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The Vanishing Tribes of Burma
The Vanishing Tribes of Burma
by Richard K. Diran
reviewed by Derek Brooke-Wavell
The Vanishing Tribes of Burma is three books in one: a coffee-table tour de force; a clear record of the distinctive dress of 32 of Burma's peoples; and a rather more scholarly look at Burmese ethnic groups. 
A Tibeto-Burma people, the Lisu believe they are the only humans to have survived the great flood, and claim eastern Tibet as their original homeland. They are spread across mountains in the area, in western Yunnan and in scattered communities in both the Kachin and Shan States down to the Thai border, where many have continued to cross... These Lisus were photographed in a village in Kachin State, high in the mountains, up through the clouds where the temperatures are cool. Lisus always choose inaccessible spots for their villages on ridges or mountain tops, hidden among thickets of fir and bamboos, which can be easily defended.
 Burma has hundreds of ethnic groups - the government puts it at 135, but that figure is arbitrary. The whole mountainous area of the Yunnan - Burma - Laos - Thailand - Vietnam borders has been picking up tribes for centuries - many of them proud peoples who have been driven out of the rich lowlands into poor mountain valleys, where they remember their heritage through colourful and distinctive clothing, and a variety of dialects. In recent years, tourists and anthropologists alike have been able to visit the hill tribes of Thailand, and many books have been written about them. The Vanishing Tribes of Burma is the first real attempt to do the same for Burma. 
Elderly Chin woman in southern Chin State enjoys a pipe of tobacco. Her dense dot-and-dash facial markings show that she is a Chin Bon.
NB - The face on the right is a detail from a magnificent full portrait. Click on the face to see full picture (49K)

The author, Richard K. Diran, is an American-born artist who was visiting Burma's hill regions in the 1980s, buying rubies, when he became fascinated by the peoples he encountered, and so he began this project. Travel in these regions was difficult and often hazardous because of guerrilla warfare. His photographs are of stunning quality, and depict the characteristic dress of each group in every detail - whether it is the silver chain-mail of Jingphaws or Lisus, the boar's-tusk head-dresses of Rawang or Naga men, the great ear-rings of Lashi, Kayah or Chins, or the long coiled neck-tubes of Padaung women.

In addition to the text and photos by Richard K Diran, there is a separate section by Gillian Cribbs and Martin Smith, filling in the ethnographic background in more detail. In this section, historical depth is provided through black-and-white photos dating from the 1920s, from the James Henry Green Collection.

Over forty sub-groups of Chin live in Burma's
north-west mountains