Traditional Clothing of the Ethnic Groups of
Ethnographers classify anywhere from seven to nine ethnic groups (not including ethnic sub groups) in Karenni State. According to Conflict and Displacement in Karenni: The Need for Considered Responses, published in May 2000 by the Burma Ethnic Research Group, "Lehman classifies seven main sub-groups: the Kekhu, the Bre, the Kayah, the Yangtalai, the Geba, the Zayein, and the Paku. Within two of these groups there are further sub-divisions: the Kekhu, which comprise three sub-divisions (the Great Padaung, Lesser Padaung and the Kheku) and the Bre which comprise three sub-divisions (the Northern Bre, Southern Bre, and the Mano)." (Pp. 17 - 18.) Clearly ethnicity in Karenni State is a complex issue, which is made more complex by the current political situation. Despite these complexities and related conflicts, the Karenni have a strong desire to preserve and maintain their various ethnic traditions, celebrations, cultures, and languages.
In the camps, there are four highly visible and distinct groups: Kayah, Karen, Kayan, and Kayaw. The photographs on this page (taken by KITE House student Say Reh) illustrate their traditional clothes past and present. Some of the women in the camps, and inside Karenni State, still wear the older traditional clothes on a daily basis. However, most of the young women in school have traded in the traditional clothes for contemporary Burmese clothes (most often a simple hta mein or sarong and blouse) and only wear their traditional clothes on special occasions. The men often wear the traditional Burmese longyi (or sarong) or western clothes. In part, the traditional clothes can be prohibitively expensive. In addition, wearing traditional clothes makes one easily identified as an ethnic minority and therefore easily persecuted.
However, tourism in Thailand has spurred a revival of some of the traditional practices. Specifically, many of the young Kayan women don a long brass coil that gives them the appearance of having an exceptionally long neck. Inside Karenni State, the tradition is largely dying out, but in Thailand the women continue to wear the rings because of the economic security it offers. Some Kayah and Kayaw women live in villages alongside the Kayan women and also continue to wear their traditional clothes. Tourists pay an entrance fee to see these Kayah, Kayaw, and Kayan women (often referred to as Red Karen, Big Ears, and Long Necks respectively) in their traditional clothes.
In keeping with its aim of cultural preservation, KITE hopes to be able, in the future, to provide a set of traditional clothes for each of the KITE House members, and, eventually, for other members of the larger community.