Indigenous Calendar May, 2014: A Wa World within a World

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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I'd entered Burma (Myanmar) for the first time early in 2005. Back then it was a very different country from the Burma that we often hear about in the news today. It was a political dictatorship and a brutal police state. Foreign visitors were welcomed by the Burmese people but were 'welcomed' by the government only because of the hard foreign currency they brought with them. They were sometimes even regarded with borderline-paranoiac suspicion by the authorities. Indeed Burma was a classic "failed nation state."

But Burma is changing rapidly. Only a year ago the European Union lifted all remaining economic and travel sanctions because of Burma's reforms over the previous three years. Yet around the same time alarming new video footage was released showing the latest in a recent series of religious- and ethnic-based tit-for-tat clashes between different sections of Burmese society. The local police watched and did nothing to stop it.

The history and culture of Burma — going far back beyond British colonial rule — is rich and fascinating. An especially interesting part of that history is the migration of indigenous peoples such as the Wa.

One of the first indigenous villages I visited in 2005 was a Wa village. Isolated and largely self-sufficient, this village could have been in a different country — almost on a different planet! There was no electricity; nobody in the village knew what the Internet was or what cell phones were. There was an historical time when "Wa State" was a "state within a state" but in 2005 this village truly was a "world within a world."

Back then, in the world I come from, the Internet and cell phones were permeating popular culture to the point of saturation. This young Wa girl was instead playing alongside a few other village children using a technology that was relatively new to them — an elastic band! They were fascinated by the trajectory they could achieve and the distance to which they could launch homemade darts as two of their peers stretched the elastic closer and closer to snapping point.

Perhaps this girl will one day write about her childhood elastic band experience on social media. Or perhaps she will be the engineer who designs Burma's first rocket launched into space.

The Wa are featured in our documentary, Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia.

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