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Burma's Lost World

A little-known community, the Naga on the Burmese side of the Indian border, is one of the most isolated in the world

By Bertil Lintner

The Naga are perhaps one of the least known--and certainly the least visited-- of Burma's many ethnic minorities. But because they also live on the Indian side of the border, there is no shortage of literature about them. In India they have been converted to Christianity and have their own state, Nagaland. Their literacy rate is also high, and many Indian Naga have been recruited into the Indian civil service and armed forces. On the Burmese side, however, the Naga remain isolated. There are few roads and even fewer schools in the Burmese Naga Hills in northwestern Sagaing Division. Headhunting, a former favorite pastime of the Naga, prevailed well into the 1980s.

One of the few outsiders who have visited the area in recent years is Jamie Saul, a South African expert on Naga tattoos. He has spent 35 years accumulating information about the Naga and conducting field work in both India and Burma from 2000 to 2005. Photographer Dominique Viallard spent five years in Burma working as a doctor, and was able to visit the remotest corners of the country, including the Naga Hills. The outcome of their joint efforts is an excellent book about a little known people.

The Naga of Burma describes the culture, way of life and spiritual beliefs of the Naga, as well as their hunting practices and how they are adapting to relatively modern times in Burma. It is, in many ways, more informative than the only other major work on the Naga by non-Indian writers, The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India by Julian Jacobs, which was published by Thames and Hudson, London, in 1990. That book dealt almost exclusively with the Indian Naga, but, on the other hand, it also provided information about the Naga separatist movement, which is still active on the Indian side of the border. A related insurgency also exists on the Burmese side, but has had even less impact on the overall political situation along the Indo-Burmese border.

By contrast, Saul's and Viallard's book barely touches on the insurgency. It is mentioned in passing on page 198, and then only in the context of the Indian and Burmese governments maintaining "a military presence on each side of the border for national and internal security reasons." This presence has, according to the author, resulted in the provision of basic services on the Burmese side, and more advanced modernization in Indian Nagaland.

It may be correct that some parts of the Burmese Naga Hills, such as the villages in the Lahe and Singkaling Hkamti areas, which the author and the photographer visited, now have some schools, water and even electricity. But that is not the case in the more remote region between the Nampuk River and the Indian border. Development there is non-existent, and that is perhaps why it remains a stronghold of the Burmese Naga rebels, led by Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang.

Until 1989, this was also the main base area of Indian rebel group the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, led by Isaac Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, which had a significant following in Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of the nearby Indian state of Manipur. From their sanctuaries on the Burmese side of the border, raids were launched into those Indian states until the Burmese Naga rose up against the NSCN, and drove its leaders and cadres back into India. Deprived of their cross-border sanctuaries, and thus unable to carry on their military campaign against the Indian army, Isaac and Muivah reached a ceasefire agreement with the Indian authorities. Talks between the two sides have been held in India, Thailand and Japan, with the aim of bringing to an end an insurgency that began in the mid-1950s.

For those who are more interested in culture than politics, this book is highly recommended. Its wealth of photographs and other illustrations, including sketches of the interior of Naga huts, tattoo patterns and weaving techniques as well as detailed maps of the area, makes it unique and well worth its rather hefty price, almost US $40. It also contains anecdotes from the author's and photographer's visit to Lahe and Hkamti, which give the book a very personal touch.

But the absence of any critical remarks about the neglect of the area by Burma's military government--in sharp contrast to relatively advanced social and economic development on the Indian side--suggests that the author and the photographer do not want to jeopardize their chances of being able to return to the Burmese Naga Hills, to which permission to visit is only rarely given to foreigners. Such caution is understandable, but hardly defensible.

During my own visit to the area between the Nampuk and the Indian border in the mid-1980s, I saw villages ridden with poverty and disease, including the plague, and no modern development whatsoever. And little has changed since then. Nevertheless, Saul and Viallard have produced a fascinating book about one of the world's most isolated people, and they should be commended for that.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, October, 2006

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