STAY­ING CON­NECTED - Lisu use dig­i­tal me­dia to keep in touch and pre­serve cul­ture

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Michele Zack

Over the last three decades, the Lisu of Myan­mar, Thai­land and China have wit­nessed sig­nif­i­cant changes to their lives, not least in how they com­mu­ni­cate. In the fol­low­ing story, award-win­ning writer and his­to­rian Michele Zack looks at how the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia are rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the way the hill tribe com­mu­ni­cates and en­ables them to hang on to their cul­ture.

In the mid-1980s, I was a bud­get tourist on a hill tribe trek far from roads or elec­tric­ity in North­ern Thai­land. There, I first en­coun­tered the Lisu—adapt­able, egal­i­tar­ian high­landers scat­tered in cor­ners of China, Myan­mar, and Thai­land (tiny pop­u­la­tions also live in In­dia and Laos). I picked up with the group again in the 1990s when—by then based in Thai­land—I wrote a pop­u­lar ethnog­ra­phy of Lisu liv­ing in three na­tion-states with three dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal sys­tems. That book never saw print, but a new pub­lisher 15 years later agreed to take up the pro­ject when still no book about Lisu had been pub­lished. I pro­posed to up­date the orig­i­nal work with a new lon­gi­tu­di­nal an­gle. Thirty years af­ter first meeting mem­bers of the Lisu com­mu­nity, I have fi­nally pub­lished The Lisu: Far from the Ruler (Univer­sity Press of Colorado, 2017).

Shar­ing a spo­ken lan­guage but not a widely-adopted writ­ing sys­tem (Fraser’s “mis­sion­ary script”), liv­ing in re­mote moun­tain­ous ar­eas, and with low lit­er­acy rates in the lan­guages of the coun­tries whose fringes they in­hab­ited, back in the 1980s and ‘90s there was no way peri­patetic Lisu farm­ers could con­nect with other Lisu they knew to be “out there.” The co­he­sive­ness and dom­i­nance of their cul­ture (who­ever mar­ries a Lisu gen­er­ally be­comes a Lisu) has al­ways been mys­te­ri­ous, since there are only 1.5 mil­lion of them and they are so spread out.

“We Lisu are ev­ery­where in the world, we are not afraid to go to an­other man’s coun­try.”

One very old man, Eli­gah, dwelling in a rus­tic home by the bank of the Ir­rawaddy across from My­itky­ina as­serted to me with sur­pris­ing pas­sion: “We Lisu are ev­ery­where in the world, we are not afraid to go to an­other man’s coun­try.”

He was vague on par­tic­u­lars, but other Lisu kept telling me the same thing. Those in North­ern Thai­land at the end of their main mi­gra­tion trail knew their fore­bears had come from China or Burma, but were not actu-

ally in touch with rel­a­tives liv­ing more than a few hill­tops away, or per­haps a daugh­ter or son in Chi­ang Mai.

That lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with rel­a­tives was an ex­pe­ri­ence I shared back in the mid-1990s, liv­ing in Thai­land, where the postal sys­tem was not re­li­able and a de­cent phone chat (15 min­utes) to Cal­i­for­nia cost $65. With the ad­vent of email, I knew the vast com­mu­ni­ca­tions gulf I’d been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing with friends and fam­ily back home was about to rad­i­cally shrink. Joy!

When I re­turned to this pro­ject af­ter nearly two decades away, the tech­no­log­i­cal land­scape had changed com­pletely, for both the Lisu and me. How, I won­dered, could I char­ac­ter­ize qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ences in the im­pacts of the new world econ­omy on the Lisu, as op­posed to peo­ple who were al­ready “mod­ern”—along with the cul­tural adap­ta­tions Lisu made to sur­vive within each of their dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal sys­tems and na­tional cul­tures? A met­ric of the psy­chic dis­tance trav­elled by the Lisu be­tween the 1990s and to­day is im­pos­si­ble to cal­cu­late be­cause this group has un­der­gone con­vul­sive change at the same time they emerged from state­less­ness into the global econ­omy—all within a gen­er­a­tion or two. Yet, even in their new clothes, many now tot­ing cell phones, they re­main dis­tinctly Lisu, in coun­tries whose tra­jec­to­ries and mi­nor­ity poli­cies are dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent. There are so many loose ends and an­gles to pon­der, so I be­gan col­lect­ing ev­i­dence, leav­ing the­o­ries to oth­ers.

A first hint of the Lisu’s new dig­i­tal lives came to me in Chi­ang Mai in 2014 as I be­gan the up­date. Eth­no­musi-

col­o­gist Vic­to­ria Vor­re­iter men­tioned that Lisu had taken to singing tra­di­tional court­ing songs via cell phones to cir­cum­vent the pry­ing eyes and ears of go-be­tweens. Lisu are prodi­gious singers — she had re­cently lis­tened in as a woman sang her heart out into a flip phone for 30 min­utes stand­ing on a bridge over the Mai Ping River. Vor­re­iter found the scene “so mov­ing . . . and aw­fully in­ter­est­ing.” A mis­sion­ary who found this adap­ta­tion trou­bling filled in more de­tails: men were known to be calling girls and women (some­times mar­ried ones) anony­mously and singing to them.

The Lisu, with their strong oral tra­di­tions and un­til-re­cent state­less con­di­tion, had be­gun play­ing catch-up in the ed­u­ca­tion and lit­er­acy sys­tems of their re­spec­tive new na­tion-states—es­pe­cially in the dig­i­tal realm—while re­main­ing Lisu. Like ev­ery­one else, the Lisu are be­ing put to new tests that re­quire dif­fer­ent skills from those that kept them alive in the past. Their need to catch up in or­der to sur­vive is not com­pletely un­like fac­tory work­ers los­ing jobs to ro­bots, tech-sup­port op­er­a­tors los­ing to coun­ter­parts in coun­tries with cheaper la­bor, or London cab­bies los­ing out to Uber driv­ers (who will them­selves be re­placed by driver­less cars). The process is re­lent­less and cruel, but the Lisu have re­sponded in ag­ile and re­source­ful ways.

On the dig­i­tal front, es­pe­cially through so­cial me­dia, they are fig­ur­ing out how to con­nect with each other to strengthen their cul­ture’s odds of sur­vival. Look­ing at the con­tent of their so­cial me­dia posts, one is struck by how much of it is di­rected at af­firm­ing their “Lisuness.” Such af­fir­ma­tion must be es­sen­tial for any tiny mi­nor­ity not want­ing not to be swal­lowed up by the ma­jor­ity cul­ture.

I dis­cov­ered Lisu at­ten­tive­ness to this mat­ter when in De­cem­ber, 2017, my book, The Lisu, was re­leased. Within the first day, from three ini­tial Lisu “friends” on Face­book, the num­ber jumped to 20, and six weeks later is clos­ing in on 200. None are from China, which blocks Face­book, and most are from Myan­mar, where the transna­tional Lisu Unity move­ment is strong­est, and Lisu cul­tural com­mit­tees and cen­ters have been pop­ping up in ev­ery Lisu pop­u­la­tion cen­ter. (The high­est per­cent­age of Lisu lit­er­ate in their own lan­guage live in Myan­mar be­cause of the mis­sion­ary pres­ence there un­til 1965 when Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies, along with other for­eign con­sul­tants and ad­vi­sors, were kicked out.) Lisu liv­ing in Thai­land, In­dia, Switzer­land, and the United States have con­tacted me — in­clud­ing one from Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, only 40 miles from where I live — want­ing to know about the book. Their English mastery varies and my Lisu is worse, but they are in­ter­ested, es­pe­cially about Lisu liv­ing in other coun­tries.

Lisu in China have their own net­works and mul­ti­ple ways to con­nect. Chi­nese so­cial me­dia such as WeChat and QQ in­clude the same video and au­dio func­tion­al­i­ties as Face­book. Work­ing with an in­ter­na­tional group, at least one Lisu leader in Thai­land is able to get around both cen­sors and dif­fer­ences in writ­ing sys­tems by post­ing videos in the Lisu lan­guage on these plat­forms, in var­i­ous di­alects, to help reach the largest na­tional pop­u­la­tion of Lisu of all, around 700,000. Mostly New Year’s greet­ings, Lisu dances and other cul­tural con­tent is trans­mit­ted in this way, but also im­por­tant an­nounce­ments ad­vanc­ing the cross-bor­der Lisu Unity Move­ment, such as an up­com­ing Lisu In­ter­na­tional meeting in Thai­land later this month.

I learned about the third such meeting (the first was in 2015), sched­uled for Fe­bru­ary 23-25, 2018 in North­ern Thai­land, fol­low­ing Lisu New Year Cel­e­bra­tions, via Face­book. The “In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Lisu Cul­tural In­her­i­tance and Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment” will be held at Sri Dong Yen Vil­lage, Ban Chang Sub-District, Mae Taeng District, about 40 kilo­me­ters north of Chi­ang Mai. Thou­sands are ex­pected from Thai­land, Myan­mar, China, In­dia, and the United States. They’ll at­tend ses­sions on Lisu lan­guage learn­ing and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, Lisu aca­demic find­ings, ap­pro­pri­ate tourism, and net­work build­ing, among other top­ics.

In the past ten years, ev­ery Lisu seems to have be­come at least tan­gen­tially con­nected to ev­ery other in the world via so­cial net­works, and they all know about “the meeting.” Older peo­ple know about it through younger ones, and ru­ral Lisu through ur­ban cousins—at least within my sam­ple of Face­book friends. Most can’t af­ford to come, but each knows some­one who knows some­one who will be there.

It will be great to meet up with a few of my new Lisu Face­book friends there; one in­vited me back to his vil­lage on the far side of the Ir­rawaddy. I’d like to go and see if I can find Eli­gah, if he’s not dead by now, to tell him that he was right—Lisu are ev­ery­where in the world.

Michele Zack is au­thor of “The Lisu: Far from the Ruler,” the first-ever book about the Lisu, pub­lished by the Univer­sity Press of Colorado.

To ob­tain a copy of the book, please check - https://up­col­orado. com/univer­sity-press-of-colorado/ item/3252-the-lisu

So­lar pan­els on sale in Pu­tao in Myan­mar. Photo: Michele Zack

Mayura Sin­lee Sea­grave, right, runs US-based in­ter­na­tional busi­ness from Chi­ang Mai with her Burmese-Amer­i­can hus­band, Sean Sea­grave. Photo: Sean Sea­grave

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