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Festival Helps Preserve Tribe's Identity

May 04, 2003|Wasbir Hussain | Associated Press Writer

LEKHAPANI, India — For two weeks, Khaong Imphum hiked and hitched rides through the mountains of Myanmar and into India to reach this small town.

"I'm very excited," said Khaong, 20, as she took a break from the dancing and drumming of the festival that brought her. "It feels really nice to be with my own people in a different country."

Every year in the mountains of eastern India, members of the ethnic group known as the Singpho in India and Kachin in neighboring Myanmar gather to celebrate the Shapawng Yawng Manau Poi -- a festival that honors their ancestors, but also is increasingly a rallying point for their cultural identity.

The Singpho in India, who number about 15,000 and are concentrated here in the northeastern state of Assam and neighboring Arunachal Pradesh, are just one small outpost of far larger Kachin communities in Myanmar and China.

They fear for their future in India, worried that they will be swallowed by the larger ethnic groups, particularly the Assamese, that dominate the area.

They speak the Kachin language in a region where Assamese is commonly used. They are Buddhists among larger populations of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Their clothing -- men and women often wear pants formed by cloth they wrap around themselves -- differs from the Western garb typically seen.

"Our identity is at stake," said Gauri Gam Singen, a teacher from Ouguri, one of 27 Singpho villages in Assam. "We fear we could get lost due to assimilation with the rest of the communities in the area."

Although India's northeast is riven by often-violent ethnic separatism, the Singphos, who sometimes refer to themselves as Kachin, are proud of their citizenship.

"We are Indians first, then Kachins. We want to live in India, but with our culture and identity intact," said Rajesh Singpho, a young community leader.

The issue of cultural protection is largely focused on language and marriage. Community leaders are urging the state government to switch to the Kachin language at primary schools with Singpho children and are encouraging Singphos to marry within the tribe.

Although the task is daunting, they have not lost hope.

Innaw Ladgam, a college student from Arunachal Pradesh, said the festival was one way to keep the culture alive. "We get to meet our kinfolk from far and near that help us stay united."

About 2,000 Kachins -- most of them Singphos from India -- came to the two-day gathering to celebrate their heritage under a huge covering of bamboo poles and palm leaves.

The festival was held along Stilwell Road, which crosses the India-Myanmar border to the Kachin heartland in Myanmar. The road, built by U.S. forces in World War II and named for American Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, stretches on to the Chinese city of Kunming, another Kachin stronghold some 1,020 miles from here.

The road's border crossing was closed after India's independence from British rule in 1947, but community leaders and state officials want it reopened. The nearest border post between India and Myanmar is hundreds of miles away, making legal travel nearly impossible between the Kachin and Singpho areas. The national governments have discussed the idea, but no decision has been reached.

"We can no longer afford to have walls around us," said Pradyut Bordoloi, who is Assam's forest minister and a member of the State Assembly.

The Singphos, who are believed to have crossed into Assam in the 18th century, think of themselves as an international community.

"Our people are spread over India, Myanmar and China. Our land was

Even today, borders barely exist for many. Soldiers may guard passes in the cloud-capped Patkai mountains that separate India and Myanmar, but villagers can easily cross on innumerable footpaths.

At the festival, turbaned boys and girls performed the Thongka Manou, the main folk dance of the Singphos, while organizers were busy arranging a meal of buffalo meat and steamed rice wrapped in banana leaves.

Then, the meal over, the Singphos danced into the night.

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