Myanmar Parliament's Hats Reveal Much About Owners
By Gabrielle Paluch
October 13, 2014
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar -- The non-military members of Myanmar's Parliament must wear hats on the floor, a requirement that creates a window into the many cultures that make up the Southeast Asian country of 50 million. Here's a look at seven members of Parliament and what their headgear says about them:
PARTY: Union Solidarity and Development Party
HEADGEAR: Naga hat with feathers, fur and bear claws
U Myat Ko says his proudest achievement in Parliament is wearing his hat: a cane bowl adorned with wild boar tusks, hornbill feathers, a mountain goat's red mane and the fur and claws of a sun bear. It's about 2 feet tall, more than a century old, and attracts insects.
His ancestors hunted the animals.
"I wouldn't take off my hat no matter how bad the headaches get," Myat Ko says. The mere fact that the hat is in Parliament, representing his ethnic group, is a mark of progress for him.
The Nagas, a collection of at least 66 different tribes inhabiting the mountainous highlands straddling the Myanmar-India border, are known as fearsome, headhunting warriors who until very recently lived in primitive conditions.
The creation of a special self-administered zone for Nagas has brought roads, schools, health care clinics, a professional police force and agricultural and irrigation development projects. The changes, however small and incremental, are overwhelming for a region so undeveloped. Myat Ko says heirloom hats like his were rare even when he was a young man, and now they virtually don't exist anymore.
"Modernity may rob us of our culture. We are no longer hunting. Times change," he says, "but I can't say it's a curse."
HEADGEAR: Gaun baun, fez.
U Shwe Maung is one of three MPs who identify as Rohingya. The number is surprisingly high, given that the government considers nearly all 1.3 million members of the Muslim minority to be illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The contradiction has taught Shwe Maung to blend in and choose his battles.
"People refer to my people as 'Bengali,'" he says. "I know I have to accept this sometimes."
On the floor of Parliament in Naypyitaw, he wears a silk head wrap called the gaun baung that is worn by ethnic Burmans and other members of his ruling USDP party.
But in a cupboard at home in Yangon, the commercial capital, he keeps a soft, brown, tassled fez-like cap, modeled after one worn by a Rohingya who sat in the national legislature of Myanmar's first prime minister. Shwe Maung says he won't be needing it in Parliament.
Myanmar's recent steps toward democracy and freedom have been disastrous for the Rohingya, who have been attacked by Buddhist extremists in northwestern Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live. Up to 280 Rohingya were killed in communal violence in 2012, more than 140,000 Muslims remain in displacement camps and tens of thousands have fled on boats to seek asylum.
Shwe Maung is possibly the most hated man in Parliament. His seat is flanked two ethnic Rakhines deep on either side.
Rohingya were allowed to vote in 2010, but they will not be allowed to vote or join political parties in 2015, except for those few who have managed to become citizens.
For his family's safety's sake, Shwe Maung feels pressure to remain in the public eye and get re-elected. "Maybe," he says, "I will send them to another country beforehand."
PARTY: Arakanese National Party
HEADGEAR: Rakhine Gaun baun
Aye Maung's time in Parliament has been defined by the aftermath of the deadly riots that rocked his constituency, the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, in 2012.
As displaced Rohingya continue to languish in squalid, prison-like camps, the Rakhine Buddhist lawmaker sees no sense in reintegrating communities as they were. He says fear on both sides would make it impossible, and notes that thousands of Buddhists were displaced by the violence as well.
"They made up 'Rohingya,'" says the Arakanese National Party legislator, who on the Parliament floor suggested DNA testing to determine their genetic heritage. "They made up their history."
Aye Maung says "Bengalis" can stay in detention centers or camps, or leave the country.
The perceived infiltration of Muslims from Bangladesh is seen as a threat to Buddhism, and Rakhine see themselves as the originators of Burmese Buddhism. The gaun baung Aye Maung wears in Parliament has its triangular wing on the left instead of the right, a nod to monks' tradition of wearing robes to the left.
Rakhine's problems are not limited to ethnic strife. It is Myanmar's second-least-developed state, with villages lacking electricity and access to health care.
PARTY: Shan Nationalities Democratic Party
HEADGEAR: Cotton and silk hats
U Ye Tun's tumultuous youth was spent fighting in the northeast command of the Burma Communist Party in the 1970s, and in military intelligence. He was 10 years retired from the army and settled in Hsipaw, Shan state, raising broiler chickens, when he decided to run for Parliament.
As an MP, he proudly dons two Shan hats, one cotton, the other of fine silk, saved for days he plans to ask a question on the legislature floor. But the native of central Myanmar says he is linked to the ethnic minority by marriage, not birth. "I must admit I'm not a Shan," he says. He fought alongside Shan armies, and his father-in-law is a Shan general.
Ye Tun's errant Shan pride is a reminder of how ethnic identities in Myanmar are often chosen allegiances, fine lines that are complicated to draw. His politics reflect this fact: Last parliamentary session, he fiercely opposed a proportional representation bill that would have significantly marginalized ethnic parties in elections.
"They don't see a genuine federal state guaranteeing equal rights and self-determination as the right solution," he says. "I don't like having the military in Parliament, but we don't have a choice."
J YAW WU
PARTY: National Unity Party
HEADGEAR: White cushioned hat
Caught in the 1988 uprising at Yangon University, J Yaw Wu entered the Catholic priesthood. He left it in 2004 because he knew he could not keep his celibacy vows. The transition from priest to politician, he says, was natural.
"I was father to 7,000 congregants. Now, instead, I am father to 200,000 constituents."
His white velvet, cushioned hat feels like an earmuff, intended for the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan foothills in his native town Putao, in Kachin state. It is out of place under Napyidaw's broiling sun.
The Lisu, his ethnic Kachin subgroup, are proud warriors descended from Tibetans, so J Yaw Wu also wears a 300-year-old piece of armor in Parliament: a huge leather-and-ivory belt.
He describes his role as protector of his people against Chinese investment and the Burma Army, who have displaced tens of thousands since a 16-year ceasefire in his state lapsed in 2011.
"I am for my people only. My people are dying left and right. How can I remain here, helpless?"
Some of his military counterparts in Parliament were deployed in Kachin state during the last parliamentary break.
"What can we do? We have to sit next to those who bully us," he says. "But Parliament should be the place where we make checks and balances on the government and military, and not the other way around."
MAJ. SOE MOE
PARTY: None, like other military in Parliament
HEADGEAR: None in Parliament
Maj. Soe Moe was among the members of Parliament deployed to Kachin, where he was second-in-command for a mopping-up operation. He wore what he calls his "jungle cap," one of five different hats soldiers choose from. When soldier serve in Parliament, however, they go bare-headed.
All military MPs are required to be on active duty, and Soe Moe has been to combat zones all along the rugged border.
He hopes to retire as a brigadier general by 2020, then devote himself full-time to politics. His goal is the premiership of his home state, Rakhine.
Soe Moe has a warm, chubby-cheeked smile and speaks rudimentary English with enthusiasm. He sees no irony in the military's role in an ostensibly civilian, democratic legislature. The army's duty, he says, in Parliament and the battlefield, "is non-disintegration of the union."
He says soldiers want peace more than anybody — a fraught sentiment for ethnic leaders in Parliament — and that the army is becoming more professional and politically savvy.
Opening up to the West, he says, will allow Myanmar to keep up with superpower neighbors India and China while digging out from under China's heavy influence and protecting its resource-rich borderlands. A successful ceasefire is a crucial step.
"Maybe then, when there is no threat of instability, we will leave Parliament."
SAW THEIN AUNG
PARTY: Phlaon Sa Paw Democratic Party
HEADGEAR: Scarf wrap
Saw Thein Aung has a number of different woven scarves he wraps around his head like a ninja when sitting in Parliament. His favorite bears the image of an anaconda.
His childhood in Karen state was war-stricken: Two armies terrorized his family. They had to flee their village near Hpa-An when ethnic rebels threatened to kill his father for helping Myanmar troops, who had demanded food and shelter at gunpoint.
In his 66 years, he has never known his home state to be at peace. It is the world's longest running civil war. In the last six decades, thousands of people have been killed and tens of thousands forced to flee across the border to Thailand.
When the 2010 elections were announced, Saw Thein Aung jumped at the chance to participate. He went from schoolteacher to party founder and presidential candidate in just over a month.
"My people have suffered the spoils of war for too long. It is time for peace," Saw Thein Aung says, wistfully. "Our land is destroyed, we have nothing — no livelihoods, no shelter, no infrastructure." He knows it will be a long time before refugees can return.