VERY FEW MILES along the road from Mandaly
to Taunggyi, loudspeakers assail the ears. Vehicles slow down and banknotes are tossed from windows for children to chase in the wind. Eighty five per cent of Burma's population is Buddhist and by contributing a few kyats towards the construction of a new pagoda, you will acquire spiritual merit, hopefully building up enough to avoid reincarnadon as a snake or a rat.
For the Western traveller in Myanmar, as Burma is now known, the hill town of Taunggyi is the end of the line, the final stop before reaching the regions designated off-limits by the Burmese government. To the north lie the Golden Triangle, the opium barons and the Chinese border; to the south, a bloody war between government forces and Karen rebels, fighting for an autonomous state.
Caught up in the conflict are the Paduang tribe, the so called Giraffe People, whose women are famed for their brass neck coils. Part of the largely Christian rebel Karen tribe, many of the 7,000 Paduang are Catholic, a small proportion of the half million Catholics in Burma today.
At Taunggyi's St Joseph's Cathedral, Fr Peter Hla warns against a journey to the Padaung villages in Kayah State. It is, he says, simply too dangerous, a no-go area, ringed by road blocks.
Fr Hia is a Paduang. His great grandfather was the first Catholic priest in his village, Phekon, and Catholicism has been passed down the generations. His grandmother has been wearing neck coils since the age of five, but his mother has removed hers. The tradition, a variation of a more widespread custom of binding rings on the arms and legs, is gradually disappearing.
The Paduang proved. particularly susceptible to the Catholic missionaries who first arrived with the Portuguese settlers in the early part of the 16th century. The missionaries, who used Taunggyi as their base for converting the hill tribes, had greatest success with nonBuddhist tribes.
Unlike Burmese Buddhists, Karens responded to the Gospel because they had hung on to animism and traditional belief in a "lost book" which would be brought back by "the white brother", neatly fitting the missionaries' message. Catholicism retains its appeal, not least because it is still perceived as a Western import. The Karen's Christian background serves further to exacerbate the cultural rift between them and the ruling Buddhist Burmans.
The Karen therefore have no interest on the inculturisation of the Catholic mass, as Fr Carolus, a Burmese priest studying at the Society of Foreign Missions in Paris, explains: "The ethnic minorities prefer to be different. They want the Christianity brought by the missionaries. They do not want to mix with Burmese Buddhism."
The Karen are not the only ones to suffer at the hands of the government. Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi,
whose political party's electoral victory of 1990 was declared void, has been kept under house arrest in Rangoon for five years by the repressive State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which has elicited global condemnation for its human rights abuses.
The military junta has burnt Karen villages and forced children to act as porters and human minesweepers. Torture, murder and beatings are common. For more than a decade, tribal refugees have arrived at the Thai-Burmese border, driven from their homes by military offensives against the ethnic insurgents. Today, around 100,000 refugees live a few miles over the border in Thailand, including , two displaced Padaung villages. The remorseless Thai tourist industry has not en
slow to recognise the m tang potential of their uctant guests. The broth for the Holiday Inn Mae ong Son pictures the Padaung women alongside p tographs of pool and be
suites just one more a don to add to elephant and river rafting.
The Padaung are visit by a steady trickle of tou ists who bump along dirt cks to catch a glimpse of ese living ethnic curios. The ocal guide looks embarrasse and murmurs about a zoo. But, however hard Thai tourism tries to turn this area into a hill tribe theme park, the pathetic circumstances of the Padaung refugees is obvious. Denied land and resources, they are unable to carry out there traditional tobacco sorting and today only weaving, another traditional industry, is practised.
While the tradition of wearing neck coils may be dying out elsewhere in Burma, it provides an economic lifeline for the Padaung in Thailand. Money is extracted from tourists for taking photographs. The women sit with the passivity of museum exhibits and the
perverse grace of Modigliani's portraits.
Then they demand money and drive a hard bargain with homemade trinkets, including wooden models of
themselves, brightly coloured, handwoven Shan shoulder bags, and authentic neck coils.
Not surprisingly, the coils are not popular merchandise; only the most "native" traveller type would opt for 201b of coils pushing down on their collarbones and ribs. And although the Catholic church doesn't feel able actively to discourage the tradition, as it once did, it still doesn't condone it.
"The women are not free to move or walk," says Fr Carolus. "But these people like to follow their own traditional way of living. We cannot forbid them their freedom.