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Who are the Wa?

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The following is a reproduction of the article which appeared in Tai Youth Magazine, published by Rangoon University Shan Literary Society in 1960. The author Dr Ba Nyan was also known as the creator of the Shan national anthem – Editor


Wa State or La Wa State lies between Sipsawngpanna and the Shan State. It has an area of about 6,000 sq. miles with a population of just over a lakh (100,000). Hopang is its capital where the Resident resides. There are two assistant Residents one for the North and the other for the South with Mong Mai and Pang Yang as their Headquarters respectively. There are many states each under the direct administration of a Chief. Some of the States are tiny but others are as large as Mong Kung (Mong Keung). Though a La village usually consists of about 40 houses, a hundred is the minimum for the Wa. The reason for this huddling is, of course, safety as head hunting is still practised in some areas.

Other than La & Wa there are Chinese, Kachin, Shan & Mu Soe (Lahu). The Wa and La speak different dialects and even among the La, the dialect is so dissimilar that Shan has become the common language. The Wa may sometimes be seen with only a loin cloth but the La dresses as respectably as any Shan. The La literature is more akin to Tai Nae (Top Northern Shans).

The majority of the people are Nat (spirits) worshippers but there are Buddhists and Christians also. Pagodas and monasteries are seen in many villages. Whatever religion they may profess, offerings of fowls, pigs and buffaloes to the different nats (spirits) for any ailment is customary.

The main occupation is paddy and opium cultivation. Other than in the valleys dry cultivation is the rule and it is heart rending to see wholesale jungle clearing for this purpose. Extensive clearing has gone on for centuries and in some parts of the State, wood for cooking is unobtainable and the villagers have to collect reeds for the purpose. Fowls and pigs are reared more for offering to the nats than consumption. The women are clever weavers and their thick cotton blankets are as good as any made in the Union. Tobacco and garlic are cultivated in the valleys. There are few traders and among them some have visited Rangoon and even Bangkok. Some lead is mined and is sold to the Shans.

Rice is the staple food but other cereals are often taken along with it. Rice, cereal, vegetables, chilies and meat are boiled together and served as “rice gruel” called “Tar mot”. Country liquor is popular so also is tobacco. It is not unusual to come across boys and girls with earthern tobacco pipes, ornamented with silver, walking along the village lane. Instead of groundnut oil, lard and opium seed oil are used. While fowl and eggs are obtainable, vegetables can be very scarce. Sugarcane is looked upon as one of the delicacies throughout the state.

Buildings are of bamboo and thatch. Similar to Shan dwellings, there is a partition dividing the house into inner and outer rooms each with a fireplace. Cattle are kept underneath the houses and for those who cannot afford a barn, paddy is stored in the inner room. If the house is that of a chief, the eaves are decorated with figures and often painted in color. There are no windows in the extreme north, where a kind of skylight window is seen. Along the Nampang valley, the custom is to find a black dog, if a house is to be constructed. The dog is tied to the main post of the new house while construction is underway. When the house is completed, the dog is offered to the Spirit. All villagers help with the construction and the owner feeds them for their help.

Courting is similar to the Shans except that the lovers talk at the bedside instead of in the sitting room. This may go on for months or years. When the girl accepts the proposal the would be groom approaches his elders to arrange for the ceremony. All expenses are met by the groom.

When anyone dies, the body is placed in a coffin which has a circular hole in the lid. One end of a long bamboo pipe is fixed to this hole with the other end sticking up above the roof. This acts as a chimney and helps to minimize the odour from the decomposition. While the body is still in the house, two meals have to be laid for the dead daily. As no burial rites are complete without at least a buffalo, the animal has to be found. The number depends on the financial standing of the dead. Hence, the actual burial may have to be postponed for weeks or months as buffaloes are not easily obtainable. Before the date fixed for the funeral, the animals are slaughtered and the meat having been offered to the nats, is sent to near kin wherever they may happen to reside at the time. All those who receive the meat have to be present at the funeral. After the body is buried, some of the bones and skulls of the buffaloes are placed on the grave and the rest at the nat house. In some of the northern villages, the body is buried naked and the dead person’s clothes burnt on top of the grave.

Other than poor communication and scarcity of food, there is also the question of currency. One old rupee coin is equal to 48 copper coin and not 64. Only old silver and copper coins are accepted. This makes it very difficult for government servants, as old coins are not so easy to obtain. The new Union Kyat has some purchasing power but one pays almost treble the price of the old silver coin.

Only after the K.M.T. evacuation could the Government create the La Wa and Kokang States into a special District and with the help of the Central Government, progress in every field is to be expected. The La Wa were left almost untouched by the British so also by the Japanese. After the 2nd World War, there was fighting between the La Wa and “Pantheys” in the north and among the La Wa themselves in the south, when the K.M.T. stepped in. The country was cleared of the K.M.T. only in 1954. Since then many schools and dispensaries have been opened, many old paths widened, new roads constructed and the larger part of the country D.D. T’d. Some of the children have been admitted into Hsenwi School and some are at Kambawza Collage.

The word La Wa often conveys to the majority of the people a backward mountainous country, dotted with gold mines guarded by naked head hunting cannibals, who are expert in handling poisoned arrows. The country is no doubt mountainous, but of gold there are streams where a lucky person might collect a few grains of gold dust after a week’s hard labor. As for head hunting, one of two parties may be heard of during the harvest season. It may be just to please the nats or more correctly because of ancient tribal and dynastic funds. Cannibalism is more an exaggeration than a reality. In place of poisoned arrows they now handle automatics. In fact the La Wa are as civilized as any residing in the Union. A common La proverb is “The Bramahs create the heaven kingdom, while the La made the kingdom on earth”.

The La Wa can never refrain from quarrelling with one another, and they are magnificent fighters. They are used from birth to live hard and travel light. With their bare sinewy legs, their squat bodies wrapped in coarse homespun clothes and their capacity to live out of doors in any weather, they seem as impervious to weather as the rocks among which they often lie in ambush. Though the La Wa state has never been a kingdom and only a handful of her people think of her as a nation, the La Wa love their country. They love its towering mountains, its soil, it tradition, its speech and its nats. It is natural that a people, who from time immemorial have viewed head hunting as a branch of agriculture, and war against one another as poetry of life, do not take kindly to the gradual extension of law into their country. They dislike intrusion and do not like to be ruled or judged by any outsider however just and efficient.

Dr. Ba Nyan.

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