Quills, coins and dragons: Myanmar’s tribal fashions


An Akha ethnic girl wearing traditional dress performs during the ceremony to mark 67th anniversary of Shan National Day celebration in Yangon, Myanmar, 07 February 2014. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

From porcupine quills and fruit, to silver coins and beads, the ethnic costumes on parade in Myanmar's capital this week showed off the country's diversity and added sartorial splendour to the cold detail of talks to end decades of rebellion.

Bedecked in an elaborate headdress of feathers, quills and shell-studded tassels, Aye Aye Mu said her traditional outfit carried a hard political message to Naypyidaw.

"I am wearing (this costume) because I want to show how many different ethnicities there are in this country," the ethnic Chin lawmaker in the state's lower house explained. 

"Porcupines have quills as a kind of weapon to protect themselves -- in the same way, our people use it as a symbol to protect our rights," she added. 

"We used to wear this costume on victory day and for other traditional events." 

She was among the hundreds of delegates from Myanmar's border states kitted out in ancestral dress who gathered for talks aimed at ending nearly 70 years of bloody conflict with the central authorities.

Minority lawmakers already wear traditional headwear in parliament, but for many the full outfits were a statement of cultural distinction to the ethnic Bamar majority who have dominated Myanmar's politics for decades.

As the seat of power, Naypyidaw, the junta's "Abode of Kings" as its name translates, has come to represent the callous disregard for the country's ethnic people.

The highly symbolic talks, which end on Saturday, are an attempt by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to set the framework for a binding nationwide peace deal.

But no resolution is expected this week -- experts predict a years-long tussle complicated by ownership issues over land and resources as well as disarmament of rebel groups and political autonomy.

Some groups have already agreed ceasefires, but conflict rumbles on in several border areas that have displaced tens of thousands.

The meeting was marred by ongoing skirmishes in Shan and Kachin states and a walkout Thursday by representatives of the Wa -- a heavily armed militia who live in an area bordering China accused of large-scale drug production.

Despite the hurdles, a glance around the assembly hall gave a glimpse into the kaleidoscope of cultures in Myanmar.

An Akha delegate, of eastern Shan state, wore a headdress covered with Indian rupee coins, a heavy silver chain dangling below her chin and a brightly-coloured woven bag -- worth up to $10,000.

"It is really difficult to maintain as it's very expensive. However, I am wearing it here because it is so valuable to our people," Natalina, whose ethnic group do not carry a surname, told AFP.

Nam Kham Wah of the PaO, one of Myanmar's largest ethnic groups, said her elaborate turban and the dragon insignia on her shirt told the story of her people.

"Our turban is part of our folklore," she said. "We believe our first father was a powerful saint and the mother, a dragon, so our turban is like a dragon head."

© AFP

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