New ‘human zoo’ opens on Thailand’s seaboard

May 19th, 2008 - 3:23 pm ICT by admin  

Bangkok, May 19 (DPA) Thai provincial officials have allowed a new “human zoo” featuring “long-necked” or “giraffe” women to open in Sattahip near Bangkok despite mounting international criticism of the exploitative tourism practice, media reports said Monday. The residents are part of an ethnic group whose women wear brass rings around their necks as status symbols and beauty enhancements. They are called the Padung or long-necked Karen in Thailand, but they consider those terms denigrating and call themselves Kayan.

Seven Kayan villages are already marketed as tourist attractions in Thailand’s northern provinces of Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai, where there is a sizeable population of Kayan, some of whom are refugees from neighbouring Myanmar.

But for the first time, a new “village” of Kayans was recently opened in Sattahip in Chonburi province, 100 km south-east of Bangkok and a few kilometres from the Pattaya beach resort, the Daily XPress newspaper said.

It charges an entrance fee of 25 baht (80 cents) for Thai visitors and 250 baht for foreigners, the newspaper said.

Sattahip district chief Narong Thirachantarangkoon brushed off accusations that he had allowed the establishment of a “human zoo” in his district.

“I don’t think so because the Karen are willingly living here,” he said. “This is better than staying in their home region and starving.”

The rings worn by the Kayan women can weigh 10 kg or more, and over the years, the weight pushes down their collar bones and shoulders, making their necks appear longer and giving the women their nicknames of “long-necked” women.

Thai tour operators have exploited the cultural anomaly for decades, turning Kayan villages into money-making attractions, but the practice became an issue last year when Thailand refused to issue exit visas for a group of Kayan women from Myanmar to travel to New Zealand for resettlement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The women, who had originally come to Thailand as refugees, were reportedly lured to a border camp where Thai businessmen created a village to serve as a tourist attraction, or “human zoo”.

Thai government officials said the group had forfeited their resettlement eligibility by moving out of designated refugee camps along the border.

There are tens of thousands of Karen refugees living in camps on the Thai-Myanmar border who are theoretically denied permission to work in Thailand. They have fled a Myanmar military crackdown on a Karen separatist movement and poverty in their home country.

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