not legal, we don’t have status, we don’t have the ID card. This is one reason we are afraid."

Thailand’s policy towards Shan has proved restricting. Shan immigrants are refused recognition as asylum seekers in Thailand, and denied access to humanitarian assistance and refuge, even though Karen and Karenni from Burma have been allowed to establish official refugee camps.

Many Shan continue to cross the Burma-Thai border in Shan state, fleeing from poverty and human rights abuses at the hands of Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council.

Noom himself, who migrated from Shan state in 1996 at the age of seven, has felt the limitations of being a Shan youth. "I have [an ID card], but it is not for Thai citizenship," he said.

"The Thai authorities allow me to stay in this area but if I want to go out I need to ask for permission. It’s not comfortable, like for a Thai person."

Poi Sang Long has remained one way to keep connected with the culture that many in Shan in Thailand already look on with an air of nostalgia.

"I feel as if it is my hometown," said Siphoung of the celebrations.

"Before the San Long went into the temple, they walked around it. It was like they were all very unified, and I felt, suddenly, I really wanted to cry.

"I’m so happy that all Shan will come together in Thailand, and they can all conserve and still maintain the culture."

But while Siphoung expresses gratitude that older Shan living in Thailand may cling to it, there is fear of the younger generation’s emerging indifference to their culture.

"Maybe, [in Thailand], from generation to generation, little by little, it will disappear," she says.

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