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Ethnic traditions vanish as Myanmar opens up

KAMPALET, Myanmar -- High in the hills of Myanmar's Chin state, Shwe Mana plays a gentle song on a bamboo flute using only her nostrils — one of the last of her tribe to preserve this ancient skill. A dark, intricate web of tattoos covers her face, harking back to a time, it is said, when women disfigured themselves to dampen the lust of lowland marauders.

Her university-educated daughter, resting a hand gently on the 53-year-old's shoulder, makes it clear she won't be getting similar tattoos in what she calls “this Internet age.” Her illiterate mother, like many from the Chin ethnic group, explains that the outside world has imparted a new sense of what is beautiful.

“My daughter thought it would be too painful and she would not look pretty,” says Shwe Mana, whose house hugs a 1,370-meter ridgeline in the pleasant town of Kampalet. “Sometimes I also feel that the tattoos don't make me pretty — but just sometimes.”

Their story is becoming a common one in a country not long ago described as a place where time stood still. Tribal ways — dress, festivals, even languages — passed down countless generations are vanishing as the long-isolated country opens its doors wider to the outside world.

The end of military rule three years ago and the launch of economic and political reforms are accelerating change. That is bringing opportunity and for a long impoverished country, but also increasing pressure on tradition in one of the most ethnically diverse nations, home to more than 140 groups and numerous sub-groupings, from sea-roaming “gypsies” in the south to a tribe of pygmies living in the shadows of the Himalayas.

Across Myanmar, where ethnic minorities make up about a third of the 60 million people and inhabit half the country, barely a village remains cocooned in the past.

Witness Kyar Do in southern Chin state, inhabited by the Maun sub-tribe. Reached by a precarious trail plunging down a 1,500-meter-deep valley and often cut off during the monsoon rains, the community acquired three inexpensive Chinese motorcycles last year and a mobile phone owned by the chief. Three television sets, powered by solar panels, allow the 500 villagers to keep up with the latest doings of soccer squads Manchester United and Real Madrid.

“The world they are in contact with is in constant change and they want to be part of it,” says F.K. Lehman, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and one of the few anthropologists to have done field work among the Chin. “The change among the ethnic groups is very rapid and striking and it will accelerate.”

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Ethnic Chin women of the Muun sub-tribe, one with a traditional tattooed face and others with thanaka, a distinctive cosmetic face-paste widely used by Burmese women for smoother skin, gather in Kyar Do village to watch a soccer tournament for villagers in Chin State, Myanmar on Dec. 18. (AP)

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