Thailand is home to the ‘Giraffe Women’ of the Kayan group of Red Karen, an ethnic minority of Tibetan-Burmese origin. The Lahwi group, which is a part of this tribe, has a tradition in which women were brass rings or coils around their necks which elongates them. Hence the moniker of ‘Giraffe Women’, owing to the long necks.
The origins of this tradition are unclear as many legends have been mongered about it over the years. A local myth suggests that the rings protect women from tiger attacks, as tigers attack prey at the neck.
Another story suggests that that rings were a way of making the women of the tribe seem unattractive, making them less appealing to slave traders, thus protecting them from a life of slavery.
The most popular origin story though, suggests that the rings make a woman’s neck longer, making her more charming and distinguished.
The process begins when a female member of the Kayan reaches the age of five. Over the years the brass coils are replaced by longer ones which have more turns. With time, the rings compress the girl’s rib cage and push the collar bone downwards, in the process, elongating the neck.
Scientifically speaking, the long neck is an illusion as the neck does not increase in length but seems longer due to a deformed collar bone.
The process of removing old coils and replacing them with new ones is quite arduous, which is why it is not done often. In some cases, the coils are removed for medical examinations, which often reveal that the muscles under the coils have weakened significantly.
Another reason why some women continue to wear the rings is because prolonged pressure on the collar bone causes the area to become bruised and discoloured.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the conflict involving the military regime of Myanmar forced many Kayan to flee across the border to Thailand.
The government of Thailand gave them the status of ‘conflict refugees’ and gave them temporary asylum but refrained from granting them full citizenships.
Due to this, the Kayan did not have access to basic facilities and rights which are extended to citizens of Thailand. As they were considered economic migrants, they were not allowed to access the healthcare or education systems of the nation or allowed to relocate from the ‘Tourist Villages’ that have now become their homes.
A major section of the revenue received by the Kayan comes from the roughly 40,000 tourists that visit their villages each year. A sad reality of the lives of Kayan women is that they have to live in a human zoo of sorts and receive small portions of the profits made off their backs.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has conveyed that he categorically resents the tourists visiting these areas and the fact that the local government has blocked settlement offers made to the Kayan people by developed nations around the world.
In the eyes of many who are well versed with this issue, it is an obvious ploy to maintain the economic value of these areas. A ray of hope came in August 2008 when restrictions were relaxed, due to which a small number of Kayan people resettled in New Zealand.
In September 2008, the remaining members in Thailand were moved to the Karenni Refugee Camp, which is open to tourists as well. The good news though, is that these remaining Kayan are eligible for resettlement, giving them the freedom to choose where they wish to pursue their future.
In more ways than one, the Kayan people have overcome the odds to finally be able to exercise their rights and choose how and where they wish to live their lives. These are rights and liberties that people expect to have but the Kayan have had to struggle for.