PictureDr. Bianca Son
The Making of the Zo: The Chin of Burma, the Lushai and the Kuki of India 1824-1988

The following is the conclusion of the dissertation : “The Making of the Zo: The Chin of Burma, the Lushai and the Kuki of India 1824-1988″ by Dr. Bianca Son.

This thesis set out to explore and identify the historical shifts and their accompanying narratives that contributed to the construction of the history and identity of Zo highlanders. The aim was to trace these shifts from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial era of the Northern Arakan Yomas, site of the borders that separate the Chin Hills of Burma, the Lushai Hills and the highlands of Manipur of Northeast India. The role of informants, in the quest for military knowledge, and later for civilizing projects was also examined. Indeed, throughout this research it was determined that major historical shifts did exist in the history of the Zo highlanders and that informants were not only instrumental, but principal in the construction of the Zo. These informants, this dissertation illustrates, contributed to the making of the categories of Chin, Lushai, and Kuki. Early informants to colonial intelligence seekers provided prejudiced ‘truths’ which were repeated and reiterated by colonial officers dealing with the Zo. Eventually, these ‘truths,’ based on very little information, became fact, although it was understood that almost nothing was known of the Zo before the British era. In fact, information on the Zo is still very limited and largely confined to the colonial records.

Very few written records about the Zo highlanders exist in the archives of the former East India Trading Company and later, the British Raj. The records that do exist make clear that before the arrival of the British, very little was known about the people of the Northern Arakan Yomas, at least by the West. The earliest record of the Zo was found in the archives of the T’ang Dynasty of the 9th century. This record, however, was unknown before the mid-twentieth century when it was discovered and translated by a scholar of Burmese history, Gordon Luce. Other records of Zo may exist in other Chinese archives, but they have yet to be unearthed. Further records may also exist in the annals of the dynasties, princely states and petty kingdoms of West Bengal and eastern India. Indeed, other early records indicate that this area of the globe was once a dynamic theatre of activity providing a corridor that connects eastern China from the plateau of Tibet and the lush lowlands of eastern India. Thus, almost certainly more information in the form of documents and archaeological material exists about the history of the Zo highlands, which were so ideally located. Yet, more information about Zo history may be revealed in the folk tales and other oral traditions of the Zo. These, however, remained yet to be scrutinized.

In many ways, the Zo hills are defined by their rugged terrain, deep valleys, varied altitudes and sometimes challenging climate, especially during the rainy seasons. They are a complete geographical opposite from the lush, fertile, climatically predictable and flat terrain of the plains. Thus, political scientist James Scott’s argument that there existed a dichotomy between highlanders and lowlanders throughout the course of history is compelling. He argues that the highlands are populated by groups of people with the shared common agenda of fleeing the states of the lowlands. The daily lives of highlanders, like their terrain, are quite opposite from the people’s lives and terrain of the plains. The highlanders live in small independent societies, whereas the plains people adhere to a centralized state. While this is a fact for the Zo highlanders, it was not substantiated that they were, indeed, fleeing from the state. The notion that they Zo chose to live in the highlands, however, cannot be dismissed. That is, that all peoples prefer the plains over the highlands cannot be considered a fact. The Zo appeared to appreciate their experiences in the hills over the ‘malarial valleys’ of the plains.

The reason for their occupying the Northern Arakan Yomas however has not been made wholly clear. That is, a history of the Zo highlanders before the arrival of the British and later the missionaries is difficult to research. Records of the Zo, other than the Tang Dynasty’s very early account, found and studied for this dissertation were confined to the early 18th to the late 20th century during the time the highlands were the frontier of the Bengal Presidency and later during the time when the hills were annexed and occupied by the British Raj. A perspective above, beyond, and outside the context of British colonialism is difficult envisage; the colonials are inextricably tied, thus far, to Zo history.

Historian Indrani Chatterjee argues that during the mid-nineteenth century, colonial officials had developed numerous agendas that would end in the forgetting of histories, former relationships and exchanges between the highlanders of the Northern Arakan Yomas with traders, travellers, missionaries, rulers, wanderers and people of the plains.[1] She focuses on colonial scientific knowledge schemes which were unable to grasp the complexity of relationships between the communities of highland and lowland Asia. These complex relationships were replaced by a ‘new colonial order.’ Whatever their pasts may have been, these were ignored, dismissed or reinterpreted by colonials as well as by later scholars including the Zo.

The people of the Northern Arakan Yomas were treated as a people without a past by the colonial officials that sought intelligence about them in the early 19th century. Scholars and other elite were unable to fathom a complex history that was not tainted by the Zo being refugees, warriors, or inherently incapable of a civilized existence; at least not until the arrival of the British. However, it was the elite that defined civilization and ordered the highlanders on their imagined civilization hierarchy beneath themselves. The highlanders were dismissed as barbaric and primitive savages. Whatever their pasts may have been was not as important as allowing them entry into the fold of the colonial state by participating in a series of civilizing projects. Thus, no robust and rigorous studies were entertained. No past could compete with a colonial future. Still, possible pasts had to be entertained. Thus outsiders and foreigners furnished them with a past that, to them made the most sense. For them, the state was always central, thus the highlanders were either in escape from or on their way to a state. As Chapter 3 illustrates, Zo relationships to states were defined in only two ways, not in terms of friendship or cooperatives, but rather in terms of tributary or adversary connections. A past without a state was unfathomable.

As is illustrated in Chapters 1 and 2 and by the argument above, the Zo were provided with possible pasts. Along with these pasts, nomenclatures and other identifiers were assigned to them always in an ordered system that placed them lower on any of the hierarchies defining civilization. Their languages and dialects were deemed to be in the Tibeto-Burman linguistic category, being far removed, yet loosely linked to a state-centred past. Their belief systems were also ordered. According to the major salvation religions practiced by people who considered themselves enlightened and at the top of the scale, the Zo were placed at the very bottom. They were believed to worship trees and discarded fruit. They also engaged in human sacrifice that included head-hunting—the most savage of all possible traits. Their having any form of sophisticated belief system and culture was not possible.

Indeed, the Zo practiced headhunting but it, as an instrumental function of their society, was equally dismissed as was the practice of slavery, infanticide, and warfare over land. Stories about the highlanders were riddled with the exotic, mysterious and horrific. Those that first entered the Northern Arakan Yomas approached them with angst and impending doom unless accompanied with superior skills of warfare that included technology, manpower and knowledge in the form of maps and other intelligence. The informants who instilled colonial intelligence seekers with fear and loathing toward the highlanders had succeeded. The informants’ attitudes, agendas and actual knowledge was not questioned, their perceptions, impressions, experiences and ‘expertise’ of the dreaded Zo highlanders were deemed credible. The information about the highlanders became fact. They were not longer agenda driven stereotypical impressions rather they became fact through the Sleeper Effect; the information was separated from the informant and became truth.

As the highlands were slowly being incorporated through a set of civilizing projects, along with punitive expeditions, other information about them was disseminated. After annexation of the hills in two bloody punitive attacks, the highlanders were brought to their knees convinced that co-existence with the British was unavoidable. Thus, aging highland chiefs and headmen began working with the British avoiding being deported, removed from their kin and land to rot in unknown jails. They carried out tax collections and mediation. Eventually they came to appreciate their positions of privilege and authority as agents of the British state. One younger chief and his friend (Hau Cin Pau and Hau Cin Kip) exercised efforts to offer Zo alternatives by creating a local religion that was similar, yet more intimate, than the religion of the western elite–Christianity. But the privileges and promise of more opportunities among and with the British in the hills as well as in the plains proved too promising to ignore. While they did not, immediately, accept the Christian God, as Zo and missionary histories suggest, they did appreciate the promises of modernity. Thus, eventually a few younger chiefs surrendered and took advantage of the immediate opportunities of elitism among the British as well as among their own. Homi Bhaba would have argued that they had become mimic men; Franz Fanon would have said that they had redefined themselves in the image of the colonials.

The colonials, recognizing the first moments of surrender, began to delegate portions of the civilizing projects to missionaries. What they felt was a total disregard for human life, illustrated through stories of headhunting, random killings, infanticide and suicide was no longer emphasized. Instead, their being entertaining to readers whose approval was necessary for the civilization projects to continue was highlighted in the reading materials of the drawing rooms, libraries, classrooms and churches of the elite in the West as well as in the plains of Anglo-Indians. They learned that the Zo highlanders were ideal for a further civilizing in the form of Christianity.

Missionaries from both, America and Europe were encouraged to bring salvation to the pathetic backwards people of the hills. Yet, the Zo refused to be converted–to be civilized, perhaps realizing that they would always remain on the lower ranks of pre-determined hierarchies. Thus, instead of dealing with the ‘common’ Zo, missionaries focused on the elite among the highlanders. They chose carefully the chiefs with whom to communicate. They chose carefully in other aspects as well, rendering, for instance, only those dialects into the written word they felt were dominant-most important. They created a whole new set of elite and marginalized people among the highlanders.

Literacy allowed the Zo to participate in society at the world stage. They soon forgot their pasts and connections to other highlanders, to their culture and their land. They accepted their position as lower-ranked citizen on the grand civilization scale devised in the West. Together with the missionaries and colonial officials, they redefined themselves and carved out a niche in the Empire as soldiers, border guards, Government clerks and indigenized missionaries. However, after two world wars in which they honoured their new position as subjects, they were dismissed and discarded.

At Independence, the promises made by the British in conjunction with their own elite were not honoured. The Zo were regaled to the margins of new nation-states. Over time, other Zo elite emerged intent on reclaiming their pasts as well as their dignities. But, most Zo had forgotten their pasts. Thus they adopted the pasts furnished to them by the British colonials in the early days—existences first provided by the informants of the plains. They added and subtracted from these pasts as they redefined themselves. They created new truths and again, the Zo were subjected to the Sleeper Effect. The words of early Zo elite eventually became fact. The Zo had to create an appropriate and feasible history that incorporated the civilizing of nearly two centuries.

Much of their focus was on managing their present; the colonial state was now central in the imaginary of the Zo. Thus, these pasts were constructed to meet the agenda of these new historians who were unable to escape the tight rope of the Sleeper Effect along with their desperate political situations. Borders were contested, ignored promises were highlighted, and possible futures were emphasized. The highlanders understood that in order to participate on the world stage, they had to move further up on the civilization hierarchy. Thus, they joined forces with the ‘civilized’ recognizing those that were more barbarians than even themselves, such as the Japanese who feasted on pig’s fodder.

In the aftermath of Independence, these new histories were committed into texts. Political parties, committees and new communities were formed. These reflected those of the colonial days, yet they almost always failed to unite, to recall lost memories and bring peace. Thus far, not one movement has been able to include all of the Zo by not excluding anyone. That is, these new histories, almost always exist at the expense of other groups. Only a handful of Zo scholars have, thus far, reached back far enough into memory to recall and reclaim a past that was long forgotten. Perhaps the future will bring more scholars, both Zo as well as outsiders, that will write a history that is closer to the truth than anything we have recalled thus far.

Therefore, future studies are encouraged. Given Burma and India’s changing political landscapes, archaeological studies are now becoming feasible in all of the Northern Arakan Yomas. A handful of scholars such as Vumson, L. Lam Khan Piang and Indrani Chatterjee, besides others, have already begun paving the way toward address of the oral histories which lay dormant for so long. They, like this scholar, have begun to deconstruct much of the colonial truths designed to pigeonhole the Zo into a barbarian mould whose only salvation is Western civilization. Cooperation among scholars whose quest is agenda-free has to be fostered. Zo histories authored by politicians as well as by the elite of Zo society must be read with some reserve; often they are the informants of present day diluting and constructing histories that, it may be argued, are occupied with a political end rather than academic rigour.

The archives, places of worship, bazaars and memorials of China and of India and elsewhere have to be scoured to find material, both written and physical to provide glimpses of the forgotten past. Colonial records are a major source of information; however, they need to be reconsidered, scrutinized and have to be re-examined without looking through the clouded colonial lens which blurred our imaginaries and expectations. Moreover, Zo history before the colonial era must be studied. The Zo, while having been constructed during the time of the British Raj, surely existed long before. This study, like most others of the Zo, is confined to a very small time frame. Surely a longer past exists waiting to be discovered.

[1] Indrani Chatterjee specifies the forgetting of former relationships of Zo highlanders to their monastic pasts and does not address the all of the possible counterparts listed above. Chatterjee, I. (2013), Forgotten Friends: Monks, Marriages, and Memories of Northeast India. OUP India: New Delhi,pg. 339-342.

Dr. Bianca Son

Dr. Bianca Son Suantak (Mai Mang Khan Cing), one of the Board of Management members,was born in the former East Germany to her Zo father and European mother. The family later returned to Burma and eventually ended up in the United States. She received a BA from the University of Maryland in Psychology and attended graduate school in Mass Communication at the University of Arizona where she focused on HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns. She spent five years in Korea working for an education-oriented NGO. She also spent two years working for P&G, Korea as a foreign consultant. While in Korea, she hosted a television quiz show and a weekly radio show. She also performed the Vagina Monologues for the foreign community in East Asia to raise money and awareness to stop violence against women and girls. She attended the first Chin National Assembly, held in Mt. Sinai, Manipur in 2006. In 2007, Bianca completed her Master’s in Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2013 she completed her PhD in the department of History at the School for Oriental and African Studies at the University of London; her focus is the construction of Zo History through colonial and local elite narratives. She is also active in the Zo unification movement in Burma and in India. She is currently a teaching fellow in London.




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