2015 Kachin State Day Manau: A Study in Cultural Appropriation

The controversy over featuring the Manau, or traditional communal dancing, in this year’s Kachin State Day celebrations had been brewing ever since the State government announced in August last year that it was bringing back the manau after an absence of 3 war-torn years.

The Kachin public opposed the plan as they felt it was inappropriate to dance the celebratory Manau in the midst of an on-going war, while thousands of IDPs continue to languish in camps in deplorable conditions, with no end in sight for their return home and resumption of normal lives.

Given prevailing conditions, Kachins question the validity of the Kachin State Day manau as it does not fall into any of the major categories of a manau. The “Sut” celebrates wealth and success, with manau-goers enjoying the largesse of a rich sponsor. The “Ninghtan” is danced in preparation for war, and the ”Padang” to celebrate victory in war. The “Kumran” is to bid farewell to friends and family who are leaving for greener pastures, the “Ju” held at the funeral of a chieftain or family patriarch/matriarch, is to say prayers for the health and well-being of the remaining family of the departed, and the “Htingram” or reconciliation manau, aims at healing rifts between clans or family members.

Things came to a head when the State Chief Minister, evidently with prodding from the Central, chose to forge ahead with plans for the State Day Manau, ignoring public opinion, specifically a petition with 10,000 signatures to reconsider the manau issue. The Kachin public was in uproar with calls to boycott the manau. The Kachin Culture and Literature Central Committee, which traditionally heads Manau celebrations, closed its office in the manau grounds in protest.

A new state-backed manau committee was formed, and government officials took over the reins of managing all other aspects of the celebration. This led many to label it a “government sponsored” manau. Many a Kachin lamented: “It is not the kind of Manau that we knew and used to participate with joy”.

When the Manau opened on Jan 5, despite attempts to fill the grounds through coercion and bribes (as high as 10,000 kyats a day for those who came in full costume), there was only a smattering of manau-goers – mostly civil servants and government supporters, greedy Kachin tycoons looking to snag more business concessions, faint-hearted Kachins who fear government reprisals and empty-stomached Kachins who could do with the promised reward.

This was in stark contrast to previous manaus when throngs of Kachins dressed to the nines in colorful tribal costumes filled the grounds to capacity. They would snake around the decorated manau poles in dance, swaying to the beat of gongs and drums, the men brandishing silver swords and the women waving fans or kerchiefs. The dancing and revelry would go on for several days.

The real reason for holding this year’s State Day manau became mightily clear when President Thein Sein made a “surprise” visit to the Manau Compound on Jan 10, accompanied by Minister Soe Thein, Parliament Member U Thein Zaw, the Northern Regional Commander and other high ranking government officials. The President in his State Day speech, made much of “progress” made towards the signing of a nationwide ceasefire accord, ignoring facts on the ground that even as he spoke, Burma Army troops were attacking Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions in Kachin, as well as those of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) in Northern Shan State.

Clearly, the manau had been staged at the insistence of the central government. This left most Kachins with the bitter feeling that the most sacred of their cultural traditions had been usurped, appropriated, by a government dominated by the majority Bama ethnic group, who had shown little understanding or appreciation of Kachin history and culture. An unwilling minority people had once again been made to dance to the tune of a dominant ethnic majority group.

The President, decked out in Kachin costume, was perhaps hoping to use the Manau as an auspicious backdrop to launch his political campaign in this election year. But one cannot help but wonder how he would react if some unknowing person, possibly a foreigner, seeing him in costume asked if he were Kachin. Would he react in the same way as the ethnic Bama girl (one among an all-Bama cast of young women dressed in ethnic minority costumes to welcome delegates to the 25th ASEAN summit in Naypyidaw in November 2014), dressed in a long brass neck coil distinctive to the Kayan Padaung ethnic group, appeared quite miffed at being mistaken for a real Kayan Padaung.