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Htay Kho, a remote village tucked away between the valleys of this ragged strip of eastern Burma, was for decades off-limits as armed rebels fought the military before a recent ceasefire stopped the bloody conflict.
Now the semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein and rebels from eight armed groups have signed a wider peace deal, although the pact fell short of the nationwide accord the ruling party had hoped to trumpet ahead of an 8 November general election.
But for the Kayaw people of Htay Kho – and millions from myriad other ethnic groups living in similar villages that pepper the fringes of this diverse country – the upcoming vote is about more than just the fragile peace process.
With its lack of access to running water, jobs and proper education, Htay Kho, some 480 kilometres northeast of the commercial capital, Rangoon, is Burma writ small.
The election comes at a time of sweeping social and economic change, as villagers use the newly-opened borders to leave for Malaysia and Thailand in search of jobs.
Reintegration with the outside world has sparked a debate about whether to abandon traditional costumes of the Kayaw women, famous for brass coils worn around their calves and ankles.
“We are tired of being poor,” said Tawnyo, the village headman, who like most Kayaw uses only one name. “We don’t have enough clothes for our children and sometimes not enough food. This needs to change first.”
YEARS OF ISOLATION
When the sun sets behind the mist-shrouded hills, the 280 inhabitants of Htay Kho light fires to mark the end of a back-breaking day on the surrounding slopes.
Their raspy voices, tired after planting corn grains and blurred with Khaungyae, a rice liquor, mix with the sparks and drift above its 80 rickety huts and across the nearby mountain tops. A drab yellow Roman Catholic church built by Italian missionaries a century ago towers over the settlement.
After years of isolation, there is no electricity or mobile phone coverage. Average income per person stands at less than $50 a year and the 60 kilometres journey to the nearest city takes four hours – on a bus that comes every three days.
Tawnyo places his hopes in opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who recently visited the area, galvanising crowds with pledges of development and a government inclusive of ethnic minorities.
With about 30,000 members, the Kayaw are among the smallest ethnic minorities among Burma’s 135 officially recognised groups.
The rebels in the area have put down their guns and taken to the hills to grow rice and corn, but slash-and-burn cultivation methods mean they struggle to find new places to farm.
BRASS COILS AND COINS
One of the farmers, Thu Ray San, 27, said she has to walk for hours to the nearby hills with a basket so heavy she needs help to load it on her back.
“We mix rice with corn because it’s easier to grow in the high mountains,” she said.
With every move, Thu Ray San’s silver braces and necklaces rustled around her neck, knees and ankles.
Kayaw women traditionally wear the coils, decorate their ears with silver rings and sport horn-shaped necklaces and strings with old British and Indian coins.
Only about 100 women from Htay Kho and two neighbouring settlements still wear the costumes. At $100 a set, they are a powerful status symbol in the village.
The dress is now at the heart of a debate about customs which have survived unchanged for generations.
“We should abolish this dress so that our women look civilised and can work in offices,” said Salomon, vice president of the All Ethnic National Karenni People Development Party, a local political organisation. “This is what separates us from the outside world.”
But the women, and headman Tawnyo, want to protect the tradition and turn the village into a tourist attraction and cultural heritage site.
In the hut of one woman named Borlinan, family members huddle by a fire to sing and play on traditional instruments.
“How can they even dream of banning our dress,” said Borlinan. “Even when we die, we get buried with the coils. They stay with us forever.”