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Friday, January 16, 1998 Published at 11:23 GMT



World

"Amazing Thailand" offers human zoo

Tourists in Thailand are being offered a special attraction: A visit to a picturesque village in Northern Thailand, to see a group of women and children from the Karenni tribe who are famous for their long necks. There is just one problem: The Karennis are being held in virtual slavery, as a tourist attraction in a human zoo. Posing as a tourist, BBC correspondent Enver Solomon managed to visit the village.


[ image: Most of the money they earn is confiscated]
Most of the money they earn is confiscated
Visitors are told that these women are living here freely under the care of the local authorities, and able to make a living from their traditional weaving. But this could not be further from truth.

Under the guise of tourists, we managed to talk to some of the women.

"I want to be let free, to get out of here. But we are forbidden from going anywhere," one woman said.


[ image: The women were kidnapped as they tried to make their way to this village]
The women were kidnapped as they tried to make their way to this village
A refugee from Burma, she had been hoping to reach the Thai village of Mae Hong Song, where some of her relatives are living. Instead she was captured together with 20 other women and children by a Thai businessman, eager to make a profit from their unusual appearance.

The women are from the Karenni hill tribe. For decades the Karreni have fought against the Burmese military dictatorship, demanding their own state. But last year a military offensive by the Burmese army forced them to abandon their homes.

Now, the women have been reduced to tourist attractions, being put on show every day for the visitors who gawk at their long necks.

From the age of five, the women wrap heavy copper coils around their necks to elongate them. Their necks eventually become so long and weak that they cannot support their heads without the coils. In some tribes the coils are removed to punish women who have committed adultery.


[ image: No schooling, no medical care, no future]
No schooling, no medical care, no future
In Thailand they are regarded as freaks who are lucky to be here. The women's children are deprived of schooling and medical care. One pregnant woman died after not receiving proper treatment.

They are paid $5 a month by their captors, who also take most of the money they earn from their handicrafts. Plain clothes guards keep a careful watch on the camp.

Their case is being closely monitored by Sudarat Serewat, a Bangkok-based human rights worker. She says the local authorities deny that the women are being exploited:

"They think that they should be happier here than living in their own country, where they are starving and are forced to work.They will never believe that these people are being forced to stay against their will," she said.

It is not the first case of Burmese hill tribe women being taken hostage. Since many years visits to the "Long Neck" women are a part of package tours for tourists, along with elephant rides and trips to old opium dens.


[ image:
"Amazing Thailand" publicity video - but it does not show the slavery
But the discovery of the Karenni case comes as the authorities have launched their "Amazing Thailand" campaign to encourage tourists to visit the country.

Thousands of tourists have already arrived in the Thai capital this year - and for many a trip to the exotic hill tribes is one of the main attractions.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand says it is seriously disturbed by the plight of the long neck women, and has vowed to do everything in its power to set them free. But it claims that ultimately only the government has the authority to act.

While government officials decide what action should be taken, the women and children remain trapped in this human zoo, deprived of their freedom and dignity.


 





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