(Image from Asia Sentinel.)

One of the key themes of social science research and activist commentary in mainland southeast Asia is the relationship between tradition and modernity. For many commentators traditional culture provides local people with a symbolic and institutional framework to resist the disruptive intrusions of rationalising bureaucracy and rampant commercialisation.

But it is important to remember that “traditions” are not necessarily empowering or benign. It all depends on the context. This was nicely highlighted in two recent articles on the so-called long-neck Karen (Padaung) of the Thai-Burma borderlands. Earlier this month (May 2 – unfortunately I cannot locate an internet version) the Canberra Times ran a feature article on intergenerational tensions among Padaung women in Thailand:

Muko feels sweat trickling down her neck even as she sits under the shade of a wooden hut on a sweltering afternoon. “This is so uncomfortable. I cannot wipe off the sweat because of this,” the 15-year-old girl says, sulkily, pointing at the 15 brass rings, weighing 3kg, that adorn her neck. “I want to remove my rings because they are heavy and give me neck pain.”

For older women…girls like Muko…are a disgrace to the Karen tradition. “More and more girls are removing their rings,” the petite woman who proudly shows off her 25 brass rings says. “They don’t appreciate our culture which has been passed down through generations. I’m worried our Karen tradition will disappear.”

Another article on the Padaung also appeared recently on Asia Sentinel. This article very effectively documents the limited options faced by women who are marginalised by multiple economic and political forces. Here is an extract:

Two years ago an 18-year old Karen girl named Zember, living in a refugee village within sight of the Thai-Burma border, staged her own little personal revolution. She removed the rings she had been adding around her neck each year since she was seven or eight years old, the age the girls take the first ones that ultimately turn them into human giraffes.

The Padaung Karen, or long-neck Karen, so-called because of the multiple rings that elongate their necks by deforming their collarbones and pushing their shoulders down, have been described for decades as one of the closest things in Asia to a human zoo. But their condition points up just how much of a zoo it is. They have found dubious refuge in artificial tourist villages where visitors, both Thai and foreign, pay a heavy entrance fee to gawk at them.

Of course the case of some young women seeking to unshackle themselves from one specific cultural practice does not discredit the claim that that tradition can have many positive and empowering components. But it is a good case study that demonstrates that “culture” and “tradition” are things that local people argue about – they impact on people differently, and the costs and benefits are unevenly distributed. What one person sees as the destruction of a unique culture, another person may see as a liberating proliferation of opportunity.

When symbols of traditional culture are used in campaigns to help empower marginalised groups it is important to keep in mind that these symbols are likely to have a very complex local politics.