307th Meeting – Tuesday, November 18th 2008
the Lua and
Wa: The State of Knowledge of a Barely Known Group
A talk and presentation by Ronald D. Renard
Present: Bob Vryheid, Guy Cardinal, Ken Dyer, Derrick Titmus, Linda Rochester, Angela Srisomwongwathand, Woralun Boonyasurat, Fran Decoster, Bill Feetham, Bob & Carol Stratton, Ralph Kramer, Carol Beauclerk, Armin Schoch, Alex Brodard, Boong Chaladlam, Patarasri Jnkhao, Suriya Smutkupt, Anchalee Singhanetra-Renard, Pakanath Thadnik, Judy & Dale Harcourt, Donald Hodel, Bodil Blokker, Dorothy Engelmann, Dianne & Mark Barber-Riley, Thomas Ohlson, Hans & Saengdao Bänziger, Victoria Voniter, Ken & Orntip Kampe, John Butt, Jakatae Jayo, Carina zur Strassen, Janet Illeni, David Steane, Mike & Kay Calavan, David James, a Thai person, John Wickenden. An audience of 43.
Knowing the Lua and Wa
The prominent French
anthropologist, Georges Condominas, once said that the Lua were
“the key” to
understanding Lan Na. However, their culture and that of the Lua and
groups, such as the Wa in
As it is, much about the Wa is known imperfectly or based on stereotyped descriptions. For example, a Time Magazine article on the Wa referred to them as a “narco-army”, as if the entire people were enlisted to grow and sell drugs. While there is, to be sure, an illicit drug trade involving some Wa, the vast majority of the people are farmers more interested in their own day-to-day welfare than in marketing narcotic substances.
million people known as Wa and Lua.
Linguists classify both of these groups, along with other known
Bulang (aka Tai Loi) as “Waic” and part of the Northern
languages. This branch also includes
Khmu (mostly in
In Chiang Mai
evidence of their
settlement is found in the name of Doi Suthep—Suthep was,
according to local
oral tradition written down in about the fourteenth century, a holy man
on the mountain. According to these
legends, he was the son of Pu Sae and Ya Sae.
They all converted to Buddhism but while the son could
the Middle Path his parents felt the need to eat meat once a year. To meet this need, the Lua, along with the
prince of Chiang Mai, conducted a buffalo sacrifice once annually. But the son became a holy man and was the one
who the legend says invited the Mon queen, Cham Thewi to come rule the
When the Thai (Tai)
moved into the
region about 700-800 (or more) years ago, they gained political
the Lua and the Mon. Many Lua and other
related groups came to be known as Kha, a term that some linguists say
derived from Khmer. Just as the Thai took over much of the old
These Wa and Lua and
Mon-Khmer peoples were part of a linguistically-related population that
most of Mainland Southeast Asia. There
are groups in
Within these peoples
cultural extremes, from some very rural people in the Wa Region to
sophisticated urban folk in
Another group related
to the Wa
are the Bulang who prefer to be known in
In the Wa Region, an area recognized after a ceasefire agreement with the then Secretary 1, General Khin Nyunt, in 1989, there are Wa Buddhists who are quite similar to the Tai Loi. They have books in Shan (but sometimes now in Wa as well) temples, and monks. According to Wa leaders, the population is roughly one-third animist, one-third Buddhist, and one-third Christian.
All this points to a
diverse group of peoples in a remote area.
In fact, there is much to be learned about all the Mon-Khmer
most of whom (not counting the Vietnamese) who live in out of the way
hard to access and speaking languages few others understand. The only country in the region run by a
Mon-Khmer group that accepts this heritage is
Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from these small Mon-Khmer groups. Take for example the Wa Region (aka Shan State Special Region 2). This is the largest area under control of a Mon-Khmer group still remaining. However, it is in danger of losing touch with its culture, something that might jeopardize its political autonomy.
After Wa leaders fighting alongside the Communist Party of Burma for about two decades took over the area from the Chinese leaders in 1989, they made their agreement with Khin Nyunt by which they promised to stay within the Union of Myanmar forever in exchange for a pledge that they would then enjoy considerable autonomy over their own land. Since they also retained about 20,000 troops in their army, they have been better able to protect this autonomy than their lesser-armed neighbors to the north (Kokang) and to the east (Special Region 4) who had also been on the side of the CPB and then made their own ceasefire deals with Khin Nyunt.
The Wa Region in
Among the Wa there is a great deal of local variation. The dialects have never been studied but a Mon-Khmer linguist estimated there are several dozen dialects in the Wa Region alone (to say nothing of Bulang/Tai Loi and other speakers of other dialects). Besides this diversity holding a store of traditional lore, it also poses obstacles to collecting that information. Many Wa villagers distrust strangers, including those, even Wa, speaking different dialects. For the UNODC Wa Project this impeded learning about such things as rice production since villagers would tend to under-report their harvest figures. There could be other obstacles related to a lack of standardized measurements in the Wa Region. For example, one local measurement of rice was a bamboo joint, the volume of which almost always varied. Similarly, in another measurement of volume derived from cooking oil tins, a pong of unhusked rice roughly equaled 23 pounds while a pong of corn was 27 pounds.
This diversity also makes it difficult to provide education in the Wa language. The Wa use a Roman alphabet invented by an American Baptist missionary, Vincent Young, along with various Wa in the 1930s. One of those was Sara Yaw Shu (Joshua) who is still living and working in the Wa church in Lashio at the age of 96 (or so). Problems arise when Wa of different dialects pronounce the same words differently (and thus interpret them as having different meanings for the same spellings).
Diversity can also be seen in the dress of Wa women. In a non-scientific undertaking at a five-day market in early 2006, photographs were taken of all the different types of dress seen. Ten different types of dress were seen, almost all of which could be associated with the people of certain specific village tracts. However, no such survey could be carried out beyond this or followed up in any systematic way.
Most of these peoples
traditional varieties of upland rice in their swidden fields. Until
almost all those in the hills grew opium. Before
then it was possible to see quite
openly fields of poppy as well as opium being sold in the markets with
The people of the area also consumed tea. Although many drink it, they also eat it which was the traditional way of using tea. This can be shown in the terms used for the substance. These include miang and la, both of which are Mon-Khmer terms (unlike tea or cha which are Chinese). In Kengtung tea to drink is called nam la. La is the Palaungic word for leaf. The “le” of the Burmese word for tea, lepet, is derived from this.
There are still tea trees in the Wa Region, some over a meter in diameter. They are of species related to common tea, indicating the likelihood that this species could well have originated in this region. The connection between Mon-Khmer and tea extends to the Chiang Mai area where there are so-called Pa Miang (Miang Jungles) where tea was found growing wild in the hills. These were harvested by lowland Thai who migrated seasonally into the hills. Interviews with the people who lived in the villages in the 1970s revealed distant connections with the Lua making it likely that in centuries past, Lua had cultivated tea in the Chiang Mai area.
This diverse cultural richness is beginning to disappear. Many factors, some of which are listed below, cause this.
The Wa Region until recently was quite remote, requiring several days of travel to reach the main cities and more to the more secluded villages in the hills. Now there are all-weather roads enabling one to travel from Kengtung or Lashio to the main cities in a single day (with a good vehicle).
The remoteness is not
physical. Because of a history of headhunting, the reputation of the Wa
maybe their sometimes warlike attitudes and actions) kept outside
venturing into their area. Unlike almost
all the other groups of
constraint is the
fact that the Wa Region remains a restricted zone.
Tourists or other travelers cannot go
there. The only visitors officially
allowed are those working with development agencies (such as UN
as UNODC and the World Food Programme and NGOs such as German
Malteser, and CARE International) who then receive travel authorization
the Myanmar Ministry of Defense. At any
given time there are less than ten development workers in the area.
Chinese travelers and officials can visit the region much more easily
the several bilateral crossing points between the Wa Region and
The reputation of the Wa as headhunters or drug dealers creates certain expectations among those people who have written about the Wa. Because journalists and others who write about the Wa have little firsthand evidence of what life among the Wa is like, they often fall back on stereotypes which are of course far from accurate. Headhunting ended in the Wa Region in the 1970s under pressure from the CPB.
• Priorities of Wa Leaders
The Wa leaders grew
up in remote
areas and generally lack formal education or experience in other
When UNODC entered the region and began promoting bottom-up, participatory development to make use of indigenous knowledge, it largely fell on deaf ears. For large periods of the first few years, the UNODC Wa Project was unable to work in villages because of Wa priorities and the distrust (or confusion) some Wa leaders had over what UNODC wanted to do (and sometimes this was the fault of UNODC for not explaining its objectives clearly and carefully at all levels).
This situation is complicated because Wa leaders have not thought through their educational policy with the result that the educational sector in the Wa Region remains underfunded. Although they recognize four official languages (Wa, Burmese, Chinese, and English) there are obstacles to teaching in each. The dialectical diversity of Wa and the severe lack of reading material in Wa makes it impractical to use Wa as a teaching medium. Furthermore, none of the top Wa leaders can read Wa. As for Burmese, many Wa remember decades of fighting against the Burmese and are unwilling to learn it. While there are some Burmese language schools in the cities there are almost none in the villages. There are quite a few Chinese schools but the Government of the Union of Myanmar objects strongly to having Chinese become a teaching medium in border areas (although they told UNODC project staff that teaching in local languages such as Lahu or Shan would be tolerated). And for English, nobody knows it and there are no teachers who could provide instruction in it.
One example of large
favored by Wa leaders is the cultivation of rubber.
Hundreds of thousands of hectares of lowland
and sloping land at elevations below 1,000 meters have been converted
rubber cultivation. Chinese
entrepreneurs have made deals with Wa leaders to grow rubber to feed
growing market for rubber in
In its own way the
project contributed to this. As a
response to the elimination of opium poppy cultivation in 2005 (99%
the project promoted increased food crop production, especially lowland
This was also encouraged in order to protect prime land from rubber
entrepreneurs. After project leaders
observed that the Wa leaders were reluctant to seize paddy land from
villagers, they promoted the development of small to medium irrigation
and land development projects. In order
to increase rice yields, open pollinated rice varieties were introduced
• Environmental Degradation
Not the least of the
threats to Wa
culture is commercial logging that was carried on at a massive scale
when the Chinese banned imports.
However, Wa leaders have not banned the export of other raw
forest produce such as fragrant bark, orchid species, and other items
pharmaceutical preparations. Throughout
the region at markets and along the roads one can see piles of produce
bought (at very low prices) by Chinese merchants for export to
• Extreme Linguistic Diversity of the Wa
As discussed above this diversity makes providing an education in the Wa language a challenge. Although some efforts have been made by the Wa Army (which has an interest in soldiers understanding commands clearly) and the Wa Christian church (through the so-called “Bible Wa”) to develop a Wa-based lingua franca, these efforts have not reached the bulk of the Wa population.
• Distrust of Outsiders by Wa Villagers
As also noted earlier, this distrust precludes collecting information. Additionally, the Wa Authority, particularly some officials in the northern town of Mong Mau, viewed by the Wa as the center and protector of Wa culture, have placed their own restrictions on travel by development workers. This is particularly the case for those perceived as ethnic Burmese who may in fact be Karen or other groups unfamiliar to the Wa. Fearful of spies from the rest of the country, Wa leaders are vigilant against persons coming into their area to collect data. This suspicion contributed about two years ago to the withdrawal of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) from working in the Wa Region. Sometimes Mong Mau authorities issued their own travel authorization that made it difficult even to visit a village under their control or where UNODC (or other agencies) had already initiated work.
• Priorities of Development Agencies in the Region
Development agencies are focused on development. Many such agencies and people working for them, and believing in the universal applicability of their inputs, consider cultural information superfluous to their task of providing water, increased agricultural yields, or other inputs to the “target population.” Obviously, in such agencies, and working to achieve the mandate for which they are in the Wa Region will not contribute to the collection of cultural information except in some indirect or non-essential way.
• Wa Leaders’ Disinterest in Wa Culture
themselves, as shown by
their ignorance of the Wa written script, often see the Wa as a
people, far inferior to groups they perceive as civilized, such as the
Chinese. Into this vacuum, Chinese
culture from just across the border is entering the Wa Region, first
the larger towns. Chinese phones, Chinese
Internet access, Chinese money, and other Chinese goods are becoming
dominant. Chinese forms of
entertainment, such as karaoke lounges and Chinese-style gambling are
growing popular. This is also affecting traditional Wa dance and song.
a Wa dance troupe was sent to
The result of all these obstacles is that Wa culture (in all its diversity and variations) is declining. While it is not too late to promote it, all the indicators mitigate against the survival of many aspects of Wa culture. Not only will this make it more difficult to study the overall culture of the Greater Mekong Region but it will also make it more difficult to develop the Wa Region. The indigenous knowledge that could well be used to enhance and add value to efforts by development agencies (UN, Wa Authority, national, and international) seems to be disappearing little by little with no regrets by any of the involved parties.